Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.”
But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.
Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.
Cultures without numbers, or with only one or two precise numbers, include the Munduruku and Pirahã in Amazonia. Researchers have also studied some adults in Nicaragua who were never taught number words.
Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In an experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if there are only four or five in total.
This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.
Cultures without numbers also offer insight into the cognitive influence of particular numeric traditions. Consider what time it is. Your day is ruled by minutes and seconds, but these entities are not real in any physical sense and are nonexistent to numberless people. Minutes and seconds are the verbal and written vestiges of an uncommon base-60 number system used in Mesopotamia millennia ago. They reside in our minds, numerical artifacts that not all humans inherit conceptually.
Research on the language of numbers shows, more and more, that one of our species’ key characteristics is tremendous linguistic and cognitive diversity. While there are undoubtedly cognitive commonalities across all human populations, our radically varied cultures foster profoundly different cognitive experiences. If we are to truly understand how much our cognitive lives differ cross-culturally, we must continually sound the depths of our species’ linguistic diversity.