Neandertal collection – Light i Dark

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Until recently, Neanderthals were presented as semi-animals, in a rather prejudiced manner as a more primitive, dead-end line in the development of humankind. However, newer anthropological findings show that this extinct parallel line of homo sapiens was more like a “brother” of contemporary man than an ancestor. 

Neanderthals lived in caves but were capable to build simple architectural structures. Drawings on the walls of caves confirm they used symbols and made ornaments.

They were not only hunters capable of making flint tools and simple fur and leather clothes – the necklaces confirm that they accessorised with pigmented bones, feathers and shells used as jewellery, or to mark their social position in the tribe.

Recent findings show they their diet was not meat-only – they balanced it with a significant amount of vegetables. They used fire to cook, but also to produce man-made materials like glue for their weapons. 

Neanderthals looked after sick and elderly family members and they buried them. As a symbolic and emotional gesture, they left flowers on the final resting places, as we do.

They felt empathy and compassion and were capable of strategic, creative and symbolic thinking.

Was the essence of these beings whose fragments survived within our DNA really that different from ours?

How would they smell today, if they were not extinct 40 000 years ago?

Can their olfactive essence be recreated?

Can the Neanderthal olfactive imprint be wearable in our modern world? 

This questions preoccupied Kentaro Yamada, London based Japanese artist and sculptor behind the Neandertal project. The speculative perfume concept gave birth to Light and Dark, and both perfumes present olfactive bond between us and our distant Neanderthal relatives.

The perfumes are created by young Scottish perfumer Euan McCall.  His approach was based on the exploration of perfume materials that can be connected to a Neanderthal way of living and their environment: leather, foliage and berries, smoke and woods (Hinoki, oud), salt (seaweed, ambergris, salty facet of vetiver), resins, balsams and tars.

The good insight into the Neandertal project was published on Silver Fox and Persefume blog in 2015. when perfumes were launched as limited editions of 100 hand made unique bottles, designed by Kentaro Yamada. Persefume’s text delivers the narrative behind the Neandertal project and offers insight into the creative synergy between Mr Yamada and Mr McCall.

Artist Kentaro Yamada in his London studio, 2015.
(Sophia Evans photograph via Guardian)

I have tested Neandertal Light and Dark in their current 2018. edition.

Experiencing the perfumes pushed me to make a full circle in my mind – from the interpretation of the prehistoric past to its interpolation into my present.

During one of the testings, I read the Euan McCall interview for Metal magazine. Its title “Olfactive voyeurism” compelled me to go beyond appealing oddity of Light and Dark and rethink the questions raised by Neandertal from the perspective of olfactive voyeur and perfume lover. 

While smelling Neanderthal essence reinvented, I began to contemplate the rudimentary patterns working beneath many aspects of our modern, culturally defined behaviour:

Aren’t we all the olfactive voyeurs, at least to some extent?

Each time we lean forward to smell the person we feel like getting to know better, each time we inhale deeper and hold the breath just to be sure that we will save the collected olfactive picture – indeed we are.

As much as the qualification “voyeur” is modern and culturally generated, the “olfactive lurking” is nature-driven and can be easily traced all the way back to our animalic or proto-human origins.

Neanderthals included.

Adding one more question: aren’t the perfume lovers or addicts also sort of primordial hunters, only we hunt for the newest and tastiest perfumy prey, as a sort of need for olfactive nutrition?

Do this perfume hunger and perfume hunt eventually drive us to territories beyond already conquered and known?

Yes, they do.

Some of us are literally hunting the new perfumes out there in the unknown to bring them to our modern caves (me included). We also wear our prey on our skin, like a second skin.

Sometimes we choose fur and leather or deliberately wear animalics.

It’s just that we do all that subliminally.

Do this perfume hunger and perfume hunt stop, or are they self-replicating as is our own DNA, the blueprint of our humanity which embeds the fragments of Neanderthals DNA?

No need to answer the last one to any perfume addict.

As for myself, a truly voyeuristic hunter for olfactive experiences, Mr McCall’s creations (or my prey) came as praise:

By exploring natural binary oppositions: light/dark, transparent/thick, wet/dry, warm/cold, fresh/cloying, indoors/outdoors, human/animalic, and also prehistoric/modern, nature/culture, perfume/smell, the ambivalent pair of Neandertal perfumes made me think about the whole olfactive concept in a simply structured frame and in an almost elementary way.

On the other hand, the dissonant and disturbing salty-animalic heart of Light and Dark nevertheless manages to surpass binary structures, which in testings resulted in a thrilling sense of oddity.

In the end, because of that, the compositions felt strangely appealing.

DARK

The overall atmosphere is shady, thick, firm, indoorsy, dense, warmly wet, but kinda safe, emotionally, at least when I compare it to Light.

Dark feels like coming from leafy woods and open and airy space to a very populated cave – and then going out again, dried and warmed, but also impregnated with the smell of the tribe.

After the airy and transparent opening in which I can discern leafy and aromatic fresh elements tinged with light and also fresh spiciness, Dark darkens.

It goes darker and darker, gaining textural thickness and warmth as if I am stepping into the depth of the cave.

“The Neandertal essence” reveals itself as a salty-animalic accord covering the surface of literally every element in other ways conventional thick and warm oriental structure: leather, smoke, thick balsams and resins and woods. Animalic musc.

Here I am: among them.

In the middle of the cave.

The salty-animalic Neandertal DNA dominates the middle of Dark, and it feels like it really comes from human bodies: the saltiness is paired with the scent of the firm, roughly processed and very worn leather, wet. As if the leather clothes are drying on the heat of a smoky fire, releasing regressive half-processed leather-stink the modern humans learnt to disguise. I suppose that iodinic saltiness, coming from seaweed, is responsible for the wet impression connecting warm skin and leather. Along with incense, there is animalic musc and a lot of earthiness.

Is this saturated wet, salty-dirty animalic and leathery heart of the perfume exclusively related to the Neanderthal inhabitants?

Not necessarily.

My own not pleasant olfactive experiences oppose that: I remember driving in an overly crowded city tram as a little school kid, while it was raining outside. Winter. The rush hour. Wet leather boots and wet worn out bags. A messy crowd. The nauseating warmth of strange human bodies gathered together in a too-small space. The smell of thick and not clean coats and jackets drying out in a body-induced heat. Musty wet, warm saltiness. The tram felt like a cave, minus the smoke.

The heart of Dark brought back the little girl’s memory of wet, strange, unclean people in public transportation, smelling like Neanderthals.

Yes, the Dark‘s heart is polarising and demanding – but my nose, my memory and my guts believed it, fully.

In deeper drydown, the leather and salty-wet-animalic accord are pushed in the back. The oudy-ambery base seems like a relief: the cave is dry and warm. Dirtiness is now more earthy-mineral than salty-animalic.

An interesting thing happens with the olfactive profile of oud here: all of its usually polarising or not commonly preferred facets fit in the base of Dark perfectly.

The atmosphere in the base is as thick and warm as in the heart, quieter and less cloying. It manages to smell airier as if some members of the tribe left the cave, or as if I went back outside, warmed and dried, but covered with the smell of my cave-companions.

Or maybe my nose adapted to the smell of the cave people.

It happens.

I remember that from a tram. 

LIGHT

Significantly lighter in the texture, airier, outdoorsy and transparent profile of Light fits the floral-woody category. 

While Dark oddly evoked a sort of “safe shelter” (no matter the smell of it), to me Light evokes the opposite: a disturbance, a tension, a danger. 

I did not expect that.

This response, which I at first considered as “unmatching”, made me reexamine my socially inherited associative pairs: dark/dangerous, light/safe. I interpreted my mismatch as culturally generated, and logically went back to the basics: Where would Neanderthals feel safer – sheltered in their cave, or exposed in the open space? 

The instinctive emotional response to Light made me wonder… (Maybe I really should get this personal genome profiling done).

The opening creates the feeling of untouched beauty: fresh greens combined with softly pronounced flowery elements feel truly light, fresh and soft like a breeze in the afternoon of a beautiful sunny day out in nature.

Until, very soon, the disturbance makes its appearance: 

The metallic ting is almost like an anticipation of the metallic taste of the prey’s blood, felt in the nostrils of the hunter. It is backed with serene iris, matching the calm self-confidence of the experienced and patient predator.

For a moment, the transparency in Light feels almost empty of everything else and crystally cold, bright and quiet, deceivingly plane like a calm face in spite inner reaction.

From there, the perfume shifts its olfactive profile from dominantly vegetal, airy, flowery, green, fresh to animalic, as if the focus is shifted from wide-range landscape to close up of sudden moving disturbance.

The animalic heart of Light is also salty and musky, but this saltiness coming from ambergris is dry and seems somehow “localized” instead of being spread all over. This animalic accord mingles between green, woody, slightly flowery and ozonic elements as a hidden animalic danger in the natural landscape.

The coexistence of fresh and calm green-flowery layer, and disturbing salty-animalic, dirty-woody vetiver/patchouli combo, smelling also on musk is executed masterfully. They mix until in the final stages only earthy woodiness stripped from the most of its previous animalic parts remains.

Whatever happened out there in the open, nature erased it.

I expected Light to be emotionally more approachable than Dark, but it isn’t. It just smells more approachable and wearable. But, with this one, I felt like the hunter becoming a prey.

Or maybe I’ve lost that huntin’ feeling.

Except when it is for perfumes, naturally.

Euan McCall (photo via Metal magazine)

Mr Yamada’s and Mr McCall’s Neandertal Light and Dark presented two rich territories to hunt on. And then I safely returned back home, to my modern cave and my modern symbols.

Back to the Euan McCall’s interview for Metal magazine:

“(…) The conceptual side is somewhat diminished in favour of pleasing a very wide demographic. Trendier formulas have always been the driving force in the industry, yet I hope the projects I work on will always have other symbolism and meaning. (…) The area of art fragrance is a tough one, especially when the work manifests as a consumable product. I believe fragrance should be challenging and I embrace with open arms more perfumers and artists working in this area.”, said the perfumer, the olfactive voyeur who successfully reinvented landscape and olfactory profile of our distant relatives, and who also managed to make the voyage meaningful and wearable today.

Neandertal Light and Dark are exploratory, engaging and polarising, and that is exactly how conceptual art perfumery should be.

Be a/ware.


The review is based on the discovery set from my own acquisition. Opinions are my own.

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About The Author

Iva

I write about perfumes that express unique olfactive beauty, manifest integrity as individual expressions of art, catch my attention, tickle my imagination, challenge my senses or the way I tend to think.

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