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Free talk – Ethnomathematics in oral tradition societies

Free talk – Ethnomathematics in oral tradition societies: the case of string figure-making and sand-drawing practices

Discussing a very different kind of string theory, a visiting French expert in ethnomathematics is giving a free public talk at the University of Canterbury (UC) on how diverse traditional island communities use maths principles in their cultural activities, from weaving and string games to design, ritual and construction.

Hosted by UC’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Eric Vandendriessche is a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Ethnomathematics is the study of maths and culture and the mathematical practises of communities that typically fall outside the traditional discipline boundaries of the mathematical sciences. These activities include weaving, design, carving, string games, construction, recreational pursuits, ritual, and the like.

To document and account for these mathematical practices, Eric has travelled all over the world. He recently spent time in the Oceanic regions of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, and in South America. There, he worked with communities to record these practices and the context in which they are carried out, and highlighted their algorithmic and geometric characteristics, their relationships with culturally specific activities, and their links to mathematical practice more broadly.



Most recently Eric has focused his research on two procedural activities carried out in various indigenous societies, and will discuss these in his free public talk at UC tomorrow, Ethnomathematics in oral tradition societies: the case of string figure-making and sand drawing practices.

“In this presentation, I will give an overview of current research in ethnomathematics aiming at studying two procedural activities carried out in various indigenous societies, and by the Northern Ambrym Islanders (Vanuatu, South Pacific) in particular. These practices consist of making a figure, either with a loop of string (‘string figure-making’ using fingers and sometimes feet and mouth) or by drawing a continuous line in the sand with one finger (‘sand drawing’),” he says.

“The algorithmic and geometric characteristics of both activities will be examined in their relationships with culturally specific practices, and in their links with other particular expressions of symbolic systems. Finally, we will see that a comparative study of such activities – bearing a mathematical character – should contribute to revealing criteria for identifying ‘mathematical practices’ in an oral tradition cultural context, which is a core issue in ethnomathematics.”

Having written the book, String Figures as Mathematics: An Anthropological Approach to String Figure-Making in Oral Traditional Societies, Eric is especially interested in a comparative study of such activities bearing a mathematical character.

“Such comparisons help us understand more deeply our inherent affinity for principles of symmetry, pattern, order, and shape.”

Ethnomathematics in oral tradition societies: the case of string figure-making and sand drawing practices presented by Professor Eric Vandendriessche of SPHERE, CNRS & Paris Diderot University, from 4pm to 5pm, on Tuesday 4 June Jack Erskine building Room 031, University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus, Christchurch. Free to attend.

String figure mathematics video


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