A new carbon dating study commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has revealed that the zero originated in the third or fourth century AD, 500 years before originally thought. Researchers found that the ancient Indian Bakhshali manuscript, which contains hundreds of zeroes, dates from the third or fourth century AD, the Bodleian Libraries said in a report on Thursday.
The new findings mean that the zero predates the ninth-century inscription of the digit found on the wall of a temple in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, earlier thought to be the oldest recorded use of the digit. In the Bakhshali manuscript, found near Taxila, the zero is in the form of a dot, used as a placeholder – meaning that it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system.
The ancient Babylonians and Mayans had also used the zero as a placeholder, but the Bodleian Libraries report says that it was in India that the zero evolved from a dot into a circle. Secondly, it was only in India that the zero developed into a number used in mathematical equations.
‘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,” Marcus du Sautoy, professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford said. “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 third century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world.”
The report says that the first document on the zero as a number is the Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta in 628 AD. The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali near Peshawar.