Back to the Future

Cosmos Magazine, November 2006

To South America's Aymara people, a little hindsight shows a lot of foresight.

In the Andes, when elderly speakers of the indigenous Aymara language want to convey the concept "from now on," they say "aka ta qhipa ru" – which literally translates as "from here behind us."

When referring to the immediate past, they point to the space in front of their bodies. They don't like to discuss the future, because they consider what is to come so un-knowable that nothing reasonable can be said. But if they absolutely must talk of it, they point over their shoulders, to what is behind them.

And if they mention a person who died within the past few months, they say he is "in that stage of life after you are dead."

These are more than just unrelated odd tics of language and culture, says Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California/San Diego, who published a 50-page analysis of Aymara Indian language and gestures in the June issue of the journal Cognitive Science. Instead, the evidence all points to one thing: the Aymara have a concept of time completely opposite to ours. They believe the past is ahead of them and the future is behind, Nunez wrote.

To us, it may seem to be a intuitive, universal constant that the past is the thing behind us and the future is in front of us. Forward motion in geographic, three-dimensional space equals forward movement in time, and our words and expressions reflect this idea. We say things such as "the week ahead" or "back in the 1990s;" when someone faces a difficulty in life, we tell them to "move on" or "put it behind you."

Not so for the Aymara. "They are absolutely more reflective on the past than other cultures. The past and the people of the past are always more present and vivid, and ‘super-relevant,' " said Nunez. "An Aymara speaker can tell you in great detail the names of their great-great-grandparents, what they looked like, their personalities and personal quirks."

He bases his conclusions upon the time he spent in Bolivia, southeast Peru, and northeast Chile, talking with Aymara villagers in the high mountains and recording their words and gestures on a digital video camera. Upon returning to his office, Nunez analyzed the video frame-by-frame – 30 milliseconds apart – to see what gestures, hand shapes, facial expressions and bodily postures went with what words and turns of phrase. He says that there is tremendous value to be gained in analyzing what people are doing in real time as they speak – information which is lost if just transcribed word-for-word on a printed page.

Until now, all the cultures and languages of the world that had been studied – including European, Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese and Bantu, among others – were shown to "map" time as if the future as if it were in front and the past were in back. Said Nunez, "The Aymara case is the first one documented to depart from the standard model."

It's a very convincing study, said Mark Johnson, a philosopher at the University of Oregon who studies the use of language and metaphor as they relate to the concept of time. He told the press: "Gesture is really cool evidence."

The study of these cultural, cognitive and linguistic differences of the Aymara may also help to explain South America's history and current events. Spanish conquistadors considered the history-minded Aymara Indian people to be uninterested in progress or going "forward," characterizing them as shiftless. The conquest of Bolivia in the early 1500s led to centuries of poverty, disenfranchisement and oppression for its Indians – a situation that changed little with independence from Spain in 1825.

Now, however, things may have changed: Bolivia's newly elected leaders are nearly all of Aymara descent. Aymara party leaders and intellectuals say that they want to go back to the time before Columbus discovered the Americas, and recreate in the 21st century the golden, communal, pre-conquistador era of the Aymara.

Bolivia's foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told the decidedly non-communal Wall Street Journal that he wants to tap into the knowledge of Aymara elders. "When I say we have to read the wrinkles in our grandfathers' brows, it's to recover the wisdom that our grandfathers still have."

– Dan Drollette

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