Earliest recorded use of zero is centuries older than first thought

The new carbon dating reveals that the reason why it was previously so hard for scholars to pinpoint the Bakhshali manuscripts date is because the manuscript, which consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark, is in fact composed of material from at least three different periods.

According to new research, scientists have traced the origins of the quantification of nothingness to an ancient Indian text known as the Bakhshali manuscript.

Researchers from the University of Oxford conducted the first ever radiocarbon dating on the Bakhshali manuscript and revealed that it dates from as early as the 3rd century - five centuries older than previously believed. A farmer dug up the text from a field in 1881 in the village of Bakhshali, near Peshawar in what is today Pakistan.

The research was commissioned by Bodleian Libraries, where the manuscript has been held since 1902.

Several ancient cultures, including the Mayans and the Babylonians, used the zero placeholder but the dot used in ancient Indian mathematics is the one that ultimately evolved into the symbol used today. However, the text was originally thought to have originated between the 8th and 12th centuries, after the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote the first text describing zero as a number in the year 628. It consists of 70 leaves of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeros in the form of dots.

Translations of the text suggest it was a sort of training manual for monks or merchants traveling across the Silk Road, as it includes a lot of practical arithmetic exercises and an early version of algebra. The text does not contend with zero as a number in its own right; instead, it uses the dots as "placeholders" noting the absence of a value-as a way to distinguish 1 from 10 and 100, for instance.

"This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite", said Du Sautoy.

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. Secondly, it was only in India that the zero developed into a number used in mathematical equations.

"Some of these ideas that we take for granted had to be dreamt up". Numbers were there to count things, so if there is nothing there why would you need a number? But the results of the carbon dating showed that some of the manuscript's pages were inscribed between 224 A.D. and 383 A.D.

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.

Vanessa Coleman