3,600-Year-Old Red Lipstick Discovered In Iran Is The Oldest Ever Found

Published February 14, 2024
Updated February 16, 2024

The lipstick was discovered in the Jiroft region of Kerman province in southern Iran.

Mineral Components Of Lipstick

F. Zorzi/Scientific ReportsMineralogical composition of the lipstick discovered in Iran.

They say a red lip is a classic look. As it turns out, it’s also an ancient one: Red lipstick from 3,600 years ago was just found in Iran.

Recovered from a looted gravesite, this Bronze-Age makeup appears to be the oldest lipstick ever discovered.

Discovering The 3,600-Year-Old Lipstick

The red lipstick was discovered in the Jiroft region of southeastern Iran. According to a study about the lipstick published in Scientific Reports, the ancient makeup and other artifacts were first resurfaced in 2001, when the Halil river flooded across several graveyards from the 3rd millennium B.C.E., bringing artifact-rich burials to the surface.

Though locals looted the site, the lipstick made its way to a local museum. It consists of a vial reminiscent of contemporary lipstick tubes and contains a reddish substance made of minerals like hematite, darkened by manganite and braunite, and small amounts of galena and anglesite.

The Lipstick Vial

M. Vidale, F. Zorzi/Scientific ReportsThe lipstick vial is not dissimilar to lipstick tubes today.

The color and waxy substance of the 3,600-year-old lipstick is not dissimilar to recipes for contemporary lipsticks. And the study’s authors suspect that its owner would have used it in much the same way as people do today.

“The vial’s slender shape and limited thickness suggest that it could have been conveniently held in one hand together with the handle of a copper/bronze mirror, leaving the other hand free to use a brush or another kind of applicator,” the study authors explained in Scientific Reports.

Though the study authors note that the “precise provenience” of the lipstick will remain unknown, given the looting that occurred, they’re confident that it came from a local Bronze Age civilization, likely the ancient Marḫaši.

That said, questions about it remain. Who owned the lipstick? Does it suggest that lipstick was invented in ancient Iran? For now, these are difficult to answer. But the discovery does shed light on the Bronze Age people of ancient Iran — their role in society and how they may have used makeup.

What The Lipstick Can Tell Us About Societies In Ancient Iran — And Beyond

Though the earliest known evidence of women painting their lips comes from the 12th-century B.C.E. Turin Papyrus found in Egypt, the lipstick found in Iran offers a “chronological threshold.”

“It shows that in the early Bronze age, while the first cities and states were growing in economic and political power, people wore make up for impersonating new official roles in the local hierarchies,” study author Massimo Vidale told All That’s Interesting in an email.

He continued: “In this context, now we know that besides light-coloured foundations and eye-shadows, and besides the black lines of kajal around the eyes, also the lips were intensively coloured… Iranian women — if they were the only ones who painted their lips, and men did not do it — were fully involved in the local display of power, beauty, and authority.”

What’s more, Vidale believes that more insights about ancient cultures can be drawn from makeup, which is sometimes found at archaeological digs, but often overlooked.

“Cosmetics and body paints are, since thousands of years, and without important gaps, an important aspect of metallurgical knowledge,” he explained to All That’s Interesting.

“The fact that, somehow reductively, we associate their use to women has hindered, so far, their relevance in the history of technology. It is time to reverse this perception and give to this industry the importance it had in the past.”

After reading about the 3,600-year-old lipstick discovered in Iran, go inside the surprisingly fatal history of makeup. Or, look through these strange vintage health and beauty trends.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.