Four bunches of green grapes, please
Here at .id we deal with a huge quantity of numbers, so its hard for us to imagine a society where numbers don’t exist. But there is one …
Demographic characteristics, population forecasts and economic profiles all contain vast quantities of numbers – in fact it’s our job to help our clients make sense out of it all – by placing those numbers in context and providing easy to read charts and comparison tables.
A couple of years ago we wrote a blog about how the Inca people of South America were able to record a census without a written language, using a “quipu” – a sort of knotted rope device used to count objects or people.
But to take this one step further – there was, (and in fact still is) a tribe of people in South America who had no way of counting at all.
The Piraha people, a remote tribe in Northwestern Brazil consisting of only about 300, have no words to describe numbers. In fact, they can only speak of “few” or “many”.
Following on from the landmark work by Daniel Everitt, who “discovered’ the tribe and studied them for over 20 years, a study was performed to try and understand more about these people and how they accounted for numbers of objects.
A study, conducted in 2008 by MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, asked Piraha speakers to count objects. What they found was the words they used for “one” was often the same as for two, three or four. From then on, no matter how many objects were presented, they simply answered “many”.
It can be assumed then, that these people have never conducted a formal census! (Although perhaps they could provide a level of context in population numbers – by indicating more or less?)
However, in terms of context, they have no history beyond living memory, in fact their language contains no grammatical tense to describe the past at all.
The Piraha people sleep little and often – from just 15 minutes to about 2 hours at a stretch – much like Dymaxion sleep proposed by Buckminster Fuller (as described in another previous blog).
The language, with just 8 consonants and three vowels, is absolutely unique – and it also includes humming, whistling and singing.
As well as no words for numeracy – curiously, they also have no words for colour.
Think of that next time you are in a shop and ask for “I’ll have four bunches of green grapes please”….