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The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Flags and the Australian National Flag flying together on the University of Sydney Camperdown Campus

Indigenous Mythematics – Aboriginal People Don’t Count?

1 February 2017
The Aboriginal numeric system is different but it exists

When it comes to prejudices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, mathematics is no exception. Indigenous knowledge keeper Shannon Foster looks into the myths and misunderstandings about how people count.

A hand of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island man

Watching my father’s beautiful, dark hands work, I know that the image of his hands will stay with me forever. Strong, unique, clever, inventive, creative and caring. I will always remember what they look like painting, holding my hand, explaining a complex idea or even just counting on his fingers. Such a simple act.

He would tap each finger with his index finger. In a way only he could and that was inexplicably different to other people doing the same motions. In some way counting on our fingers is the basis of mathematical expressions. It is the beginning of explaining the foundations of some of humanity’s most complex theories and ideas. Most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t still count on our fingers long after it was considered developmentally acceptable. Many of us, including myself do it to this day.

When exploring our Indigenous knowledges there are a plethora of myths to wade through from the ridiculous to the downright racist. No subject matter is off the table and even mathematics is no exception.

The overruling myth associated with Aboriginal people counting seems to be that we can’t or don’t count beyond four or five. Basically it is one, two, three, many and that is it.

One of the problems here is the fact that it was often linguists who collected most of the data and research on Aboriginal notions of numeracy and of course they came up against a cultural brick wall when trying to understand Aboriginal people’s expression of numbers.

You see, in many cases Aboriginal people use body-tallying to count. Counting on your fingers is the most basic form of body-tallying but the next step along is pointing to different parts of the body to refer to different quantities.

When exploring our Indigenous knowledges there are a plethora of myths to wade through from the ridiculous to the downright racist.

When studying the counting systems of the Wurunjjeri people of Victoria, Australian anthropologist Alfred Howitt found that the system of counting on your fingers up to five was then continued on up the arm.

The numbers took on the often metaphoric names of the body parts for example: Number 7 is expressed by pointing to your forearm and given the name boibŭn meaning a small swelling like that of your forearm; number 8 is bud-darti meaning hollow like that of the inside of your elbow joint and number 9 is gengen dartchuk - the upper arm which takes its name from a strip of possum skin which is worn on the upper arm. Clever, hey?

Another conflict that arose from the research of Aboriginal methods of counting was that many Aboriginal people use English words and notions to describe numbers. The research of Dr Claire Bowen has revealed that the words for numbers above five are often derived from English or based on the actual shapes of the Arabic numerals.

In the case of the Warlpiri people of the Western Desert region for example the number 7 is described as wirlki which is a boomerang with arms of uneven length, often called a "number 7 boomerang"; number 8 is the word milpa meaning "eyes" and the number 9 is ingeniously called kartaku meaning cup or billycan which refers to the fact that the shape of the number mirrors the shape of the cup plus its handle when viewed from above.

What also needs to be acknowledged and taken away from this is the intrinsic differences between Indigenous and western numeracy constructs. Indigenous mathematics sees everything holistically, integrated and connected while western mathematics teaching is a process of sequential learning, abstraction and categorisation. There is indeed a cultural bias in mathematics and its teaching. Thus, I would urge you to look into some of the ground breaking knowledges coming from current research into Indigenous pedagodgies including the work of Dr Chis Matthews; Yumi Deadly Maths and the 8 Ways Wikispace site.

In the meantime, I will make the most of watching my father’s hands while I still have them here to hold. Not as young and nimble as I remember them as a child but just as clever and ingenious - solving problems, fixing things and teaching adoring grandkids how to count.

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