Composite Greeks: the Ancient and the Modern
IT IS OFTEN stated either that “modern Greeks look like ancient ones,” or “modern Greeks don’t look like ancient ones” without any kind of factual-based justification which would lead one to accept either opinion.
It is well known that genes recombine in each generation creating unique combinations. This is why “no two people look alike.” This, however, does not apply only to our contemporaries, but also to our ancestors: each of us is unique when compared to both.
It is a fairly reasonable assumption though that if two populations are genetically similar, i.e., they have similar distributions of alleles, then their average human types will also be similar. If we find these to be divergent then we can be sure that we are dealing with different populations. If, however, we find them to be the same, then we have an important piece of evidence in support of genetic similarity, perhaps the best indication of racial continuity which we can hope for until such time as DNA analysis of ancient remains can become a reality.
To test whether ancient and modern Greeks look alike, I created averaged faces of 16 modern Greeks (foootball players from the 2002-2003 Champions League) and of 16 ancient Greeks (from extant marble portraits), using Morpher, a software package for morphing. The composites were created by pairwise averaging, i.e., 16 initial portraits led to 8 pairwise ones, then to 4, 2 and finally a single composite. The results are shown below:
One needs to discount the differences due to the absence of pigmentation in ancient marble portraits, as well as the preference for beards in ancient times and for their absence in modern ones. With these caveats in mind, we observe the close similarity of the two composites, with noticeably squarish face, lowness of subnasal region, squarish eye sockets, high leptorrhine nose, robust cheekbones and various other subjective features. To further test the similarity of the two, the two portraits were aligned and the corresponding landmarks were joined:
A further composite image was created with the left side taken from the ancient average and the right one taken from the modern one. This further illustrates the correspondence between the two.
From the near perfect alignment we conclude that there is remarkable metrical similarity between the two composites, as our intuition suggested, with near-perfect alignment of all physiognomic landmarks.
This study is not intended to prove that the first notion, that “modern Greeks look like ancient ones,” is correct. It does however make this notion much more likely, in conjunction with the other anthropological, historical and ethnographic pieces of evidence for genetic continuity in the Aegean basin.