By Sherika Tenaya
Considering perfume has been a part of the human story since the human story first began, it comes as no surprise that there is a rich and vibrant history, a tapestry of sorts, sewn together from a wide array of different cultural cloths all colluding to inspire and inform our ever-changing relationship with our sense of smell.
In my previous blog, I mentioned how our sense of smell alone has a direct connection with the brain that bypasses the thalamus, through which all other sensory input must first go to be processed. Rather, our sense of smell gets processed in the limbic lobe - said to be one of the oldest parts of the brain - the same place from which arises our sexual and emotional impulses.
Our primal ancestors were thought to walk on four legs with noses close to the ground, and scientists speculate that our sense of smell was the most prevalent, enabling us to ascertain information about gender, sexual maturity, availability and bodily health. Freud theorized that as we began to walk upright, bringing our noses further away from scent trails, our relationship with olfactory information altered irrevocably, and evolution began to cultivate a precedence from smell to an ever-expanding visual field. Over time, it comes as no surprise that our sense of smell lost some of that primal acuity.
Interestingly enough, we can still see quite a bit of evidence of the importance scent carries for the world’s oldest cultures and indigenous societies. To this day, scent can play a fundamental role in healing, hunting and religious life and therefore be markedly stronger in these cultures than we would ever believe possible. Paolo Rovesti writes in his treatise In Search of Perfumes Lost, of a group of remote people called the Orissa who lived in India and were left untouched by civilization, purportedly living naked in the mountains:
“We were still out of sight of the crest of their plateau and separated from them by a dense jungle, when we heard a clamor of festive cries. ‘They have smelt us coming. They have smelt our odor,’ the guide explained to us. We were still more than one hundred yards of jungle away from them. Moreover, a loud waterfall nearby would have made it impossible for them to have heard us. The realization on various occasions that these primitive people had olfactory capacities as sharp as those given to original man, as acutely sensitive as that of many animals, never ceased to amaze and surprise us.”
World famous perfumer Mandy Aftel also colorfully describes the relationship other indigenous groups have with certain aromatic materials in her book Essence & Alchemy when she writes, “Umeda hunters in New Guinea were reported to sleep with bundles of herbs under their pillows in order to inspire dreams of a successful hunt that they could follow, like a map, when they awoke the next day. The Berbers of Morocco were known to inhale the fragrant smoke of pennyroyal, thyme, rosemary, and laurel as a cure for headaches and fever. They believed that smelling a narcissus flower could protect them from syphilis, and that malicious spirits could be forced from the body by the scent of burning benzoin mixed with rue, and consumed in the aromatic fires.”
David Howes, Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal and Director of the Concordia Sensoria Research Team, mentions the Warao people of Venezuela, said to be the original aromatherapists among us, when he writes, “Among the Warao, the inside of the body is conceived as a kind of gas pressure chamber, where all sorts of olfactory reactions take place. Diagnosis is by smell rather than x-rays or the chemical analysis of blood samples, such as one finds in biomedicine, and treatment is by the application of scents.”
Howes goes on to explain that sometimes cultures will use scent to distinguish themselves from another group, such as in the case of the Dassanetch, East African pastoralists who “smear themselves with cattle products to give themselves a bovine scent, which differentiates them as a people from neighboring fisherman.” While that is a rather unsettling visual, prompting the ungentle question of what constitutes “cattle products”, it is nevertheless fascinating the variety of ways in which scent is used by these societies.
In the example of the Desana, a Tukano group in the Vaupes River area of the Colombian portion of the northwest Amazon, scent is used as a type of currency in rituals of exchange, in which they trade ants of differing odors.
Spirituality, and subsequently moral conduct, is also highly influenced by scents in cultures such as the Wamira of New Guinea, who attribute the power of olfaction to plants, or the Batek Negrito of Malaysia, who believe a particularly sensitive nose is a gift direct from the gods. Misfortunes, according to Howes, are explained in terms of the aforementioned plants and gods “taking offence at the mixing of odors which results from people engaging in forbidden activities.”
Though not yet in the realm of perfume, scent certainly carried a weighty impact with our forebears as well as those who still carry on the oldest of traditions living in the world today. From matters of the spirit to matters of survival, scent has shaped who we are, culturally and globally, and continues to do so today.