Is there mathematics in the forest?

Mauro W. B. de Almeida


Scholars from different fields and epistemological orientations —including anthropologists, science historians, and mathematicians—have argued that technical and social practices of indigenous peoples, exemplified by ornamentation in textiles and kinship taxonomies, embody the mathematical capacity of illiterate people. I take as my main example the kinship calculi of the Cashinahua at the Brazil-Peru frontier, bringing into focus the complex mathematical operations and structures embedded in this domain and inextricably embedded in their ontology. Does that mean I am imposing modern mathematical concepts on indigenous ontologies? Against this charge of epistemic colonialism, I argue in favor of the existence of universal mathematical capabilities (evidenced by the recursive rules used to produce consistent patterns that are transportable across distinct domains of thought and action) across ontological boundaries.


Amazonia, mathematics, ontologies, kinship, Cashinahua Indians

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/703798