The Onges of the Andaman Islands and urban smell decay

A recent study by Ramesh Sahani on the changes to nutrition and body metrics (anthropometry) in the Onges of the Andaman islands shows that rapid forced settlement of a foraging population results in highly negative outcomes. Their body metrics now fall in line with overweight/obese body metrics and their diet has shifted radically: protein is now 10% of the diet (previously above 30%), calories have doubled, and physical activity has been cut in half.

The Onges are famous (to me) for their exquisitely rich odor/smell culture and language. So much of the traditional life is shaped by smell–e.g., the seasons, tribal/group membership, seasonal migrations–they even consider a lack of smell to be a sign of death!

The group that was forced to become sedentary will now live in a very different odorscape and this may, in turn, effect other changes among the people–identity confusion, disassociation from traditional rituals/practices, temporal dissonance. If I were a cultural anthropologist with the right connections, I might be tempted to jump on a plane and visit them right away.

Another problem with the smellscape of sedentary living is the impact it has on one’s nose. Urban living creates olfactory dysfunction. Two studies (here and here) in Mexico show olfactory impairment due to urbanization. The pollution in Mexico is mostly likely several orders of magnitude greater than in the Andaman Islands but we have yet to explore what the urban smellscape beyond pollution does to the sense of smell.  In his book, What the Nose Knows, Avery Gilbert imagines how chemical intraspecific communication (human to human via pheromones) is still functional in humans: somehow we are able to detect all kinds of social clues without other overt indicators (e.g., knowing when someone is slightly off before you talk to them even though they look normal). This is highly likely in my mind because even though many humans do not have a VNO (organ that detects pheromones), there are pheromone detection receptors that have migrated to the olfactory epithelium.

How might urbanized living be blunting signals and changing our social interaction spheres? We just don’t know…yet!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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