Unit D1


Time is one of the most important dimensions of the natural world. It includes how we measure what happens during the day, or with a calendar, and how we think about the past, present and future. Manís ways of thinking about time and measuring it vary greatly from culture to culture. This can make it very difficult to understand when people of different cultures discuss together, because we often do not understand how different our ideas of time may be. The words for time and the way time is expressed in each language can help to show how different these ideas are. If you try translating words for time from English into your local language, or vice versa, you may find some of these differences.

Some peoples did not think about the past and the future the way Europeans do, just as they did not separate themselves as individuals from their environment. The real or natural world and the mythical world of gods and ancestors were often merged together. The future was not planned for, it simply was there when certain signs appeared.

Measurement of time

Today most people measure time in years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds, using printed calendars and clocks or watches. Yet most of our divisions of time are still related to natural astronomical events that repeat themselves regularly. Days are measured by the rising and setting of the sun, and are subdivided by the different positions of the sun into periods such as dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, sunset, evening and night. Months were originally related to the different phases of the moon, and in some places the lunar calendar is still more important that the solar calendar. Years are related to the different positions of the earth as it rotates around the sun. The changing position of the sun relative to the earth means that in any one place the angle of the sun is higher or lower, and the day length longer or shorter. This changes how much the sun heats the earthís surface, producing the seasons. These natural cycles were combined with cultural factors to produce the different calendars.

Time and the environment

Time is an important element of the environment because many natural events are linked with astronomical cycles. The seasons of the year are responsible for changes in temperature, weather and rainfall patterns, which in turn are related to growing seasons and times of dormancy in plants, as well as seasonal flowering, fruiting and animal reproduction.

The cycles of the moon drive the tides in the sea. They also have an important influence on many plants and animals both on the land and in the sea. Some plants and animals are known to reproduce once a month on a lunar cycle.

The cycles of day and night have an obvious influence on much biological behaviour, including our own periods of waking and sleeping.

Understanding these natural and biological cycles can help both to explain why certain environmental features are as they are, and to improve our use and management of natural resources. The repeating patterns make it possible to predict and prepare for certain events, and any changes from the usual patterns can be a warning that we need to make adjustments. There are obvious examples in many aspects of life in the islands. Many crops such as yams are planted on an annual cycle, and the times for planting and harvesting are often associated with or indicated by natural phenomena. Similar phenomena are used in coastal fisheries to determine the best times to catch fish or the times to protect them so that they can reproduce. Certain weather patterns, such as times of drought or hurricanes, may also be predicted in this way.

In some island cultures, the calendar was not a separate dividing up of the year, but simply a series of responses to natural phenomena. The appearance of a star over the horizon, or the flowering of a particular tree in the forest, would signal that the time had come for a certain activity. Where environmental conditions vary from year to year, a calendar by association with natural biological events may be more responsive to changing environmental conditions that doing something at fixed dates in the solar calendar.

Collecting information about the role of time and various cycles in your local environment can help to make for better environmental management.


How are the past, present and future viewed in your culture?

Was time measured during the day? How?

What are some examples of the influence of the moon?

Can you describe a traditional calendar?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP, Geneva
Updated 7 April 1998