THE SMELL OF BLOOD
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
A few years ago we employed an extremely expert tile-layer who happened to be a Native American woman. She told us that her brother was a mountain guide. He regularly took tourists on “bear walks” where the likelihood of seeing these massive and dangerous animals was very high.
On one such walk, he informed a female participant that she would have to stay behind. “Because you are breeding,” he told her. This woman was having her period, and he could smell it. If he could smell it, the bears would certainly smell it: the smell of blood.
This brief essay is not going where you think it will. Let’s ignore for the moment the embarrassment, the humiliation, the discrimination. Let’s focus on the smell of blood.
Blood in the water attracts sharks. On land, the smell of blood attracts predators. They sense a wounded animal, they expect an easy kill.
This is not an issue in modern society. Most of us have lost the acute sense of smell that possessed by this mountain guide. We don’t need it to track a wounded animal that might become our dinner. We are unlikely to have a bear or a mountain lion looking for an easy kill in Manhattan, or Buenos Aires, or Shanghai.
But for most of human life on this planet, the smell of blood might pose a real problem. Think about it. The Agricultural Revolution occurred only 12,000 years ago. The rise of villages, towns, cities, kingdoms and empires all occurred during the last 10,000 years. But humans — homo sapiens — have been around for over 200,000 years, and virtually all that time we lived as hunter-gatherers. We hunted, and we were hunted.
So far, this is only a thought exercise. Menstrual taboos must have their origins in our primitive past. The fact that they evolved and become wrapped in religious and cultural mythology doesn’t preclude their origins in the East African Savanna. Nor does it challenge the idea that these taboos trace back to something very basic: the smell of blood.