Indian Bakhshali manuscript rewrites history of zero symbol


The numbers appear in an ancient Indian text called the Bakhshali manuscript, which consists of 70 leaves of birch bark, filled with mathematics and text in the form of Sanskrit.

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. This means that the manuscript predates a 9th century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero. The Bakhshali manuscript uses the symbol for zero, as conveyed by a solid black dot, at many places making it the oldest known example of the symbol that would later evolve into a number in its own right.

"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, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, according to the press release.

'The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries'. But India was where the placeholders developed into the concept of zero as a number that could be used in calculations, as laid out in Brahmagupta's text, according to Hannah Devlin of the Guardian.

This dot would later evolve into the fully-fledged number zero.

Librarian Richard Ovenden said the discovery was of "vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture".

The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. Radiocarbon dating this ancient text, which has been housed in the United Kingdom since 1902, revealed that zero was first recorded as early as the 3rd or 4th century, nearly half a millennium before its earlier recorded period. It was discovered by a local farmer and later acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

What does the Bakhshali manuscript say? "There's a lot of 'If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?'" 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.

In many ways, the moment when "nothing" became a number was a turning point in science and technology, marking a transition from dealing in the palpable to dealing with abstract concepts. But come October 4, this remarkable text will go on display at the Science Museum in London, as part of a major exhibition on scientific, technological and cultural breakthroughs in India. Earlier studies had concluded that the first evidence of the use of zero was in the 9th Century in India itself.