Discovering the Oldest Zero

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    In September 2017, mathematicians and historians across the world were in a tizzy after the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, announced that it had discovered the oldest known inscription in the world recording the symbol zero. Found on birch bark manuscripts discovered in a small village, Bakhshali, near Peshawar in the late 19th century, carbon dating traced back the oldest of the manuscripts to the 3rd century CE. This brought the curtains down to the hunt and the many twists and turns in search of the world’s oldest zero symbol. There have been other contenders before the Bakshali Manuscript. In 2017 itself, there were 3!

    In 1881, a farmer working in the village of Bakhshali near Peshawar unearthed a set of manuscripts buried in a mound. It was then handed over to the archaeologists. In all, there were around 70 folios on birchbark. Reports were published in the Bombay Gazetteer and even presented in the Fifth International Conference of Orientalists in Berlin. The famous German Orientalist, Dr Horenle studied the manuscripts and also published a detailed account of it in 1886, subsequently more translations were done and in 1902, Dr Hoernle presented the manuscript to the Bodleian Library, at Oxford.

    Studies on the manuscript revealed that it was a mathematical treatise written by an unknown author in the Sharada script. The language was a mixture of Sanskrit and Pali common in the North West parts of India from 1st century CE to 6th century CE

    The region near Peshawar, where the manuscript was found, was a thriving trade and commerce centre. Trade routes to Central Asia passed through the region and the great Buddhist university to Takshashila was located nearby. The content of the Bakshali manuscript is similar to the type of texts that Buddhist merchants would have needed to study (and possibly used as reference) for the daily trading activities. It included very practical mathematical examples and equations needed for trade.

    While the Bakshali Manuscript has been around for some time, it was only recently that a detailed carbon dating was done on it. In early 2017, a team from the Bodleian Library and the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit Collaborated to study this remarkable manuscript. After a lengthy discussion, and based on stylistic grounds. the team decided that it was not possible to take just one representative sample. Five samples were extracted from the manuscript.

    The analysis of the folios gave an answer to why there was such a lot of disagreement among scholars on dating the manuscript. It was found that the manuscripts were actually a collection of 3 different sets of manuscripts, each dating to a different time period. The oldest set dated back to 224 - 383 CE, while the older two sets of the manuscript were dated to 680 - 779 CE and 885 - 993 CE, respectively. This was an astounding discovery. It indicated that the Bakshali Zero predates the earlier claimant of the first zero by almost 300 years.

    Till 1931, the inscription at Chaturbhuj temple at the foot of the Gwalior fort was considered to be the world’s oldest known zero symbol dating back to 875 CE. But later an inscription with the symbol zero was found at Sambor, in Cambodia which predated Gwalior zero by 192 years. In the 1970s, due to the destruction by the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian inscription was thought to be lost. The Gwalior Zero once again was classified as the oldest.

    Then in January 2017, archaeologists at the Cambodian National Museum announced that they had rediscovered the Sambor inscription and the title went back to Cambodia, but only for nine months. Both the Gwalior and Cambodian inscriptions have now lost the title to the Bakhshali manuscript!

    But the question is for how long. We do know that the Zero as a concept was known to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago, but it was ancient Indians who first used the symbol Zero. While it is not known as to exactly when the use of zero in India began, it was believed until recently, that the astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta first codified its use in a text called Brahmasphuta Siddhanta around 628 CE. However, recent carbon dating of Bakhshali manuscript challenges that belief and it could be only a matter of time before an even older claimant resurfaces.

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