Counting (Week 2, Day 3)


A Pirahã woman in a shelter.

What would we do with out counting?

Well, quite a lot apparently. At least if the Pirahã people of the Amazon are any indication. The Pirahã have survived for untold centuries in the harsh jungle. As reported in the New Yorker,

“The Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to insure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game. “

As mentioned last week, the Pirahã have no word for any number, including the number one. When researchers from MIT came to them to study their ability to answer basic numeracy questions they were able to perform one-to-one matching tasks when they could see the objects they were matching to. When the objects were hidden, or even just placed differently, they were no longer able to have exact matches.

Frank et al conclude that the

“results suggest that language for exact number is a cultural invention rather than a linguistic universal, and that number words do not change our underlying representations of number but instead are a cognitive technology for keeping track of the cardinality of large sets across time, space, and changes in modality.”

Meaning that our ability to count and recognize exact numbers, like five, is not something all humans can do, but rather something that we learn as part of our culture. The fact that the Pirahã were still able to do the one-to-one matching exercises is evidence that they do understand that quantities exist, it’s only that they lack a way of describing those quantities in their heads. The lack of words results in their inability to remember exact quantities. We are able to remember that there are Seven Dwarfs because we know the number seven. The Pirahã on the other hand would have to remember the names of each dwarf just to be able to describe the exact size of the group. This is obviously a more difficult task. far this week we have exhibited ants that count and humans who can’t. Tomorrow I’ll talk about fingers, toes, and numbers bigger than twenty.


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