Researchers one step closer to deciphering enigmatic Voynich manuscript

// January 27th, 2014 // News

Page from the Voynich Manuscript

One step closer to cracking the Voynich Manuscript?

Page from the Voynich Manuscript illustrating strange creaturesThe enigmatic Voynich Manuscript has puzzled cryptographers and historians for centuries but today, after botanists announced in the journal for the American Botanical Council that they had found matches for many of the plants depicted in the Voynich Manuscript, we may be one step closer to understanding the meaning of the 600-year-old codex.  How did botanist crack the code?  Rather than focusing on the words in the mysterious manuscript, the botanist focused on the pictures instead.

Botanist Arthur O. Tucker stumbled across the discovery after recognizing one of the plants in the manuscript:

“We were both immediately struck by the similarity of xiuhamolli/xiuhhamolli (soap plant … sometimes known as the “Aztec Herbal”) to the plant in the illustration on folio 1v of the Voynich.”

After reviewing the images of the plants depicted in the 600-year-old manuscript, they were able to identify many of them with real-world vegetation located in Central America (particularly Mexico).  For example, Dr. Tucker and fellow researcher Rexford Talbert said one plant in the book bears a resemblance to the picture of a soap plant (xiuhamolli) seen in a Mexican codex from 1552.  In total, the researchers linked 37 of the 303 plants in the manuscript to illustrations in ancient Mexican books covering botany across Texas, California and Nicaragua.  The botanist believe that cryptographers may now be able to match known plant names with the encryptions in the manuscript.  For example, a Voynich illustration of a cactus pad or fruit is shown near the name ‘nashtli’, which Tucker and Talbert claim is a variant of the word ‘nochtil’ – the Nahuatl name for the fruit of the prickly pear.

Where did the Voynich Manuscript come from?

The Voynich Manuscript has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and is thought to have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who purchased it in 1912. It was donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969 where it remains (a digitized version is available online).  The new findings now suggest the manuscript may have been written in Central America, possibly in the Aztec language of the Nahuatl (Nahuatl originated in the 7th century and was the language spoken by the Aztecs).

What is the Voynich Manuscript?

Page from the Voynich Manuscript with strange chartsThe Voynich manuscript is a 240-page illustrated codex hand-written on vellum parchment in an unknown, possibly encrypted, language.  Oddly, he Voynich Manuscript text was written from left to right, using a quill pen and iron gall ink, and features hundreds of illustrations or diagrams of plants, astronomical objects, biological entities, and cosmological layouts. Given the amount of work it would have taken to create such a work, researchers believe the Voynich manuscript is legitimate – but have no clue what it is trying to say.

Page from the Voynich ManuscriptIn addition, some of the pages may be missing and as yet, undiscovered.  The top right hand corner of each right-hand page in the manuscript has been numbered from 1 to 116, probably by one of the manuscript’s later owners.  From the various numbering gaps, it seems likely that in the past the manuscript had at least 272 pages, some of which were already missing when Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912.  Some have theorized that the missing pages may contain the “key” to the manuscript.

The text of the Voynich Manuscript consists of over 170,000 glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps.  Longer sections of the Voynich Manuscript are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with star- or flower-like “bullets” in the left margin.  There is no obvious punctuation, and no indications of any errors or corrections made at any place in the document.  The text flows smoothly, giving the impression that the symbols were not enciphered, as there is no delay between characters as would normally be expected in written encoded text.  From all appearances, it was written in one, smooth stroke.

The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British code breakers from both World War I and World War II.  No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography.

You can view sample pages from the Voynich Manuscript below or download PDFs (part 1 and part 2) containing the complete Voynich Manuscript.

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