Aboriginal Time Flows East to West: Sun's Trajectory May Define Schedules for One Remote Group

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, December 4, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Aboriginal Time Flows East to West: Sun's Trajectory May Define Schedules for One Remote Group


Bower, Bruce, Science News


In a remote part of Australia, time rises in the east and sets in the west. Aborigines living there assume that time moves westward, apparently in accord with the sun's daily arc across the sky.

These hardy foragers think about the day after tomorrow as two days to the west, the olden days as far to the east, and the progression of a person's life from infancy to old age as running to the west. Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky and linguist Alice Gaby of the University of California, Berkeley report the first study of this group's sense of time in an upcoming Psychological Science.

Grounding time in absolute directions makes it imperative for these people, called Pormpuraawans, to know which way they're facing at, all times: For them, time flows from left to right when facing south, from right to left when facing north, toward the body when facing east and away from the body when facing west.

Pormpuraawans rarely use terms for right and left and instead refer to absolute directions; for example, "Move your cup to the north-northwest a little bit."

Culture powerfully influences how people conceive of time, in Boroditsky's view. "Pormpuraawans think about time in ways that other groups cannot, because those groups lack the necessary spatial knowledge," she says.

Previous studies have indicated that people use their bodies as a reference to lay out time. In the United States, time is generally thought of as running from left to right. Other populations arrange time from right to left, back to front or front to back.

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