We take our arithmetic for granted, but it was never trivial. It obviously circulated among scholars only from India through to Europe when i presume it got picked up by Italian bankers in the Renaissance in the fourteenth century.
Without the arithmetic, the zero is not too obvious an improvement and was easily dispensed with. If not easily, it was still possible to get by. Worse, calculation is something that once learned becomes conservative. For example, no one studies Mayan calculation and it is much easier.
The usefulness of our arithmetic in preparing the mathematical mind itself is also not easily understood. It is just there allowing easy leaps forward.
In practical terms, arithmetic using the zero was a European cultural discovery and made the nascent art of science work to say nothing of double entry book keeping which delights in the application of zero..
What if base-10 arithmetic had been discovered earlier?
It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to all computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity. [Durant1954, pg. 527]
Now that we can stand back from the story, the birth of our modern number-system seems a colossal event in the history of humanity, as momentous as the mastery of fire, the development of agriculture, or the invention of writing, of the wheel, or of the steam engine. [Ifrah2000, pg. 346-347]
If you only want him to be able to cope with addition and subtraction, then any French or German university will do. But if you are intent on your son going on to multiplication and division — assuming that he has sufficient gifts — then you will have to send him to Italy. [Ifrah2000, pg. 577]
The concept of [ancient] mathematics found outside the Graeco-European praxis was very different. The aim was not to build an imposing edifice on a few self-evident axioms but to validate a result by any suitable method. Some of the most impressive work in Indian and Chinese mathematics, … such as the summations of mathematical series, or the use of Pascal’s triangle in solving higher-order numerical equations or the derivations of infinite series, or “proofs” of the so-called Pythagorean theorem, involve computations and visual demonstrations that were not formulated with reference to any formal deductive system. [Joseph2010, pg. xiii]
of Mathematics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2010.