Everything You Need to Know About the Mexican Mayan Codex

Mayan Codices BELatina

Approximately 4,000 years ago, Mesoamerica, became a historical region and cultural area in North America for being the soil that sheltered and fed the Maya civilization. From central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, the Maya people flourished and so did their contributions to humanity. 

During this period, they domesticated the turkey and dog, and organized agriculture villages to grow cacao, corn, beans, tomato, avocado, vanilla, squash, and chili. The Maya people’s involvement in farming and their educational development transformed the territory in a mosaic of cultural traits and gave the area the worldwide recognition of being one of the only three regions of the world where writing has independently developed. 

This advanced civilization gifted the world the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system ever known in pre-Columbian Americas, and became experts in art, architecture, mathematics, invented a calendar, and used the astronomical system for astrological purposes. 

Mayan Codex BELatina
This undated photo released by Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) shows an ancient Maya pictographic text that has been judged authentic by scholars in Mexico City. (INAH via the Associated Press)

The Maya codices, often referred to as the Sáenz Codex, the Maya Codex of Mexico, Mexico Maya Codex or the Grolier Codex, is the most complete and complex record ever found in Mexico and after many years of analysis — 55 to be exact — the country’s National Institute of History and Anthropology revealed that in fact the text is the oldest document available from pre-Hispanic times. 

With 10 pages of predictions and findings, all embodied in syllabic glyphs, the Mexico Maya Codex passed from hand to hand until 1974, when collector Josue Sáenz tried to convince Mexican authorities about its authenticity. 

The National Museum of Anthropology reported that the former director of the institution, Ignacio Bernal, received a letter that said: “If I remember correctly, in mid-1964 an individual called me who said he had inherited from his grandfather a book with drawings of the old, and as I had known that I liked old things, he thought I might be interested.” The letter was from the economist and antique collector Josué Sáenz.

It took decades of debates between Mexican researchers and pre-Hispanic Maya culture experts, to validate the document, but after a long wait, the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City unveiled the temporary exhibition “Códice Maya de México. Eslabón, fuente y testigo” (Mexico’s Mayan Codex. Link, Source, and Witness), to give visitors the first hand opportunity of being witnesses of the oldest legible manuscript in the American continent. 

“According to studies it has been defined that the codex is prehispanic and has an age calculated by radiocarbon between years 1021 and 1154 of our era (Early Postclassic period), at the same time that it should have a useful life of approximately 104 years,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History referred in a statement.

The anthropologist and general director of the museum, Diego Prieto, said that, “led by Baltazar Brito Guadarrama and Sofía Martínez del Campo, of the National Library of Anthropology and History (BNAH) and the CNME of the INAH, they summoned experts from UNAM, the Cinvestav Querétaro and the University of Colorado, in Boulder, to inquire into the text,” since its authenticity was questioned because it was obtained from a looting of the cave where it was located, causing the inexistence of archaeological records of its original context; and also because its simple style differs from other known and proven authentic Mayan codices.

The museum also reported that Sofía Martínez del Campo, made a detailed photographic record, and conducted “dating exams, materials, entomology, iconography, electron microscopy, chemical-mineralogical characterization, morphometry, chronology, style, and symbolism, among others,” with the intention to continue “privileging conservation at all times”.

As reported by Remezcla, the book survived the genocide era in which mass murdered Christopher Columbus and his gang of Spanish conquerors, tried to erase the Maya civilization and attempted to burn their artifacts.

For safety and to preserve its delicate pages, the Engineering Faculty of Mexico’s National Autonomous University, built a vault injected with argon gas to avoid the proliferation of microorganisms and to keep the humidity levels stable. According to the Yucatán Times, the manuscript was put in a linear sequence inside a 5.7 feet tall capsule. 

Using technology resources, the museum showcased the Maya Codex of Mexico by dividing the exhibition into five modules to give all visitors a historic, cosmogonical, and scientific approach of the document. 

The specialists revealed that “supported by previous studies they had identified the presence of colors such as black and red, also found the presence of Mayan blue colors and pigments based on cochineal grana, in addition to remnants of drops of a chapopote resin” which, Martinez del Campo mentioned, it was used to spray objects of “ritual character” in the past.

The anthropologists also informed that “the features of the human figures of the codex belong to the Mayan-Toltec style of the Early Postclassic, and bear no similarities to the Mayan naturalism of the Late Classic that is observed in the Dresden Codex, with which it has been compared.”

Mayan Codices BELatina

“For a long time, the detractors of the codex stressed that the style was not Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ in terms of strokes and color, but such austerity is explained by the time, that is, if one lives with deficiencies, check hand of what he has to produce works,” said the National Library of Anthropology and History physical anthropologist, Josefina Bautista.

Brito also reported that “only three more pre-Hispanic codices, called Madrid, Dresden, and Paris, are known for the cities where they are protected” and stressed that “The Maya Codex of Mexico is the fourth codex, but given its age, we could well recognize it as the first.”

While it is not currently on display, the document is protected and constantly monitored in the National Library of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, and at present it can only be consulted for academic purposes if the person requesting the book meets the necessary requirements of the library and the Archeology Council of the National Institute of Anthropology and History authorizes it, always under supervision.