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The joke is on us: A new interpretation of bared teeth in archaeological artifacts

Date:
May 14, 2010
Source:
University of Chicago Press Journals
Summary:
Bared teeth are a prominent and eye-catching feature on many historical and archaeological artifacts, and are commonly interpreted as representing death, aggression and the shamanic trance. But a new study argues that the bared-teeth motif often expresses something a bit less sinister: the smile.

Bared teeth are a prominent and eye-catching feature on many historical and archaeological artifacts, and are commonly interpreted as representing death, aggression and the shamanic trance. But a study in the forthcoming issue of Current Anthropology argues that the bared-teeth motif often expresses something a bit less sinister: the smile.

Alice V. M. Samson, Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and Bridget M. Waller, Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, examined the bared-teeth motif (BTM) of the Taíno, who lived in the Greater Antilles (the Caribbean) from AD 1000 to the early decades of European contact (1492-1550). Here the BTM was used on bodily adornments and items associated with healing and shamanic practices, usually as part of decorations depicting human and animal faces.

Interpretations of the BTM by early European observers reflect a western religious and cultural worldview rather than an understanding of indigenous practices. Some of these interpretations stem from eyewitness accounts of the first European observers, who feared the indigenous people and their idols. They described the BTM as "diabolical and associated with ferocity or aggression or the expression of malevolent deities who need to be appeased." These interpretations have never been challenged and as a consequence, the bared-teeth motif has mostly been interpreted negatively.

However, Samson and Waller argue that the negative interpretation misses the mark. "Exposed and clenched teeth are not common features of the universal facial expression of anger, which is instead characterized by widened eyes, tensed lower eyelids, and lowered, furrowed brows," they write. "Studies of facial expression in human and non-human primates have shown that the bared-teeth expression is used in social contexts as an unambiguous signal of non-aggression, affiliation and benign intent."

The Greater Antilles were home to several different societies. Samson and Waller believe that pendants and other adornments that carried the BTM "acted as a sort of Taíno social grammar, allowing the indigenous peoples of the islands to engage with each other and facilitating interactions while retaining their differences."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Chicago Press Journals. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Alice V. M. Samson, Bridget M. Waller. Not Growling but Smiling: New Interpretations of the Bared-Teeth Motif in the Pre-Columbian Caribbean. Current Anthropology, 2010; 51 (3): 425 DOI: 10.1086/651090

Cite This Page:

University of Chicago Press Journals. "The joke is on us: A new interpretation of bared teeth in archaeological artifacts." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 May 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100512125236.htm>.
University of Chicago Press Journals. (2010, May 14). The joke is on us: A new interpretation of bared teeth in archaeological artifacts. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100512125236.htm
University of Chicago Press Journals. "The joke is on us: A new interpretation of bared teeth in archaeological artifacts." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100512125236.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

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