World’s oldest known lipstick dates back to the Bronze Age

ancient lipstick next to colored pigments
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An ancient container holding red pigment and shaped very similarly to the tubes of lipstick used today has been found in Iran.

Researchers say the vessel and dehydrated, pigmented powder inside likely came from an early Bronze Age culture known as Jiroft, which is believed to have been in the eastern part of today’s Iran. Radiocarbon dating puts it as around 1936-1687 B.C.E.

The lipstick tube and many other artifacts surfaced after river flooding in 2001 washed over ancient graveyards. Locals looted the region, but Iranian security forces recovered the items that were unearthed. But the vial was only recently examined in detail after catching the interest of a researcher who saw it in the Jiroft Archaeological Museum’s collection. The findings came out in a February issue of Scientific Reports, a Nature publication.

“It is always a sudden revelation,” Massimo Vidale, a University of Padua archaeology professor and one of the scientists who studied the cosmetic container, told The Washington Post in an email. “Even more, because the substance under our eyes matched perfectly with the very unusual form of the fine stone container, so close to the lipstick cases of our days.”

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ancient lipstick tube made of stone

The tube is 2 inches tall and three-quarters of an inch wide. It’s made of chlorite and has detailed carvings on its sides.

While powder was found inside the tube, it was likely more liquid originally and dried up over the centuries. The substance inside the cosmetic vessel contained hematite, darkened with manganite and braunite, and included bits of galena and anglesite. This was mixed with vegetal waxes and other organic substances — and bears a resemblance to modern-day makeup formulations.

“Both the intensity of the red coloring minerals and the waxy substances are, surprisingly enough, fully compatible with recipes for contemporary lipsticks,” the Scientific Reports article said.

The cosmetic preparations found previously in this area have mostly been black kohl eyeliners or light-colored compounds to brighten the face (like foundation or eye shadow). This is the oldest known example of lipstick discovered to date, and provides one more clue to figuring out when people started painting their lips and whether or not they knew the dangers of lead-based makeup formulas.

The Post article notes the irony of finding the world’s oldest lipstick in Iran, which banned the use of makeup during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Some restrictions on wearing makeup remain today.

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woman applying lipstick in front of a mirror at home

Records of lip paint being used go even further back than this find; a 2006 paper out of Harvard University notes that it was used by Queen Puabi of Ur in Mesopotamia, who lived more than 5,500 years ago.

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Anna Weaver is a writer and multimedia journalist from Hawaii. Her two young kids keep her on her toes and hooked on online shopping. Anna’s also a fan of movies, reading, photography, and sharing far too many IG stories about cute dogs and capybaras. Visit Scripps News to see more of Anna's work.

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