Humans Were Kissing in Mesopotamia As Early As 4,500 Years Ago
Humanity's love affair with kissing goes way back, but just how far? Recent research has revealed that the art of smooching was already in full swing a staggering 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, and they’ve got the cuneiform to prove it!
According to the new research conducted by Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll from the University of Copenhagen and Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen from the University of Oxford, evidence from various sources indicates that kissing was a well-established tradition even earlier than previously thought, potentially pushing back the earliest documentation by a whopping 1,000 years to 2500 BC. Previous evidence accepted as the origins of kissing came from South Asia and placed it at 3,500 years ago.
The new research claims that in Mesopotamia, which encompassed the regions between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (modern-day Iraq and Syria), ancient humans were expressing their affection through lip-to-lip contact, as evidenced by the cuneiform writings on clay tablets that have survived to this day. These tablets provide clear examples of how kissing was considered a part of romantic relationships, as well as friendships and family bonds.
- 10 Funny and Fascinating Wedding Rituals from Ancient History
- Human Herpes Linked to Emergence of Kissing in the Bronze Age
Not Just A Human Show of Affection
According to Dr Arboll, finding this evidence of kissing present in separate areas of the world suggests that the act of puckering up might be an inherent and fundamental behavior in humans. He says:
“Therefore, kissing should not be regarded as a custom that originated exclusively in any single region and spread from there but rather appears to have been practiced in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.”
But wait, there's more to this fascinating history of kissing. It turns out that our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, bonobos and chimpanzees, also engage in kissing-like behaviors. Who would have thought that kissing would have such deep evolutionary roots?
- Five Surprising Ways Mesopotamia Shaped the World
- 4,000-Year-Old Mesopotamian Boat Near Uruk Rescued
Tender Acts Can Have Sore Consequences
The report also reflects on a less beneficial side of the tradition. As well as transmitting that warm feeling of love and affection, and releasing the dopamine we all love, other less desirable things can be transmitted. As delightful as kissing may be, it might have unwittingly served as a transmitter of microorganisms, potentially spreading viruses among humans.
But the idea that the act of kissing suddenly triggered the spread of particular pathogens is still a matter of debate. For example, researchers have proposed that the introduction of kissing may have accelerated the transmission of the herpes simplex virus 1. While there are ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia that mention a disease with symptoms resembling herpes simplex virus 1, it's important to remember that these texts were influenced by cultural and religious concepts. Therefore, caution must be exercised in interpreting them at face value.
Dr. Arbøll notes:
“It is nevertheless interesting to note some similarities between the disease known as buʾshanu in ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections. The bu’shanu disease was located primarily in or around the mouth and throat, and symptoms included vesicles in or around the mouth, which is one of the dominant signs of herpes infection.”
And co-author of the study, Dr Rasmussen, adds:
“If the practice of kissing was widespread and well-established in a range of ancient societies, the effects of kissing in terms of pathogen transmission must likely have been more or less constant”.
Taking the origins of this unsightly affliction have been traced back even further, in a report 6 years ago that a certain hominid that lived 2 million years ago has been blamed for contracting the virus from chimpanzees, and then passing it to Homo erectus. But this spread wasn’t through kissing, but through the food chain – they ate the meat which contained the virus, passing it up the food chain.
Dr. Arbøll and Dr. Rasmussen suggest that future research, incorporating ancient DNA analysis and interdisciplinary approaches, will shed more light on the complex historical developments and social interactions surrounding kissing, including its potential role in the early transmission of diseases.
Top image: Babylonian clay model showing a nude couple on a couch engaged in sex and kissing. Date: 1800 BC. Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY-NC-SA
By Gary Manners
Arbøll, T. P., & Rasmussen, S. L. (2023). The history of kissing in ancient Mesopotamia. Science, 1234(5678), 90-99. Available online at DOI: 10.1126/science.adf0512
Karasavas, T., 201. Our Ancestors Should Have Avoided Parathropus Boisei – They Gave Us Genital Herpes. Ancient Origins. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-evolution-human-origins/our-ancestors-should-have-avoided-parathropus-boisei-they-gave-us-021640
Smithsonian Magazine. (2023, May 18). Rediscovered Clay Tablets Reveal Ancient Mesopotamians Invented Kissing 1,000 Years Earlier Than Thought.