In January I finally met Karen Knott in person. It was wonderful to hear all the fascinating stories behind the Omumbiri project. They are sponsored by the British WWF. One wonderful story she tells is how they went about identifying the various Commiphoras. It took them a long time to collect branches with leaves from a wide area, with which to approach the Himba ladies to identify. To their horror the ladies promptly pulled off all the leaves from the branches so that they were left with only bare twigs. To their surprise they smelled the twigs and then were able to show them the trees. “Of course, the resin is harvested when the trees are completely bare!”
They must have a really fine sense of smell, which I am sure all nomadic cultures once had. I have heard stories from soldiers who fought in the “Bush War” during Apartheid years. While they were in the bush they were not allowed to wash as the trackers could smell the scent of soap from a long way and so reveal their position. I often wonder about what was like when the human sense of smell was as well defined as our other senses. Then it hit me; is Southern Africa the Cradle of Perfumes?
When you research the history of Perfumes most sources will say that the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many will however, say that the history of perfumery is as old as the history of the humanity.
It has been speculated that somewhere back in our prehistory hunting gatherers sat around their fire and put a particular resinous branch on the fire. The smoke rose straight up in the night sky, towards the starts and the bright moon, and a fragrance they have never smelled before filled their senses leaving them feeling strangely peaceful and uplifted. Could it be a sign from the Spirits? Does this unusual scent please the Spirits?
Southern Africa is the cradle of Mankind. Recent archaeological studies confirm this. Genetic studies also confirm that humanity’s origins lies in Southern Africa. From Southern Africa early humanity migrated to populate the rest of the world. If the history of perfumery is as old as the history of the humanity, then we must look at Southern Africa for the traces of the origins of Perfumery.
The Bushmen or San are the oldest known living race. Their ancestors can be traced back over 100 000 years ago. In terms of archaeology there is a seemless stone tool tradition, and a seemless art tradition, going back 27,000 years with the ‘Apollo 11’ stones. Some will say that there is a seemless tradition, going back to perhaps even up to 60 000 to 80 000 years in age. The San have longest continuing cultural tradition in the world. Much has been learned about the ancient ways from contemporary Bushmen, as much of their culture has been preserved through the thousands of years and has been well recorded.
As is well known, the word perfume that is used to describe scented mixtures, is derived from the Latin word, “per fumus”, meaning through smoke. Thus it is said that the earliest form of perfumes were actually incense. What is the definition of an incense? An incense is most often defined as an odour of spices, or various substances, producing a pleasant odour when burned in religious rites. Is there any evidence that the San burnt “incense” during spiritual rites?
There is indeed. The use of burning aromatic plants known in a range of rituals is well documented in the San, and much ethnographic evidence exists for the significant role of the sense in San society. J. David Lewis-Williams describes in book; Images of mystery: rock art of the Drakensberg such a ritual, which is also found reflected in a rock painting from Sehonghong.
The San of the Kalahari still makes the tortoise shell boxes seen Sehonghong painting. Kalahari Shamans say that they keep material and also invisible, supernatural substances in these boxes. The material substances include part of plants that are believed to be imbued with supernatural potency. These plants are roasted in the coals and pounded to a powder, which is then mixed with fat. The supernatural substances are said to include urine of the lesser god and urine off a supernatural giraffe. When a Shaman dances, he drops a glowing coal into the tortoise shell in order to make “medicine smoke” (!go n/um), which wafts over the people whom he wishes to cure. The smoke caries the smell of the contents of the box and the supernatural power is in the smell.
The smoke issuing from the boxes are said to purify and cleanse, and is associated with the trance dances, that plays such an important part in the San culture. Buchu especially plays an important ritual role in the San rituals which is also burned in ritual over ancestral graves and used to pacify the spirits. Christopher H. Low, another researcher, states that the Khoisan have engaged with buchu because of its distinctive odour and properties but, unlike West, Khoisan relationships with buchu relate to smell as an agent of physical and mental transformation. The smell of buchu has been conceived by the Khoisan as a potent force with a role in healing, in perfume use and certain rituals.
In the history of Perfumes most will say that the next development in Perfumery were the introduction of unguents. Here again, it is well recorded that the San also made unguents by using dried and powered leaves of Buchu mixed with sheep fat to anoint bodies. Buchu is sometimes also used as a collective name for dried herbs among the San, so one could also speculate that these mixtures could have been more complex that just. The Himba as readers of my blog know by now also make “unguents” by mixing butterfat, Omumbiri and ohchre to anoint their bodies. The use of ochre to anoint the body also goes back in history to the earliest of times. When exactly we can only speculate, but it is known that at the site of Blombos Cave in the Eastern Cape, archaeologists have discovered two pieces of ochre with engravings on them. These engravings consist of geometrical crosshatch designs and both have been dated to approximately 75000 years ago, making them the oldest known art on Earth. The fact that they were collecting and processing ochre for ritualistic purposes, can lead one to speculate that perhaps unguents were also made 75 000 years ago in South Africa as it was such an integral part of the culture.
It is even claimed that the name of the San people is derived from their use of aromatic shrubs to anoint their bodies. (Smith, C.A, 1966. Common names of South African Plants. Mem. Bot. Surv.S.Afr.35.) San,Son, or Sab were the original Khoi name for Pteronia onobromoides – (boegoebessie, boegoekaroo or laventelbossie), an aromatic bush once popular as a perfume, but the name is also applied to other aromatic shrubs, just like buchu is also the name used for dried powdered aromatic blend. The names Sonqua, Sanqua or Tanqua are derived from this term plus the suffix ‘qua’, meaning ‘men’ or ‘people’, as in Namaqua Outenniqua. Sanqua therefore literally means ‘the people or men who use aromatic bushes to anoint their bodies.’ (People’s Plants – Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke.)
It is assumed that because perfumery is a sophisticated art form it must have originated within a sophisticated culture thus the earliest of civilizations, rather than in the nomadic hunting gatherer societies. It is further assumed that in the earliest cultures the use of aromatics was only for ritual use, rather than perfuming their bodies for personal use. However, if we again look at the San and Himba culture, both considered “primitive cultures”, aromatics are indeed used to create perfumes for personal use and cleansing.
In desert areas where water is scarce “perfumed smoke” is often used for purification. Throughout Africa smoke perfumed by powdered resins, herbs, bark and fragrant wood is still used to fumigate clothing and dwellings. In Ghana for example the wood of the Commiphora africana (Gum Copal) is used by the women to fumigate their clothing with its fragrant smoke. The Himba women perfume and cleanse their bodies by burning herbs and sitting in a closed up hut before smearing the otjize (the mixture of red ochre, Omumbiri and fat) on themselves every morning. It takes about three hours every day.
Both the Himba and the San makes a dry perfume for personal use. The Tsumkwe (Namibia) San women not only know many different species of aromatic herbs, but are also skilled at creating their own individual perfume powder. Originally, the powder bags were made from tortoise shell, decorated with ostrich eggshell beads, seeds, grasses and roots. A piece of fur was applied to the shell openings for applying the powder. Wildlife authorities have discouraged the use of tortoise shell, and today most bags are made from horn.
Karen Knott sent me a sample of the perfume blend that the ladies in Opuwa made. It seems to be a mix of 12 plants – some leaves, some bark and some twigs. It is different to the mix that the Orupembe ladies make. As with most perfumers, the exact formula is a secret. I was blown away when I first smelled. Rather than a simple blend, it is a complex blend of citrus- and floral-like notes, combined with powdery sweet notes. Something in it remindedme a lot of bitter orange and I am sure I can detect Omumbara in there as part of the basenotes. In short, it is indeed a perfume in itself. I tinctured the powder to see what will happen. After waiting for it to mature, I put it in an atomizer and sprayed it onto my skin just like you would a modern perfume. It is gorgeous, but what really surprised me was its tenacity. It lasted for two days on my skin. It is simply a blend of natural dry plant ingredients – no essential oils, no absolutes, no extenders. I felt utterly humbled.
My conclusion is that the existing histories of perfumes should be re-written. Perfumery originated much earlier than most sources indicates, and in my opinion Southern Africa is also the birth place of Perfumes.