Ancient Indian text pushes back history of zero by 500 years

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It was originally thought that the manuscript was from the 9th century, but the dating methods revealed that the oldest pages are from somewhere between 224 AD and 383 AD. The last discovery, "the Manuscript Bakhshali", gives every reason to believe that zero appeared 500 years earlier than thought before. The Bakhshali manuscript was first found in 1881 in a village near Peshawar (present-day Pakistan) called Bakshali.

The Bakhshali manuscript consists of 70 leaves of birch bark. Until now, the oldest recorded use of zero was found on the walls of a temple in Gwalior which is believed to belong to the 9th century.

"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", said Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematics professor at Oxford. "The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries". Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today.

According to new research, scientists have traced the origins of the quantification of nothingness to an ancient Indian text known as the Bakhshali manuscript. I've circled the dot, which stands as a placeholder zero, on the bottom line of the text.

Since 1902, it has been housed in the Bodley Library at the University of Oxford.


Translations of the text, which is written in Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road, and includes basic arithmetic exercises. Other, more ancient cultures used similar placeholders, such as the Mayans, who used the symbol of a shell, and the Babylonians, who used a double wedge.

"This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite", said Du Sautoy. The most conclusive academic study on the subject, was conducted by Japanese scholar Dr Hayashi Takao, and, based on factors such as the style of writing and the literary and mathematical content, it asserted that it probably dated from between the 8th and the 12th century.

In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the "0" in "101" indicates no tens. "But there was a moment when there wasn't this number", he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. "Numbers were there to count things, so if there is nothing there why would you need a number?" says du Sautoy. "The whole of modern technology is built on the idea of something and nothing", he says.

The Bakhshali manuscript will go on public display at the Science Museum in London as part of the exhibition Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, opening 4 October 2017.

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