Why do Somalians look so distinct?

First of all, I apologize if this question sounds racist in any way and if anyone is offended by it. I’m just curious.

There’s a large Somalian community in Liverpool, and I find it strange how they have a certain “look” that is completely different from any other type of African. I can’t think of any other nationality where you can look at a person and say, “yep, they are definately from Country X”

As an example, here’s a picture of actor Barkhad Abdi. He has all the features I’m talking about: a large forehead, heavy-lidded eyes, prominent teeth, and a sort of “gaunt” look.

I was wondering if there is a reason why Somalians look so distinct? Do they have a different genetic background from the rest of Africa? Perhaps cultural standards of beauty has led them to favour certain features?

Are there any other nationalities that have very distinct facial features such as this?

[PS Yes, I am aware of confirmation bias, and I’m not trying to say that every single Somalian person looks the same!]

Somalis and most of the North East horn of Africa populations (like Ethiopia, like Eritrea, like Djibouti) are yes distinct genetic population from that of neighboring ‘black’ populations, and yes with a similar look (and languages that are what is now called “Afro-Asiatic”).

It is nonsense to say Somalis do not generally mix with non-somalis, this has no basis in history.

This sub-article from the Wikipedia on Somali genetics as shared with N. E. Africans is useful. It is perhaps that the populations of the ancient middle east budded off from the populations that became them and there has been mixing ever since.

This article summary of the PLOS journal from this year on back and forth flow of population is also interesting.

If you Google Image “Somali”, and then “Ethiopian”, “Eritrean” and “Yemeni”, I notice that a proportion of the results of each fall into that same quite distinctive pattern - the long face, long straight nose and narrow full mouth. So it looks like there is a distinctive-looking ethnic group in that region, but that’s not all that uncommon - red-haired Celts (or are they Picts? I never remember) in Scotland are just as distinguishable.

Just chiming in to say that I find Sheffield’s Somalis equally distinctive. Thanks for starting the thread.

I don’t think you need to worried about voicing such a generalisation. It only matters if you use it in order to prejudge or discriminate.

Certain physical characteristics are prevalent in certain groups. In African it is likely that we have much more genetic variation between tribes and areas than we do in all of the “out of Africa” populations as a whole.
That’s simply because Africa came first and the diversification of the population has been going for so much longer. It is pretty much what you would expect. So not surprising that we can express what we mean by a “typical” Somalian. Equally not surprising that such characteristics are an imperfect definition. They can be shared by others outside of Somalia and not shared by some within Somalia.

So if you use that physical checklist as a means of amusing yourself and seeing if your guess was correct, fine. If you decided to discriminate on the basis of the guess…not fine.

I remember first noticing that I could really recognise Somalis (I taught in Inner London) without ever hearing them speak. Then I realised that it’s just that Somalis are more common in the UK than other East Africans. The East African phenotype does tend towards certain characteristics like being of wirey body (though this may be due to generational malnutrition) and the face as described above. You’re basically just recognising that someone has traits shared by an extremely large area and most of the people you come across from that extremely large area are from one country.

That’s what I was going to say as well- I never have been able to tell by looking if someone’s Ethiopian, Eritrean or Somali, but they’re relatively easy to distinguish from say… your typical Kenyans or Sudanese.

It’s similar to saying you can tell among Europeans that someone’s from the Mediterranean, without necessarily being able to say whether they’re Italian, Spanish, Greek or whatever.

Good points. If you bump into a ginger, it’s likely that they are Irish or Scottish, but it’s significantly more difficult to say which. And even then, there are enough outliers to be noticeable if you pay attention. There some Irish people that look more Turkish or Arab than Celtic at all, and you can almost certainly find at least a handful of Egyptians who are paler than 80% of Scots.

In other words, these traits work fine for large-scale statistical analysis. Yes, Swedes are more likely to be blonde than Romanians, and Russians have, on average, paler skin than Sicilians. That doesn’t mean that this applies to every member.

You owe the piper five Egyptian ginger kids.

Isolated gene pool. Same reason Inuits or Maoris look distinct.

Isolated how? Somalia has a great deal of coastline and was a hub of trade into and out of Africa for centuries. Leaving aside the fact that there are other populous countries next to it.

They are not at all isolated, why do you write such things? The genetic analysis I have already quoted already shows exactly the opposite in that which concerns back and forth flow with Near East / Asia.

An American here. I’ve also noticed that Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis sort of look roughly alike and generally different from black sub-saharan Africans.

Based on absolutely nothing but proximity I’ve always assumed that this was because they had a good opportunity to interbreed with the Arabs just across the Red Sea and the Egyptians just to the north. It’s a pretty piddling sea and I would think folks could, and probably did, get back and forth with some regularity for several thousand years. Both the Egyptians and Arabs did tend to get around a lot.

Perfectly happy to be proven wrong - ignorance fought and all that.

Just out of curiosity, are you proposing that they have a certain typical appearance, but that it is not driven by genes?

If genes do drive it, what would be the evidence that there is plenty of mixing? Why would that not homogenize the typical appearance?

She is saying they look distinct because there is more contact with outside peoples, rather than less (I think).

I think a large part of this is just because you’ve seen a lot of Somalians, so you’ve learned how to distinguish the typical look.

There are lots of distinct “looks” in Sub-Saharan Africa (and everywhere else, for that matter). If you spend a lot of time around Africans, you are not going to confuse a Dinka with a Mborroro with a San person. But because these communities aren’t present in large numbers near you, you probably haven’t had a chance to make much of a mental image of what a typical Dinka person looks like.

But those are recent centuries, which occurred long after the millennia of isolation during which their characteristics settled. The only country next to Somalia is Ethiopia, and those two peoples resemble each other more than they resemble other Africans. Even in modern times, the Kenya/Somali border is one of the most difficult to cross, due to a vast inhospitable and unpopulated region along the frontier.

Let’s cut to the chase here:

When a (contiguous) population has a typical appearance, it’s because the frequency of genes driving that appearance is higher for that population than for populations without that average typical phenotype.

If the typical appearance occurs elsewhere, either there has been gene spread, or independently developed genes creating a similar appearance phenotype.

Why would you think this? i think the articles on genetic exchange between Near East and the North East Africa are more than clear.

One need have only a sensation of the typical appearance of the people in the south est of the Yemen, like the Aden and the Hadramaouatine and similar population in the Yemen to have your answer, yes, many white Yemanite population have an appearance that is not that different, although of lighter skin, that many in the Horn.

It is not very difficult, the two have clearly exchanges for thousands and thousands of years. This should be no surprise, and the genetic information so confirms.

Exactly, thank you.

What millennia of isolation? Travels along the east African coast, with crossings to Arabia, is one of the oldest and most continuous pathways of human migration in the world. (Ramira is correct.)

And what do you mean by “their characteristics settled”?