What the 'Ideal' European Man Looks Like, Country by Country

Do these facial composites merely represent national averages, or are they national "ideals"?

What the 'Ideal' European Man Looks Like, Country by Country

This map is slightly disconcerting. Cartophilia is a form of voyeurism; a benign form, I'd like to think — but all the same, it would be nice if the map didn't stare back at its reader (1). And yet here we have a map of Europe reflecting our impertinent glances more than two dozen times over.


What makes these 29 pairs of eyes even more unsettling is the fact that these are not real people. Each face is a composite, assembled from the mugshots of between 10 to 24 male athletes from each of the 29 European countries represented here. This gallery of facial averages is like a collection of artist's sketches of usual suspects pinned to the bulletin board of a police station.

Who are these imaginary men? What are their faces trying to tell us? As averages of random but comparable samples by country, these faces are uniquely "national." The French face is the Frenchest face possible, and the German face couldn't be any more German, et cetera. Does that mean these faces are merely average? Or are they in some way "ideal"? Or — and this is even more disconcerting — could it perhaps be that to be facially average is ideal?

This map was produced by Dienekes Pontikos, who runs an anthropological blog dedicated to human population genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and history. Genetics is fascinating but complex, and general knowledge of the field is superficial and anecdotal — hands up anyone who knows what the acronym DNA stands for (2). Hence this mugshot map of Europe, a clever and simple way to demonstrate the principle of genetic variation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pontikos does not reveal exactly how he went about assembling the portraits for this map. It would be interesting to know why these nearly 30 men, despite each being put together from apparently different national databases, look so eerily alike.

It casts the mind back to The Seven Daughters of Eve, the book in which genetics professor Bryan Sykes posits the theory that almost all native Europeans are descended from no more than seven prehistorical women. Are these their "Twenty-Nine Average Descendants"?

Beyond the obvious resemblance, there are equally noticeable differences. Although none of these guys is as blonde as suggested by the Blonde Map of Europe (#214), the northern fellows are generally lighter-skinned and -haired than their southern cousins. But not by all that much.

And yet... looking at each of their faces, it's hard to escape the subconscious conclusion: But of course, look at those eyebrows, that nose: That's what a typical (insert nationality here) looks like.

That's how insidiously our brain confuses "average" with "ideal." Perhaps it's just as well that this map stares back at us, giving us pause to consider the automatism of our facial feature-based prejudices. Because when it comes to looks, nobody is average.

Not all of Europe's countries are represented on the map, by the way. There's no average Andorran, no median Monégasque. The Vatican, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Malta apparently also don't field enough male athletes to produce a composite mugshot (3). But it's not just the mini-states that are missing. Some medium-sized nations also lack representation: Ireland, Denmark, Moldova, Albania and Macedonia. Also missing are Kosovo and Montenegro, not yet independent at the time this map was produced, in early 2006.

Mr. Pontikos offered to complement the map: “If your country is not listed here, and you know of a good source of facial athlete pictures, e.g., the website of soccer team(s), drop me a line.” But of course, that was nine years ago. It would be interesting to update the map in its entirety, though: The faces staring back at us would probably be less white than back then. 

Original post here, on Mr. Pontikos's Anthropology blog.

Strange Maps #745

(1) It does occasionally happen, though. See #684.

(2) Deoxyribonucleic acid. But what does that mean? And so on.

(3) One imagines a mashup of 10 to 24 popes' faces. And then one wishes one hadn't.

How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

Smart vultures never, ever cross the Spain-Portugal border. Why?

The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.

The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal. (Image: Eneko Arrondo)
Surprising Science

So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet. 

Keep reading Show less

Best. Science. Fiction. Show. Ever.

"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.

Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
13-8
  • Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
  • For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
  • No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise changes your brain biology and protects your mental health

Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images
Mind & Brain

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.

Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Here's a 10-step plan to save our oceans

By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Quantcast