When it comes to mathematics, zero is not irrelevant. And thanks to new research and some carbon dating, we now know “zero” as we know it was invented a whole lot earlier than we thought. “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe,” Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy tells the Guardian. “But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.” Atlas Obscura reports that an Indian temple contains a zero dating to the ninth century, and a zero was recently found on a seventh-century bill of sale from Cambodia. But the definitive earliest reported use of what we now know of as zero comes from an ancient manuscript, which has just been dated to the third or fourth century—hundreds of years earlier than previously thought, according to the BBC.
The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. It appears to be a training manual for Silk Road merchants, and its birch bark pages contain hundreds of zeros, which originally appeared as dots before developing their hollow center. While other cultures developed different symbols to represent concepts similar to zero, it was this dot that carried on into the modern world. Du Sautoy says the introduction of zero was a “total revolution” and one of the “greatest breakthroughs” in mathematics. It’s a concept the Greeks never arrived at and that Europeans had a very hard time grasping. “The Europeans, even when it was introduced to them, were like, ‘Why would we need a number for nothing?'” Du Sautoy says. “It’s a very abstract leap.” (Another finding suggests the Greeks didn’t invent trigonometry after all.)