Nov. 12, 2012
While there never seems to be enough of it, especially at a university, time tends to be a daily concern to students.
November’s Cafe Scientifique, a series of monthly talks inspired by the French Cafe Philosophique, will look at the development of the concept of time. The event features local and off-campus specialists speaking about their research in a relaxed environment.
“It’s an informal atmosphere, and the people that are there are generally interested in the topic you’re talking about,” said Tom Wynn, an anthropology professor. “It’s not a formal lecture in the sense that you have to stand behind the podium and be profound.”
This month’s Cafe Scientifique is “The Stone Age Invention of Time,” the result of research by Wynn, Fred Coolidge, a psychology professor, and Lee Overmann, a graduate student in the psychology master’s program.
“The idea of time being a continuous stream that’s running into the future and running into the past is actually something we invented,” Wynn said. “Time isn’t really like that.”
Wynn explained that the Western view of time is linear, with time running an infinite distance into the past and an infinite distance into the future. Meso-Americans prior to Western contact believed that time was a cycle that repeated itself endlessly.
An artifact known as the Abri Blanchard plaque comes from Abri Blanchard, a believed to be 28,000-year-old French Stone Age site. The plaque’s marks represent the positions of the moon for the period of 68 days.
“Somebody had produced this plaque that was marking lunar positions for at least two months,” Wynn said. “If you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable for 28,000 years ago.”
“It’s a very unusual artifact, and we were lucky to find it,” he added. “This suggested the idea of calendric time.”
Overmann explained that when number terms emerge in language, there’s a philosophical underpinning, called the extended mind hypothesis.
“Human beings have a unique adaptation where they change the material world beyond the amount of change that other species are able to exert,” she said. Overmann added that beavers build dams and people build high rises and cities.
She noted that the talk is provocative.
“Archeology has traditionally been about categorizing stuff that you dig up and trying to get beyond stuff to the cognitive implications and establishing the methodologies and the caveats so that you can interpret the archeological record through some kind of cognitive paradigm.”