Scientists Trace The Origin of ‘Zero’ to Ancient Indian Manuscript

Scientists have relied on carbon dating technology to determine the world’s oldest recorded derivation of the zero that is now used by people world over

Scientists have now traced the origin of zero to the Bakhshali manuscripts that date from the 3rd or the 4th century. Pixabay

Oxford, September 16, 2017 : The eminent Indian mathematician Brahmagupta has been credited globally for writing the first-ever text that described zero as a number in 628 AD. According to Professor Marcus Du Sautoy of the University of Oxford, the creation of zero has to be credited as the “greatest breakthrough” in mathematics. But carbon dating of an ancient text has pushed the story of zero’s origin back by 500 years!

Scientists have now traced the origin of zero to the Bakhshali manuscripts that date from the 3rd or the 4th century- over 500 years older than previously thought, which makes it the world’s oldest recorded derivation of the zero that is now used by people world over.

The new search results stemming from the manuscript assert an earlier reference to the symbol of zero that is considerably older than the previously known inscription on a temple in Gwalior, India dating the ninth-century.

We present six astounding facts about the symbol ‘0’,

  1. The Bakhshali script is a fragmentary text, inscribed on 70 leaves of the bark of the birch tree and contains material from three different periods- 224-383 AD, 680-779 AD and 885-993 AD. This also raises critical questions about how the text was clubbed together as a single document.
  2. The ancient text was named after the village it was found buried in. The Bakhshali manuscript was first found in 1881 in a village near Peshawar (present-day Pakistan) called Bakshali. The text was discovered by a local farmer, and was later acquired by the indologist Rudolf Hoernle who later submitted it to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
  3. Translations of the Bakhshali manuscript, which was originally written in a form of Sanskrit, reveal that the text was guidance manual for merchants practicing their trade along the Silk Road. The transcript includes multiple practical arithmetic exercises and a proto-type of algebra.
  4. The zero is nowhere used as a ‘number’ having its own value in the Bakhshali manuscript but merely as a placeholder in the system of numeration. This can be better understood by examining the position of ‘0’ in ‘205’ which does not indicate tens. Here, absence of a value, in other words the answer to a problem which is zero is left blank as a way to distinguish 1 from 10 and 100.
  5. Multiple ancient civilizations had evolved an independent placeholder that held no independent value –
  • about 5,000 years ago, the Babylonians made use of a double wedge to denote absence
  • Mayans incorporated a shell to indicate ‘nothing’ in their ancient calendar system

However, the Bakhshali manuscript featured the first ‘dot’ symbol that eventually transformed into the ‘0’ symbol with the hollow centre that is used today.

  1. The Bakhshali script was the first to explore the possibility to use zero as a number- this was later described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which had been written and compiled in 626 AD by the great Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta.

The development of zero dramatically changed the field of mathematics, supplementing an implausible range of further work, including the notion of infinity, calculus, digital technology and also some of the larger questions of cosmology about the beginning of the Universe and how its existence might disappear in future.

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According to a report by The Guardian, the head of the Bodleian Library, Richard Ovenden was quoted as saying that these astounding research results highlight the rich and ancient scientific tradition of South Asia and also draw attention to the Western bias that often left the contributions of these scholars overlooked and ignored.