The Book of Mormon’s “Mother Culture” of the New World
The Book of Mormon’s “Mother Culture” of the New World
by Ted Dee Stoddard
Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum
Copyright © 2010
David Littlejohn, who writes articles about the West Coast for the Wall Street Journal, introduces his readers to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by saying, among other comments, “The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (‘LACMA,’ for those short of breath) is like no other museum I know. Its self-styled ‘encyclopedic’ collection is dispersed among eight buildings on a 20-acre ‘campus’ on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard. . . . The high, wide and handsome central section is currently given over to ‘Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico,’ an historic exhibition more than worthy of the space.”1
In a subsequent Journal article, Littlejohn says:
The name “Olmec” (or “rubber people”) was given to the oldest-known culture in the Americas almost 2,000 years after that culture had disappeared, and was accepted by scholars only in 1932. We have no idea what these people of what is now eastern Mexico, just inland from the Gulf at its southernmost point, called themselves. In fact, we know almost nothing about them, except that they seem to have endured from about 2,000 to 400 BC.
What we do know, or think we know, comes almost entirely from the carved stone monuments and other artifacts that outlived them underground, because stone does not rot. The first—one of those colossal heads for which the Olmec are famous—was found by a Mexican farmer in 1850 and made known to the world in 1869. Not until 1942 was it publicly asserted that the Olmec was the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica (i.e., Mexico plus Central America).
Seventeen huge heads (c. 1400–1000 BC) have been discovered so far, in four sites within a 90-mile range, measuring from just under five feet to just over 11 feet tall and weighing (it is estimated) as much as 50 tons. One archaeologist has figured that it took 1,500 people three or four months to move an appropriate boulder from its source in the mountains to its designated location. With presumably less effort, two of the smaller heads were hauled up from their homeland to Los Angeles, where they are the stars of the first major museum exhibition outside of Mexico devoted to the “people of Olman” and their art.
The two great heads are set up at the front and the back of the light-filled central space of the new Resnick Pavilion at LACMA. . . .
Large, deeply carved rectangular basalt blocks, long thought to be altars, are now regarded as thrones. Another impressive set of stone carvings represents creatures sitting cross-legged, resting their hands before them. Some wear loincloths, some elaborate headdresses. What they represent, I have no idea—but I find myself staring at them as they stare back at me, across 3,000 years. . . .
Glass cases are filled with carved stone masks and small figurines (usually tomb finds), carefully carved in minerals like jadeite and greenstone, as well as dozens of elongated ovoid polished ritual axes called “celts” (bloodletting was practiced, but not with these), as meticulously positioned in the cases as they were in the tombs.
This sunwashed show—which leaves welcome space between exhibits and extends into two side wings at the north—is enhanced by two colorful wall murals, in which contemporary artists have tried to reconstruct, in bright colors and enlarged dimensions, two long-faded cave paintings with Olmec motifs from elsewhere in Mexico.
If I had to choose a single exhibit to convey the mystery and power of this exhibition, it would be a group of 15 bald, high-headed jadeite and serpentine male figurines seven inches tall, all facing a leader-spokesman made of granite . . . who stands against a fence made of six 10-inch-long celts carved of serpentine. The wonder is that, once created and positioned, this whole group was carefully buried beneath many layers of multicolored sand at La Venta, sometime between 900 and 400 BC. Sometime later, it was uncovered and covered up again. In 1955, it was once again unearthed, and put on display in Mexico City. As with almost all Olmec art, no one has any idea what it means. But the 15 disciples still surround and attend to their leader, after 2,500 or 3,000 years.2
The Mother Culture of the New World
As Littlejohn points out, “Not until 1942 was it publicly asserted that the Olmec was the ‘mother culture’ of Mesoamerica.” That’s an eye-popping, startling statistic, as explained below.
From the vernacular of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the perspective of the Book of Mormon, we can say that the “mother culture” of the entire New World—not just Mesoamerica—is the Jaredites. As they were preparing to leave the Old World, the Lord said to the brother of Jared: “I will go before thee into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth. And there will I bless thee and thy seed, and raise up unto me of thy seed, and of the seed of thy brother, and they who shall go with thee, a great nation. And there shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth (Ether 1:42–43; emphasis added).
Once the Jaredites reached the New World, they began the process of fulfilling the words of the Lord. Many centuries later, Moroni, working from the plates known as the Book of Ether, describes the mother culture of the New World as follows:
And they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game. And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants.
And they were exceedingly industrious, and they did buy and sell and traffic one with another, that they might get gain.
And they did work in all manner of ore, and they did make gold, and silver, and iron, and brass, and all manner of metals; and they did dig it out of the earth; wherefore they did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper. And they did work all manner of fine work.
And they did have silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all manner of cloth, that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness.
And they did make all manner of tools to till the earth, both to plow and to sow, to reap and to hoe, and also to thrash.
And they did make all manner of tools with which they did work their beasts.
And they did make all manner of weapons of war. And they did work all manner of work of exceedingly curious workmanship.
And never could be a people more blessed than were they, and more prospered by the hand of the Lord. And they were in a land that was choice above all lands, for the Lord had spoken it. (Ether 10:21–28)
Clearly, Moroni’s words fit the description of a “high civilization”—one just like that required for the mother culture of the New World. Other than the Olmec culture, nowhere else in the New World do we find evidence of a culture that fits the Book of Mormon dates and high-civilization requirements for the Jaredites. From reading Ether 10, we can feel the essence of the high civilization of the Jaredites. The specifics of that high civilization in a listed form are worth noting:
They “did build up many cities upon the face of the land” (Ether 10:4).
They “spread over all the face of the land” (Ether 10:4).
They “did build many spacious buildings” (Ether 10:5).
They “built up many cities, and the people became exceedingly rich” (Ether 10:12).
“They were exceedingly industrious, and they did buy and sell and traffic one with another, that they might get gain” (Ether 10:22).
“They did work in all manner of ore, and they did make gold, and silver, and iron, and brass, and all manner of metals; and they did dig it out of the earth” (Ether 10:23).
“They did have silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all manner of cloth, that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness” (Ether 10:24).
“They did make all manner of tools to till the earth, both to plow and to sow, to reap and to hoe, and also to thrash” (Ether 10:25).
“They did make all manner of tools with which they did work their beasts” (Ether 10:26).
“They did make all manner of weapons of war” (Ether 10:27).
“They did work all manner of work of exceedingly curious workmanship” (Ether 10:27).
Using the Book of Mormon as a guide, if we were to look for the territory of the mother culture of the New World, as described by Moroni, we would look in the land northward of the Book of Mormon. In the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography, the land northward is exactly where Littlejohn identifies as the territory of the Olmecs—“eastern Mexico, just inland from the Gulf at its southernmost point.”
Lengthy article after lengthy article could be written about the correlations between the Jaredites and the Olmecs as the mother culture of the New World.3 This short article is intended to make readers aware of the Olmec exhibit, as described by David Littlejohn, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to draw attention to the following attendant observations:
Ineptness of Anti–Book of Mormon Critics
The anti–Book of Mormon critics from 1830 to 1940 really goofed because of their ineptness. That is, they failed to recognize the potential bombshell contained in the Book of Mormon associated with the Jaredites. Until the 1940s, the entire scientific world maintained that the Maya were the mother culture of Mexico. That changed in the 1940s when the Olmec civilization, a high-civilization culture equivalent to that of the Maya, was brought to light by archaeologists.
The critics between 1830 and the 1940s would have pulled off a religious anti–Mormon coup if they had said something like the following: “Joseph Smith’s fabricated story of the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon is false. There’s no evidence in the New World of two high civilizations—the first one preceding the other by hundreds of years. Joseph Smith really flubbed this one when he maintained that one New World civilization—presumably the greatest civilization ever to exist to that point—began at the time of the Tower of Babel. Everyone knows that the mother race of the New World is the Maya, and they certainly don’t go back as far as Babel.”
As Joseph L. Allen puts it:
I now speak to critics of the Book of Mormon. From the outset of its publication in 1830, anti–Book of Mormon critics evidently lacked the intellectual expertise and knowledge to challenge the validity of the book based on its unstated but obvious claim that the mother culture of the Americas was a culture that predated the Maya by hundreds of years. With that claim now confirmed by twentieth-century archaeology and Mesoamerican historical records, if such critics of today were truly honest, they would apologize for their attacks and for their failure to study the Book of Mormon carefully enough to recognize its unstated but sensational claim that the Maya were not the mother culture of the New World.4
Perhaps through divine intervention, the Lord had something to do with early anti–Mormon critics’ failures to recognize that the Book of Mormon is concerned with two high civilizations in the New World. The LACMA exhibit gives many Americans their first opportunity to view examples of the artifacts of the first of those New World high civilizations—the Olmecs, an obvious candidate for the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon.
Lackadaisical Attitude of Latter-day Saint Archaeologists and Religious Educators
Book of Mormon scholars—especially Latter-day Saint archaeologists and religious educators—have failed to capitalize appropriately on the implications of the Olmec civilization. For example, when critics try to point out that nothing has been found archaeologically in the New World to support the Book of Mormon, they intentionally or unintentionally forget about the Olmecs. In that respect, the archaeological discovery of the Olmec civilization within the lifetime of most senior-citizen members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly remarkable because of the attendant archaeological, historical, and cultural support the Olmec civilization gives to the Book of Mormon.
Frankly, the time has come for Latter-day Saint scholars, especially archaeologists and religious educators, to capitalize on the contributions the Olmec culture makes to the authenticity of the messages of the Book of Mormon. Nothing archaeologically in the New World supports the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a real account about real people more than the correlations between the Olmecs of Mesoamerica and the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon.
Dates of the Olmec and Jaredite Cultures
The discovery of the Olmec culture and the fact that the dates of the Jaredites match so precisely the dates of the Olmecs almost coincide with the nature of a divine miracle—or at least the guidance of divine providence in inspiring Moroni to include the book of Ether among the records that Joseph Smith translated. But the fact that the world of archaeology now supports the birth and total demise of the New World’s mother race at essentially the equivalent times claimed for that birth and demise of the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon is even more miraculous—an outcome that was probably not anticipated even by Joseph Smith himself. From the perspective of the anti–Book of Mormon critics, Joseph made a lucky guess in indicating the dates of the Jaredite civilization.
From the perspective of the Book of Mormon, however, Joseph Smith indeed translated the golden plates by the gift and power of God—exactly as he claimed. And from the perspective of radiocarbon dating, we are justified in claiming that the Olmec-Jaredite cultures are one and the same and therefore are the mother cultures of the entire New World.
Outcomes of Olmec-Jaredite Correlations
Year by year, we’re discovering additional Olmec evidences that support the Book of Mormon—with the outcome that many of the correlations between the Olmecs and the Jaredites as the mother culture of the New World are simply astounding. We know where the Olmecs lived in Mesoamerica. If the Olmecs and the Jaredites are the same culture, we therefore know definitively where the Jaredites lived. That knowledge is especially intriguing when applied to the following statement: “Based on my reading of the Book of Mormon, if you can show me where the Jaredites lived, I’ll easily be able to show you where the Nephites lived.”
Clearly, the first piece of the territorial puzzle of Book of Mormon geography has been resolved by the discovery of the Olmecs as the mother culture of the New World. In the geography of the Book of Mormon, the Jaredites lived predominantly in the land northward near a narrow neck of land. In the geography of the New World, the Olmecs lived in Mesoamerica at the top of and west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—the only tenable New World candidate for the Book of Mormon’s narrow neck of land.
The ultimate witness that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be is the testimony of its truthfulness via the Spirit (see Moroni 10:4–5). At the same time, perhaps no logical, scholarly, archaeological, cultural, or historical evidence supports the Book of Mormon’s claim to validity as much as the twentieth-century discovery of the Olmec culture in Mexico. We should be fascinated with the strong correlations between the Olmecs of Mexico and the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon. Some of the most intriguing correlations between the Olmecs and the Jaredites are the following:
Both cultures enjoyed a high civilization during the same time period.
Both collapsed in a violent internal struggle at the same time.
Both were said to have come from the great tower at the time the languages were confounded.
Both were described as physically large people.
Both developed a writing system on large stones with literary similarities.
The regions occupied by both have matching geographical features, including an isthmus and a gulf.
Both are described as the greatest nation upon the earth during the archaic time period of their existence.
Both evidence a form of government that was dominated by dynasties of kings.5
The Olmec “Precious Stones” of the LACMA Exhibit
Among the Olmec artifacts uncovered in Mexico are great numbers of what are frequently referred to as “precious stones.” Littlejohn alludes to one such example in the LACMA exhibit when he refers to “a group of 15 bald, high-headed jadeite and serpentine male figurines seven inches tall, all facing a leader-spokesman made of granite . . . who stands against a fence made of six 10-inch-long celts carved of serpentine.” Those who have visited Mexico and have seen Olmec art exhibits containing such precious-stone artifacts are typically awed by the beauty of the carved-jade objects, which are highly prized among collectors of Olmec art.
When the Spanish conquistadors conquered Mexico in the sixteenth century, the natives were amazed that the Spanish preferred gold artifacts to the precious-stone artifacts of Mesoamerica. In writing his account of the conquest, The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz makes frequent references to the precious stones of the natives, including “precious blue stones,”6 which is an apt description of the blue jade of Mesoamerica that was mined, traded, and treasured by the Olmecs.
In several instances, the Book of Mormon alludes to “precious things” associated with the cultures of the people (see, for example, Mosiah 22:12, Alma 31:28, Helaman 12:2, and Ether 9:17). In one instance, the language of “precious stones” is used when the sons of Mosiah went on their missionary sojourn among the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. Mormon tells us that the Lamanites’ “hearts were set upon . . . gold and silver, and precious stones” (Alma 17:14).
The points of this discussion are (1) that the Book of Mormon frequently uses “precious things” and, on one occasion, “precious stones” in describing the treasures of the people, (2) that the cultures of Mesoamerica likewise revered “precious things” and “precious stones” as an indication of the accumulation of wealth, and (3) that any proposed New World location for the lands of the Book of Mormon must take into account the presence of “precious things” and “precious stones” as a distinctive feature of the mother culture of the New World.
The Olmecs, as the mother culture of the New World, were especially intrigued with precious stones, including the distinctive blue jade that was an identifying earmark of their culture. However, not until near the end of the twentieth century were archaeologists successful in locating the jade mines used by the Olmecs. Those “precious-stone mines” are located in the Motagua valley of Guatemala, resulting in a re-emergence of jade artwork in Mesoamerica and extending the cultural influence of the Olmecs deep into the land southward of the Book of Mormon.
A comparison of the Olmec precious stones of the LACMA exhibit with the precious-things and precious-stones terminology of the Book of Mormon should be enough to convince readers of the Book of Mormon that Mesoamerica has much to offer as the location of the lands and events of the Book of Mormon. As the mother culture, the Olmecs-Jaredites probably initiated the cultural reverence for precious things and precious stones in the New World.
Flaws of the Heartland Model for Book of Mormon Geography
One among many of the major flaws of the Heartland Model for Book of Mormon geography, which proposes that all the New World lands of the Book of Mormon are located in the Eastern United States, is the lack of a high civilization that matches the land-northward location and dates for the Jaredites. Geographically correct land-northward territory for the Heartland Model must place the land northward in Canada, where no evidence of any consequence exists for a mother culture of the New World. If the Olmecs are the Jaredites, the evidence is overwhelming that the New World lands of the Book of Mormon are located in Mesoamerica rather than in the continental United States and southern Canada.
Failure to recognize this fact on the part of proponents of the Heartland Model is a singular travesty that these proponents must come to grips with if they have any intention of going down in Latter-day Saint Church history as true Book of Mormon scholars. Indeed, because of the Olmecs as the mother culture of the New World, such statements as the following have merit in comparisons of the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model:
1. Show me where the Jaredites lived, and I can easily use the geographic pointers of the Book of Mormon to locate the territories of the Nephites and Lamanites.
2. If you have found the Book of Mormon land northward of the Jaredites, you unequivocally will be able to identify the Book of Mormon land southward of the Nephites and Lamanites.
3. The only place in the entire New World that reflects a high civilization comparable to that of the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon is in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Tabasco of Mexico where the Olmecs predominantly lived.
4. Because the Olmecs of Mesoamerica and the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon are the mother culture of the New World, the Book of Mormon hill Ramah where the last great battle of the Jaredites took place is unquestionably in Mesoamerica rather than in upstate New York.
5. The Book of Mormon is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the New World. The Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica, as the mother race of the entire New World and as a valid candidate for the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon, gives me a precise orientation to that “somewhere”—Mesoamerica.
Whenever possible, readers of the Book of Mormon should visit the Olmec exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—“the first major museum exhibition outside of Mexico devoted to the ‘people of Olman’ and their art.”
From my perspective, no evidence—other than a personal witness of truth from the Spirit—is stronger in support of the messages of the Book of Mormon than are the correlations of the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica with the Jaredite culture of the Book of Mormon—both functioning as the mother culture of the New World.
1. David Littlejohn, “Nice Wing, Pity about the Art,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article
2. David Littlejohn, “Mysteries Carved in Stone,” Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article
3. For example, see the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum Web site article by Joseph L. Allen, “The Jaredites and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” www.bmaf.org/conference/2009/joe_allen, and the BMAF Web site article by Douglas Christensen, “The Olmecs, the Jaredites and the Origins of Quetzalcoatl,” www.bmaf.org/articles/olmecs_jaredites_quetzalcoatl.
4. Allen, “The Jaredites and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” (accessed November 23, 2010); emphasis added.
5. See Allen, “The Jaredites and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”
6. See Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, J. M. Cohen, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 236 ff.