JBS Haldane, the British biologist, had just finished giving a comprehensive talk on biological evolution. He had started off with the Earth (prior to the inception of life), before seamlessly moving on to different ways that ‘life’ could have emerged, and finally coalescing into the gradual evolution of species (through Natural Selection, the mechanism that Charles Darwin had so elegantly described). A curious listener politely enquired what kind of evidence would shake Haldane’s confidence in the theory of evolution. Haldane famously replied, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian”. He was referring to how the rabbits, a mammal, could not possibly be found in a sediment layer older than when mammals evolved. This idea, that of an object being present in a time period that it does not fit into, is called an anachronism.
Anachronisms are not restricted to Biology, of course. It could be anywhere, and only requires an observant eye to catch. This possibility is what makes a production designer work extra hard in historical period films, where an inappropriate prop, a misplaced song coming from the background, or even a seemingly innocuous phrase caught on the wrong side of time, could invite a barrage of critiques, and film aficionados baying for blood. Although most anachronisms occur unintentionally due to someone (like the poor production designer) forgetting or being unaware of the differences in the language, customs, technology, attitudes or fashions between different time periods, it could also be used intentionally for comedy, shock or as creative freedom. When Hanna & Barbera pits Fred Flinstone and his stone-age family with dinosaurs (organisms that preceded humans by 65 million years) in Bedrock, it is precisely this creative freedom that is wielded. Although the term itself may be unknown to many, most people are well aware of anachronisms, and can easily spot them if it is salient. This was perhaps never more obvious than when the ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Time Traveler’ legend circulated among the internet, a few years back. Originally from the footage of the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 silent film ‘The Circus’, an old lady could be seen walking in the background, while holding something resembling an electronic device, to her ear. Netizens were quick to assume that the woman was probably holding a cellphone, which would be an anachronism, considering the premiere was held decades before the invention of such a device. Realizing this, they further concluded that the only explanation was that the old lady was a time traveler from the future, and that the footage had accidentally captured her, while she was using the device. Bad logic notwithstanding, this incident reveals that most people have an intuitive sense for anachronisms.
The Last Supper: An Artistic Anachronism
Not all instances of anachronisms are as obvious or intuitive as the time traveling lady, however. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ has a few anachronisms that people frequently miss. Art historians have pointed out that the faces of the apostles, the clothing that they wore, the utensils on the table, and the positioning of the people are all most likely out of place for the culture in the time period. Most notably, the wide rectangular table in the painting was virtually unknown for the time and place of the supper. However, most of these anachronisms were intentional by the painter, for convenience or style. For instance, while the real life models that were chosen to represent the apostles were recruited from Milan (thus making the facial structure ‘Italian’), where the painting was drawn, the table and utensils were made to resemble the ones in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the painting was to be placed. It is clear that the farther away the time periods in question are from us, the harder it is to identify anachronisms readily.
The Bombardment of Madras & A Linguistic Anachronism
In addition to its presence in art, which humans consciously produce, anachronisms can also occur in more naturally changing systems, such as languages. Many words can etymologically be traced to events or places, which dictate the boundary for the usage of these words. Since events do not happen in a vacuum, and are inexorably intertwined with other occurrences, this can lead to interesting cases. During World War I, the German warship SMS Emden (named for a town in Germany), bombed British occupied Madras (in Southern India), in order to disrupt the prestige of the British in the area, and to weaken them. The attack was designed to be a demonstration of power, and it worked. It was the only time that the war came directly to the shores of India and the incident had a major effect on the psyche of the people. The word ‘Yamandan’ (based on the local pronunciation of the word ‘Emden’), which meant ‘a large and powerful force’, entered into Southern Indian lexicon. This would not have occurred had SMS Emden not bombarded Madras in 1914. Had the ship been named after a different city in Germany, perhaps the word ‘Berlin’ or ‘Munich’ could have come to mean what ‘Yamandan’ means to the people there today. The bombardment of Madras in 1914, thus, is the earliest that the word can be found in the local vernacular and any presence of it, prior to the incident, would be an anachronism.
Sans Sharif: A Typographical Anachronism
Technology is another fertile area if one were interested in searching for anachronisms, due to the exponential pace with which innovations and changes occur in the field. One such technological anachronism was the smoking gun that resulted in bringing down the Pakistani government in 2017. Following the Panama Papers Leak, incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was accused of buying properties in London using public money. Although he maintained innocence in the trial, a key document submitted as evidence was dated 2006, and was typed using the ‘Calibri’ font of MS Word. Unfortunately for Sharif, the font was only commercially released in 2007, and this anachronism led the court to deem the documents as forged, and to then dismiss them, resulting in a guilty verdict for him.
It is clear that there may be anachronisms present in many places and properly identifying them can provide further insight into things. Knowing a bit about history and being familiar with different zeitgeists, combined with a keen eye for observation can greatly help in this regard. The only thing that could be keeping you from elevating to the status of a ‘true psychic’ could just be paying attention.