New research based on ancient Indian mathematical records preserved at Oxford University has revealed that zero was in use by Indians nearly five centuries earlier than previously thought. As Timothy Revell reports for the New Scientist, carbon dating of an ancient text called the Bakhshali manuscript has bumped zero's origin story back by 500 years. It was discovered by a farmer in 1881 in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar in Pakistan, where it was buried under a field.
The manuscript was particularly hard to age as it is made from 70 leaves of birch bark and composed of material from three separate periods.
The new findings mean that the zero predates the ninth-century inscription of the digit found on the wall of a temple in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, earlier thought to be the oldest recorded use of the zero.
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. A team lead by Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford, carbon dated the text for the first time in history.
'The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries'.
The zero can be seen clearly on the manuscripts, which evolved from the dot later.
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Now scientists have traced the origins of this conceptual leap to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript - a text which has been housed in the United Kingdom since 1902. It has been held at the Bodleian Libraries since 1902.
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.
While other cultures developed different symbols to represent concepts similar to zero, it was this dot that carried on into the modern world.
"There's a lot of 'If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?"' said Du Sautoy. Studies on the manuscript conducted by Japanese scholar Hayashi Takao, had stated that the text could have been as old as the eighth century and as new as the 12th century, based on the style of writing and and mathematical content. "But there was a moment when there wasn't this number", he was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
"Some of these ideas that we take for granted had to be dreamt up. Numbers were there to count things, so if there is nothing there why would you need a number?" du Sautoy adds.
The Bakhshali manuscript will go on public display at the Science Museum in London as part of the exhibition Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, opening 4 October 2017.