Our “Natural” Ancestors?

Looking back at history and comparing it to our own times, one would probably have to admit that, yes, we have better medical technology and, yes, we have larger and better-made houses, and yes to many other improvements that have been made over time. But isn’t modern society vain and “unnatural”?

Both men and women go to great lengths to improve their appearance. The cosmetics industry is one of our largest. Trendy young people seem to be piercing every conceivable body-part. And taking this ethic of artificially-enchanced beauty to the extreme, some women are putting plastic in their breasts. Our ancestors may have died from common colds, they may have suffered through endless physical drudgery, but at least they were “natural.”

Were our ancestors natural? “Ancient Inventions,” by Peter James and Nick Thorpe, provides a fascinating look at the customs and technology of ancient peoples, and covers fields as diverse as medicine, transportation, sexuality, and sports and leisure. While James and Thorpe generally seem to admire the ingenuity of the ancients, they note the facial scarring used by some African tribes to “improve” appearance. James and Thorpe also note the traditional, and extremely painful, Chinese custom of binding female babies’ feet to make sure that the adult woman had culturally acceptable petite feet. Both of these practices continued on a wide scale through the beginning of this century.

The Maya of ancient Mexico regarded slightly crossed eyes as an attractive feature, and they hung beads in front of their children’s eyes to try to produce this dysfunctional condition. In both the Old and New Worlds some deformation of the head was considered desirable. According to James and Thorpe, “In ancient America the desired shape was a flattened forehead; this was achieved by fastening an infant to a cradleboard soon after birth, with its little head compressed between two boards in such a way as to permanently flatten the skull.” Neanderthal skulls found in Iraq demonstrate that the custom of head deformation dates back 60,000 years.

Makeup has always been popular, although it seems that modern science and technology has provided far safer ways of modifying the appearance of human skin. As long ago as the third millennium B.C., people in India and Pakistan sought to lighten their complexion by using a face cream of white lead. Similar recipes were found from Britain to China. Roman ladies continued to use the skin cream even after their contemporary doctors had found it to be highly toxic.

At the center of Roman society, an antithesis of “the natural look” was in vogue. Poppaea, wife of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), covered her face with the poisonous white lead face cream, “painted her cheeks and lips with red paint, then colored her eyelids, lashes and brows with black antimony, her nails with a mysterious substance called dragon’s blood mixed with fat, and her veins with blue paint.”

Poppaea also used less visible cosmetics. She went to bed wearing a mask of bean-meal, which she washed off in the morning with asses’ milk. She used creams to remove unwanted hair, bean-meal paste and lemon juice to bleach her freckles, powdered pumice stone to whiten her teeth, barley flour and butter to remove pimples, and German soap to bleach her hair. And this was the culturally accepted fashion of the time.

Tattooing is either willful disfiguration, or ornamentation, of the skin, depending on your point of view. These days it seems to be more the domain of movie stars, bikers, punk rockers, and the generally trendy. In other words, a distinct minority of the population. In ancient times it was often a mark of status and nobility, and was widespread among the highly born.

Four-thousand-year-old female mummies with facial tatoos have been found in Egypt and the Sudan. The oldest evidence of tattooing yet found is that of a chief of a nomadic tribe buried around 400 B.C. near the present-day border between Russia and China. His body was covered with elaborate tatoos, primarily pictures of animals. Tattooing has deep historical roots in places as diverse as China, Japan, Central America, and Britain.

Our ancestors also faked much of the elaborate ornamentation that was common in different cultures. According to James and Thorpe, “there were whole factories in Rome devoted to the production of artificial gemstones.” Imitating emeralds with colored glass was apparently a specialty. Glass paste was also used to imitate lapis lazuli. And rather than use real gold, ancient jewelers often plated cheaper metals using very sophisticated techniques, possibly including electroplating.

All in all, the ancients appeared much more likely than modern men and women to purposely mutilate their bodies, to scar their skin through tattooing, and to poison themselves with toxic chemicals used as makeup. Even with all our modern technology, and its frequent abuse, our bodies, our skin, even our jewelry, are as likely to be “the real thing” as those of our ancestors.