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It’s not just our lips and cheeks that we have painted red over history. Many ancient and modern-day tribes are known for their considerable use of red paint on their faces and bodies. The anthropologist Alfred Gell suggested one reason for this is that a “new or modified skin is a new or modified personality,”4 which is a compelling argument, but there are so many other reasons why tribes may choose to embellish their faces and bodies. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of tradition and, on the flip side, the encroaching influence of the modern world. The Himba, an African tribe living in northern Namibia, have been breeding goats and cattle since the sixteenth century. The women of the tribe are known both for their unique hair, which is braided in different styles according to their age and marital status, and their use of a mixture of red ochre and animal fat, which they rub daily all over their faces, bodies, hair, and jewelry. The ochre mix, called otjize, gives their skin an amazing red glow that echoes the color of the earth and is considered the pinnacle of beauty in the Himba culture. Though its primary purpose is aesthetic, it also protects their skin from the effects of the sun. The earliest rouge would have been sticks of red ochre pigment made by mixing iron oxides with animal fat or vegetable oil. These types of sticks would not have been dissimilar in shape and size to the chunky eye-shadow sticks you can find in many brands today. Until the nineteenth century, when it became available to purchase from pharmacies, rouge was hand-made from a variety of substances, creating a wide range of tones and textures. Cochineal and kermes, types of insects, were dried and used to produce carmine pigment, a blood-red tint; although extremely poisonous, minerals such as red lead, cinnabar, and mercuric sulfide were used to create a flaming flush; vegetable and plant extracts including carthamin from safflowers, alkanet root, crushed mulberries and strawberries, red beet juice, and red amaranth were all used to create a wide palette of reds and pinks, ranging from the delicate to the intense.
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