Why Africa's 'most beautiful' countries became beautiful; and how you can cheat the good looks lottery

Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Egypt, Ghana tend to top list of nations with most beautiful women. It is all about history and geography, really

Profile of Ethiopian beauty modelled by Gete Berhe  (photo Jhennelle Townsend/flickr). BELOW Miss Ghana 2012 Carranzer Naa Okailey Shooter, then Cleopatra and Mark Antony ( Bloomingdale's 2009 Holiday Window/Wally Gobetz).

Profile of Ethiopian beauty modelled by Gete Berhe (photo Jhennelle Townsend/flickr). BELOW Miss Ghana 2012 Carranzer Naa Okailey Shooter, then Cleopatra and Mark Antony ( Bloomingdale's 2009 Holiday Window/Wally Gobetz).

RANKING Africa’s most beautiful countries is a hugely controversial affair, as recent attempts to do so proved, not least because nobody wants to admit they are on the lower rung of the beauty chain, and, obviously, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. 

But sometimes it seems beholders are more or less in agreement over the regions where you are likely to find Africa’s most beautiful women. Looking through a few recent totally unscientific rankings (you can find them  herehere, and here), a few countries keep propping up in the top slots. In no particular order, they are:

  • Ethiopia
  • Eritrea
  • Rwanda
  • Somalia
  • Egypt
  • Ghana

If we go with what the pollsters say, it would seem that the Horn of Africa, North and West Africa beats the rest of the continent in having the most beautiful women. So how did it happen? Was it just a stroke of luck, or are there other forces at play, that tend to shape a society into becoming “more beautiful”?  And did beauty play a political, even security, role in societies before these times, when the focus is mostly on its superficial aspects?

We dug up some facts about life in these places over the past few thousand years, and some common threads begun to emerge that explain “beauty”. So if your country isn’t on the list, here’s a (half-serious, in typical M&G Africa fashion) guide on how to make sure, in the next few centuries, you get bragging rights too:

The forest vs. desert people

First, make sure you have enough food, especially protein—by not living in the rainforest, because what societies in the past - and today still - ate, played a role in the beauty of their women, as it did in the masculinity of its men.

At first glance, rainforest seem like incredibly abundant places  teeming with all sorts of plant and animal species. While this may be true, the vast majority of the natural biodiversity found in rainforests aren’t good for humans to eat.

Because the ecosystem is so plentiful—thus swarming with potential predators—both plants and animals have to devise ingenious ways to protect themselves from being eaten, so many plants and animals are poisonous. 

And because the habitat is so dense, big animals can’t move around easily, so the forest has much more small animals—insects, rodents and birds—than big ones. 

As a result, and totally counter-intuitively, rainforests are some of the most  protein-deficient places on earth, and most people there have to eat all sorts of critters to survive, from spiders, snails, bats—pretty much any meat they can get their hands on. And even hunting whatever good creatures there are is a tricky activity because you could wind up empty handed at the end of a long hunt.

To make sure you have a steady supply of good, nutritious food, the most energy-efficient way to do so is to raise grain and keep livestock.

Cereal grains support much bigger human populations than rainforests ever could, but Africa’s case was interesting—livestock was domesticated  before people started growing grain crops. Archaeologists reckon the reason is because good quality wild grain was so abundant in the savannahs of Africa that there was no reason to settle down and farm. The first cultivated grain was pearl millet, farmed around 2,000 BC, but cattle have been kept by humans from as early as 5,900 BC.

The result is that pre-industrial semi-arid and/or open grassland countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Ethiopia where it was easy to raise larger animals like cattle, allowed those societies more access to proteins that, then, to put it simplistically, allowed their women the nourishment to be “beautiful”, than the ones in the Congo forests. 

Another wrinkle in the food story

Still, even if you live in the flat lands and thus can more easily grow grain, that wouldn’t be enough - you must be able to store the surplus grain. Again, geography helps. The most intensively farmed regions of Africa have a dry season that allows cereals to dry out and be preserved for lean times. So Africa’s most food secure regions emerged not in the forests, but in the flat, relatively well-watered plains.

With a steady supply of protein and carbohydrates, large, densely populated societies could emerge, that required the centralisation of power to maintain control. It is no coincidence that Africa’s  mightiest empires—such as Egypt, Kanem-Bornu, Songhai, Ghana and Axum—emerged in the flat lands bordering the heat of the desert, where there was enough water to support agriculture, but also the weather was dry enough at times to allow grains to dry out. These kinds of lands had enough grass, and enough room, to support big livestock.

Armies, trade, and beauty

Centralising power meant that armies had to be raised to maintain power—there was enough surplus food to feed the soldiers who did not work, and the surpluses could also be traded for other goods. North Africa was central to the Mediterranean trade, with cities like Alexandria, Tripoli and Carthage being vital trade hubs. 

The kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia had a powerful navy with  trading links as far as the Byzantium in southern Europe and India. Somalia had numerous  flourishing trade centres, and the Romans and Greeks believed the source of cinnamon to have been the Somali peninsula, but in reality, the highly valued product was brought to Somalia by way of Indian ships. 

By colluding with the Indian and Gulf Arab traders, cinnamon was thus exported to Europe at exorbitantly higher prices than it would have been, making the cinnamon trade a very profitable revenue stream, especially for the Somali merchants through whose hands large quantities were shipped across ancient sea and land routes. 

And a whole host of very wealthy kingdoms emerged on the Sahel in West Africa, including Ghana, Mali and Kanem-Bornu. The Huffington Post even ranked the legendary Mansa Musa of Mali as the “ richest man of all time”, worth a staggering $400 billion in today’s terms after adjusting for inflation. He gave away so much gold during his pilgrimage to Mecca that the price of gold was depressed, and it took 12 years for gold to recover its value in North Africa and Arabia.

Being hemmed in by mountains (which might account for Rwanda’s presence in the top Africa beauty league table) or deserts is another trade advantage, as it gave empires on these frontiers monopoly power over the goods coming from the interior to the trading centres. In the case of Axum, for example, the formidable Ethiopian Highlands meant that traders on the Red Sea couldn’t cross the interior and get the ivory, gold and emeralds that they wanted, leaving the Axumites to be the middlemen and dictate the terms of trade.

Among other things, this monopoly over commerce, and mercantile trade allowed the circulation of products for grooming. The Africans in the rainforests thus didn’t - and still don’t have - henna, for example.

Cleopatra and strategic beauty

However, this wealth, centralised power and inequality tend to attract war, insurrection and instability, as rival groups fight to control or invade and capture resources. 

It has been theorised that is where beauty becomes an advantage as it gives poor families a chance at social mobility by marrying off their daughters to rich men. Even during war, after the battle has died down, historically the invaders would rather seize the beautiful girls of the vanquished tribes and marry than kill them. 

The case of Cleopatra partly elaborates this power element of  beauty. Cleapatra was a famous queen of ancient Egypt. She was beautiful, intelligent and politically astute. She is perhaps more known her love affairs with two Roman rulers; Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare wrote about it), and Mark Antony.

To focus on that, however, would be to miss the bigger picture. When Caesar came Egypt he helped her regain her throne. Cleopatra went with Caesar to Rome and lived in one of his palaces.

After Caesar’s death a power struggle broke out between his friend Mark Antony. Mark Antony had fallen for Cleopatra and they started a relationship. She helped him in his war against Octavian.  In the end, she bore three children for Mark Antony.

The moral here is that all princesses and queens are in a position to play for power. But if like, Cleopatra, they are smart and beautiful too, they can leverage it over rivals for the throne. In a sense, then, it is the shortsighted who see only good looks in beautiful women.

Of course, there’s a more direct reason to keep girls alive—in the fertile grasslands of Africa, labour was the major constraint to how much you could farm, land was plentiful. Therefore controlling people was more important than controlling territory; having more wives meant having more children, and more hands to work. 

But beauty is only an advantage when there is already enough to eat; though there isn’t much research we could find to this, it follows from the above that beautiful girls made an (already prosperous) in an unstable neighbourhood to better survive conflict.

What malaria has to do with

There’s one more card Africa’s beauty deck—malaria. Sonia Shah’s brilliant book  The Fever outlines how throughout history, malaria has shaped human settlement, economic activity and prosperity. In modern times it has been shown to depress GDP growth by 1.3% per year, and in times past, the effect could have been much greater. 

Although much of Africa is malaria-endemic,  it isn’t uniformly so. Malarial parasites needs warm weather, abundant rainfall and stagnant water to survive, so the Horn of Africa and much of the Sahel is too dry to support malaria, while high altitudes in the Ethiopian highlands and the Rwenzori ranges are too cool for the deadly disease—thus we see our “most beautiful countries” largely escaping the malarial dragnet.

So a ranking of the most beautiful, especially women, in Africa actually gives us important insights in the continent’s history, how geography shaped certain needs and allowed the traits necessary for phyical survival to be nurtured and become more dominant.

 So here’s how to rig the genetic lottery to have more beautiful women: don’t live in the rainforest, have enough grain and meat to eat, get rich, and get rid of mosquitoes. Now you know.


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