But this system did not just appear out of nowhere. There has to be an origin story.
And that’s exactly what scientists, archaeologists, and historians have been trying to figure out for decades. It wasn’t until 2013 that we found the very first sign of where the number zero came from. And it was somewhere that was rather unexpected.
Cambodia’s Ancient Roots
Deep in the Cambodian forest, just a few miles from Angkor Wat itself, historians found an ancient piece of stone leftover from the Khmer empire. It has since been discovered that this stone formed part of a temple wall from the 7th century – but what made it so special was something inscribed on that wall.
Carved into the stone in pre-Angkorian Old Khmer was a date – year 605. Interestingly, the zero in the middle of that date is the earliest known evidence of a civilization using the number zero as a base. While we are pretty sure that the concept was in use for a few centuries before this, the actual inscription stands out as a real piece of history.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that such history would find itself in the Angkor Wat region which remains the largest and one of the most important religious relics of our world. As far as civilization goes, that specific region holds so much of who we are and who we once were. Numbers have become a language of their own and to see Cambodia holding the keys to such a historic discovery is really special.
This inscription, written in Old Khmer, reads “The Caka era reached year 605 on the fifth day of the waning moon.” The dot (at right) is now recognized as the oldest known version of our zero. Amir Aczel
Why Does it Matter?
We take numbers for granted today, but they truly are a remarkable human invention that has done more for cooperation and human flourishing than almost anything else. The base-10 number system (which relies on the number zero) is at the core of how we think and act in the world. It provides a standardized system that is shared globally and can be used to engage with each other in meaningful ways.
It also is the foundation of every technology that we have created to push the species forward. Without it, we simply wouldn’t be here today.
For Cambodia, the origin of the Number Zero! this discovery was even more important because it cemented their place in the center of world history. Few would think of the region when considering these sorts of game-changing advancements, but this is a reminder that the empires of South East Asia contributed an incredible amount to the world we see around us today.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding region remains a treasure trove of immense historical and sociological significance. It is so much more than an ancient temple. It holds the keys to an ancient civilization whose explorations and inventions have made it possible for us to live the sort of modern life we enjoy in the 21st century.
When you visit Angkor Wat, you immerse yourself in this history and you can peek into what humanity has managed to accomplish in a relatively short space of time.
Zero. What would we do without it?