Ancient Beauties: Neanderthal Make-up and the Medicinal Benefits of Cleopatra Eyes

The worlds of cosmetics and archaeology have recently collided over two unexpected discoveries. Over the course of the past week, researchers have discovered that Neanderthals used make-up and that Cleopatra‘s face paint was good for her eyes. Which fact is most surprising?

The first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Neanderthal man is definitely not refinement. Its more beard, dirt, animal skins, grunts and women carried by their hair. Like so many clichs depicted in classroom textbooks and carried on by Hollywood, this idea is probably far from the truth. Thanks to scientific research undertaken in Murcia, in the South of Spain, we now know that Neanderthals used a primitive form of make-up.

The discovery was made by a team lead by professor Joao Zilhao from Bristol University. With other archaeologists, he found yellow and red pigment residues in large shells dating back some 50,000 years. In other words, Neanderthals had their own version of your basic powder and compact (minus the mirror). Despite earlier discoveries of black sticks of manganese pigments, Zilhao considers the residues to be the first tangible proof that Neanderthals used body paints. The team also believes that the shells found are evidence of Neanderthal jewellery.

So, was Mrs Neanderthal making herself prettier before a hunting date with Mr Neanderthal? Aside from the fact that Mrs N. probably wasnt going hunting, there are other, more likely explanations for the use of pigments.

Anthropology tells us that make-up and more generally the application of colour on ones skin isnt always about vanity or beauty. It also carries symbols of power and strength and can be part of religious rituals. It can be the representation of links within a group or accompany the life of a community.

Until more discoveries are made, the real use and function of the pigments will not be known. For Zilhaos team however, the real importance of the finding is that it shows that neanderthals were capable of symbolic thinking. This idea was backed up by professor Chris Stringer, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, who told the BBC that these findings help to disprove the view that Neanderthals were dim-witted. Time to rethink the modern meaning of Neanderthal behaviour then.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, some thousand years after the Neanderthal, Cleopatra, Ptolemaic Egyptian ruler, was also quite fond of make-up. A joint French study by the Louvre museum and the CNRS, a national research centre, showed that in addition to being a sight for sore eyes, Cleopatras make-up was quite literally good for the eyes.

Cleopatra is often depicted in popular culture as having a heavy hand when it came to applying eye make-up. The French study showed that her black make-up was an effective protection against eye infections thanks to the presence of lead salts. When used at low levels, those salts produce nitric oxide, which boosts the immune system to fight off bacteria which can cause eye infection.

Scientists and archaeologists already knew that make-up had medicinal properties. Philippe Walter, who lead the research, told the BBC that his aim was to determine exactly how.

To do so, they used the good old experimenting method of recreating the make-up Cleopatra would have used. They then used a tiny electrode, 1/10th the thickness of a human hair, to look at the effect of lead chloride salt synthesised by the Egyptians – laurionite – on a single cell.

Ancient Egyptian make-up was protective on two counts: medical, as shown by Walter and team, but also holistic. Dynasty after dynasty, Egyptian eye make-up was made up of udju (green malachite) and mesdemet (dark grey stibnite or galena, now known as kohl). Galena has long been thought to protect against the sun, an invaluable property when you live in Egypt. Even more importantly, the application of eye make-up can be compared to a religious ritual since it was meant to protect against the Evil Eye.