Number Concepts without Number Lines in an Indigenous Group of Papua New GuineaReport as inadecuate

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The generic concept of number line, which maps numbers to unidimensional space, is a fundamental concept in mathematics, but its cognitive origins are uncertain. Two defining criteria of the number line are that i there is a mapping of each individual number or numerosity under consideration onto a specific location on the line, and ii that the mapping defines a unidimensional space representing numbers with a metric — a distance function. It has been proposed that the number line is based on a spontaneous universal human intuition, rooted directly in brain evolution, that maps number magnitude to linear space with a metric. To date, no culture lacking this intuition has been documented.

Methodology-Principal Findings

By means of a number line task, we investigated the universality proposal with the Yupno of Papua New Guinea. Unschooled adults did exhibit a number-to-space mapping criterion i but, strikingly, despite having precise cardinal number concepts, they located numbers only on the endpoints, thus failing to use the extent of the line. The produced mapping was bi-categorical and metric-free, in violation of criterion ii. In contrast, Yupnos with scholastic experience used the extent of the segment according to known standards, but they did so not as evenly as western controls, exhibiting a bias towards the endpoints.


Results suggest that cardinal number concepts can exist independently from number line representations. They also suggest that the number line mapping, although ubiquitous in the modern world, is not universally spontaneous, but rather seems to be learned through — and continually reinforced by — specific cultural practices.

Author: Rafael Núñez , Kensy Cooperrider, Jürg Wassmann



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