The Amondawa were first "discovered" by anthropologists in 1986. Image Source: V. da Silva/Sinha/BBC.
In an earlier post, I described the South American Aymara people who think backwards when they conceive of time. The Telegraph recently reported on the Amondawa people of the Amazon, who apparently have no concept of time. This challenges some of the core theories of linguistics and human psychology, which assume that time is innate to humans, their cultures and societies. In fact, time is not universal. And those who live without it are strangely free:
This research was published in Language And Cognition (see the abstract here). As a result of this research, the research team proposes "a Mediated Mapping Hypothesis, which accords causal importance to the numerical and artefact-based construction of time-based (as opposed to event-based) time interval systems." In other words, according to a BBC report, the team assumes that the lack of a concept of time comes from a lack of technology to measure time.The Amondawa people who live deep in the Amazonian rainforests of Brazil have no watches or calendars and live their lives to the patterns of day and night and the rainy and dry seasons.
They also have no age – and mark the transition from childhood to adulthood to old age by changing their name.
The team of researchers, led by University of Portsmouth, said that it is the first time they have been able to prove time is not a deeply entrenched universal human concept, as previously thought.
Professor Chris Sinha said: 'We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted or talked about in the abstract."
"This doesn't mean that the Amondawa are "people outside time", but they live in a world governed by events rather than the passing of time."
Only discovered in 1986, the Amondawa, about 150 strong, continue their traditional way of life, hunting, fishing and farming.
They also have their own language which have a number system but it only goes up to four.
Prof Sinha and his team, including a linguist and anthropologist, spent eight weeks with the Amondawa researching how their language conveys concepts like "next week" or "last year".
There were no words for such concepts, only divisions of day and night and rainy and dry seasons.
They also found nobody in the community had an age.
Instead, they change their names to reflect their life-stage and position within their society.
A little child will give up their name to a newborn sibling and take on a new one.
Prof Sinha said: "We have so many metaphors for time and its passing – we think of time as a 'thing' – we say 'the weekend is nearly gone', 'she's coming up to her exams', 'I haven't got the time', and so on, and we think such statements are objective, but they aren't.
"We've created these metaphors and they have become the way we think. The Amondawa don't talk like this and don't think like this, unless they learn another language.
"For these fortunate people time isn't money, they aren't racing against the clock to complete anything, and nobody is discussing next week or next year; they don't even have words for 'week', 'month' or 'year'. "You could say they enjoy a certain freedom."
The BBC report also reports on other researchers who have criticized these findings. Another academic comments that these people may in fact experience time in the way we do. However, this similar experience may not reflect in their language, which is how researchers generally peg human apprehension of time in different societies:
Citation Information. Language and Cognition. Volume 3, Issue 1, Pages 137–169, ISSN (Online) 1866-9859, ISSN (Print) 1866-9808, DOI: 10.1515/LANGCOG.2011.006, /May/2011These arguments do not convince Pierre Pica, a theoretical linguist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who focuses on a related Amazonian language known as Mundurucu.
"To link number, time, tense, mood and space by a single causal relationship seems to me hopeless, based on the linguistic diversity that I know of," he told BBC News. ...
Small societies like the Amondawa tend to use absolute terms for normal, spatial relations - for example, referring to a particular river location that everyone in the culture will know intimately rather than using generic words for river or riverbank.
These, Dr Pica argued, do not readily lend themselves to being co-opted in the description of time.
"When you have an absolute vocabulary - 'at the water', 'upstream', 'downstream' and so on, you just cannot use it for other domains, you cannot use the mapping hypothesis in this way," he said.
In other words, while the Amondawa may perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time, the language may not necessarily reflect it in an obvious way.