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

May 12, 2010
These are bared-teeth displays in human, rhesus macaque and Taíno material culture (shell face) from El Cabo, Dominican Republic. Credit: Alice V. M. Samson and Bridget M. Waller (human), Lisa Parr (rhesus macaque) and project Houses for the Living and the Dead (shell face). Figure courtesy of Current Anthropology.

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 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 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."

Explore further: Hens' teeth not so rare after all

More information: Alice V. M. Samson and Bridget M. Waller, "Not Growling but Smiling: New Interpretations of the Bared-Teeth Motif in the Pre-Columbian Caribbean." Current Anthropology 51:3 (June 2010).

Related Stories

Hens' teeth not so rare after all

February 22, 2006

Scientists have discovered that rarest of things: a chicken with teeth – crocodile teeth to be precise. Contrary to the well-known phrase, ‘As rare as hens’ teeth,’ the researchers say they have found a naturally ...

Believing is seeing, when it comes to emotions

September 2, 2009

( -- Folk wisdom usually has it that "seeing is believing," but new research suggests that "believing is seeing," too - at least when it comes to perceiving other people's emotions.

Halloween 'Ugly Teeth' are recalled

October 31, 2007

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Wednesday announced the recall of Halloween "Ugly Teeth" party favors because of excessive levels of lead paint.

Baby teeth might be source of stem cells

July 17, 2006

A Texas company has reportedly started freezing stem cells taken from baby teeth pulp tissue in hopes the cells might some day lead to disease treatments.

Norwegian Tooth Bank seeks milk teeth from 100,000 children

March 31, 2008

The Norwegian Tooth Bank is requesting milk teeth from 100 000 children in Norway and could become the biggest tooth bank in the world. Milk teeth can give unique information about environmental influences and nutrition ...

Recommended for you

Violence a matter of scale, not quantity, researchers show

December 11, 2017

Anthropologists have debated for decades whether humans living in tribal communities thousands of years ago were more or less violent than societies today. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame wonder if the question ...

Nuclear technology unlocks 50-million-year-old time capsules

December 11, 2017

A scientific analysis of fossilised tree resin has caused a rethink of Australia's prehistoric ecosystem, and could pave the way to recovering more preserved palaeobiological artefacts from the time of dinosaurs or prehistoric ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.5 / 5 (8) May 12, 2010
I never smile... I can't help it. Showing one's teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a monkey begging for its life.
4.3 / 5 (3) May 12, 2010
You are not a smart monkey then. Half the time the smile says: "Oooh I'm submitting ... but, stupid turkey, I just lit your pants on fire."

When someone smiles at me, I check my wallet and smell for smoke.
5 / 5 (2) May 13, 2010
I never smile... I can't help it. Showing one's teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a monkey begging for its life.

I bet you get all the ladies
5 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
its a quote from the office people -- does no one watch television of listen to thte radio -- that quote is used in commercials now....
5 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
People have no sense of humor here either, El...
May 13, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.