Non-symbolic halving in an Amazonian indigene group


Address for correspondence: Koleen McCrink, 3009 Broadway, Psychology Department, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA; e-mail:


Much research supports the existence of an Approximate Number System (ANS) that is recruited by infants, children, adults, and non-human animals to generate coarse, non-symbolic representations of number. This system supports simple arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, and ordering of amounts. The current study tests whether an intuition of a more complex calculation, division, exists in an indigene group in the Amazon, the Mundurucu, whose language includes no words for large numbers. Mundurucu children were presented with a video event depicting a division transformation of halving, in which pairs of objects turned into single objects, reducing the array's numerical magnitude. Then they were tested on their ability to calculate the outcome of this division transformation with other large-number arrays. The Mundurucu children effected this transformation even when non-numerical variables were controlled, performed above chance levels on the very first set of test trials, and exhibited performance similar to urban children who had access to precise number words and a surrounding symbolic culture. We conclude that a halving calculation is part of the suite of intuitive operations supported by the ANS.