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Why humans have big protruding noses, even though our sense of smell is pretty bad?

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Posted April 3, 2018

Have you ever noticed that our noses are quite big? Humans don‘t have a particularly strong sense of smell. In fact, we are quite bad in that regard. So how come humans have huge protruding noses and our closest relatives enjoy nice flat faces?

Human noses are quite long and yet we still can’t smell very well. It is because our noses are actually not for smelling. Image credit: Faceofwiki via Wikimedia

Well, ok, you probably don’t envy the nose of a chimpanzee or gorilla. However, they are our close relatives but they don’t have such prominent face features. Moreover, their sense of smell is probably much stronger and we don’t even use ours. We pretty much use our sense of smell only to sniff air in the elevator just before asking “Do you smell that?” with the most innocent look on our faces. Yeah, we know you did that.

If you look into the animal world, you will notice that those animals which do enjoy a strong sense of smell do not necessarily have big noses. In fact, even our ancestors did not have such prominent noses like we do now. So what’s the deal? What are we supposed to be doing with this gift? Well, if you think your nose is designed for smelling things, you are actually wrong.

Fossil records of human ancestors are actually not complete when it comes to noses. A big part of a nose is made from a cartilage, which doesn’t survive for thousands of years and breaks down relatively quickly. However, our best predictions show that human ancestors had the basic nose shape that is now seen in gorillas and chimpanzees and it is not a coincidence. These primates typically live in humid, warm climates, just like our ancestors did. However, at some point in our evolution we started moving north. Humans learned to cultivate the land and maintain domesticated animals. And if you live in a cold environment, a big nose is a must.

Noses have a particularly high density of capillaries. They warm up the air as we breathe it in. This means that very cold air doesn’t reach our lungs and doesn’t reduce our core temperature. At the same time we have a lot of tiny hair in our noses, which clean the air and prevent infection – the bigger the nose, the more hair fits inside. If you look at people from Africa, they typically have flatter noses, while those who have European ancestry have big protruding noses. Now you know why, but there is another explanation.

Both our ancestors and current relative species have strong protruding jaws. Our jaws are quite small in comparison. If we brought our jaws forward, our noses wouldn’t be that much protruding. It’s up to you to decide which explanation sounds more believable to you, but it is likely that both of them partially are.

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