Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Comment
  • Published:

How to use modern science to reconstruct ancient scents

Olfaction has profoundly shaped human experience and behaviour from the deep past through to the present day. Advanced biomolecular and ‘omics’ sciences enable more direct insights into past scents, offering new options to explore critical aspects of ancient society and lifeways as well as the historical meanings of smell.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Workflow for studying ancient scents using biomolecular approaches.
Fig. 2: Contextualizing biomolecular data to reconstruct ancient experience, behaviour and society.


  1. Hoover, K. C. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 143(Suppl 51), 63–74 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Goldkuhl, L. & Styvén, M. Euro. J. Market. 41, 1297–1305 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Howes, D. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Univ. Michigan Press, 2003).

  4. Skeates, R. & Day, J. The Routledge Handbook of Sensory Archaeology (Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2019).

  5. Baeten, J., Deforce, K., Challe, S., De Vos, D. & Degryse, P. PLoS ONE 9, e113142 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Zimmermann, M. et al. Sci. Rep. 11, 1590 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Brettell, R. C. et al. J. Archaeol. Sci. 53, 639–648 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Giachi, G. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 1193–1196 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Mackay, H. et al. J. Archaeol. Sci. 121, 105202 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Bleasdale, M. et al. Nat. Commun. 12, 632 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Cappellini, E., Collins, M. J. & Gilbert, M. T. P. Science 343, 1320–1322 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Jensen, T. Z. T. et al. Nat. Commun. 10, 5520 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Kao, W.-Y., Hsiang, C.-Y., Ho, S.-C., Ho, T.-Y. & Lee, K.-T. J. Ethnopharmacol. 275, 114069 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Regert, M., Devièse, T., Le Hô, A.-S. & Rougeulle, A. Archaeometry 50, 668–695 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Mathews, J. P. & Schultz, G. P. Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley (Univ. Arizona Press, 2009).

Download references


The authors are grateful to the Max Planck Society for funding this research. B.H. is supported by the Joachim Herz Foundation and holds an Add-on Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Life Sciences. We thank F. Kai Yik Teoh for his feedback and valuable suggestions.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Barbara Huber or Nicole Boivin.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Human Behaviour thanks Joanna Day and Ruth Nugent for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Huber, B., Larsen, T., Spengler, R.N. et al. How to use modern science to reconstruct ancient scents. Nat Hum Behav 6, 611–614 (2022).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing