Inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark, the Bakhshali manuscript contains hundreds of zeroes. (Supplied: Bodleian Libraries)
Ancient Indians were using a symbol for zero centuries earlier than historians previously thought, new research in the United Kingdom has revealed.
Carbon dating performed by researchers at Oxford University on the Bakhshali manuscript, an ancient mathematical document, resulted in the unexpected discovery it originated in the third or fourth century.
Inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark, the Bakhshali manuscript contains hundreds of zeroes, and was first found by a farmer in 1881 in what is now Pakistan, before being taken to the UK.
It is particularly significant because it is only in India that the symbol, conveyed as a black dot, developed into a number in its own right — the hollow circle we use today.
Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, said the manuscript shows Indians were using the concept of zero long before other civilisations.
“[The Bakhshali manuscript] isn’t theoretical text. It seems to be a practical document being used by merchants to do calculations,” Professor du Sautoy said.
“I’m absolutely staggered to find this is way earlier. We’re talking about, having carbon dated this, this manuscript is between 200 and 400 AD.”
The Bakhshali manuscript was first found by a farmer in 1881 in what is now Pakistan. (Supplied: Bodleian Libraries)
Radiocarbon dating has now revealed it was written about 500 years earlier than scholars previously believed.
“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,” Professor du Sautoy 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.”
Zero fundamental concept to mathematics
Adam Spencer, the University of Sydney’s mathematics ambassador, said zero historically has filled two roles — as a numerical symbol and as a mathematical concept.
“Historically in mathematics, these are two quite different things. Zero as a symbol, how do you write 37 and 3,007 as different numbers,” Mr Spencer said.
“Some civilisations didn’t have a symbol, they just left a space. But that gets really confusing — 307 looks like 3,007 etcetera. So different communities eventually stumbled upon the idea of a symbol for the number zero.”
Carbon dating was performed by researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. (Supplied: Bodleian Libraries)
The ancient Babylonians were using a symbol for nothing about 5,000 years ago, while the Mayans used a shell to denote nothing as a placeholder too.
But the Indian use of a dot and the subsequent use of the mathematical concept of zero, or how we quantify nothing, opened up a world of mathematical discoveries.
“This caused real philosophical problems for example with the Greeks, and many cultures are said to have almost thought it was heretical to talk about the concept of zero as a number,” Mr Spencer said.
“For something so trivial, zero was at centre of so many important parts of mathematics. People who did calculus in high school remember derivatives, the consequence of the infinitely small going to zero underpins all of calculus.
“Computer code at its most basic is nothing but zeros and ones. And now as we confront quantum theories, we face really deep questions of can a space have absolutely nothing in it? Zero is everywhere.”