Many people in industrialized countries often describe time as flowing like a river: it flows back into the past, and it flows forward into the future. Of course, for bored workers time sometimes stands still, while for kids on summer vacation time flows all too quickly. And, for many people over, say the age of forty, days often drag, but the years fly by.
For some, time flows uphill, and it flows downhill.
[div class=attrib]From New Scientist:[end-div]
“HERE and now”, “Back in the 1950s”, “Going forward”… Western languages are full of spatial metaphors for time, and whether you are, say, British, French or German, you no doubt think of the past as behind you and the future as stretching out ahead. Time is a straight line that runs through your body.
Once thought to be universal, this “embodied cognition of time” is in fact strictly cultural. Over the past decade, encounters with various remote tribal societies have revealed a rich diversity of the ways in which humans relate to time (see “Attitudes across the latitudes”). The latest, coming from the Yupno people of Papua New Guinea, is perhaps the most remarkable. Time for the Yupno flows uphill and is not even linear.
Rafael Núñez of the University of California, San Diego, led his team into the Finisterre mountain range of north-east Papua New Guinea to study the Yupno living in the village of Gua. There are no roads in this remote region. The Yupno have no electricity or even domestic animals to work the land. They live with very little contact with the western world.
Núñez and his colleagues noticed that the tribespeople made spontaneous gestures when speaking about the past, present and future. They filmed and analysed the gestures and found that for the Yupno the past is always downhill, in the direction of the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, is towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua.
This was true regardless of the direction they were facing. For instance, if they were facing downhill when talking about the future, a person would gesture backwards up the slope. But when they turned around to face uphill, they pointed forwards.
Núñez thinks the explanation is historical. The Yupno’s ancestors arrived by sea and climbed up the 2500-metre-high mountain valley, so lowlands may represent the past, and time flows uphill.
But the most unusual aspect of the Yupno timeline is its shape. The village of Gua, the river’s source and its mouth do not lie in a straight line, so the timeline is kinked. “This is the first time ever that a culture has been documented to have everyday notions of time anchored in topographic properties,” says Núñez.
Within the dark confines of their homes, geographical landmarks disappear and the timeline appears to straighten out somewhat. The Yupno always point towards the doorway when talking about the past, and away from the door to indicate the future, regardless of their home’s orientation. That could be because entrances are always raised, says Núñez. You have to climb down – towards the past – to leave the house, so each home has its own timeline.
[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]
[div class=attrib]Image: The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dalí. Courtesy of Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), Museum of Modern Art New York / Wikipedia.[end-div]