Aymara People: Backs to the Future.

We think it's natural to base our perception of time on our body's orientation and locomotion: we place the future ahead of us and the past behind us.

It turns out that this isn't universal: for the Aymara people of South America, time is the other way around - the past is ahead and the future behind!

"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.


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A great many "direction labels" are somewhat arbitrary, although a few are based on some natural facts.

North is "up" on most maps simply because the earliest known cartographers who used magnetic compasses lived in the northern hemisphere. (It's quite possible that some very old maps did not equate north with "up;" but as more was learned about the world it made sense to put the newly-explored lands closer to the bottom of the page, as one would add new text below that which was written (another rather arbitrary convention!)... Although written text may run left-to-right, right-to-left or even top-to-bottom, I don't know of any that reads bottom-to-top (but there might be some.)

Horses are mounted from the left because most people are right-handed, and so men's swords were hung on the left for easy reach; mounting on the left keeps the sword from getting in the way during a mount. (This sword business also determined how men's shirts were buttoned. Women's shirts were then buttoned the opposite way. I heard something about women's buttons facilitating breast-feeding; but since that would be just as easy either way, I doubt it.) The decision to drive on the left in England was pretty much determined by the flip of a coin after haphazard driving laws caused a horrible jam-up when a draft horse died in the center of the road on London Bridge. However, the tradition of driving on the left predates this incident, as it (again with the swords) allowed a man to easily defend himself should he encounter an armed opponent. (Conversely, if a friend met a friend, they could high-five with their right hands.) Because horses were mounted on the left, hitching-posts were situated on the left side of roads, so one wouldn't have to cross the street to park one's horse. Nobody is sure about why Americans (and the French) decided to drive on the right, but it is believed by some that Napoleon Bonaparte made the switch, and extended it to all lands that he conquered, as a means of "marking his territory," being contrary, and making travel within his lands difficult for anyone coming in from outside. (This was the same reason Russian railroad tracks were deliberately spaced differently from tracks of neighboring countries.)

Although musical notes of shorter wavelength are considered "high" notes, the Ancient Greeks saw them as "low" notes (and "low" notes as "high" notes.) And the fellow who invented the Celcius thermometer decided that water would boil at 0 and freeze at 100; this was "corrected" immediately after his death as it seemed so counter-intuitive.

Greetings and gestures are extremely arbitrary from culture to culture. At one time, learned men thought sign-language was universal; but attempts to converse in it proved so useless that the idea became the source of jokes.

Therefore, since direction labels in space are rather arbitrary, it makes sense that direction labels applied to time would be arbitrary as well. The Australian Aborigines refer to their mythos as "the Dreamtime" because it is a distant past that still takes place and can be visited. The passage of time is not quite so linear! In many cultures, the future is seen as "ahead" and the past "behind" for the same reasons that travelers on a road refer to where they've been as "behind" and where they're going as "ahead." However, the "You can't see the future, so it must be behind you" explanation is equally valid.

I think it's amazing how varied human culture can be. It certainly illustrates how much of what we believe to be true and correct reflects our upbringing more than anything else.
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I'm not sure this is so new. I heard about it about 15 years ago... and understand that they explain it very simply: You can see the past (so it is in front) whereas the future is unknown.

Can we explain our future-forwards perspective...?
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