The modern human face

Anatomically modern humans have a facial structure that is different from our evolutionary predecessors and close relatives. Here’s how to recognize it.

I’ve occasionally read that Neanderthals were so similar to modern humans that you wouldn’t notice one if you walked by them on the street.  This is probably not true.  Leaving aside the question of whether people who write things like that know anything about what I, personally, am and am not likely to notice, anatomically modern humans have quite different facial structures from anything else out there today, and also from any of our hominid relatives.  That includes Neanderthals.

In recent posts, we’ve talked about three unique features of the anatomically modern human face:

If you’re not sure about what any of those mean and you want to know, follow the links, which will take you to illustrated posts on each of those individual features.

The tendency to notice faces, and the ability to read facial expressions, seem to be very important in humans, based on things like the sophistication of the musculature that we have for controlling facial expressions, the amount of the motor nervous system that is developed to controlling those muscles, and the skill that most humans have in recognizing facial expressions of emotion.  For an accessible discussion of the psychology and biology of all of this, see this Wikipedia page.  Chimpanzees are lousy at recognizing human facial expressions–dogs can be pretty good at it, though.  (There’s a lot of variation here, so don’t get pissed at your dog if he doesn’t seem to be up to the task.  He undoubtedly has other charms.  Another cool thing that dogs can learn to do, but chimpanzees can’t: understand that when you point in a direction, they should look that way.)

If you’ve read the preceding posts, and you can remember these three features–forehead, chin, and being located under the eyes–then I’m guessing that you can impress your kids the next time you go to the zoo/museum/catacombs by explaining what to notice about the faces of the skulls of the various and sundry critters that they’ll see.  Want to test yourself?  Here are some skulls to check out.  See if you can tell which are anatomically modern humans and which aren’t.  Answers at the bottom of the post, along with some French vocabulary for talking about faces.



human and neanderthal Skulls-800x430
human infant skull replica product-754-main-original-1415040576
australopithecus skull Mrs_Ples.jpg
bornean orangutan variants_large_3886
human skull discolored clone s521972503441136676_p925_i1_w640.jpeg


  1. Modern human.  This is the ballot box from Yale’s Cross and Bones society.  Picture source:
  2. Modern human in the front, Neanderthal behind it.  Picture source:
  3. Modern human infant.  (Trick question.)  This is a reproduction of the skull of a deceased 4-month-old child.  Human infant skulls are similar to chimpanzee infant skulls in that they both have foreheads (which the chimp will lose as it ages), but note that the human infant’s face is located beneath the eyes.  Picture source:
  4. Australopithecus.  No lower jaw, so you can’t look for a chin, but notice the lack of a forehead and the forward-protruding muzzle (i.e., the face is not located under the eyes).  Picture source:
  5. Chimpanzee–underside of skull.  You don’t have to look for a forehead or a chin to know that this wasn’t an anatomically modern human–the muzzle protrudes way out in front.  Picture source:
  6. Bornean orangutan.  Picture source:
  7. Modern human.  (Replica.)  If you got this one wrong: maybe the discoloration threw you off?  It’s totally typical, though–forehead, face below the eyes, and a chin.  Picture source:
  • la figure: face.
  • le visage: face. I think this might be a higher register of language than la figure–perhaps more literary?  Not sure.  Here’s a link to the Noir Désir song Des visages des figures, just for fun:
  • le sourcil: eyebrow.  The l at the end is silent, unlike most word-final l‘s.
  • le cil: eyelash.  This l is pronounced.
  • la joue: cheek.
  • un œil: eye.  Pronunction: [œj].  That is: the L is silent.  Follow the link to the Lawless French web site if you want to hear a recording of the proper pronunciation.  (I threw this one in despite the fact that we all probably know it because I was recently in a French theater class, and I noticed that NONE of the students (including me) was sure how to pronounce it when it would come up in a play, despite the fact that we all had good enough handles on French to talk about Molière in it.  Like I always say–it’s the little things that get you…)
  • les pattes: sideburns.
  • la barbe: beard.
  • barbe-à-papa: cotton candy.
  • la gueule: mouth.  Ta gueule!  Shut up!
  • être très physionomiste: to have a good memory for faces
  • le/la physionomiste: bouncer






6 thoughts on “The modern human face”

      1. Ha, ha….did not know that one. I always heard ‘bouncer’ referred to as ‘videur’ (which is also quite apt if not as funny!)


  1. Hem… all “videurs” are not physionomistes and there are physionomistes doing other jobs than bouncers . Sorry you got another preposition wrong : it is barbe-à-papa” . I wonder where you could hear “barbe de papa” and there must be hyphens in proper French since it’s a genuine compound noun.
    An interesting point is beside figure and visage French has another correct noun to say the face : la face !
    About sidedurns, a more cultured word is “les favoris” . Funny isn’it ? Slang : les rouflaquettes .
    Now la gueule is not the mouth in general . For sure “Ferme ta gueule” means shut up but la gueule usually means the face . “Il fait une drôle de gueule”, “Il a une sale gueule” . But gueule is a coarse word, and there also are DOZENS of slang and colloquial words meaning the face .
    I see you didn’t dare venturing in the special plural of un oeil …
    The Southern wink : in at least half of France people pronounce the final “l” of sourcil just like for cil .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, gueule is no really right yet . We say “la gueule” for an animal’s mouth and it is a proper word . For humans it’s a coarse word but as I said it mostly means the face . ” Un coup de poing dans la gueule “, “Qu’est-ce qu’elle a ma gueule ?”
        I find strange you didn’t mention “la face” to mean the face since they are relatively close words, at least it seems so .


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