California Science & Technology News

Ancient Tome Decoded at Last?

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Written in "alien" characters, illustrated with sketches and dating back hundreds of years, the Voynich Manuscript has puzzled cryptographers, historians and bibliophiles for centuries -- and a new analysis may finally offer an explanation.

Many have come forward with answers to the mysterious manuscript's secrets. In 2011, a self-proclaimed prophet of god said he had cracked the crazy characters, which were "sonic waves and vocal syllables." But most experts agree that its meaning remains hidden.

“The Voynich has been the subject of almost countless essays and investigations, none of which has been able to crack the code," wrote Mark Blumenthal, editor in chief of HerbalGram, the peer-reviewed journal of the nonprofit American Botanical Council.

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In the latest attempt to decipher the code, two botanical scholars have their own explanation for the text. After reviewing the images of the plants depicted in the 500-year-old manuscript they were able to identify them with real-world vegetation.

"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," botanist Arthur O. Tucker and retired information technologist Rexford H. Talbert wrote in their study.

By focusing on the pictures and not the "words," the botanists offer a unique insight.

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

"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," Applequist noted.

The two scholars combed through the manuscript and discovered that through interpreting many of the plants' names, a linguist would be able to use that information to decipher the code.

"Also, because we have been trained as botanists and horticulturists, not linguists, our feeble attempts at a syllabary/alphabet for the language in the Voynich Ms. must be interpreted merely as a key for future researchers, not a fait accompli."

Although Tucker and Talbert have not completely cracked the code just yet, their research will hopefully lead others in the centuries old race to unlock the mysteries of the Voynich manuscript.

"Tucker and Talbert have produced an analysis both intriguing and insightful which solves one of the ultimate ethnobotanical cold cases!”

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