Ethnomathematics is the study of the relationships of mathematics and culture, with a specific focus on the mathematical thinking of indigenous or "non-literate" peoples. Ethnocomputing is an offshoot of ethnomathematics that does the same thing with computing. In practice, both ethnomathematics and ethnocomputing are most often connected with education, with the belief that using familiar concepts from one's own cultural background will lead to better learning results.

Ethnocomputing and ethnomathematics are relevant to permacomputing particularly from the point of view of technological diversity. How we currently conceptualize computing is a result of specific historical and cultural conditions, and the cultural basis is actually getting narrower due to siliconization. Ethnomathematics and ethnocomputing can be used to reveal this narrowness as well as to help imagine a greater diversity of options. They may also help envision deeper historical roots to algorithmic, computational and mathematical thinking – they're much older and much more universal than commonly thought in the eurocentric techno-progressivist narrative.

NOTE: While cultural appropriation is usually not a big concern in theoretical computer science topics, it is possible to use ethnocomputing in problematic ways that make it a concern. One should be careful and respectful when using and representing computational or mathematical concepts from different cultures.

Some interesting examples:

  • Many traditional divination systems (I Ching, Geomancy, Ifá) use binary combinatorics, i.e. give meanings to 3-, 4-, 6- and 8-bit binary sequences.
  • The quipu/khipu recording system of Andean peoples, based on strings and knots, has been studied as an example of a complex indigenous data structure.
  • Fractal-like recursion and self-similarity are very prominent in African arts. This is a central theme in Ron Eglash's seminal ethnomathematics book "African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design".