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Two strangers, Alice and Daisuke, are from two different cultures and speak different languages. Oh, and they are from two different times!

Alice, was unwillingly, unknowingly and unexpectedly transported through time by crygogenics/time machine/sleeping curse etc. Transport method is not needed for the question.

Alice does not know she has travelled into the future. She has just woken up in a strange world unable to speak the language. She is intelligent, well learnt and has quickly managed to communicate her immediate needs with the international travel language of body language and hand signals.

Daisuke, doesn't know when exactly Alice is from, just that she is from the long lost past. Daisuke while also intelligent and well learnt, does not speak Alice's language or have the resources to find any academics that may still speak it (if any). Daisuke does not have any modern equipment/technology to help translate and is also relying on body language and handsignals.

To protect Alice from the outside world, she isn't allowed outside her windowless set of rooms. Daisuke can't just show Alice old buildings that were new/non existent in her time etc. Daisuke can arrange to have small objects brought into the rooms but doesn't know which would be helpful without external context. (An old vase, is just an old vase). As Daisuke doesn't even know who Alice is (aside from her name) or what exact timeframe she came from he cannot provide any of her own belongings/familar objects until he knows the exact time she came from...

Alice wants to know where she is! Daisuke can simply point to a map. How does Daisuke communicate the long passage of time to Alice?

For the purposes of this question he doesn't have to communicate how she got there.

For the purposes of this question Daisuke can't just spend months teaching Alice the language. Alice wants to know now, what the f is going on!

Using just basic hand signals (and props), how do you tell someone that it has been many many years since they were last awake?


Edit

Alice doesn't need to know the exact number of years she has travelled. If she can be told she has been gone for more than a century (rough number of centuries would be a bonus) that would suffice. They can fine tune the dates once they get their language barrier sorted.

Alice has the equivalent of a 1900ish level of knowledge (if she had had a male education that is).

There is about 1000-1300 years in time difference with a cataclysm inbetween. The people rebuilt. There is no modern technology in the new world. No aeroplanes, TV's, modern computers etc!

  • FYI. The New World does use a different Calender Year numbering system, but the calendar week/month setup itself is similar enough to be recognisable. The New world uses the old "dynasty method" and is no reference to the total amount of time that has passed. Using such a calendar would still be able to show the passage of time, with the added step of explaining the difference between the year stated and the number of years travelled.

Daisuke has a similar level of knowledge as Alice, ie 1900ish.

Daisuke can use everyday objects as "props" to indicate certain ideas/concepts as well as hand gestures, drawing on paper and moving around the room.

Daisuke would be able to provide maps, solar system drawings and models.

Daisuke knows Alice has travelled from the past, as there have been similar incidents in the past (these involved similar languages so his people haven't encountered this communication issue before). These previous incidents didn't necessarily all come from Alice's time. - Would require communication between both Alice and Daisuke to refine the ballpark time to roughly a century which is why, it's not necessary to be precise.

A good answer would cover explaining to Alice:

  • she is in the same place as pointed out on a map, and that a large number of years had passed.
    • the exact number is not required but an estimate within a rough hundred years is preferable (ie not a strict requirement).
  • Daisuke would have to specify if she had gone forward or backward.
  • if a shared point in history is used as a reference point it will have to be mimed/drawn out (eg, major events like, the crucification or major influential flag colours. Some thing or some event that would withstand the rigours of a catacylsm).

    • there is a high probability of misunderstanding with this technique as each may be referring to different events eg which wall falling down are you talking about, Hadrian's wall, the Berlin wall, Trump's wall?
  • An explanation shouldn't take more than a day, possibly two to convey.

  • Any explanation that involves taking Alice outside is void, but explaining concepts like the sun is ok.
  • An explanation that involves objects from her time in a aged state is borderline, as Daisuke doesn't know her exact departure time.
    • besides, how is Alice to to know what is trying to be said by showing her these random old objects.
    • Yes, it might show that she had travelled in time, but she can't determine it's 900 years worth of rust/mold instead of 500!
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  • $\begingroup$ We have had successful questions on worldbuilding SE before on how to prove or tell people you are a time traveller. This is a similar question in reverse; In this case it is the traveller who needs to be told, with the more than likely language barrier in place. Close voter, Please do let me know how I can make this more "on topic". $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKhörling. No. Chose the name at random from a top 100 baby names website as a place holder to emphasise the different culture barrier. I have since found out it is very similar to the japanese manga streaming website daisuki and now just been introduced to daisuke fujiwara by you. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't tell us what "props" available, it's actually hard to think a method that satisfies your question. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Sep 29 '17 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ What is an example of the correct answer to this question? That Alice knows that she's in 2000 years from her time? How could Daisuke know that she's from 2000 years ago? Or is it okay that she understands she's in long long long time in the future from her time? And this is important: from what time Alice is? If she's from the stone age, she won't understand proper astronomy. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Sep 29 '17 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ How to explain something to someone isn't about worldbuilding. It's about a story set in a world. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Sep 29 '17 at 15:25

15 Answers 15

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  1. Draw the solar system. Get Alice to understand which planet she's on. Hopefully quite simple. If he can get his hands on an orrery that would be ideal. If she doesn't seem to understand basic astrophysics, she may be too primitive to understand.
  2. Follow the orbit of the planet once, and make a tally mark
  3. Follow the orbit of the planet again, and make another tally mark.
  4. Make a lot more tally marks. If you have an orrery crank the handle as fast as you can.

Do this interspersed with pointing at Alice, pointing at her craft/cryochamber/magic bed etc.. and she has a good chance of working it out.

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    $\begingroup$ Except that Daisuke doesn't know how far into the past she's from, and it's highly unlikely that Alice memorized the current positions of all the planets just before being frozen. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 29 '17 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @shufflepants, Alice wouldn't need to have memorised the exact planetary alignments to understand a day/annual rotation on such a device. So while you are correct that Daisuke doesn't know the exact number of revolutions, he could do a couple dozen and then shrug a "and so on, and so forth" sort of gesture. It would definitely make the concept of a year and even centuries alot quicker to explain. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @shufflepants. It's easy to do a couple revolutions to indicate a block unit of 10, 25, 50 or even 100. Then you can just give tell Alice how many units to times by x number to get the rough ballpark figure. You don't have to wind your hand around the solar system 1200 times! 😉 Alice can do Math, and she will have paper and pen if she needs to write it out... $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ The solar system is a nice clock with outer hands measuring centuries. It probably wouldn't work for even 1% of people in a society without common space travel and a disinterest in astrology like ours, but 1900's education perhaps would include astrology. A conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in a certain constellation in a certain month I think could date you in a thousand years. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Sep 29 '17 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt Knowing the date of some planetary conjunction is something only a decent astronomer would know. Hell, I'm a physics student interested in astronomy, and I couldn't tell you them... $\endgroup$ – Neinstein Sep 29 '17 at 18:37
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Draw a timeline.

Timelines are very easy to understand. It doesn't have to be complicated, and understanding each others number systems is not required either.

Dinosaur, Alice, example Doomsday event, Daisuke

This does of course require both Daisuke and Alice to know some history regarding dinosaurs, but that could possibly also be substituted for other alternatives. For someone a bit better at drawing than me, words wouldn't be needed in the illustration.

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Daisuke gets one picture of architecture that is representative of the beginning or middle of each past century. Since alice pointed her location on a map, you know what cultural architecture to show.

Begin with XX century, show a picture of an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud, or one WW II poster.

If Alice recognizes XX century, move forward with pictures of architecture until she does not recognize anymore.

If alice does not recognize XX century, move backwards with pictures of architecture until she recognizes something.

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  • $\begingroup$ This one is pretty good nice work ! $\endgroup$ – Dustman0 Sep 3 at 13:19
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Tracking Time

Humans have been keeping track of time for most of civilization. Calendars and clocks are both common across cultures, although their designs are clearly different. If Alice is from a far time period or vastly different culture then you might have a harder time finding a common design thread but it is certainly not impossible.

Once you have established what your time measuring device is and looks like, from there it is a simple bit of pantomime to explain that Alice is from the past. The important thing is to have a common understanding of both the calendar and how it functions. Alice needs to know what the current day is on the calendar, and which direction time moves on it.

Have Daisuke point at the calendar and then himself. Have him very obviously point to a previous point on the calendar, and then point at Alice. Repeat with variations until Alice twigs that she is in the future. The more similar the calendars that both parties use are the easier it will be to convey that information.

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    $\begingroup$ That is pretty nice in it's simplicity! $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ How does this identify who time traveled? How does Alice interpret this as "I am in my future, in Daisuke's time which is the present" instead of "Daisuke is from his future, in my time which is the present"? $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Sep 30 '17 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @TOOGAM I slightly glossed over that part on purpose. Basically you need to establish the calendar and current date beforehand. How you do so depends on the calendars that both parties are familiar with. But if you can convey to Alice what today is, then you can show her what the past is, and try to get her to understand that she is from it. $\endgroup$ – D.Spetz Oct 2 '17 at 18:00
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I would start with a world map in the hopes that continent shapes, river courses and major city locations would look familiar to her. That would get the largest scope of the "where am I?" question out of the way. She would know that she is still on Earth.

Then as she notices the effects of rising ocean levels, changing river courses and city sprawl, she could come to her own conclusion about how much time has passed. She might not know exactly how many years have gone by, but she would know that she is in the distant future. From this she could learn the all important fact that the world she came from is gone. There is no going back.

After that, I would start bringing here children's history books, choosing one that have lots of illustrations. She wouldn't be able to read my people's modern text, but the pictures would act as milestones. Once she recognizes something in a picture, it would be time for the sun/earth rotation pantomime which has been described in other answers.

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Easy peasy, bring a newspaper to the room.

It's cliche, yes, but incredibly effective. If you can find one with numbers and pull them up. Numbers have been around for about 6000 years, so unless she's from cavemen times (and as she has a name, it's clear she isn't), numbers are your best bet. Showing her numbers from her time period along with the current time period could show her exactly the amount of time that has passed, or at least provide a general sense that significant time has passed.

In order to get the timeframe Alice is from, show her pictures from each century, and gauge her looks of confusion as to roughly when she is from. If she's confused by an airplane but not a ballista, you can get a rough idea of her time period. Continue this with smaller and smaller increments of time until you determine the decade or year.

Note: I do intentionally say numbers, not numerals. In many languages the numeric system is a bit different in terms of numerals, but the language of actual numbers has never changed, hence why many believe math to be universally connected.

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    $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – eques Sep 29 '17 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Restioson There's a chat room about this answer, and that issue has been brought up. Please see the chat room for the answer. $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian Sep 29 '17 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I thought it was specifically for @eques and you. I'll move there $\endgroup$ – Restioson Sep 30 '17 at 9:13
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Proper sign language, as any other language, is hard to convey without knowledge. I assume you mean something like mimic, but still this cannot be done quickly. Gestures have different meanings in different cultures!

Daisuke can use the following steps:

  1. Establish a certain item as bearer of the meaning for 1 day and 1 night. I.e. 2 oranges are given every morning, once 1 day and 1 night are passed by.
  2. Establish another item/act to symbolize "sleeping" and another one for "awake". I.e. a pillow for sleeping and a shovel for awake.
  3. Place next to Daisuke 1 pillow and 1 shovel, then place n oranges next to the pillow and n oranges next to the shovel.
  4. Place pillow and shovel next to Alice. Put all the oranges on the pillow.
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    $\begingroup$ Would you think badly of Alice if she mistakenly took that combination to mean that, "when she asleep, Daisuke was going to smother and bury her?! And maybe plant some oranges..." I do get what you mean though :) $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ (1) would seem to have the obvious problem that Alice has no way to observe her surroundings, being stuck in a set of windowless rooms. So she wouldn't know whether it's day or night. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 29 '17 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling that's right, but still she will have her own biorithm setting a cycle of sleep-awake $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 29 '17 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ It's been > 1000 years. That's a lot of oranges. Also, Daisuke doesn't know from how long ago Alice is from so he has no idea of how many oranges to place. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 29 '17 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch From the question: "the exact number is not required but an estimate within a hundred years is preferable." From this answer, Alice might come away thinking only a few weeks had passed. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 29 '17 at 15:08
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Simple. With clock/wrist watch and map.

Have Daisuke point to where they are on map, and then to Alice and self.

Then point to clock, and make circular motion counterclockwise. Do that again with verve, then many many times, frenetically, to indicate a massive amount of time in the past. Point to location on map, and then to Alice to indicate she was alone back then.

Now indicate with clock time moving forward, lots and lots of time. Repeat first gesture with map indicating they are together again here, in present time.

If there is no clock maybe Daisuke could suggest, with arm motion, the movement of the sun across the sky from sunrise to sunset to indicate time passing.

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  • $\begingroup$ In one of the comments, OP mentioned that Daisuke has access to pre 1900 level tech. So, there should be clocks. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 29 '17 at 15:21
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To extend @SZCZERZO KŁY's answer, you could use a tally/roman-numeral-esque system.

For example, start by drawing, say, 10 lines. The amount doesn't matter, and could vary depending on the numerical base used by Daisuke. Then, connect them somehow (be it via a bracket, arrow or line) to a new symbol. This symbol represents 10 lines. Then, repeat this so you have a 100s symbol, and then a 1000s symbol. You can then use them to represent a date, for instance:

MMCIIIIIII

to represent 2017 (where I is 1, X is 10, C is 100, and M is 1000).

A rough breakdown of reading it:

 MMCIIIIIII
      |
     \./
  1000 + 1000 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1
      =
    2017

The key here is to find some way to get Alice to realise that time is being talked about here, so this would best be combined with another answer, such as @Mindwin's answer, to ensure that Alice gets the message that these are years. Daisuke could first write out some year which she will most likely know and then his year, and juxtapose them. Alternatively, Daisuke could try to represent a rough estimate of the time Alice has travelled, and then point to her capsule/time machine/cryogenic sleeping pod.

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Physical dictionaries have been around for a very very long time. I would spend some time with the dictionary method. Get as many different language dictionaries as you can find. Write a similar phrase in each language.

"Pick up the red pen" english
  "pick up the green pen" spanish
  "pick up the blue pen" french

and so on.

When you run out of colors repeat a different pattern on page 2.

If you can establish which language she knows the rest is pretty easy. You want to use kindergarten level words since they don't change as much. Even if the language has changed there should be enough similarities so you can communicate basic ideas.

Also write down numbers in all known counting styles, and let her point to the one she recognized.

   0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
   I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X
   and so on

If you can establish which counting system she knows that would also help. Math has a much reduced character set, and therefore a higher probability of finding it. Most languages have a 0-9 counting system that hasn't changed and isn't likely to change.

After that you could probably use common conventions to communicate dates.

11/1/2017 or 11-1-2017 would pretty much be universally recognized as a date.

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    $\begingroup$ That's an interesting solution! The only problem would be if all our current modern languages have gone extinct/evolved beyond intelligibility. Perhaps if a scholar or academic was called in this could help... It may be a bit like finding a sanskrit scholar today $\endgroup$ – Restioson Sep 30 '17 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ What makes it really handy is you can have 10 languages per page, and try 100 languages in a few minutes. So if it is a waste of time, you didn't waste very much. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Sep 30 '17 at 14:31
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Even without a clock, basic units of time are the day/night cycle, moon cycles, seasons... and obviously years : Earth revolutions around the Sun. Just make Daisuke to form a fist with one of his hands, points to Alice with the index of his other hand, then proceed to make his finder slowly turn around the fist, then accelerate the revolution, spinning the finger faster and faster around the fist.

It won't take long for an intelligent, well learnt person to understand that the fist is the Sun, the finger is the Earth, and that many, many years have passed indeed.

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    $\begingroup$ Or he could point at the sun, then her, indicating that she was the sun, then at himself, then her, indicating that he is she. Then he could move around her faster and faster, showing her that she (he) has been around the sun (her) many times. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 29 '17 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Will "To protect Alice from the outside world, she isn't allowed outside her windowless set of rooms. ", so no Sun to point at. $\endgroup$ – Keelhaul Sep 29 '17 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ My little scheme, crushed in the vice grips of @Keelhaul's trenchant logic. Perhaps Daisuke could hold his hands behind his head and wiggle his fingers, as though he wore the radiant Helm of Helios? $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 29 '17 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Will I can't help but imagine Alice doing the same, thinking it's some kind of greeting ! $\endgroup$ – Keelhaul Sep 30 '17 at 8:06
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So using a sign language means Alice have eyes. So what Daisuke do is he find a crayon, a piece of paper and draw a picture. A picture of time travel. You know the clock the arrow pointing forward and all that jazz.

Also Daisuke can just recognize what number does Alice use or understand. Arabic, Roman, Chinese, Aztecs. And then write dates. For example

...2045, 2046, 2047, 2048, 2049

And then point to himself and explain that he is 2049 but she is in those three dots.

Different calendar systems don't play any role. There would be very little chance (as in removed by the OP) that Alice is from 5778 Jewish calendar and landed in the 5778 Gregorian one.

So the precise date is not necessary, just a concept to show the change in time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah sorry, my pre-edit removed a line from the OP. Coming from different cultures they are using different calender systems. Eg Daisuke has moved off the gregorian AD calender. Once they figure on a common event they could make that idea work. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ Ok. So, the numbers show the change in time, not necessarily how many years have been lost? That would work then. So if Alice came from 2017AD and Daisuke was in year 250 of the New Ming dynasty (or something like that, these are random numbers) it wouldn't be a problem? $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps We can only hope that Alice is intelligent enough to rule out the possibility of going back in time (because her environment). But she can still assume that she was kidnapped to North Korea. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Sep 29 '17 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ Daisuke is actually Japanese according to baby-names website which means 'great helper'. Needed a quick place holder name to reflect completely different cultures. Couldn't really use Alice and Bob now could I. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 29 '17 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ That's was a joke. They are on like 100-something year in NK. And something around 4k years in Korean years. The thing is that we want Alice to understand that she is in different time that she was when she felled asleep. And because you can only travel in two directions in time (let's assume that and not that only forward) we want her to rule out the back time option based on the things that surround her. You know, the levitating bed and self folding clothes. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Sep 29 '17 at 13:39
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I would arrange to have a 5cm/2inch slice of tree brought in with me. From the biggest handy tree that I am allowed to fell at short notice. Preferably some tree 100 years old or more. Take a drawing pin and place one near the middle call it Alice. Place another at the outside edge and give it your name.

Take a pencil and start to subdivide the tree rings if you want to make the duration longer or bring in another 10 slices of tree and chain the idea.

Everyone knows that tree rings take one year to grow.

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    $\begingroup$ Great thinking! Not sure if my society understands tree rings. I will look into their curriculms! $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Feb 5 '18 at 7:12
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2 ways. If they have clocks/wristwatches(with hands)He could point to it and run his finger along it clockwise.Also, he could bring some sort of written sign from an old building back in her time that would've been new, like a store sign or something.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't counterclockwise indicate "you've gone back in time"? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Sep 29 '17 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Crap...I had my mind on something else sorta related.If not then that method won't work.I'll edit it $\endgroup$ – TheSleepingInsomniac Sep 29 '17 at 15:02
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Daisuke should use a calendar book since from the details in your question it will be recognisable with minimal difficulty, year to a page or opening, doesn't matter if it is 1,000 pages long. He can show her today, go back pages and show here explosion or destruction for the cataclysm and go back more pages and then point to Alice for the year that she is from.

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