Five years ago cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez found himself in the Upper Yupno Valley, a remote, mountainous region of Papua New Guinea. The area is home to some 5,000 indigenous people, and Núñez and his graduate student, Kensy Cooperrider, were studying their conceptions of time.
Most of you reading this post have a Western understanding of time, in which time has a spatial relationship with our own bodies. The past is behind us, the future ahead. I look forward to Christmas and reach back into my memories. But that particular cognitive framework is not universal. Núñez’s work has shown, for example, that the Aymara people of the Andes think about time in the opposite way; for them, the future is behind and the past lies ahead.
An anthropologist working in Papua New Guinea, Jürg Wassmann, suspected that the Yupno have yet another way of thinking about time, and invited Núñez and Cooperrider to come down and investigate. The Yupno have no electricity and no roads; getting to a city involves a several-day hike. They live in small thatch huts surrounded by green mountains. This rolling landscape, the researchers discovered, is what centers the the Yupno’s conception of time. For them, the past is downhill and the future uphill.
Núñez and Cooperrider figured this out by analyzing the way the Yupno point during natural speech. And in the midst of doing those experiments, the researchers stumbled onto something else unexpected: The Yupno don’t point like Westerners do.
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