This 2,700-Year-Old Chinese Face Cream Combined Animal Fat and ‘Moonmilk’

Researchers found the ancient moisturizer in a nobleman’s tomb

Over-Expired Face Cream
The newly discovered face cream represents the earliest known instance of a Chinese man using cosmetics. Han et al. / Archaeometry

In 2017 and 2018, scholars led by Yimin Yang of Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences were examining a 2,700-year-old nobleman’s tomb at the Liujiawa archaeological site in northern China when they discovered something odd: a small bronze jar filled with yellow-white lumps.

As Michael Marshall reports for New Scientist, Yang and his colleagues drew on chemical analyses to identify the material inside the jar as a type of face cream—one of, if not the, earliest known examples of a Chinese man using cosmetics. Their findings, published this month in the journal Archaeometry, suggest the elite individual was interred at Liujiawa during the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 B.C.).

According to a Nature news brief, the concoction was made out of animal fat and moonmilk, a cream-colored, mud-like substance found in limestone caves. Transformed into a dry powder upon its extraction from the roof of a cave, moonmilk maintains its stark white color when combined with animal fat and applied to the face, writes Nathan Falde for Ancient Origins.

“[A]part from being culinary ingredient[s],” the authors explain in the paper, “animal products were also explored in the handcraft industry of cosmetic making.”

Whitening his face with cosmetics may have helped the aristocrat assert his status over lower-class members of society, per Phys.org’s Bob Yirka.

“[H]istorical records from the pre-Qin period described face whitening through cosmetic use as a source of cultural pride,” notes the study. “The whitened face with unnatural complexions can conceal … [skin defects and wrinkles], creating an identity of youthfulness and beauty with a manner of majestic which is appealing to the aristocratic class.”

This 2,700-Year-Old Chinese Face Cream Combined Animal Fat and 'Moonmilk'
The cream was found inside this bronze jar. Han et al. / Archaeometry

Alternatively, the researchers theorize that the cream may have played a part in religious ceremonies. Previous studies have shown that early followers of the Chinese philosophical tradition Taoism, or Daoism, believed that caves housed minerals imbued with magical properties.

The newly analyzed cream—in conjunction with other facial lotions found in the tombs of elite members of Chinese society—shows that the cosmetic industry had already become specialized by the early Spring and Autumn period, according to the study. The era derives its name from the Spring and Autumn Annals, which chronicle nearly 250 years of the Zhou Dynasty state of Lu’s history.

“This work provides an early example of cosmetic production in China and, together with the prevalence of similar cosmetic containers during this period, suggests the rise of an incipient cosmetics industry,” the authors add.

Before the recent find, the oldest example of cosmetics found in the grave of a Chinese man dated to the Three Kingdoms Period (220—280 A.D.), co-author Bin Han tells New Scientist. Though Chinese conceptions of male beauty prior to this period had focused on inner nobility and honor, that perception changed between the third and sixth centuries A.D., when wearing foundation and lip balm increasingly became the norm for high-status men, wrote Xu Xiaomin for China Daily in 2017.

Evidence of Chinese women using makeup predates both the Liujiawa and Three Kingdom finds. In 2016, for example, Yang’s team examined red cosmetic sticks deposited at the Xiaohe Cemetery in Xinjiang between 1980 and 1450 B.C. In ancient Egypt, meanwhile, cosmetics were used as early as the predynastic period (c. 6000–3150 B.C.), according to Joshua J. Mark of Ancient History Encyclopedia.

As the researchers write in the study, they used funerary objects including a set of bronze weapons to identify the Liujiawa man as a high-ranking noble.

The team’s findings may help demystify the story of Riu, an eastern Zhou vassal state that counted Liujiawa as its capital during the Spring and Autumn period, per Ancient Origins. Few historical records document the Rui state, but the recent study offers additional context on the region’s subsistence, social dynamics and cultural practices.