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Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Amazonian tribe that can only count up to five?

This an amazing story of the way humans use numbers. It's hard to believe that with I-pods, huge machines in Switzerland that can smash electrons to see what's inside them, and operations that can transplant pigs hearts to humans that there's still people out there who are oblivious to all of this?

"For the last 10 years, the focus of Pica's work has been the Munduruku: an indigenous group of about 7,000 people in the Brazilian Amazon whose language has no tenses, no plurals and no words for numbers beyond five. To get to the Munduruku, Pica had to wait for some locals to take him to their territory by canoe."

What kind of language must that be with none of the usual things like syntax, tenses for time, and only four numbers to count with? The funniest thing when reading this was when the scientist, after returning back from the Amazon rain forest, was asked how the indigenous people got by with such a limited set of numbers?

"Still, I thought it odd that numbers larger than five did not crop up at all in Amazonian daily life. What if you ask a Munduruku with six children how many kids they have? "He will say, 'I don't know,'" Pica said. "It is impossible to express."

It made me think of the man scratching his head and counting his six kids - "One, two, three, four, five, and...sorry don't know!" It makes you realise that without numbers we have very little and the question arises as to what you have if not the means to express it? It's a bit like the tree falling down in Sweden conundrum, and if there's nobody there to witness it, did it really happen?

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