Let’s start at the beginning since as the song says, it is a very good place to start. And when I say the beginning I really do mean the beginning. Archeological finds have indicated that we have been using makeup for a very long time. In fact we may well have been using makeup for longer than we have been human. Our story starts with the Neanderthals.
Neanderthal Man was a breed that is rather hard to categorise. Some experts regard them as a sub species of modern humans, but most see them as a separate species that branched off from our common ancestor more than half a million years ago. It isn’t known for certain why they died out, but competition from our own ancestors seems very likely to have been at least a factor and probably the decisive factor.
It is a great shame that they aren’t around any more because they sound fascinating. They were larger and stronger than modern humans with probably larger brains. There are indications that they generally had red hair and spoke in high pitched voices. They may well have sung, given that what might a flute was found at one archeological site.
The thought of a Europe populated by tall singing gingers is an appealing one. It would be a bit like a Mick Hucknell theme park.
Whether or not it really is a flute is disputed, but there is pretty strong evidence that Neanderthals used cosmetics. Finds at a 50,000 year old dig in Spain reveal coloured mineral pigments diligently collected and meticulously arranged on oyster shells. The diggers seem to have found an ancient makeup bag.
The items, that were dug up in 1985, give us a vivid picture of what the fashion conscious Neanderthal looked like. Cockle shells were found with holes in them which must have been for either necklaces or bracelets – or a matching set of both in all likelihood. Nearby was an oyster shell containing pigments. Twenty three years later at a nearby site scallop shells were found containing red and yellow minerals.
The original find was re-examined and found to contain lepidocrocite, heamatite, pyrite and charcoal. All of these are vividly coloured materials, but have little else in common and so it seems almost beyond doubt that they were collected for decorative purposes of some kind. The most intriguing mineral found was natrojarosite, which was used in cosmetics by the Ancient Egyptians tens of thousands of years later.
The dig in Spain is from a period when modern humans had already existed for hundreds of thousands of years but probably before they had had any direct contact with the Neanderthals in Europe. It is an open question whether there were any cultural contacts between the two groups later. But it isn’t totally impossible that the early humans coming into Europe picked up makeup tips from the spec
ies that was already there. In which case, the modern cosmetic industry might well be able to trace itself right back to pre-human origins.
So what were the ‘in’ colours 50,000 years ago? Bright reds and yellows seem to have been the order of the day. The pigments have a pearlised appearance and would look rather glittery, reminiscent of the kind of look that wouldn’t look out of place on Lady Gaga. Graphite was also found, so black was part of the pallette as well. So eye shadow would have been a possibility as well.
It is interesting to speculate that the people we have long regarded as primitive cavemen might well have been not so much ignorant club wielding oafs as dandified and dedicated followers of fashion sporting this season’s colours and wearing the latest up to the minute accessories.
This series of posts on the history of cosmetics is sponsored by Artful Teasing Fragrant Gifts.
Debate about the Neanderthal Flute
The map of the range of the Neanderthal’s was placed on Wikipedia by Ryulong – Thanks to Wikipedia for the other images