Revising the history of number: how Ethnomathematics transforms perspectives on indigenous cultures


Many accounts of the history of number rely on written evidence such as clay, stone, and wood engravings or paintings. However, some of the oldest cultural groups (between 5 000 and 30 000 years old) have had only recent contact with the rest of the world, namely between 80 and 140 years ago but these were oral cultures without written records. Finding out about their understanding of number has involved analysis of the types of counting but also how counting related to the rest of their cultural relationships. There is some surprising evidence of diversity of number systems, longevity of the systems, and the interplay with cultural practices that begs respect for Indigenous cultures. Brief summaries of this history of number in Papua New Guinea and Oceania and the diversity of systems is followed by how this new knowledge can inform school mathematics learning in any part of the world.

Keywords: History of number. Indigenous mathematics. Papua New Guinea. Melanesia. Pacific. Longevity of number systems.


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International Perspectives on Ethnomathematics: from research to practices