I've heard from many people working in tourism or similar industries that, white Australians can be recognized as Australian solely by their facial features. Being Australian myself I've heard variants of the claim quite often and lean towards the claim being at least, a possibility.

While it's true that people tend to see patterns when there are none or incorrectly attribute, why they correctly recognize something. I don't necessarily think that is the case here. Australians don't tend to dress in a distinguishing way when overseas, and people have recognized them before hearing them speak. Given the extent to which I hear this claim made, I can't completely dismiss it.

Examples of claims

This article from an Australian newspaper in 1943 interviews an artist who when asked if Australians have a racial type, says he thinks that it was generally possible to distinguish an Australian [from other Caucasians] due to differences in the nose and differences in the jaw.

Googling for terms like "look Australian" returns examples of the claims strewn around the internet, such as this forum thread and this blog.

Also of note is the art project to show the average face of Sydney, of which the following quote is relevant:

In many cases, however, the likeness is so strong that it's possible to guess the nationality just by taking a cursory glance at the photo.

Reasons for thinking it may be possible

I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to biology, although there are a few reasons I think this might be possible. The (relatively) small gene pool from when Australia was colonized could have led to features from a small group being inherited in a large population.

There seems to be some evidence that environment can play a large role in influencing genetics more so than ethnicity. I can't find the paper investigating that, although will update this question if I am able to.

It seems possible to me that facial features belonging to the original colonists could have spread through subsequent populations, becoming a defining characteristic for some Australians.

I don't think most immigrants are relevant to this question as they will not have inherited distinguishing features (if they exist), nor will they or their parents/grandparents have been able to be influenced by the environment - if that is even a relevant factor.


Do a significant number of white Australians, excluding 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, have distinct facial features unique or generally only found in Australia?

Is it reasonable that some white Australians could be recognized as Australian, going only by facial features?

  • $\begingroup$ Why the downvote? How can I improve the question? $\endgroup$ Mar 4 '12 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Our brains are incredibly good at two things. 1) Seeing patterns, even when there is none 2) recording hits and discarding misses. It is very likely that the people who told you that had either recognized Aussies from other features (e.g. wearing flip flops in the middle of winter :P) or that they just recalled the times when they recognized Australians just by their looks, conveniently forgetting the times when they did not. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 6 '12 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ @nico that may be likely, although as an Australian who spent an inordinate amount of time overseas, I do feel like I can sometimes tell Australians by face alone. Aussies don't tend to dress like the cliche when overseas, so dress isn't really a distinguishing factor. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 '12 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand the downvotes. I'm asking if it is possible or not. Is the question really so ridiculous that it doesn't merit an answer? $\endgroup$ Mar 7 '12 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ I actually upvoted it, I think it is a good question, too bad there is no Anthropology SE :D. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 7 '12 at 7:53

Yes, it is possible (on some average basis, i.e. with chance better than random).

Take a look at average women faces from 41 different countries (AFAIK created with Face Research software; sadly no picture for Australia). Clearly, even from small and nearby European countries you can spot differences (which work on the average). I guess the case of Austriala vs other countries isn't an exception. Similar face averages are also on the project Face of Tomorrow.

However, when dealing with a single subjects it it may be not a reliable method to tell of his/her nationality or country of origin, as:

  • even within an relatively isolated group there is variance in genotype and phenotype,
  • people do move (especially now) and do mix (so unless you are comparing isolated islands you should't expect to have homogenous genotype).

Moreover, when identifying a person we may (even subconsciously) look at different features (including clothes, accent, behaviour, context, ...).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As much as I like that "average face" link, it only remains an exercise in style. Obviously averaging different faces will give different results. What you would have to do to make it meaningful is getting different subset of faces from the same country and show that all the subset give similar results (I guess we could call that face bootstrapping). Then, as a negative control, take various faces from different countries and show that those characteristics do not show up anymore. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 8 '12 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @nico I am hoping that someone may explain why or why not what I propose in my question would be possible, although average a decent sample size and looking for patterns would also give a good indication. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '12 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ @nico I agree with your scrutiny, as the result is not cross-validated. However, it is not hard to design a test when people see two faces (single, not averaged) and two countries (and their task is to match them). I bet that even for nearby countries (e.g. Germany and France) one can guess with >50%. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '12 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Piotr Migdal: sure, that would also be another very good way to do it. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 9 '12 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer deals with the general case of recognizing someone by their nationality and not Australia specifically. I think that Australia is a special case as most people would not believe white Australians could have a distinct look, as they simply look white. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '12 at 13:49

It seems unlikely, but it's possible. The mechanisms that might occur (that I can think of) are:

1) if the Australians had some rare genetic traits that became more common in the australian gene pool than in the UK gene pool, it is possible. This is what happened with eastern Asia and the Y chromosome, which something like 40% from a single individual.

For this to be the case, it would be necessary that: Australia's gene pool must be isolated - very little immigration to the company and mixing with other gene pools. (i think not- what do you say?)

2) the diet of Australians caused their general body or face to be distinctive. As there is a lot of fast food in Australia now (and obesity) I'm guessing that this is simply not the case, at least compared to the UK and US.

Since there is no direct study (that I can find) all we can go on is anecdotal thought experiment.

As far as cognitive bias goes, I'm Asian American and I've heard many many (maybe most Asians say that they can tell one nationality vs another just by appearance).

Whenever I have tested myself or others I have not found anyone who can tell that i am 100% Japanese genetically. This is probably because diet in the midwest where i grew up was so corn rich and I've been mistaken for nearly everything, including Latino backgrounds. Most people think I'm Filipino, which is great except that I am not :)

Even when I ask Asians to look at other Asians and guess, it seems pretty rare that one can be consistently correct. There has been a lot of gene migration between countries there, even though the national groups are much much older than Australia. This is why I really doubt that Australians have been genetically isolated long enough or strongly enough for this to really be likely.

It would be pretty simple to get a bunch of pictures together, say 100, and test this if you really want to know.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know about alllooksame.com? $\endgroup$ Mar 11 '12 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ ha - good one! I hope I wasn't trying to subliminally prove a point, but for faces I scored 6/16. the average is 7. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Mar 12 '12 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Could you maybe expand on point 1 and 2 showing that what you say is possible? There is no direct study with Australians but there should be for your underlying points? $\endgroup$ Mar 14 '12 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ RE Australia's gene pool being isolated, it surely was at the formation of the country and likely stayed so for many years, perhaps this could have had an effect? $\endgroup$ Mar 15 '12 at 6:05

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