First use of zero dated to third century India

DOCUMENT: The Bakhshali manuscript
DOCUMENT: The Bakhshali manuscript

A BLACK dot on a third-century Indian manuscript has been identified by Oxford University as the first recorded use of the mathematical symbol for zero, 500 years earlier than previ­ously thought.

“Scientists from the University of Ox­ford’s Bodleian Libraries, have used car­bon dating to trace the figure’s origins to the famous ancient Indian scroll,” the university said in a statement.

The birch bark scroll is known as the Bakhshali manuscript after the village, which is now in Pakistan, where it was found buried in 1881.

It has been held at the Bodleian Li­braries since 1902.

“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,” said Marcus du Sau­toy, a mathematics professor at Oxford.

“We now know that it was as early as the third century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so funda­mental to the modern world,” he said.

The Bakhshali scroll was already recognised as the oldest Indian math­ematical text but its exact age was widely contested, and researchers used carbon dating to trace it back to the third or fourth century.

The text was in fact found to contain hundreds of zeroes, representing or­ders of magnitude in the ancient Indi­an numbers system.