The National, Monday 06th Febuary 2012
COUNTING by using your fingers is well known in many societies.
But in remote areas, villagers have been using not only their fingers but also a whole range of body parts to do daily calculations.
Around Telefomin, in the far west near the Irian Jaya border, people have traditionally counted objects by starting with their fingers.
They then move on up their arm to the elbow, shoulder and eyes, and down again – to a total of 28 steps in all.
Prof Geoffrey Saxe, of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley in the US, studies the social history of mathematics and has toured PNG.
The traditional numerical system is Oksapmin which uses 27 body parts, but one wrist is counted twice, to make 28.
People from seven or eight distinct language groups use the same method.
Saxe said the system worked fine when simply counting valuables or other objects, such as explaining how far away your house might be from your uncle’s dwelling.
But when complex calculations are required in the modern world, Oksapmin has a problem.
For a while, users tried a secondary “body counting” system to help add or subtract from their first lot of objects.
Saxe said: “In traditional life, people did not engage with (complex) number in any way”.
From 2001, he noticed that the Oksapmin method had been disappearing among old people.
But it has reappeared among young people in an intriguing way.
Saxe said elementary schools were obliged to teach not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also to impart knowledge of local history.
Oksapmin has become part of the modern curriculum as children learn about their village traditions. – Australia Network News