The modern cosmetics industry is huge, with ingredients like retinol and hyaluronic acid all the rage to make our faces smooth and shiny. However, the ancients also liked their skincare, as suggested by the 2,700-year-old face cream found in the tomb of Chinese contemporary nobility. The cream was in an ornate bronze jar and made with animal fat and a substance called “moonmilk”.
A study published in archeological journals details the discovery and study of the ancient goop, considered the first evidence of a cosmetic cream product in China. A team of archaeologists was excavating the Liujiawa site in Shanxi Province. The region belongs to the kingdom of Rui – a “fun” prince with some historical records – between 700 and 640 BC.
Archaeologists have unearthed a tomb of a male member of the aristocracy, marked by a fan of bronze weapons. Holding the head of the coffin, they found a “great” bronze jar. This type of jar often found in the graves of high-ranking individuals as royalty, suggesting that it is a high-end product. The icicle was sealed, and after opening the jar in a controlled condition, about 6 grams (0.2 ounces) of yellow-white nodules found inside. Preliminary analysis suggested that the lobes were made of a mixture of carbonate and lipids.
Further analysis confirmed that the carbonate was monohydrocalcite, a type of calcium carbonate that could produced from limestone cave speleothems. This creamy white substance called “moonmilk”, and the authors theorize that the presence of the cream probably linked to “Taoist School Cave Cultus”. Some caves chosen as sacred Taoist sites, which could lead to discovery, spiritual value, and the use of moonlight cosmetics. As an additional practical advantage, calcium carbonate is good at absorbing sweat and oils, which can give the cream a satisfying effect. Skin whitening was culturally popular during this period of Chinese history, and the pasty color of moonshine lends itself to this function. Based on these reasons, moonmilk was probably used both for its cosmetic and mysterious properties.
The sealed lid of the pot helped to preserve the fat of the animals in the cream. The researchers analyzed the fat, and the ratio of palmitic acid to stearic acid suggests that it came from a cow-like stimulant. The authors have theorized that these cows domesticated on a strict diet of bets, as conditions in the region favored millet cultivation.
This discovery is a major breakthrough in understanding the early cosmetic industry in China and is the first evidence of the use of cattle fat in ancient Chinese cosmetics. It has theorized that cosmetic use began in the pre-Qin period (221 BC), but this supported by historical accounts rather than just the analysis of actual products. In addition, the authors say, commercial privacy makes it harder to put together the formulas of these products and how produced. This skin cream supports the theory that the possibility of using cosmetics arose in the spring and autumn of Chinese history (771 to 476 BCE).
This cream probably discovered in the tomb of a man who was probably a man, as women are often described using cosmetics in historical records of this period and earlier. The earliest evidence of men’s use of cosmetics in China dates from 220 to 280 AD – a thousand years later.