Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special
Majid A., Kruspe N.
People struggle to name odors [1–4]. This has been attributed to a diminution of olfaction in trade-off to vision [5–10]. This presumption has been challenged recently by data from the hunter-gatherer Jahai who, unlike English speakers, find odors as easy to name as colors . Is the superior olfactory performance among the Jahai because of their ecology (tropical rainforest), their language family (Aslian), or because of their subsistence (they are hunter-gatherers)? We provide novel evidence from the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri and the non-hunter-gatherer (swidden-horticulturalist) Semelai that subsistence is the critical factor. Semaq Beri and Semelai speakers—who speak closely related languages and live in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula—took part in a controlled odor- and color-naming experiment. The swidden-horticulturalist Semelai found odors much more difficult to name than colors, replicating the typical Western finding. But for the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri odor naming was as easy as color naming, suggesting that hunter-gatherer olfactory cognition is special. People struggle to name odors, but this limitation is not universal. Majid and Kruspe investigate whether superior olfactory performance is due to subsistence, ecology, or language family. By comparing closely related communities in the Malay Peninsula, they find that only hunter-gatherers are proficient odor namers, suggesting that subsistence is crucial.