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The cognitive- and neurosciences have supposed that the perceptual world of the individual is dominated by vision, followed closely by audition, but that olfaction is merely vestigial. Aslian-speaking communities (Austroasiatic, Malay Peninsula) challenge this view. For the Jahai - a small group of rainforest foragers - odor plays a central role in both culture and language. Jahai ideology revolves around a complex set of beliefs that structures the human relationship with the supernatural. Central to this relationship are hearing, vision, and olfaction. In Jahai language, olfaction also receives special attention. There are at least a dozen or so abstract descriptive odor categories that are basic, everyday terms. This lexical elaboration of odor is not unique to the Jahai but can be seen across many contemporary Austroasiatic languages and transcends major cultural and environmental boundaries. These terms appear to be inherited from ancestral language states, suggesting a longstanding preoccupation with odor in this part of the world. Contrary to the prevailing assumption in the cognitive sciences, these languages and cultures demonstrate that odor is far from vestigial in humans. © BERG 2011.

Original publication




Journal article


Senses and Society

Publication Date





19 - 29