Science Uncovers What Cleopatra and Neanderthals Had in Common

Courtesy of BBC news this morning, two particularly interesting stories that mix science, history, and… cosmetics.

First up, let’s talk about eyeliner. Yes, eyeliner. There may be no look as timeless and as oft-copied as the Cleopatra eye, made famous in Egyptian art, culture, and mythology. And while it’s certainly aesthetically pleasing (I’m a personal fan of the cat-eye variation) French researchers have discovered a rather intriguing benefit of dark lines of kohl around the eyes: protection from certain eye diseases.

Because of the presence of lead salts in the makeup, researchers have determined that the ancient makeup recipe may have had antibacterial properties, in spite of the lead content. The research, published in Analytical Chemistry, explained further:

In stimulating nonspecific immunological defences, one may argue that these lead compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses by promoting the action of immune cells.

And while we know that the ancient Egyptians were exceptionally aesthetically inclined, it might surprise you to find out that scientists believe they’ve discovered Neanderthal make-up dating back some 50,000 years. In a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) a team of scientists have discovered shells containing colored pigments in two different sites in Spain. They believe these pigments may have been used as body paint, a discovery which would certainly change the way Neanderthals are viewed.

Previously, archaeologists discovered black pigments in Africa, which may also have been used as body paint, as well. And while the concept of body paint might not seem ground-breaking to some, researchers indicate that the discovery is quite monumental. According to Bristol University’s Joao Zilhao, leader of the study:

To me, it’s the smoking gun that kills the argument once and for all. The association of these findings with Neanderthals is rock-solid and people have to draw the associations and bury this view of Neanderthals as half-wits.

In both cases mentioned above, research demonstrates that our understanding of the past is ever-changing, and often more critical than needs be. I’ve heard the “lead poisoned makeup” argument over and over, for instance, but this research shows a remarkable reason for that particular ingredient. Once again, science shows us that, though we might be advanced in many respects, our ancestors and genetic cousins were far more advanced than we’d like to think.

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