Enculturation and the historical origins of number words and concepts

César Frederico dos Santos*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In the literature on enculturation—the thesis according to which higher cognitive capacities result from transformations in the brain driven by culture—numerical cognition is often cited as an example. A consequence of the enculturation account for numerical cognition is that individuals cannot acquire numerical competence if a symbolic system for numbers is not available in their cultural environment. This poses a problem for the explanation of the historical origins of numerical concepts and symbols. When a numeral system had not been created yet, people did not have the opportunity to acquire number concepts. But, if people did not have number concepts, how could they ever create a symbolic system for numbers? Here I propose an account of the invention of symbolic systems for numbers by anumeric people in the remote past that is compatible with the enculturation thesis. I suggest that symbols for numbers and number concepts may have emerged at the same time through the re-semantification of words whose meanings were originally non-numerical.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9257-9287
Number of pages31
Issue number3-4
Early online date1 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by FAPEMA (Foundation for Research and Scientific and Technological Development of Maranhão) under Grant Number BD-08292/17.

Funding Information:
I am grateful to Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Lieven Decock, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Enculturation
  • History of numbers
  • Number concepts
  • Numerical cognition
  • Philosophy of mathematics
  • Re-semantification


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