The Elusive Origin of Zero
Sunya, bad, ṣifr, Zevero, Zip*: French and nothing are among the many names for the mathematical concept of nothingness. Historians, journalists and others have variously identified the birthplace of the symbol as the Andes mountains of South America, the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the surface of a calculating board in the Tang dynasty from China, a cast iron column and temple inscriptions in India, and more recently, a stone epigraphic inscription found in Cambodia.
Tracing Zero’s legacy has been elusive. For a country to be able to claim the origin of the number would provide a sense of belonging and determine a source of great nationalist pride.
Throughout the 20th century, this property remained in India. It was there that an inscription was discovered, bearing the number “0” in reference to the measurement of land inside a temple in the central Indian city of Gwalior. In 1883, the famous German Indologist and philologist Eugen Julius Theodor Hultzsch copied and translated the inscription into English, dating the text to the year CE 876. And this has been accepted as the oldest known date for the appearance of the zero . However, a series of stones in what is now Sumatra casts doubt on Indian ownership of the void, and several investigators agree that the first reference of zero was probably on a set of stones found on the island.
In 1891, a French archaeological team discovered a stone stele near the village of Sambor on the banks of the Mekong, in what was then French Indochina, which later became Cambodia/Kampuchea. The stone bore a Khmer epigraphic inscription which included the date of the Khmer year 605, counted in the Hindu Saka system, a historical calendar based on the reign of Indian Emperor Shalivahana. The reference year of the calendar (zero) corresponds to the Julian year 78. Thus, the date entered is CE 685.
Political upheavals prevented further scientific examination of this stone, and it was not until the 20th century that another Western scholar took up this task. Georges Cœdès, a Frenchman who became director of the National Library of Thailand in 1918, located the so-called Sambor stone, archaeologically designated K-127 by the archaeological team that discovered it. In 1931, Cœdès concluded that the numeral system used in the inscribed date, 605, was decimal in nature and positional in design and that the central glyph was an empty placeholder, a zero. This assessment meant that 605, referring to a year, identified the oldest known and documented zero. So now the preeminent honor of claiming zero, the elusive and mathematically important entity, rested with Cambodia.
The claim attracted little attention at the time; thus India has maintained its status as the cradle of zero. During the disruptions of World War II, people forgot about the Stone of Sambor, which was lost. Nearly a century later, a popular science writer, Amir Aczel, attempted to find the missing stone and authenticate its existence and meaning. He found it in an archaeological warehouse, near the ancient Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat.
Aczel documented his quest and adventures in a book, find zero, published in 2015. His testimony affirmed the existence of zero and endowed his elusive legacy in Cambodia. Aczel’s suggestion that he had found the “first zerowas celebrated in the media. But perhaps such euphoria was premature.
Around 1918, Cœdès had postulated the existence of a dominant but hitherto unknown ancient Malay Empire in Southeast Asia, which predated the Khmers. Named Sriwijaya, it was ruled by a Maharaja, centered on the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia, and flourished between AD 650 and 1377.
Sriwijaya was a major trading and maritime power controlling the sea lanes from Madagascar, through the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, the whole of the South China Sea and to the islands of the Philippines. Sriwijaya was also one of the earliest centers of Buddhist teaching and proselytizing.
Archaeological explorations have uncovered a rich treasury of Sriwijayan artefacts and documents. Dutch colonial officers discovered three ceremonial stones dated with the historical numbers 605, 606 and 608, marking the years counted in the Hindu calendar of the Saka era. Translated into our common era chronological systems, these numbers would be: 683, 684, and 686.
The stones are named after the places of their discovery: Keduan Bukit, Talang Tuwo and Kota Kapur. These stones were polished and inscribed and probably intended for use in a ceremonial ritual, possibly an ablution, suggesting that they originated in the 7th century. If correct, the existence of zero in the stone inscriptions predates the findings of the Indian Gwalior claim by two centuries!
Researchers from the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur investigated the history of early Southeast Asian number systems. Their findings further bolstered Sumatra’s claim, to which we the authors agree. Recognizing the strong economic influence and commercial activities of this state, and the existence of three independent stone glyph inscriptions in its realm bearing a zero, this claim certainly has strong credibility. A 1995 article published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society had also proposed this conjecture.
In 1976, while on a research visit to Sumatra to examine the region’s number systems, one of us (Swetz) was impressed with the mathematical abilities of the traditional Batak people. Back in Malaysia, he shared his impressions with his Malaysian colleagues. A team from the Center for Civilizational Dialogue, led by the other of us (Zain), then focused their attention on Sumatra and came to the conclusion that Zero had an early presence in the region.
While the matter requires further deliberation and historical examination, this discovery of a possible symbol of nothingness is intriguing. Could the zero have been conceptually designed and used in an ancient and barely known Southeast Asian society? Was zero Khmer really influenced by Sriwijayan culture? Did the use of zero spread from this region westward into India and eventually into Europe? Is the credibility of the term “Hindu-Arabic” figures seriously threatened? These questions require further investigation, but, as we see, the history of mathematics offers many mysteries that can baffle and astound its followers.
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.