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The secret behind why we kiss, and the out-of-India theory

Kissing helps a person subconsciously assess a potential partner’s fitness for mating, according to one theory and it all started with the sniff-kiss.

A picture of the shadows of a couple kissing.
India’s famous Kama Sutra is said to have more than 250 references to kissing, including how and when to kiss. (Photo: Getty Images)

On Valentine's Day, I wrote about kissing and how a public performance could land you in jail in Malaysia. This romantic move is also rarely discussed in public, at least not in Malaysia and many Asian countries.

This is because the lip-to-lip kiss is considered a highly private and personal act between two persons. It is seen as an act of love; of intimacy shared by two people.

However, we are so used to seeing or hearing about kissing in movies and magazines that even children these days know about this act of love or passion.

But if you were to assume that lip-to-lip kissing is practised by all communities, you would be wrong. In a 2015 paper in the American Anthropologist, Researchers William R. Jankowiak, Shelly L. Volsche and Justin R. Garcia said only 46 per cent of 168 cultures sampled indulged in the romantic-sexual kiss.

I find that hard to believe, but that’s what their study shows.

Study: Only a minority of cultures kiss

They said despite frequent depictions of lip-to-lip kissing in a wide range of cultures, they found no evidence that the romantic-sexual kiss was a universal or even a near universal practice.

“The romantic-sexual kiss was present in a minority of cultures sampled (46 per cent). Moreover, there is a strong correlation between the frequency of the romantic-sexual kiss and a society's relative social complexity: the more socially complex the culture, the higher the frequency of romantic-sexual kissing.”

Why do people kiss? One theory is that as babies we naturally like to touch anything with our lips, starting with breastfeeding. Another is that it is a lingering effect of mothers chewing the food before feeding it to their infants.

Kissing is to assess a potential mate

Yet another theory is that by kissing – through taste and smell - one can subconsciously assess a potential partner’s fitness for mating.

In a 2013 paper, Rafael Wlodarski and Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University said kissing not only helped humans assess potential partners but that it could also assist in making a partner stick around once in a relationship.

Responses from more than 900 people to their online survey, they said, showed that women rated kissing as generally more important in relationships than men.

In 2009, Wendy Hill, a professor of neuroscience at Lafayette College, said, following a small experiment, that chemicals in the saliva might be a way to assess a mate.

But I suppose this theory only works if you fall in love and get married, not if your marriage has been arranged, as in so many Asian countries, where you get to kiss your mate only after the marriage rituals are over.

Out-of-India theory

But where did kissing start? I did some checking and found that anthropologists generally subscribe to the theory that kissing started in India because the earliest documented evidence of the kiss or “sniff-kiss” is found in ancient Indian Vedic texts written in 1500 BC or earlier.

Indians saw the breath as the life force or soul of a human being and when nose touched nose or mouth touched mouth, an exchange of this life force took place between the two persons, indicating a cementing of their bond.

Kissing, some researchers say, probably started with couples smelling each other.

India’s famous Kama Sutra, dated between 400 BCE and 200 CE, is said to have more than 250 references to kissing, including how and when to kiss.

The first description of mouth-to-mouth kissing, researchers say, is in the famous Indian epic, the “Mahabharata”. Although the core of the story goes back to more than 500 BCE, the epic is said to have been completed between the third and fifth centuries C.E.

Writing in the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 1907, Yale professor E. Washburn Hopkins said:

“In the great epic of India (Mahabharata), however, we have by far the best description of kissing, when a young man tells what happened to him the first time a girl embraced him. He was the son of an anchorite and had not enjoyed a young man's usual privileges, so it was a novelty to him to be embraced, and he told his father about it, without consciousness of committing an indiscretion, in these words: ‘(She) set her mouth to my mouth and made a noise and that produced pleasure in me’ (Mahabhhrata, 3. 112. 12).

“The expression is quaint but the description ‘set mouth to mouth’ is identical with that of the formal description used above and was evidently the best way known at this time of saying ‘kiss’."

Hopkins also talks about the “sniff-kiss” – where people smelled each other’s face in greeting – in the Vedic texts.

Professor Vaughn Bryant of Texas A&M University, who researched kissing, said early humans might have recognised one another by smell, developing a practice known as the “sniff-kiss”.

The lip-to-lip kiss may have been the result of an accident, according to him. Two lovers probably slipped while engaging in the sniff-kiss and realised that the lip-to-lip way of showing affection was more delicious.

According to Bryant, the kiss began in India and slowly spread out after the soldiers accompanying Alexander, who conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C., took back the practice upon returning to their homelands.

Or was it out of Mesopotamia?

But a more recent study challenges this out-of-India theory by suggesting that couples in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt had engaged in lip-kissing from 2400 BCE.

Researchers Sophie Lund Rasmussen and Troels Pank Arboll say the earliest account of kissing can be found in a 2400BC clay tablet dug up from the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in 1899.

Writing in The Conversation in May 2023, the husband-wife duo says: “Some of the earliest sources mentioning the lip kiss can be found in mythological texts concerning acts by the gods that date to around 2500 BC”

They conclude, after mentioning the out-of India theory: “Considering the wide geographical distribution of the romantic-sexual kiss in ancient times, we believe that the kiss had multiple origins. And even if one were to search for a single point from where the kiss originated, one would have to find it millennia ago in prehistoric times.”

The question is this: If the kiss began in India, why are many Indians generally prudish about it? One theory is that the British brought their Victorian morals with them to India when the British Raj ruled that land, resulting in an attitude change.

Now, decades after the British left, kissing is returning with a vengeance – at least in Bollywood movies. Romantic kissing in Tamil movies is still rare though.

The recent Hindi movie “Animal” probably had the most number of kissing scenes in any Indian film.

And although Malaysians can be fined or charged in court for kissing in public, they can freely watch “Animal” on their home television screens.

In fact, with online streaming services – such as Netflix and Amazon Prime – even naysayers and religious purists can watch passionate kissing scenes – all in the privacy of their homes, or even bedrooms.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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