Mesoamerican Sculptures Reveal That Ancient Civilizations Pulled The Same Faces We Do Today


Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockAug 21 2020, 17:22 UTC
It seems we are all connected through the shared experience of a grimace. Cowen and Keltner, Science Advances, 2020

It seems we are all connected through the shared experience of a grimace. Cowen and Keltner, Science Advances, 2020

An analysis of sculptures depicting human-like faces has revealed that many of our facial expressions appear to be universal across time and culture, with artworks that were made 3,500 years ago portraying familiar emotions. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, tasked participants with identifying facial expressions from ancient artifacts collected in Mexico and Central America and found the majority interpreted the faces consistently. The researchers argue that this demonstrates facial expressions as involuntary impulses that have existed for millennia rather than facial contortions born of cultural influences.


Over 300 English-speaking participants were asked to look at the faces of a collection of Mesoamerican sculptures. The researchers cropped the images so that only the faces were shown so the observers weren’t influenced by the context of the sculptures and asked them to match up each face to emotions and emotional states.

Another 114 online participants were asked to essentially do the opposite, being shown a description of the sculpture and assigning emotions or emotional states based on the situations depicted by the sculptures. When the results were compared the researchers found that in most instances the participants looking at the faces interpreted the sculptures in the same way the readers did from the descriptions.

A graph to show how often the observer's interpretations matched up with those of the readers for certain emotions. Cowen and Keltner, Science Advances, 2020

These sculptures were from ancient Maya people and other Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmec, depicting scenes relating to pain, elation, sadness, anger, strain and determination. That these emotions are still recognizable to people living 3,500 years later demonstrates how certain expressions can span time and culture.

"The present results thus provide support for the universality of at least five kinds of facial expression: those associated with pain, anger, determination/strain, elation, and sadness," the authors wrote. "These findings support the notion that we are biologically prepared to express certain emotional states with particular behaviors, shedding light on the nature of our responses to experiences thought to bring meaning to our lives."


The researches are curious if these findings can be applied to other ancient cultures, noting examples of sculpture from ancient Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese cultures that could potentially be analyzed using similar study protocols.

"We would eventually be interested in replicating this work in other cultures," said co-author Alan Cowen from the Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley. "For the time being, we are heavily focused on studying emotional expression in everyday life across many countries, aided by machine learning tools."