Just curious
February 11, 2007 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Were Native American men (before any intermingling with other peoples) really unable to grow facial hair?

This is something I've always wondered. I know guys who say, "Oh I can't grow a beard" but what they really mean is that the hair would look all wispy and pathetic if they tried. But are/were there really adult human males who (barring any one-off genetic mutation, etc.) really don't have any facial hair, not even teenage moustache-type facial hair? Is it just like bare-chestedness (as opposed to hairy-chestedness)?
posted by Jess the Mess to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My Franco-Canadian ancestors were "Metis", meaning they were a mix of the European and Native genes. All of the men in my immediate family can grow beards, but if you look back to a closer generation to the actual incident, you'll find guys that are never pictured with facial hair of any kind, even though it was vogue at the time.

I also had reactions to vaccination shots, which I've been told is indicative of my native heritage as well.
posted by thanotopsis at 2:56 PM on February 11, 2007

Interesting question. This site says "Native American men from Pacific Coast tribes, for example, often have heavy facial hair while other Native American men have none"; it's a museum site, so it's presumably to be taken as representing some kind of actual scholarship, but it would be good to see a reference to a scientific study.
posted by languagehat at 3:03 PM on February 11, 2007

This is often said about Asian men as well (and when my husband grows his winter beard or sports pork chops of any kind, he gets stopped all the time on the street by men who want to touch and talk about his beard).

I've always understood this to mean that they were not able to grow a full beard (sort of like the wispy, scraggly look you mention) — not that they were completely unable to grow facial hair of any kind.
posted by Brittanie at 3:27 PM on February 11, 2007

On both sides I have some Métis heritage, and it seems like beardedness pops up in some but not others. I can myself grow a truly epic traditional beard if I wanted... but some cousins and even one of my brothers can not. A few in my extended family can grow no hair at all on their face, except for small patches around the mouth.
posted by clord at 4:00 PM on February 11, 2007

Given that the native population of the Americas migrated across the Bering landbridge, they came from Asia originally. Northeast asians vary quite widely in their degree of hirsuteness, of course, but on the average are less hairy than, say Europeans. Here in Korea (which prides itself (disconcertingly in these modern times) on 'racial' homogeneity (and overestimates it as well)) probably 75% of men have no hair on their forearms or shins, at all, for example. I'd have to guess that that hasn't changed appreciably in a couple of tens of thousands of years, and if it's representative of other NE Asian groups, then I'd assume that'd be reflected in native populations in the Americas.

The answer probably lies in the direction of individual variation with a tendency towards little body hair.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:51 PM on February 11, 2007

"Native American" is way too broad a category here -- there were multiple founding populations and 12,000+ years of adaptive radiation producing a heterogeneous population (though, on a global scale, a relatively homogenous one). Some groups are probably hairier that others! Although, there is no question that on average, Indigenous Americans (north and south) had less facial hair than Europeans and Africans, and, perhaps, on average less than East Asians (whatever these racial groups may mean).

But within that population there were some native Americans who could and did grow quite impressive beards. If you look at illustrated accounts of first European exploration you will find some men with beards. I am most familiar with the Northwest Coast, where Haida and Tlingit men are not uncommonly pictured with full beards at times well before any real chance of European genetic input. For example, this 1870 photograph of Haida Chiefs. Considering the man is about 40 in 1870, this puts his birth into a very early historical context for the NWC. (Most Haida men that I know grow very little facial hair but a few, including the President of the Haida Nation, are quite fuzzy) I personally know of a small antler chisel handle carved into the form of a heavily-bearded man's head - this artifact dates to sometime before 5,000 years ago, from the Vancouver area. I uploaded a grainy picture of it here - it's artifact "k", obviously.

You might find some good research starting points in this paper on human skin variability from the Journal of Human Evolution. The primary author of that paper also has a recent popular book on diversity of human skin types that may well include material on human hair diversity. Otherwise, a textbook on Physical Anthropology (aka Biological Anthropology) would be the best place to look - and for something like this, the older the text the better.
posted by Rumple at 5:39 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Rumple, did you read my comment above?
posted by languagehat at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2007

I wouldn't dismiss the possibility that differences in the Pacific NW could be accounted for by European contact - the Spanish explored along that coast fairly early on and the Russian-American Company had posts as far south as California by 1812.

The Google search results look pretty useful, though.
posted by dilettante at 6:20 PM on February 11, 2007

oh - hey languagehat, good link. scooped by a frickin' linguist

The Burke Museum is a solid research institution, especially on this topic since they have been the repository for the "Kennewick Man" remains and have been caught up in that race-based shitstorm. The picture they use by Curtis, though, there could have easily been genetic mixing by ca. 1910, especially in a heavily settled area. So I am not sure that's their strongest point. A lot of the North Coast and Outer Coast folks sported beards, based on my mental map of older ethnographies. Interestingly, the East Asian group with the most hirsute men is most likely the Ainu (e.g.) - there is some genetic evidence that the first wave of humans into the Americas share a genetic history with the Ainu, who probably represent the remnant "hunter-gatherer-fisher" indigenous population of Japan. This is consistent with a pan Pacific Rim 'coastal Beringia - coastal corridor' route of entry into the Americas, vs. the now-doubtful Ice Free Corridor

What's also interesting is how oblique Anthropologists are about this stuff now -- while race is a discredited notion, the idea of foci of genetic traits isn't. So a lot of the most relevant references are probably from 1880-1940 when the idea of running around measuring facial hairiness would have been very mainstream - now it would be considered a triviality, and a borderline politically-suspect one as well. Probably the definitive study will come when someone wants to market speciality shampoos for Indigenous Americans.
posted by Rumple at 6:22 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

dilettante -- it's certainly possible. In the case of the Haida, almost all the contact with Europeans pre-1850 was in the Maritime Fur Trade. The Europeans almost never went ashore, but did all their trade on board. The only women recorded coming close to the trade ships, to my knowledge, were the female leaders of the matrilineages -- mainly older women. After about 1820 there were no more sea otter, and European contact declined even more. Same pattern for West Coast of Vancouver Island. So, there were probably many fewer, but of course, not zero, chances for euro-native shags. Around the Hudson Bay forts, different story.
posted by Rumple at 6:29 PM on February 11, 2007

I am about 50% descended from Mayan heritage and I grow very little hair. I have no hair on my back and only about 6 hairs on my chest. I am certainly incapable of growing a beard. I only grow facial hair on my chin and upper lip, and even at that I have to grow it out for about 3 weeks to even come close to something resembling a scraggly mustache. I grow no hair on my jawline and could never have a 5 o'clock shadow. Whether that means that at some point in the past I had and ancestor who was incapable of growing any facial hair at all, I don't know, but it certainly seems possible.
posted by caflores22 at 6:03 AM on February 12, 2007

My step-brother is 1/8 Cherokee and he can only grow a goatee. Looks clean shaven outside of that area
posted by Mick at 6:13 AM on February 12, 2007

One data point: The "Incas" (Quechua speakers) in Peru that I met definitely could not grow a beard. Their face was as smooth as a woman's or prep-pubescent boy's face.
posted by FastGorilla at 12:36 PM on February 12, 2007

I am of the Mi'kmaq First Nation, out of Nova Scotia. Although I am female, I also have very little body hair, and what little does exist is extremely fine. On areas such as my forearms, it is practically invisible.

Almost all the native men that I grew up with had a hard time growing any decent facial hair, if any. Now you must remember, we've been mixing with Europeans since the 1600's, so there is definitely some mixed blood happening. But still to this day, most Mi'kmaq men do not have much, if any facial hair, as it just tends to be a few sparse hairs here and there.

Any that I have seen bare-chested, such as in the summer time, also had virtually no chest hair, as well as none on their backs.

Not scientific facts, but it is based on first hand observations over numerous years, from an Aboriginal woman. Hope it might prove helpful...
posted by Jade Dragon at 12:30 AM on February 13, 2007

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