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Five ways ancient India changed the world – with maths

It should come as no surprise that the first recorded use of the number zero, recently discovered to be made as early as the 3rd or 4th century, happened in India. Mathematics on the Indian subcontinent has a rich history going back over 3,000 years and thrived for centuries before similar advances were made in Europe, with its influence meanwhile spreading to China and the Middle East.


As well as giving us the concept of zero, Indian mathematicians made seminal contributions to the study of trigonometry, algebra, arithmetic and negative numbers among other areas. Perhaps most significantly, the decimal system that we still employ worldwide today was first seen in India.


The number system

As far back as 1200 BC, mathematical knowledge was being written down as part of a large body of knowledge known as the Vedas. In these texts, numbers were commonly expressed as combinations of powers of ten. For example, 365 might be expressed as three hundreds (3x10²), six tens (6x10¹) and five units (5x10⁰), though each power of ten was represented with a name rather than a set of symbols. It is reasonable to believe that this representation using powers of ten played a crucial role in the development of the decimal-place value system in India.


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