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What did the past smell like?

Scent always has been an integral component of the human experience, but up until now, the past has remained largely odorless leading researchers to ask: What did the past smell like?

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 Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History is looking for new ways to bring the “smellscapes” of the past back to life and use smell to study past experience, behavior, and society.

What did the past smell like?
Past scents can be recovered from scent archives by extracting molecules using a variety of different methods. With successful detection and identification of the molecular composition of samples, ancient sources of smell can then be identified. Image courtesy of Michelle O’Reilly.

The study “How to use modern science to reconstruct ancient scents,” in the journal Nature Human Behavior, shows that olfaction has a major effect on how we perceive and navigate the world. When odorant molecules in the air reach our nostrils and bind to the olfactory epithelium, signals are sent directly to the limbic system, the region of the brain involved with processes relating to emotion, cognition, and memory. This means that we react to odor stimuli before we think about them.

According to the researchers, owing to this neurobiology smells often float just below the level of our conscious awareness but nonetheless alert us to health hazards, alter our behavior and physiological responses, shape our actions and choices, guide our emotions, and trigger our memories.

Study: What did the past smell like?

“Tracking scent in the deep past is not a simple task,” said 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 humankind.”

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 also can 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,” said Professor Nicole Boivin, senior author of the study and Director of the Department of Archaeology at the MPI Science of Human History. “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 artifacts and features, novel methods are revealing the powerful odors that were a cardinal feature of ancient lived realities, and that shaped human action, thoughts, emotions, and memories,” said Huber.

Biomolecular techniques link with archaeology

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.

The study’s authors are Huber, Thomas Larsen, Robert N. Spengler, and Boivin.

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