First Kisses

The truth isn't always pretty. Consider the act of kissing. Smooching. Locking lips. Grabbing some sugar. Whatever you call it, kissing is a worldwide pastime so popular, so pleasurable, so commonplace that the average human being will spend two full weeks of their lives doing it. That's 336 hours -- or 20,160 minutes, or 120,960 seconds -- spent engaged in the act of ardent osculation.

There are, of course, all kinds of kisses. Diane Ackerman lists a few in her book A Natural History of the Senses: "wild hungry kisses," "rollicking kisses," and "kisses as fluttery and soft as the feathers of cockatoos."

In short, kissing is a wonderful thing. We do a lot of it. Most of us enjoy it. And almost all of us remember our very first kiss with some degree of wistful nostalgia.

So leave it to anthropologists to spoil everything, to yank the pulse-pounding romance from one of our favorite human activities. In particular, blame goes to those unsentimental science sleuths who've gone and figured out why we started kissing in the first place.

To repeat: It isn't pretty.

Just as children are frequently freaked after learning the truth about where they really came from -- "Wait! Wait! Daddy did what?" -- it's quite certain that many modern lovers will be appalled and revolted to learn that the act of kissing began with prehistoric mothers chewing up food -- then pushing it into their children's mouths with their tongues. "Hungry, honey? Then come give Mama a kiss!"

There are other theories, of course. According to one, kissing evolved from the smelling of a companion's face as an act of greeting, as if to determine the mood, disposition, and recent adventures of the newcomer (much like your cat or dog does on welcoming another pet into the house after a frolic in the yard). While performing this animalistic smelling ritual, the theory goes, certain groups began touching foreheads or noses or lips, a comforting custom that remained long after its original motivation had faded into the mists of time.

Another possibility is that our primitive lip-locking ancestors, imagining that human breath carried the power of one's soul, were attempting to inhale the hot breath of their loved ones and, by exchanging breaths, fusing their souls together. At least that suggestion is kind of sexy.

If these conjectures are true -- and they certainly are bizarre enough to be true -- then the evolution of the kiss, from its rough, regurgitative beginnings to the elevated state of romantic respect it now enjoys, is surely one of human culture's most remarkable, and unpredictable, transformations.

Just take the jump from those first caveman kisses to 16th-century England, where the game of passing a clove-studded apple proved a popular staple at Elizabethan country fairs. Players first prepared an apple by piercing it with as many cloves as the fruit could hold. A maid then carried the apple through the fair till she spied a lad she thought worth kissing. She would offer him the apple, and once he'd selected and chewed one of the cloves, they would share a kiss. After that, the apple passed into the man's possession, and he would venture off in search of another lass to continue the game with.

By the time the apple had lost its cloves, at least a hundred people had been kissed twice. The cloves, by the way, were for freshening the breath -- proving that those Elizabethans were as clever as they were horny.

Jump again to the sort of kiss described by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns with these gentle words:

"Honeyed Seal of soft affections, Tenderest pledge of future bliss, Dearest tie of young connections, love's first snowdrop, virgin kiss."

Yes. Yes. These lines might inspire some modern people to barf, thus proving that the kiss hasn't changed all that much in the last several thousand years. Or that may also just reveal how much our taste in poetry has changed since the days of Bobby Burns.

"Kissing must now be seen as an art form," explains sex therapist Dr. Victoria Lee, author of the newly published book Ecstatic Lovemaking (Conari Press; $16.95). "To me, kissing truly is an art form. It's the most intimate of physical acts, more intimate than sex -- think of the prostitutes who will do anything but kiss. Like other kinds of sexual and sensual acts, it's an opportunity to express the deepest essence of our being, and when we see it that way, everything changes, from the way we kiss to the way we make love."

On the other hand, history shows that kissing, art form or no, hasn't always been approved of. While the Elizabethans were passing the apple, the government of Naples, Italy, was banning the practice of kissing entirely, making it an offense punishable by death. Certain ancient Finnish tribes might bathe together in the buff in coed groups with everyone's naked genitalia on conspicuous display, yet oddly they believed kissing to be indecent and distasteful.

Even today, right here in America, kissing can get you into trouble. In Indiana, there is a law on the books making it illegal for a mustached man to "habitually kiss human beings," and in Hartford, Conn., a husband is prohibited from kissing his wife on Sunday.

While anthropologists continue to nail down the specific origins of kissing, other scientists are working to discover its medical and social effects on us. Did you know that the average kisser burns 26 calories a minute while smooching? There have even been studies suggesting that people who kiss their spouses goodbye before leaving for work average higher incomes than do those heartless people who don't.

So when all is said and done, it seems that the reason we kiss is that, on a hundred different levels, it's good for us.

"Humans need enjoyable physical contact," Dr. Lee says. "However it was that kissing evolved, however it continues to evolve, we cannot overestimate the spiritual and physical importance of one human being kissing the lips of another."

David Templeton is a freelance writer living in Sonoma County, California.


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