Year Zero: Ancient Indian Text Includes Oldest Recorded Zero Symbol


Scientists claim to have traced the earliest example of one of the most significant conceptual breakthroughs in arithmetic to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript. The specific manuscript has been housed in one of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford since the very early days of the 20 th century.

Oldest Zero Symbol Discovered?  

As the Guardian reports , radiocarbon dating divulged the fragmentary text, which is engraved on seventy pieces of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeroes, dating back to as early as the third or fourth century. This makes it the world’s oldest known origin of the zero symbol that we use in the modern world, as it is about five centuries older than experts previously thought. Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, tells Guardian , “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.”

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Carbon dating reveals Bakhshali manuscript is centuries older than scholars believed ( Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford)

During the latest research, three samples were extracted from the specific manuscript and examined at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The results showed that the three samples come from three different centuries, one from 224-383 AD, another from 680-779 AD and another from 885-993 AD, making experts curious about how the manuscript ended up being a single document.

According to Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, the results of the study clearly show how the contributions of South Asian scholars have been traditionally ignored in the Western world, “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he told Guardian .

The Bakhshali Manuscript

The manuscript was discovered in 1881 by a peasant in the village of Bakhshali, which is near Peshawar, now in Pakistan. The extant manuscript is incomplete, consisting of seventy leaves of birch bark. The intended order of the seventy leaves is indeterminate. In 1902, the Bakhshali Manuscript was transferred to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it is still kept, but experts suggest that it is too fragile to be examined by scholars.

Bakhshali manuscript and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age.

Bakhshali manuscript and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age. ( Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford)

In the fragile document, zero does not appear to be an individual number, but instead it seems to be a placeholder in a number system, just as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens. It features a problem to which the answer is zero, but here the answer is left blank.

The Historical Significance of Zero

Many ancient cultures came up individual with similar placeholder symbols throughout history. Ancient Egyptian numerals were base 10. They used hieroglyphs for the digits and were not positional. By 1770 BC, the Egyptians had a symbol for zero in accounting texts. By the middle of the second millennium BC, the Babylonian mathematics had a sophisticated sexagesimal positional numeral system. The lack of a positional value (or zero) was indicated by a space between sexagesimal numerals.

 By 300 BC, a punctuation symbol (two slanted wedges) was co-opted as a placeholder in the same Babylonian system. In a tablet unearthed at Kish (dating from about 700 BC), the scribe Bêl-bân-aplu wrote his zeros with three hooks, rather than two slanted wedges. However, the Babylonian placeholder was not a true zero because it was not used alone. Nor was it used at the end of a number. Thus numbers like 2 and 120 (2×60), 3 and 180 (3×60), 4 and 240 (4×60), looked the same because the larger numbers lacked a final sexagesimal placeholder. Only context could differentiate them.

The ‘front’ page of folio 16, part of the Bakhshali manuscript that dates back to 224-383 AD.

The ‘front’ page of folio 16, part of the Bakhshali manuscript that dates back to 224-383 AD. ( Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford

Eventually, it was the dot symbol in the Bakhshali script that evolved into the hollow-centered version of the symbol that we use today. It is also seen as the progenitor of zero number that we first meet in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628 AD. “This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in its own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India,” Du Sautoy tells Guardian . And adds, “This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite. That is exciting to recognize, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs.”

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