Ancient kiss-tory: First evidence of smooching took place in Middle East 4,500 years ago

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The origins of kissing date back 4,500 years, a discovery that’s giving researchers insight into disease transmission instead of romance! Researchers in Denmark say the earliest documented evidence of a human kiss comes from Mesopotamia, the historical area that now encompasses present-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey.

Earlier studies proposed that the first evidence of human lip kissing began specifically in South Asia about 3,500 years ago. From there, it was thought to have spread to other regions, potentially expediting the spread of the herpes simplex virus in the process.

However, this new research, conducted by scholars from the University of Oxford and the University of Copenhagen, suggests that kissing was a cultural practice in the ancient Middle East at least 1,000 years earlier. Based on various written sources from the earliest Mesopotamian societies, Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll and Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen discovered that kissing was already a well-established practice 4,500 years ago in the Middle East.

Their findings push back the earliest recorded evidence of kissing by 1,000 years compared to the timeline previously accepted by the scientific community.

“In ancient Mesopotamia, the early human cultures that resided between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in what is now Iraq and Syria, people used a cuneiform script to write on clay tablets,” says Dr. Arbøll in a media release. “Many thousands of these clay tablets have been preserved, clearly demonstrating that kissing was perceived as a part of romantic intimacy in ancient times, just as it could form part of friendships and familial relations.”

Scroll down to see 7 illnesses that can spread through kissing

man kissing woman during daytime
Photo by Giorgio Trovato from Unsplash

Did ancient epidemics start with a kiss?

The research team postulates that besides its social and sexual significance, the act of kissing may have unintentionally facilitated the transmission of microorganisms, leading to the potential spread of viruses among humans.

“If kissing was a widespread and well-established practice in various ancient societies, the impact of kissing in terms of pathogen transmission would likely have been relatively constant,” says Dr. Rasmussen.

However, they cast doubt on the idea that kissing served as a sudden biological trigger for the spread of specific pathogens. They cited the spread of the herpes simplex virus, which some researchers proposed could have been accelerated by the introduction of kissing, as a prime example.

“There is a vast body of medical texts from Mesopotamia,” notes Dr. Arbøll, “some of which reference a disease with symptoms similar to the herpes simplex virus.”

Arbøll cautions that these ancient medical texts were shaped by various cultural and religious concepts, which means they can’t be interpreted literally. The researchers find it interesting to note some parallels between a disease known as buʾshanu in these ancient Mesopotamian texts and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections.

“The bu’shanu disease primarily appeared in or around the mouth and throat,” Dr. Arbøll explains, “and symptoms included vesicles in or around the mouth, one of the main indicators of herpes infection.”

The study is published in the journal Science.

7 illnesses that can pass by kissing

Kissing can transmit certain infectious diseases due to the exchange of saliva and close contact. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Mononucleosis: Often referred to as the “kissing disease,” mono is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and spreads through saliva. Symptoms include fatigue, sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph nodes.
  • Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV): This includes both oral herpes (HSV-1) and genital herpes (HSV-2). HSV-1 often leads to cold sores or fever blisters on or around the mouth, and can be spread to others even if no sores are present.
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV): Like mono, this virus can spread through saliva and causes similar symptoms. It can be dangerous for individuals with weakened immune systems and for pregnant women, as it can lead to birth defects.
  • Meningococcal disease: This can cause infections in the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream infections (septicemia). The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like saliva.
  • Gingivitis and Periodontitis: Poor oral hygiene can lead to these conditions, characterized by inflammation, bleeding, and potential loss of gum tissue. These bacteria can be transmitted through saliva, and thus, kissing can be a mode of transmission.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Certain types of HPV can cause throat cancer, and these can be spread through deep or open-mouthed kissing, particularly if a person has an oral HPV infection.
  • Influenza and Common Cold: Viruses that cause the flu and common cold can be spread through saliva, as well as through the air from coughing and sneezing.

In general, maintaining good oral hygiene and getting appropriate vaccinations can help reduce the risk of transmitting or receiving these diseases through kissing. If you or your partner are ill or have a visible oral outbreak (like a cold sore), it’s best to avoid kissing until the illness or outbreak has resolved.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

YouTube video