Try to imagine a world without numbers. No more addition or subtraction, algebra nor calculus. No more high school geometry. It would be pretty hard to get by without basic counting, such as being able to tell whether you had caught five fish or ten fish. Yet one tribe in Brazil seems to get by just fine with practically no comprehension of any mathematical concepts.
The inhabitants of the banks of the Maici river live in a world unlike our own. The difference goes beyond the lack of computers, cell phones and cars; one would be hard pressed to find that technology in the middle of any forest. Rather, for the Pirahã, numbers are just not a big part of their life. They can barely count, and anything more difficult than that is right out. That’s not all that’s different about them; They lack any examples of art or fiction, and their 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. The Pirahã certainly have a unique way of life.
The Pirahã are terrible mathematicians, unable to do even simple addition. Then again, it’s difficult to do any sort of calculation when you have no concept or words for exact numbers. 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.
There used to be a belief, however, that number words were not necessary for a concept of mathematics. Other tribes with similarly limited numerical vocabularies have managed to practice some mathematical concepts, however researchers have failed to teach the Pirahã even the most basic math. After eight months of lessons, none of the Pirahã could do anything more complicated than counting up to three. The rest of the mathematics is far beyond their grasp. This is not to say that they do not understand what math is— just that they cannot seem to do any of it.
Numbers are not the only limited part of their vocabulary. Their language lacks quantifiers such as “all,” “every,” “most,” “few,” etc. There are no basic color words— red could be described as “blood-like” but there is no single word for “red.” Also limited is their kinship system, for which there are only terms for direct biological descendants (daughter, son) and for people of differing generations (i.e., one generation older). There are even some claims by researchers that the Pirahã borrowed their pronoun set from a neighboring tribe and did not even have any before recent times!
Of course, it would be difficult to develop a complex vocabulary when limited to just ten consonants and vowels, a number which makes the Pirahã language the world’s most phonetically limited language. But while the language cannot be written, it can be whistled, hummed, or put into music.
When one starts to look at the grammar of their language, it becomes even stranger still. For one thing, it lacks the concept of perfect tense. 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. This property of the Pirahã language runs counter to the theory of universal grammar, since recursion is one of the properties of the theory.
As far as researchers know, there are no fictional stories nor mythologies in the Pirahã culture. All stories are descriptions of experiences, and these stories only go back one or two generations at most. There is no collective memory of the Pirahã people; no history of their people is recorded by them. There is practically no art in their culture; whatever drawings they make are only used to describe the spirit world that they have experienced and are not drawn for aesthetic purposes.
Another extraordinary quality of the Pirahã is their amazing physical endurance. They take short naps from fifteen minutes to a few hours, usually sleeping no more than two hours a day. They only occasionally sleep through the night. On top of that, they often starve themselves— even if they have enough food— just from a desire to be more strong.
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.