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Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

The Oldest Book Written in the Americas Is a Mayan Guide to Astronomy

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
The Grolier Codex helped ancient Mayans track astronomical phenomena.

As the Mayan civilization was in decline, a diligent scribe was working on the oldest book created in the Americas: the Grolier Codex.

The book, which contains personified images of the sun, death, and other deities—all working in service of the “star” Venus—is a guide to astronomy. For a long time, experts believed it was fake.

But in a surprise twist, researchers are now saying that this 900-year-old book is the real thing after all.

Here’s Annalee Newitz, writing for ArsTechnica:

Unlike three other Maya Codex finds, it had writing on only one side of each of its 10 pages. Plus, some of the pages appear to have been cut relatively recently. There are odd discrepancies in the book’s calendar system, hinting that a forger might have been trying to imitate a calendar he saw in another Maya artifact. The drawings are also unusual for a Maya document, combining styles of the Mesoamerican Mixtec people with Toltec attire. The Toltec were often hailed by the Aztecs as ancestors, and their art shares many similarities with late Maya art. Though carbon dating placed the Codex’s bark pages during the late Maya period, it was not unknown for looters to find blank pages in ancient Maya caches and cover them in fake hieroglyphs to make them more valuable.

But in the latest issue of Maya Archaeology , Stephen Houston of Brown University revisits the codex and determines that it’s real. The calendar discrepancies, he says, can be explained by regional or temporal variations in mythology of Venus, the movements of which this 104-year-long calendar predicts. In addition, no modern pigments are displayed on the codex, and the sharp cuts appear to be breaks in gypsum plaster—not markers of modern carpentry.

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The codex was also found alongside other items that have been verified as authentic, and the format doesn’t differ from sketch and grid lines seen in Mayan murals. Lastly, the some of the images in the codex are of deities unknown to modern scientists at the time of its discovery—making it impossible for anyone to have fabricated it. All signs point to its legitimacy.

It’s another example of ancient writings come to life , the oldest on our continent. Other documents previously presumed to be inauthentic could need reexamination—in which case, we may (and almost certainly do) have a lot to learn about our past.

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Photo credit: Justin Kerr

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