Hunter-gatherer lifestyle could help explain superior ability to ID smells | Science News

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Hunter-gatherer lifestyle could help explain superior ability to ID smells

Foraging communities in forests of the Malay Peninsula are better at identifying odors than their rice-farming neighbors

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12:00pm, January 18, 2018
Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers

SCENT MASTERS  Southeast Asian hunter-gatherer communities display an ability to name different odors that's not observed in Western nations or even in a neighboring farming group. Here, two of these hunter-gatherers clear an area to enable the growth of durian, a sweet-tasting but foul-smelling fruit.

Smell has a reputation as a second-rate human sense. But that assumption stinks once hunter-gatherers enter the picture.

Semaq Beri hunter-gatherers, who live in tropical forests on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, name various odors as easily as they name colors, say psycholinguist Asifa Majid and linguist Nicole Kruspe. Yet Semelai rice farmers, who live in forest outposts near the Semaq Beri and speak a closely related language, find odors much more difficult to name than colors, the researchers report online January 18 in Current Biology.

By including members of a farming community that inhabit a common forest environment and speak a similar language, the new study indicates for the first time that the cultural practices of hunter-gatherers help enhance their odor-naming ability — and possibly their smell-detection skills — relative to

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