Smell in Non-wes­tern Cul­tu­res

Did you know that in some parts of the world – especially in tropical regions, where odors are stronger and more diverse – smells have significant sociocultural and cosmological roles?

Unlike the Western approach, where olfactory sensations are often considered subjective, arbitrary and unimportant, numerous non-Western societies view aromas as integral components of their cultural, social, and cosmological fabric. Researchers in sensory anthropology have uncovered many examples of people for whom odors play a major structural role, such as the Batek Negritos of the Malaisian peninsula, or the Sereer Ndut in Senegal. In these foreign cosmologies, aromas are not merely pleasant or unpleasant; they are cultural symbols deeply embedded in shared social constructs. Smells can determine religious, natural and political orders, enforce social structures, orient human sociability, participate in human-to-spirit communication, embody concepts such as time, life or death, and carry many other symbolic meanings. These people not only share ‘world-views’ but also ‘world-smells’ which actively participate in organizing both physical and ideological spaces.

For instance, for the Ongees residing in Little Andaman Island, situated between India and Burma, the universe and the essence of existence is defined by smell, which means that they rely on olfactory models of representation to order their world. Their calendar is based on the blossoming aromas of flowers, each season distinguished by a specific scent. Individual identities are also shaped by various symbolic odors. A customary greeting among them is the question “How is your nose?” Local etiquette dictates nuanced responses based on the other person’s emotional state. If one responds feeling “heavy with odor,” the greeter must inhale deeply to alleviate the excess scent. Conversely, if the greeted person expresses a deficiency in odor-energy, it is considered courteous to offer an extra burst of fragrance by blowing on them.

While Western languages lack words devoted to expressing the variety of existing smells, usually people who grant greater importance to the sense of smell in their cosmologies tend to also have a wider vocabulary to designate and describe the variety of smells in their environment. For instance, according to a 2014 Dutch study, speakers of Jahai, an Indigenous Malaysian Language, have a precise lexicon for smells, which means they have to designate them the same range of words that English speakers have for colors. And Jahai is not the only example of a language rich with olfactory vocabulary. Being able to precisely describe olfactory phenomena can indeed be an advantage in certain environments — in the jungle for instance, where the dangers are many and the eye cannot reach far…

The exploration of smell in non-Western cultures thus reveals a rich tapestry of sociocultural and cosmological significance that goes beyond the limited Western understanding of olfaction. From cultural signifiers to structural roles in shaping societies, smells serve as integral components of these communities’ identity and worldviews. Understanding these perspectives not only broadens our appreciation of the diversity of human experiences but also emphasizes the potential importance of smell in our own lives.

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