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Ancient Texts Reveal Humans Have Been Kissing for at Least 4500 Years

A carving at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt depicting Pharaoh Ramses II and Queen Nefertari embracing

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Recent research into ancient texts suggests that sexual kissing has been practiced for over 4500 years in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. While it’s been widely believed that the earliest evidence of sexual kissing comes from Sanskrit texts written in India about 3500 years ago, the new findings challenge this notion and propose that kissing arose independently in various places around the world.

Some theories connect the spread of kissing to the conquests of Alexander the Great and its possible influence on the transmission of oral diseases. One study even suggests that the advent of sexual-romantic kissing contributed to the increased prevalence of the herpes simplex virus 1, which causes cold sores. However, Troels Pank Arbøll from the University of Copenhagen argues that the evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt indicates a much wider knowledge and practice of sexual kissing in the ancient world than previously thought.

For years, scholars acquainted with the cuneiform writing system used by several ancient civilizations have known about evidence of sexual kissing in ancient texts. However, this evidence has not been widely recognized in the scientific community. Arbøll and biologist Sophie Lund Rasmussen from the University of Oxford decided to highlight this overlooked evidence in a paper they co-authored.

The Mesopotamian texts, although scarce in references to kissing, depict it as a commonplace aspect of romantic relationships. For example, one text from approximately 3800 years ago describes a married woman’s temptation after a kiss, while another text from the same era involves an unmarried woman pledging to avoid kissing and sexual encounters with men.

Arbøll suggests that the geographical distribution of sexual kissing in ancient texts supports the idea of multiple origins rather than a single place of origin. Furthermore, Arbøll and Rasmussen propose that sexual kissing could predate written history. There is some tentative evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals may have engaged in kissing or exchanged saliva, and even bonobos, a primate species, engage in mouth-to-mouth sexual kissing.

However, a study conducted by William Jankowiak from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his colleagues in 2015 found no evidence of sexual kissing in hunter-gatherer societies. Jankowiak suggests that kissing may have originated or been discovered among the elite in complex societies, where pleasure-seeking and turning sex into an erotic encounter were possible.

Interestingly, Jankowiak’s study did find that sexual kissing is more prevalent in colder climates. He speculates that in regions where people’s bodies are typically covered with clothes, the face becomes the primary area available for intimate touch.

Article amended on 14 June 2023

The photo caption was amended to correctly identify the people depicted in the engraving.

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