Couples in Mesopotamia could have been the first ones smooching as we know it. New research analyzing written records from the area reveals that people in the Cradle of Civilization could have participated in the oldest recorded acts of kissing.
Troels Pank Arbøll from the University of Copenhagen and Sophie Lund Rasmussen from the University of Oxford examined cuneiform writing on clay tablets from Mesopotamia and found mentions of kissing as early as 2500 BCE. Based on these tablets, kissing was primarily done following sexual acts, with couples paying attention to each other’s lips as opposed to kissing other body parts.
Kissing was typically an act that married couples participated in, but unwed people would also kiss when in love, albeit less frequently, they found. Arbøll and Rasmussen’s analysis places the oldest-known kissing at 4,500 years old; previous academic evidence from South Asian texts had suggested kissing was only 3,500 years old. The researchers’ work is published this week in the journal Science.
“In ancient Mesopotamia, which is the name for the early human cultures that existed between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria, people wrote in cuneiform script on clay tablets. Many thousands of these clay tablets have survived to this day, and they contain clear examples that kissing was considered a part of romantic intimacy in ancient times, just as kissing could be part of friendships and family members’ relations,” said Arbøll in a press release.
At the same time, these acts of romance and lust may have played an unintentional role in spreading disease. More specifically, Arbøll and Rasmussen claim that kissing could have helped the herpes simplex virus 1 spread more rapidly, as there are ancient Mesopotamian medical texts that describe an illness with similar symptoms. The authors, however, aren’t convinced that this is the same virus, as these ancient civilizations approached medicine from a different perspective than we do now.
“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,” Rasmussen said in the release. “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.”
Arbøll and Rasmussen argue in their manuscript that the texts from Mesopotamia also point to kissing being commonplace in a large geographic area—one larger than that described in the evidence from South Asia. As such, the researchers argue that kissing may not have emerged from one, singular ancient society, and instead may have been practiced in parallel societies across the world.