In the heavily forested Malay Peninsula lives a tribe of hunter-gatherers who have a "super power" that's clueing scientists in as to how one's sense of smell can vary.
Turns out, odors can be expressed in language, so long as you speak the right words to express it. A new study, published in Cell Biology, suggests that the ability to name smells is a product of culture too, rather than just biology.
The study compared the smelling skills of the Semaq Beri, a hunter-gatherer group, and the horticulturalist group Semelai.
Researchers asked 20 Semaq Beri and 21 Semali to name colors and to identify 16 different smells. Like English speakers, the Semalai used actual words for colors (pink or red) and mostly source-based words for odors (ie. it smells like bananas).
Researchers compared responses from an earlier study of the Jahai, another hunter-gatherer group in the Malay Peninsula, and the responses from the Semaq Beri. Both live in a similar environment, speak closely related spoken languages, and don’t have a written language.
An earlier study showed that for the Jahai people, odors are just as easy to name as colors, whereas English speakers took five times longer to describe an odor than a color. Most English speakers grapple to describe odors and do so in terms of their sources, whereas colors have their own word. For example, you might say the air smells fresh like rain, but you say the sky is blue. This suggests smell is related to lifestyle practices, not just anatomy alone.
This greater sense of smell is established in hunter-gatherers because it is crucial for survival. For those of us living in an industrial society, however, the study suggests our sense of smell has been downgraded in an adaptation to an environment where we prioritize other senses.
The barrier to naming odors is wired into our brains and could be a Western experience, say authors Nicole Kruspe, a linguist at Lund University in Sweden, and Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands.
The study does not rule out factors like environment and biology. Instead, it suggests that culture helps facilitate superior senses. When foraging in a dense rain forest, communicating scents – like that of tiger urine – could be critical to survival.
However, it's likely naming scents extends beyond survival as well. The Semaq Beri cook certain meats over different fires and believe some smells have healing properties while others cause illness.