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Science. 2008 Jan 11;319(5860):213-5. doi: 10.1126/science.1148345.

The limits of counting: numerical cognition between evolution and culture.

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Department of Psychology, University of Freiburg, D-79085 Freiburg, Germany.


Number words that, in principle, allow all kinds of objects to be counted ad infinitum are one basic requirement for complex numerical cognition. Accordingly, short or object-specific counting sequences in a language are often regarded as earlier steps in the evolution from premathematical conceptions to greater abstraction. We present some instances from Melanesia and Polynesia, whose short or object-specific sequences originated from the same extensive and abstract sequence. Furthermore, the object-specific sequences can be shown to be cognitively advantageous for calculations without notation because they use larger counting units, thereby abbreviating higher numbers, enhancing the counting process, and extending the limits of counting. These results expand our knowledge both regarding numerical cognition and regarding the evolution of numeration systems.

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