a man and a woman kissing
Kissing may seem natural, but it remains unclear whether it’s a universal human act, or a cultural one.
PeopleImages.com - Yuri A / Shutterstock

Lip kissing is an act that’s so natural and common in many present-day societies it is easily taken for granted. But it’s not actually clear whether people have always been kissing, or whether its origins lie in the relatively recent past.

It turns out that the history and causes for kissing are more complex than anticipated. In an article published in the journal Science, we analysed substantial amounts of overlooked evidence that challenge current beliefs that the first record of romantic-sexual kissing is from India around 1500BC.

Instead, lip kissing is documented in ancient Mesopotamia – present-day Iraq and Syria – from at least 2500BC onwards. This basically means that the recorded history of romantic-sexual kissing is at least 1,000 years older than the previous earliest known date.

Why do we kiss?

Evolutionary anthropologists have suggested that lip kissing evolved to evaluate a potential mate’s suitability, through chemical cues communicated in saliva or breath. Other proposed purposes for kissing include bringing about feelings of attachment and facilitating sexual arousal.

innerself subscribe graphic

Lip kissing is also seen in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. This suggests that the behaviour could be much older than our current earliest evidence in humans.

People in ancient Mesopotamia may have invented writing for the first time, though it was roughly contemporary with its invention in ancient Egypt as well. The earliest Mesopotamian writing is from around 3200BC, from the city of Uruk, now in southern Iraq.

The script is called cuneiform, and it was inscribed on moist clay tablets with reeds cut into a little triangular shape. Originally, the script was used to write Sumerian, a language with no known relationship with any other. Later, it was adapted to write Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language.

Though the earliest texts we find are mainly linked to administrative practices, and largely reflect the mechanics of bureaucracy, people developed this mode of writing in subsequent centuries to include other genres of texts.

In the first half of the third millennium BC, myths and incantations materialise in these texts, and even later, private documents about ordinary people. Some of the earliest sources mentioning the lip kiss can be found in mythological texts concerning acts by the gods that date to around 2500BC.

Early records

In one of these earliest instances, described on the so-called Barton Cylinder, a Mesopotamian clay artifact inscribed with cuneiform, two deities are said to have intercourse and kiss:

with the goddess Ninhursag, he had intercourse. He kissed her. The semen of seven twins he impregnated into her womb

Later sources, such as proverbs, an erotic dialogue between a man and a woman, and a legal text, form the general impression that kissing in relation to sex, family and friendship was likely an ordinary part of everyday life in central parts of the ancient Middle East from the late third millennium BC onwards.

Still, it seems that romantic-sexual kissing in the open street may have been frowned upon, and it’s possible that it was preferably practised between married couples. Society probably had a number of such social norms regarding ideal behaviour. But the fact that such norms existed point to a widespread practice.

Single point of origin?

Evidence suggests that the lip kiss was practised at least in the ancient Middle East and India. This contrasts with previous observations about humanity’s earliest history of kissing. A manuscript from India dated to about 1500BC, for example, has has previously been used to propose that the kiss was brought as a cultural practice westward from there. The older evidence from Mesopotamia suggests we can dismiss that scenario.

Considering the wide geographical distribution of the romantic-sexual kiss in ancient times, we believe that the kiss had multiple origins. And even if one were to search for a single point from where the kiss originated, one would have to find it millennia ago in prehistoric times.

A recent anthropological study has shown that the romantic-sexual kiss is not universal. However, there is ancient written documentation suggesting a tendency for its practice in societies with complex social hierarchies.

This raises a question over how widely used the sexual kiss was in the ancient world, especially in societies that cannot be traced because they did not use writing. Although some societies may not have practised the romantic-sexual kiss, we argue it must have been known in most ancient cultures, for example due to cultural contacts.

But if future research should show that lip kissing cannot be considered near-universal in the ancient world, it will be interesting to consider the reasons why this was not a common practice. Surprisingly, the history and culture of kissing is a complex tale with many aspects yet to be revealed.The Conversation

About The Authors

Sophie Lund Rasmussen, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Oxford and Troels Pank Arbøll, Assistant Professor in Assyriology, University of Copenhagen

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Related Books:

The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts

by Gary Chapman

This book explores the concept of "love languages," or the ways in which individuals give and receive love, and offers advice for building strong relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.

Click for more info or to order

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert

by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver

The authors, leading relationship experts, offer advice for building a successful marriage based on research and practice, including tips for communication, conflict resolution, and emotional connection.

Click for more info or to order

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life

by Emily Nagoski

This book explores the science of sexual desire and offers insights and strategies for enhancing sexual pleasure and connection in relationships.

Click for more info or to order

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

This book explores the science of adult attachment and offers insights and strategies for building healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Click for more info or to order

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

by John M. Gottman

The author, a leading relationship expert, offers a 5-step guide for building stronger and more meaningful relationships with loved ones, based on principles of emotional connection and empathy.

Click for more info or to order