Stela 31 from Tikal

Transcript of the September 2003 BMAF Conference held at Thanksgiving Point

Stela 31 from Tikal

Ryan Williams

Brigham Young said, “If we have not had the privilege to read the scriptures as though we were there, it’s our privilege to do so.”  I think that’s the privilege we have here, today.  We have the privilege to imagine that we were there when the scriptures were written.  We participated in the events and we understood everything that was going on, not just today but for the rest of our lives.  I hope that we can always remember that, that we can try and read the Book of Mormon, and always keep in mind this is an actual history, and to look at the beautiful insights and the things that occurred in these people’s lives.  We look forward for the chance to meet these people in a future day.  I think that’s exciting. It’s also an exciting day that we live in, and we’ll get to that at the end of the session today.  What I want to talk about first is, if I were to give everybody in this room a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a copy of the Book of Mormon, and say – go ahead and make an internal map of the Book of Mormon, just completely based on what you find in that scripture, and don’t let anything influence you from the outside – there would still be differences in our maps.  We’re not going to come up with a perfect map.  We’re going to interpret verses differently.  There are some that are open, that are subjective, and that you just cannot come up with a conclusive perfect map, based just upon the verses there.

With that being said, what we have to do is look at the Book of Mormon and say, let’s establish a set of criteria.  What does the Book of Mormon require of the area where it took place?  Then, let’s compare those criteria and find a location that meets those criteria, then it gives us an advantage.  Once we’ve done that, if we have an area now that meets those criteria, we can start comparing the geography and see if there’s a possible fit, rather than trying to completely come up with a perfect fit internally.  Let’s talk about four different criteria. The first one is actually what we’re going to focus on during the whole conference, the theme of which is the language of the Book of Mormon.  We know that there was a written language in the Book of Mormon.  Why?  Because we have an actual written record.  We know how the people in the book knew how to write.   We would expect to find evidence of a written language in the places where the Book of Mormon people lived.  The only place in all of the Americas where we find evidence of a written language that dates to the time period of the Book of Mormon, specifically during the time period of the Nephites, 600 B.C. to about 421 A.D., is in Mesoamerica.  When I say Mesoamerica, we mean southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.  Mesoamerica means not only the area but also the time frame before the time of the Spanish conquest, as well.

The second criterion is the archaeological evidence.  We would expect to find evidence of large city-centers in the area where it took place, not only that dates to the Nephite time period, but all the back through the Jaredite times: as far back as 2500 B.C.  What’s particularly interesting when you check out the Jaredite time period, because it’s very difficult to find evidence of large city-centers that date that far back.  Overwhelmingly, the largest archaeological sites are found in Mesoamerica.  We do find some small sites in North and South America.  I’m not saying there aren’t any sites because there are; but not large, full-blown civilizations, such as we find with the Olmecs, the Mayans, the Zapotecs, and other groups that lived in Mesoamerica.  There are a lot of fun things we could talk about relative to this second criterion.

Thirdly, is the category of oral or historical traditions.  We would expect that the people would know some of the stories and events, and that these stories would have been carried down through the ages in their literature, story-telling or whatever.  We’ve had some examples that have been shared with today, already, and it is a fun topic to get into.  We find great oral histories in Mesoamerica that correlate with Book of Mormon events.

The fourth one is the geographical evidence, and the reason it is the last is, because once you find a region, such as Mesoamerica, that meets the first three criteria, then you can start comparing and say, let’s see if the geography fits.  Again, we are somewhat limited in our geographic description from the scripture itself; but there is a lot of information there.  It helps to see if the description from the scripture fits with the land forms.

I’ve been assigned a topic today of Tikal, Stela 31.   Tikal is an archaeological site in the lowland Petén jungle of northern Guatemala.  In Book of Mormon terms, many scholars feel that area is a possible candidate for a fortified city of the East Wilderness.  When I say that, I mean the wilderness east of the city of Zarahemla.  There are a lot of reasons why that is the case.  But, let’s turn first to the scripture and talk about an event that took place in the East Wilderness that sets the stage here.  Let’s turn to Alma, chapter 46, the last three verses, verses 39 to 41..  We have here an interesting passage that takes place in the East Wilderness, which is in the general area where the site of Tikal is located.   I’m not going to go into detail about chiasmus, but this is one example; and I think it teaches a neat message, in regard to the East Wilderness, and how we can gain a spiritual insight based on an understanding of the setting of things. 

On my mission, I served in Guatemala, actually in the Petén, where Tikal is located.  Before I went on my mission, I was interested in these verses because I thought I wanted to study the rain forest for the medicinal plants that is here talked about.  In fact, I was so intrigued by it that there was a biology professor Cox at BYU, who was very well known for the research he’s done on the medicinal value of plants in the rain forest.  I was so excited, I used to sit in on the class with my sister, because I wasn’t enrolled , but to just listen to him talk.  The movie “Medicine Man” was based on him.  He was so excited about teaching that he’d dress up as a bumblebee and go through the Smith Building pollinating plants.  You get the idea – he’s pretty excited about what he does. 

So, I used to like these verses because I thought that’s what I wanted to do.  These verses are neat, because they’re teaching us the value of these plants.   These last verses are written in chiasmus.  For those who are not aware of chiasmus, it’s the literary form where the first line of a passage and the last line say the same thing.  Then the second line and the second-to-last line say the same thing.  Obviously, this is a very simplified explanation, but, basically, you’re drawing emphasis to the center of the passage.  Whatever that center passage is, is what you’re supposed to be focused on.  In these last three verses it does just that.

Verse 39, “And it came to pass that there were many who died, firmly believing that their souls were redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ; thus they went out of the world rejoicing.  And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land—but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remover the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate—but thee were many who died with old age; and those who died in the faith of Christ are happy in him, as we must needs suppose.” 

When you read those verses, you can see how it does correspond;  he told us the value of these plants.  But, when you start looking at the chiasmus format, you see in verse 39 where it mentions that they died in Christ with joy.  It then tells us the exact same thing at the end.  In the next verse, it says that many died with fevers that in some seasons were frequent.  The second-to-last statement says that the diseases to which men were subject were due to the nature of the climate.  It’s a repetition of the second verse.  What’s the middle of the chiasm?  The middle passage of this particular chiasm is “God prepared roots and plants to remove the causes of disease to which we’re subject due to the nature of the climate."  That’s what he’s trying to draw emphasis to, the main purpose of these verses. 

I thought it was interesting that when I went on my mission to that area that is proposed as the East Wilderness where these verses take place, I had a run-in with an unfriendly mosquito which sent me to the hospital with malaria.  Then I thought, now I really understand what these verses are talking about.  Now I understand season of fevers that are mentioned.  I really like these verses now, because I can relate to them.  But, I had no idea what these verses were actually talking about.  It wasn’t until I started working with Dr. Joe Allen that I realized that there may be a whole different message being talked about here that is greater than anything I’d looked at before.  And, I don’t think even now we’d recognize it until we looked at the chiasmic format of these verses. 

If you look at the middle of the chiasm, God prepared something to remove the causes of diseases to which we’re subject due to the nature of the climate.  We’re subject to two things here on this earth: We’re subject to death and to sin – the same two things that were mentioned at the beginning and end of the passage.  But, what God had prepared for us was his Son, our Savior, to remove the causes of those diseases.  Through him, we can overcome both those things.  I think that is the actual message that’s being taught here.  And, why it’s exciting is that it directs us to the atonement.  The Fall of Man, then in the center is the Atonement of Christ, then the end – Eternal Life. 

I don’t think there is anything in the Book of Mormon that doesn’t teach a spiritual message.  The scribes didn’t have enough room; they weren’t going to put anything on the plates that was of no value.  I know that sounds extreme sometimes, but when you see something that appears to be not spiritual, start looking at it because it’s a clue that there is probably something deeper there.  One of the great messages of the Book of Mormon is that everything points toward the Atonement.  That’s what the learning of the Jews is, so that everything in the Book of Mormon is going to point toward Christ.  And that’s exactly what’s going on with these three verses. 

Now, to make a transition, because this obviously isn’t about Stela 31, nor does it have anything to do with Stela 31, other than this is the very region where Stela 31 was found.  The exciting thing about today, is that archaeologists can now read a lot of the hieroglyphics found on stelae and walls.  They can translate a large portion of them.  Unfortunately, most of what is deciphered comes from the Classic time period.  When I say Classic, I need to explain.  When we talk about the Mayans, we talk about three different time periods:  the Pre-classic, Classic, and Post-classic.  The Pre-classic is from 250 A.D. and earlier, the time period we’re most interested in because it dates to most of the Book of Mormon period.  The Classic period runs from approximately 250 A.D. up to 850 – 900 A.D, when the Mayan civilization starts to decline.  The Post-classic, then, goes from roughly 850 A.D. up to the time of the Spanish conquest, about 1520 A.D.   Most of the decipherable hieroglyphics come from the Classic time period, almost all after the time of the Book of Mormon.  But, when did I say the Classic period started?  250 A.D.  When does the Book of Mormon end?  421 A.D.  So, there is some overlap.  So, there is a little bit of Book of Mormon history that does go into the Classic period.  We now have monuments that can be read that do deal with that early Classic time period.  Stela 31 from Tikal is such an example.  It gets into the history starting back around 317 A.D.  Do you realize how early that is?  I think that’s exciting.  317 A.D. is three years before Mormon was given charge of the records.  So, we’re definitely into Book of Mormon time period.  It wasn’t until 320 A.D. that  he even had his hands on the records. This stela provides a long history that is very detailed and can be confusing.  I’m not going through the whole history, but I want to hit on a few key dates and events that took place, based on the history written on that stone, and we’ll also talk a little of what was going on in the Book of Mormon at that same time.  Then, we’ll close by talking a little about Moroni and the fulfillment of some revelation.

You’ll laugh when you hear these names, because they are kind of different.  This (slide) is one glyph from Stela 31.  These glyphs are quite small, in several columns, and they can be read.  As has been mentioned, the glyphs are phonetic, so you read the glyph phonetically, then you translate it according to the Mayan language that is still spoken today to get a definition as to what it means.  In this case, this is the name of a great ruler, called Great Jaguar Paw, because that’s what the glyph looks like, named before the glyph was deciphered.  That’s the case with a lot of glyphs, the people would be named before the glyphs were actually deciphered, and the names have stuck.  So, at times, things will be confusing because we’ll hear different names for the same person – the recently translated name or the original.

In this case, he was a ruler – it shows the year 317 A.D. associated with his name.  That date (information taken from archaeologist David Stuart of Harvard), either represents his birth or the date that he ascended to the throne as ruler over Tikal.  So, he either became the king of Tikal, or he was born on 317, and then later became king.  We know that he died on January 16, 378 A.D.  That’s exciting again! Can you believe how specific the archaeologists can get?  With recent discoveries, they can get right to the day of the month  when events happened.  In his case, not only does it tell us that he died mysteriously on that date, but it also tells us some other interesting things.  This may sound kind of strange in the beginning, but we’ll tie it back together at the end. 

The stela tells us that two other rulers showed up on that same day that he mysteriously died.  One was named Curled Snout, which actually translated is First Crocodile.  He is probably in his early teens on that date when he shows up in Tikal.  He is made the new ruler the same day that First Crocodile dies.  He isn’t officially installed as the new ruler until a year later, at the time of the new year, but he actually becomes the new ruler of Tikal when very young.  The person who is with him is called Smoking Frog, according to what the glyph looks like, but when translated is Fire is Born.  Smoking Frog appears to be the military leader who has brought this young man to be the new king.  He appears to be the one who assassinated Jaguar Paw, the former ruler of Tikal.  Well, where did they come from?  Who are they? 
David Stuart believes they came from Teotihuacán.   This comes from several clues: emblems that are found, architectural style of clothing, a lot of different reasons.  He thinks they came from Teotihuacán in central Mexico.  He thinks that First Crocodile, the one who becomes the new king, is the son of the ruler at Teotihuacán.  The king of Teotihuacán is a glyph that they have not yet  deciphered, so they have named him what his glyph looks like, Spear-thrower Owl.  Teotihuacán is a long ways from Tikal – in Book of Mormon terms, up in the Land Northward.  He has sent his young son, along with a military leader.  They have assassinated the ruler at Tikal and placed the son in as the new ruler even though he was very young.  This story is contemporary with people that  we’re reading about in the Book of Mormon.   320 AD is when Mormon first begins workon the record.  From about 326 AD up until about 350AD (when the treaty with the Lamanites is made) , there is constant war between the Nephites and Lamanites.  In 350 A.D. a significant event happens in the Book of Mormon.  The Nephites lose the Land Southward – that’s Zarahemla, Bountiful, the East Wilderness, the Land of Nephi (although they hadn’t lived there for a long time), everything in the Land Southward.  It says they made a treaty in which they got the lands of their inheritance divided.  That treaty wasn’t just with the Lamanites. 

It is said, if you want to know where the events took place, where the children of Lehi are, look at the fulfillment of prophecy.  If you look at the fulfillment of prophecy, you’ll know exactly where these events took place.  He says, I know that the Lamanites have already blossomed as a rose.   They have received the gospel.  You can see the growth of the Church that is taking place in those places.  Not just in Mexico, but throughout all Latin America.  I think that is the Lamanites blossoming as the rose.  People will say, what about the Indians in South America?  President Hinckley has stated in dedicatory prayers throughout South America, “Let the shackles of darkness fall from their eyes as they see the light of the gospel.”  I love that statement.  It teaches us a lot.  He talks about them as being children of Lehi.  You could say the same thing about them as being the children of Christ.  Just like, earlier in the Book of Mormon, when people decide they’re not going to be distinguished anymore by whom they descended from, but they are going to be distinguished by – those who followed Christ and those who didn’t.  The same thing is taking place today. 

If you want to know who the children of Lehi are, they are the modern converts to the Church in Latin America.  They are the ones who have chosen to follow Christ.  And that is what President Hinckley is saying.  He’s saying, let the shackles of darkness fall from their eyes.  It’s a spiritual statement.  Let them see the light of the gospel.  If you want to talk about who they are just on bloodlines, it can be quite tricky, as there is a lot of mixture.  The question of DNA came up earlier, and obviously there are a lot of things that we don’t understand.  We look at the Book of Mormon often, according to our own cultural leanings, and because of that we start making assumptions that may be proved wrong, and hen we have a hard time understanding why such and such is so.  The reason I say that is one such example is the idea that if you show some DNA from Asia, for example, people wonder how that shows up in the Americas. 

The problem is that many people think that there was not one other soul here when the Lehites landed. Archaeologically speaking, there were definitely many other peoples here.  There were people here prior to 600 B.C.  We know there were Jaredites and possibly others; likely others, archaeologically speaking.  The Jaredites, themselves, probably didn’t completely die off until close to 200 – 300 B.C.  And there were Olmec people in that same region.  There may have been offshoots of the main civilization of the Jaredites.

What we have to ask ourselves, knowing that there were other peoples here when Lehi and his family arrived, does the Book of Mormon allow for that?  I think it does.  In fact, it almost requires that other people were here.  Let me give you one example:  Who is Sherem?   Remember, the Nephite church leader at the time is Jacob.  Sherem comes into the land and he’s never met Jacob before.  He knows of him, but he’s never met him.  So, who is this Sherem?  Sherem also knows the scriptures but he doesn’t believe in Christ.  He’s angry with Jacob for teaching the people new things.  He flatters the people because he knows their language.  Well, this is shortly after the Nephites have arrived, and it’s basically a small family organization.  If it’s just Jacob’s family that Jacob is teaching new things to, what is Sherem upset about?  The new thing is Christ.  Why doesn’t he know about Christ?  Why don’t these people know about Christ?  Why is Jacob teaching people about Christ and they’ve never heard of it; it is a new thing.  And why doesn’t he know who Sherem is?  And why does Sherem use much flattery with the people because he knows their language?  Does that mean that Jacob doesn’t?  I don’t know if we know enough to be able to say that for sure, but it almost sounds that way.  It almost sounds that Sherem is more fluent in the language of the people than Jacob is.  Now, he could be a Jaredite, or he could be from a totally different group.  It’s been less than 50 years since their arrival, so it would be difficult for Jacob not to know all the people and their descendants from the original colony. 

Where the Lehite colony was supposed to have arrived would have had Olmec people living in that area.  There is an interesting thing in the Book of Mormon.  During the Jaredite times, about 1000 B.C., we’re told about poisonous serpents that infested the land.  This was so bad that they chased the flocks into the Land Southward.  That’s kind of a strange concept, these animals being chased by these serpents all the way to the Land Southward.  What do flocks represent?  Poisonous serpents were later called ‘secret combinations’.  Secret combinations infested the land and the flocks were chased into the Land Southward.  I think you have a righteous group of Jaredites (possibly the Olmecs) who migrated away.  They leave about that time period.  Archaeologically, we see it at the same period – people migrating into that region.  Olmecs (or Jaredite types) pop up all along the Guatemalan Pacific coast, from where the Lehites probably landed, down to the area proposed as the city of Nephi right at that time period.  They were already there when Lehi and his family arrived.  You have a righteous group of Jaredites placed right in the area where they could have the gospel preached to them.  That makes sense to me.  The gospel is going to be taken where it can be shared.  The Jaredites receive the gospel, and Jaredite (Olmec) influence also shows up in the Nephites.

This happened about 600 B.C., then this is several hundred years before the Nephites migrate and meet the Mulekites.  When Nephi leaves the land of their inheritance and ventures up into the wilderness, he tells us everybody by name who will go with him when he separates from his brethren to migrate to the land of Nephi.  Besides those whom we know by name, he also includes, “and all those who would go with me.”  Who does that refer to?  Not the children that might have been born.  They’re not going to make their own decisions; they’re going to go with their parents.  ‘All those who would go with him,’ I think, are referring to those people who would have already been in the area when they arrived.
One of the reasons that Mormon’s Nephites were exterminated is that they were caught between two groups, the Teotihuacanos and the Lamanites, who were apparently allies.  On the Book of Mormon end, it’s interesting to look at what Moroni gives us, in that it was a fulfillment of prophecy.  Now, Moroni, the last of the Nephite writers, and who revealed the Book of Mormon plates to Joseph Smith, is now seeing the results of his desire – the bringing of the gospel to the peoples of Mesoamerica.  Mexico, alone, has over one million members and 12 temples.  He is overlooking that work throughout the world today.  That’s an exciting aspect.
The more we learn of archaeological meanings, possibly names of rulers, etc., the more we might be able to have the Spirit bear witness of the principles we’ve learned from the Book of Mormon.  You might be able to convince someone that the Book of Mormon is true solely based on these types of demonstrations, but they still wouldn’t have a testimony of faith or repentance or charity.  These would only come if they apply the principles to their lives, and that the Spirit can bear witness.  But, if we can do something that can get them interested enough to read and allow that to start to happen, then I think that is still a worthy objective.


Williams. Ryan