Who invented the concept of zero?

Some say Babylonian & Indian civilization, some say Arabic civilization, some say Olmec.

Who’s the earliest user of the zero?

In Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife credits it to the Babylonians, used before 300 BCE.

He goes on to talk about the Mayan use of the concept of zero, but not the Olmecs. The article you link to says only that the Olmecs had the concept of zero but nothing about what date.

And Wikipedia casts doubt on any use of zero by the Olmecs.

Since inscriptions trump inferences, I’m provisionally giving the creation of the concept to the Babylonians.

Please note the distinction between the idea of nothing and the numeral for nothing. The idea of “zero things” (or the local language equivalent) is of course prehistoric. In classical writings, a word or phrase was used to denote “zero things.” It was only later that a specific notation, useful in numeric tables and calculations was developed (especially as a place holder in positional number systems).

Cavemen weren’t so stupid that they couldn’t deal with concepts like “Zug has 3 bearskins, Krug has 5 bearskins and Blurk has no bearskins.”

Makes you wonder how these these people get along.

Tester bias.

Note that the title and the OP actually ask two different things. Both the Maya/Olmec and the Babylonians may have independently invented the concept of zero, which is the question in the title. (Given the isolation of the New World at the relevant time, independent invention looks likely.)

The Babylonians look to have been the earliest, which is the question in the OP.

You should really exercise caution about making too much of the Pirahã; as has been pointed out, all this fuss has been made over the claims of a very few researchers. And they are so anomalous from a linguistic and anthropological perspective, and some of the conclusions being drawn are so outré, that it seems imprudent to assume too much about them. Some of the things being said about them in the media are rather tentative, as well - for instance, that article makes quite a big deal about the Pirahã language’s lack of subordinate clauses (and, if it’s true, it is indeed a big deal) but one thing that has been pointed out in academic discussion is that while it appears that subordinate clauses might not be specially marked, that doesn’t actually mean that the underlying syntax of such sentences doesn’t involve subordinate clauses - just that they’re not marked on the surface. The hype surrounding these guys within the linguistic community really needs to be taken with several cups of salt.

Indeed. Remember the Tasaday!

Yeah, I thought about mentioning them. But if memory serves, that whole thing fell apart pretty quickly. If the Pirahã are a complete fraud, it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t have been noticed by now . . .

From whatis.com:


And from http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen99/gen99535.htm :

That’s what I was thinking. The example from the article “I finish eating, I talk to you,” sure looks to me like it’s got a(n unmarked) subordinate clause. Anyway, it’s compatible with the possibility. It would take more to convince me they don’t have them.


As others have noted, civilizations much older than that of the Arabs came up with the concept of zero, but it was the Arabs who gave the concept to Europe.

That’s why there’s an old joke, in which someone asks a great scientist “What have the Arabs ever contibuted to the world,” and the scientist replies “Zero.”

Matter of fact, while my Mandarin isn’t great and I’ve never actually studied it from a linguistic perspective, it seems to me that it’s an example of a language that pretty frequently uses subordinate clauses that aren’t explicitly marked. Pirahã - assuming it’s been described accurately - might be exceptional in not having the capacity to explicitly mark such things, but it’s a huge leap to then assume that the underlying grammar doesn’t even have the capacity.

It’s a particularly troublesome claim, because one of the really central features of the syntax of human language (at least as our understanding of it suggests) seems to be the importance of embedding of clauses into other clauses. If one single language goes against what is known about every other language that has been studied, it suggests that perhaps what we know about the one language is flawed. The same goes, frankly, for a lot of these claims - a language with no color terms? A culture entirely without any sort of origin myth? These are really extraordinary claims, when examining other ethnic groups and languages that are known. Demands that experts question their basic understanding of language and human cultures need some extraordinary proof behind them.

The Babylonians did not use a number zero. They did eventually develop a placeholder for their unusual sexagesimal notation; IIRC that was eventually two slanted cuneiform wedges. But they didn’t consider this a number. Please note that the Babylonians never used the punctuation for placeholding in a terminal position, so that would really preclude calling it “zero.”

The Greeks did, however, use a symbol for “zero.” According to The History of Mathematics: An Introduction, by David M. Burton (6th Edition), Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer in 150 AD, started using omicron (o) to represent a place-holding symbol, which he used both medially and terminally. Greek astronomers tended to use the Babylonian sexagesimal system for calculation because it was much easier to use for large and complex calculations, being positional. The use of a symbol similar to omicron has carried over to the present; omicron, by the way, was the beginning letter for the Greek word meaning “nothing.”

Excalibre writes:

> If the Pirahã are a complete fraud, it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t have been
> noticed by now . . .

It appears that no one at the moment knows the Piriha language very well except Daniel Everett and his wife (or is it ex-wife?).

Are they the only ones that have even visited them, though? I’m inclined to think that the observations that have been made of their language are probably wrong or at very least questionable and overblown. But the Tasaday were, if I remember right, ordinary locals dressed in funny costumes to put on a fraud for the National Geographic photographers. I’m not saying I think the information that’s been shared about the Pirahã is correct - just that I doubt it’s a mistake or fraud of that incredible magnitude.

Assuming the two groups are far enough apart (for example the Babylonians and the Mayans) you’d have to say they both invented it, seperately. It’s not like Babylonians moved to South America much.

As I read the news stories about the Piraha, Everett and his wife were the only outsiders to have much of a knowledge of the language. Yes, other people have visited the Piraha. It appears to me that everything the outsiders learned while visiting this group came from having the Everetts translate for them. In any case, I’ll believe the claims about Piraha when a dozen outsiders become fluent in the language.

astorian writes:

Better is a two-line exchange in the unjustly forgotten Fred Crippen animated short, “The Edifice”:

First Speaker: Allah be praised! I’ve invented the Zero!

Second Speaker: What?

First Speaker: Nothing, nothing.

(The long sketch on the right is from “The Edifice”)

Neither did the Mayans. :wink: