Carbon dating finds Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’

Ancient Indian mathematical text at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries revealed to be centuries older than previously thought

(14 September 2017) The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries. Today, new carbon dating research commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries into the ancient Indian Bakhshali manuscript, held at the Bodleian, has revealed it to be hundreds of years older than initially thought, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

The surprising results of the first ever radiocarbon dating conducted on the Bakhshali manuscript, a seminal mathematical text which contains hundreds of zeroes, reveal that it dates from as early as the 3rd or 4th century - approximately five centuries older than scholars previously believed. This means that the manuscript in fact predates a 9th-century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero used as a placeholder in India. The findings are highly significant for the study of the early history of mathematics.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

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