Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Only People in the World Who Look Forward to the Past and Leave the Future Behind Them

Image Source: Face the Climate.

Phys.org.com is reporting that "[n]ew analysis of the language and gesture of South America's indigenous Aymara people indicates they have a concept of time opposite to all the world's studied cultures -- so that the past is ahead of them and the future behind."  (Hat tip: @swadeshine).

From the report on the Aymara people's reverse concept on time:
Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies' orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.

Appearing in ... the journal Cognitive Science, the study is coauthored, with Berkeley linguistics professor Eve Sweetser, by Rafael Nunez, associate professor of cognitive science and director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.

"Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world – from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model," said Nunez.

The language of the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, has been noticed by Westerners since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest. A Jesuit wrote in the early 1600s that Aymara was particularly useful for abstract ideas, and in the 19th century it was dubbed the "language of Adam." More recently, Umberto Eco has praised its capacity for neologisms, and there have even been contemporary attempts to harness the so-called "Andean logic" – which adds a third option to the usual binary system of true/false or yes/no – to computer applications.

Yet, Nunez said, no one had previously detailed the Aymara's "radically different metaphoric mapping of time" – a super-fundamental concept, which, unlike the idea of "democracy," say, does not rely on formal schooling and isn't an obvious product of culture.
... These findings suggest that cognition of such everyday abstractions as time is at least partly a cultural phenomenon," Nunez said. "That we construe time on a front-back axis, treating future and past as though they were locations ahead and behind, is strongly influenced by the way we move, by our dorsoventral morphology, by our frontal binocular vision, etc. Ultimately, had we been blob-ish amoeba-like creatures, we wouldn't have had the means to create and bring forth these concepts.

"But the Aymara counter-example makes plain that there is room for cultural variation. With the same bodies – the same neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters and all – here we have a basic concept that is utterly different," he said.

Why, however, is not entirely certain. One possibility, Nunez and Sweetser argue, is that the Aymara place a great deal of significance on whether an event or action has been seen or not seen by the speaker.
... In a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen – and known/unknown – to such an extent as to weave "evidential" requirements inextricably into its language, it makes sense to metaphorically place the known past in front of you, in your field of view, and the unknown and unknowable future behind your back ... the researchers write, that "often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it."
The original UCSD report is here, in which it is noted that younger Aymara people who are fluent in Spanish gesture and speak in a way different from their elders and familiar to us. Their knowledge of Spanish has reversed their concept of time.

The Cognitive Science article is available in full via a link from Núñez's publications homepage (here):
Núñez, R., & Sweetser, E. (2006). "With the Future Behind Them : Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time." Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401-450.


  1. Their society's culture must function in an...interesting manner.

    (Just reading this make my brain hurt. Shouldn't read this first thing in the morning, especially when I didn't get enough sleep.)

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