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Log or Linear? Distinct Intuitions of the Number Scale in Western and Amazonian Indigene Cultures

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Abstract

International audience The mapping of numbers onto space is fundamental to measurement and to mathematics. Is this mapping a cultural invention, or a universal intuition shared by all humans regardless of culture and education? We probed number-space mappings in the Mundurucu, an Amazonian indigene group with a reduced numerical lexicon and little or no formal education. At all ages the Mundurucu mapped symbolic and non-symbolic numbers onto a logarithmic scale, while Western adults used a linear mapping with small or symbolic numbers, and a logarithmic mapping when numbers were presented nonsymbolically under conditions that discouraged counting. Thus, the mapping of numbers onto space is a universal intuition, and this initial intuition of number is logarithmic. The concept of a linear number line appears to be a cultural invention that fails to develop in the absence of formal education.

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