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INFINITY

Ancient Indians were using zero even earlier than we thought

Maria Thomas
By Maria Thomas

Writer at Quartz India

An ancient Indian mathematical text has been found to be the oldest recorded origin of zero, proving that the number is centuries older than it was previously thought to be.

On Sept. 14, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries said that radiocarbon dating conducted on the Bakhshali manuscript, a text that contains hundreds of zeroes denoted by dots, revealed that it dates from the 3rd or 4th century Common Era. That makes it around 500 years older than researchers previously believed. The Bakhshali manuscript was found buried in a village called Bakhshali near Peshawar, in what is now part of Pakistan, in 1881. It consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark and has been kept by the Bodleian Library since 1902.

Until now, a 9th century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, was believed to be the oldest record of the symbol, but the latest research shows that ancient Indians were using zero as a “placeholder” figure to indicate magnitude in numbers hundreds of years before that.

While both the ancient Mayans and Babylonians also used zero as a placeholder symbol, it was the ancient Indians who developed it into a number of its own accord, pioneering the idea of nothingness as a mathematical concept, a key event in the history of mathematics. Over time, the dots found in the Bakhshali manuscript evolved into the hollow-centred symbol that we know as the zero today.

“We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world,” Marcus du Sautoy, professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian subcontinent for centuries.”