Geographical Clues in the Book of Mormon An archaeologist walks us through his discovery process
Geographical Clues in the Book of Mormon
An archaeologist walks us through his discovery process
This article first appeared in Meridian Magazine April 27, 2009
Permission has been granted by Meridian Magazine and the author
The initial archaeological discovery of the lands and settlements of the Book of Mormon actually began for me in 1979 with a chance remark made by an associate who commented to me the possibility that the Book of Mormon's "Narrow Strip of Wilderness" (see Alma 22:27-34, 50:7-11) could be identical with the dominant mountain chain in Guatemala involving the Sierra de las Mines and Cuchumatanes ranges. This mountain complex actually extends westward from the Caribbean Sea across Guatemala to connect with the Sierra Madre mountain chain above the Pacific sea coast near the Mexican border.
At the time, I considered this an interesting idea but I gave it little credence. I did not think that there was sufficient geographic information within the Book of Mormon to establish any correlation between its text and a plausible setting in the Western Hemisphere.
My presumption bothered me; I knew that I was wrong to dismiss the possibility of such an association. My conscience and my experience as a scientist provided reminders that one does not pass judgment on knowledge and especially on the scriptures without assembling all of the data available for an impartial review. Finally, after some internal debate, I decided to take action.
I determined to analyze the geography of the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness" within The Book of Mormon using training and experience in geographical analysis acquired earlier in that decade during my graduate research programs in Mexico and Guatemala at Brigham Young University and at the University of Utah.
The Narrow Strip of Wilderness
In order to ensure that the analysis was as objective as possible, I determined that I would not bias the study by trying to correlate any places given in the text with specific places in the Western Hemisphere. The common error of interjecting a locational bias into one's assessments has lead to numerous questionable and sometimes even hilarious assumptions relative to the Book of Mormon setting in the Americas. (In order to avoid making such assumptions, one must construct the model or map solely relying on the information provided in the text.)
Over the course of the following month, I devoted all of my free time to studying the many references within the book concerning the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness." At the conclusion of that study program, I was amazed at how much geographic information existed in the Book of Mormon.
I found that the Book of Mormon contains pertinent geographic associations that lead to logical assumptions. For instance, the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness" is a mountainous barrier because it contains the headwaters of the Sidon River (see Alma 43:22,32). This mountainous barrier must be very rugged indeed, because it restricts ancient transportation between the Nephite and the Lamanite peoples. This restricted access highlights the importance of the series of strategic fortified settlements, including Manti and Cumeni, that are situated in or adjacent to the south wilderness which is a term synonymous for the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness" (see Alma 16:7, 22:31, 31:3, 62:34 for Manti and Alma 57:15-16 for Cumeni).
Thus, my initial analysis of the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness" led to an understanding that these strategic locations, or strongholds as they are referred to in the book, controlled access along the few trails that penetrate the mountain barrier. These ancient trails were the most direct link between the Nephite and Lamanite settlements respectively situated to the north and to the south of the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness."
Furthermore, I discovered that this mountainous barrier extends from the East Sea on the east to the West Sea on the west. This fact demonstrates the strategic importance of the narrow coastal lowlands at the eastern and western bases of that mountain barrier.
Why is the Narrow Strip So Important?
Why are these highland passes and narrow coastal lowlands so valuable to the Nephite and Lamanite leaders? Economics -- the answer is simply economics. They are important because the military force that controls these strategic locations also controls the trails and if they control the trails they control the trade routes needed to move important goods among diverse populations. In addition to wanting trade options in localities monopolized by the Nephite merchants, the Lamanite leaders knew that if they could have unimpeded access through the mountain passes and around the lowland flanks of the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness," they could migrate and expand their military into the exclusive Nephite sanctuaries to the north and northwest.
Therefore, it was important to Moroni, because of the tradition of hostilities that existed between these two peoples, that he protect the Nephites' exposed flanks and vulnerable rear areas from Lamanite and renegade Nephite domination. In order to do this, Moroni had to take control over the mountain trails by fortifying the passes at Manti, Cumeni, Zeezrom1, and Nephihah. He also had to maintain a Nephite command at the fortified settlements blocking Lamanite access along the narrow coastal corridors associated with the East Sea and the West Sea.
In 1979, with my newly found appreciation that the Book of Mormon actually contains detailed geographic information, I launched a major research program that would require most of my free time during the following year. While involved in that effort, I continued to resist the temptation of placing the growing Book of Mormon model within any geographic context in the New World; all correlations of place to place and place to direction were based solely on the text.
The map or model of the lands of the Book of Mormon that steadily emerged was found to contain minor gaps between different places. Those gaps were not disparities; they did not affect the cohesion between places that was emerging within the model.
The most exciting factor that resulted from this geographical analysis was manifest at the conclusion of the initial research: all of the geographic references within the Book of Mormon were internally consistent with each other. There was never any conflict among the book's references concerning important geographical associations. Had such inconsistencies surfaced, I would have been obligated to question the veracity of my research strategy. Had the strategy proved faultless, the historicity of the Book of Mormon may have been in question.
The geographic associations recorded in the book are so complex that such internal consistency cannot be artificial. Joseph Smith could not have engineered this geographical consistency during the late 1820's. Nor could such consistency be introduced into the text of the book if, as some critics contend, Joseph Smith borrowed from earlier manuscripts2 to invent the Book of Mormon. The archaeological and geographical information and analytical tools needed to create such consistency within a work of fiction simply did not exist in the 19th Century. Since it could not be artificial or counterfeit, such consistency must be authentic and therefore, the Book of Mormon must be a legitimate history of actual people and places.
To me, this internal consistency has become yet another indication that the Book of Mormon is an actual history of real people that lived in a real place! And those real persons included Mormon and his son Moroni, who were the final keepers of the ancient record in the Fourth Century A.D. These two individuals were completely familiar with the geography of their ancient lands and settlements. In certain cases, they knew where many of the important sites were located even though they lived several hundred years after the destruction of many of these places.
In 1980, once I was able to define the basic model of the Book of Mormon lands through geographic analysis, the seas, river, and mountain range established within that model were then compared with the general land-forms of the Western Hemisphere. This process began at the tip of South America and concluded in the polar regions of the north.
This stage of geographical correlation revealed that southeastern Mesoamerica is the only locality within the Americas that meets all of the requirements established within the model drawn from the text. Southeastern Mesoamerica presently constitutes the countries of Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, El Salvador, and eastern Mexico. This is the area of the earliest known and most advanced civilizations of the New World.
With the determination that the Book of Mormon setting was probably associated with southeastern Mesoamerica, the area of my various graduate studies, I began the process of correlating the explicit geography of that region, its mountains, settlement areas, and rivers with the geographic model derived from the text. To accomplish this task, I relied on the archaeological and geographical data base for this cultural area that has gradually emerged over the years as a product of many diverse scholars.
Archaeologists have been working for well over a century throughout southeastern Mesoamerica identifying and recording extensive ancient settlements and ceremonial complexes. Tikal, Palenque, La Venta, Copan and Chichen Itza are just a few of these ancient sites. The majority of the large and impressive ruins were constructed and occupied during the Classic Maya period. This period dates between A.D. 300 and 900 and largely occurs after the Book of Mormon historic period (see Table).
My colleagues have also compiled impressive studies of many archaeological sites that date prior to the Classic period. These ceremonial complexes and village sites in many cases were occupied over 2,000 years ago and are still identifiable. Such sites would be contemporaneous with the settlement period associated with the Book of Mormon peoples but may not actually have been occupied by those peoples.
Just knowing that such contemporaneous locations exist and have been recorded reinforces the two most basic assumptions behind this work. First, that the majority of land surfaces and settlements known to the Nephite historians, Mormon and Moroni, still exist and can be recognized by a trained archaeologist. Second, a sound geographic model of those ancient settlements, trails, and fortifications so well described in the Book of Mormon can be directly correlated with the pertinent archaeology of the Americas once an accurate model of the book's geography has been developed.
As I prepared to test the Book of Mormon model for its veracity by exploring its possible site areas in Mesoamerica, I determined that the initial field study should relate to the fortification at Manti as described in the book. Manti was selected for the introductory testing because the geography associated with that locality is well described in the Book of Mormon. Manti was in a highly strategic position within the mountainous barrier known to the Nephites as the "Narrow Strip of Wilderness." It was adjacent to and east of the Sidon River channel (Alma 16:6-7). In addition, Manti contained a more open area and somewhat neutral zone between the primary strongholds and the south wilderness (Alma 58:13-28). The defensive positions at Manti would control access on the trail coming from the south or the Lamanite lowlands. In addition, the Manti strongholds would be most readily defended and accessed by the Nephite forces coming from the lowlands to the north as described by Helaman in Alma 56:13-15, 22 and 25.
A Viable Thesis
Doctoral research in Guatemala and the Yucatan of Mexico in 1974 and 1975 had demonstrated the viability of my earlier thesis that the Coban locality was accessed by the most important ancient Spanish and Maya transportation trail that connected the southern highlands with the Peten and Yucatan settlements far to the north. Now, with the Book of Mormon model in hand, I hypothesized that the ancient Maya trail system that passed through Coban was possibly identical with the book's primary trail route that passed through the mountain barrier at Manti connecting Zarahemla with Nephi.
If this correlation of Nephite Manti to Maya Coban was correct, I expected to identify an extensive fortification situated in the
Coban locality of the Alta Verapaz mountains of central Guatemala, the most strategic location in the northern highlands.
In order to demonstrate or refute this hypothesis, and not entirely certain of just how large such a fortification should be, I reasoned that if such fortifications once existed at that most strategic location on the Spanish/Maya Coban trail, they would be at least as large as the known ancient fortifications in Europe and the Near East. After some consideration I hypothesized that the Manti complex including fortifications and settlement area should cover between at least half of a square mile and at the most several square miles of terrain.
But what were those fortifications like 2,000 years ago? What should I be looking for? These were intriguing questions to me as I prepared for my journey.
The Fortified Strongholds
The book gives no description of the fortified strongholds at Manti. I thus hypothesized that the Manti fortifications would probably contain architectural structures similar to those at Noah and Ammonihah, contemporaneous Nephite strongholds that are carefully described in the Book of Mormon (see Alma Chapter 49). This appeared to be a viable assumption, since between 72 and 65 B.C. the Nephite leader, Moroni, had commissioned the development of numerous fortified complexes that included Noah, Ammonihah, and Manti.
Noah and Ammonihah are described as containing excavated ditches or trenches backed by "ridges of earth" and "places of retreat" (Alma 49:4, 11, 18-20) and probably also by log palisades upon which were erected pickets of timbers as described in Alma 50:1-4. Sheltered watch towers were also erected at crucial points along the walls overlooking the timber walls and trenches. In order for an attacking force to breach the wall, they would have to descend into the trench, then ascend the trench wall and scale the adjacent palisade wall and then mount the picket wall before dropping down into the protected inner compound. So formidable was the Nephite defensive system at Noah, that the Lamanite attacking force could not effectively scale the walls. They unsuccessfully attempted to dig under the wall while taking shelter within the meager protection afforded by the trench. The record simply states that the trenches were filled with their dead before the Lamanites abandoned the futile frontal assault (see Alma 49:22).
Their next and final abortive attack at Noah was launched down the "place of entry" or "pass" (Alma 49:20-22). This pass or entry was a restricted corridor fortified on both flanks by palisade walls and sometimes trenches. These passageways were used by the Nephites for access into the center of their strongholds. They were constructed as narrow fortified corridors so that a small force of armed Nephites could effectively take up a defensive position within the corridor and block enemy access into the interior of the fortification.
A second important aspect of the Nephite defensive system consisted of additional Nephite forces manning the walls above the narrow passageway. Thus, Lamanite attackers fighting within the confined passageway were completely exposed on three different fronts to the Nephite defenders stationed on the walls and blocking access within the corridor. The majority of the Nephite defenders, on the other hand, were shielded by the palisade and timber walls, and from those protected positions could direct a lethal cross-fire down on the exposed Lamanite columns. The text, in reference to the warfare at Noah, describes this situation and states that although the Lamanites were able to inflect grievous wounds on the unprotected lower legs of the Nephite defenders, the attacking force was systematically cut to pieces (see Alma 49:23-25).
Thus it was, in 1981, that my father, eldest son Greg and I traveled into the Guatemalan highlands near Coban to test the model. Armed with all of this information and all these diverse archaeological, geographical and military assumptions I started at the site best suited to contain the fortifications of ancient Manti. I began the project with the hope that the previous year's investment in defining the model of the Book of Mormon lands would prove viable; little could I imagine the results those early efforts would bring.