First Kiss: Smooching Began 1,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

Leave it to a couple of doctoral candidates on a first date to discover more about the history of kissing than anyone has ever known.

That’s what happened when two Danish students on a setup met and shared intimacies for the first time, The New York Times reported. The serendipitous encounter that brought them together produced a quick spark. But the tale they revealed about the roots of oral romance in humans went deeper.

Sophie Lund Rasmussen and Troels Pank Arboll told the Times they were undergraduates when they met in 2008 at a bar in Copenhagen. Whether they knew it or not, they would later help rewire the scientific history of the amorous embrace they were about to share.

First kiss

Their paper in Science Advances pushes the start date for intimate kissing between humans back almost 1,000 years. It also extends the origin of the herpes virus.

Contemporary research hypothesized that the earliest evidence of human lip kissing originated in one specific location in South Asia 3,500 years ago. But Rasmussen and Arboll sourced written Mesopotamian history to its earliest cultural societies. They found that kissing was already a well-established practice 4,500 years ago in the Middle East.

That predates bedrock sex texts like the Kama Sutra by thousands of years. Yet it was literally carved in stone.

“In ancient Mesopotamia, people wrote in cuneiform script on clay tablets,” said Arboll, now an expert on the history of medicine in Mesopotamia. “Many thousands of these clay tablets have survived to this day. 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.”

He added that it likely spread from diffuse sources, developing in “multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.”

Holy or something else?

If their analysis is correct, it also means humans have been sharing sexually borne pathogens since well before previously understood. Arboll and Rasmussen’s work points to a Mesopotamian malady called “bu’shanu.” Its symptoms will be familiar to many. (No judgment on my part.)

“The bu’shanu disease was located primarily in or around the mouth and throat, and symptoms included vesicles in or around the mouth,” Arboll said. “[That] is one of the dominant signs of herpes infection.”

Dr. Rasmussen drove home the point.

“If the practice of kissing was widespread and well-established in a range of ancient societies, the effects of kissing in terms of pathogen transmission must likely have been more or less constant,” she said.

In fact, as the couple pointed out to the Times, the behavior shows up in the Mesopotamians’ creation mythos. According to them, the earliest account of kissing in human history exists in the Barton Cylinder, a clay tablet that dates to around 2400 BCE.

The Barton Cylinder, an ancient Cuneiform text. Photo: Wiki Commons


It tells the story of the Sumerian creation myth, involving food supply problems in Nippur, the original religious capital of Babylonia. In it, there’s a sexual encounter possibly involving Enlil, the ruler of the Sumerian cosmos, and his sister, the mother goddess Ninhursag.

Among other significances, the two deities mark their union with a kiss — and the rest is history.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.