Phrases like “I’ve put the past behind me” or “You’ve got a great future in front of you” show how ingrained the idea of time moving forwards is. So what would it be like to experience time backwards – with your past as lying in front of you, and the unseen future behind you?
In some of northern Chile’s highest Andes valleys live a group called the Aymara, and research shows that this is exactly how they experience time – with the past in front of them, and the future firmly behind them.
Unlike the more culturally fluid idea of colour, time is overwhelmingly described in a consistent fashion – the past extending behind individuals as they move through the present to meet the future. This isn’t just seen in English speaking and western cultures, but in others such as Hebrew, Japanese and Yoruba. The Aymara still perceive time as moving, just in the opposite direction.
This idea of time backwards relative to ours is intrinsic to their language. Their word for “past” is “nayra” which also means sight or front, and “q’ipa”, their word for “future” also means back or behind. The Aymara word for “tomorrow” can be translated literally as “one day behind your back”.
Whilst it might at first seem odd the Aymara have a compelling explanation for their view. The past is known and has been seen, and so is in front of you because it is within your vision. The future however is ultimately unknowable, and so is to their back. Time still passes for them but with their past constantly expanding in front of them.
Another cultural reason for the Aymara perceiving time backwards compared to ourselves is in the importance that they describe to the witnessing of events. Just as with the idea of the relative positions of the past and the future, the importance of witnessing events is also embedded in their language. All reported action or conversation is described in terms of whether or not the speaker witnessed it themselves, and reports that are not based on first-hand experience are regarded as boastful or false.
The ever expanding range of personal and reported experience, and the impossibility of attaching any weight to the as yet unseen future, is the other reason why the Aymara see their past in front of them. As an example of how experiencing time backwards is culturally determined by the language the younger Aymara, who learn to speak Spanish as well, are equally able to envisage the future in front of them, and their past behind them as well.
An even more extreme perception of time may also be found in the Amondawa people of the Amazon. In fact they have no word for “time”, or indeed for markers of time such as “month” and “year”. Nor do they talk about their life in terms of age, but instead mark different stages of their life, and changes in their status, through changes of name.
Whilst the Amondawa recognise that events take place in time – for instance that event A preceded event B, and that event C came after both of those – they do not seem to recognise the idea of time as an abstract concept that exists independently of events. The suggestion is not then that they experience time backwards, but that they don’t experience the movement of time at all.
For those of you who sympathised with the Aymara’s rationale for seeing their past in front of them, there may be another reason for adopting their perception, relative to ours, of time backwards. Researchers noticed how patiently the Aymara would wait for transport, no matter how slow or late that it was running. The reason for their patience was that they hadn’t made plans which were being disrupted – how could they make plans in the face of an unseeable future?
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