Article image

Humans first began kissing in Mesopotamia over 4500 years ago

The sweet, intimate act of lip-to-lip contact, or kissing as we know it, may have originated much earlier than we previously thought. 

This surprising revelation comes from Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll and Dr. Sophie Lund Rasmussen, who offer fresh insights on the historical roots of this romantic gesture, pushing the timeline back a further millennium than previously acknowledged. The research is published in the journal Science.

Studying the origins of kissing

Contrary to prior hypotheses, which pinned the birth of the human kiss at around 3,500 years ago in South Asia, the researchers argue that kissing was already a well-established practice around 4,500 years ago in the Middle East, potentially predating this by even more.

The earliest human societies of Mesopotamia, the region nestled between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria, have provided key insights into this age-old tradition. 

“People wrote in cuneiform script on clay tablets. 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,” explained Dr. Arbøll of the University of Copenhagen.

What the researchers learned

In essence, Dr. Arbøll argues that the act of kissing is not a cultural artifact exclusive to any one civilization or region but appears to be a universal behavior practiced by multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.

“In fact, research into bonobos and chimpanzees, the closest living relatives to humans, has shown that both species engage in kissing, which may suggest that the practice of kissing is a fundamental behavior in humans, explaining why it can be found across cultures,” noted Dr. Rasmussen.

Both good and bad came from the kissing revolution 

The tradition of kissing isn’t solely a matter of social and sexual behavior. It may have unintentionally aided the spread of microorganisms, potentially aiding in the transmission of viruses among humans. 

However, to dub kissing as a sudden catalyst for the spread of specific pathogens, such as the herpes simplex virus 1, may be a bit of a leap.

“There is a substantial corpus of medical texts from Mesopotamia, some of which mention a disease with symptoms reminiscent of the herpes simplex virus 1,” said Dr. Arbøll.

However, he is quick to remind us that these ancient medical texts were influenced by various cultural and religious concepts, therefore cautioning against reading them literally.

Is kissing also the origin of herpes infections?

Despite these challenges, Dr. Arbøll finds it intriguing to note some similarities between a disease referred to as ‘buʾshanu’ in these ancient Mesopotamian medical texts and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections. 

He describes the bu’shanu disease as primarily located in or around the mouth and throat, with symptoms including vesicles in or around the mouth, one of the dominant signs of herpes infection.

If the practice of kissing was as widespread and well-established in a range of ancient societies as suggested, Dr. Rasmussen believes that the effects of kissing in terms of pathogen transmission must likely have been more or less constant.

The researchers believe that the future of understanding complex historical developments and social interactions, such as the role of kissing in early disease transmission, relies on an interdisciplinary approach to studying ancient DNA. 

As we continue to unearth more about our shared human history, the roots of a simple kiss prove to be a fascinating probe into the past.

More about Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, often referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” was a historical region located in the eastern Mediterranean, corresponding to present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The region is known for its fertile land, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, thus the name Mesopotamia, which translates to “land between the rivers” in Greek.

Mesopotamia was home to several important ancient civilizations, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Each of these civilizations made significant contributions to culture and science, influencing future societies significantly in ways other than kissing.


The Sumerians are often considered the creators of civilization as modern humans understand it. They are believed to have developed around 4000 to 3000 BC in southern Mesopotamia. The Sumerians are credited with many ‘firsts’ in human history, including the invention of the wheel, the development of the earliest known system of writing – cuneiform script, the creation of complex architectural structures such as ziggurats, and the formation of the earliest known codified legal and administrative systems.


The Akkadians, led by their king, Sargon the Great, are known for establishing possibly the world’s first empire around 2334 BC, bringing together various city-states under one rule.


The Assyrian Empire, known for its military prowess and extensive libraries, was centered in the northern part of Mesopotamia. The famous king Ashurbanipal established a vast library in the capital, Nineveh, which included thousands of cuneiform tablets preserving the knowledge of the time.


The Babylonians, based in central-southern Mesopotamia, are especially remembered for Hammurabi’s law code, one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The Babylonians also made remarkable strides in astronomy and mathematics, including the development of a base-60 (sexagesimal) number system, which is still used to measure time and angles today.

Mesopotamia was also a hub of trade and invention, with agriculture playing a vital role in its economy. Mesopotamians invented many agricultural tools and developed an early system of irrigation to counter the annual floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

Religion in Mesopotamia was polytheistic, with a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses worshipped in various city-states. Temples held great significance and were central to both religious and political life. Key religious concepts, including the afterlife and humans’ relationship with the gods, were central to Mesopotamian worldviews.

Mesopotamia’s influence extends into the present day, with its civilizations significantly contributing to human culture (including kissing), governance, technology, and knowledge. Its rich and varied history is a testament to the resourcefulness and adaptability of humanity and the power of civilization.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day