First kisses: how we learned to lock lips

Rodin, The Kiss

When you get the urge to kiss your honey this Valentine’s Day, you may think it’s instinct that beckons you to lock lips. But Vaughn Bryant, Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, says puckering up is anything but instinctive; rather, it is a learned behavior.

Bryant got the initial idea to delve into the history of kissing during his very first semester teaching anthropology at Texas A&M.

“I asked everybody in the class to write down five cultural universals. Somebody wrote ‘All cultures kiss,’ and I got to that one and said ‘I don’t know about this,’” Bryant said. “I went to the library and there wasn’t anything on kissing anywhere other than about the rock group KISS. It took me another 20 years to come up with the answer.”

Bryant gradually pieced together his research to form a viable story about the origin and spread of kissing, and after years of searching, he found that kissing is not a universal cultural phenomenon.

“Kissing was very restricted up until very recently to areas of Asia – Southeast Asia mainly – and Europe until the conquests in the 1500s,” Bryant said. “No one in the New World kissed, no one in Oceania kissed, the Eskimos didn’t kiss, people in sub-Saharan Africa didn’t kiss.”

Bryant argues that kissing started in India and spread slowly after Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C. As his generals returned to their homelands, they brought kissing with them. Around 1500 B.C., Vedic Sanskrit scriptures, the foundations of Hindu religion, began to mention people “touching” with their mouths. Bryant also sees the "Kama Sutra," a classic text on erotica, as further evidence that kissing began in India due to the large number of references it makes to kissing and kissing techniques.

More proof that the kiss originated in India is the actual word itself. Bryant says there is linguistic evidence that the English word for “kiss” originated in India.

Bryant’s research spans the history of kissing in religion (such as kissing of the Torah in Judaism) to kissing in cultural traditions (such as kissing under the mistletoe) to the censorship of kissing.

“When Rodin’s 'The Kiss' was exhibited in Tokyo in the 1920s, kissing was such a shocking thing to be seen in public to the Japanese that they put a bamboo screen around it, and you had to have special permission to look at it,” Bryant said.

Photo Credit: August Rodin, The Kiss; Courtesy of Tate, London 2011