‘Zero’ May Be 500 Years Older Than Believed, Reveals Ancient Indian Text

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.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The new carbon dating shows why an origin date was so hard to nail down; the manuscript consists of 70 brittle leaves of birch bark, composed of material from at least three different historical periods.

“Zero as a concept, we’re all completely used to but … it must have been quite a revolutionary idea”, radiocarbon dating scientist David Chivall said in the Bodleian Libraries video.

Carbon dating indicates that the manuscript dates from as early as the 3rd century, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today. The dot was originally used as a placeholder, like how “0” is used in the number 505 to denote that there are no tens, but was not yet a number in its own right.

It was later acquired by indologist Rudolf Hoernle, who presented it to the Boldeian Libraries in 1902 and it has been housed i the United Kingdom ever since.

Scientists have traced the origins to zero which is considered as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript. Before the Bakhshali manuscript discovery, experts had thought that temple inscription was the first written proof of the number’s existence. Now a team of researchers at the University of Oxford and the Bodleian Libraries have carbon dated the manuscript and found that it dates from between the second and fourth centuries!

While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons.

The new finding was reached after a carbon test on the Bakhshali Manuscript.

First, the black dot that appears in the Bakhshali text would later evolve into the hollowed-out circle that now symbolizes the number zero. The zero is indicating the absence of 10s.

“Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition”, noted Richard Ovenden, a Bodley Librarian, in a statement.

Talking about this development, Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford said that today we are so dependent on the zero but there was a time when this number didn’t even exist.

According to Times of India, the symbol “0” is a familiar sight, but its origins are far from certain.

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