Mayan Codex: Codices (Paper Media) Were Destroyed By Conquistadors, Leaving Only Three (Or Four)

By | January 2, 2021

test article image
(Joern Haufe/Getty Images)

At the peak of its power, the Mayan Empire of Mesoamerica was a complex culture with sophisticated systems of mathematics, astronomy, architecture, writing, and religion. They built massive cities of stone, charted the stars, created beautiful works of art, and recorded their history, knowledge, and philosophies on tree bark paper that was folded into books called codices. Historians believe there were once thousands of these codices that would give us a complete understanding of the Mayan world, but only three (possibly four) of these documents remain.

The Mayan Empire

Based in what is now Guatemala, the Mayan Empire was founded around 1800 B.C.E. before spreading into Central America and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Around 250–700 C.E., the Mayan people, who were renowned scholars with advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, built great stone structures and impressive cities. By 900 C.E., however, most had been abandoned, and the Mayan population declined drastically due to drought, overpopulation, and war. By the time the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes, landed in the New World in 1525, the Mayans were few in number, living in small, primitive villages while their once-great cities languished in the jungle overgrowth.

The Conquistadors encountered the dwindling Mayan population, as well as the powerful Aztecs, and those who refused to convert to Christianity were systematically slaughtered. All vestiges of the indigenous religions were obliterated with no regard for their historic or cultural value, and as part of this cultural erasure, thousands of Mayan codices were burned.

test article image
(Simon Burchell/Wikimedia Commons)

The Only Surviving Codices

Fortunately, they missed a few, which have been preserved by archaeologists and historians. Three confirmed Mayan codices are known to have survived, each named for the city in which they are presently kept: the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, and the Madrid Codex. They describe, among other things, certain deities of the Mayan religion, astronomical predictions, the movements of planets, details of religious rituals, signs of bad omens, plants and animals, and agricultural tips. They were most likely written in the 12th century, but experts have pointed out that the books may have been copied from older works.

Since the 1700s, experts thought the Mayan codices were written on paper made from plant fiber, but a 1910 analysis revealed the pages were long strips of the inner bark of fig trees folded like accordions, making them easy to store and transport. Unfortunately, the organic material also made them fragile and easy to burn, as the Conquistadors proved, so their proper storage and preservation is a top priority for the institutes responsible for them.