Thursday, 1 Jun 2023

Ancient humans shared kisses earlier than thought – and possibly cold sores

Humans began kissing at least 1,000 years earlier than previously thought – and potentially began spreading cold sores, according to scientists.

Previously, kissing on the lips was thought to have originated in south Asia around 1,500BCE, 3,500 years ago.

However, evidence from clay tablets found in the Middle East suggests people were kissing at least 4,500 years ago. The findings, published in the journal Science, also challenges current thinking that it spread from just one place, but instead began spontaneously in different areas.

Co-author Dr Troels Pank Arboll, from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said: ‘In ancient Mesopotamia, which is the name for the early human cultures that existed between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria, 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.

‘Therefore, kissing should not be regarded as a custom that originated exclusively in any single region and spread from there but rather appears to have been practised in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.’

And kissing is not just a feature of being human. Studies on bonobos and chimpanzees – the closest living relatives to humans – have shown they also engage in kissing.

In people however, it is thought the amorous practice may have also played a role in spreading of the herpes simplex virus 1 – also known as the cold sore.

‘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 Arboll.

But he added that ancient medical texts can be influenced by cultural and religious concepts, so they cannot be read at face value.

‘It is nevertheless interesting to note some similarities between the disease known as bu’shanu in ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia and the symptoms caused by herpes simplex infections.

‘The bu’shanu disease was located primarily in or around the mouth and throat, and symptoms included vesicles in or around the mouth, which is one of the dominant signs of herpes infection.’

Previous research has suggested the cold sore virus initially arose during vast migrations from Eurasia to Europe in the Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago.

Other modern-day viruses spread through kissing are also thought to have been circulating in ancient times, including Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever, and human parvovirus B19, which causes a bright red rash on the cheeks in children.

Co-author Dr Sophie Lund Rasmussen, of the University of Oxford, said: ‘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.’

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