Smells like ancient society
Scientists find ways to study and reconstruct past scents
In a new call for action paper, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, discuss the importance of scent in human history and address how and why experts might investigate smells from the past.
In recent years, millions of people worldwide have suffered the loss of smell due to COVID-19. Even those who have avoided infection with the new coronavirus experience the world of scent differently now due to the very masks that provide protection from the virus. This loss of olfaction has highlighted the important role of smell in how we perceive and navigate the world, and underscored the connections between olfaction and mental and physical health.
Scent has always been an integral component of the human experience, but up until now, the past has remained largely odorless. Most scents come from organic substances that decay quickly, leaving little for archaeologists to investigate thousands of years later. Now a team of researchers from the MPI for the Science of Human History is looking for new ways to bring the smellscapes of the past back to life and using smell to study past experience, behaviour, and society.
“Tracking scent in the deep past is not a simple task,” says Barbara Huber, the lead author of the paper, “but the fact that history records expeditions of discovery, wars, and long-distance exchange to acquire materials with strong olfactory properties – like incense and spices – reveals how significant scent has been for human kind.”
Understanding the sensorial dimension of human history and the use of odorous and aromatic substances can contribute knowledge about many aspects of the past – including ritual, perfumery, hygiene, cuisine, trade and commerce. But because scent is part of how we experience, understand and navigate the world, ancient scents can also provide insight into more general aspects of the past, from social hierarchy and social practices to group identity.
“Scent is a powerful and underappreciated aspect of human experience,” notes Dr. Nicole Boivin, senior author of the study, “Smells reach our brain fairly directly and motivate us in critical ways – whether to avoid danger, identify something that is good for us, or remember something from our past, for example.”
“Using only traces of scented substances preserved in archaeological artefacts and features,” adds Huber, “novel methods are revealing the powerful odours that were a cardinal feature of ancient lived realities, and that shaped human action, thoughts, emotions and memories.”
By leveraging potent new biomolecular and omics approaches, such as proteomic and metabolomics techniques, and linking new data with information from ancient texts, visual depictions, and the broader archaeological and environmental records, researchers stand to open up new aspects of the ancient world, our changing societies and cultures, and our evolution as a species. The authors of the new paper hope that more research into the rich ‘smellscapes’ of the past will provide insight into the sensory worlds of long ago, and the diverse ways that people have captured scents from nature in order to shape human experience.