String figure-making has been observed throughout the twentieth century in various societies, especially those of oral tradition. Such figures are produced from a loop of string using a series of operations performed with the fingers—and sometimes the teeth, the wrists or the feet. Eric Vandendriessche, an ethnomathematician, is currently carrying out research aiming to show that the creation of string figures can be analyzed in mathematical terms. He has carried out field studies among the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea, where the art of string figure-making—locally termed kaninikula— still survives today.
In this film, an epistemological approach to the mathematical rationality underlying the making of string figures is juxtaposed with contemporary ethnographic research. This dual approach leads naturally to hypotheses concerning the way the Trobriand practitioners perceive this activity, and the cognitive acts that have underlain the creation of string figures in this part of the world.