Curiosity Box founder Jake Roper and his dog, Fajita

Do All Humans Like Smooching And Pets?

Curiosity Box Founder, Jake Roper and his dog, Fajita

Does every culture around the world enjoy kissing? Is loving pets a human universal?  What about art or religion? Believe it or not, there’s one place you can find out all of this, a resource used by anthropologists called the Human Relations Area Files, or HRAF

HRAF is basically a massive database of social information collected by anthropologists on worldwide cultures: what they eat, their games, how they cope with hardships, how they raise their kids, party, get married…pretty much everything. There are over 315 current cultures represented (700,000 pages of scholarly research), plus a little over 100 societies in their archaeological database. So what are some of the things we can learn about humanity from all this collected research?

Let’s start with humanity’s closest friends, our pet; from the HRAF files, we know that around the world, dogs, birds, and cats are the most common pets, followed by horses, other hoofed mammals like as water buffalo (!), rodents, nonhuman primates, and pigs. And interestingly, humans are the only species on Earth to have these sort of one-to-one relationships with a member of another species. Having evolved such close ties with specific animals over the millennia, and having adapted to empathize with other creatures is an amazing trait. So is it universal?  Not quite: while having companion animals as pets is very, very common, there are still a few cultures where it’s not done; so we can’t quite count loving fluffy or spot (or whatever you’d name a pet water buffalo) as a true human universal.

What about kissing?  Based on a sample of 203 cultures from around the world, not only is romantic kissing not universal, it’s found in the minority of cultures – only 46%!  (keep in mind, it’s still prevalent, because some of those “minority” cultures have millions of people).  Kissing is most common in Asia, Europe, and North America, but as the HRAF notes, “no ethnographer [anthropologist] working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss.” Keep in mind, these societies still have kissing, it’s just not romantic: they use it for religious rituals (think of kissing the Pope’s ring), or to show social status or respect. And in some, the whole process is thought to be disgusting: when members of the Tsonga people saw Europeans kissing, anthropologists reported their exclamations: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!”

There are a ton of other amazing things you can find out from the HRAF:

  • Nearly all societies engage in practices that lead to some form of altered states of consciousness. 
  • 70% of the societies known to anthropologists allow polygamy (multiple wives with one husband), but just 53 societies allow polyandry: marriages with multiple husbands and a single wife.
  • If you’re raising kids, don’t worry: societies vary considerably in how children are treated and cared for, how free they are to play, and how early adult skills are expected from them. 

And those human universals? They do exist, and they’re biggies:

  • All societies have some form of art.
  • All known societies have religious beliefs and practices.  
  • Games and sports are found both in the archaeological record and in every culture anthropologists have studied.

You can find out amazing things from studying the HRAF’s files, and they’ve conveniently made a lot of them publicly accessible, sorted by subject online (art, dwelling, gender, alter states, etc.). Check it out here

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