A study appearing today in the journal Science reports that the hunter-gatherers seem to be the only group of humans known to have no concept of numbering and counting.
There are really only three numeric words in Pirahã - "one," "two," and "many." To add to the confusion, "one" doesn't always mean exactly one - it could mean one fish, a small fish, or only a few fish.
Not only that, but adult Piraha apparently can't learn to count or understand the concept of numbers or numerals, even when they asked anthropologists to teach them and have been given basic math lessons for months at a time.
Their lack of enumeration skills is just one of the mental and cultural traits that has led scientists who have visited the 300 members of the tribe to describe the Piraha as "something from Mars."
Daniel Everett, an American linguistic anthropologist, has been studying and living with Piraha for 27 years.
Besides living a numberless life, he reports in a separate study prepared for publication, the Piraha are the only people known to have no distinct words for colours.
They have no written language, and no collective memory going back more than two generations.
They don't sleep for more than two hours at a time during the night or day.
Even when food is available, they frequently starve themselves and their children, Prof. Everett reports.
More than 60 years ago, amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that learning a specific language determined the nature and content of how you think.
That theory fell into intellectual disrepute after linguist Noam Chomsky's notions of a universal human grammar and Harvard University professor Steven Pinker's idea of a universal language instinct became widely accepted.
Piraha's language has a grammar so radical that it could possibly disprove the theory that certain principles of grammar are shared by all languages– the universal grammar theory.
Of more interest to linguists is the discovery that the Pirahã language does not allow for one phrase to be embedded inside another, which means the language is not recursive.
They communicate almost as much by singing, whistling and humming as by normal speech.
They frequently change their names, because they believe spirits regularly take them over and intrinsically change who they are.
One might think that this unique way of life would disappear if introduced to modern life, but this is not the case. They do not live in isolation; they have been in contact with other Brazilians for over two hundred years, and they have sold goods to traders for quite a while. Rather than being absorbed by their neighbors, they resist. The reason for this is because the Pirahã see themselves as intrinsically better than the people around them, and so they do their best to avoid being like others. Maybe they resisted progress so fiercely that they have succeeded in keeping their culture different from those around them. Then again, maybe they really are superior, and we just lack the mental faculties to realize it. [hB]