Courtesy of Justin Kerr, Enrico Ferorelli; drawings of underpainting: Stephen Houston.

It's the oldest surviving book from the Americas.

Jess McHugh
September 08, 2016

Experts have verified a controversial Mayan codex—an historic manuscript—as genuine, making it the oldest surviving book from the Americas.

“These are among the rarest objects imaginable. Maya books at that time numbered only three,” Stephen Houston, co-director of the Program in Early Cultures at Brown University and one of the researchers on the team, told Travel + Leisure.

Looters discovered the codex in a cave in Mexico in the 1960s. A team of archeologists and anthropologists recently inspected it, publishing a 50-page analysis in the journal Maya Archaeology which confirms its authenticity.

Using a variety of clues including its style, the type of paper (which comes from the bark of a fig tree) and other time-specific evidence, the team was able to determine that it was not a forgery, as has long been rumored.

“The more we looked at it, the more certain we were that it was a genuine object,” Houston said.

Named the Grolier codex for the New York City Grolier Club where it was displayed in the 1970s, the artifact is one of only four such Mayan manuscripts around the world. It eventually ended up in a basement in the National Museum in Mexico City and has remained there for decades.

The 13th century text displays a variety of influences both from the Mayan and Toltec civilizations. Toltecs were based in what is now central Mexico and were considered one of the most cosmopolitan civilizations at the time.

Looking at the night sky the authors who wrote the codex attempted to interpret the will of the gods, particularly the orb of Venus, according to Houston.

“It isn’t just about observing movements, it’s about predicting what will happen when they come again,” he said of the authors’ beliefs in the movements of celestial objects.

Jess McHugh is a digital reporter for Travel + Leisure. You can find her on Twitter at @MchughJess.

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