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A pot of 2,700-year-old goo, found in an aristocratic man’s grave, hints at the rise of manufactured beauty-care products.

Chemical analysis has revealed that a pot buried with a Chinese nobleman some 2,700 years ago held a skin cream made from animal fat and ground stalactite — a mixture that was probably foundational to China’s cosmetics industry.

The ornate bronze jar was still sealed when researchers unearthed it at the Liujiawa archaeological site in northern China. That allowed Yimin Yang at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues to analyse the composition of the yellowish lumps inside the pot.

The lumps consisted of beef fat mixed with minerals that absorb sweat and skin oil. Those minerals came from ‘cave moonmilk’, a powdered form of white stalactites found in limestone caves. Caves were important to the Taoist philosophy prevalent during the nobleman’s day, and the cream would have had symbolic power as well as the ability to moisturize and whiten the face.

The presence of similar pots in many royal and noble graves suggests that a cosmetics industry serving elite customers had appeared in China by roughly 700 BC.

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