Can Mexican plant unravel the enigma of the Voynich manuscript?
The 15th Century Voynich manuscript is considered to be the most mysterious text ever uncovered as it has never been deciphered despite over a century of attempts to uncover its meaning and more than 25 different analyses from top minds around the world. This has led some to claim that the Voynich manuscript is nothing more than an elaborate hoax. However, a new study published in the journal HerbalGram may provide a clue that could break the code of the enigmatic manuscript.
The 240 page book, which uses a cryptic language and numerous illustrations depicting astronomical, biological, cosmological, herbal and pharmaceutical themes, was discovered in 1912 by a Polish-American named Wilfrid M. Voynich. While the manuscript appears to be written in an unknown language, latest finding supports the hypothesis that there are meaningful words and messages within the text.
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 Institution in Washington DC.
Until now, the plants portrayed in the book – which are crudely drawn – have been unidentifiable. However, the latest study has found a link between illustrations of plants in the manuscript and depictions in 16 th century records from Mexico of plants native to Central America, suggesting a new origin for the text.
A plant illustration in the Voynich manuscript. Photo credit
The most striking example was an illustration of a soap plant (xiuhamolli) in a Mexican book dated 1552. Arthur Tucker, co-director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at Delaware State University, 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.
On the basis of these similarities, the pair suggests that the manuscript came from the Central America, and may be written in an extinct dialect 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."
As for the meaning of the text, that still remains elusive. Craig Bauer, author of ‘Secret History: The Story of Cryptology’ believes it could be hiding something significant. "It could solve a major crime, reveal buried treasure worth millions or in the case of the Voynich manuscript, rewrite the history of science," he said.
Tucker acknowledges that there is still a long way to go in proving that the Voynich manuscript is not a hoax, so while the latest study may bring us one step closer to discovering the truth, for now the manuscript retains its hidden secrets.
National Geographic documentary on the Voynich manuscript.