Monday, August 02, 2010

Lapita, Taotie and other Face/Head Motifs

The possibility of a relationship between the Taotie face motif that dates back to the Shang Dynasty in China, and the previously discussed Kirtimukha images of India and the Kala images of Southeast Asia, has been explored in previous literature. Joseph Campbell in The Mythic Image (pp. 118-130) believes these motifs along with the Mesoamerican jaguar mask and the Greek Medusa all owe their similarities to diffusion.

Stella Kramrisch and Raymond Burnier also apparently see a direct relationship between the Kirtimukha/Kala images and the Taotie, and also the "Green Man" motif from medieval Europe (foilage spewers-column swallowers). 

The earliest of these images is the Taotie, however, it has a possible contemporary match in the Lapita face motif, which to my knowledge has not been explored.  The Taotie and Lapita images date from about the same period -- from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning of the first millenium BCE -- the dates for the Erligang Culture in Henan and the Lapita Culture in eastern Melanesia and Western Polynesia.   The face motifs appear to date to the earliest phases of both Lapita and Erligang cultures.

Examples of Lapita faces taken from Chiu 2007 and Spriggs 1993

Examples of Taotie face motif from Erligang Culture in Henan, China from Allan 1991.

While there are significant stylistic differences between these contemporary motifs, there are also some important similarities:

  • In both cases, the face normally consists of defined eyes and nose, whether realistic or stylized, but the mouth, or at least the lower jaw, is missing or not clearly defined.
  • Opposing spirals are an important element in both types of face motifs. With the Lapita face, the spirals often define or border the eyes, but in some cases they appear as "horns" to the side of a set of eyes.
  • Leaf-like eyes with pointed edges or tips are found in both regions.
  • A "face within a face" motif is found often involving the "horns" of the image in some Lapita images, and this also appears to be clearly defined in some Taotie motifs from the Shang-Zhou period.
  • The presence of flanking decorative elements that occasionally take on a clearly independent identity, and which may be related to later images in Oceania, Asia and Europe.
  • The presence of scrolling patterns, spirals, and leaf-like or flower-like designs can be seen as suggestive of foliage in both cases.

Three sets of Lapita face motifs showing two pairs of eyes sharing the same "nose."  The outermost pair of eyes is found in the "horns" of the smaller eye set. From Spriggs 1993.

Below are leaf and other foliage-like eye motifs from Lapita artifacts.

Origin of the motifs

Both Spriggs and Chiu refer to the large number of "simplified" face motifs on Lapita artifacts suggesting that these motifs are latter developments of the earlier more realistic face designs.

However, at least one these simplified versions may have a very ancient origin.  The dentate or linked triangular pattern with circles at the top of the triangle is very similar to designs found on red-slipped wares in the Philippines that may date back to before 5000 BCE. Such patterns are found widely in Southeast Asia by the Late Neolithic period.

Here is an example of the motif found in Lapita culture:

The triangular design in latter times is known at tumpal and is often said to represent hills or mountains.  However, this would not preclude its use in face designs.  The use of vegetative motifs in other Lapita forms as well as in the Taotie face motifs could suggest these faces or mask have a pantheistic or fractal identity, which is something we shall examine in future posts.

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Paul Kekai Manansala


Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Campbell, Joseph, and M. J. Abadie. The Mythic Image. Princeton/Bollingen paperbacks. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981, 118-128.

Chiu, Scarlett, Detailed analysis of Lapita Face Motifs: Case Studies from Reef/Santa Cruz Lapita Sites
and New Caledonia Lapita Site 13A,, 2007.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ, 1996, 322-25.

Miksic, John N. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003.

Spriggs, M. "How Much of the Lapita Design System Represents the Human Face?" In P. Dark and R. Rose (eds), Artistic Heritage in a Changing Pacific,   Bathurst: Crawford House Press, 1993, 7-14.