- Numbers and the making of us: Counting and the course of human cultures by Caleb Everett
Number systems attracted attention among linguists a few decades ago as generative devices that were invented and learned, but apparently analogous to language systems that are innate and irrepressible. Like language, number systems in technologically developed cultures are recursive and unbounded. However, unlike language, they are semantically circumscribed and often derivationally transparent. It is relatively easy to see that ten is a basic lexeme, an arbitrary combination of sounds with a stipulated meaning, and that ten undergoes certain allophonic adjustments when it grammaticalizes as a suffix on other basic number names, as -teen 'plus ten' in sixteen, seventeen, etc., and as -ty 'times ten' in sixty, seventy, etc. The derivational morphology of, say, -ly in tightly and beneficently, though similar in principle, provides a much less transparent paradigm.
Everett's exploration in Numbers and the making of us is not much concerned with the generativity of number systems or other structural matters. His book is much more wide-ranging in a sense, or perhaps I should say much less narrowly linguistic. Everett's academic focus comes from several branches of anthropology with forays into cognitive science and psychology. He has a pleasantly discursive [End Page 314] manner that encourages him to conduct guided tours of exotic sites along the way, including ancient Mesoamerica, where numbers provided clues for the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs (pp. 51–56), various upper Amazonian villages with languages that purportedly have no number words (pp. 125–129), the Khufu pyramid, a geometric marvel (pp. 213–215), Angkor Thom for the putative origin of zero (pp. 231–235), and Blombos Cave with early artifacts that may (or may not) encode counting (pp. 240–248). He also gives space to curiosities such as the Ishango bone, a baboon fibula with markings that may (or may not) be numeric (pp. 34–36), perennial favourite Clever Hans, the horse that fooled experts into thinking he could add (pp. 169–172), cyclical shortages of snowshoe hares in northern Ontario (pp. 172–174), and Alex, a parrot that was, like Clever Hans, said to be capable of adding (pp. 186–187).
Everett summarizes a great deal of research with clarity and insight. His interpretations often push the limits, so that his book treads a fine line between the scholarly and the speculative. He is erudite and almost always entertaining, but his lucidity may entice readers to be less discerning than they sometimes need to be.
A good example of the fine line comes in Everett's discussion of the archaeology of the southern tip of Africa, where early humans took refuge in caves during a climate crisis about 170,000 years ago and stayed for about 30,000 years (p. 242). There are no skeletal remains in the Blombos Cave but artifacts include "refined stone tools," bowl-like shells, engraved pieces of bone, and a piece of ochre with "hatchlike marks" that "may have served some symbolic or quasi-symbolic function" (p. 243). Perhaps, Everett says, the markings are "the first representations of precise quantities" (p. 244). While he is forthright in reminding readers that "we cannot definitively establish the first place where numbers were used" (p. 244), he makes it abundantly clear that he would like to believe that this is the place. His crowning argument—the artifacts include shells gathered sometimes from great distances, and these shells, he says, might have been "valuable, miniscule commodities that they wanted to count [….] In the light of these facts, it is not implausible that they did have numbers" (p. 245). Well, yes, "not implausible," as he says, but perhaps hardly plausible. His discussion is imaginative and appealing, and, as he confesses, "It is weak evidence, admittedly" (p. 246).
At one point, at least, Everett appears to underplay his cautionary tone in favour of a theory that seems dubious. He makes the point that "agricultural modes of living are associated with more elaborate number types" (p. 218...