The Grolier Codex

A page of the Grolier Codex. (Credit: US-PD/Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Grolier Codex the oldest book discovered in the Americas? That was debated since it was discovered in 1965, but it seems that the book can now legitimately hold that distinction.

Discovered in a Chiapas, Mexico cave, the 11 sheets of bark paper that were part of a Maya book has been studied by a team led by a researcher from Brown University. That analysis seems to put to rest the 40 year debate.

Unfortunately, the discovery was made not by scientists but by looters. It then went through a series of hands of collectors before Mexican customs officials grabbed it in 1977.  It first appeared in a private collection in the 20th century and was displayed at the Grolier Club in New York, hence its name.

A 2007 analysis of the Grolier Codex questioned its authenticity. But, using radiocarbon dating and exhaustively analyzing the Codex’s content, the Brown researchers concluded that the manuscript is real.

The bark pages are in poor condition with mostly the the top section intact and bottoms that are water damaged. (View the pages) They were once bound and there were 9 more pages. The Codex that remains is 11 pages, each with a figure facing left and armed with a weapon. Some hold a chain tied to the neck of a prisoner.

Why so foreboding? It is now thought that the Codex was used to track the movements of Venus in the sky. To the maya, Venus could foretell bad things to come. Marking and numbers on the pages track Venus’ movements. The Maya calendar was based on celestial observations and their calendar calendar contained spans of 104 years, or 13 synodic cycles (the time it takes Venus to come back to the same position in the night sky).

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