Polynesian polynomials? Islanders counted in binary.

Nature has more on the math whizzes of the South Pacific:

Binary arithmetic, the basis of all virtually digital computation today, is usually said to have been invented at the start of the eighteenth century by the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. But a study now shows that a kind of binary system was already in use 300 years earlier among the people of the tiny Pacific island of Mangareva in French Polynesia.

The discovery, made by analysing historical records of the now almost wholly assimilated Mangarevan culture and language and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, suggests that some of the advantages of the binary system adduced by Leibniz might create a cognitive motivation for this system to arise spontaneously, even in a society without advanced science and technology.

Pure binary arithmetic works in base 2 rather than the conventional base 10, which many cultures have adopted possibly as a consequence of counting on ten fingers. With base 2, numbers are enumerated as powers of 2: instead of units, tens, hundreds (102) and thousands (103), the digits of a binary number refer to 1 (20), 2 (21), 4 (22), 8 (23) and so on.

Mangareva is a volcanic island whose first settlers arrived around 500–800 ad. It probably had a population of several thousand before substantial interactions with Europeans began in the eighteenth century. Its highly stratified society survived mostly on seafood and root crops, and needed a number system to quantify large transactions in trade and in tributes made to chieftains.

I like how this discovery exists perfectly in the overlap between anthropology, linguistics and mathematics.

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