The human construct of time

By the time most of us have learned to read a clock, we have come to understand time as objective.  It might feel like a long time to Christmas or summer vacation, or a long time until we finally get to where we are going, but we do know that five minutes is five minutes, 351 days is 351 days, and we can’t stretch it out or squash it down.

But time as we in the modern world think of it is quite different from the way our ancestors thought of it.  We look at our watches and our calendars to measure time for us.  We don’t look at the temperature outside or the spring bulbs pushing through the warming earth.  If it’s unusually cold for July, or the spring bulbs begin to appear in January, we don’t turn the pages of our calendars to adjust to what we see.  Time ticks relentlessly on whatever we feel.

But it hasn’t always been like that.  In fact, for most of the time homo sapiens has been on this earth, our concept of time has not been based on a clock or calendar, but on the changing seasons.    We were much more like the bees that will start taking the nectar from the flowers whenever they appear, more like the birds that will fly south when the temperature turns, or the herds of deer moving north as winter recedes.

Gradually, people learned to predict the seasons by following the waxing and waning of the moon.  But the problem is that the 13 months of the lunar year gradually moves further and further away from an accurate prediction of the seasons.   

Hunter-gatherers in Scotland were sophisticated enough to construct an actual lunar calendar with a built-in seasonal corrector, and they may have been the first people in the world to do so.  The oldest calendar found anywhere in the world thus far was discovered in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and was constructed about 10,000 years ago, nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars discovered in the Near East and at least 5,000 years before Stonehenge. 

An illustration of how the pits would have workedThese were not the kind of paper calendars we have today, of course, which we hang with a string on the wall.  The first calendar consisted of 12 pits to track lunar months.  But, critically, the pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise which provided an annual astronomic correction to the drifting predictions of the lunar year.  That made it possible to predict with greater enduring accuracy when it was time to move on to the next field, when to expect the weather to turn, and so to be caught less often without food to gather or animals to hunt.

Like our watches and time tables today, even this calendar may have separated people just a little from their intuitive sense of time.

But in another sense, it was a great leap forward, certainly as great a leap as any of our clocks and time tables today.

 

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
This entry was posted in Great Ideas, in the last 10,000 years or so, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The human construct of time

  1. Welcome back! It’s about time 🙂

    • Oh Chris, it’s wonderful to hear from you. I also have missed your postings — but understand completely. Though I suspect my occupations are a little less demanding these days than yours. So my resolution is to post here a little more regularly — life permitting. Terry

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