The modern form of the herpes simplex virus, responsible for painful blisters around the mouth, evolved about 5,000 years ago. Its spread coincided with a period of major population migrations from Eurasia to Europe. Such a discovery was described in a scientific article published on July 6, 2022 in the journal Science Advances. The study was conducted by an international team of scientists led by Meriam Guellil of the Institute of Genomics at the University of Tartu. The group sequenced and analyzed the virus’ DNA, identifying ancient variants. The researchers also suggested that the spread of the virus may indicate the birth of the custom of romantic kissing in South Asia. They cited a manuscript from India dating to 3,500 years ago as the potential first evidence of this practice. Source – Tartu University Genomics Institute](

Table of contents

An introduction to the mysteries of the herpes virus and the history of kissing

Over the centuries, mankind has developed two main types of kissing: the universal parental kiss, which is widespread throughout the world, and the deep romantic kiss, also known as the “French kiss,” which is more culturally conditioned and carries sexual connotations. The latter type of kissing, according to some evolutionary theories, may serve as a mechanism for transmitting chemical information about a partner’s health through saliva and breath, as well as a way to increase sexual arousal, potentially increasing the chances of reproduction.

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The evolution of the herpes virus: findings from the last 5,000 years

In light of a 2017 study published in the prestigious journal Nature (issues 543 and 544), there is evidence to suggest that the exchange of oral microbes between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may have taken place as early as 100,000 years ago. What’s more, the oldest recorded instance of kissing of a sexual nature dates to about 4,500 years ago and comes from Sumerian texts. On the other hand, slightly younger artifacts and records come from Mesopotamia, depicting kissing figures and describing kisses as activities of a potentially seductive and dangerous nature that could lead to betrayal. These sources also indicate that sexually explicit kisses were not accepted in public.

Evolution of the herpes virus
Photo: Depositphotos

Bu’ša¯nu a herpes virus: an ancient disease under a new light

Scientists in Denmark are considering the hypothesis that the people of ancient Mesopotamia may have been aware of the HSV-1 herpes virus, transmitted through saliva, whose symptoms may fit the description of the disease known as bu’ša¯nu. There is a theory that bu’ša¯nu may have meant diphtheria plague, but the disease’s name, derived from a verb meaning “to stink,” and its potential association with the term “blister,” suggest a possible link to herpes symptoms. Nevertheless, ancient Mesopotamians probably did not link the spread of infectious diseases, including bu’ša¯nu, to the practice of kissing. Instead, culturally and religiously-imposed restrictions on kissing may have unwittingly contributed to inhibiting the spread of pathogens.

Unique challenges in kissing research

Torbjørn Arbøll and Sophie Lund Rasmussen emphasize that understanding the role of the romantic-sexual kiss in human history is a significant challenge. This is due not only to the multiplicity of independent sources from which the practice may have originated, but also to the fact that textual evidence for its existence comes only from advanced civilizations. It remains unclear whether kissing was known in illiterate communities and whether it was subject to any cultural and social regulations.

Kissing in cultural and social context
Photo: Alejandra Quiroz

Kissing in cultural and social context

Although kissing may have contributed to the transmission of microbes and germs carried by saliva, researchers point out that the evolution of the herpes virus is not the only factor that may have determined the prevalence of the practice in ancient times. These considerations point to the complexity of the interactions between culture, religion, and the spread of disease in antiquity, while emphasizing that kissing as an element of social interaction had a multidimensional impact on human societies.

In light of these fascinating discoveries, the history of the kiss – from ancient rituals to modern expressions of love – is revealed as a complex mosaic of cultural, biological and social influences that have shaped human behavior for millennia. Research on the herpes simplex virus and its evolution in the context of human migrations and habits not only underscores the importance of scientific inquiry in understanding our past, but also reminds us of the unexpected connections between health, culture and intimacy. In this way, the story of the virus becomes not only a story about the disease, but also a fascinating testimony to the human need for closeness and the expression of feelings that have stood the test of time, shaping our common identity.

Sources: Mention of primary sources, including research published in Science Advances and the role of the Tartu University Genomics Institute.

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