Lonely Planet Writer

Maya manuscript from 13th century confirmed as genuine, making it the oldest book in the Americas

A mysterious Maya book once thought to be a fake has been confirmed as genuine by a team of anthropologists and archaeologists. The so-called Grolier Codex, a 13th-century manuscript long regarded with skepticism due to its suspicious discovery and unusual discrepancies, is now believed to be not only genuine, but also possibly the oldest document of the ancient Americas.

The water-damaged pages of the Grolier Codex.
The water-damaged pages of the Grolier Codex. Image by Justin Kerr

The codex was acquired in 1966 by a Mexican collector named Josué Sáenz. Sáenz was approached by a group of unknown men who said they had found the codex in a cave in Mexico, but they wouldn’t reveal its exact location. The men were willing to sell it to Sáenz if he didn’t ask any questions. Accompanied by two experts, Sáenz flew to a remote airstrip in southern Mexico. According to his account, the plane’s compass was covered with a cloth to obscure the exact location of the site, but Sáenz was familiar enough with the territory to recognise it as a region in Chiapas.

A page from the manuscript, proven to be real.
A page from the manuscript, proven to be real. Image by Justin Kerr

Upon inspecting the codex, the experts declared it a fake, but Sáenz bought the artefact anyway. Sáenz gave the codex to archaeologist Michael Coe in 1971, and Coe displayed it as an exhibit at the Grolier Club in New York, forever bestowing the codex with its name. Although the Grolier exhibition elicited much excitement, experts continued to declare the object was a fake.

There were several reasons to believe the codex was a forgery. The first was the general rarity of such a text surviving. Prior to Spanish arrival to South America, the Maya were a highly literate culture who maintained a written record of everyday observances like the movement of the stars, historical events and dramatic works. During the Spanish Conquest, these books were determined to be religious falsehoods, and priests and conquistadors began destroying them en masse. For the others that escaped destruction, it was assumed that the moist Meso-American soil would break down the fragile fig-bark paper. Before the Grolier Codex was confirmed, only three other Maya codices were known to have survived.

 

The content of the Grolier Codex was similarly unusual. Known for their pre-Columbian calendars, the Maya were astute observers of astronomy, but the Grolier Codex lacked typical references to the stars that were common among similar codices. Similarly, the Grolier Codex combines Maya artistic styles once thought to be independent, suggesting a forger had added fake hieroglyphs without much knowledge of Maya culture.

But now Coe and a team of researchers have reversed decades of suspicion. After an extensive re-evaluation of the codex, the team says the manuscript is a 104-year-long calendar of Venus, and its astrological references are in line with regional variances of the mythology of Venus. Moreover, the team cites the figures and architectural style of the Maya city of Chichén Itzá, which combines cultural influences across the Maya civilization.  Their study is published in the journal Maya Archaeology, complete with a full facsimile of the Grolier Codex.