Here’s a meditation on the origins and myriad meanings of kissing.
In 1990, a Beijing paper lamented the introduction to China by Westerners of kissing, “…a vulgar practice which is all too suggestive of cannibalism.” (That sounds kinda hot to me…)
SINCE it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s dwell for a moment on the profoundly bizarre activity of kissing. Is there a more expressive gesture in the human repertoire?
When parents kiss their children it means one thing, but when they kiss each other it means something entirely different. People will greet a total stranger with a kiss on the cheek, and then use an identical gesture to express their most intimate feelings to a lover. The mob kingpin gives the kiss of death, Catholics give the “kiss of peace,” Jews kiss the Torah, nervous flyers kiss the ground, and the enraged sometimes demand that a kiss be applied to their hindquarters. Judas kissed Jesus, Madonna kissed Britney, a gambler kisses the dice for luck. Someone once even kissed a car for 54 hours straight.
Taxonomists of the kiss have long labored to make sense of its many meanings. The Romans distinguished among the friendly oscula, the loving basia and the passionate suavia. The 17th-century polymath Martin von Kempe wrote a thousand-page encyclopedia of kissing that recognized 20 different varieties, including “the kiss bestowed by superiors on inferiors” and “the hypocritical kiss.” The German language has words for 30 different kinds of kisses, including nachküssen, which is defined as a kiss “making up for kisses that have been omitted.” (The Germans are also said to have coined the inexplicable phrase “A kiss without a beard is like an egg without salt.”) How did a single act become a medium for so many messages?
There are two possibilities: Either the kiss is a human universal, one of the constellation of innate traits, including language and laughter, that unites us as a species, or it is an invention, like fire or wearing clothes, an idea so good that it was bound to metastasize across the globe.
Scientists have found evidence for both hypotheses. Other species engage in behavior that looks an awful lot like the smooch (though without its erotic overtones), which implies that kissing might be just as animalistic an impulse as it sometimes feels. Snails caress each other with their antennae, birds touch beaks, and many mammals lick each other’s snouts. Chimpanzees even give platonic pecks on the lips. But only humans and our lascivious primate cousins the bonobos engage in full-fledged tongue-on-tongue tonsil-hockey.
Even though all of this might suggest that kissing is in our genes, not all human cultures do it. Charles Darwin was one of the first to point this out. In his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” he noted that kissing “is replaced in various parts of the world by the rubbing of noses.” Early explorers of the Arctic dubbed this the Eskimo kiss. (Actually, it turns out the Inuit were not merely rubbing noses, they were smelling each other’s cheeks).
All across Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, we find cultures that didn’t know about mouth kissing until their first contact with European explorers. And the attraction was not always immediately apparent. Most considered the act of exchanging saliva revolting. Among the Lapps of northern Finland, both sexes would bathe together in a state of complete nudity, but kissing was regarded as beyond the pale.
To this day, public kissing is still seen as indecent in many parts of the world. In 1990, the Beijing-based Workers’ Daily advised its readers that “the invasive Europeans brought the kissing custom to China, but it is regarded as a vulgar practice which is all too suggestive of cannibalism.”
If kissing is not universal, then someone must have invented it. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people “sniffing” with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C.
The Romans were inveterate kissers, and along with Latin, the kiss became one of their chief exports. Not long after, early Christians invented the notion of the ritualistic “holy kiss” and incorporated it into the Eucharist ceremony. According to some cultural historians, it is only within the last 800 years, with the advent of effective dentistry and the triumph over halitosis, that the lips were freed to become an erogenous zone.
For Freud, kissing was a subconscious return to suckling at the mother’s breast. Other commentators have noted that the lips bear a striking resemblance to the labia, and that women across the world go to great lengths to make their lips look bigger and redder than they really are to simulate the appearance of sexual arousal, like animals in heat.
A few anthropologists have suggested that mouth kissing is a “relic gesture,” with evolutionary origins in the mouth-to-mouth feeding that occurred between mother and baby in an age before Gerber and still takes place in a few parts of the world today. It can hardly be a coincidence, they note, that in several languages the word for kissing is synonymous with pre-mastication, or that “sweet” is the epithet most commonly applied to kisses.
But kissing may be more closely linked to our sense of smell than taste. Almost everyone has a distinct scent that is all one’s own. Some people can even recognize their relatives in a dark room simply by their body odor (some relatives more than others). Kissing could have begun as a way of sniffing out who’s who. From a whiff to a kiss was just a short trip across the face.
Whatever its origins, kissing seems to be advantageous. A study conducted during the 1980’s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live longer, get into fewer car accidents, and have a higher income than married men who don’t. So put down this newspaper and pucker up. It does a body good.
Joshua Foer is working on a book about the science of memory.