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Mathematics in Latin American Cultures

Sometimes multidisciplinary studies take on topics in the most interesting ways, and Latin American Studies is certainly one of those fields. Take mathematics, for instance, and the unique ways that the LAS program at UW-Eau Claire is digging into the ancient uses of math concepts in the early civilizations of that region.

Associate professor of mathematics Colleen Duffy teaches Math 107, Mathematics in Latin American Cultures, and she has shared with us a couple of the project descriptions which bring to light the ways in which math and measurement impacted those early peoples. 

What happens in Math 107?

In the course we talk about the Inca and their quipu system.  It is unclear what all the quipus were used for, but they were used to transport information across the empire.  They were easy to carry by the runners.  Many (or maybe all) keep accounts.  What is unclear is if they also could keep stories/words/etc.  The students in the course make a data quipu.  They may represent any data that interests them, and must think carefully about layout, colors, and anything else that can shed light on the data represented.  Modern day peoples still respect the quipu but have largely lost how to make and interpret them.  


Another project we do relates to the Nazca lines.  The Nasca people lived in the Peruvian southern coastal area, a very arid region between river valleys.  The nature of the environment has made it so that the lines the Nasca drew in the desert 1500 years ago are still preserved.  There has been much debate as to the reasons behind the lines.  National Geographic has recently had an article related to this which postulates that the main reason had to do with water, the most important resource in such an arid region.  The students in the class draw their own figure that must have meaning behind the figure, its orientation, etc taking into account the reasons and methodology of the Nasca.  However, their drawing is to be relevant to our culture.