The earliest records of kissing are 4,500 years old

When was the first romantic kiss? It’s impossible to tell, but a pair of researchers have just shunted the earliest record of a kiss back by a millenium.

Previously, the earliest well-known record of kissing came from India in about 1,500 BCE.

But a study published in Science has pointed out several records of romantic kissing from Mesopotamia, dating back to at least 2,500 BCE.

“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,” says co-author Dr Troels Pank Arbøll, a researcher in ancient Mesopotamian medicine at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

“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 practiced in multiple ancient cultures over several millennia.”

Read more: The origins of money

The researchers say in their paper that, while friendly and parental kissing seems universal across human cultures, romantic or sexual kissing is much less ubiquitous.

Nevertheless, there are some Mesopotamian texts that clearly describe the practice taking place romantically – particularly between married couples.

Babylonian clay tablet showing couple kissing
A Babylonian clay model showing a nude couple on a couch engaged in sex and kissing. Date: 1800 BCE. Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum

“Considering the thousands of cuneiform texts that are available, there are relatively few instances where romantic-sexual kissing is described. Regardless, there are clear examples illustrating that kissing was considered an ordinary part of romantic intimacy in ancient times,” write the researchers in their paper.

There are two Mesopotamian sources that are “especially revealing”, according to the paper, both of which are from around 1,800 BCE.

“One describes how a married woman was almost led astray by a kiss from another man, and the other describes an unmarried woman swearing to avoid kissing and having sexual relations with a specific man,” the authors write.

This suggests that kissing was frowned upon when not done between married couples.

The researchers state that previous studies, like this 2022 paper, have suggested that the origin of kissing in India could be tied to the spread of certain viruses, such as herpes (HSV-1).

But since there are many earlier records of kissing – and earlier records of herpes-like viruses – the researchers think the story isn’t so simple.

“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,” says co-author Dr Sophie Lund Rasmussen, a researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, and the University of Aalborg, Denmark.

Please login to favourite this article.