Researchers discover a South American culture that travels backward through time.

We may all be hurtling into the future, but, according to University of California researchers, some of us are doing it backwards.

A team of scientists discovered that a group of indigenous people in South America, known as the Aymara, have a concept of time that places the future physically behind them and the past ahead.

The use of spatial abstractions for time is universal across all cultures, said Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at UC-San Diego, and the lead author of a study on the Aymara appearing in the July issue of Cognitive Science. These abstractions are usually based on human bodily experience; for instance, if a thirsty man sees a water fountain 100 yards ahead, in order to get to it he will move both forward spatially and into the future. Such experiences have led many cultures to conceive of time as a linear path, with the past behind them.

“It’s very pervasive almost all over the world that the future is in front—up until this case, which is the first well-documented case to show the opposite,” said Nunez, who interviewed and documented 30 Aymara adults in northern Chile. “With this finding, we can see that humans have the ability to organize bodily experience to bring forth very different forms of thinking.”

In Aymara, qhipa, which means “back,” is used to mean “future,” while nayra is used for both “front” and “past.” For instance, the expression nayra mara, which is used to mean “last year,” can literally be translated to mean “front year,” while qhipa marana, which means “next year,” can be translated to mean “back year.”

It’s not just the linguistic roots that the Aymara have reversed, said Nunez, it’s also their physical gestures: When Aymara adults speak about the future, they gesture behind them; when they speak about the past, they gesture ahead. The movements, according to Nunez, suggest that Aymara speakers actually conceive of the past as being physically in front of them and the future behind.

“Gesture is really cool evidence,” said Mark Johnson, a philosopher at the University of Oregon who has written about language and metaphors in relation to time. “It’s a very powerful source of evidence for the conceptual reality of these metaphors.”

What the reverse gestures say about what is going on in the minds of the Aymara is not yet clear.

Daniel Casasanto, a psychologist at Stanford who studies abstract language and thought, said that while Nunez’s paper does a “beautiful job” of demonstrating that the reversed gestures do occur, the function of such gestures, and why they originated, is harder to determine.

Nunez and co-author Eve Sweetser, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, hypothesize that the Aymara gesture differently because they perceive the world differently, a difference that may have arisen along with the grammatical rules of their language.

In Aymara, speakers indicate whether they have personal knowledge of what they are saying—if, for instance, they actually saw a bridge collapse or they only heard about it from others. This emphasis on clearly delineating what is seen and what is not seen is consistent with placing the past, which is known, in front of the speaker’s eyes and the future, which is unknown, out of sight.

According to Nunez, some elderly Aymara speakers refuse to even discuss the future, because they consider what’s to come so unknowable that nothing reasonable could be said about it.

Aymara has two to three million speakers, though many of the younger Aymara also speak Spanish. These bilingual speakers gesture in the more typical fashion, suggesting that even though the language of Aymara is robust, a mode of thought could be dying out.

“This is something that’s more than just words,” Nunez said. “It’s about the way people conceive of the world.”

Originally published June 19, 2006


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