Bakhshali Scroll is the Oldest use of Number Zero

Bakhshali scroll
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The origin of zero is still a mystery. The Egyptians used it, and so did Babylonians. However, it was never as a numeral rather more like a place holder. Quite recently, a team of Scientists at University of Oxford Bodleian Libraries, carbon dated one of the famous ancient Bakhshali scroll. The dates come out to third and fourth century A.D. making it one of the oldest recorded use of the number zero.

The scroll has been with Bodleian library since 1902. However, it was excavated from field in 1881 in Bakhshali town (current day Pakistan). It has always been recognized as one of the oldest mathematical text with use of zero several times. But it’s exact date  had remained a mystery since its excavation.

The scroll consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark. The Bakhshali manuscript uses numerals with a place-value system. It uses a dot as a place holder for zero. Sort of like zero is used in numeral 101.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, has said:

‘Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition.”

One can learn more about Bakhshali Scroll on Wikipedia here.

The Mathematics of Bakhshali Scroll

The computations mentioned in this scroll are pretty complex and advanced. The problems involve diverse fields of mathematics covering topics like fractions, square roots, arithmetic and geometric progressions. As well as there are solutions of simple equations, simultaneous linear equations, quadratic equations and indeterminate equations of the second degree. We are really talking third century here!

An example of computing square roots can show you how far advanced mathematics was in this region can be found on Wikipedia. This just goes on to show the civilization was way ahead of the rest of the world when it came to mathematics. And of course the use of zero.

Another interesting thing about Bakhshali manuscript is the use of numbering system. It is identical to what we use today. That is the use of numbers from 0 – 9 instead of dots, lines and other alphabetical representations.

bakhshali numerals

Bakhshali Numerals

This was really a revolutionary concept and has not changed much since that time.

A bit of history of Bakhshali

The Bakhshali scroll was excavated in 1881, buried in a field in a little known town just an hours drive from present day Peshawar in Pakistan. The Bakhshali town still exists and still has its rural settings with agriculture as its main source of livelihood. However, at the time of it being excavated, there was a lot of British military and civil activity in the area. They were also ambitious engineering projects including building a canal system off Swat River into this region to irrigate Bakhshali, Kotarpan and other nearby villages. This canal system is still functional today and is a marvel of nineteenth century engineering.

Bakhshali may be a small town today, but it was part of a popular trade route in ancient times. Not too far from the village at Shahbaz Garhi, we find Ashoka Edicts. They were constructed during the reign of Ashoka, the famous Mauryan emperor (2nd century BC). Even Alexandar, after conquering Swat, came down the mountains near Bakhshali and moved through Shahbaz Garhi before heading south to cross the Indus River and on to India.

This region is also one of the ancient trade routes connecting the Vale of Peshawar with the valley of Swat, Dir and Chitral to the North and the great city of Taxila to the South East. (Source: UNESCO). All these locations are now within the present day Pakistan.

Pakistan and Ancient Civilizations

Pakistan, in South Asia, has a rich history to offer to the world. From the great ancient civlizations we find many in present day Pakistan. This includes the highly advanced and engineered Indus Civilization (3300 – c. 1700 BCE), the powerful Gandhara civilization (1500 BCE – 535 BCE) and Mauryan Empire (300BCE – 180 BCE).

Pakistan is also the possible birthplaces of religions like Buddism and Sikhism. The country definitely has a lot to offer for archaeology and history in South Asia. Once Bakhshali and its nearby fields are excavated, we are likely to find remnants of ancient cities and temples. Quite similar to the Gandhara Civilization remains near Taxila in present day Pakistan.

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