Earliest known inscription of ‘0’ is Cambodian

Sambor inscription with the earliest known zero. Source: Time.com 20150507

The author of the book ‘Finding Zero’ describes the earliest known inscription of the number ‘0’ in the modern Arabic numeral system, which is found in a Cambodian inscription.

Update and correction: A reader has pointed out to me that the representation of zero in the Arabic numeral system appears simultaneously in Cambodia and Sumatra in 683CE, and that prior to that we have symbolic representations of the number zero using words such as ‘void’, ‘air’, ‘wind’ from Cambodian inscriptions dating to 604CE. See G. Coedès (1931) A propos de l’origine des chiffres arabes. (Thanks Terry Lustig)

Sambor inscription with the earliest known zero. Source: Time.com 20150507
Sambor inscription with the earliest known zero. Source: Time.com 20150507

My Quest to Find the First Zero
Time.com, 07 May 2015

It’s humanity’s great invention

At 1:35 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2013, in a deserted, dusty shed in a clearing in what was once a lush, dense tropical forest a few miles southeast of the imposing ancient temple of Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia, I had a rendezvous with history.

I found myself standing in front of a long-lost archaeological artifact whose importance for the history of science could not be overstated. It had taken me five years of intense effort to find this piece of stone. After talking to experts on three continents, and trekking through jungles, arid fields, sweltering deserts, and ragged mountains in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I was finally here, in front of the object I had almost lost hope of ever finding.

The artifact was a 5-foot-by-3-foot stone slab weighing half a ton, with ancient writings in a lost language chiseled into its smooth face. The language was Pre-Angkorian Old Khmer, an ancient form of the language of present-day Cambodia. This stele once adorned the wall of a 7th century temple at a place called Sambor on the Mekong River, all the way across the country, and it bore a description of the gifts made to this temple from the people of the area, including a list of slaves, five pairs of oxen, and white rice for the subsistence of those who worshipped there.

Full story here.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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