I ran across an article recently claiming that modern humans have a better sense of smell than Neanderthals.
Well, some modern humans.
I happen to be practically devoid of a sense of smell. Maybe it’s years of allergies. Maybe it’s diabetic neuropathy. Maybe it’s living in a cold, dry climate. Neanderthals do appear to have been better cold-adapted than modern humans who, after all, evolved in Africa. But the fact remains that my eyes start burning from charring food on the stove before I smell it. And I can’t even smell the odors from some of my plants, including mint, unless I rub or crush the leaves. I have to put my nose right into fragrant roses, jasmine or citrus blossoms before I smell them.
It hasn’t always been that way. I can remember smelling the differences between herb plants at a nursery, for instance, and sniffing appreciatively at pineapple sage and lemon verbena. I’m sure lilacs once spread their scent, while I now have to bury my nose in a panicle to get anything.
It’s not all a loss, of course. I remember also the stench of my grandparents’ outhouse, especially in summer, and deep-cleaning a dirt-floored stall in spring. Considering what sanitation was like a couple of centuries ago, I suspect that modern humans must have learned to turn off or ignore their sense of smell pretty often, just as a matter of survival.
Strangely I am still sensitive to some odors, especially cigarette smoke and some artificial perfumes. But they make my eyes water as well as being distinctly unpleasant odors, and I suspect my reaction may be linked to the fact that “perfumed” detergents make my skin itch.
They started blooming this week, next to the kitchen table. I saw them first, but the last couple of days my meals have had a distinct, intensely floral narcissus flavor. I remember how my mother used to force narcissus bulbs. I am still sensitive to the link between odor and memory, it seems.
In fact, writing about odors often brings things to mind I have almost forgotten. The smell of cut green grass, for instance, brings back the years one of my chores was cutting the Bermuda grass with our old push mower. Not too surprising in terms of brain wiring – the sense of smell is the only one that goes straight from the environment into the brain, but it’s interesting that simply remembering a smell from when I could detect it has the same effect.
I can’t help but wonder how much variability there might be, both in modern humans and in Neanderthals, in the capacity to detect and distinguish odors.