Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Voynich Manuscript Decoded?

The Voynich Manuscript is a mystery that cryptographers have studied for more than a century. The book contains many illustrations accompanied by text in an unknown language. While some analysts have concluded that the book is gibberish and was written as some sort of a hoax, the system of writing does appear to have characteristics of a natural language - which nonetheless does not seem to match any known cipher. I even made a fictional mention of it in my novel Arcana, as an encoded grimoire that once belonged to John Dee. It supposedly did belong to Emperor Rudolph II, in whose court John Dee and Edward Kelly resided for a number of years.

Now a new idea has been presented by botanist Arthur Tucker. He claims that many of the plant illustrations in the text resemble plants from the Americas, and that the unknown language might be a classical form of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Given what went on with the Mayans, this isn't as strange a suggestion as you might think. In the sixteenth century missionaries attempting to convert the Maya taught them a form of European script that went on to replace their original pictographic writing system. The pictographs were only recently decoded, by comparing a sixteenth-century glossary of syllables with the modern Maya language, which is still spoken in Mexico and Central America. It's possible that the Spanish could have tried something similar with the Aztec language.

Previously, many researchers assumed that the manuscript must have originated in Europe, where it was found. But botanist Arthur Tucker of Delaware State University in Dover noticed similarities between certain plants in the manuscript and illustrations of plants in 16th century records from Mexico.

Tucker began collecting copies of Mexican botanical books out of curiosity about the history of herbs there. "Quite by accident, I ran across the Voynich and it was a Homer Simpson moment of D'oh! Of course –this matches my other codices and the artwork of 16th century Mexico."

The most striking example was an illustration of a soap plant (xiuhamolli) in a Mexican book dated 1552. Tucker and Rexford Talbert, a retired information technology researcher at the US Department of Defense and NASA, connected a total of 37 of the 303 plants, six animals and one mineral illustrated in the Voynich manuscript to 16th century species in the region that lies between Texas, California and Nicaragua. They think many of the plants could have come from what is now central Mexico.

On the basis of these similarities, the pair suggests that the manuscript came from the New World, and that it might be written in an extinct form of the Mexican language Nahuatl. Deciphering the names of these plants could therefore help crack the Voynich code.

There are still several problems with this hypothesis. First, the Voynich has been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Second, the Voynich is not a codex-style book that would have been constructed by Meso-Americans, but rather a European-style book written in a script that also looks like a European hand. If the dating is right, the only was the book could have been written in America is if it started off as a much older blank book brought with on one of the early European voyages and then filled in with information.

Still, as the Voynich has defied every other attempt at decryption, this might be worth a try. Several Nahuatl dialects are still spoken in Mexico, so if Tucker can connect with some native speakers and see if they can identify the plants, it might be possible to associate the script with sounds and the sounds back to the original spoken language. Perhaps this would finally allow us to understand the manuscript and decipher its contents.

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1 comment:

Nerd said...

It'd be very interesting to peer into the herbology of that era.