May 19, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Humanity's First Kiss was Much Earlier than Previously Thought

Ask most people when humans first kissed and, depending on whether they are evolutionists or creationists, the answer will probably be when Adam saw Eve or five minutes before the first sex. Proving that there is a solid dividing line between science and romance, anthropologists have long argued over when the first kiss in human history occurred and whether it was instinctive or learned. If it was learned, who did that first kisser learn it from? A monkey? The other unexpected oddity surrounding this ‘first kiss’ argument is that many scientists don’t trace it all the way back a million-plus years to the first humans. That is generally attributed to the fact that the first known written reference to kissing or a kissing-like behavior comes from the Sanskrit scriptures known as the Vedas, which date back to around 3,500 years ago. However, new research has found an earlier reference from Mesopotamia which dates it to 4,500 years ago, somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers where one of the first human civilizations emerged. Did humans really wait until they were “civilized” to start kissing?

For those who need a how-to illustration.
  • "Never felt like this until I kissed ya
  • How did I exist until I kissed ya
  • Never had you on my mind
  • Now you're there all the time
  • Never knew what I missed until I kissed ya, uh-huh
  • I kissed ya, oh yeah"
  • (“Till I Kissed Her”) by The Everly Brothers

In a new article in the journal Science, Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen from Aalborg University in Denmark and Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen explain how they learned about the first kisses – not theirs but humanity’s. Clay tablets found in modern day Syria and Iraq show clear depictions of what can only be described as couples in the act of kissing.

“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.”

These clay tablets also contain cuneiform text describing what the couples were doing … even 4,500 years ago, some people claimed they ‘just read the articles’ and didn’t look at the pictures. The article quickly becomes scientific as it points out the mistake previous anthropologists have made – trying to link the origin of kissing to the origin of and spreading of oral pathogens and sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes simplex virus 1, Epstein-Barr virus, and human parvovirus. Those diseases existed long before any references to kissing have been found, and Arbøll notes that records of these diseases in ancient medical texts were influenced by a variety of cultural and religious concepts – some things never change 4,500 years later.

  • “Things have really changed since I kissed ya, uh-huh
  • My life's not the same now that I kissed ya, oh yeah”
  • (“Till I Kissed Her”) by The Everly Brothers

Anthropologists look at the two types of kissing - the friendly-parental kiss and the romantic-sexual kiss – and note that the friendly-parental kiss seems to be universal and predates the romantic-sexual kissing, which is not culturally universal but seems to be more dominant in class-oriented societies as a way to evaluate mate potential via saliva and the smell of one’s breath. Of course, that eventually led to selecting a mate and consummating the relationship, so this is probably how the romantic kiss began. In fact, the clay cuneiform tablets found in Mesopotamia show descriptions and relief depictions of kissing as something that married couples did long after they had selected a mate. Using that description, we still have the question of whether romantic kissing is an instinctive or learned behavior. Whichever it was, who might these first kiss experimenters have gotten it from?

“Kissing is also attested in other animal species, such as mouth-to-mouth kissing with a romantic-sexual purpose in bonobos (Pan paniscus) and platonic kissing to manage social relationships in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). These two species constitute the closest living relatives to humans, and their practices of kissing may hint at the presence and evolution of this behavior in human ancestors.”

Thinking about bonobos and chimps kissing romantically is fodder for greeting card photos but does the picture really put humans in the mood? Rasmussen says in the press release that the fact that bonobos and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and both species engage in kissing, plus the data that kissing exists across cultures, suggests that kissing is inherent behavior.

Is it romantic?
  • “You don't realize what you do to me
  • And I didn't realize what a kiss could be”
  • (“Till I Kissed Her”) by The Everly Brothers

That takes care of friendly-parent kissing, dating or mate testing kissing, and sexual kissing. What about other forms of lip-locking?

“In the earliest texts in the Sumerian language, kissing was described in relation to erotic acts, possibly as a postcoital activity, and the locus was the lips.”

The new study also found that those early Mesopotamians liked to keep on kissing even after sex. They also depicting kissing as a submissive act – not in submissive sex but as a sign of respect as in kissing someone’s feet or kissing the ground. Then there are the forms of ritual kissing where a kiss was believed to have the power to wake a person from a trance, or where it is used to identify a person to others, possibly as a sacrificial victim. None of these forms of kissing appear in bonobos or chimps, so they are definitely learned. The study points out, for those who don’t know it yet, that the best way to determine the purpose of a kiss is to watch the location (locus) of the lips – lip-to-lip is the preferred placement for romance.

Getting back to the kiss as a means of spreading diseases, the study describes an interesting letter the researchers found which describes a woman in a palace harem who had fallen ill with an infectious disease that caused lesions. The medical ‘professionals’ at the palace knew enough to instruct everyone to avoid drinking from her cup, sleeping in her bed, or sitting on her chair. Sound familiar?

At this point, it seems obvious that, while the first writing about kissing dates back 4500 years to Mesopotamia, there was kissing without telling going on there and elsewhere. The researchers believe that romantic-sexual kiss thus had numerous independent origins.

The Everly Brothers got two things right – early humans didn’t know what they were missing until they tried kissing. And once they did, they couldn’t live without it.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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