By modern numbers, I mean the ten-digit system that we all are familiar with: 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. This is a system now used the world over, but where did it come from? The ten-digit system used now in mathematics is called Hindu-Arabic numeral system, and, as the name suggests, this system emerged in India and Arabia.

The Hindu-Arabic system wasn’t invented over-night. Like most revolutionary inventions, it developed gradually, with improvements being added to improvements. Generally, the roots of Hindu-Arabic numerals are attributed to the mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta, who resided in Bhinmal and Ujjain (present day Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, India, respectively). In 628 A.D., he put forward the idea of zero as not only a placeholder, but a number that can be computed. Now, the La Venta culture (more commonly known as the Olmec) in Mesoamerica might have beaten him to it and developed the use of zero as a number by as early as 32 B.C., but we aren’t sure, and the La Venta system did not, for many reasons, come into global use (if you want, I can write a future post or two about the La Venta culture).

Brahmagupta proposed zero as the result of subtracting a number from itself, and also contemplated the use of negative numbers and their effects on computation. His word for zero was shunya, or void, which was a place-holder in the 9-digit system already in use in India. Now zero was not only a place-holder, but recognized as a number. This new numeral system, along with an older system called the Brahmi numeral system, was used throughout South and Southeast Asia 8th and 9th century. Over the centuries and various cultural exchanges, the original script morphed into the shapes that we see our numbers in today.

By the 7th century, the Hindu number system had spread into Syria. There, shortly before the rise of the Arab Empire, Severus Sebokht, a Nestorian Christian scholar, mentioned the number system and that it had come from India. After the rise of the Arab Empire under Islam, the first discussion of the new system is attributed to the Persian scholar al-Khwarizmi and the Arab scholar al-Kindi. Do the the efforts of those and other scholars, the Hindu system began to diffuse through the Arab world and into the West.

The first documented appearance of the Hindu-Arabic system in Europe was through the Codex Vigilanus, a Latin work developed by three monks in northern Spain. This text was first compiled in 881 A.D. and last updated in 976 A.D. Gerbert of Aurillac, who would eventually become Pope Sylvester II, studied in Barcelona (which is part of modern-day Spain) during his youth, and from the 980s onward worked to spread knowledge of the Arabic system throughout Europe. Keep in mind that most of what is modern-day Spain and Portugal during the Early and High Middle Ages was under control of the Arabs and their descendant empires. Thus, the Hindu-Arabic numerals appear in Spain first, having traveled across the Arab holdings in North Africa. Europeans called this system “Arabic numerals,” while the Arabian territories called the system “Hindu numerals,” with “Hindu” meaning “Indian.”

In 1202, the Pisan scholar Leonardo Fibonacci, who had studied in Béjaïa, Nigeria, published Liber Abaci, which promoted the Arabic system. About two hundred fifty years later, the printing press was invented, and this allowed the Hindu-Arabic system to come into great popularity and use. From there, through mostly European colonialism and cultural exchange, the number system has spread throughout the world, and is what Western cultures are familiar with.

References

Thanks to my mom for suggesting this topic. You can suggest one, too, so please do so!

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