Smell, along with taste, is one of the chemical senses. Current literature suggests that we have the ability to smell up to ten thousand different odours. Research has shown that odours affect our physiological and psychological states due to the effects of their molecules combined with memory and the context in which we smell them. Research has suggested that variations in body odour are linked not only to gender but also to sexual orientation. An odour receptor has even been identified in human sperm. Research has also shown that odours can influence the emotional content of dreams and that we adapt to bad odours more quickly than good odours. However, the sense of smell is generally seen as less important than hearing or vision in human interactions.
Every person has an individual body odour caused by a natural process involving bacteria and sweat. Body odour is affected, amongst other things, by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules that have a vital function in reproduction and autoimmunity. The human nose contains cells which are sensitive to these molecules. Research has shown that potential sexual partners are likely to be seen as more attractive if their MHC structure is considerably different. This behaviour promotes immune variability in individuals, making them less vulnerable to diseases.
So, when and why was the natural odour of the body, with its evolutionary advantages, disguised with perfumes? Evidence suggests that aromatic oils and herbs have been used by humans since the Neolithic as part of spiritual practices. Many spiritual practices from different parts of the world have used odours as a way of communicating with the spiritual. In order to find a possible connection between odour and the spiritual, one will have to look at the origins of spirituality. Some theories suggest that the spiritual was born when early humans developed the ability to imagine that events which they could not understand (death, lighting, thunder, etc) were caused by other entities. The spiritual would have developed as a way of overcoming the fear caused by the idea of these entities that could cause such events. This could explain the origin of the prehistoric worship of animals. At the same time as early humans became aware of death and that they would die, they may have further developed the spiritual as a way of dealing with the anxiety experienced by the realisation of dying. The earliest evidence of religious thought is based on the ritual treatment of the dead in Palaeolithic burials.
So where does odour come in? One could suggest that when early humans came across decomposing dead bodies they associated the bad smell that it emanated from them with death. The incorporation of odours into spirituality and the application of pleasant odours to the body could be explained as a way of humans trying to overcome death anxiety. The earliest records of perfume making date from the Bronze Age and are associated with religious ceremonies. Then the Egyptians incorporated perfume into other aspects of their culture. Although the use of perfume has evolved along with more complex social interactions, one could argue that the underlying psychological drive to use perfume is to disguise the smell of death and overcome death anxiety.
Claudio Pestana, May 2009