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Anthropologists were the first to recognize that taxonomy might be more than the science officially founded by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, in the 1700s. Studying how nonscientists order and name life, creating what are called folk taxonomies, anthropologists began to realize that when people across the globe were creating ordered groups and giving names to what lived around them, they followed highly stereotyped patterns, appearing unconsciously to follow a set of unwritten rules. Not that conformity to rules was at first obvious to anthropologists who were instead understandably dazzled by the variety in folk taxonomies. The Ilongots, for example, a people of the Philippines, name gorgeous wild orchids after human body parts. There bloom the thighs, there fingernails, yonder elbows and thumbs. The Rofaifo people of New Guinea, excellent natural historians, classify the cassowary, a giant bird complete with requisite feathers and beak, as a mammal. In fact, there seemed, at first glance, to be little room even for agreement among people, let alone a set of universally followed rules. More recently, however, deep underlying similarities have begun to become apparent.

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