A leather bag and cosmetic sticks have been excavated from Xiaohe Cemetery. CHINA DAILY
Some might find all that wax, oils and emollients a bit hard to digest, but the prehistoric inhabitants of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region made their women's cosmetics sticks out of something a little more edible around 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.
According to the latest archaeological research published on Thursday night in Scientific Reports, an online, open access journal from the publishers of Nature, the red cosmetic sticks buried with women in Xiaohe Cemetery (1980-1450 BC) were made from cow hearts.
"In previous excavations, a number of bronze ware items and other inorganic relics were found. But these cosmetic tools, being made of organic matter, are very rare because they are much more difficult to preserve," said Yang Yimin, a professor from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences under the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, and an author of the newly published research.
The red cosmetic sticks, around 6.5 cm in length and 0.9 cm in diameter, were found in leather bags buried alongside the mummified corpses of several females. Scientists inferred from the find that the sticks were not only used to paint faces, but also to color relics that have been excavated from Xiaohe Cemetery.
Samples taken from the cosmetic sticks were submitted to a synchrotron radiation micro-computed tomography test－a type of X-ray technology－that found they were made from cow hearts covered in pigment by analyzing their interior structure and constituent proteins.
"The color red usually serves as a symbol for the worship of blood, and the heart is one of the most important organs in cattle, as the center of blood circulation. This indicates the cosmetic sticks were used to paint human faces red and were significant, possibly sacred, objects used as part of the Xiaohe people's religious behavior," Yang said.
Xiaohe Cemetery is a Bronze Age site that features more than 160 tombs located in the east of Xinjiang's Tarim Basin. It was first discovered in the 1930s by a team of Swedish archaeologists, but was not excavated until 2002.
"In recent years, a number of significant discoveries have been made in Xiaohe Cemetery, which will open a new window on our understanding of this region's inhabitants, their prehistoric lives and early communication with both Eastern and Western cultures," said Li Wenying, a researcher of Xinjiang Institute of Relics and Archaeology in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.
Earlier research found that the Xiaohe people had blond or flaxen hair and eyelashes, which indicates that gene mixing between East and West started at least 4,000 years ago.
The newly reported cosmetic sticks are one of the clues that point to women playing a central religious role and enjoying a high social status
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Thousands of years before the glitz and glamour of modern fashion, ancient residents in today’s Xinjiang were already taking cosmetics to heart.
Chinese scientists have discovered two "cosmetic sticks" unearthed from Xiaohe Cemetery in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region that were made from the hearts of cattle, the first time such organs have been found to serve as cosmetic tools.
Dating back about 3,600 years ago, the irregularly-shaped red "sticks" were found in leather bags laid beside female mummies. according to an article published in the journal Scientific Reports.
A team led by Yang Yimin with the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences employed proteomics analysis and found the objects’ proteins were derived from bovine hearts. Using SR micro CT and Raman spectrum, they found a layer of hematite powders, which served as red pigment, on the dehydrated hearts.
"The red paint found on faces of the female mummies leads us to presume the tools were, first of all, used in make-up," Yang told Xinhua on Thursday, while not ruling out the possibility of the hearts being used to paint other objects.
Heart muscles contain fat and collagen, which can serve as a natural adhesives to attach the pigments to paint. Yang also believed the use of cattle heart might carry religious connotations.
Red paints were commonly found inside Xiaohe tombs, from red lines on the mummies’ foreheads to painting on the huge pillars worshipping fertility in front of each coffin. That the sticks were mostly buried beside female mummies implied that women played a special role in the religious ritual of painting in red, researchers said.
The study has provided clues to understanding the role of cattle in the Xiaohe Culture, which existed about 4,000 years ago, and the history of early cosmetics, according to Yang.
The Xiaohe Cemetery, located in the Taklamakan Desert, is best known for its many mummies in ship-shaped coffins. Archaeologists say the dry and hot environment helped preserve a large number of organic relics.
The site has seen a number of amazing discoveries, including a skull with a hole indicating brain surgery and China’s oldest adhesive made from cattle gelatine, found on a ritual staff and also identified by Yang’s team.