Monday, May 26, 2008

Looking to the Past

Yesterday, the minister in church briefly mentioned a South American tribe whose concept of time is radically different from our own. To them, the future is behind and the past ahead.

It sounded fascinating so, this morning, I did a quick search on the internet for more info.

In 2006, the University of California conducted an analysis of the language and culture of the Aymara people, who live in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru and Chile.


In the Aymara language, the word nayra, meaning "eye", "front" or "ahead", is used to refer to the past. Furthermore, the word qhipa, meaning "back" or "behind" is used in reference to the future.

Researchers noted that, when the Aymara people are talking about an event in the future, they thumb or wave over their shoulders. When talking about an event in the past, they gesture and sweep their hands in front.

This way of thinking appears to be unique to the Aymara people and marks an almost incomprehensible departure from the normal concept of time.

Rafael Nunez, professor at the University of California, says:

"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"

It is not totally clear why the Aymara people have this perception of the past and future. People have speculated that the Aymara place the known, seen events in front of them and put the unknown future behind their backs. Apparently, older Aymara are very unwilling to discuss the future because little can be known or said about it.

If you think about it, it's remarkably logical. Events in the past can be seen, related to and are, in a sense, right before our eyes. On the other hand, future events are unknown, out of sight, hidden from our view.

There are some excellent articles to read on this subject, most of which go into more detail than I have here. So if you want to find out more, check out the following:

Backs to the Future
Putting the Past in Front

1 comment:

Penn Tomassetti said...

That is really interesting. The past is in the front, the future is in the back. "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" (Ps. 23).