You are here: Home News Hunter-gatherers have a special way with smells

Hunter-gatherers have a special way with smells

When it comes to naming colors, most people do so with ease. But, for odors, it’s much harder to find the words. One notable exception to this rule is found among the Jahai people, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula who can name odors just as easily as colors. A new study by Asifa Majid (Radboud University and MPI for Psycholinguistics) and Nicole Kruspe (Lund University) suggests that the Jahai’s special way with smell is related to their hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Hunter-gatherers have a special way with smells

 

“There has been a long-standing consensus that ‘smell is the mute sense, the one without words,’ and decades of research with English-speaking participants seemed to confirm this,” says Asifa Majid of Radboud University and MPI for Psycholinguistics. “But, the Jahai of the Malay Peninsula are much better at naming odors than their English-speaking peers. This, of course, raises the question of where this difference originates.”

 

Hunter-Gatherers and horticulturalists

To find out whether it was the Jahai who have an unusually keen ability with odors or whether English speakers are simply lacking, Majid and Nicole Kruspe (Lund University, Sweden) examined two related, but previously unstudied, groups of people in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula: the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri and the non-hunter-gatherer Semelai. The Semelai are traditionally farmers, combining shifting rice cultivation with the collection of forest products for trade.

The Semaq Beri and Semelai not only live in a similar environment; they also speak closely related languages. The question was: how easily are they able to name odors? “If ease of olfactory naming is related to cultural practices, then we would expect the Semaq Beri to behave like the Jahai and name odors as easily as they do colors, whereas the Semelai should pattern differently,” the researchers wrote in their recently published study in Current Biology. And, that’s exactly what they found.

Testing color- and odor-abilities

Majid and Kruspe tested the color- and odor-naming abilities of 20 Semaq Beri and 21 Semelai people. Sixteen odors were used: orange, leather, cinnamon, peppermint, banana, lemon, licorice, turpentine, garlic, coffee, apple, clove, pineapple, rose, anise, and fish. For the color task, study participants saw 80 standardised color chips, sampling 20 equally spaced hues at four degrees of brightness. Kruspe tested participants in their native language by simply asking, “What smell is this?” or “What color is this?”

The results were clear. The hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri performed on those tests just like the hunter-gatherer Jahai, naming odors and colors with equal ease.The non-hunter-gatherer Semelai, on the other hand, performed like English speakers. For them, odors were difficult to name. The results suggest that the downgrading in importance of smells relative to other sensory inputs is a recent consequence of cultural adaption, the researchers say. “Hunter-gatherers’ olfaction is superior, while settled peoples’ olfactory cognition is diminished,” Majid says.

They say the findings challenge the notion that differences in neuroarchitecture alone underlie differences in olfaction, suggesting instead that cultural variation may play a more prominent role. They also raise a number of interesting questions: “Do hunter-gatherers in other parts of the world also show the same boost to olfactory naming?” Majid asks. “Are other aspects of olfactory cognition also superior in hunter-gatherers,” for example, the ability to differentiate one odor from another? “Finally, how do these cultural differences interact with the biological infrastructure for smell?” She says it will be important to learn whether these groups of people show underlying genetic differences related to the sense of smell.

This study was funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research as well as the Swedish Foundation.

Publication

Majid, A., & Kruspe, N. (2018). Hunter-gatherer olfaction is special. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.014

More information? Please contact:

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 

 

Max Planck Institute
for Psycholinguistics

 

Street address
Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen
The Netherlands


Mailing address
P.O. Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Phone:   +31-24-3521911
Fax:        +31-24-3521213
E-mail:   


Public Outreach Officer

Image right

scrabble