With the wonderful reviews posted on the perfumes submitted for “The Mystery of Musk Project,” I noticed that quite a few of the perfumes contains Hyraceum. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore the “mysteries” of Hyraceum.
The Karoo National Park is one of my favourite places in the world for its arid beauty and complete serenity. The night sky is like no other I have ever seen, with layers upon layers of clouds of stars. One of the first things you notice when you look up into the mountains is that there is a particular bald spot on the slopes. The bald spot tells an amazing story of the magnificent black eagle and the elephant’s cousin, the dassie or rock hyrax. The dassie is a delicacy on the eagle’s menu. To catch a dassie, the eagle has to dive from 150m in the sky to ground level in three seconds. This means the eagle reaches a speed of 180kph. The dassie, has, however, figured this out, so he limits his feeding to a maximum range of 12m from his shelter. When the sentry who can look directly into the sun through a small light shield on the retina of the eye, sounds the warning, the dassie streaks back to safety in 2,7 seconds at a speed of 16 kph. Only 0,3 seconds between eating and being eaten, hence the bald spot on the mountain that represents their range of safety for grazing. (ref)
One of my earliest memories was trying to sneak up on dassies in the mountains. They reminded me so much of my pet guinea pigs that I was always trying to catch one. A hopeless quest it was of course, as they were far too fast and cunning for me. The first signs of Dassies in the area was finding their round pellet droppings. It fascinated me as a child, but little did I know then that I would one day use their excrement in perfumes, albeit the fossilized version of it.
The shefanim (hyrax) are not strong people, but they place their home in the rock. Proverbs 30:26
Fossil evidence from Egypt shows that around 40 million years ago, hyraxes were the most important medium sized grazing and browsing ungulates. There were at least six genera of varying sizes. Some hyrax species were the same size as present day animals, while some sources say that some were the size of a small horse, while others indicate they were as large as hippos. Scientists say this may explain the hyrax gestation period of 7 or 8 months, which is unusually long for an animal of its present day size. In past 25 million years, however, little about the hyrax has changed. Hyraxes are such unique creatures that they have their own order: Hyracoidea, in which they are the only family: Procaviidae
Hyraxes can often be found stretched out on rocks, sun-bathing, or huddling together for warmth. This is due to their poorly developed internal temperature regulation. As hyraxes spend so much of their time baking in the sun, they can be mistaken to be lazy. This might have given rise to an African tale that says when the Lion was giving out tails to the animal kingdom, the hyrax was so lazy that he sent the monkey to deliver his tail to him. The monkey thought the hyrax’s tail would make a good addition to his own and promptly stole it after receiving it from the Lion. The hyrax, too lazy to fight with the monkey over it, has gone tailless even since. (ref)
Today, they are four species of hyrax recognized; the Rock Hyrax ( Procavia capensis), the Yellow-Spotted Hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei), two species of Tree Hyrax: the Southern Tree Hyrax, (Dendrohyrax arboreus) and the Western Tree Hyrax, (Dendrohyrax dorsalis.
It is the most common one, the Cape Rock Hyrax, that is of especial interest to perfumers, for it is from this little sunbather that we get Hyraceum.
Scent plays an important role in the Hyraxes social structure. Hyraxes have a unique feature; scent glands which is a large dorsal gland located in a bare spot, 25-75 mm long, and surrounded by an oval of erectile hair. It is conspicuous when fanned open, and secretes an aromatic fluid. In most species the oval has different coloured hair patches. This dorsal gland and erectile hair play a central role in hyrax social and reproductive behaviour. The dorsal spot opens when the hyrax is at all excited, from slightly, to fully depending on the stimulus. Both identity and status are signalled by scent. Young hyraxes often climb up on their mother’s back. The scent from the gland on the mother’s back then sticks to the young. The scent helps the mother to identify her young. The mother has 6 nipples, two of which are on her shoulders.
The Cape Rock Hyrax defecate and urinate in latrines, and use the same latrine from one generation to the next. These latrines appear to be of two types : Urine is dribbled down very exposed, outward-facing rocks where calcium carbonate dissolve and are deposited as a very conspicuous white or light coloured streaks. (ref)
Rock latrines – the urine leaves white crystaline deposits on the rocks
These appear to serve as external olfactory and visual markers for specific colonies. The second type of latrine is situated in more shaded, protected sites. Both dung and urine are dropped in the same place, preferably on a flat or nearly flat surface. Both gut and kidneys of the Hyraxes are highly efficient at extracting nutrients and saving water. Urine is copious and dilute in the wet season but very concentrated and syrupy in the dry season. Here liquids and solids congeal slowly. These latrines seem to function as scenting parlours where all members of the group to share a common smell that scents their feet and fur.
In these latrines the deposits gradually turn into a black resinous aromatic material in which plant material, pollen and other digestive remains are trapped. These middens fossilize with time in the dry arid regions of South Africa, and become metres thick. Under local conditions, which exclude microbial decomposition and oxidation, urine cements together faecal pellets and other inclusions. It is this fossilized black resinous aromatic material that is known as hyraceum.The dassies are prey to many predators so their latrines are in very sheltered places conducive to the preservation of the middens. Seven middens from a single rock shelter on the north-eastern side of the Cederberg mountain range, Cape Province, were dated by 15 radiocarbon age determinations to between about 19,700 and 1370 yr BP. It is estimated that some of the middens dates back to 40 000 years. (ref)
Graciela Gil Romera (Madrid) and Eugene Marais (Windhoek) collecting fossil hyraceum in Namibia for pollen studies
Although Hyraceum only hit the headlines in recent years, it has been used in traditional folk medicine for centuries. Here in South Africa Hyraceum is traditionally known as “Dassiepis” (hyrax urine in polite terms) as well as “klipsweet” (rock sweat). Most perfumers call it African Stone. The Khoisan called it the Master of Masters because of its great healing qualities. I searched through my old books on “Boere Rate” and found several remedies using Hyraceum, to expel after birth, tinctured in brandy for stomache ailments, ear infections, tooth ache, Diphtheria and back ache. Here is an example of a recipe using Hyraceum as a general tonic and to boost the immune system against colds and flu.
Catbush (Folk name for Lycium hirsutum, Asparagus spp., or Pelargonium dissectum)
Wilde Als (Artemesia Afra)
Ground all the ingredients into a fine powder and infuse like a tea.
It has also been reported to be used as a cure for scorpion and snake bites, colic, hysteria, Parkinson’s disease and the fresher hyraceum, still sticky, was even used to set bones. It was apparently also sold as one of the ever popular Lennon’s Dutch Remedies for many years, although I can find no confirmation of this. The San (Bushmen) in the Namib area make a tea out of the Hyrax droppings which is said to kill toxins in the body. At least one of the healing properties of Hyraceum has been confirmed by scientists who found that some samples contained an active ingredient that could ease the symptoms of epilepsy. (ref)
Here is an original recipe listed (7645) in Volume II of of “Volksgeneeskunde in Suid-Afrika) (1952) published by SAAWEK (Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns) for epilepsy. It calls for a piece of duiwelsdrek (Asafoetida), a piece of klipsweet (hyraceum), treacle, a spoonful of campher, half teaspoon of salpeter (Sodium Nitrate), and a spoonful of ginger steeped in brandy. (Interesting that the research has shown that the active ingredient to ease the symptoms of epilepsy was only active in the ethanolic extracts.)
Hyraceum hit the spot light a few years ago with an article that was published in a local paper about a farmer who received a request for tons of Hyraceum from an international perfumery company. The article sent alarm bells out for the scientists and researches who regard the middens as “time capsules” for climatic change. Pressure groups have since been formed to prevent large scale harvesting of hyraceum. Since hyraceum has been prominently featured in the news, the price for hyraceum has gone up and it not so easy to get hold of as it was in the past. On the bright side the published scientific research into hyraceum now gives us a much better idea of the complex composition of hyraceum.
Analysis with Raman and Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy revealed that the precipitates of hyraceum are a mixture of vaterite (a rare polymorph of CaCO3) and the hydrated salt calcium monohydrocalcite (also rarely found in nature). GC-MS analyses of hyraceum, identified an inorganic phase (potassium chloride, with small concentrations of other salts, e.g. vaterite and weddelite) and an organic phase, which is a cocktail of various aromatic compounds, mainly amides, alcohols and acids. (ref)
Pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry reveals hyraceum to be dominated by nitrogen-containing aromatic compounds, notably benzamide. Solvent-extractable lipids comprise homologous suites of long-chain n-alkanes (C24–C34) and n-alkanols (C16–C26), characteristic of higher plant leaf waxes, along with an abundance of animal-derived sterols, higher plant sterols and terpenoids; as well as benzamide. n-alkane distributions. (ref)
The research has also shown that the composition of hyraceum varies from region to region due to the dietary intake just as the composition of any other natural aromatics varies from region to region and season to season. As hyraceum is a natural product that accumulates over a time-span of thousands years, in which climatic conditions vary with season, as well as yearly cycles, it contributes to a heterogeneous composition of the material. Samples analyzed showed a high degree of compositional complexity, with differences between samples, but also with compounds common to all samples.
The hyraceum that I have comes from the Cedarberg area, which is a fynbos area, and is also one of the areas from which the hyraceum samples tested positive for the active ingredient that could ease the symptoms of epilepsy. The highest peak in the Cedarberg, Sneeuberg (2 028m), is one of the few homes of the one of the world’s rarest plants, Protea cryophila, the snow protea, as well as the Clanwilliam cedar, after which the mountains are named. It is also home to rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis) and the round-leaved buchu (Agathosma betulina).
Many perfumery sites describes the odour of hyraceum as a “deeply complex fermented scent that combines the elements of musk, castoreum, civet, tobacco and agarwood. “ For me, Hyraceum’s top notes strongly smell of cow hide, perhaps some hay, tobacco, and stables. When I smell Hyraceum, I am instantly transported to my grandparent’s farm in the Kalahari, to those animalistic scents I loved. On its dry down it smells of sheep wool, an oily/lanolin and then surprisingly a sweetness creeps in, almost ambery/resinous. I have given the raw hyraceum to non-perfumers to smell, and only one detected a urinary note, all the rest said they loved it but could not say why and described it as warm and comforting. They all were really surprised when I told them what it was.
I have done a lot of experimentation with hyraceum in various blends and have found it to be incredibly versatile. But one experiment really surprised me. I combined the tinctures of Hyraceum, Omumbungu and Omambara in equal proportions expecting to get an earthy/anamalistic scent. To my surprise after maturing the accord for several months the scent was distinctly floral. I sent a sample of the accord to Isabelle Gelle. Her description; “It smells floral like gardenia tahitensis!”
This indeed what I love about working with naturals, there always is a surprise, and something new to learn. I am especially fond of Hyraceum and as some wit remarked; “It gives a new meaning to Eau de Toilette.”