How Old Is the Mathematical Symbol Zero?

The Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta is often credited with writing the first text that used zero as a symbol in mathematical calculations, back in 628 AD. However, the recent carbon-dating results of an ancient text called the Bakhshali manuscript indicate that the concept of zero -- in the form of dot symbols -- was already being used centuries earlier. Researchers at the University of Oxford determined that some of the pages of the Bakhshali manuscript were inscribed between 224 A.D. and 383 A.D.

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  • The Bakhshali manuscript was unearthed in a farmer's field in 1881, in a peasant village that is now part of Pakistan. It is a mathematical text consisting of 70 leaves of birch bark.
  • The dot symbol was called shunya-bindu -- literally, "the dot of the empty place." It was used as a placeholder, noting the absence of value, such as distinguishing between 1, 10, and 100.
  • Other ancient cultures used similar placeholder symbols. The Babylonians used a double wedge in 5,000-year-old cuneiform symbols, and the Mayans used a shell to denote absence in their calendar system.
More Info: University of Oxford

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