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29 November 2016


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Apparently the late Dr Glendon Lean produced a great work on the counting systems of Papua New Guinea.

The Melpa (Hagen) language used a base four or eight. The number of pigs given in bride price were usually in units of 8.

Their finger counting system was somewhat different than that illustrated in Bob Cleland's account. If I remember correctly two closed fists brought together with the thumbs sticking up signified 8.

There is the additional puzzle about whether or not the numbers 4 and 8 had directional significance when used in the singsing place.

The word for 4 is timbakaka (tempagag) and the word for 8 is engaka. Central Hagen speakers refer to the Nebyler area as Tempaka and the area over the Hagen range as Enga.

One older missionary (Fr Arnold Steffen) once told me he heard the people use the words for 4 and 8 when pointing to Nebyler and Enga. But I never was able to verify this. (It is accepted that Enga is a name given by the Hagens.)

The Faiwolmin in the Star Mountains, some of my favourite people, counted to 27.

Fingers on the left hand, then up the arm to the face, down the other arm to the right hand.

When someone asked, "How many?" it was just a case of pointing to the relevant body part.

Yes, Bob. But remember that the Imperial measurement system which we used before decimal measurements, and which is still in use in the UK and USA today, was also based on a thumb.

In 1150 King David I of Scotland decreed than an inch was the width of his thumb at the base of the nail, and King Henry I of England decreed that a yard was the distance from his nose to this thumb on his outstretched arm.

This happened to be 36 thumb widths long, hence 36 inches = 1 yard, and his foot was 12 thumb widths long, hence 12 inches = 1 foot, the basis of the Imperial system.

So finger counting was not so strange after all.

Like, as is said, 'putting two and two together'.
Now, what about "primary keepers of the numbers" for the PNG Exchequer?

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