Coronavirus: Dutch PM does handshake after announcing ban
TV paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, who has written a fascinating book about the handshake – The Handshake: A Gripping History – believes it will and that one day soon we will go back to swapping germs with perfect strangers via our hands. “The handshake is in our DNA at some level,” insists Ella, who was most recently seen presenting Waterhole: Africa’s Animal Oasis on BBC2 and has also starred in shows on Channel 4 and National Geographic. “Our closest living relatives – chimps and bonobos all do it. You find it all over the world. And there is something about the way in which it appeals to our senses which means I really can’t see it disappearing.”
Birmingham-born Ella, 37, whose family moved to the UK from Yemen, knows more than most about what it will be like to start again when we finally do get to shake hands once more. A former strict Muslim, she spent the first 26 years of her life behind a veil and never touched a man who wasn’t a member of her family, let alone shook his hand.
“I come from a very religious family and, when I decided to become more secular, things like shaking hands and hugging male friends was genuinely strange – a real culture clash,” she admits. “I would have these mantras that I would think to myself when I started shaking and hugging, ‘This is totally normal in this culture, I need to get through it’.
“And then it became familiar and I think it will be like that once we get back to hugging and handshaking. At first you will definitely feel a sense of heightened awareness, but then you will get over it.”
Ella, who is an expert in Neanderthals, decided to approach the idea of the handshake just as its demise was foretold. At the start of the pandemic, America’s answer to Chris Whitty, immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci, proclaimed: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”
Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness shake hands in 2012
All her TV work had been cancelled due to the pandemic so it seemed like a good idea to explore something which most of us used to take for granted.
While there are myths about how the handshake started – the most enduring one being the idea that it started in the middle ages to show you didn’t have a weapon in your hand – Ella’s book posits the idea that humans have always had some form of handshake.
“Chimps use a handshake – although it is more of a finger shake – which means, ‘Let’s make up,’” explains Ella. “Primatologists have seen it happen after the chimps have had a fight and it’s incredible how much it mirrors one of the ways we use it.
“The handshake is one of the gold standards of human connection and that is why we see it so much all over the world.”
She became convinced about her theory after learning that uncontacted tribes – people who had never met nor associated with the outside world – also shake hands.
“David Attenborough was filmed in New Guinea in 1957 getting into a potentially hairy situation with a tribe who charged at him by brandishing spears and knives,” she says. “He averted the situation by simply sticking his hand out and wishing them a ‘good afternoon’. They pumped his hand up and down.”
Lyndon Johnson shakes Martin Luther King’s hand in 1964 after signing the Civil Rights Act into law
More recent work found tribes weren’t just imitating behaviour of humans they had just met, when anthropologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt reported on two uncontacted tribes in New Guinea. Both shook hands and confirmed they always had.
The first recognised handshake goes back to the 9th century BC – a sculptured relief from the time depicts a handshake between Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and Babylonian King Marduk-Zakir-Shumi I celebrating a victory against a common enemy after they sealed the deal with a shake. There is also one in Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan Glaucus and Greek hero Diomedes met on the battlefield they realised they were family friends and, “Sprang from their chariots, grasped one another’s hands and plighted friendship”.
While shaking hands can seem to us a mark of civilisation, Ella’s book considers whether this behaviour is down to our most animalistic sides.
Scientists have shown that the handshake transfers body odour from one person to another and we use that to learn about each other in an instinctive manner.
One test showed 271 people greeting each other – some with a handshake and others without. Those who had shaken hands were then much more likely to smell their hands after the shake.
The handshake between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin ended hostilities between Egypt and Israel
Similarly, tests on the brain showed the importance of the handshake in touching another human being: physical contact established a feeling of trust between strangers. Of course, not every culture shakes hands in exactly the same way. In many African lands the handshake can culminate in a finger snap or click.
The Maasai tribe have more of a brief palm touch than a handshake. While in Namibia you might witness a crouch, applause and then a handshake. While in the Middle East a shake can often be accompanied by a hand over the heart.
There are also huge swathes of Asia where people don’t, in general, shake hands or have any kind of physical contact in greetings.
Princess Diana and an Aid patient shake hands in 1987
Though in those countries not touching is seen as a sign of respect, several scientists have posited that it could be the result of something close to what we’ve experienced since March 2020.
“If shaking hands appears to be something that humans have always done, the interesting thing is why a significant portion of our planet doesn’t touch,” says Ella. “I am not sure how you prove why but one theory is that it was a cultural response to ancient epidemic events which created a temporary behavioural change that then stuck. Touch became taboo.”
Could the same thing happen to us, now so attuned to our social distancing?
“I really hope not,” says Ella. “The handshake symbolises so many positive things; agreement, affection, welcome, acceptance and equality – nothing else lives up to it.
“Some of us waited a long time to shake hands. I’m not ready to give up on it.”
- The Handshake: A Gripping History by Ella Al-Shamahi (Profile Books Ltd, £10.99) is out now. Call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via www.expressbookshop.co.uk. P&P £2.95