Britney Spears, left, and Madonna kiss during the opening performance of the MTV Video Music Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Britney Spears, left, and Madonna kiss during the opening performance of the MTV Video Music Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Why do we kiss?

By Nick Harding Time of article published Mar 15, 2012

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London - Judas did it to Jesus, Britney did it to Madonna, Prince Charming did it to Sleeping Beauty. Birds do something like it, bees don’t, and Bonobo apes have been observed doing it for 12 minutes (they prefer the tongue-sucking method).

 Kissing is the universal language. It is mirrored in the animal kingdom and in human terms it is arguably the most evocative behaviour we exhibit.

Studies show that people remember the details of their first kiss more clearly than they do any other of life’s firsts, including first sexual experience.

Despite its roots in human culture, until recently kissing was a mystery. Scientists have only started to study it in the last few decades and there is still no definitive answer as to why we kiss. Just over 100 years ago kissing was still alien to many cultures – 19th-century explorers discovered several civilisations that had never encountered it.

In his 1864 book Savage Africa, British explorer William Winwood Reade described how an African princess thought he was trying to eat her when he tried to kiss her.

Reade also described how one tribe he encountered greeted each other by talking in baby language and patting each other’s chests. “The kiss is unknown among the Africans,” he surmised.

In 1929, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski found on the Trobriand Islands lovers would go through several phases of sucking and nibbling during intercourse before biting off each other’s eyelashes at the point of orgasm.

Many cultures newly introduced to the Western kiss found it abhorrent. Around the time that Reade was bothering African royalty, another traveller, Bayard Taylor, observed that while naked inter-sex bathing was common among Finnish tribes, kissing was considered indecent.

By the 1970s, these remote no-kissing zones had all but been wiped out. A study found 90 percent of the world’s cultures kissed mouth-to-mouth; that figure is now assumed to be closer to 100 percent.


Philematologists – people who study kissing – record that the earliest reference to kissing-like behaviour is found in the 1500BC Vedic Sanskrit texts from India.

In the fourth century BC the epic Indian poem Mahabharata describes affectionate mouth kissing. The act is also referred to in seventh century BC Babylonian stone tablets and in ancient Greek in the works of Homer.

Centuries later the lip kiss was well on its way to global dominance thanks to invading Roman soldiers who introduced the practice to the nations that they conquered.

Over the years kissing has challenged great thinkers from Jonathan Swift to Charles Darwin, who believed puckering up was an innate human act encoded in our genes. Modern thinking is that kissing is both nature and nurture, and has evolved over human history.

One theory is that cavemen licked each other’s cheeks as a way of obtaining salt and another that people had to get close and sniff each other to recognise family. This brush of the face with the nose is thought by some to have evolved into the European-style social kiss.

According to Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, kissing evolved to facilitate three essential needs: sex drive, romantic need and attachment.

Each is a component of human reproduction and kissing bolsters all three. In this theory, kissing helps people find a partner, commit to them and stay with them long enough to have a child.

Sheril Kirshenbaum, a biologist from the University of Texas and author of The Science of Kissing, says: “The truth is we don’t know exactly when and where kissing began, but it is probably something that arose and disappeared throughout human history for a variety of reasons.

“Humans seem to have an instinctive drive to connect with each other in this way but the style and shape of it is informed by culture and experience.

“When an infant is born, his or her first experiences of love, comfort and security usually involve some kind of kissing, so from a neuroscience perspective we are hard-wired at an early age to associate these positive emotions with lip contact.”


As an individual grows, kissing develops to fulfil a range of functions. In children it is used playfully as a way to bond.

Research by Goldsmiths College found five-year-old boys used playful hugging and kissing in the same way that adolescent boys play-fight to reinforce masculinity.

The study, carried out at two schools, found that boys were far more likely than girls to make physical contact.

When a woman kisses a man, the contact enables her to gauge his suitability as a mate by picking up hormonal markers.


Endocrinologists have found that, through kissing, women can sample a section of a potential partner’s genome called the major histocompatibility complex – MHC, codes for the immune system – and women are attracted to the scent of men whose MHC differs from theirs.

It is also believed kissing allows partners to smell each other’s pheromones and, since saliva contains small amounts of testosterone, it is thought that if a man kissed a partner repeatedly with an open mouth, over time he would pass on a quantity of the hormone. With women more sensitive to it, over weeks and months this raised level of the hormone would increase her libido and make her more sexually receptive.

Results of a psychological study on students’ attitudes to kissing at Albany University in New York, led by Gordon Gallup, reinforce these theories.

The men surveyed overwhelmingly described kissing as a means to a sexual end, whereas the women reported that kissing allowed them to gauge how a prospective partner felt about them and whether the relationship was worth pursuing.

- The Independent


Secret world of snogging

* The word kiss comes from the Old English cyssan from the proto-Germanic kussijanan or kuss, probably based on the sound kissing can make.

* On Valentine's Day last year, a couple in Thailand locked lips for 46 hours, 24 minutes, and nine seconds, making it the longest kiss ever recorded.

* A woman in China partially lost her hearing after her boyfriend reportedly ruptured her eardrum with a passionate kiss. Apparently, the kiss reduced the pressure in the mouth, pulled the eardrum out, and caused the breakdown of the ear.

* French kissing involves all 34 muscles in the face. A regular kiss involves only two.

* Passionate kissing burns 6.4 calories a minute.

* It is possible for a woman to reach an orgasm through kissing.

* During the Middle Ages, witches’ souls were supposed to be initiated into the rites of the Devil by a series of kisses, including kissing the Devil's anus.

* The mouth is full of bacteria. When two people kiss, they exchange between 10 million and a billion bacteria.

* The average person spends about 15 days kissing during a lifetime.

* Alfred Wolfram holds the record for kissing the most people. In 1990 he smooched 8 001 people in eight hours. - Sunday Tribune

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