What Do The Smells Of The Past Smell Like?

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History investigates the remains of spices to discover the smells of other eras.

What Do The Smells Of The Past Smell Like

Our image of the past has been created thanks to documents, paintings, fossil remains, or monuments. In this representation of history, one of the aspects that we need to know about is the smells of ancient times, which have not been preserved. However, this may change.

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Germany) has studied “olfactory landscapes” from genetic and protein analyses of the remains of aromatic herb particles preserved in objects. In addition, the research team has used information from ancient texts, descriptions of the sites, and archaeology and environmental reports to reconstruct them.

These substances were used in rituals, perfumes, cooking, and hygiene. They provided information about each group’s social hierarchy and practices. “Expeditions, wars and exchange for incense and spices with strong olfactory properties reveal the importance of smell to humans,” said Barbara Huber, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. He adds that finding out is not easy because organic substances break down quickly.

Trade routes may be the cause of the world’s oldest vanilla remains being found in a tomb in Israel in 2018. Archaeologists at Tel Aviv University thought this tropical plant would have reached the Middle East from India or the east coast of Africa.

How Is The Smell Perceived?

It is not yet known what the characteristic smells of other historical periods were. But we know how humans perceive smell. In 2004, Linda B. Buck and Ricard Axel discovered that olfactory receptors are associated with proteins activated with certain substances. Humans have about 350 different receptors found in the nostrils. The information mainly reaches the amygdala, hippocampus, and orbitofrontal cortex. These parts of the brain are related to emotions, which could be why we remember the smells of the past.