Randy early men created herpes by inventing snogging – then Romans banned it

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Scientific research into the origins of cold sores has shed new light on kissing.

The HSV-1 strain of the herpes virus, which causes cold sores, currently infects some 3.7billion people worldwide.

Now scientists at the University of Cambridge have uncovered and sequenced ancient genomes of the virus that cause the unsightly blemishes.

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Research suggests the HSV-1 strain of the herpes virus arose in the wake of vast migrations of people from Eurasia to Europe around 5,000 years ago.

The migration led to both denser populations, which drove up rates of transmission, and “new cultural practices being imported from the east,” including kissing, according to the study.

Facial herpes is spread orally, and the researchers point out the earliest-known record of kissing comes from a Bronze Age manuscript from South Asia.

The custom may have spread westward along with migration and coincided with the spread of HSV-1, according to the study, published in the journal Science Advances.

Centuries later, the Roman Emperor Tiberius would try to ban kissing at official functions to prevent disease spread – a decree that researchers believe may have been herpes-related.

However, for most of human prehistory, the strain would have been passed down "vertically" – from infected mother to newborn child.

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Co-senior author Dr Christiana Scheib, research fellow at St John's College, Cambridge, and head of the ancient DNA lab at Tartu University, said: "Every primate species has a form of herpes, so we assume it has been with us since our own species left Africa.

"However, something happened around five thousand years ago that allowed one strain of herpes to overtake all others, possibly an increase in transmissions, which could have been linked to kissing."

"The world has watched Covid-19 mutate at a rapid rate over weeks and months. A virus like herpes evolves on a far grander timescale," said co-senior author Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, from Cambridge's Department of Genetics.

"Facial herpes hides in its host for life and only transmits through oral contact, so mutations occur slowly over centuries and millennia.

"We need to do deep time investigations to understand how DNA viruses like this evolve."

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Two thirds of the global population under the age of 50 now carry HSV-1, according to the World Health Organisation.

Cold sores are mostly just a source of discomfort or embarrassment for those suffering from them, but coupled with other health complications such as sepsis or even Covid, the virus can be deadly.

In 2018, two new mothers died of HSV-1 infection following caesarean births.

Researchers say only ancient DNA can help to explain how viruses such as herpes and monkeypox evolve in tandem with human immune systems.

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