This is a really interesting example of how the study of linguistics can give us great insight into human cognition in general. The notion that the past is ‘in front’ of you seems totally foreign at first, until you realize that what’s in front of you is what you can perceive and understand, whereas what’s behind you is obscured and unknowable.
The Aymara, an indigenous group in the Andes highlands, have a concept of time that’s opposite our own spatial metaphor. A new study by cognitive scientists explains how the Aymara consider the past to be ahead and the future behind them. According to the study, this is the first documented culture that seems not to have mapped time with the properties of space “as if (the future) were in front of ego and the past in back.” From UCSD:
The linguistic evidence seems, on the surface, clear: The Aymara language recruits “nayra,” the basic word for “eye,” “front” or “sight,” to mean “past” and recruits “qhipa,” the basic word for “back” or “behind,” to mean “future.” So, for example, the expression “nayra mara” – which translates in meaning to “last year” – can be literally glossed as “front year…”
The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse.
“These findings suggest that cognition of such everyday abstractions as time is at least partly a cultural phenomenon,” (University of California, San Diego professor Rafael) Nunez said. “That we construe time on a front-back axis, treating future and past as though they were locations ahead and behind, is strongly influenced by the way we move, by our dorsoventral morphology, by our frontal binocular vision, etc. Ultimately, had we been blob-ish amoeba-like creatures, we wouldn’t have had the means to create and bring forth these concepts.
“But the Aymara counter-example makes plain that there is room for cultural variation. With the same bodies – the same neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters and all – here we have a basic concept that is utterly different,” he said.