Bared-teeth motif expresses smile, not death

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Washington, May 18 (ANI): Researchers have now interpreted the common bared-teeth motif on archaeological artefacts in a new light - they say it may represent the smile rather than being symbolic of death, aggression and the shamanic trance.

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 Tamno, 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 thus, the bared-teeth motif has mostly been interpreted negatively.

However, Samson and Waller argue that the negative interpretation misses the mark.

They say: "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.

"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 Tamno social grammar, allowing the indigenous peoples of the islands to engage with each other and facilitating interactions while retaining their differences."

The research will appear in the forthcoming issue of Current Anthropology. (ANI)

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