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Which way do you gesture when talking about the future?  Or the past?  Unconscious gestures can reveal the way people think about time.

The New Scientist reports that a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea has a time stream that follows the course of the nearby river.  The past is downhill, at the mouth of the river, and the future is uphill, at the source.

When they talk about time, they always gesture in those directions, no matter which direction they are facing.  When they’re inside and can’t see the river, the door represents the past.

Researchers are thinking that this is because when they moved to the region they came from the sea, so the mouth of the river is where they have been.

They aren’t the only tribe to have time going in interesting directions.  There is an aboriginal community in Australia whose time flows east to west, and a tribe in the Andes whose time flows front to back – with the unseen future behind them.

Gestures aren’t the only thing that shows how we think about time.  Phrases in our language are also important.  Going forward and back in time spring to mind.  Perhaps that’s why Back to the Future was a good choice for a film title – it defied our expectations slightly and made us curious.

The next time you are building a world, or a new people, consider how they think about time.  Which way will they be gesturing when they talk?  What phrases will find their way into their language?

What gestures and phrases might develop for a group of time travellers?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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