History of Time (Part 1/2)

…and time measurement

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik; Co-Founder and Co-Director of Global AI Ethics Institute.

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

Stone Arrangements in Australia
  1. Today, we take the concept of time as given. But when was it first conceived, and can we trace it back to any civilization?

Living organisms perceive time differently, according to their own primary needs, such as the cycles of feeding, sleeping, and breeding, … Of course, some elements affect all animals and two of the most obvious are the Sun and the Moon. The Moon has three major influences on life on Earth: time, light, and tide. Many animals, especially birds, heavily rely on the Moon when it comes to migration. For them, it is a celestial clock and a compass at the same time.

Bodies of different creatures, including humans, are very much ‘guided’ by their circadian rhythms (from Latin: circa diem — around a day). When a person respects their circadian rhythm, they get the best of their sleep, and their brain and the body are rested and prepared for the challenges of the following day. Otherwise, serious disruptions of sleep happen, and even the overall psycho-physical state can be affected in a negative way. The experiments on humans (Kleitmann, 1938 and Siffre, 1962) isolated in caves with no changes in natural light or temperature fluctuation have shown that body’s internal clock keeps functioning even without signals from the environment. An important side discovery was that the adaptation to this long isolation was that the circadian rhythm changed to a 48-hour regime: 36 hours of being awake and 12 hours of sleep. Many vital processes in our bodies are regulated by the circadian clock, such as blood pressure, energy production in mitochondria, and glucose transporters in intestines that are expressed early in the day irrespective of food intake.

Humans kept their record of the time at least since the Neolithic period (New Stone Age, 10.000 BC to ca 3000 BC). The perception of time was lunisolar — i.e., it depended on the two most influential celestial bodies. Arguably the oldest installation that kept records of solar alignments is the stone arrangement named Wurdi Youang created by Aboriginal peoples in Victoria, Australia. This 23-ton and 50-meter composition is believed to be more than 12.000 years old. The title of the oldest lunar calendar often is attributed to an arrangement of twelve pits arranged in an arc located in Aberdeenshire in Scotland, which is believed to be 10.000 years old. The oldest astronomical calendar in Europe is believed to be the Vučedol culture (near Vinkovci, Croatia) ceramic vessel with incised ideograms that represent celestial objects.


2. What were the differences in the perception of time? How many models did we use (cyclical, linear…) and which one influenced our current perception of time the most?

In the past, the beliefs of different cultures had significantly shaped the way people perceive crucial events and phenomena: birth, death, marriage, food, and many others. Time was by all means one of those key elements in the life of any being. Christian Europe had both linear and cyclical elements in its time framework. It was linear in terms of life and death of a person, and from the origin of humanity to Second Coming (i.e., eschatological time). It was to some extent also cyclical, because there were common cycles of working hours, days of the week, seasonal (field) works, holidays that were celebrated every year, etc. In short, the liturgical year is cyclical.

In the modern world, there are several approaches to time, its importance, and management. There is linear time mostly perceived by those nurturing protestant ethics: the more hours one works, the more value one produces and contributes to their environment. During these working hours, most tasks are set linearly, and they are most frequently performed one at a time. If a generalization is allowed, in capitalistic societies, such as the US, these tasks generally equal a certain amount of money; therefore, if one lost time, one consequently lost money. The Mediterranean world tends to be multi-active, and members of Mediterranean cultures tend to find precisely this multi-activity to be especially fulfilling and rewarding. They perform certain tasks, but they are not bothered if socializing or other activities deflect them from completing their scheduled tasks. Even more, schedules and punctuality are far less important than the general feeling of multiactivity — or, at least, multi-involvement in a variety of things at the same time. Those closer to the Mediterranean basin (Latin, South Slavic, Arab sphere) are more concerned about the emotional content than about completing a task, according to an agreed schedule. Their time is more personality- or event-related, therefore can be manipulated and stretched. The time frame is literary flexible and expandable and this makes it difficult to hold to fixed schedules. The things that can be predicted though are changes in scheduling, and decreased efficiency.

This can lead to a lot of frustrations in relations between people with different perceptions of time. A story that we most often tell within our group of friends is the one that happened between one of our favorite characters, a Croatian whose concept of time could be described as ‘fluid’, even ‘poetic’, most certainly unstructured. The guy was multi-active, talented, involved, and often late. His then-girlfriend was Swiss, punctual, with a personal calendar full of tasks/events for many months ahead. They were supposed to go to a museum on a Monday at 4.30 pm and he completely forgot, as he didn’t plan those things that much in advance. She was angry: ‘How could you have forgotten the museum, it was our plan to go there today.’ He responded calmly: ‘Yes, but this is why it’s called a plan, not destiny’.

Many societies in East and Southeast Asia still adhere to the perception of cyclical time. This also reflects significantly on the duration of their decision-making. Australian aboriginal people have a concept of The Dreaming, in which the spirits, living beings, and the land are interconnected. Aboriginal time is vertically positioned: the past, present, and future are all linked into the eternal now of the Dreaming. The generations are so much more interconnected, and everything has eternal implications, therefore the aboriginal people communicate with their ancestors, especially before making decisions. For them there is no past in the linear sense we perceive it, it is all now, in past-present. In other words: there is no ‘history’, but it is all about concepts and events, regardless of when they happened, as they affect lives. Some African societies don’t make (m)any plans for the future because they believe it cannot be perceived.

The Obelisk

3. How did the approach to time and its measurement influence our definition of ‘civilization’? What are the other marks of civilizations?

We discussed this in our previous interviews, and it is good that once more we can put things in relation. Our present-day notion of ‘civilizations’ is often connected with several characteristics that all such groups had in common. Among the basic requirements for the rise of advanced civilizations were stable food supplies and trade. These factors allowed the economic base to expand. The rise of agriculture was a game-changer and no wonder that all ancient civilizations flourished in fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, or the Nile delta. In order to keep track of fieldwork and other important work-related events, the first calendars were created.

To get back to the elements all civilizations have in common: large population centers — the critical mass of inhabitants has always been important; complex division of labor among the inhabitants is also crucial, as professionals produce objects or services significantly faster and better. Thirdly, a key factor is shared communication — in terms of spoken language, alphabets, numeric systems, and symbols: all of which enable and facilitate the transfer of ideas, technologies, etc. Writing did not just enable keeping records of taxation but also structuring and conveying knowledge. Fourthly, systems for administering territories were important. This does not solely relate to politics and legislation, but also innovations and engineering enterprises can be included, as networks of communications (roads, railways,…) simplified administrative work. Fifthly, the division of inhabitants into social and economic classes has always been associated with civilization. Lastly, one of the most impressive and palpable features was the construction of monumental structures intended to preserve the legacy of the civilization and its ideas. Temples, pyramids, palaces, and parliaments… were all part of the agenda for perpetuating, if possible, the ideas of the civilization in question.

Civilizations established calendars to put their timekeeping in a framework. For example, Christian cultures are now in 2022, the Muslims use the year 1444, while the Jews count this one as 5783. In the past, time was being measured by ruling dynasties (like in Egypt or China) or other important dignitaries or events. In the Maya calendar, one month had 20 days (named after a deity who carried that time to the sky); there were two parallel calendar years consisting of 260 and 365 days. The former may have been related to astronomical calculations, while the latter, based on the solar cycle, was used to keep track of seasons and agriculture. Although their calendar was more focused on connecting the actions of Maya rulers to historic and mythical events than on accurate timekeeping, the accuracy of their calendar is still superior to all other contemporary calendars. Like the zodiac, the Maya believed that the date of birth affects the person’s destiny.

In 1884 an international conference in Washington D.C. had divided the globe into twenty-four time zones and declared Greenwich, England the prime meridian for time, as it had long been used as such for navigational charts.



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Aco Momcilovic

Aco Momcilovic


Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…