Artefacts from pre-Columbian Caribbean may depict smiles, not grimaces.
Archaeologist Alice Samson and psychologist Bridget Waller’s research, published this month in Current Anthropology, suggest a friendlier interpretation of the “devil” grimace design.
The Taíno people in the Greater Antilles carved rows of teeth into different artefacts from approximately 1000 AD, made from shell, stone, bone, cotton or wood. The teeth are often found on accessories such as belts and necklaces, on pipes, “vomiting” spatulas and other items used by Shamans, but rarely on clay pots or bowls used for cooking. This makes archaeologists think that there is a special reason for the teeth.
Previously, historians and archaeologists used the impressions of early Spanish explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries to decide what these teeth meant. These explorers described items with a “devil” grimace. Other interpretations follow a similar theme, linking them to death or a shaman in a trance.
As a psychologist, Waller suggests that the huge difference between the Western and Taíno cultures makes it difficult to understand the original intention. The unusual nature of some of the artefacts leads people to, perhaps falsely, assume the symbol has an occult or dark meaning.
Samson and Waller have decided on a different answer – that the bared teeth are a smile. By studying other cultures and primates, such as chimpanzees, they have found that a smile encourages bonding. It is not always used to show happiness but it is used to show acceptance and a non-aggressive intention.
They believe that this is a more likely interpretation because the Taínos are actually a diverse collection of people who lived across the islands. They would have had to find ways to communicate, trade and live in harmony without a common language. “Taíno” means “I am good/noble” and Samson and Waller think that the ‘smile’ was drawn to communicate this and to encourage bonding and peace. This explains why it is carved onto objects used in ritual, for purification or worn during public gatherings.
This new approach may encourage archaeologists to reconsider these people as a more noble, peaceful and friendlier community.
This research is published in Current Anthropology.
Samson, A. V. M. and Waller, B. M., 2010. Not growling but smiling: new interpretations of the bared-teeth motif in the pre-columbian Caribbean. Current Anthropology 51 (3)