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For many of us, the concept of time is linear. Whether French or Iraqi, the past is referred as behind oneself; the future as the far out expanse ahead. The metaphor seemed to stay constant and the embodied cognition of time was once thought to be universal. We now understand it to be strictly cultural.

This shift in paradigm was brought about in 2006, when researchers studying the Aymara of the Andes, reported of their unique concept of time in the journal Cognitive Science. The past is known and has been seen, and thus lies in front. The future remains unknown and unseen, and is relinquished to be behind the ego. This remains one opposing understanding of time to what we thought as the de facto standard.

To supplement the above, a 2010 paper in the journal Cognition aimed at understanding time among Mandarin speakers. The results were fascinating. Mandarin speakers set the context time differently from people speaking Western languages. In fact, the past is referred as above the speaker. And the future referred to as below the speaker.

A similar paper was published also in 2010, in the journal Psychological Science. An aboriginal group, the Pormpuraawans of Australia also refer to time differently. These people leave references of oneself out of the context of time. Regardless of the directionality of the speaker, time always flows from east or the past to west or the future.

These three recent examples nix the assumption that time is envisioned the same way by all people, a form of cultural relativism in itself. Another unique example was recently published in the journal Cognition by the same authors who studied the Aymara. Rafael Núñez of UCSD and two other colleagues documented the concept of time for the Yupno peoples of Papua New Guinea. The Yupno have had limited contact to outsiders.

The Yupno refer to time not based upon cardinal directions or relative locations. Rather, time is a topographical concept, time winds its way up and downhill. Analyzing films captured of 27 interviewed speakers of the villagers of Gua, the team observed that gestures liked pointing downhill referred to the past, towards the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, was described as pointing upwards towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua.

Yupno River Timeline

The topography of the Upper Yupno valley surrounding the village of Gua. (A) Shows the approximate directions of the source and mouth of the Yupno river. (B) Shows a detail of the Gua area with mean pointing directions for past- and future-category gestures produced outdoors, including 95% confidence cones (based on 1000 parametric bootstrap estimates). The past points downhill through the elevation lines towards the mouth of the river

Núñez and team believe that this understanding is based upon their collective history as a group. The Yupno’s ancestors arrived by sea to their corner of eastern Papua New Guinea and climbed up the 2500m mountain valley. So to them, the lowlands may represent the past, and time flows like how they climbed uphill to their high valley homes.

Yupno Yesterday & Tomorrow

Future is uphill; past is downhill. A participant outdoors produces a backward gesture associated with the Yupno word for “yesterday” when facing uphill (A) and a frontward gesture when facing downhill (B). He produces contrasting, upward gestures associated with “tomorrow” (C, D).

Within their homes, the Yupno point towards the doorway when talking about the past, and away from the door to represent the future, regardless of the orientation of the home. Núñez says that entrances are always raised, one has to have to climb down – towards the past – to leave the house, so each home has its own timeline. The most remarkable aspect of the Yupno timeline metaphor is its shape. The river that supplies the context to the villagers of Gua does not rest a straight line, but instead the timeline is kinked.

You can read more about their study at this press release.

Núñez, R., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time Cognitive Science, 30 (3), 401-450 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_62

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118 (1), 123-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A. (2010). Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1635-1639 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610386621

Núñez, R., Cooperrider, K., Doan, D., & Wassmann, J. (2012). Contours of time: Topographic construals of past, present, and future in the Yupno valley of Papua New Guinea Cognition, 124 (1), 25-35 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.007