2,700-Year-Old Face Cream Made From "Moonmilk" Found In Ancient Chinese Tomb

The cream was in an “exquisite” ornate bronze jar and was made of animal fat and a substance called 'moonmilk'. Images courtesy of Dr Bin Han, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

The modern cosmetics industry is huge, with ingredients such as retinol and hyaluronic acid being all the rage to make our faces smooth and glowy. However, ancient people loved their skincare too, as suggested by a 2,700-year-old pot of face cream that has been found in an ancient Chinese nobleman's tomb. The cream was in an ornate bronze jar and was made of animal fat and a substance called "moonmilk".

The discovery and study of the ancient goop, thought to be the earliest evidence of a cosmetic cream product in China, is detailed in a paper published in Archaeometry. A team of archaeologists was excavating the Liujiawa Site in Shaanxi Province. This area belonged to the Rui State – an “enigmatic” princedom with few historical records – between 700 and 640 BCE.

The archaeologists unearthed a tomb belonging to a male member of the aristocracy, as identified by a set of funerary bronze weapons. By the head of the coffin, they found the “exquisite” bronze jar. This type of jar was often found in tombs of high-ranking individuals such as royalty, suggesting that this was a high-end product. The lid was sealed, and upon opening the jar in controlled conditions, around 6 grams (0.2 ounces) of yellowish-white lumps were found within. Initial analysis suggested that the lumps were made of a mixture of carbonate and lipids.

pot and cream
The ancient face cream was housed in an "exquisite" bronze jar. Cleaning the jar revealed ornate decorations on the outside. Image courtesy of Dr Bin Han, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

Further analysis confirmed that the carbonate was monohydrocalcite, a form of calcium carbonate that can be sourced from limestone cave speleothems. This creamy white substance is called "moonmilk", and the authors theorize that its presence in the cream probably had links to the “Taoist School Cave Cultus”. Certain caves were selected as sacred Taoist sites, which could have led to the discovery, spiritual value, and cosmetic use of moonmilk. As an added practical benefit, calcium carbonate is good at absorbing sweat and oil, which could have given the cream a mattifying effect. Skin whitening was culturally popular during this period of Chinese history, and the pasty hue of moonmilk lends itself to this function. Based on these factors, moonmilk was probably used both for its cosmetic and mystical properties.

The sealed lid of the vessel helped preserve the animal fats in the cream. The researchers analyzed the fat, and the ratio of palmitic acid and stearic acid suggests it came from a ruminant such as a cow. The authors theorize that these cows were domesticated, raised in pens on a strict diet of millet, as the conditions of the area favor millet cultivation. This is very useful for understanding agriculture in the Rui State, as the authors state that there are almost no records detailing how it worked. The animal fat was most likely used both to make the moonmilk into a cream formula and for its moisturizing properties.

tomb location
The tomb of the male nobleman where the pot of cream was discovered, located in the Liujiawa Site in Shaanxi Province. Image courtesy of Dr Bin Han, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

This discovery is a big breakthrough in understanding the early cosmetic industry in China, and is the earliest evidence of cattle fat use in ancient Chinese cosmetics. Cosmetic use has been theorized to have started in the pre-Qin period (pre-221 BC), but this is only supported by historical descriptions rather than an analysis of actual products. Plus, the authors say, commercial secrecy makes it hard to piece together the formulations of these products and how they were produced. This pot of skin cream supports the theory that cosmetic use potentially emerged in the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history (771 to 476 BCE). 

The fact that this cream was discovered in the tomb of a person who was most likely male is significant, as women are the ones mostly described using cosmetics in historical records of this period and earlier. The second-earliest evidence of men using cosmetics in China dates to between 220 and 280 AD – 1,000 years later.


[H/T New Scientist]


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