Do Different Ethnicities Smell Different?
May 13, 2010
Angie Lowe: I don’t believe a dog can smell Indians. I mean, as different from anyone else. You and me, for instance.
Hondo Lane: Well they can. As a matter of fact, Indians can smell white people.
Angie Lowe: I don’t believe it.
Hondo Lane: Well it’s true. I’m part Indian and I can smell you when I’m downwind of you.
Angie Lowe: That’s impossible.
Hondo Lane: No, it isn’t impossible, Mrs. Lowe. You baked today. I can smell fresh bread on you. Sometime today, you cooked with salt pork. Smell that on you, too. You smell all over like soap: you took a bath. And, on top of that, you smell all over like a woman. I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe, and I’m only part Indian.
It’s a memorable exchange, from the 1953 John Wayne classic, and an intriguing point: Do different ethnic groups have characteristically different body odors?
Logic suggests a resounding Yes. Not only are certain diets and scented toiletry choices often favored by one ethnic group over others, both factors which would certainly affect body odor, it seems perfectly reasonable that the same genetics which make individual races look similar would make them smell similar. From an evolutionary standpoint, the ability to differentiate between people who were familiar and people who were intruders would have been an extraordinarily useful survival instinct to our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Consider also the animal kingdom, far keener barometers of all-things-olfactory than we humans. Scout dogs in Vietnam could be trained to be race specific in their alerts, and domestic dog owners often relate tales of pets previously exposed to only one race reacting differently when encountering another. Even more compelling is this 2007 University of St. Andrews study, in which African elephants proved not only capable of identifying different races of humans, but different tribes of the same race!
Of course, the topic has occasionally spawned some fairly bizarre assertions. In his 1971 book The Life of Sharks, (presumably caucasian) author P. Budker states that “When white men and black men bathe together in the ocean, the black men, who smell more strongly than the white, are more susceptible to the ferocity of sharks.” Diversity advocate Phillip Milano, whose National Forum On People’s Differences website unabashedly invites members of all cultures to discuss even the most politically-incorrect racial hot potatoes, derived the title of his book from the delightfully honest inquiry of “Cass” in Detroit: “Why do white people smell like wet dogs when they come out of the rain?”
Since the question was asked, says Milano, he hasn’t “come across a single black person who isn’t familiar with the phrase, or a white person who had ever heard of it before.” Which may go a long way toward explaining why research on the subject seems so frustratingly scant. Ethnic differences, something we’re not even comfortable discussing in “mixed” company, seem unlikely candidates for study grants.
Take this informal poll, for instance, which asks “Which ethnic groups smell different than you do?” It has little value as intended both because of its failure to identify the ethnicity of the partipants and because of their scant volume–35, at the time of this writing. That number does become interesting, however, when compared to the number of “abstainers,” which was 12. In short, over one-third of the miniscule number of people willing to comment on this sensitive issue at all commented only that they did not wish to comment.