Researchers delved into ancient history to discover when romantic kissing may have originated, and the pathogens that have accompanied the practice since then and now, such as the herpes simplex virus.
Troels Pank Arbøll and Sophie Lund Rasmussen examine cuneiform writings from Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, and Syria for references to kissing.
The couple distinguished between two types of kissing: “friendly parent” kissing and “romantic sex” kissing. The former is the kind of kiss a mother gives her child when she sends her to school, and the researchers say it has been seen in humans across time and worlds. The second is not culturally universal. It is thought that sensual kissing evolved into a way of evaluating potential mates through chemical cues conveyed in saliva or breath, which eventually led to sex.
Recent research suggests that the first known record of a romantic kiss is on a Bronze Age manuscript from India tentatively dated to 1500 BC. Arbøll and Rasmussen disagree, based on their findings in the study of Mesopotamian writing.
The ancient Sumerians were the first to develop cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BC. Researchers have found references to kissing in documents dating from 2500 BC onwards. Kissing and sex are often described together in the earliest Sumerian texts.
Arbøll and Rasmussen found clear examples that kissing is part of romantic intimacy, whether the kisser is married or not. They point to two examples in texts from around 1800 BC. In one, a married woman is almost led astray by a man’s kiss. Unmarried women, on the other hand, took a vow to avoid kissing and having sex with certain men.
In addition to examining the history of kissing, Arbøll and Rasmussen also investigated the behavior’s unexpected role in the spread of oral disease. With the help of paleogenomics, they again turned to cuneiform texts for disease references.
The advent of paleogenomics, the reconstruction and analysis of the genome information of our ancestors, has enabled the detection of herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), Epstein-Barr virus, and human parvovirus B19 in ancient human remains. A 2022 Research The ancient genome of HSV-1 — the virus that causes cold sores — was found to be present on the teeth of human bones dating from 253 BC to 1,700 BC.
Researchers have discovered in ancient texts a species called Busanu, similar to HSV-1 infection. The main similarities are in the symptoms associated with the disease, that’s nonsense, which might be interpreted as “vesicles”. Vesicles are thin-walled sacs filled with fluid that are a hallmark of HSV-1 infection when found in or around the mouth.
The researchers say their study of the cuneiform texts shows that the kissing occurred much earlier and over a wider geographical area than first thought.
“Data from ancient Mesopotamia suggest that kissing in relation to sex, family and friendship was a common part of daily life in the ancient central Middle East from the late 3rd millennium BC,” the researchers said. “Furthermore, sources from Mesopotamia suggest that romantic sexual kissing predates Indian texts from 1500 BC and is known over a wider geographic area, unlike previous studies of the history of kissing. The observations are stark contrasts.”
They also say kissing and oral disease have long been linked.
“There is evidence that kissing was a common practice in ancient times and may represent a continuing influence on the transmission of orally transmitted microorganisms such as HSV-1,” the researchers said. A direct behavioral adaptation emerges that inadvertently accelerates the spread of the disease.”
The study was published in the journal science.