The First Kiss …? The Evidence From Ancient Mesopotamia

Sophie Lund Rasmussen and Troels Arboll

At the 2024 Gruter conference hosted at the Royal Society in London, with the theme “The Evolution of Kissing and Adaptive Trade-Offs in Human Contact”, Dr Troels Pank Arbøll and Dr Sophie Lund Rasmussen presented their interdisciplinary research on the ancient history of kissing. As a married couple, with academic backgrounds in Assyriology, the study of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as Near Eastern Archaeology and Biology, respectively, they combined their expertise to explore the earliest documentation for romantic-sexual kissing. 

They discovered that the historic background and causes for kissing are more complex than anticipated. Despite the fact that lip kissing is an act so natural and common in many present-day societies, that it is easily taken for granted, it is actually not clear whether people have always engaged in this behaviour, or whether the origin of kissing lies in the relatively recent past.

Troels and Sophie analysed overlooked evidence from Sumerian and Akkadian sources in cuneiform writing that challenge previous beliefs that the first record of romantic-sexual kissing is from India and dated around 1500BC. They found that lip kissing was documented in ancient Mesopotamia – present-day Iraq and Syria – from at least 2500BC onwards, indicating that the recorded history of romantic-sexual kissing is at least 1000 years older than the previous earliest known date.

The earliest evidence for romatic-sexual kissing

People in ancient Mesopotamia invented one of the world’s first written scripts, roughly contemporary with the hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt. The earliest Mesopotamian writing can be dated to around 3200BC and it was found in the city of Uruk, now in southern Iraq. The script is called cuneiform due to its wedge-shaped symbols. Originally, the script was used to write Sumerian, a language with no living ancestors among modern languages. Later, it was adapted to write Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language. The earliest texts are mainly linked to administrative practices, and largely reflect the mechanics of bureaucracy and the training of scribes. However, during the first half of the third millennium BC, myths and incantations materialise in the texts, and soon after, private documents about ordinary people start to appear. Some of the earliest sources mentioning lip kissing can be found in mythological texts concerning acts by gods that date to around 2500BC. One example is from the Barton Cylinder, a Mesopotamian clay artifact inscribed with cuneiform, where 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.

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The text on the Barton Cylinder, written in Sumerian, describes romantic kissing as far back as 2,500BC. 

Credits: Aage Westenholz

Later sources include proverbs, an erotic dialogue between a man and a woman, as well as letters and legal texts. Sources like these 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.

Who else kisses?

Lip kissing is also seen in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus). Modern chimps have existed for longer than modern humans have (<1 million years compared to 300,000 years for Homo sapiens), and our latest common ancestor, LCAPH, lived roughly around 6-8 million years ago. This suggests that the behaviour of kissing may be much older than our current earliest written evidence in humans. 

Why do we kiss?

Evolutionary anthropologists have proposed 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. 

It is also suggested that kissing facilitates “vaccination”, as it is estimated that 80 million bacteria is transferred during 10 seconds of intimate kissing. For instance, the act of kissing could enable the transfer of pathogens potentially causing fetal loss, which would make it extraordinary beneficial to get infected before becoming impregnated. 

Other sources indicating an earlier prevalence of kissing

The prevalence of potentially kiss-transmissible pathogens in ancient human remains, such as the Epstein-Barr virus (also referred to as “the kissing disease”), indicates that the behaviour of kissing has been around for a very long time. If the pathogens developed and kept this strategy for contagion in the evolutionary arms race between pathogens and hosts, it must have been a successful approach- people must have been kissing. However, this does not allow a differentiation between types of kissing (friendly-parental or romatic-sexual) or the spread of infection through other forms of close physical contact such as rubbing of noses.

Single point of origin and universality?

Considering the documentation for a wide geographical distribution of the romantic-sexual kiss in ancient times, Troels and Sophie argue that the kiss had multiple origins. And in case there only was a single point of origin for the act of kissing, one would have to find it millennia ago in prehistoric times. Future research may show whether this is the case.

A recent anthropological study has shown that the romantic-sexual kiss is not universal in modern societies. However, ancient written documentation suggest a tendency for its practice in societies with complex social hierarchies. Yet, it remains unclear how widely used the romantic-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, Troels and Sophie argue it must have been known in most ancient cultures, for example due to cultural contacts. And lastly, the authors suggest, that if future research should show that lip kissing cannot be considered near-universal in the ancient world, it would be interesting to consider the reasons why this was not a common practice. 

Surprisingly, their research into the history and culture of kissing showed that is a complex tale with many aspects yet to be revealed.

The research inspiring this conference contribution, a Perspective published in Science, can be read here

Sophie Lund Rasmussen is a PhD, MSc, BSc in biology, with the Hedgehog ecology and conservation, a Carlsberg Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, University of Oxford, a Research Associate at WildCRU, University of Oxford, and a Research Associate at Department of Chemistry and Bioscience, Aalborg University. 

Troels Arboll is an Assistant Professor in the department of Cross Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen