Yale and Brown professors team up to confirm ancient text
By Kelly Thomas | September 23, 2016, 11:50 EDT
BOSTON – A team of anthropologists and art history experts, led by professors from Yale and Brown, has proven once and for all the authenticity of a controversial 13th century Mayan text. Their findings confirm the document, called the Grolier Codex, is indeed the oldest writing to be discovered in the Americas.
Michael Coe, a professor emeritus of archeology and anthropology at Yale, led the assembled researchers in uncovering the truth behind the much-disputed Codex. He was joined by Stephen Houston, the co-director of Brown’s Program in Early Cultures and the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science. Other members of the elite time included Mary Miller, a professor of art history at Yale, and Karl Taube from University of California – Riverside.
The Grolier Codex was found by looters in a cave in Yucatan in the 1960s. It fell into the hands of wealthy collector Josué Sáenz, who, rather then submitting it to Mexican authorities, shipped the Codex abroad, where it was displayed in 1971 at the exclusive Grolier Club in New York, thus earning its name.
The Codex’s questionable history, and its discovery by thieves rather than archaeologists, provoked skepticism in the academic community, with many thinking it could be a mere forgery designed to get a larger selling price.
Mary Miller admitted to sharing these doubts before joining Coe’s team of researchers, saying she started in “the corner of doubters,” but has since been convinced of its authenticity. The researchers used every tool available to them, including radiocarbon dating the paper and chemical testing the ink to disprove the allegations of forgery.
While these supported the Codex’s legitimacy, it was the presence of images that Mayan experts have only in the last decade found to be associated with the ancient culture. Stephen Houston points to an image of a man with a cleft in his head that is filled with maize, an image meant to represent the spirit of a mountain. Houston avers that it would have been “simply impossible” for a forger in the 1960s to have been aware of the image’s existence in Mayan culture as it was only discovered in the past five to 10 years.
The Grolier Codex itself is a ten-page excerpt from an ancient book made of bark paper. The codex is a calendar, charting the cycles of Venus. Houston says that though the work itself is not one of tremendous beauty or import, it’s an “everyday book” used by village priests, it is significant in that it is one of thousands that existed before the arrival of the Spanish.
Until now, only three pre-Columbian texts have been discovered. The Grolier Codex predates all three, making it the oldest text of the ancient Americas in existence. The Codex, with its authenticity definitively proven, will remain in Mexico, safely stored in the vaults of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City for further examination and research.