There are some parts of our knowledge base that we generally take for granted. We use them every day, and they have been very successful in allowing us to conduct our lives. The number system that includes zero is one such practice. But zero didn’t always exist. It’s a rather genius idea that humanity had to invent after it already knew how to count.
There are two ways that zeroes work. Zero is a placeholder, signifying the absence of value. Zero is also a number in its own right.
Ancient Sumerian scribes used spaces to mark absences, while Babylonians used a sign of two small wedges to differentiate between magnitudes (like our decimal-based system employs zeroes to make a difference between tenths, hundreds and so on). Mayans also had a similar type of marker in their calendars.
But in the fifth century, India’s number system was the first to utilize the concept of zero as a number. There is a circle that resembles a zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India which is considered to be the world’s oldest representation of the number. In the 7th century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta used small dots to show the zero placeholder, but also recognized it as a number, with a null value that was called “sunya”.