People in the ancient Middle East kissed freely, smooching their romantic partners, friends, and family members, according to a new study. Researchers claim to have found evidence of humanity’s earliest recorded kiss.
Until recently, the earliest evidence had come from a Bronze Age manuscript from South Asia from 3,500 years ago, although the new study moves the date of the first documented kiss back to at least 4,500 years ago.
The study relied upon cuneiform script written on clay tablets from Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq and Syria. Thousands of scripts have survived to the present day, and many describe the widespread kissing between friends and family. The study found further evidence of physical relations in the form of a 3,800-year-old clay model that depicts a nude couple embracing and kissing on a piece of furniture.
Kissing May be Too Widespread to Pinpoint an Origin
While the earliest evidence of kissing now rests with these ancient Mesopotamian tablets, the researchers stopped short of saying that’s where kissing originated.
“Kissing should not be regarded as a custom that originated exclusively in any single region and spread from there, but [it] rather appears to have been practiced in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia,” says Troels Pank Arbøll, a co-author and assyriologist with the University of Copenhagen, in a press release.
“Research into bonobos and chimpanzees, the closest living relatives to humans, has shown that both species engage in kissing, which may suggest that the practice of kissing is a fundamental behavior in humans, explaining why it can be found across cultures,” says Sophie Lund Rasmussen, a co-author and research fellow at Oxford.
Did Kissing Spread Herpes in the Ancient World?
The clay documents from early Mesopotamia also included several medical texts, some of which describe a disease similar to herpes simplex virus 1, the ubiquitous disease spread in part by kissing. “Bu’shanu” caused vesicles to erupt around the mouth, similar to the present-day disease.
“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,” says Rasmussen.
Or, it may have varied slightly. An earlier study found evidence that kissing helped to accelerate the spread of herpes throughout Bronze Age Europe as people migrated from Eastern to Western and Central Europe. As population density increased, so did the frequency of kissing and herpes transmission.
The newcomers may even have introduced “sexual-romantic kissing” to the locals, the study says, accelerating herpes spread further.
The disease won – it now inhabits an estimated two-thirds of the world population under 50.