Over the years I’ve looked at a number of photographs depicting traditional, non-westernized people who live under natural, non-industrialized conditions. One of the things I’ve repeatedly noticed and found enthralling is that such people generally have well-developed, beautiful faces. They don’t use skin lotions, cosmetics, shampoo, or conditioner, brush their teeth, or have access to dentists or orthodontists, and they certainly don’t go for facial on a regular basis; however, they typically have well-developed, sizeable jaws and dental arches, broad nostrils, well-aligned, caries-free teeth, thick, nice hair, and acne-free, healthy-looking skin nonetheless. They don’t all qualify as being “the epitome of perfection”, but they generally have distinct, “strong”, and beautiful facial features.
This is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it can help inform us about what constitutes the natural human condition and how environmental factors influence human facial development.
A person’s physical appearance is reflective of that person’s nutritional condition, health status, and developmental experiences
Part of the reason why I have a habit of seeking out and looking at photos of traditional people is that one can infer a lot about a person’s health status, nutritional condition, and developmental experiences by examining his or her physical appearance, given that one possesses basic knowledge about how various environmental factors affect our health and physical development. If one starts to compare people who belong to different groups or populations, one will quickly notice that patterns start to emerge.
This is particularly true if one compares two groups of people who live under completely different environmental conditions, such as hunter-gatherers and westerners. In westernized nations, tooth decay and acne vulgaris run rampant, malocclusion and dental crowing are very common conditions, and it’s not unusual to have an underdeveloped mandible and narrow nasal passages. This is in stark contrast to the situation described in the introduction.
Unlike traditional people, individuals who live in industrialized nations have access to an arsenal of beauty products and devices and have the option of modifying their appearance via surgical treatments. These modern inventions may be powerful; however, they don’t fully undo the damage we inflict on our bodies via our unnatural and evolutionary novel way of life. Rather, they merely mask or suppress symptoms of a problem, often just temporarily.
A depiction of the facial characteristics of hunter-gatherers and other traditional people
Caveats: The traditional people who travelers, explorers, and researchers have visited and taken photos of in modern times don’t live under the exact same conditions as those ancient humans lived under. Moreover, they don’t carry the exact same genes or epigenetic markers. Hence, their physical appearance isn’t a perfect representation of the original human condition. Moreover, the sample of traditional people depicted in the photographs above isn’t necessarily 100% representative of the larger population. I deliberately included photos that I find beautiful and that clearly depict the facial features I talk about in this article. With that said, the individuals who are shown in the photos are certainly not outliers with respects to their physical appearance.
Common facial characteristics of traditional people and their underlying etiological factors
- Acne-free skin
Hunter-gatherers and other traditional, non-westernized people rarely get zits (1, 2, 3). This can largely be explained by the fact that they eat a nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, low-glycemic load diet and generally harbor a diverse microbiota that agrees well with the human biology.
- Well-developed faces, including broad nostrils and sizeable jaws and dental arches with ample room for a full set of teeth
Malocclusion was a rare disorder among our hunter-gatherer forebears, who in general appear to have had well-developed faces, including broad nostrils and sizeable jaws and dental arches with ample room for a full set of teeth (4, 5, 6, 7). Things changed with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, which softened the human diet. Hard and abrasive wild foods were largely replaced with mass-produced, soft, and processed food, and as a result, much less stress was imposed on the human masticatory system, which in combination with other factors (e.g., factors related to nutrition and infant feeding practices) resulted in underdevelopment of various parts of the human face.
- Lean faces characterized by ‘strong’ features
Many overweight, non-traditional people have a somewhat ‘plump’ and round face. ‘Hunter-gatherer faces’ on the other hand are distinctly ‘lean’, with well-defined, strong features. These characteristic differences are obviously related to body fat level disparities. Hunter-gatherers are lean, something that’s reflected in their faces.
- Healthy-looking skin and hair
People who live under ‘natural’ conditions not only don’t get acne, but their skin looks healthy and ‘hardy’. Moreover, they tend to have thick, healthy-looking hair. The skin and hair of many westerners, on the other hand, look somewhat lifeless, thin, and fragile. There’s no doubt in my mind that part of the reason why this is the case is that a lot of westerners bombard their skin and hair with chemical cocktails in the form of cosmetics, lotions, conditioners, and hair gels. I very much question the notion that such products protect the skin and hair; rather, I think they (or at least some varieties of them) inflict damage. This makes sense from a Darwinian point of view, and is also indirectly supported by research showing that many beauty products contain ingredients of questionable safety (8, 9, 10). Another reason why traditional people have such healthy-looking skin and hair is undoubtedly that they eat a nutrient-rich diet, spend a lot of time outside, and aren’t exposed to artificial lighting.
- White, caries-free teeth
Hunter-gatherers don’t brush their teeth with Colgate every morning, but they’re not riddled with cavities nonetheless. Some contemporary traditional people, such as the Hadza hunter-gatherers, have been shown to be afflicted by tooth decay (11); however, if we are to believe the fossil evidence, the oral health condition of preagricultural humans was very good (7, 12, 13, 14). It wasn’t until large quantities of carbohydrates were infused into the human diet with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions that Streptococcus mutans and other caries-causing bacteria started to flourish (12, 13).
Significance and practical applications
The facial characteristics listed above are generally perceived as being attractive and pleasing, which isn’t surprising, given that they are representative of the ‘natural’ human condition. It would make little sense for natural selection to shape for example male lions in such a way that they are attracted to features that are uncharacteristic or uncommon among female lions. Moreover, the listed characteristics are reflective of good health and vitality. Healthy organisms are more likely to produce physically robust offspring than unhealthy organisms, ‘spread’ health, as opposed to illness (e.g., via transfer of bacteria), and be productive, resourceful companions; hence, it makes obvious sense that we find physical traits that are indicative of good health attractive.
Perhaps needless to say, we don’t have complete control over how we look. Our physical appearance is largely determined by heritable factors that lie outside of our control. With that said, a person’s developmental trajectory and facial evolution are greatly influenced by environmental factors, in particular stimuli imposed during the early years of life. By emulating certain critical aspects of the diet and lifestyle of traditional people, we can alter, to some extent, the way our faces develop and look.
Pictures: 1: Taken by Staffan Lindeberg. Used with his permission. 2: CC picture by Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. Some rights reserved. 3: CC picture by Max Chiswick. Some rights reserved. 4: CC picture by Andy Maano. Some rights reserved. 5: CC picture by Yves Picq. Some rights reserved. 6: No known copyright restrictions. 7: CC picture by Dmitri Markine. Some rights reserved. 8: No copyright restrictions. 9: CC picture by Lisa Grey. Some rights reserved. 10: CC picture by Luis Ovalles. Some rights reserved. 11: CC picture by A_Peach. Some rights reserved. 12: No copyright restrictions. 13: No known copyright restrictions.