Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Amerindian System of Counting (Numbers)



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Two systems of counting were formerly in use among the Indians of North America, the decimal and the vigesimal. The latter, which was used in Mexico and Central America , was also in general use N. of Columbia r., on the Pacific slope, while between that area and the border of Mexico it was employed by only a few tribes, as the Pomo, Tuolumne , Konkau, Nishinam, and Achomawi. On the Atlantic side the decimal system was used by all except the [Inuit] tribes. Both systems, based apparently on the finger and hand count, were as a rule fundamentally quinary. There are some indications, however, of a more primitive count, with minor tribal differences. In Siouan and Algonquian the word for 2 is generally related to that for arms or hands, and in Athapascan dialects to the term for feet. In a few languages, the Siksika, Catawba, Gabrieleño, and some others, 3 is expressed by joining the words for 2 and 1. In many others the name for 4 signifies 2 and 2, or 2 times 2, as in most of the Shoshonean dialects, and in Catawba, Haida, Tlingit, and apparently Kiowa; the Pawnee formerly applied a name signifying 'all the fingers,' or the 'fingers of the hand', thus excluding the thumb. Five has usually a distinct name, which in most cases refers to one hand or fist. The numbers from 6 to 9 are generally based on 5, thus, 6 = 5 + 1, 7 = 5 + 2, etc.; or the names refer to the fingers of the second hand as used in counting; thus, among the [Inuit] of Pt. Barrow 6 is 'to the other hand 1', 7 'to the other hand 2', and in many dialects 6 = '1 on the other hand.' There are exceptions to this rule, however; for example, 6 is 3 and 3 in Haida and some other dialects; in Bellacoola the name signifies 'second 1,' and in Montagnais (Algonquian), '3 on each side.' Although 7 is usually 'the second finger on the second hand,' in some cases it is based on 4, as among the Montagnais, who say '4 and 3.' Eight is generally expressed by 'the third finger on the second hand'; but the Montagnais say '4 on each side,' and the Haida '4 and 4'; in Karankawa it signifies '2 fathers,' and in the Kwakiutl and some other languages it is '2 from 10.' In a number of languages the name for 9 signifies 1 from 10, as with the Kwakiutl, the [Inuit] of N. W. Alaska, the Pawnee, and the Heiltsuk.


The numbers from 11 to 19 are usually formed in both systems by adding 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., to 10; but in the vigesimal the quinary count is carried out, 16 being 15 - 1, 17 = 15 + 2, etc., or, in some dialects, 17 = 10 + 5 + 2. Many of the Indians could count to 1,000, some by a regular system, while in a number of languages, as Tlingit, Cherokee, etc., its signification is 'great 100.' In Ottawa the meaning was 'one body'; in Abnaki, 'one box'; in Iroquois dialects, 'ten hand-claps,''that is ten hundreds; in Kiowa, 'the whole hand hundred.' Baraga and Cuoq give terms for figures up to a million or more, but it is doubtful if such were actually in use before contact with Europeans.


The common Indian method of counting on the hands, as perhaps is usual with most savage or uncivilized peoples, was to "tell off" the fingers of the left hand, beginning with the little finger, the thumb being the fifth or 5; while in counting the right hand the order was usually reversed, the thumb being counted 6, the forefinger 7 and so on to the little finger, which would be 10. The movement was therefore sinistral. Although the order in counting the first 5 on the left hand was in most cases as given above, the order of counting the second 5 was subject to greater variation. It was a common habit to bend the fingers inward as counted, but there were several western tribes whose custom was to begin with the clenched hand, opening the fingers as the count proceeded, as among the Zuñi. Among the tribes using the vigesimal system, the count of the second 10 was practically or theoretically performed on the feet, the 20 making the complete "man," and often, as among the [Inuit] and Tlingit, receiving names having reference to the feet. The Zuñi, however, counted the second 10 back on the knuckles.


Indians often made use of numeral classifiers in counting, that is, the number name was modified according to the articles counted; thus, in the Takulli dialect of Athapascan tha means 3 things ; thane, 3 persons; that, 3 times; thatsen, in 3 places ; thauh, in 3 ways; thailloh, all 3 things, etc. Such classifiers are found in many dialects, and in some are quite numerous.


Certain numbers have been held as sacred by most tribes; thus 4, probably owing to the frequent reference to the cardinal points in ceremonies and religious acts, has become sacred or ceremonial. Among the Creeks, Cherokee, Zuñi, and most of the Plains tribes, 7 is also considered a sacred number. For the Zuñi, Cushing says it refers to the 4 cardinal points plus the zenith, nadir, and centre or ego. Some of the Pacific Coast Indians regard 5 as their sacred number. Although 13 appears in most of the calendar and ceremonial counts of the cultured nations of Mexico and Central America, its use as a sacred or ceremonial number among the Indians N. of Mexico was rare, the Pawnee, Hopi, and Zuñi being notable exceptions.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 114-115.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College