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Past, Present, Future Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Dan Falk

Perceptions of time through the ages

Time envelops and defines our world. We try to save time; we hate to waste time; we say we'll make time for some favorite activity. We say that time flies when we're having fun and slows to a crawl when we're not. Many of us are paid by the hour; Internet and phone companies bill by the minute; advertising time is sold by the second. Yet just a few centuries ago, our ancestors would have worried little about minutes and not at all about seconds. The way we conceive of time has varied greatly across the millennia and from one ancient culture to another--from those who tracked the sun and stars with stunning accuracy to those who barely acknowledged the existence of past and future. In some cases, time's fingerprints can be seen in the archaeological record--in clocks and calendars, observatories, and monuments. But it is also reflected in more subtle ways--in the religions we practice, the rituals we follow, and even the words we speak. Perceptions of time have shaped the lives and minds of everyone who has lived on this planet, in every culture and in every age.

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(Illustration by Ken Feisel)

Awareness of time has been a fundamental part of the human experience. Even the earliest hominids must have been aware of time's passage, says archaeologist John Shea of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Those early human ancestors, he says, "probably had a rudimentary conception of time similar to our own--an understanding of the past, an understanding of the future--and the ability to perceive the future in terms of contingencies, in terms of 'if this, then that.'" Paleolithic peoples may have even used tools to track time: A carved bone tablet from the Dordogne Valley in France, dating back some thirty thousand years, has a series of notches scratched in it, set down in rows of 14 or 15--roughly the number of days from new moon to full moon. It may have been a primitive lunar calendar--or, as skeptics have pointed out, a way for a woman to track her menstrual cycle, or simply a knife-sharpening tool. Signs of ritual burial, including grave goods that hint at a conception of eternity, go back nearly as far.

By the time the first civilizations emerged from the shadows of prehistory some five thousand years ago, our species had developed a fascination with time's most visible natural cycles. All of the great ancient civilizations boasted intricate calendars inspired by the regularity of the heavens--the daily motion of the sun, the monthly waxing and waning of the moon, the annual parade of the seasons.

Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto. His first book, Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything, was published this winter by Arcade Publishing.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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