"Did George Washington live in the time of the dinosaurs?"
My daughter's question, when she was growing up, was an understandable one. Just as distance can be measured in units from nanometers to light years, there are so many different scales of time that it is easy to get confused. The universe has been around for 13.7 billion years, the earth for 4.5 billion, and the first living things began about a billion years later. The dinosaurs that so interested my daughter arrived around 230 million years ago, mammals about 30 million years later, modern humans no more than two hundred thousand years ago, and George Washington 278 years ago. That's a lot of zeros gone by the wayside between the mother of all monsters and the father of his country.
In addition to physical time, there is also cultural time. A woman from India, speaking about marital practices there, began by saying "Recently in India...." Recognizing that she was addressing an American audience, she corrected herself to say "Over the last eight hundred years in India...."
The Old World is really, really old.
A professor of mine, who had spent a sabbatical teaching in Kabul more than a decade before the Soviet invasion, said that his students told him "Afghanistan is a poor country because Genghis Khan destroyed our irrigation system." They were speaking of a time three centuries before Columbus.
The Crusades were even earlier, so it is hard for Americans to understand why they're still a big deal in the Middle East. In addition to the religious conflict, however, for Egyptians whose time line extends back at least 5000 years to beyond the Pharaohs, and for Iraqis who go back to the world's first civilization in Mesopotamia more than 7000 years ago, the Crusades are comparatively recent history.
Europe is a much newer part of the Old World; but its thousand-year-old castles and churches still seem ancient to Americans. I know a person in France whose family has lived in the same house in Brittany for nearly 300 years--back to the time of George Washington, if not the dinosaurs. In contrast, our National Register of Historic Places includes buildings from the 20th century. An outsider might say that we have so little past that, when we occasionally turn our mind to it, our efforts are directed mainly at preserving the present.
The rest of the New World shares our brief history. Brazilian sightseers in Europe are just as impressed by the antiquity of its monuments as are we, in contrast to tourists from China or India. The indigenous peoples of the New World are the only ones with a time scale that extends beyond Plymouth Rock and Columbus; and their lack of a written history leaves its construction to oral traditions, ancient sites and artifacts, and the ingenuity of archaeologists.
"The past" has different meanings to different peoples. Just as there are different objective scales of physical time, there are different cultural scales of subjective time.
The Past, Oil-painting on linen 2006, by Anastasiya Markovich
Wikimedia Commons: http://bit.ly/pqEOIK
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