Human Herpes Linked to Emergence of Kissing in the Bronze Age
It is generally accepted among historians that kissing had no one point of origin, but the habit began as a human trend in different regions. The earliest known written record of romantic saliva exchange appears in Vedic Sanskrit scriptures dating to around 1500 BC. In the beginning it must have seemed crazy to willfully swap saliva from another, generally disease ridden, human, but over the centuries it was normalized as an indicator of affection in almost all cultures.
The result of 3,500 years of kissing, and swapping billions of bacteria every time, is that today 3.7 billion people globally are fighting the HSV-1 virus strain which causes facial herpes, more commonly known as cold sores. Now, a team of Cambridge University scientists has identified the ancient herpes genes that helped spread the disease across the human race.
The origins of facial herpes was the rise of kissing as a cultural habit. Two skeletons known as The Lovers of Valdaro. (Dagmar Hollmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Ancient History of Human Herpes and the Poisoned Pleasure of Kissing
The ancient Kamasutra was written between 400 BC to 200 AD. It contains a chapter on different types of kisses and methods of kissing. With the 4th century AD Mahabhara there is a line saying someone “set her mouth to my mouth and made a noise that produced pleasure in me.” However, this new research shows kissing was much older than these first records.
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The team of scientists from the University of Cambridge have published a new research paper in the journal Science Advances. Their research suggests the HSV-1 virus strain, that caused facial herpes, “arose around five thousand years ago.”
One sample used in the study was taken from a young adult male skeleton buried in Cambridge and dating back to the 14th century. (Dr. Craig Cessford / Cambridge University)
Hosting Human Herpes For Life
According to an article about the study on PHYS, the HSV-1 herpes virus existed in bats and other animals several million of years ago. But HSV-1 is much harder to identify in ancient humans. The team of scientists believe the so-called “kissing virus” emerged during Bronze Age migrations into Europe from the Eurasia Steppe. At this time, says the team, there were “population booms that drove rates of transmission.”
Until this new study all previously genetic research associated the rise of herpes to 1925. However, human herpes, according to the new study, was imported from the east in the Bronze Age through “romantic and sexual kissing.”
But while Covid-19 spread through human populations like wildfire, Dr. Charlotte Houldcroft from Cambridge's Department of Genetics, says herpes takes much longer to evolve. While mutations in facial herpes can take several millennia to occur, once you’re infected you host the virus for life, passing it on through oral contact with others.
Four Out Of 3,000 Bodies Infected With Herpes
Co-lead author Dr. Meriam Guellil, from Tartu University's Institute of Genomics, said the team of scientists investigated the genes of over 3,000 ancient bodies. However, herpes was only identified in the dental remains of four individuals who had lived over a 1,000-year period of time. Dating to 1,500 years ago the oldest herpes sample was taken from a skeleton recovered from Russia's Ural Mountains.
A 26 to 35-year-old man who was excavated near the banks of the Rhine had marks on his teeth from smoking clay pipes of tobacco. The scientists believe this man met his fate by a “French attack on his village by the banks of the Rhine in 1672 AD.” The remaining two bodies were recovered in the UK near Cambridge. Both of the ancient bodies unearthed in the UK had suffered from periodontal gum disease. Furthermore, one of these bodies was a woman exhumed from a 14th century cemetery, who the paper says had suffered from “appalling dental abscesses.”
A sample of ancient herpes DNA came from the teeth of a 17th century Dutch male. (Dr Barbara Veselka / University of Cambridge)
Tracking the Evolution of Human Herpes
Co-senior author Dr. Christiana Scheib is a research fellow at St. John's College, University of Cambridge, and head of the ancient DNA lab at Tartu University. In the paper Dr. Scheib wrote that every species of primate has its own form of herpes and that “something happened around five thousand years ago” permitting a single strain of herpes to evolve beyond the many.
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When identifying that “something” that occurred 5,000 years ago, the team settled for the rise of kissing as a cultural habit. And once a woman was kissed by an infected person that ever-refining strain of herpes was passed from mother to her newborn children.
The team of genetic scientists now plan to track the evolution of herpes through time, all the way back to early hominin species. Dr. Scheib explained that understanding Neanderthal herpes would be her next “mountain to climb.”
Top image: Study has found that human herpes was spread by kissing throughout history. Source: boyloso / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie