Unveiling the ancient origins of kissing: Mesopotamian evidence challenges previous assumptions

Recent research has put forth a hypothesis suggesting that the earliest evidence of human lip kissing can be traced back to a specific region in South Asia 3,500 years ago. It suggests that this practice may have subsequently facilitated the spread of the herpes simplex virus 1 to other areas. However, a new article published in the journal Science by Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll and Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen presents an alternative viewpoint. Drawing on various written sources from early Mesopotamian societies, they argue that kissing was already an established practice 4,500 years ago in the Middle East, potentially even earlier. This pushes the documented history of kissing back by 1,000 years compared to previous scientific understanding.

Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll, an expert on the history of medicine in Mesopotamia, explains that the ancient Mesopotamian cultures, situated between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria, left behind numerous clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script. These tablets offer clear examples indicating that kissing was considered a part of romantic intimacy in ancient times, as well as being present in friendships and family relationships. Consequently, the practice of kissing should not be attributed exclusively to a single region, but rather appears to have been prevalent in multiple ancient cultures spanning several millennia.

Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen further supports this notion by pointing out that research on bonobos and chimpanzees, the closest living relatives to humans, has revealed that both species engage in kissing. This observation suggests that kissing may be an innate behavior in humans, explaining its presence across diverse cultures.

Kissing as potential transmitter of disease

Furthermore, beyond its social and sexual significance, kissing may have inadvertently contributed to the transmission of microorganisms, potentially facilitating the spread of viruses among humans.

However, the notion that kissing served as a sudden biological trigger for the dissemination of specific pathogens is met with skepticism. The case of the herpes simplex virus 1, which some researchers propose may have been accelerated by the act of kissing, exemplifies this doubt.

Dr. Arbøll notes the existence of a considerable body of medical texts from Mesopotamia, some of which mention a disease exhibiting symptoms resembling those of the herpes simplex virus 1. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that these ancient medical texts were influenced by various cultural and religious concepts, and thus should not be interpreted literally.

Nonetheless, Dr. Arbøll finds it intriguing to observe certain similarities between the disease described as bu’shanu in the ancient Mesopotamian texts and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections. The bu’shanu disease predominantly affected the mouth and throat, with symptoms including the presence of vesicles in or around the mouth, a primary characteristic of herpes infections.

Dr. Rasmussen suggests that if kissing was a widespread and well-established practice in multiple ancient societies, its potential effects on pathogen transmission would have likely remained relatively consistent.

In conclusion, Dr. Arbøll and Dr. Rasmussen emphasize the importance of an interdisciplinary approach when exploring future findings arising from research on ancient DNA. Such investigations will inevitably delve into complex historical developments and social interactions, including the role of kissing as a potential driver of early disease transmission.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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