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HerbalGram article lays out New World connections for antique botanical text written in code

By Hank Schultz , 21-Jan-2014
Last updated on 21-Jan-2014 at 16:25 GMT2014-01-21T16:25:08Z

HerbalGram article lays out New World connections for antique botanical text written in code

Matching plant illustrations in a mysterious text to New World varieties that were codified by the first European botanists active in Spain’s newly-conquered territories may have helped unlock a portion of a riddle that has stumped cryptographers for centuries.

The text, called the Voynich Manuscript (after its discoverer) first came to light in Italy in 1912 and has resided in a collection at Yale University since 1969.  It features many surprisingly realistic and accurate plant illustrations.  Exactly what those plants were and what the text said about them was unclear, given that the text is written in code, a code so robust that it has resisted the efforts of numerous code breakers to crack it.

But in the latest edition of HerbalGram, the quarterly publication of the American Botanical Council, authors Arthur O. Tucker, PhD, and Rexford H. Talbert detailed how they appear to have solved at least part of the puzzle. The text of the manuscript remains indecipherable, but the pair realized that the plant illustrations were rendered carefully enough that it should be possible to match them up to actual species. 

Matching plant for plant

Tucker, a botanist, emeritus professor, and co-director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at Delaware State University and Talbert, a retired information technologist formerly employed by the US Department of Defense and NASA, decided to look first at the botanical illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript and compare them to the world's geographic plant distribution at the time of the manuscript's first recorded appearance associated with the court of Austrian Hapsburg ruler Rudolph II, who reigned from 1567 to 1612. (The actual parchment on which the manuscript was copied may be older than that.) The similarities between a plant illustrated in the Voynich Manuscript and the soap plant depicted in the 1552 Codex Cruz-Badianus of Mexico propelled the authors down a path leading to the identification of 37 plants, six animals, and one mineral in the manuscript from the Americas — specifically, from post-Conquest Nueva España (New Spain) and the surrounding regions.

“The Cruz-Badianus codex is considered to be the first medicinal text in the New World,”  Mark Blumenthal, executive director of ABC told NutraIngredients-USA.  The codex was set down first in Nahuatl, the native tongue of Central Mexico, and later translated into Latin.  It details the medical plants of Azetcs, how to identify them and how they were used.

Mostly fruitless research in the past into the manuscript focused on the text, trying to prove European or Asian origins.  But Tucker and Talbert’s approach was unique in that it bypassed the text altogether and focused on the plants themselves.

"Numerous failed attempts to crack the code of the Voynich Manuscript have focused on linguistics and cryptography. Tucker and Talbert have focused on its botany and, surprisingly but plausibly, identified many of the plants depicted as New World taxa,” said Wendy Applequist, PhD, the associate curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden's William L. Brown Center.

"At minimum, this offers new leads for decipherment efforts; ultimately, if text relating to Central American ethnobotany can be retrieved from the manuscript, its historical significance will be extraordinary,” she said.

Links to additional codices

Tucker and Talbot also found similarities of the manuscript to other herbal reference works of New Spain. "A search of the surviving codices and manuscripts from Nueva España in the 16th century reveals the calligraphy of the Voynich Ms. to be similar to the Codex Osuna (1563-1566, Mexico City). Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec,” the authors’ wrote.  The pre Columbian Aztec empire was not ethnically homogeneous;  Taino and Mixtec were spoked alongside Nahuatl.  The majority of the text, the authors propose, is an extinct dialect, meaning even with the key of the formal names of the plants (assuming the authors’ theory is correct) full translation of the text might still be a long way off.

As to why that dialect (if that’s what it is) was rendered in code is part of the mystery that remains intact. But scholars familiar with Rudolph II have noted it would be in keeping with that quirky ruler’s known fondness for puzzles of an astrological or mystical nature. Rudolph II was reputed to be brilliant when lucid, but suffered from symptoms that to modern authors look like schizophrenia. He was removed from the throne because of madness, and the resulting dynastic struggle was one of the antecedents of the Thirty Years War.

“The ‘why’ is not explained in our article.  Why would someone go to the lengths to create a cipher like this?” Blumenthal said.

ABC is known for careful research into matters of pressing concern for the herbal products industry, such as adulteration.  Blumenthal acknowledged that this was not an addition to that effort, but was valuable in its own right.

“This is not going to increase anybody’s ability to comply with GMPs. This is not going to increase anyone’s awareness of adulteration.  But it is about the lore that is part of the history and culture of the herbal business,” Blumenthal said.

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