The first documented kiss took place in the Middle East 4,500 years ago

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According to recent research, the origins of the human practice of kissing can be traced to a very specific place in South Asia 3,500 years ago. From here it has spread to other parts of the world and at the same time led to the spread of herpes simplex virus 1, the hypothesis reads.

But according to Assyriologist Troels Pank Arbøll and zoologist Sophie Lund Rasmussen , who analyze a number of written sources from the earliest Mesopotamian societies in a new article in the journal Science, kissing was already a well-established practice 4,500 years ago in the Middle East. And probably much earlier. This therefore moves the time of the earliest documented kiss back 1,000 years compared to what research has previously shown.

“In ancient Mesopotamia, which is the name of the early cultures that existed between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in present-day Iraq and Syria, people wrote on clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Many thousands of these clay tablets have been preserved, and they contain clear examples that the kiss was considered part of human intimacy in ancient times, just as kisses could be part of friendship and family relationships,” explains expert Troels Pank Arbøll in the history of medicine in Mesopotamia. 

He continues: “Therefore, the kiss should not be considered a custom that originated in a single region and spread from there. Rather, it appears to have been practiced in numerous ancient cultures in various parts of the world – and over several millennia.”

Sophie Lund Rasmussen adds: “In fact, research on chimpanzees and pygmy chimpanzees, humans’ closest living relatives, has shown that both species kiss. It therefore suggests that it is a very basic behavior in humans, which could also explain why it can be seen across different cultures.”

Babylonian clay figurine showing a couple having sex and kissing. Dated to 1,800 BCE [Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, not for commercial use]

The kiss as a potential carrier of infection

In addition to its importance for social and sexual relationships, kissing may have played an unintended role in the transmission of microorganisms from human to human, potentially causing the spread of viruses and bacteria.

However, the hypothesis that the kiss should be seen as some kind of sudden practice that triggered the spread of certain viruses is more questionable. The spread of herpes simplex virus 1, which some researchers believe may have been accelerated by the kiss, is a good example:

“There is a significant collection of medical texts from Mesopotamia, and several mention a disease with symptoms reminiscent of those you get with herpes simplex virus 1,” notes Troels Pank Arbøll.

He adds that the old medical texts were characterized by a number of cultural and religious ideas, and that they cannot therefore be taken at face value.

“It is nevertheless interesting to note the similarities between the disease known as buĘľshanu in ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections. Bu’shanu disease was primarily located in or around the mouth and throat, and symptoms included blisters in or around the mouth, which is one of the typical signs of herpes infection.”

“If the practice of kissing was widespread and well-established in a number of ancient societies, the effect of the kiss in the form of viral spread must probably have been more or less constant over large areas of the world,” says Sophie Lund Rasmussen.

Troels Pank Arbøll and Sophie Lund Rasmussen conclude that future research into prehistoric DNA, which will inevitably lead to discussions about complex historical developments and social interactions – such as kissing as a driving force for early disease transmission – will benefit from a more interdisciplinary approach to the material.

Source: University of Copenhagen [May 18, 2023]

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