For obvious reasons, we can assume that we’ve been having sex since time immemorial, but what about kissing? We’ve been doing that longer than expected. Thousands of years old clay tablets now show that the ancient Mesopotamians also loved ‘a kiss with saliva’.
And they didn’t necessarily have to be married for that, according to cuneiform texts and carved images. Even unmarried Mesopotamians who were in love loved a passionate kiss. 4500 years ago this was already seen as part of sexual desires. That sounds romantic, but there was also a downside: the diseases could be unintentional bushhanu – the herpes virus, or cold sore – and the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, are suddenly spreading at lightning speed.
The first kiss
Until recently, the first evidence of people kissing dates back to about 3,500 years ago. It came from a specific region in South Asia. From there, the ‘kissing behaviour’ may have spread to other regions, which could also have accelerated the spread of the herpes virus. But two Danish researchers have now come to a completely different conclusion: the Mesopotamians in the Middle East must have had the first kiss a thousand years earlier.
“In the fertile land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, where are now Iraq and Syria, but what used to be ancient Mesopotamia, people made beautiful clay tablets with inscriptions and pictures. Many thousands of tablets from that time have been preserved. So we can see that kissing was an important part of romantic intimacy even then. But there was also kissing between family members and between friends,” explains researcher Troels Pank Arbøll. “We can therefore say that it is not the case that the kissing started in a specific region and spread from there. It seems more like that people have been kissing all over the world for many thousands of years, separately from each other in various ancient cultures.”
Also kissing monkeys
Researcher Sophie Lund Rasmussen takes it even further: “We know from research on bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest relatives, that they also kiss each other. This is an indication that kissing is a fundamental human behavior and that it therefore appears in many different cultures.”
In addition to the social and sexual importance of kissing, it appears that kissing has also played an unintended role in the transmission of microorganisms. It is likely that certain viruses could find their way to a new host or hostess more easily in this way.
For example, the cold sore virus may have spread faster because of the introduction of the kiss, Arbøll explains. “We found a large amount of medical texts from Mesopotamia, in which a disease is mentioned with symptoms that are very similar to the herpes virus. It is interesting to read the texts about the so-called bushhanudisease to a contemporary cold sore infection. Busshanu was described more than 4,000 years ago as painful blisters in and around the mouth and sometimes in the throat.”
Unraveling secrets through DNA research
“If kissing was normal in different ancient societies, the effects of this in terms of transmitting disease should be fairly constant,” Rasmussen explains. The researchers hope to investigate this further. Both scientists look forward to the analysis of ancient human DNA, which will shed more light on the influence of social interaction and cultural norms and values. They argue for an interdisciplinary approach, so that the secrets of kissing behavior in past societies, and its viral consequences, can be further unraveled.