The First Zero

When did the mathematical zero begin being used? New research revealed this week by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries shows that a manuscript from India bearing the symbol was written in the 3rd or 4th century, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.

Carbon dating research was carried out on the Bakhshali manuscript, held at the Bodleian, a mathematical text which contains hundreds of zeroes. It was previously believed that the manuscript was created between the 8th and the 12th century. The results help to confirm the importance of the text, which was discovered in Pakistan in 1881.

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. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

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