The Tribe Without Time - Word Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Anna Swann-Pye

By Anna Swann-Pye

Photo courtesy of Simon Shek.

The Amondawa tribe cannot say ‘working through the night.’ The tribe, which was first “discovered,” by anthropologists in 1986, has no abstract concept of time. What does this mean exactly?

“We’re not really saying these are ‘people without time’ or ‘outside of time,’” Professor of psychology of language at the University of Portsmouth, Chris Sinha, tells BBC News. “What we don’t find is a notion of time as being independent of the events which are occurring; they don’t have a notion of time which is something the events occur in.”

Time does not exist as an independent entity. So, although the Amondawas can talk about events, they have no word for “time” or “month” or “year.” This means that, on top of everything else, they have no concept of their own age.

The study of this tribe — carried out via interviews, observations, and experiments – was extraordinarily surprising to researchers. The Amondawa is the first documented tribe in which it’s been established that space to time mappings do not occur. The first group of people who would not think to say, for example, ‘her birthday is coming up’ or ‘I’ll work on this later.’

So, then, how can this tribe make plans? Although the Amondawas don’t have a clock, they do talk in time periods, explains Sinha in an interview with time.com.

“They’re just not as strict,” he says. So they can communicate a message like, “we’ll meet tomorrow morning.” But not “we should meet at 5:30.” This is partly because their numbering system only goes up to four.

One might think that, without a concept of time, a group of people would end up feeling lost. This does not seem to be the case, though. The Amondawa tribe – about 150 strong – functions relatively fluidly as a small society. They divide what we know as the ‘year’ into wet periods and dry periods. They change their names as their position in society changes. So, instead of the normative ‘rank’ we would see teenage children giving their childhood names to their baby siblings.

In fact, it seems that there is no clear advantage to thinking about time the way that we do – as a thing that can act and be acted on.

“We’ve created these metaphors and they have become the way we think,” says Professor Sinha. “The Amondawa don’t talk like this and don’t think like this, unless they learn another language.”

And because the Amondawa rarely leave their post in the Amazonian rainforest, learning another language isn’t something that happens very often.

The fact that the Amondawas have no abstract sense of time means more than the obvious: that one can exist without an abstract sense of time. It also suggests that time is not inherent to human development.

Scientists were once certain that time was a concept that we were born with – that it was deep rooted in our brains. The existence of the Amondawa tribe, though, would lead us to believe that this is not entirely the case.

“We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted or talked about in the abstract,” Sinha says.

So where does our concept of time come from? Is it learned and if so, how? The idea that it’s learned seems plausible – we’re taught to read a clock in the second grade; we’re taught to be punctual.

We’re also taught that we can control time. Daylight savings allows us to believe that time, like an object, can be moved or distorted to our liking. So, in a way, the Amondawas’ less rigid sense of time, is also less malleable.

I’m not sure whether or not this is beneficial, but there certainly are benefits to lacking an abstract idea of time.

“For these fortunate people time isn’t money,” says Sinha, “they aren’t racing against the clock to complete anything, and nobody is discussing next week or next year.”

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