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

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 1 (column I) The enigmatic God K, the so-called Long-nosed God, brandishes a spear with a large point, below which are placed smaller transverse points with red bases. The disk from which plumes depend can also be found on spears in the Dresden Codex. Around his neck on this badly destroyed page, the god wears a death collar. The butt of his spear rests upon the brown hair of a young captive. God K, incidentally, appears in the list of twenty regents in the Venus Tables of the Dresden. Whatever his true nature and function, Thompson’s identification of him as an earth and vegetation deity (Thompson 1970:224-7) seems to me to be premature and probably ill-founded.

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.

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 4 (column L) This again appears to be God K, attired as a Toltec warrior. However, his headdress is very different from that of page 1, with a stepped-down element in which is fitted a downball from which stream quetzal plumes. Most of the figure of the captive whom he holds has been lost.

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.”

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 6 (column N) The Death God (God A), with simple headdress and knife in hand, has just decapitated an old Roman-nosed god, from whose neck blood pours. At the Death God’s back is a Toltec shield, and at his knees and ankles are what A. M. Tozzer called tape garters. Specifically Maya are the dot-with-line markings on the legs, although in the Dresden these Death God insignia have dotted lines instead of wavy ones. The belt is also typical of deities in the Dresden, but death collars in that codex are always straight instead of pendulous as here. The figure should be compared to the Death God in one of the Toltec- Maya frescoes of the Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá (Tozzer 1957, fig. 430), which shows a skeleton with a knife in the nasal opening, tape garters at the knees and ankles, and a very similar knife held in one hand.

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:

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 7 (column O) As mentioned above, the feathered headdress on this figure identifies him with the spearing gods in the central Mexican Venus Tables, with the spearer on page 49 of the Dresden Venus Tables, and with the standing figure on the bottom of Dresden 60. He is attired as a Toltec warrior, with arm protection and knee ruffs. On his chest is a circular pendant with the numeral seven. In his left hand he holds something like a piece of cloth, and in the right a long spear with disk and plumes. Before him stands the bearded head of God C, a Maya deity supposedly connected with the North Star; from it sprouts a plant with disk-like blossoms. This representation seems unknown elsewhere, although similar vegetation is known in the Borgia Codex; on Dresden 41b a head of the old god, Itzamna, forms the base of a tree, but it has a swollen trunk with heart- shaped leaves.

“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 Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 8 (column P) At first glance the deity represented on this page would appear to be unique in Mesoamerican art, but this is not the case. A personage with eagle legs and elaborate avian headdress holds a spear in one hand and Toltec atlatl in the other. His belt with crossed bands is Mayan, but he wears the Toltec back shield; both arms have Toltec protective covering. The headdress--a bird-like mask with fangs, recurved snout, death eyes on stalks over the regular eyes, and attached plumes appears--on the left-hand deity shown in Paris 9; his glyph, VI.168:17. 671, appears in the list of twenty Venus regents in the Dresden Codex, but the god on this Grolier page is young, not old as in the Paris. This same headdress is shown six times on the Death God in the Dresden Codex. Eagle-legged Toltec warriors appear at Chichén Itzá with some frequency (Tozzer 1957, figs. 434, 436, 584-6). it is known that many of the Toltec men-at-arms depicted at that site wear the accouterments of gods such as Tezcatlipoca and the Death God, and it is not altogether surprising to find an eagle-legged deity at that site. The object of the deity’s ire is another temple similar to that on page 5; in this instance, the roof ridge has spikes or knives fixed on it. What the curling element in the door of the temple represents I cannot imagine.

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.

The Oldest Book in the Americas is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy | Page 9 (column Q) A god with tear-drop eye and “Dick Tracy” nose holds a round object (perhaps a stone he is about to hurl) by one hand and a tied captive by the other. His head is cleft, with two stepped scrolls on either side; in the cleft can be seen something like kernels of maize. I presume this is the Maize God, but he bears little resemblance either to Cintéotl, the Mexican Corn God, or to God E, his Maya counterpart. His ear is unusually large and fleshy, and from his neck hangs an ovate pectoral with two dots, an ornament also known for a Toltec-Maya warrior at Chichén Itzá (Tozzer 1957, fig. 690). The strange captive whom he holds by a double rope has the same prominent upper teeth that he has; on the captive’s head is a bird resembling a cormorant.

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.

  • 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

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

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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