Zero Used in India Much Earlier Than First Thought, Shows Oxford Study

Radiocarbon dating of the Bhakshali manuscript showed zero was used in India as far back as the 3rd or 4th century.


Radiocarbon dating conducted on the Bhakshali manuscript reveals that zero was discovered centuries before previously thought. Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have traced the figure’s origins to the third or fourth century, making it the oldest recorded use of the symbol.

The piece of the manuscript, found by a farmer in the Bhakshali region near Peshawar in 1881, was acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in 1902, and was thought to belong to the 8th-12th century period.

Talking about how “vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries,” mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy, who conducted the study, said: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. 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.

“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.”

Radiocarbon dating also revealed that researchers previously found it difficult to estimate the actual date as the manuscript had 70 fragile leaves of birch bark that belonged to different time periods.

Among these leaves, the one examined is the oldest and belongs to the 3rd or 4th century. Hundreds of zeroes, which initially resembled a solid do, were found to have been used in this text. These dots were used as placeholders to represent orders of magnitude in the ancient Indian numbers system – for example 10s, 100s and 1000s –  and not numbers, like we use them today.

Earlier, a 9th century inscription from the walls of a temple at Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, was considered the oldest citation of zero.

“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,” Professor Sautoy told the Guardian.

“The development of zero as a mathematical concept may have been inspired by the region’s long philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe, which lacked the same cultural reference points.

“This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite,” he added. “That is exciting to recognise, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs.”

Even though the ancient Greeks had developing sophisticated maths and geometry, they did not have a symbol for zero.

“The Europeans, even when it was introduced to them, were like ‘Why would we need a number for nothing?’” said Du Sautoy. “It’s a very abstract leap.”

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