We take it for granted nowadays, but the concept of "zero" was something that had to be invented. As ancient cultures around the world developed different counting systems, they all came up with their own ways to represent nothing, but the origin of the modern numeral "0" wasn't clear. The first written records of "0" were believed to be roughly a tie between a temple and a manuscript found in India, but now a team from Oxford has used carbon dating to crown the winner. The manuscript appears to be about 500 years older than the temple, representing the first recorded use of the number.

The modern Western counting system is base-10 and positional, so each time we hit a multiple of 10 we shuffle numbers to the left and add a zero to the right-hand column. That symbol becomes a placeholder, allowing us to distinguish between the numbers 1, 10 and 100 for example. While other counting systems, like those used by the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, used a similar placeholder, the Indian numerics system seems to be the one that directly evolved into our modern "0" symbol.

In the ancient Indian system, a value of nothing was represented by a small dot. This symbol appeared in inscriptions on the wall of a temple in Madhya Pradesh, India, as well as the Bakhshali manuscript dug up in 1881 from a village in India (now modern-day Pakistan). The temple dates back to the 9th century, and earlier studies of the manuscript have estimated its age at anywhere between the 8th and 12th centuries.

To try to narrow down that window, the Oxford scientists conducted carbon dating on the manuscript. To their surprise, the text was far older than they'd expected: a solid 500 years older in fact, dating back to around the 3rd or 4th century. That gives it quite the lead over the temple, in terms of first written instance of the numeric "0."

"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," says Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. "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.

"We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries."

Carbon dating the Bakhshali manuscript also turned up a clue as to why its age was so hard to pin down previously. Written on 70 leaves of birch bark, the team discovered that the manuscript is made up of material from three different time periods.

"Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent's rich and longstanding scientific tradition," says Richard Ovenden, librarian at Oxford's Bodleian Libraries.

The research was commissioned by Bodleian Libraries, which has been home to the manuscript since 1902. The researchers discuss the study in the video below.

Source: University of Oxford