Anachronism and time travel

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Written by a girl called Ben (, Modified by Wikipedia contributors, published by Wikimedia.

The apparent lack of anachronisms is often used as evidence against the possibility of time travel.

"Anachronism" literally means "out of time". It can be any object or event, in fiction or in the real world, that appears out of place because it is thought to be inappropriate or impossible for that time period.

In relation to theories of time travel, the question of anachronisms has been discussed as possible disproof of (or proof for) the possibility of travelling in time. If it is possible to travel in time, why isn't there any historical evidence that people from the future have visited the past? And why are there no obvious anachronisms in our own time?

It can be assumed that if time travel is possible at any future time, that temporal explorers would travel throughout history, and the longer time travel techniques existed, the more people would travel. It might be considered inevitable that these people would leave some anachronistic evidence behind. The time travellers themselves would likely be a notable anachronism, since even something as simple as spoken language changes rapidly over time. The lack now and throughout history of any anachronistic technology, objects, or ideas could be taken as proof that time travel does not happen and therefore is not possible. "There are no anachronisms", this argument goes, "so there never will be any travellers with time machines".


Breadcrumb trails and hidden clues

The corollary of this argument is that if anachronisms exist, then this might be evidence for time travel. Some people look at history and cause and effect, and find things which appear not to have happened in a sensible chronological order, such as unbelievable accomplishments or sudden advances in technology or thought.

A further theory, explored especially by science fiction and fantasy authors, suggests that time travel may be monitored for the specific purpose of controlling anachronism; the suggestion is that in the future there may be a kind of "time police" (see The End of Eternity). This group would control what people were able to do when they travelled in time, and perhaps be responsible for "correcting" errors and eddies in the space time continuum, returning history to its 'pure' path as if it had not been tampered with. This idea is strongly related to a non-deterministic or "chaos" theory of history, suggesting that any anachronistic influences would by nature be destructive, changing everything in the time line to follow. If such a body of "time police" existed, it would be hard to imagine that they would perform this task perfectly leaving no evidence behind, though one may consider that if time travel techniques were perfected, there would be an infinite number of opportunities to correct a single change. The "time police" theory also presents a dramatic example of what is commonly called the grandfather paradox or the time loop paradox: if an anachronism in time was in fact corrected, how would anyone in the future know to go back and correct it? For more exploration of time paradoxes, see the time travel article.

Both progressive and regressive anachronisms could be the result of time travel, but regressive anachronisms tend to be much stronger proof. If, say, dinosaurs are found on a remote Pacific island, that could be the result of time travel. But it could equally be that this particular island has somehow been sheltered from whatever wiped out the rest of the dinosaurs. By contrast, if Julius Caesar is caught on film in ancient Rome wearing a pair of Levis, that could only be a result of time travel (on two counts).

Other explanations

The scarcity of anachronisms may be a result of "time police", or because time travel is impossible. However, there are other possibly less dramatic explanations:

  • Time travel may be very difficult. This would make anachronisms either very rare or non-existent. It might also limit time-travel to larger organisations who would be more responsible in their uses of the technology.
  • The human species may become extinct shortly after the invention of time travel, so there won't be enough time [sic] to flood the past with tourists. The technology might also be developed on another planet or even by another species. Maybe time travel is itself a dangerous technology.
  • It may not be possible to travel back in time past the creation of some specific artifact. The Tipler Cylinder is an example of a theoretical approach to time travel with such a limitation. In this case we'd expect to see no time travellers now, but as soon as the relevant artifact is constructed we'd expect visitors from the future to be a fact of life.

Example anachronisms

  • The Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx of Giza demonstrate impressive engineering capability, even by modern standards. Some have speculated that they may have been built by aliens, or that their construction required technology from a future civilisation. It may simply be that the masonry skills of the Ancient Egyptians were more advanced than historically thought.
  • Other ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge and the statues of Easter Island, have also raised eyebrows over their feasibility, given the technology and government thought to have existed at the time.
  • Leonardo da Vinci was certainly a man ahead of his time; his sketches and writings include a precursor to the modern helicopter, centuries before the invention of comparable flying machines. Leonardo's helicopter could not fly, however.
  • The Antikythera mechanism, dated to around 87 BC, contains gears and clockwork technology not previously thought to exist until the 13th century.
  • The Baghdad Battery has puzzled people for years.
  • The Nazca Lines of Peru stretch for kilometers, and can only be observed by flying above them.
  • The 1513 map of Piri Reis included a continent near South America that was taken by Charles Hapgood and Erich von Däniken as evidence for the discovery of Antarctica three centuries before its later discovery in 1820.
  • A more fanciful suggestion is that the fabled island of Atlantis was one giant anachronism, and it was drowned in an attempt to hide this "fact".
  • The 1,600-year-old corrosion resistant Iron pillar of Delhi.
  • The Crystal Skulls required more technology for manufacturing than it is known to have been available to the Maya.
  • The Eltanin Antenna is an antenna-shaped object located on the ocean bottom of Antarctic Ocean, at a depth of 4,100 metres (13,500 feet).
  • The Vitrified forts of Scotland, which are of pre-Roman origin, yet appear to have walls of melted stone which would have required immense heat.

Some people argue that these examples and others show that there have been careless time travellers and show that "temporal secret agents" have been here on containment and damage limitation missions. These are said to be the smoking guns of the ultimate conspiracy theory.

See also



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