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How Our Ancient Noses Drove Many Species to Extinction

How Our Ancient Noses Drove Many Species to Extinction


Could it be that the key to the survival of early humans lay in their ancient noses? A new book claims that early humans had an evolutionary advantage over their rivals thanks to their ability to smell complex aromas. Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have maintained that early humans began cooking food to make it safer to eat and in order to consume more calories. This new theory now suggests that it was the “pursuit of flavor” that led humans to create tools and use fire to cook.

Did Ancient Noses Help Early Humans Survive?

In their new book  Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human, academics Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez suggest that the “pursuit of flavor” and “more complex scents” gave some humans an advantage over others. The Observer reports that the pair of academics believe that, thanks to the ability of their ancient noses to smell the difference between rotting and fermenting food, our early ancestors “had a better chance of survival.”

Author Rob Dunn is a professor of Ecology at North Carolina State University and Monica Sanchez is a medical anthropologist. Dunn claims that the early exploration of taste and pursuit of flavor played a major part in the creation of tools and fire. What this means is that the pair of researchers have sniffed out and “opened up a world of new foods and flavors previously inaccessible,” according to a report in the Daily Mail. Furthermore, the new book directly challenges the old-school anthropological idea that the origins of cooking of food was to make it safer to eat, and for the consumption of more calories.

Could it really be true that early humans began cooking food in their quest for added flavor? The new book argues that ancient noses were important in human evolution. (Yulia / Adobe Stock)

Could it really be true that early humans began cooking food in their quest for added flavor? The new book argues that ancient noses were important in human evolution. (Yulia / Adobe Stock)

Rethinking “Why” Humans Began Cooking with Fire

Rob Dunn said the “key moment” when early humans first started cooking with fire “has at its core, just the tastiness of food and the pleasure it provides.” What this highlights is the importance of ancient noses, and the exceptionally close ties between flavor and human survival. The book explains that the ability to decipher flavor dimensions in food and drink, known as “retro-nasal olfaction,” in some early humans, made their chances of survival more likely. What this means is that ancient humans who had developed a stronger sense of smell, were able to sniff out the range of aromas generated by cooking meat.

Being able to identify the smell of fermenting meat, compared to the scent of rotten meat, would have made some people more inclined to cook their food. Thus, those who could smell more flavors, according to the new book, had an “evolutionary advantage over others.” Professor Dunn suggests our ancestors “sour receptors adapted to the taste and were able to use it as a way to identify whether foods were rotting or simply fermenting.”

Humans and Pigs: Ancient Noses and the Power of Smell

The authors of the new book explain that most animals, “excluding pigs and humans,” are put off by sour tastes. However, our early ancestors’ tongues may have served “as a kind of pH strip to know which of these fermented foods was safe, or otherwise.” The writers present evidence that this early urge to smell, taste and consume better-tasting foods inspired the creation of stone tools, such as spears, which the writers say allowed people to gather foods further afield from their traditional hunting grounds. 

The pair of authors go so far as to associate their new theory, that some early humans had an advantage over others, to the extinction of mammoths and sloths which they say “were probably the tastiest.” 

While the pursuit of better-tasting foods had great benefits to the expansion of human populations around the world, most of these foods had four legs. Therefore, to satisfy their urge for new tastes, or emerging-greed some might say, several species were hunted to extinction in a pattern which is still in full swing today.

Top image: New book claims that ancient noses and their developed sense of smell gave early humans an evolutionary advantage. Source: ntueri / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Cooking probably started in savannah-like conditions in Africa. Frozen meat is scarce in such warm climates to say the least.

More likely bushfire kills were found to be tasty. In Australia, hawks and eagles target the small animals fleeing low intensity fires and will also take the dead which are not too charred.

It is not hard to see possible parallels with early human behaviour. I wouldn't be surprised if early omnivorous humans were more scavengers than hunters, albeit scavengers capable of using group force to disposess successful hunters, much like hyenas do. If that is the case, the finding of weapons at early stages does not necessarily indicate hunting, nor would a lack of hunting indicate a lack of cooking. In that sense, I've no doubt you're correct.

Imagine finding a dead frozen animal , just start a fire and warm it up! that is how cooking started! too simple? then find a more complicated answer !

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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