Earliest recorded use of zero is centuries older than first thought


The new carbon dating reveals that the manuscript, which consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark, is composed of material from at least three different periods. Now a team of researchers at the University of Oxford and the Bodleian Libraries have carbon dated the manuscript and found that it dates from between the second and fourth centuries!

Carbon dating of an ancient Indian text might push the history of zero 500 years earlier than thought, a new paper reports.

The ancient script was discovered by a farmer of village Bakhshali, now in Pakistan, in 1881 and was named after the name of the village.

The manuscript was particularly hard to age as it is made from 70 leaves of birch bark and composed of material from three separate periods.

This discovery successfully proves that zero predates a ninth century inscription on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero in India.

Talking about this development, Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford said that today we are so dependent on the zero but there was a time when this number didn't even exist. "But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics".

'The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries'. It's this dot that later evolved to be the symbol with a hole in the middle that we know today. But new research shows that mathematicians in the region had been toying with the concept of zero long before then-far longer, in fact, than experts previously believed.

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Scientists have now traced the origin of zero to the Bakhshali manuscripts that date from the 3rd or the 4th century. The text was subsequently acquired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Bakshali manuscripts include practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.

"This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite", said Du Sautoy.

Previous studies have suggested that Bakhshali manuscript dates from between the 8th and 12th century, based on the style of writing.

The concept of the symbol as we know and use it today, began as a simple dot, which was widely used as a "placeholder" to represent orders of magnitude in the ancient Indian numbers system - for example 10s, 100s and 1000s.

The Science Museum of London will put the manuscript on display on October 4th as part of a larger exhibition, Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation. "But there was a moment when there wasn't this number".