A mysterious manuscript that appears to be written in gibberish may actually be in an extinct dialect of the Mexican language Nahuatl. Illustrations of plants in the manuscript have been linked to plants native to Central America for the first time, suggesting a new origin for the text. But some still say it could be a hoax.
The Voynich manuscript has puzzled researchers since book dealer Wilfrid Voynich found it in an Italian monastery in 1912. Among hundreds of pages of so-far undecipherable text, it includes illustrations of naked nymphs, astrological diagrams and drawings of plants that no one has been able to identify.
An academic war has raged for years between those who think the manuscript contains a real language that could eventually be decoded, and those who think it was a clever forgery designed to dupe book collectors. “It’s a battle with two sides,” says Alain Touwaide, a historian of botany at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
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.
Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the UK remains sceptical. He thinks a careful forger could have made up plausible-looking plants.
"It’s pretty good odds that you’ll find plants in the world that happen to look like the Voynich manuscript just by chance," he says. "If I sat down with a random plant generator software and got it to generate 50 completely fictitious plants, I’m pretty sure I could find 20 real plants that happen to look like 20 of the made up plants."
Touwaide says the findings are intriguing, but agrees that they form just one of many hypotheses. “I believe that it doesn’t prove anything. If it’s a forgery, someone could very well have had the idea of creating the forgery on the basis of New World flora. At the most, it shows a possible source of the forgery.”
Tucker admits that there is work to be done before they can throw out the hoax hypothesis entirely. But one of the Voynich plants makes him wonder: it looks strikingly similar to Viola bicolor, the American field pansy, which only grows in North America. The distinction between this plant and its European relative,Viola tricolor, was not known until after the Voynich was discovered. Ruling out time travel, says Tucker, how would this have been possible? “If this is a hoax, they did a dang good job and had help from a competent botanist who had knowledge only available after 1912 in some crucial cases.”
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