Caribbean grimace 'was a smile'
Published 17/05/2010 | 11:41
The true meaning of "devilish grimaces" in Caribbean artwork was lost in translation to the first European tourists and was in fact friendly and welcoming, scientists have said.
Early visitors to the Caribbean 500 years ago believed that the bared-teeth motif used in local arts and crafts was "an abominable expression, deformed and ferocious".
But it is now believed that what Europeans mistook to be frighteningly aggressive was actually depicting a smile.
Bridget Waller, of the University of Portsmouth's Department of Psychology, and Alice Samson, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, have analysed the artwork of the Taino culture of the Greater Antilles in the pre-Columbian Caribbean.
They found that in the 1400s, visitors believed the bared teeth expression carved on to wooden seats and shells used in bracelets and necklaces was anti-Christian.
But research of the culture of the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola, published in the latest issue of Current Anthropology, has shown that the Europeans were unaware of the context of local art.
Dr Waller said the teams compared the images to the smiles used by social primates, such as rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees, and found that baring teeth can have a variety of meanings.
These include happiness, a sign of submission and uncertainty.
Dr Waller said: "The Taino used the bared-teeth motif as a signal of affiliation and benign intent. It was most likely their version of depicting a smile.
"Exposed and clenched teeth are not common features of aggression. 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."