The History of Mathematics

Mesopotamian Numbers and Mathematics

Who were the first to invent a symbol for zero?

Many cultures, including the Chinese and Babylonians, used an empty space as a placeholder, but when “0” comes to be understood as and number and not just a placeholder is still highly debated. Archeologists have found clay tables with three hooks to denote an empty space—from the 8th century B.C.E.—in an ancient Mesopotamian city east of Babylon. The Babylonians used two wedge symbols in the place we would call zero around 400 B.C.E.

Many archeologists believe that a crude symbol for zero was invented either in Indochina or India about the 7th century, a “goose egg” similar to the one we use today. Other scientists point to the Mayans, a culture that used a symbol for zero in the 6th century—a figure that resembled a shell, which is close to our zero. What is the problem with the invention of a zero symbol by the Mayans? Unlike more mobile cultures, they were not able to spread the word around the world; although others say that certain Mayan calendar dates—and thus, the symbol—were noted outside the Mayan region, especially by the Olmec, a pre-Columbian civilization living in south-central Mexico around 1500 to 400 B.C.E.

As you can see, there is no true agreement about who was the first to invent a symbol for zero. In fact, many scientists believe there may have been many symbols that represented zero invented by many ancient cultures—including some crude “goose eggs”—but the evidence has been either lost or destroyed over time. (For more information about the Mayans, see elsewhere in this chapter; for more about the history of zero, see “Mathematics throughout History.”)


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