Scientists say they’ve found evidence ancient humans began kissing around 4,500 years ago – 1,000 years earlier than was previously thought.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen say they now believe kissing was common across many cultures rather than starting in a specific region.
This contradicts a previous hypothesis that the earliest evidence of human lip kissing came from a specific part of southern Asia 3,500 years ago.
The evidence is from clay tablets written in cuneiform script, writing used by human cultures in ancient Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria.
Among the tablets showing such a scene was a Babylonian clay model showing an erotic scene from 1800 BC, which appears to show a couple’s lips touching.
Dr Troels Pank Arboll, an expert on the history of medicine in Mesopotamia at the University of Copenhagen, said: “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.
“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 practised in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.”
Studies on bonobos and chimpanzees – the closest living relatives to humans – have shown they engage in kissing.
This suggests the practice of kissing is a fundamental behaviour in humans and explains why it can be found across cultures, the scientists said.
The researchers also said kissing may have accidentally helped spread viruses such as herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which causes cold sores.
From a substantial collection of the Mesopotamian medical texts, they found some of them “mention a disease with symptoms reminiscent of the herpes simplex virus 1,” Dr Arboll said.
But he added that ancient medical texts can be influenced by cultural and religious concepts so they cannot be read at face value.
Dr Arboll said the team found some similarities between the disease known as buʾshanu in ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections.
He said: “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.”