Diverse mathematical knowledge among indigenous Amazonians


We investigate number and arithmetic learning among a Bolivian indigenous people, the Tsimane’, for whom formal schooling is comparatively recent in history and variable in both extent and consistency. We first present a large-scale meta-analysis on child number development involving over 800 Tsimane’ children. The results emphasize the impact of formal schooling: Children are only found to be full counters when they have attended school, suggesting the importance of cultural support for early mathematics. We then test especially remote Tsimane’ communities and document the development of specialized arithmetical knowledge in the absence of direct formal education. Specifically, we describe individuals who succeed on arithmetic problems involving the number five–which has a distinct role in the local economy–even though they do not succeed on some lower numbers. Some of these participants can perform multiplication with fives at greater accuracy than addition by one. These results highlight the importance of cultural factors in early mathematics and suggest that psychological theories of number where quantities are derived from lower numbers via repeated addition (e.g., a successor function) are unlikely to explain the diversity of human mathematical ability.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Science