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Earliest Known Zero Symbol Identified in Ancient Indian Manuscript

Carbon dating reveals the earliest known symbol for zero is in a 3rd or 4th century Indian manuscript at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

Deatil of the Bakhshali manuscript, with a dot used in the bottom line, a placeholder that is recognized as the earliest zero symbol (courtesy Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)
Detail of the Bakhshali manuscript, with a dot used in the bottom line, a placeholder that is recognized as the earliest zero symbol (courtesy Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)

Radiocarbon testing has revealed that an Indian manuscript thought to date to the 9th century is actually centuries older and contains the earliest known zero symbol. The discovery was first reported by the Guardian on September 13, which noted that hundreds of zeroes are included on the 70 pieces of birch mark that make up the Bakhshali manuscript.

The analysis was commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, where the Bakhshali manuscript has been housed since 1902. The mathematics manuscript, now dated to the 3rd or 4th century, was found in 1881 in a field of the Bakhshali village, in today’s Pakistan. It’s believed that the text, inscribed in a version of Sanskrit, was a practice manual for Silk Road merchants. Next month, a folio from the manuscript will go on view at the Science Museum in London as part of Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation.

The Bakhshali manuscript (courtesy Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)
The Bakhshali manuscript (courtesy Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford)

Previously, the oldest known zero was considered to be a 9th-century inscription on a wall of a temple in Gwalior. While the ancient Mayans and Babylonians had placeholders to indicate nothing, India is where the zero that we use today was developed, both in its shape and meaning. Rather than just an absence, zero in India became an independent number, thus influencing mathematics and our understanding of the infinite. The University of Oxford stated in a release that in 628 CE, a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript, “the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.”

The research is presented in the video embedded below from the University of Oxford. As Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, explains, “this becomes the birth of the concept of zero in its own right.”

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