Detail of Pallas-Athene fountain in front of Austrian parliament, Vienna, Austria. Sculptures represent rivers Danube and Inn

I am occasionally asked, “if Adam and Eve were virgins, where did STIs come from?” I always get a chuckle out of that. Do they also ask “where did tuberculosis come from” or “where did chicken pox come from?” Not so much. I think what they really want to know is, “Who got it first and passed it on, eventually, to me? It was Eve, wasn’t it?” (It’s always the woman’s fault.)

Let’s put it to rest. Biologists think that bacteria and viruses are among the most ancient of living things. Along with all the rest of the Earth’s creatures, bacteria evolved in an effort to survive in the “primordial soup.” Viruses we know even less about. Did they arise spontaneously along with bacteria and parasites and us? They appear to be very similar to the genetic components (DNA and RNA) of living cells. So maybe they were pieces that broke away from the cells of other creatures. Scientists aren’t sure. They do know that prehistoric insects were infected with prehistoric viruses 300 million years ago. I think it’s pretty amazing that we know that much detail. We’ll have to leave the prehistoric origins of venereal diseases at that for now.

By the way, the word ‘venereal’ means ‘pertaining to Venus, goddess of love.’ (I think I mentioned that the blame always goes to the women?)

There are no writings in pre-history (because that’s what pre-history means) in which to find evidence of the existence of STIs, but there are stone carvings and cave paintings that certainly depict sexuality. The oldest cave paintings were found in southern France and depict 37,000 year-old “abstract female vulvas.” One hundred forty-four intricately carved “Venus figurines” made of clay, bone, and ivory, have been found from Siberia through Europe and Asia. They were made over 20,000 years ago and are some of the oldest artwork ever found. Each are small, between 1½ to 9½ inches and most depict women with exaggerated breasts, abdomens, and buttocks. They are thought to be depictions of health and fertility used as portable good-luck charms. Don’t worry, gents – the first male clay figurine was unearthed in Germany in 2003. He is a young’un – believed to be only about 7000 years old.

The earliest known artistic depiction of sexual intercourse is an 11,000 year-old stone carving of two figures embracing, called the Ain Sakhri Lovers, found in a cave near Bethlehem. That’s the closest we have come to a representation of sex in prehistory. (Of course, we know it happened because – here we are.)

Nomadic Tribes: Did STIs lead to monogamy?

New scientific theory suggests that STIs had a huge impact on human society and may even have been responsible for monogamy as social norm.

The thinking goes like this: In the Neolithic period, nomadic tribes discovered they could stop in a lovely spot and grow food themselves. Tribes joined or grew larger as more people could be fed and work was lighter as more people participated. STIs had probably occurred in the small tribes, but outbreaks in small groups would be short-lived. However, when a bunch of tribes got together, more sex partners were available to spread the infections around and new tribes may have added new infections. “Where there are large groups of humans, you can count on two things: social rules and disease,” remarks one of the researchers.

Monogamous couples would have suffered less illness and produced more and healthier babies, just as those with multiple partners were more likely to contract STIs and, as a potential consequence, experience infertility. Society began to approve monogamous coupling over polygyny, in order to stop the spread of disease and to preserve reproduction. Socially imposed monogamy became the norm.

This theory, confirmed by mathematical modelling, rings true. There must have been some reason that polygamous societies would change to and maintain a monogamous one. Monogamy is rare among mammals. Societies are complex and it is likely that there were numerous pressures that influenced the adoption of monogamy, but STIs may have played a big role.

Sumaria

We can start the recorded history of STIs with the history of history. It is said that Western history began when the Sumerians invented the first intelligible script in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) only about 5000 years ago. According to researchers, symptoms of STIs such as urethritis, urethral and vaginal discharge, and blisters on the genitals were described on clay tablets in cuneiform script (wedge-shaped characters pressed into soft clay, then dried). Ancient writings also spoke of the medical interventions used to treat such ailments. These mostly took the form of prayer to the gods for relief from the diseases that the gods had burdened them with – rather circular thinking. But they also used “samu” – a word that means both plant and drug – to treat ill health. Prayer + magic + natural remedies = healing. (If one perused the self-help section of a bookstore, one might think that perhaps we have not evolved so very far.)

India

But meanwhile, over in India, medical writing is first encountered in the religious books called the Vedas, written from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. The first reference book of genital ailments in human history is the fourth Atharva Veda which talks about urinary retention and sexual dysfunction, among many other things. Specific recommendations for treatment of a sexual nature included:

  • various herbs rubbed on the abdomen while chanting ailment-specific hymns
  • hymns recited and herbal roots ingested with boiled milk to enhance sexual vigor
  • amulets blessed by mantras to improve male tumescence
  • aphrodisiac potions of medicinal herbs in clarified butter to excite and entice the female

The Upanishads, a metaphysical text comprising 108 volumes, was written in ~800 BC. My personal favorite text describes “the proper methods of initiating foreplay, enticing the female to coitus and coital methods for the purpose of pleasure and procreation with special attention to the sexual fulfillment of the female partner.” For the men, another medical book provided no less than twelve varieties of aphrodisiacs specifically targeted to the “quality of erection, maintenance of erection and premature ejaculation.” Abstinence is advised for males until age 16 and after age 70; there were no similar restrictions upon females.

Susruta, a great Indian surgeon and teacher, also wrote about penile sores and growths which he treated with “scarification, coring, excision of condylomatous growths, local astringents and application of leeches.” A common side-effect of untreated STIs in males is scarring, called strictures, in the urethra which can block the flow of urine and ejaculate. Susruta wrote at length about the management of urethral strictures: “a tube open at both ends made of iron, wood or shellac should be lubricated with clarified butter and gently introduced into the urethra. Thicker and thicker tubes should be duly introduced every 3rd day. Such treatment, proposed three millennia ago, still remains in use today. But most of Susruta’s treatment regimens took “a holistic approach with attention to soothing erotic ambience, music, diet and various exotic aphrodisiacs.” One chapter ends with this sound advice: “Hence a healthy and passionate man…should cheerfully go unto and enjoy the pleasures of the company of a woman beautiful in looks, modest, virtuous and equally passionate.”


In Part 2, we’ll cover the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the early and late Middle Ages, before we tackle the Christian Church’s role in the history of STIs in Part 3.


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