• Liz Publika

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy


The oldest known book in the Americas was written by an assiduous Maya scribe during the civilization’s difficult post-classical period. Its eleven fig bark pages — out of the presumed twenty one — are decorated with personified images of the sun, death, and numerous other deities, some of which remain unidentified. Researchers believe that the manuscript is a 104-year-long, pre-Columbian calendar charting the movements of Venus.

Mesoamericans payed very close attention to Venus, “the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon.” Evidence suggests the Maya “astronomer-priests realized that the Morning Star and Evening Star were the same planet, a fact not appreciated, for instance, by Homer’s Greeks.” And, researchers “know from ethnohistoric accounts that the heliacal rising of Venus was an awesome event for the Mesoamericans, who considered the influence of the planet decidedly baleful.”

In Mayan mythology, Venus was the god of war who was “believed to beam down evil rays bringing death and destruction.” Considering the important role Venus played in their belief system, it makes sense that the Maya would keep records of an astronomical phenomenon, which they did using a codice. “These books contained pictographs and ideograms rather than written script. They dealt with the ritual calendar, divination, ceremonies, and speculations on the gods and the universe.”

But, that’s not the only reason the Codex is such an incredible, rare, and important find. According to Donna Yates, writing for Trafficking Culture:

“During the Spanish Conquest, these books were interpreted as ‘falsehoods of the devil’ and were systematically burnt en masse by conquistadors and priests… Prior to the appearance of the Grolier Codex, only three Maya codices were known to have survived the Conquest, transported to Europe in the 16th century as curiosities or souvenirs. It had long been thought that the fragile nature of fig bark paper and the wet, acidic soils of Mesoamerica would effectively prevent further codices from being found within archaeological contexts.”

The Maya Codex, written between 1021 and 1154 CE., was first discovered in a Mexican cave in 1966. Initially called the Grolier Codex, it was named after New York’s Grolier Club, operated by an association of bibliophiles who were the first photograph, publish, and display the Codex in 1971. It contained an analysis supplied by anthropologist Michael D. Coe (1929 — 2019) — who organized the showing, and later became the first person to show that the Maya Codex is related to the Dresden Codex.

The Maya Codex was found alongside other artifacts that were eventually verified as authentic, but, because it was recovered by looters under strange circumstances, experts thought it was a fake. Apparently, in 1966, a wealthy Mexican collector by the name of Josué Sáenz purchased the Codex directly from the looters, who cold called him to share their discovery and then flew him to an undisclosed location near the foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas to complete the transaction.

After allowing Coe to display the Codex in New York, Josué Sáenz gave it to the Mexican government 1977. But, the authenticity of the manuscript remained widely debated. So, in 2016, Coe and three of his former students — now esteemed professionals working in research and academia — decided to put the debate to rest. So, they reviewed all of the available data, did a second round of radio-carbon dating, and examined the manuscript’s style, content, and structure.

The team found no evidence of forgery or suspicious tampering with the Codex. More importantly, the researchers were able to address all of the concerns that arose suspicion about the manuscript in the first place; some of these included the style of the Codex, difference in mythology from other codices, sharp markings, strange grid lines, etc. Coe and his team, however, showed that all of the points were not sufficient to reject the authenticity of the Maya Codex.

These are their counterarguments as reported in Trafficking Culture:

  • Objections about the calendrics in the Codex can be explained by an accepted alternative function of Maya codices and regional or temporal variations in the mythology of Venus

  • Sharp cuts on the Codex do not indicate modern tools, but rather breaks in the gypsum plaster that was used to prepare the surface of the document

  • The process through which the figures on the Codex were placed conforms to the use of sketch and grid lines seen in Maya murals

  • Radiocarbon dating places the Codex at AD 1257±110 and 1212±40 (although this is the date of the paper, not images upon it)

  • No modern pigments were found on the Codex, including in the portions rendered in the difficult-to-reproduce “Maya blue”

  • The other items said to have been found with the Codex have been shown to be authentic

In 2018, additional testing was completed by Mexican scientists at the National Institute for Anthropology and History, which conclusively proved that the document is in fact authentic. "For a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn't Mayan and that it was 'the ugliest' of them in terms of figures and color," said institute researcher Sofia Martinez del Campo. "But the austerity of the work is explained by its epoch, when things are scarce one uses what one has at hand."

Today, the Maya Codex resides in a deep vault at Mexico City’s Museo Nacional​ de Antropología.

Note* All images sourced from the public domain.

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