They find ways to study and reconstruct past smells

New biomolecular advances allow the analysis of flavors preserved in artifacts and archaeological material from bygone eras. A team of German scientists wants to use this new information to discover new aspects of the ancient world, our societies and evolution as a species.

In recent years, millions of people around the world have suffered from a loss of sense of smell due to covid-19. Even those who have avoided infection with the new coronavirus now experience the world of smells differently thanks to the masks themselves, which protect us against the virus.

This loss of smell highlighted the important role this sense plays in how we perceive and navigate the world, and underscored the links between smell and mental and physical health.

The sense of smell has always been an integral part of the human experience, but until now the past has remained largely without its presence. Most odors come from organic substances that break down quickly, leaving little evidence for archaeologists to investigate thousands of years later.


Past odors can be retrieved from the odor archive by extracting the molecules using various methods. If the molecular composition of the samples is successfully detected and identified, old sources of odor can be identified. / Michelle O’Reilly

revive old smells

Now, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany is looking for new ways to bring olfactory landscapes from the past to life and to use smell to study experience, ancient behavior and society. The study was published in the journal Natural human behavior.

Tracing the smell in the past is not an easy tasksays Barbara Huber, lead author of the book, “but the fact that history records expeditions, wars and long-distance exchanges to acquire materials with strong olfactory properties – such as incense and spices – reveals the importance of the sense of smell for humanity”.

Understanding the sensory dimension of human history and the use of odorous and aromatic substances can provide insight into many aspects of the past, such as rituals, perfumery, hygiene, cooking, commerce and trade. However, since smell is part of how we live, understand and navigate the world, ancient smells can also provide information about broader aspects of the past, from hierarchy and social practices to the identity of group.

Smell is a powerful and undervalued aspect of the human experience“, emphasizes Professor Nicole Boivin, lead author of the study and head of the archeology department of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Smells reach our brain quite directly and motivate us in decisive ways, whether it is to avoid danger, identify something that is good for us or remember something from our past.”.

Olfactory data can be contextualized in relevant historical texts and visual representations, as well as archaeological and environmental records. Linking these different sources of information makes it possible to reconstruct critical aspects of ancient ways of life and society (indicated by the arrows emerging from the blue circle). The icons in the outer area of ​​the figure represent examples of some of the topics that can be covered using this approach (the gray boxes indicate general headings). / Michelle O’Reilly

New and powerful biomolecular approaches

Use only traces of scented substances preserved in artifacts and archaeological objectsadds Huber, “new techniques reveal the powerful scents that were a cardinal feature of ancient lived realities and shaped human action, thoughts, emotions and memories”.

By harnessing powerful new biomolecular and omics approaches – which allow the study of a large number of molecules involved in the functioning of an organism – and by linking the new data with information from ancient texts, visual representations and In the broader archaeological and environmental archives, researchers can reveal new aspects of the past, of our changing societies and cultures, and of our evolution as a species.

The authors of the new paper hope that further investigation into the rich “olfactory landscapes” of the past will shed light on the sensory worlds of yesteryear and the different ways in which people absorbed scents from nature to shape human experience.


Huber et al. (2022) “How to use modern science to reconstruct ancient perfumes”. Natural human behavior.


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