10 Million Euro ERC Synergy Grant Awarded for Study of the Cognitive and Cultural Evolution of Numeracy

The QUANTA project is the first concerted effort to address the ambitious questions of when, why, and how tools for quantification emerged and evolved

November 05, 2020

The creation and use of numeral systems is a defining feature of humans, but the prehistoric origin of these systems and the cognitive skills they require are poorly understood. With funding from the European Research Commission, QUANTA will bring together four leading researchers to examine these challenging questions.

The Max Planck Institute Evolutionary Anthropology and research partners in Norway, France and the Unites States have received a 10 million euro Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to fund QUANTA, a multidisciplinary investigation into the emergence of quantification and the co-evolution of conceptual breakthroughs and cognitive tools on which it is based.

To understand the cognitive and cultural developments behind the human interest in and proficiency with numbers, QUANTA will rely on innovative research strategies and complementary expertise contributed by its international team of leading researchers. Combining insights from anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, cultural evolution and cognitive science are QUANTA’s four principal investigators: Professor Russell Gray (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany), Professor Andrea Bender (University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway), Professor Francesco d’Errico (CNRS, Bordeaux, France), and Professor Rafael Núñez (University of California, San Diego, USA).

 “This is an incredibly exciting interdisciplinary project and I’m proud to be part of such a great team,” says Gray, who was director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena until mid-2020 and is the acting head of the Department of Language and Cultural Evolution there until the end of 2021, when his department will join him at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Notches, fingers, number words, and written symbols all are expressions of number in different modalities

The project will test two related hypotheses: that the conceptual breakthroughs which enabled the creation of numeral systems co-evolved with the cognitive tools necessary for numerical cognition, and that the various ways in which numbers can be expressed (material, verbal, body-based and written)  worked together to achieve this. By accounting for the cognitive tools and social factors surrounding the origin of counting, QUANTA has implications for one of the most perplexing and paramount questions in human science: the emergence of symbolic behavior and language in the human lineage.

In Germany, Russell Gray’s team will focus on illuminating the evolutionary dynamics of numeral systems and testing hypotheses on the coevolution of these systems and other cognitive and social factors. Gray’s expertise spans the areas of cultural evolution, linguistics, animal cognition, and the philosophy of biology, and his research has pioneered the application of computational evolutionary methods to the study of linguistic prehistory and cultural evolution. With Gray’s database of numeral systems in the world’s languages and cutting-edge computational methods, QUANTA is poised to yield novel insights into the emergence of a suite of human cognitive skills.

QUANTA’s funding is part of the ERC’s annual Synergy Grant competition, which supports teams of researchers examining the most challenging questions in science. Established by the European Union in 2007, the ERC is the premier European funding organization for research across scientific frontiers. View the full announement of 2020 ERC Synergy grant winners here.

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