Hunter-gatherer olfaction is special

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


People struggle to name odors [1–4]. This has been attributed to a diminution of olfaction in trade-off to vision [5–10]. This presumption has been challenged recently by data from the hunter-gatherer Jahai who, unlike English speakers, find odors as easy to name as colors [4]. Is the superior olfactory performance among the Jahai because of their ecology (tropical rainforest), their language family (Aslian), or because of their subsistence (they are hunter-gatherers)? We provide novel evidence from the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri and the non-hunter-gatherer (swidden-horticulturalist) Semelai that subsistence is the critical factor. Semaq Beri and Semelai speakers—who speak closely related languages and live in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula—took part in a controlled odor- and color-naming experiment. The swidden-horticulturalist Semelai found odors much more difficult to name than colors, replicating the typical Western finding. But for the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri odor naming was as easy as color naming, suggesting that hunter-gatherer olfactory cognition is special.


External organisations
  • Radboud University Nijmegen
  • Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
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Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)409-413.e2
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number3
Early online date2018 Jan 18
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Feb
Publication categoryResearch