A team of scientists discovered an Amazonian tribe that does not have any words to denote numbers or similar concepts. This state of affairs provides investigators with an amazing opportunity to study how people acquire knowledge. The data may indicate how the earliest humans evolved over time.
In modern societies, people learn how to count and use numbers from a very early age. In fact, we are used to seeing them everywhere we look, and deal with them on a daily basis, for instance when we go shopping, or when we drive.
There are very few things in existence today that would have been possible without numbers, especially in our societies. However, in some way, the Piraha people of the Amazon managed to survive for thousands of years without dealing with anything remotely similar to numbers.
This is precisely what makes scientists so eager to study this society. Lack of access to numbers promises to provide a window into how these people handle knowledge, perception and reasoning.
The entire group consists of about 700 semi-nomadic individuals, living in groups of 10 to 15. Their settlements are located along the banks of the Maici River, which flows into the Amazon. They were studied recently by University of Miami (UM) anthropological linguist Caleb Everett.
The expert says that the natives only have three words to vaguely refer to quantities, but points out that there is an anumeric language. The word hòi, for example, is used to indicate a small amount of something, whereas hoì indicates a moderate to large amount. Baàgiso means a lot, or many.
“The Piraha is a really fascinating group because they are really only one or two groups in the world that are totally anumeric. This is maybe one of the most extreme cases of language actually restricting how people think,” Everett explains.
The expert holds an appointment as an assistant professor in the UM College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology. His research paper is called “Quantity Recognition Among speakers of an Anumeric Language,” Science Daily
“I'm interested in how the language you speak affects the way that you think. The question here is what tools like number words really allows us to do and how they change the way we think about the world,” Everett explains, saying that studies of the Piraha will continue for quite some time.