Which ancient societies discovered the concept of zero?

I was sitting in my collapse of ancient societies class earlier today when a discussion came up concerning the discovery of the concept of zero. We were discussing the role of mathematics in the lives of the Classic Maya and my professor mentioned that less than a handful of ancient societies discovered the concept of zero. She was not able to tell us the exact number or the names of any of these societies offhand, however. I decided that this was a dope worthy question. Can anyone tell me how many and which ancient societies discovered the concept of zero? To be honest, I am not really sure what the timeline should be for this question but I welcome any suggestions. For starters let us restrict it to societies that discovered the concept before 500 CE. As always, thanks in advance for your time and consideration.

A quick Google seems to suggest:

  1. The Babylonians
  2. The Greeks, who used a placeholder for a empty place but had no formal concept of zero
  3. The Indians (around what is now Delhi)
  4. The Mayans


We just did this about a month ago.

Discovered zero? Here at SDMB? Holy mackerel! We sure have some smart people!!

If you’re interested in the topic, I can reccomend the book Zero, by Charles Seife. I really liked it, but it was a while ago that I read it, and I can’t remember the specifics (other than that it was first used by Babylonians).

Goodness, a typo and a redundant recommendation all in one post.

just a thought, but if your food runs out and you have to get more, wouldn’t you have stumbled across the zero concept?

“None” is not the same thing as “zero” when it comes to math.

Er well, maybe it is not the same, but it is an enormouse hint.

Look how I spelled enormouse :smack:

note: the smack smilie does not carry enough emphasis here. I need a smilie with a fan getting blown away or something.

West-Central India, rather than North-Central (Delhi area)

Oh, I was going with the websites I found, most of which suggested Gwalior as the area. Gwalior is about as North-Central as you can get, being a bit south of Delhi. I could have got it wrong, though, since I was skimming.

From Wikipedia:

Aryabhata seems to have lived in East-Central India; around the Patna area.

I’m not aware of any reference which suggests that it’s West-Central.

Not really. The main purpose of numbers for most people even today is to count things. In ancient times it was the only purpose. But you only have to count things if you have any things to count. So numbers started at one. You’d probably just get a blank look if you suggested that there was a number (zero) you could use to count something you didn’t have.

There’s a great book by Robert Kaplan called The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero.

It talks about the discovery/invention of zero through the Greeks, Mayans, Hindues and other ancient cultures. Ashamedly, I didn’t finish it and only just remembered I’ve got it, so I think I’ll give it another go.

It’s very cheap in new&used on amazon, definately worth it.


Another great book on numbers is From Zero to Infinity by Constance Reid.
Published by the Mathematical Association of America. I’ts a good uncomplicated read on numbers. Well worth the time.

I was giving credit for the discovery to Brahmagupta, since he discovered the “modern” zero, if you will. But if you’re talking about Aryabhata, then yes you’re quite right.