Debate has long raged over the provenance of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, a document filled with strange illustrations and text written in a language that has never been decoded. Though the codex has been dated to around the time of the Renaissance, it first came to modern attention in 1912 when it was purchased by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, whose name has been attached to it ever since.
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.
It’s worth noting, however, that the pair are not the first to suggest that the language might be related to Nahuatl – in a 2001 book, James Comegys claimed that the manuscript was “a medical text in Nahuatl attributable to Francisco Hernandez and his Aztec Ticiti collaborators”.