Scientists found mandrills — a primate cousin of humans — can use body odour to identify suitable mates.
A team found an explicit link between a cluster of genes that play a key role in the immune system and an individual’s smell.
And Dr Leslie Knapp from the University of Cambridge said the findings lend support to the theory humans may also be able to “sniff out” a good mate.
Dr Knapp, from the department of biological anthropology, said: “Our results strongly suggest that smell allows mandrills to transmit information about their own genetic quality and similarity to one another.
“By using smell they can then identify potential partners with the appropriate genes.
“What we can infer for humans is that there are some very old behaviours at play here.”
The findings are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The team investigated the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC” genes — a cluster of genes that play a role in the immune system.
Humans and mandrills appear to seek out partners with a different MHC pattern to their own, on an “opposites attract” basis.
This diminishes the chance of inbreeding and results in a greater diversity of immune response in the offspring.