History of Perfumes - Part 1

There is hardly a person alive right now that has not experienced fragrances in their lives. Be it the smell of flowers in a bouquet, the smell of freshly cut grass, the smell of wet soil after rain, or the smell of leather seats in a New Car. We all have directly encountered the wonderful work our olfactory senses do which either makes us roll back our eyes in pleasure or makes us constrict our nostrils to avoid inhaling any of the unpleasant fumes. 


Fragrances have been a part of our lives since time immemorial but we did not directly start with the perfume bottles we know and love today. Instead, we started by burning resins, woods & spices or by incorporating flower petals in everyday use. In fact, the word perfume is derived from the Latin word, "per fumus," meaning through smoke. It was this activity of burning scented ingredients that we started with, on our journey to reach the complex fragrances we have on our shelves today.


Throughout history, various civilizations have started using fragrances in their own manner and we know about all of them, thanks to the work of archaeologists & historians, who find tangible proofs of such events through digging & thorough research. These finds have placed the development & use of fragrances throughout the globe & at varying time periods. Let us briefly visit the ancient civilizations where they used the art of fragrances.


Indus Valley Civilization

In India, archaeologists have found a terracotta distillation apparatus along with oil containers in the excavation of Indus Valley civilization (located at the western & north-western parts of India) and are carbon-dated to 3000BCE. One of the earliest distillation of Ittar(essential oil derived from botanical sources) was mentioned in the Hindu ayurvedic texts "Charaka Samhita" & Sushruta Samhita which were written around the 6th to 2nd century BCE. Both texts discuss the manufacture of perfumes for royalties & their respective harem's counterpart.



In the Island of Cyprus, various excavations uncovered evidence of a humongous area where possibly a perfume manufacturing factory existed around 4000 years ago. Which goes to show that even the people of that time knew the benefits of perfume mass manufacturing.


Civilization of Mesopotamia

Evidence of the world's earliest known chemist & coincidentally world's earliest perfumer "Tapputi" were found at the sites of the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. The evidence in the form of a stone tablet described how Tapputi held a prestigious place in the Mesopotamian government & religion and how she developed methods of scent extraction & using solvents (a practice which is the precursor to modern perfume-making techniques).



Nearly 4000-year-old evidence was also found of Egyptian priests & their Pharaohs being entombed with sweet-smelling resins, woods & spices. Similarly, a concoction, known as 'Kyphi', of at least 16 different aromatic ingredients was burned to appease the Egyptian God Ra.

The usage of perfumes is interwoven in history & religion, like the first writings about fragrant ingredients date back to 4500BCE(found in China). Even the Bible & Quran mention recipes of perfumes and how to use the ingredients.


We only know about the above due to the hard work of historians & archaeologists. Since history is defined by the tangible & undispitable proofs we find for it, it will not be wrong to say that we humans have always used fragrances because scented flowers, resins & woods have always been present in nature.



January 15, 2021 — Scent Split