The invention of time

I all started with Khrrreeea worrying when the two small ones Frifri and Grogro went out to play. She kept telling them not to go beyond the Three Rocks because a Dinosaur had trampled a child to death not far from there, and she worried about big holes in the rocks where even ad adult could disappear for ever. She did not “tell” this to the kids in so many words, or in any word at all, for the first homo sapiens had not started talking. Grunts are not words. This absence of words was of course an obstacle to communication, but they had many other means of “talking”. First there was grunting. There were a very large numbers of ways in which our ancestors grunted. You had the angry grunt which depended on the volume of the noise emitted as well as its pitch. A grunt could be harsh, a fearsome growl, or soft o the extent that it could be called a purr, with an almost infinite number of variations between the two. Then there was the tut-tut. Gestures were central to the transmission of ideas. With fingers one could point. Homo sapiens could always rotate their heads, and that featured quite a lot in their exchanges. Nodding had always meant assent in the same way that shaking the head meant no, as is the case today. Then there were smiles, frowns, pursing of lips, raised eyebrows, the opening of eyes, scrunching your face, pinching your nose, and many others. So it can be seen that from the earliest beginning, hominids had the means to communicate and send each other messages. It is not wrong to suggest that telepathy was part of the tools of communication. There might have been direct transfer of information from one brain to another, but without the support of the gestures the conveying of orders or instructions would not have been possible.

When I say Khrreeea “told” her kids not to go beyond the Three Rocks, it have happened like this: She took them outside the opening of their cave and pointed to the Three Rocks. A hand chopping the air was unmistakably an order not to go beyond that limit. She used facial contorsions to express the potential dangers for them. She could control the muscles of her face like nobody else could. When the kids were babes in arms, she never tired of making them giggle with her infinite stock of grimaces.

Husband and wife knew that children had to be inured against violence, and trained them to fend for themselves, so they were willing to expose them to some minor sources of danger, otherwise they would never learn. Khrreeea and her partner Ghrohorro agreed that the kids had to be back after a period of time, but that was a well-nigh impossible task. The sun in the sky could come in handy for long periods of time, say half a day, or a quarter, when you traced an invisible outline in the sky with your finger, stopping it and pointing at a point, but for shorter periods that was inadequate.

Just outside the cave there was a tall palm tree. It was the ancestor of the date palm, and only has passing resemblance to its modern descendant. The couple often sat at the front of their cave together of a morning, “talking” as a loving married couple does, and they had not failed to notice that the sun cast a long shadow of the trunk of the tall tree, which moved with the sun. In the afternoon, they noticed that the shadow was in a different place. They knew that it went round in the same manner everyday. More or less.

When they had tried in vain to put a time limit to the children’s playtime, they knew that they were not making any sense to them. Suddenly Ghrohorro grabbed the children by the arms and led them towards the palm. He pointed to the shadow and shaking his fingers a few times over it, and then tapped his forehead with his index finger a few times, to mean look at this shadow and remember where it is. Then he drew an invisible line on the ground in a

Shadow clock (wikimedia)

position where the shadow was expected to be at a reasonable period of time later, perhaps what we would now define as forty minutes. Then by a similar strategy, ordered the kids to be back before the shadow reached the position he had shown by means of the stick. Then Khrreeea who was much more of a disciplinarian drew a line at a small angle from Ghrohorro’s, and with a frown and a scowl, twisted his thumb and index finger together, which the kids read perfectly to mean, ‘and you come back just a second later, and I will pinch your bottom till it bleeds’.

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.