The ancient Bashkali manuscript has been confirmed to hold the earliest zero symbol on record, putting the history of mathematics in a new light.

The dot--a zero--serves as a placeholder in the bottom line of the page above. [Photo by the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

In 1881, a farmer found the manuscript buried in a field in his native Bashkali, a village in what was then Pakistan. Indologist Rudolf Hoernle acquired the manuscript and later presented it to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford in 1902. Scholars at the Bodleian Libraries struggled to date the manuscript because it had 70 pages made of birch bark, with material that came from three different time periods. Earlier research found that the manuscript dated from the 8^{th} and 12^{th} centuries. However, carbon dating has proven these findings false.

It turns out that the manuscript is much older than previously thought. Scientists now believe that the manuscript dates back to the 3^{rd} or 4^{th} century. This means that the zero symbol has been around centuries earlier than mathematicians thought.

How the manuscript is organized today [Photo by the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

India wasn't the only country to have a civilization that used a zero symbol. Ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and Babylonians used a zero symbol as well. What sets the Indian zero symbol apart, however, is what it looks like. As shown in the manuscript, dots indicated zeroes. This dot eventually evolved into the hollow circle or oval that we use today. The Bodleian Libraries also say that in the ancient times, it was only in India that zero was considered to be a number in itself.

In the Bashkali manuscript, however, zero did not yet function as a number. Instead, the zero symbol functioned as a placeholder, as in the number 101. It was the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta who first described zero as a number in a document called Brahmasphutasiddhanta. The Bashkali manuscript, containing the earliest zero symbol, sowed the seeds of considering zero to be a number in its own right. Outside of India, especially in the Western world, this precipitated an important revolution in the history of mathematics.

The concept of zero—signifying nothingness—took longer to take hold in Europe. Mathematicians think that cultural differences between India and the West may have been the cause of this.

The front page of the Bashkali manuscript [Photo by the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

The fact that culture and cultural differences influenced the ancient days of mathematics isn't surprising. At the time, math wasn't the universal language it is today. According to Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, the culture in India was more comfortable contemplating the concept of the void to “conceive of the infinite” in philosophical tradition. “That is exciting to recognize, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs,” du Sautoy says. “The Europeans, even when it was introduced to them, were like ‘Why would we need a number for nothing?’” du Sautoy continues. “It’s a very abstract leap.”

This is an exciting new aspect to the history of mathematics. Today, the notion and number of zero are important in several fields. It's therefore amazing that the earliest known zero symbol came from an ancient trading manual for merchants plying the Silk Road.

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