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Tracking Time

Tracking Time

To the Editors:

"Ethnoclimatology in the Andes," by Benjamin Orlove, John Chiang and Mark Cane (September–October), brings to mind the observations of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who lived with the Indians of Texas early in the 16th century. He noted that the tribes would all gather at the ripening of the prickly pears, the harvest of the pecans, arrival of the buffalo, and so on. As reproduced on page 91 of Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America (University of New Mexico Press):

All the Indians of this region are ignorant of time, either by the sun or moon; nor do they reckon by the month or year. They understand the seasons in terms of the ripening of fruits, the dying of fish, and the positions of stars, in which dating they are adept.

We can imagine such skills were once universal and that our ability to orient ourselves both day and night played no small part in our rise to the top of the food chain.

David J. Pini

San Francisco, California

Dr. Orlove replies:

The amount of variation in astronomical knowledge among different cultures is striking. Some are keen observers of the night sky; others find it a bit ominous. As for tracking seasons of ripening, harvesting, etc., these are absolutely important skills in a way that those of us who rely on calendars can barely imagine. It's remarkable how people keep track of such seasons especially when long-distance movement and long preparations are required. Modern Westerners would probably not adapt well to the slack seasons either, with months spent inside small structures during inclement weather, biding time with some craft production and much story-telling, sleep and, one imagines, suppressed social tensions. I lay out the seasonal cycle at Lake Titicaca in my recent book, Lines in the Water (University of California Press).



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