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Mathematical Treasure: Codex Mexicanus of the Maya

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer who during his lifetime roamed the world freely recording strange new sights and reporting his discoveries to an awaiting European audience. Among his many publications was Researches Concerning the Institution and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America (2 vols.), published in translation from French into English in 1814.

On page 144 of volume 2 is found a facsimile of a manuscript fragment, Codex Mexicanus (or Dresden Codex), held by the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden. It is quite rare in that it is one of only four such codices in existence that bears information on the ancient Mayan civilizations of the Americas. The fragment contains numbers and is believed to have been part of a divination almanac containing tables of eclipses of the planet Venus from the 12th century. For a detailed analysis of the contents, see “The Mathematical Notation of the Ancient Maya,” Chapter 11, pp. 291–369, by Michael Closs, in Native American Mathematics (Michael Closs, editor), University of Texas Press, 1986. For images of the actual Dresden Codex, see this Mathematical Treasure.

This image is supplied through the cooperation of The Treasures of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Library Collection. The image was photographed by Mr. Sean Linehan.

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Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Codex Mexicanus of the Maya," Convergence (January 2015)