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Scent Back: Süskind’s Perfume Could Come To Life As German Scientists Recreate Smells From The Past

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A woman smells a flower in the rose garden at the annual Chelsea flower show on May 25, 2010, in London, England. Researchers are trying to bring back smells from the days of old to uncover new insights about past societies. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)



By Georgina Jadikovskaall

Fans of the novel “Perfume” by German author Patrick Süskind may one day be able to experience some of the pong and stench of the 18th-century world he described as scientists have revealed plans to recreate odors of the past.


Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in the city of Jena, located in the German state of Thuringia, are looking into ways of bringing the smells of the distant past into today’s world, publishing a call to action paper on the subject in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

By recreating old scents, experts hope to create a connection with history that enables them to learn more about historical experiences, behaviors and societies.

Scent data can be contextualized within the framework of relevant historical texts and visual representations, as well as archeological and environmental records, according to research from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, located in the German city of Jena. (Michelle O’Reilly/Zenger)

While the bestselling novel “Perfume” details the importance of the sense of smell and scents in human relations in the past, many people more recently became intimately familiar with the value of their sense of smell when they lost it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

German researchers investigating ways to resurrect old smells might draw inspiration from the novel, set in 18th-century France. The book tells, largely through references to smells, the story of an unloved orphan who is born with an exceptional sense of smell and becomes a perfume maker. However, his sense of smell leads to him becoming a killer.

In recreating long-forgotten odors, the German team aims to apply new biomolecular and omics methods such as proteomic and metabolomics techniques and link new data with information from ancient texts, visual depictions and other broader archeological records.

“Producing scents from the past is no simple task, but the fact that history records expeditions of discovery, wars and long-distance trade routes to acquire materials with strong olfactory properties — like incense and spices — reveals how significant scent has been for humankind,” said lead author of the paper Barbara Huber.

Past scents can be recovered from scent archives by extracting molecules using a variety of different methods, according to research from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, located in the German city of Jena. (Michelle O’Reilly/Zenger)

“Scent is a powerful and underappreciated aspect of human experience. Smells reach our brain fairly directly and motivate us in critical ways — whether to avoid danger, identify something that is good for us or remember something from our past, for example,” said Nicole Boivin, senior researcher and director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute Science of Human History.

“Using new methods and traces of scented substances preserved in archeological artifacts, we can recreate the powerful odors that were a cardinal feature of ancient realities and that shaped human action, thoughts, emotions and memories,” said Huber.

Odors and aromatic substances can provide information on many aspects of the ancient past, such as rituals, perfumery, hygiene, cuisine, trade and commerce, according to the researchers.

The scientists hope these odors will also provide insight into more general aspects of the past, from social hierarchy and practices to group identity.

A migrant child smells wild flowers as she helps her grandmother to transplant rice seedlings at the Shayuan Village in Wuhu of Anhui Province, China. Researchers are acknowledging the connection between scents and various life experiences and memories, aiming to recreate forgotten scents to gain a deeper understanding of older societies. (China Photos/Getty Images)

The 1985 book “Perfume” has been translated into 49 languages, with more than 20 million copies sold worldwide to date. It is one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century.

The title remained on bestseller lists for about nine years and received almost unanimously positive national and international critical acclaim.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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