Binary lies at the heart of our technological lives: those strings of ones and zeroes are fundamental to the way all our digital devices function. But while the invention of binary is usually credited to German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in the 18th Century, it turns out the Polynesians were using it as far back as 600 years ago.
A team of researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway has been analysing historical records from Mangareva — a volcanic island in the Polynesians, whose first settlers arrived around 500 — 800 AD — and have found that its inhabitants used a basic form of binary.
While only around 600 Mangarevan speakers now remain — down from several thousand before Europeans began interacting with them — the researchers were able to reconstruct many of the texts they found using descriptions written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They found that the usual base-10 form of counting was combined with a form of of binary in Mangareva. Nature explains:
They had number words for 1 to 10, and then for 10 multiplied by several powers of 2. The word takau (which Bender and Beller denote as K) means 10; paua (P) means 20; tataua (T) is 40; and varu (V) stands for 80. In this notation, for example, 70 is TPK and 57 is TK7. Bender and Beller show that this system retains the key arithmetical simplifications of true binary, in that you don’t need to memorize lots of number facts but follow only a few simple rules, such as 2 × K = P and 2 × P = T.
It wasn’t a perfect system by any means, but it was fairly efficient and, the authors of the new research claim, “the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.” Some researchers have suggested that the roots of this counting system could be traced back to a millennia-old Chinese text that inspired Leibniz, though the link is far from clear.
What is clear, though, is that its unlikely a small community would come up with such a number system all by itself, because it’s rather complex. So, while the Polynesians may have been using binary 600 years ago, it seems doubtful they were the first. Instead, the number system likely had an influence from some other culture — we just don’t know where yet. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences via Nature]
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