Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group

Science. 2004 Oct 15;306(5695):499-503. doi: 10.1126/science.1102085.


Is calculation possible without language? Or is the human ability for arithmetic dependent on the language faculty? To clarify the relation between language and arithmetic, we studied numerical cognition in speakers of Mundurukú, an Amazonian language with a very small lexicon of number words. Although the Mundurukú lack words for numbers beyond 5, they are able to compare and add large approximate numbers that are far beyond their naming range. However, they fail in exact arithmetic with numbers larger than 4 or 5. Our results imply a distinction between a nonverbal system of number approximation and a language-based counting system for exact number and arithmetic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brazil
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Culture
  • Humans
  • Indians, South American*
  • Language*
  • Mathematics*
  • Vocabulary*