Today we visited the nature reserve operated as a cooperative of the nearby village of Antja. This gave us our second fix of lemur viewing, as the reserve contains several families of ring-tailed lemurs.
The local people at Antja use the tetradecimal (i.e., base 14) number system. In the familiar decimal (i.e., base ten) number system, 12 (say) represents one lot of 10 and two units. In the hexadecimal (i.e., base 16) number system much used in computer science 12 represents one lot of sixteen and two units – a total of eighteen. Analogously, in the tetradecimal number system, 12 represents one lot of fourteen and two units – a total of sixteen. You get the idea.
Why do the villagers at Antja use the base fourteen number system, a practice that (as far as anyone has been able to ascertain) is unique in the entire world? The explanation is as follows. We use the base ten system because we can count to ten using our fingers, but then need to start over as we’ve run out of fingers. In Antja, the villagers carry around the tails of the ring-tailed lemur. (Presumably this was originally for talismanic reasons, though the roots of this cultural practice are now only conjectural.) Extraordinarily enough (contrast with cats for example), every ring-tailed lemur has precisely fourteen black stripes on its tail.* It was therefore natural for the Antja villagers to count in multiples of fourteen.
· * Some sources suggest that the scientific Latin name for ring-tailed lemurs (catta catta) may be a corruption of the Latin word for the number fourteen quattuodecim. Whether that is so or not, catta catta definitely does not derive from the Malagasy name for these lemurs, which is maki, based on some of their calls.