6,000-year-old Make Up Or Hunter’s Camouflage Cream? You Decide.
Ancient makeup from the Stone Age, a time of hunters and gathers. Really? The world’s media is buzzing with a story about prehistoric Europeans “using makeup,” 6,000 years ago. This discovery could well rewrite makeup history and it directly challenges the accepted ancient Egyptian origins of “cosmetics.” However, it is important in this debate to avoid projecting modern standards and values onto the lives of people from the very ancient past.
This story begins in 2014 when Professor Bine Kramberger, an archaeologist at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, unearthed a miniature ceramic bottle. The artifact was discovered in Zgornje Radvanje, in Slovenia, at a Lasinja people archaeological site dated to 4350 BC.
Now, a new study by the same researcher, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports , says the tiny bottle contained “traces of beeswax and a white lead-based mineral.” The presence of this white compound is why the researchers are calling this discovery part of a “primitive makeup kit.”
A Stone Age pot from Slovenia that may have been worn around the neck or waist, which has changed ancient makeup history. Analysis showed it once contained bees wax and white lead. Previously, the oldest makeup was associated with the Egyptians. (Bine Kramberger / Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia )
Slovenia’s Ancient Makeup Pot Versus Known Cosmetics History
Because the ceramic jars or pots found in Slovenia date to between 4350 and 4100 BC, long before the earliest known use of cosmetics in Egypt , this new study is saying ancient Slovenians made the oldest ancient makeup ever discovered. But is “a makeup kit” really what the bottle represents?
Does the history of “cosmetic” makeup really need to be written or rewritten? Another possible and more intriguing explanation would be the evolution of camouflage and advanced hunting techniques. Because the substance in the jar may have been used by hunters in a way that improved their success on a hunt. Let’s get into this.
Over 6,000 years ago hunters in Europe wore what “may have been” the first ancient makeup bags, according to this most recent research study from Slovenia. If this conclusion is accurate then makeup was applied in Europe much earlier than was previously assumed, “hundreds of years before the earliest evidence of cosmetics in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” which are the traditional origin cultures of makeup for “cosmetic” purposes. I keep saying makeup “for cosmetic purposes” for a good reason, so stay with me.
New Scientist reported that until this new study was published these types of vessels had previously been assumed to be “children's toys,” because they resembled animal heads, and a series of holes in the necks of the vessels suggested they were worn around the neck or waist.
Because the chemical inside the jar contained “traces of beeswax, plant and animal fat, and a white lead-based substance known as cerussite,” the latest Slovenian research attempts to redate the birth, and place of origin, of makeup. But hold on just two seconds here. What’s with all this talk of “cosmetic makeup” when a glaringly more obvious application is staring us in the face?
This illustration shows how the researchers believe the ancient makeup pots were worn and how the cosmetic mixture was extracted from the bottle with a long thin stone tool, and then smeared on the skin. ( Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports )
The White Lead Found In the Ancient Makeup Bottle
Dr Kramberger discovered the solid white lead based substance was “ cerussite,” (white lead or lead carbonate) which, although highly toxic, has been used in cosmetics for thousands of years. Further supporting the Professor’s “cosmetic claim,” he discovered “long, thin stone tools” adjacent to where the bottle was discovered. Dr Kramberger suspects the thin stone tools were used to extract the cerussite for application to the skin.
If this were not all enough to rubber seal the new “makeup” theory, then there is the fact that the research team analyzed the contents of “a dozen other vessels from the same era” and they all contained cerussite. Many of the bottles also contained plant oil, animal fat, and beeswax, which the paper says would “help keep the skin hydrated and soft.”
Returning to the opening comment about projecting modern values onto the past, the takeaway from this new paper is that over 6,000 years ago prehistoric hunters applied makeup for cosmetic reasons and the researchers say things like the plant oil, animal fat, and beeswax helped “keep the skin hydrated and soft.” However, isn’t it more likely that the bottles of “makeup” were actually cam-cream. Doesn’t it just ring truer that ancient hunters would have a bottle of white cream at hand, to finger dip, then stroke across their dark skin for camouflage?
The trouble here is, the real origins of makeup stand to be shattered, and an entire historical paradigm stands to be unthreaded and re stitched as an entirely different story. Surely, for tens of thousands of years prior to the use of this bottle hunters attempted to mask their grotesque smells with “plant oil, animal fat, and beeswax,” creams and lotions, and also to protect themselves against bug bites.
So, as we sign off, there remains a chance that the history of makeup will now be rewritten, and what “might” be lost here is an important link in the evolution of hunting skills and camouflage, swept away by a tsunami of images of ancient people wearing makeup.
Top image: A woman in the hunter-gatherer Stone Age collecting berries, which could be used for medicine or ancient makeup. The oldest ever evidence of makeup was connected to a ceramic object long thought to be a child's toy from 6,000 years ago in Slovenia! Source: alexmina / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
I meant Cataibh's not Causing's. Damn auto-correct!
Archaeologist. Your post is interesting, as is Causing's. As tribal markings or a ritual purpose certainly sound plausible. But I feel it's important to point out that you're assumption about not knowing what gender might have used the substance in the pots, so we can't know if it was used as make-up is false. The idea of make-up being mainly used by women is quite a modern idea, especially here in the west. As Ashley cautioned a few times. When dealing with ancient cultures, especially prehistoric cultures. It's imperative that we don't project our modern views onto them.
Australian aboriginal use of white body paint for ritual purposes is widely attested to. It still happens today and that use was by no means restricted to this one group. White ochre was common in Xhosa culture, in Africa for example.
This ritual use is far more likely here than either hunting camouflage or purely aesthetic make-up. The camouflage hypothesis relies on the user having darker skin pigmentation.
Even with regard to the make-up hypothesis, why is not just as possible that it was used in the hair?
We need more context here. Since only the pot and a slender tool were found, with no indication of which gender was using this material, it’s difficult to make a concrete determination of what this is, and what it was used for. Could it be “make up,” possibly, but it’s much more likely it was used to signify one’s tribe with markings on the face and body, or as something for sunburn. We need more proof.