facial characteristics
May 2, 2005 2:44 PM   Subscribe

SensitiveFilter: This question might be construed as offensive. It deals with physical features of peoples from different parts of the globe.

I am curious in telling the difference between various peoples of African descent, and people of Asian descent. What I mean is, as I am Jewish, I have "Semitic" features. Slavic people have certain features, as do people from Latin America (ie I can tell somebody from Central America from somebody from Southern America).

It's established that people do indeed look different, and I'm curious about the origins of this, and perhaps a "guide" to be able to tell the difference (for instance, people from Kenya look more like X and people from Liberia look more like Y, people from Korea look like H while Cambodians look like I). I want to state as a VERY IMPORTANT caveat: I don't want discussion of whether race exists (i think it's just a social construct) and/or any shaky science, like phrenology, bell-curve material, and so forth. No value judgements, just biological features. Thanks
posted by yonation to Science & Nature (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I know this won't help much... A few years ago I found a website which showed various Asians living in New York (to remove cultural clues) and you had to guess what nationality they were. Unfortunately, I don't have a URL to go with my story.
posted by y0mbo at 2:59 PM on May 2, 2005

All Look Same (I scored 11/18, yay me).
posted by adamrice at 3:01 PM on May 2, 2005

Race, by the technical definitions, is caused by insular genetic pools. Throughout history, people have had more of a tendency to flock with those they resemble than those they don't. This is furthered by the fact that even in situations where people look similar, they tend to form communes, or clans, and stay primarily within their group. As time progresses, the looks of any one separated group average out amongst themselves, and that average makes it even easier to distinguish one from the average look coming from another group.

Now, first we must accept that no matter what the social construct views are, race is real from a genetic stance. Those average features that develop are both visual (hair/skin color) and hidden (cancer succeptibility). The size of the pool is a big determinant, as well. The larger the originating pool for any group, the better the overall average, and the closer to an average for humanity we attain. This larger pool requires more time to attain its blended effect, though, because the genetics must distribute evenly.

The smaller pools are easier to distinguish for this reason, but carry a distinct disadvantage. Genetic predispositions become locked in place within the group, and are virtually impossible to get rid of.

Sometimes a larger pool will break into smaller groups, each with some overall similar characteristics, but with many individual ones developing as time passes. Such is the case with much of asia, as cultures like the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans look very similar to foreigners but a trained eye (or one who grew up there) can tell the difference between them by 3 factors (eye slant amount, face elongation, average height).

Hope that helps.
posted by mystyk at 3:04 PM on May 2, 2005

ba ha. I got 3/18 on that one.
posted by xmutex at 3:06 PM on May 2, 2005

Well, my uneducated guess is that after the major differences were established evolutionarily speaking (Africans with short, wide noses for breathing in hot weather, Europeans with long, narrow noses for breathing in cold climes), the regional similarities are simply because they're smallish gene pools.

I know this is pretty basic, and perhaps you've already thought of it, but might it be as simple as that?

On preview, I was just saying what mystyk (far more eloquently) said...
posted by Specklet at 3:07 PM on May 2, 2005

Genetic predispositions become locked in place within the group, and are virtually impossible to get rid of.

Only if gene flow -- the movement of 'new' genes from other members of the same species (or different species, in some cases) in different populations -- is 0 and mutations do not generate novel genes.
posted by docgonzo at 3:08 PM on May 2, 2005

Thanks for the comments, mystyk and specklet. I am familiar with those arguments, but I suppose I didn't articulate what I was looking for: actual distinguishing characteristics, and perhaps explanations for those? To use your citing of eye slant amount, face elongation, average height, I woud love a breakdown... Do people from southern Gabon look like those from southern Angola? Obviously not, yet to my eyes, they don't all "look the same" but I certainly can't pinpoint stark features (I can tell narrower faces and noses, like Ethiopian, Morrocan, etc, from northern Africa because they're much more Semitic looking) that distinguish between countries, tribes, etc. More information on that would be great.
posted by yonation at 3:12 PM on May 2, 2005

I don't know of a really good guide, and the rules of thumb are more likely to get you in trouble than anything else. The only way I know of to become good at distinguishing ethnic/national background is to get to know a LOT of members of a LOT of groups so as to build up your personal "database."

And even then, the groups you least want to confuse - ie, those who come from adjacent areas and harbor territorial angst - will likely be the hardest to tell apart. Add a generous dollop of mixed-race people, and, voila, it's even harder.
posted by caitlinb at 3:13 PM on May 2, 2005

The worst thing about it is that it's always the people that are closest in appearance that get all bent out of shape when you screw up their ancestry. For instance, confuse a Korean with a Jamaican, and there's no problem. But woe be unto him that mistake a Korean for Japanese.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:19 PM on May 2, 2005

Woah, totally missed caitlinb's comment above.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:20 PM on May 2, 2005

Yeah guys, I think you're missing the point of the question... The idea is to get a cheat-sheet of sorts that has, essentially, pictures of people from different places and their "race," which (as the question suggests) really means a combination of ethnicity / nationality. I'd be interested in this too--I find this kind of identification really, really hard. For example, on that test up there above, I got a shocking 3 out of 18--even though I'm half-Asian and have a ton of Asian friends and relatives!

Anyway, I'd be curious to see what such a thing looked like, even if it didn't work. I'm sad to say--and I don't mean to start a fight or be offensive or even to question the premise of the question--that the closest thing I've ever seen are the kind of 'Features of the Negro' or 'Features of the Jew' lists you'll see from days gone by.
posted by josh at 3:23 PM on May 2, 2005

yonation, interesting topic. I am a Jew of eastern European ancestry but i look like a regular white guy, not particularly semitic. My best friend, a Jew of similar origin, swarthy and dark looking, is regularly mistaken for Italian, Arab, or Greek in addition to being identified as a Jew. He also claims (somewhat jokingly, but who knows) that I am probably fair skinned and haired because way back down the line, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother was raped by a Cossack ... which may have some validity, come to think of it.

Sometimes there's a man ... sometimes, there's a man.
posted by LilBucner at 3:31 PM on May 2, 2005

Ah, I understand the question now...

Aside from developing some sort of personal database, it seems to me that the best place to look would be one of those glossy books of photographs (think National Geographic) that goes through a country region by region...

Incidentally, I got a 5 out of 18 on that test and was aghast. I myself am sometimes mistaken for being part Asian (even though my ancestry is Irish and Welsh) simply because I have epicanthic folds...
posted by Specklet at 3:33 PM on May 2, 2005

Yea! 17/18. I'm telling you, those three features make all the difference... And for those who are wondering, I have absolutely ZERO asian blood in my veins; I just know what I'm looking for.
posted by mystyk at 3:48 PM on May 2, 2005

I'd have to go with Specklet's suggestion. There really isn't a way to describe subtle variations in racial features in words. I scored a 12/18 on that test but I couldn't describe in words what particular traits allowed me to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. You really need to create a mental Bayesian filter of sorts by exposing yourself to people and photos until you can spot subtle variations that can lead you to an educated guess about the particular person's race.

The fact that I have grown up around and still have large groups of friends in all three above Asian races and I still got 1 in 3 wrong should give you an idea of how impractical a written "cheat-sheet" would be.
posted by junesix at 4:01 PM on May 2, 2005

ISTR seeing old Army guides for stuff like this from WW2 -- how to tell the friendly Chinaman from THE FILTHY JAP!!! and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:02 PM on May 2, 2005

On preview, I'd be curious if mystyk could describe what particular metrics/combination of the 3 factors mentioned (eye slant amount, face elongation, average height) lead him to the 17/18 score. This isn't meant as a taunt to mystyk - I'm just curious because I've never been able to verbally describe the "formula" to others. Also since the photos are cut off at the shoulders, I'd assume mystyk is making "average height" analogous to "body proportions?"
posted by junesix at 4:09 PM on May 2, 2005

Isn't the "All Look Same" site silly? Isn't implying that someone should be able to reliably distinguish between Chinese/Japanese/Korean somewhat similar to saying you should always be able to distinguish between, say Spanish, Italian and French? There are certain features you can sorta identify as belonging to each identity, but there is so much variation within any given ethnic group that relying on these features is pointless.
posted by crank at 4:45 PM on May 2, 2005

Everybody (evolutionarily) started off hairy and in Africa. When they lost they hair, those that didn't get black died of skin cancer because the sun's rays shine straight down at the equator and pretty much straight down near it.

The whole continent of Africa is pretty a high plateau except for the steeply slopping coasts. In a high altitude, you have lower air pressure and thus thinner air (this is why distance runners train in Africa), so wide nostrils in a wide nose are beneficial, especially is you're chasing down game (or running to keep from becoming game).

Europe is cold, and it was even colder in the ice age 40,000 years ago when modern man immigrated their from Europe. Being out of the sunny equator, white mutants weren't at a disadvantage, but the normal -- that is, black -- people were, because all that melanin that protected them from Africa's sun prevented then from synthesizing Vitamin D, and they got rickets, so the lighter mutants preferentially survived. Mutants with big noses and small nostrils also did better than the normal stock, because both served to warm air before it got to the lungs. (I'm simplifying and ignoring Founders' Effect here.)

In the far North, sunlight glaring off the ice made hunting or seeing long-distance difficult, and people with epicanthic folds -- "slanty eyes" -- out-performed those with "normal" round eyes. Later these people migrated south again, into temperate and equatorial Asia.

Ok, now Founders' effect: until 10,000 or so years ago, everybody live din nomadic tribes of 30 to 150 people. If you ran into trouble, that number could decline even further. A the worst a tribe might decline to a mother and her son, and a new tribe spring from their incestuous loins. In these cases, pure chance could determine what traits survived. If the only two survivors of a phenotypically mixed tribe both happened to be blue-eyed red-heads, and that tribe was isolated geographically -- as with immigrants to new continents who suffered a disaster along the way -- then all their descendents in the new land would be blue-eyed red-heads, until they mixed with newer immigrants. As small groups migrated out into un-peopled lands, chance traits would dominate in their progeny.

And there's credible evidence that humans are incredibly territorial and xenophobic animals, and some evidence that random traits, introduced by Founders' Effect, would be purposely preserved by tribes as marker -- shibboleths -- to distinguish between "us" and "them".
posted by orthogonality at 4:53 PM on May 2, 2005

(crank: Then again, yer average Spaniard does look different from yer average Italian. And I'm sure there are neighborhoods — probably ones with a little tension between Spanish and Italian populations — where mistaking one for the other would get people just as pissed off. I'm not saying it's rational, I'm saying I'm sure it happens.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:56 PM on May 2, 2005

Gads, I got 8/18 and I was so confident, too.

I too would love to hear mystyk's take on how he did so well.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:42 PM on May 2, 2005

5/18. Ok, mystyk, what's the trick?
posted by flabdablet at 7:19 PM on May 2, 2005

One thing worth keeping in mind -- and that the Asker does seem to know -- is that there is much more genetic variation within Africa than outside.

I've been to Ethiopian restaurants in a number of different American cities and have some sense that the women working there All Look Same. Slim; tiny heads; round features. Also, I'm fairly sure that when I've noticed Africans with really elongated skulls (not the face, just the top back of the skull going way back) they've tended to be Nigerian. My two cents.
posted by Aknaton at 7:26 PM on May 2, 2005

I've always been idly interested in guessing peoples' region of ancestry like this. For a while I worked at a college help desk, which gave me a lot of opportunity for practice (that is, I'd learn someone's name and accent as well as their appearance, and if all three of those things were distinctive, I could speculate that they were related). Pacific Islanders always threw me, though, and although I could discern several races of Chinese, I have no idea whether those distinctions were significant to actual Chinese people.

(Kind of like what Aknaton said just now: I've always had a hard time lumping all the totally different looking dark-skinned phenotypes under "Black". Ah well. It's a social construction, I remind myself.)

On the other hand, I did really badly at AllLookSame just now, so maybe I was just fooling myself.
posted by hattifattener at 7:29 PM on May 2, 2005

Human genetics, evolution, DNA, migration: The Genographic Project. Relevant in terms of how facial features are a product of our ancestors' migration accross the globe; Native Americans' relationship to Central Asians results in their facial similarities. (I encourage everyone to participate. I myself am waiting for my results.)
posted by scazza at 10:46 AM on May 3, 2005

Cecil Adams touched on a related issue some time ago.
posted by adamrice at 10:47 AM on May 3, 2005

I did pretty good at guessing Japanese, but Korean and Chinese threw me.

Several people in my family have epicanthic folds. We don't have any Asian ancestry, it's most likely from our Native American ancestors.

I grew up in Southern California. I always found it interesting that the local Hispanic population (mostly Mexican) quite often had an "Asian" look to them, mostly his/her eyes. I made the (possibly) uneducated guess that it had to do with the Bering Strait landbridge.
posted by deborah at 11:04 AM on May 3, 2005

3/18 - does that mean I'm racist or not racist?
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:48 AM on May 3, 2005

If you're still at it, try this: Imagine the person in each picture as having simple, black hair, and imagine that hair as being clean cut and well styled. Try to figure out the overall contours of their face from that. Further imagine them to have the same facial expression, and do your best to modify the facial characteristics there too.

Once you've done that, look for these features: extent of epicanthic folds, extent to which whole head is round or oblong, positioning and shape (not size) of nose relative to eyes and only eyes.

If necessary, look at some reference pictures first, and compare them against those qualities. Although not mentioned in earlier posts, the nose is another factor that works, but not as well as whole body size/shape/height.

To give an example, Japanese are likely to have elongated faces/heads, Chinese tend to have round or slightly oblong faces/heads with tight or medium skin, Koreans tend to have round faces/heads with slightly looser hanging skin.
posted by mystyk at 12:02 PM on May 3, 2005

Maybe there's room for a facial photographic ethnogeographic website -- I had a bit of a look around yesterday and was surprised there wasn't something available.
You need a database of say 50 portrait shots each of typical individuals from perhaps 20 or so (or all) groups of distinct cultural (oh why not come right out and say it: racial) peoples - aligned in pairs or triplets as with Korean/Japanese/Chinese or maybe even including Vietnamese/Cambodian/Thai or maybe you could line up examples from all recognized groups from east asia or at least in some moveable way such that a contrasting juxtaposition is allowed for. Extrapolate out around the world as the whim or photographic material dictated.

Then you have an ethnologist supply group identification facial tropes, as has been mentioned and/or alluded to hereabove. And a geographer or whoever to give their location and perhaps the evolutionary path and timeline they followed. (and stuff it full of google ads and retire to Maui or Vladivostok to continue the study)

You need to be able to simply see a whole bunch of examples alongside faces from similar but different racial groups to build up that memory database someone mentioned.

I'd be surprised if there isn't books that specifically do this sort of thing. As mentioned, there were practical (but no doubt non-PC) wartime guides.

Maybe if you trawl a bit on 'ethnogeography' +/- 'patterns' +/- 'recognition' or the somesuch, with google [+/- google scholar] or in amazon? Otherwise hit the University or local libraries for specialist databases and/or actual live human being (of any racially distinct or indistinct group, but with librarian-type credentials) consultations to identify potentially useful sources.

Or in a less fastidious manner you might try google images +/- flickr and sift using ethnic group names for your own example database. But that would be hit and miss and likely not altogether accurate and would lack the expertise that you probably need to work out which salient features to observe for which clusters of racial groups so that you can learn the identification process.

I'm not sure this answers your question. I've only got suggested models for you here - I use my own brainbased database for distinguishing individuals from different groups and I couldn't impart that without photos and even then I'm not sure what I observe is correct and even then I'm not sure I'd be able to describe them adequately. If you ever construct or find such a website let me know - I'd be an interested visitor for sure.
posted by peacay at 2:01 PM on May 3, 2005

In the far North, sunlight glaring off the ice made hunting or seeing long-distance difficult, and people with epicanthic folds -- "slanty eyes" -- out-performed those with "normal" round eyes. Later these people migrated south again, into temperate and equatorial Asia

In The Journey of Man, it mentions that the epicanthic folds were likely a part of our common genetic heritage, and the "normal" eyes were the mutation... that it was unlikely that the mutation for the epicanthic fold would have happened independently, in two distinct places, but that the original epicanthic fold could more easily be lost.

The Bushmen / San people have this feature, and the author held them up as the closest living example to humanity's initial common ancestor ... and unlike most Africans, these folk do have them.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:44 AM on May 10, 2005

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