When and why did humans begin kissing?
Oxford Dictionary defines kissing as simply, “Touch with the lips as a sign of love, sexual desire, reverence or greeting.”
Distillation should be reserved for good scotch because the above definition does not do justice to the complexity and variety of kissing. Many are the forms and connotations of placing one’s lips upon darn near anything from the Blarney Stone to the romantic kiss as a prelude to further demonstrations of love.
Although Dooley Wilson proclaims in a rich baritone that “A kiss is just a kiss” in the classic film, Casablanca, it fails to encompass the myriad emotions involving human lips.
There is a first time for everything regardless of how simple or intentioned; the first flint tool, first spoken word, first marriage ceremony; the list is endless.
Sometime back in the murky past, the very first kiss transpired among early humans. Was it an impulsive romantic gesture, a learned behavior, or an evolved instinct?
Did a paleolithic young man have his eye on one of the fetching young women in his tribe?
Perhaps this ardent suitor brought her some fresh fruit to share out in the savannah beyond the prying eyes of his tribe. He noticed her full lips as they dined on the sweet berries, bringing an unfamiliar desire. He drew close to her, and at that moment, he gave in to the urge to press his fruit-sweetened lips against hers.
Very romantic indeed. However, kissing began as something more pragmatic. What we know as a kiss may have to do with choosing the best mate, a significant principle of natural selection.
We discussed premastication in last week’s column as a candidate for the progenitor of kissing. Pre-chewing or premastication involves chewing food and passing it on by mouth to infants or adults who cannot physically chew their food.
The theory has one flaw; not all human cultures kiss, nor is there any evidence that these human groups ever began kissing. The fact that at least 10 percent of all human cultures do not practice kissing suggests to some that kissing is not an evolutionary factor, but rather, a learned behavior.
A Kiss for Every Occasion
Like Hallmark greeting cards, there is a kiss for every season and every reason. The emotions involved include but are not limited to romance, passion, love, affection, respect, sexual attraction and activity, peace, reward and consoling one another.
One type of kiss is not on the above list; the Kiss of Death. Made famous in movies such as The Godfather and Valachi Papers, the American version of Il Bacio Della Morte (Kiss of Death in Italian) is a standard film meme going back to 1947.
But did, or does, the kiss of death happen in real life?
Most sources point to Sicily, the Sicilian mob to be specific, as the source of the Kiss of Death, but its meaning varies considerably between the Italian and American versions.
In America, at least in the movies, the Mafioso boss gives the actual kiss to a member thought to have betrayed the family, thereby marking him for death.
In the Sicilian mob, the assassin, or hit-man, receives the kiss as a pact to seal the betrayer’s fate. This Mafioso tradition is thought to originate from the biblical kiss of Judas, who betrayed Jesus by kissing him in the presence of Roman soldiers.
You would do well to avoid this type of kiss.
Back in the days when young people played kissing games like post office and spin the bottle, young women would often demand a caveat that the kiss was not the famous or infamous French kiss. The French kiss had its detractors.
The French are indeed quite inventive with the art of kissing, claiming some 20 forms of the act, while Germany boasts no fewer than 30 forms of kissing.
As stated earlier, there is some evidence that paleolithic males would court a female by pre-chewing a sweet food item and using their tongue to push the delicacy into the intended’s mouth.
Ooh La La! The French kiss may have been born in the Stone Age; who would have thought?
This custom may have arisen from an earlier form of premastication or a method of determining the suitability of a mate based on the taste of saliva. Early humans are believed to have practiced both.
The kiss’ humble and practical beginnings may not seem to modern humans as anything remotely romantic. Yet, we must appreciate the innumerable reasons and types of kissing that have developed worldwide since the Paleolithic era.
Take religion and societal class distinctions, for example. Some Catholics kiss their bishop’s or cardinal’s ring, while other forms of Christianity kiss the cross.
Believers in many religions around the world kiss holy relics and objects. Other devotees kiss the statues of deities, while Jews kiss the mezuzah whenever and wherever it is encountered.
The holy kiss, often called the kiss of peace, is an ancient Christian greeting. Such demonstrations are designed to confer peace and blessings to fellow believers.
Although Americans are somewhat conservative in kissing as a form of greeting, it is popular in many European countries, even when being introduced to a stranger.
The cheek-kissing encountered in Europe has several variations depending on the location. You can expect such a kiss to be placed on the cheek, not once, but up to three times.
We give kisses at the New Year, marriages are consummated with a kiss at the altar, and politicians kiss babies. In Ireland, we may choose to kiss the Blarney Stone but be advised you must be a contortionist because of its inconvenient location. (See photo)
So, when was the very first kiss?
It should be evident by now that an exact date is impossible to establish for one very good reason; kissing has morphed from an infant feeding method to that very special first kiss we remember so well.
However, we can turn to poetry and literature to see if kissing is something that, say, started in the Age of Enlightenment, for example. However, the romantic and familial kiss began much earlier than the 17th Century.
Until quite recently, the earliest mention of the kiss was found in Sanskrit scriptures, dating back to 3,500 years ago.
Recent research found that kissing was present in Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as 4,500 years. Ancient texts and poetry mention kissing often; however, it was regulated by the state to some extent and was not expected to be indulged in publicly.
We can safely assume that humans were smooching much earlier than those in Mesopotamia. Let’s face it, giving or getting a kiss is a singular pleasure. Kissing will be around as long as there are luscious lips.
Are there any health benefits from kissing?
“You Betcha,” as they say up in Minnesota – kissing has great health benefits. And Minnesotans ought to know; there’s nothing better to take the nip out of the air up there in the cold dark nights than a warm smooch.
First, when we kiss, we use a lot of muscles; 34 facial and 112 postural muscles. Muscle tone in the facial muscles will help ward off those inevitable wrinkles and sagging skin that comes with age.
Then, there’s the mutual release of oxytocin, the love hormone we discussed in the article, Do Our Dogs Love Us?
But there’s more!
Kissing has also been conclusively shown to reduce high cholesterol levels.
Considering all of the healthy benefits of kissing, maybe we should do more of it! You just may live longer, and you will definitely be happier.