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New Evidence for the Origin of the Voynich Manuscript - Central America

Updated on February 4, 2014
One of the Voynich Manuscript's enigmatic illuminated pages. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the Voynich Manuscript's enigmatic illuminated pages. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Undecipherable Codex

The Voynich Manuscript is often called "the most mysterious manuscript in the world". It is a vellum codex written in an unknown language using a unique writing system. The codex is ancient; it apparently dates from some time in the early 15th Century (more on which below).

It is a huge tome consisting of 240 pages of dense, alien calligraphy and bizarre illustrations of plants, people, symbols and glyphs. At one time it had even more pages which have since been lost. Nobody at any time has been able to unlock the Voynich Manuscript's purpose or origin, although many widely divergent hypotheses have been proposed over the years, sometimes involving extraordinary historical characters, secret societies, alchemical secrets, treasure and conspiracy theories.

Named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who bought it in 1912, the manuscript has been studied by cryptographers, historians and language experts but never deciphered, although researchers have found semantic patterns in the text which indicate it is not deliberately faked nonsense, and does have an actual embedded message.

Generally the document has always been assumed to originate in Europe, due to its purchase by Voynich in Italy and consistencies of style and ink types, along with its material composition, which is vellum. All of this suggests traditional European bookbinding. The calligraphy is claimed by some sources to be similar to Courtesan Hand, a script used in Spain in the 16th Century.

There have also been theories that it was a European language encoded in the strange cipher, but no one has been able to coherently deduce a known European language from the writing system or letter distribution.

The document, now kept at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, has become famous as one of the world's most compelling unsolved mysteries. However, new research from a completely different angle than cryptography has possibly shed light on its true origins - which are not in Europe at all, but in Central America. The key to this new theory is botany.

Many of the pages are filled with what appear to be botanical illustrations or alchemical symbols. This is one of the many fold-out pages. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Many of the pages are filled with what appear to be botanical illustrations or alchemical symbols. This is one of the many fold-out pages. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfrid Voynich (1865–1930).  Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfrid Voynich (1865–1930). Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Enter: The American Botanical Council

In the one hundredth issue of HerbalGram, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Botanical Council, Arthur O. Tucker, PhD, and Rexford H. Talbert present an article entitled 'A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript'.

In this unique new approach to deciphering the mysterious text, the authors use botanical identification of the plants depicted throughout the Voynich codex to unlock its origins, not cryptography or philology. Previously the weird nature of these plant illustrations had led researchers to assume they were fantasy creations, allegorical, or alchemical symbols. Apparently this was because these researchers simply did not recognise where those plants originated - they are not from Europe, but the Americas.

The combined skills of the authors - Dr. Tucker the emeritus professor of botany, and Mr. Talbert a former DoD and NASA information technologist - allowed them to compare the plants depicted in the Voynich document with the geographical plant distribution of the world at the time the manuscript is first allegedly documented, circa 1576 - 1612. This was established from the content of a letter that accompanied the manuscript identifying the codex as once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Finding a similarity between a plant illustrated in Voynich and one from the "Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians" otherwise known as the Codex Cruz-Badianus, written in Mexico in 1552, the authors realised that this was the key.

Subsequently they claim to have identified 37 plant varieties from the Americas depicted in the Voynich MS, along with 6 animal species and 1 mineral. These also locate the region involved - Spanish Colonial Mexico.

Voynich Calligraphy. Source: Beinecke Library
Voynich Calligraphy. Source: Beinecke Library

A Revolutionary Analysis

The astonishing discoveries don't end there. Having identified links between flora and fauna, Tucker and Talbot also discovered striking similarities between the Voynich calligraphy and another surviving 16th Century document from Spanish Colonial Mexico, the Aztec Codex Osuna from circa 1565.

Codex Osuna calligraphy. Look familiar? Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Codex Osuna calligraphy. Look familiar? Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Curious Language of Voynich - Related to Aztec?

The authors also claim that words from the Aztec language Nahautl can be discerned in Voynich (which is not a new idea, having already been suggested by French researchers Fabrice Kircher and Dominique Becker) along with other contemporary Central American native languages, and scattered Spanish. These appear to be loan-words, vocabulary absorbed from neighbouring cultures into whatever language was used in the Voynich Manuscript.

From this, the authors theorise, the Voynich text is an extinct dialect from early Spanish Colonial era Mexico or nearby regions.

Their article has been hailed by numerous experts in botany and ethnobotany - but predictably, there are still questions left unanswered.

Firstly, we still cannot decipher the Voynich text, since the language remains unknown, and may be completely lost to us.

Secondly, the carbon dating results on the Voynich vellum and the analysis of the inks disagree with Tucker and Talbot's thesis.

Not So Fast! Carbon Dating Problems

While Tucker and Talbot's theory is highly plausible, there are some major problems, which to their credit they readily admit.

Neither of them seem sure whether the Nahautl dialect is extinct nor have they consulted Nahau experts.

Additionally, University of Arizona department of Physics researchers conducted careful radiocarbon dating tests on the Voynich vellum in 2009 and found that it dated from between 1404 to 1438, a full century earlier than the Spanish Conquest of the Central Americas.

Since the pages are made from vellum, which is a European parchment not introduced to the Americas until after the Spanish Conquest, the creation of the book must have occurred after this time. It would be very strange for such a large quantity of high quality parchment to remain unused for such a long period, and there seems to be no evidence that the pages have been 'scraped' or cleaned of earlier ink.

The calligraphy and other text features appear distinctly European, and the ink used is iron gall ink, again a curious product to be used by native cultures at so early a date.

However, analysis of the other pigments used do not suggest a clear European origin, according to the authors, and do accord with their overall theory. It is these pigments which comprise the mineral evidence they cite. Specifically, one of the pigments used, a green paint, is derived from atacamite found in Chile. This could not occur in a European document prior to the Spanish Conquest.

This is a very confusing situation.

Could the vellum used for Voynich simply have been re-used, or "old stock"? It's possible. Assuming this, we have to theorise that the document was created by native authors under the auspices of their Spanish colonial patrons, or by European scribes in cooperation with native authors.

These problems indicate that the manuscript clearly hasn't given up its final secrets yet.

Poll: What Do You Think?

Is the Voynich Manuscript from Central America?

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© 2014 Ceanco

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