New analysis pushes back origin of zero symbol at least 500 years

The number zero emerged at least 500 years earlier than previously thought, according to an updated analysis of an ancient Indian manuscript.

The analysis dates the Bakhshali manuscript, a sole surviving copy of a mathematical text, back to between 224 to 383 AD, rather than the 9th and 12th centuries as suggested in earlier research. 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.

The document was discovered buried in a field by a local farmer in 1881 near the village of Bakhshali in what is now Pakistan and was sent to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1902, where it has been since. The text was originally identified as being a Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit; the manuscript contained hundreds of zero symbols and was likely used by merchants who needed a reference for their daily trading activities. The exact age of the document has not been determined, which is why in early 2017, researchers from the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries and the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit collaborated on a project to finally carbon date the document.

Radiocarbon dating reveals the fragmentary text, inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark, contains hundreds of zeroes, dating to as early as the 3rd or 4th century, which makes it the world's oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: ''Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn't this number,'' The Guardian reported.

Translations of the text, which is written in a form of Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road, and it includes practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.

''There's a lot of 'If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?''' said Du Sautoy.