Remote Islanders Invented Binary Number System Before Famous Mathematician

April Holloway | Ancient Origins | December 18, 2013

New research has revealed that the indigenous people of a remote Polynesian Island invented a binary number system, similar to the one used by computers to calculate, centuries before Western mathematicians did.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The intriguing study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that the inhabitants of the tiny island of Mangareva were more mathematically advanced than the rest of Europe when they invented a numerical system for trading. Mangareva is home to just 2,000 inhabitants.

The island is a tiny 18 square kilometres and is located halfway between Easter Island and Tahiti. Andrea Bender, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bergen in Norway, and her colleague Sieghard Beller, were studying the Mangarevans when they noticed that the inhabitants had words for the numbers 1 to 10, but for numbers 20 to 80 they used a binary system, with separate, one-word terms for 20, 40, and 80. For really large numbers, they used powers of 10 up to at least 10 million. “Those were probably the numbers that were most frequent in their trading and redistribution systems,” said Bender. “For that specific range, it was helpful to have these binary steps that make mental arithmetic much easier — they didn’t have a writing or notational system, so they had to do everything in their mind.”

One of the most famous mathematicians of the 17th century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, is known to have invented a binary numeral system. Nowadays, binary numbers – where each position is written as a 0 or 1 – form the foundation of all modern computing systems.  But the new study shows that the Manareva islanders were using a combined decimal and binary system which had died out by the mid-1400s.

The Mangarevans traded across long distances for items such as turtles, octopuses, coconut and breadfruit with people on the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii and the islands around Tahiti. It is believed that the binary system helped ancient people to keep track of their trading activities. What is more surprising is that they were able to use a complex number system without needing notation. The numbering scheme may be the only known example of an extensive binary numeral system that predates Leibniz. 

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