Linguistic Olfaction.

Josh Gabbatiss reports for The Independent on a study, “Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special” by Asifa Majid and Nicole Kruspe in Current Biology, in which (to quote the subhead) “Scientists use languages of indigenous groups to understand their sensory perception of the world”:

Hunter-gatherers who live off the land in the forests of Malaysia are far more in tune with their sense of smell than less mobile peoples, a new study has found.

Research exploring differences between the languages used by the indigenous peoples showed they used them as a window into their sensory worlds.

The results suggest the reduced importance of smelling – known as “olfaction” – is a recent consequence of humanity becoming more settled. […]

The work builds on a previous study that found the Jahai people of Malaysia have an unusually complex understanding of smells, as demonstrated by the number of words they have for a variety of odours. […]

Professor Majid and her collaborator Dr Nicole Kruspe of Sweden’s Lund University decided to study two other indigenous groups from the Malay Peninsula, the Semaq Beri and the Semelai. […]

Like the Jahai, the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri were able to name smells with ease in the same way they named colours, whereas the non-hunter-gatherer Semelai struggled to name smells.

These findings are supported by cultural observations of the Semaq Beri, who consider odour to be so important that social spaces are carefully managed to avoid inappropriate mixing of individuals’ personal odours. […]

Professor Majid and Dr Kruspe these findings confirmed that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle brings with it an increased sensory ability, contradicting the idea that the structure of the brain is alone in determining sense of smell.

“For the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri, odour naming was as easy as colour naming, suggesting that hunter-gatherer olfactory cognition is special,” the scientists wrote.

The scientists now want to establish whether this ability is found universally in hunter-gatherer populations around the world, and whether there are any genetic differences between different groups determining sense of smell.

Fascinating stuff; thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Not just sense of smell – all senses are much more developed among nomadic people.

    Vision, for example.

  2. Here’s more on similar findings with regard to vision:
    http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170306-the-astonishing-focus-of-namibias-nomads

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is not a claim of better vision as such; it’s a question of interpretation (admittedly at an unconscious level) of the same actual visual information. (I should also point out that BBC reporting of issues like these is as reliable as its reporting of linguistic issues.) Normal human beings do not vary in the acuteness of their eyesight either by ethnic group or by geography.

    Then there’s the stress of urban life, compared to the relative tranquillity of life in the kraal.

    This sort of thing immediately rings alarms bells for me. Noble-savagism is a hardy plant. I’m surprised that an author who is apparently an actual anthropologist could imagine that “life in the kraal” is particularly unstressful.

  4. Noble-savagism

    Or Sahlins’s original affluent society, which has gotten a boost from Against the Grain.

    actual anthropologist

    Crandall is, of course. But it isn’t obvious that he said that.

    Davidoff is a psychologist and Robson is a science feature writer whose BA is in maths.

  5. “cultural observations of the Semaq Beri, who consider odour to be so important that social spaces are carefully managed to avoid inappropriate mixing of individuals’ personal odours.”

    Now this is what I’d love to hear more of. The riches of cultural detail are what really matter; the perceptual measurements are fine but why would you spend your time there? Physics envy, a feeling of guilt at operating at a higher and less objective level of description. (Okay, and tastes differ.)

  6. People who engaged in commercial fishing before the days of sonar, etc., frequently said that they could detect the location of a school of fish by looking at the surface of the water. I mean fishermen in Europe and North America. It’s not because their vision is any better than anyone else’s. They’ve been trained in this skill from an early age.

    Similarly traditional Polynesian navigators used all kinds of sensory cues to find their way about the Pacific. In the revival of Polynesian navigation, modern people have learned these techniques.

    Modern people also make use of odour recognition in tasting wines, foods and so on. It’s not a survival skill for us like it might be for hunter-gatherers, so only certain people take the time to study it. My wife is very interested in cooking, and she spends a lot of time tasting food at restaurants and trying to recreate the dishes at home. She’s a lot better at it than I am, but probably not as good as a professional chef. Still I’ve learned more about it than I knew before.

    As a musician, I’m much more aware of sound than many people. For example, animals scurrying around on the roof of our house. It’s not that other people are physically incapable of hearing it. They can hear it if I point it out to them and make them listen for it. But normally they don’t pay that much attention.

    If you’ve ever known any birders, they can get a lot of information out of what looks like a tiny speck in the far distance. This too is a skill that can be learned if you’re willing to put in the time.

    Back to the article:

    Hunter-gatherers who live off the land in the forests of Malaysia are far more in tune with their sense of smell than less mobile peoples. More in tune, OK.

    Like the Jahai, the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri were able to name smells with ease in the same way they named colours, whereas the non-hunter-gatherer Semelai struggled to name smells. They have more words for a skill they use more often.

    Professor Majid and Dr Kruspe these findings confirmed that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle brings with it an increased sensory ability Confusing developing skills with evolving new inborn senses.

    whether there are any genetic differences between different groups determining sense of smell. Sounds very dubious considering how similar human genetics are, outside of a few superficial variations.

    I recall reading an article about human odour perception some time during the last year. The study found very little difference in innate ability over a variety of subjects. This would be the ideal time to bring it out with a flourish, but unfortunately I can’t remember where I read it.

  7. ktschwarz says:

    Garrison Keillor wrote that he didn’t realize he had lost his sense of smell to smoking because he didn’t have a vocabulary for it: “We have so much language to describe how things sound and look—and so few words for how things smell and feel to our touch, our animal senses—so a smart guy like me thinks he can give up smell for the pleasure of smoking. A few days after I stopped, I began to notice the vast realm of smells that were lost all those years. I began breathing in a life I hadn’t felt since I was seventeen, like seeing grass after a quarter-century at the South Pole.”

    maidhc already pointed out some flaws in the Independent story. Fortunately, the actual article seems readable and clear enough to me as a non-anthropologist. It introduced me to “codability”, a measure of how much speakers agree on the word for the test color or smell, which is obviously a better measure of their communicative power than just counting the number of terms. If I understand the article’s figure correctly, both groups have the full Berlin and Kay set of color terms; the hunter-gatherers may even have more color terms, but they don’t use them as consistently — whereas for the odor terms, they do.

    The really key difference is that the hunter-gatherers are way more likely to use abstract smell terms — the smell counterpart of basic color terms like yellow and red — instead of saying something “smells like” a particular source. Disappointingly, the article doesn’t give a vocabulary list, but here’s another blog post that does, for another language in Malaysia from the same author’s previous work: for example, roasted, stinging, “a smell of blood which attracts tigers”.

    maidhc was dubious about genetic differences; the article does say there are significant genetic differences between populations in olfactory receptor genes, but as far as I can tell the effects of these genes aren’t much understood yet.

  8. Mark Twain has a passage at the end of Chapter 9 of Life on the Missisippi about how a river pilot sees a stretch of water completely differently from how a passenger sees it; it tells a story to the pilot, but the pilot is no longer able to see it as a thing of beauty. Dorothy Sayers has Wimsey make a similar remark about artillerists and landscapes:

    “Now, when a painter paints a portrait of anybody,” went on Wimsey, “that person’s face is never the same to him again. It’s like—what shall I say? Well, it’s like the way a gunner, say, looks at a landscape where he happens to be posted. He doesn’t see it as a landscape. He doesn’t see it as a thing of magic beauty, full of sweeping lines and lovely colour. He sees it as so much cover, so many landmarks to aim by, so many gun-emplacements. And when the war is over and he goes back to it, he will still see it as cover and landmarks and gun-emplacements. It isn’t a landscape any more. It’s a war map.”

    “I know that,” said Inspector Winterbottom. “I was a gunner myself.”

  9. David Marjanović says:

    but the pilot is no longer able to see it as a thing of beauty

    I have to call bullshit there.

  10. And yet Twain wuz a riverboat pilot and you wuzn’t.

  11. It reminds me of my father, who was a farmer. Wherever he went he would look at places in terms of their farming potential. “Nice country” or “good country” meant good country for cultivation or running livestock.

    Farming, of course, meant knocking down all the trees, so where another person might find the land beautiful in its existing vegetation cover, he would see its potential denuded of its trees.

  12. And before the 18th-century Romantics, everybody looked at landscapes that way. Flat land was for farming and grazing; mountains were useless, dangerous, and hideous.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    And yet Twain wuz a riverboat pilot and you wuzn’t.

    And yet he wrote literature about, among other things, just that beauty. Seems to me he was exaggerating when he said he couldn’t see it…

  14. But he wasn’t a pilot any more.

  15. Okay, okay, maybe, Lord Peter. But when I paint a portrait of somebody I tend to almost fall in love with them. It’s not an anatomical or gun-emplacement thing, but EVERYBODY seems enthrallingly beautiful once drawn. & later I can find I am equally enthralled by their father or child because I see the same features…
    And as you say–we went mushrooming with a good mushroomer, who said “can’t you smell them?” & suddenly we could. & now we smell mushrooms and then start looking around for them, even if that wasn’t the goal of the stroll.
    And I think both activities lack a vocabulary. One just points.

  16. I think I know what Mark Twain was talking about, because once you learn how to approach an area analytically, you can never go back. I can’t listen to music the way I did when I was 10 years old, because now when I hear a song on the radio I’m thinking “what is the chord progression?”, “what is the tune?”. I can’t turn that off, so I can’t really have music playing in the background when I’m doing something else, because I have to listen to it. Except maybe Schoenberg or New Age music.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy listening to music. I do. But the analytical function is always working as well as the aesthetic.

    In the last decade or so I have expanded my interest in photography, and I find it has really helped me to see things that other people don’t see. You thought you saw that person, but when you look at the photo you see they have a shadow right across their face. Why didn’t I see that when I took the picture?

  17. It reminds me of my father, who was a farmer. Wherever he went he would look at places in terms of their farming potential. “Nice country” or “good country” meant good country for cultivation or running livestock.

    I’m trying to remember which famous general it was – it might have been Wellington – who was famous for doing this; he’d be out for a ride in the country and halt to draw his companions’ attention to (they thought) a particularly impressive prospect, and then start saying “So, if we wanted to force a crossing of that river, we’d bring up our guns there, and then march the pioneers up under cover of that copse…”

  18. David Marjanović says:

    I can’t turn that off, so I can’t really have music playing in the background when I’m doing something else, because I have to listen to it.

    I have that for a different reason: either I don’t notice it at all, or I pay attention, and I can’t influence which of these happens at any given moment. That holds both for music and for language, at least when I understand the language to any degree or take any abstract interest in it. Even completely predictable noises, like a computer’s fan, are distracting when I notice them.

  19. And the war poets were certainly still able to appreciate natural beauty.

  20. I’m guessing they did not look at the landscape in terms of gun emplacements and such; did any of them have substantial officer training? When you’re just huddling in trenches hoping a bomb doesn’t fall on you, it doesn’t encourage strategic thinking.

  21. How an archaeologist views the landscape (as opposed to student intern)

    https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/rosie_hobbit/2548221/63768/63768_800.jpg

  22. marie-lucie says:

    I can’t really have music playing in the background when I’m doing something else, because I have to listen to it.

    I like to listen to the radio, whether music or talk, while I do something which does not demand intellectual effort, such as washing dishes. But I hate to hear music and hear talk at the same time – I want to listen to each, and hearing both together makes me feel that the two parts of my brain are fighting within my head. Hearing music while I try to write or even just think disturbs me even more than hearing a conversation. I don’t analyze it, but I just can’t “tune it out.” Songs are not the same at all, because the words and the music are intended to go together, and if the words are in an unknown language that does not interfere with the enjoyment of the music.

  23. CuConnacht says:

    When an adjutant of Field Marshall Schlieffen drew his attention to a magnificent view of the river Pregel, he replied: “An inconsiderable obstacle, Captain.”

    People now go to Bryce Canyon National Park for the otherworldly landscape, a forest of tall rock formations called goblins or hoodoos. What Farmer Bryce had to say about it was: “It’s a hell of a place to lose a calf.”

  24. Marja Erwin says:

    By the 1st world war, I suspect that the people in the trenches had to pay more attention to the landscape, while those in the artillery dugouts didn’t have to, if they were firing from the map, and/or from instructions over the phone.

    I have sensory processing issues, and think there’s a lot of individual variation within each culture.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    How an archaeologist views the landscape

    Wonderful.

  26. Seconded.

  27. “I’m guessing they did not look at the landscape in terms of gun emplacements and such; did any of them have substantial officer training?”

    Yes, most of them – Graves, Sassoon, Brooke, McRae, Thomas were all officers. Seeger and Rosenberg weren’t. But looking at a landscape in tactical (not strategic) terms is by no means an officer-only skill. It’s a skill that anyone who has to go on stag or on a raid has to develop – which is to say any infantryman who survives more than a day or two in the line, as well as any artillery officer (because observing fall of shot is what artillery officers do). They didn’t just huddle in trenches hoping not to get blown up all the time.

  28. I would naively expect most British Great War poets to have been officers, just for sociological reasons. The kind of young man with the education and connections to get his poetry into print was likely to be commissioned when they joined up. While several of the poets mentioned above were in the trenches, probably watching artillery fire, Brooke was in the navy, and McRae the medical corps. Both certainly got to see plenty of the war’s brutality before they died, but they would not have been spotting artillery. (They both died from illness too, not any kind of way wound. McRae died of pneumococcal meningitis, and Brooke, bizarrely, of a septic mosquito bite.)

    Sayers was noted for the verisimilitude of her portrayal of former World War One soldiers, and how the war shaped their lives afterwards. I suspect that that comment of Lord Peter’s was based on things she had heard from men who served. But one fellow’s experiences need not be universal, and there were probably some artillerymen who could enjoy a view of a fair Flanders dale, even while they were scanning it with a spotter’s field glasses.

  29. Nitpick: Brooke joined the Navy but was posted to the Royal Naval Division, which was an infantry formation raised from surplus navy recruits and reservists. He fought (briefly) as an infantry officer at Antwerp in October 1914, his only experience of combat.

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