By Lorraine Boissoneault
Once you learn numbers, it’s hard to unwrap your brain from their embrace. They seem natural, innate, something all humans are born with. But when University of Miami associate professor Caleb Everett and other anthropologists worked with the indigenous Amazonian people known as the Pirahã, they realized the members of the tribe had no word used consistently to identify any quantity, not even one.
Intrigued, the researchers developed further tests for the Pirahã adults, who were all mentally and biologically healthy. The anthropologists lined up a row of batteries on a table and asked the Pirahã participants to place the same number in a parallel row on the other side. When one, two or three batteries were presented, the task was accomplished without any difficulty. But as soon as the initial line included four or more batteries, the Pirahã began to make mistakes. As the number of batteries in the line increased, so did their errors.
The researchers realized something extraordinary: the Pirahã’s lack of numbers meant they couldn’t distinguish exactly between quantities above three. As Everett writes in his new book, Numbers and the Making of Us, “Mathematical concepts are not wired into the human condition. They are learned, acquired through cultural and linguistic transmission. And if they are learned rather than inherited genetically, then it follows that they are not a component of the human mental hardware but are very much a part of our mental software—the feature of an app we ourselves have developed.”
Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.