Backs to the Future

Backs to the Future

How do you look forward to yesterday? You don't need a time machine: you just need to think more like the Aymara people of South America.


Looking back on the future. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The indigenous Aymara people of South America have no future ahead of them. That's because unlike any other known culture, they refer to the future being behind them, and the past ahead. According to research by cognitive scientist Rafael Nunez (NOON-yez) of the University of California at San Diego, this metaphorical reversal goes beyond figures of speech to gestures and body language, suggesting the Aymara have an entirely different concept of time.


It's kind of a deeper understanding of the flexibility and the potentials of the human body and brain, to provide the basis for abstraction.

He adds that Aymara culture and language emphasize the eyewitness point of view—which may explain why they visualize their past experiences right before their eyes, and the future, which they haven't seen, behind them. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

For most of us, the idea of having the future ahead of us and the past behind is so intuitive that it wouldn't even occur to us that someone could see it differently. But in fact, those figures of speech result from our underlying concept of time. The Aymara show that ours isn't the only possible mindset.

Our society sees time like a road that we travel on. Behind us are the places we've been (the past) and ahead of us lie the places we've not yet arrived at (the future). In many ways, this view of time emphasizes the future. We're generally looking ahead to the future, trying to anticipate what it may have in store. We can turn our heads and look back on the past, but we can't retrace our steps, so it's generally considered wasteful to spend too much time looking back. Instead, we talk of “having direction” and “knowing where we're going in life,” and “looking forward” to newer and better experiences.

In a sense, the Aymara view is more literal and straightforward. It's based on the simple fact that you know where you've been, but you can't really know where you're going. So they imagine the past in front of them, where they can see it. Compared to traveling forward on the road of time, you might imagine an Aymara person standing still, while time rolls forward from behind her and unfolds before her eyes.

So why is the Aymara concept of time different from every other culture we know of? Nunez says it may stem from their cultural values. The importance of eyewitness experience crops up everywhere in Aymara society. It's even in their grammar. Just as English requires that you use an apostrophe-s for possessives, or French and Spanish require that you conjugate verbs depending on the subject, Aymara requires that whenever you relay information, you indicate whether or not you learned it firsthand. For example, you can't just say “My dad fixed the chair this morning.” Using slightly different grammatical markers, you would have to indicate whether you saw him fix the chair, if he told you he fixed it, or if you saw it fixed when you got up this morning and assumed he fixed it. That emphasis on firsthand experience may inform the way they visualize the past and the future.

Living in the highlands of the Andes, the Aymara have had relatively little exposure to outside forces that conflict with their traditional view of time. But that may be changing. Nunez has found that younger Aymara people who speak Spanish as well as their native tongue tend to see the future ahead of them, like we do.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How is the Aymara concept of time different from that of most other cultures?
  2. Why is eyewitness experience critical to the Aymara concept of time?
  3. The Spanish Conquistadors reportedly distrusted the Aymara people, finding them to be uninterested in progress or “going forward.” Although the Conquistadors' interpretation was negative and probably biased, it is true that the Aymara traditionally see little point in speculating about the future, since it is unknowable. What are the potential benefits of this mindset? What are the drawbacks?
  4. Unlike many indigenous languages, the Aymara language is not in danger of extinction, but its concept of time might be. Is there a value to preserving it? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the August 4, 2006 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: An evolutionary reason for morning sickness, fibers that act as eyes, a South American culture that puts the past ahead, Wal-Mart's economic impact, and new insights from Darwin's Finches.

For Educators

Circle of Stories, from PBS, provides a collection of resources on Native American storytelling. Included are lesson plans, as well as information about storytellers and issues facing native cultures.

In the National Geographic News article Amazon Tribes: Isolated by Choice? read about people in the Peruvian Amazon region who live in isolation as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

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