Diane Wirth 2008



by Diane E. Wirth ©



When Lehi and his party came to the New World, their descendants continued the tradition of their forefathers in the Old World with regard to genealogy.  Old Testament writings prove the Hebrews were dedicated to genealogical record keeping. They were in fact renowned for it, and so it was with the Book of Mormon writers. In fact, their lineage was extremely important to them.

In First Nephi, Chapter 1 Verse 1, Nephi expresses that he was "born of goodly parents," and proceeds to speak of his father Lehi.  Jarom writes his account in order that his family's "genealogy may be kept" (Jarom 1), and his son, Omni, writes upon the plates "to preserve our genealogy" (Omni 1).

The Nephites also had in their possession the brass plates of Laban, which Nephi obtained in Jerusalem before their voyage.  These records are said to contain the genealogy of their fathers, perhaps even back to Adam (1 Nephi 6:10-14; Alma 37:3). Lehi’s detailed genealogy is no doubt recorded in the other plates that Nephi made, the large plates that we don’t have. He wrote in 1 Nephi 19:2: “And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates.”

Genealogy of the Mulekites was also written, but is not contained in the plates translated in the portion we have of the Book of Mormon.  Originally the Mulekites kept no records, but repeated their genealogy from memory.  When their people combined with the Nephites under the rule of Mosiah, the Nephites took it upon themselves to write the genealogical records for these people they discovered living in Zarahemla (Omni 18).

The Jaredites were the predecessors of the Nephites and Lamanites, and they too were excellent record keepers of their genealogy as is attested to in the first chapter of the Book of Ether.  The prophet Ether traces his lineage through many generations back to the son of Jared, who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel incident when their people commenced their voyage to the Western Hemisphere. Many LDS archaeologists believe the Jaredites correspond to the Olmec culture in Mesoamerica.

Since ancestors were extremely important to the Book of Mormon people, they were consequently important to the inhabitants of Mesoamerica, where most LDS scholars surmise the locale where their story took place. In pre-Columbian times, royalty were buried in special sacred places, like this one of Pakal’s tomb at Palenque. (Use Pointer) Pyramids were sometimes named nah in Mayan, which means “house,” and often named after a specific ancestor. Sometimes funerary-temple pyramids were called “lineage mountains,” or “lineage houses.” If members of royalty weren’t buried in a pyramid, they were buried close by, usually on temple grounds.

  In Pre-Columbian times, commoners who were not of royal blood, were buried under the floor of their descendants’ houses. After the Conquest, they followed the Christian practice of burying their families in cemeteries. Today, every year in Mexico they have what they call the Day of the Dead, which just happens to be around Halloween. They honor their ancestors with flowers, candles, food, and pictures. This can be at the cemetery, like this picture, or at their home.

Among the Mesoamerican community the dead were never forgotten. They truly believed their ancestors maintained an invisible communication with the living. This outlook stemmed from their belief that death was not the end, but a beginning. The living drew power from the past through their ancestors.

For the Mesoamerican native, even today, dying is merely leaving this world to inhabit another, while the soul lives on in anticipation of the resurrection. But, they also believe the deceased parents can help and influence their descendants on earth.

Anciently, the people showed veneration towards their ancestors carved in stone. Here are two examples: one of a deceased Olmec ancestor from Stela 3 at La Venta, Tabasco, and another of a Maya ancestral figure on Stela 4 from Ucanal, Guatemala. They are different than other pictures of people we see--they float, and they are usually in the top register of the illustration. On the example below, the Maya figure rests in a lying down S curve outlined with dots. This type of S curve in Mesoamerican art represents clouds. In the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, they still refer to their ancestors as “old people of the clouds.” The dots are droplets of blood or water. If blood it would represent lineage from an ancestor, and if water, it would represent fertility, which is the same line of thinking. Similar dotted chains associated with hieroglyphs are translated to read, “of noble blood” or “descendant.”

  Ancestral figures were not always shown in a floating position, but usually in the top register, which is a prominent place in the heavenly realms. On Stela 10 at Yaxchilan, there is under the ancestral couple a double-headed serpent with sky symbols on its body [Use Pointer—Venus, Sky]. The ancestral parents in their cartouches above, even though dead, are animated and are considered alive to their descendants.

In the Book of Mormon, the main genealogical concern appears to be with the Nephite ruling lines.  Ruling lines in Mesoamerica, after the close of the Book of Mormon period, are significant in that they are the ones recorded in stone and in the codices (accordion-like picture books). The Zapotec, who lived in the Valley of Mexico in Oaxaca, called their codices “paper of old lineage people,” or simply, “paper of my ancestors.” In addition, they had figurines of their ancestors which the Spanish invaders considered idols. They had those figurines in their homes—just as we have photographs of our family. They called these figurines, “Old people of the clouds.”

  Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. has a stucco-carved panel of the deceased, but not resurrected, K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II of Palenque, who was named after an ancestor. To his right (that’s our left) is his mother, Lady Tz’ak-Ahaw, and to his left (our right) is his father, the great king  Pakal of Palenque. This tablet illustrates the importance of family lineage by using ancestral portraits. The mother holds a figure of what Mayanists refer to as God K or K’awil, identified by a  serpent leg and smoking celt in its forehead [Use Pointer]. Although the objects held by the parents may appear grotesque to our way of thinking, they were meaningful to the Maya. The deity, God K, was associated with lineage and was the guardian of human descendants and especially of royal ancestry. 

The father figure to our right, King Pakal, holds what is regarded as a personified tree [Use Pointer]. I know it doesn’t look like a tree to us, but the Maya had a way of making it look like something they could relate to because trees have spirits and are alive to their way of thinking. As we shall see, trees are a prominent emblem associated with ancestry among the cultures of  Mesoamerica, the Book of Mormon people, and to the ancient cultures of the Middle East where they came from.

This type of illustration, in this slide, was important to the Maya because it concerns genealogical rights to rulership. Mentioning ancestors, created a link to the past, which gave the individual the right to rule and the inheritance of power.

  With an emphasis of record keeping mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it is reasonable to assume that descendants of the Lamanites, after the demise of the Nephite nation, continued the traditions of their brothers, the Nephites.  Between the time that Christ visited the people and the commencement of contention and wars about A.D. 200, the Lamanites and Nephites were living in peace and harmony.  This would have been a plausible time for their interest in genealogy to peak; although we do not know if the Lamanites kept such records on their own separate and apart from Nephite records in earlier periods of their history.

Although genealogies were orally rehearsed and passed from one generation to the next among various Indian tribes throughout the Americas, it is in Mesoamerica that we find over a dozen writing systems, many of which contain genealogical records.  These records are written in stone, in books called codices, as shown here, as well as on ceramic ware.  As will be seen, the similarity between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican peoples runs even deeper in traditions related to lineage than one would expect.

It is only within the last twenty years that researchers have been able to read most of the Mayan glyphs. Dates of birth, ascensions to the throne, marriages and deaths, can be read concerning the lives of numerous rulers throughout the Maya area of Mesoamerica.  These histories include additional useful information such as the names of parents, and their parents' parents, going back to distant ancestors. Sometimes the lineage heads took on the name of their founding father, not unlike the name of Nephi in the Book of Mormon.

  Before we have parents, we have marriages that were recorded in various ways by royalty in Mesoamerica. Some codices give us an understanding of who is married to whom. Among the Maya (in this case the upper illustration is from the Dresden Codex), a couple is shown with a netting device where they are tying a knot. This type of scene has the Mayan glyph yatan. Yatan means “his wife.” This is in direct comparison of our expression: “tying the knot” when couples marry. The bottom illustration is from the Codex Mendoza, which is Aztec. Tying the knot is very clear here. The bride and the groom sit on a mat, which represents royalty, with their clothes tied together. They are now married.

Several scholars have investigated certain Mayan hieroglyphs referred to as "relationship glyphs" which often occur in "parentage statements."  These texts contain the genealogy of named rulers, as well as glyph compounds reading "child of mother,"  "child of father," etc.  One of the words in a child of mother glyphic phrase has the Mayan word tan, which means “cherished.” So the phrase would be something like, “he or she is the cherished one of,” then the name of the mother.

The most common expression performing the child-of-father function is based on a glyph that is a face (sometimes shown upside down), and is a logograph, or symbol, for a flower. This parentage statement would read “he” or “she is the flower of,” then the name of the father. There are also other father parent statements that say “he” or “she is the harvest of,” or “he” or “she is the gift and creation of,” then the name of the father.

I wanted you to see where the next inscription I’m mentioning is buried, which was inside a pyramid at Copan. This pyramid is called Papagayo [Use Pointer]. There are several superimposed pyramids built over it, so it’s clear at the bottom of the present structure that you see while visiting Copan. The outside pyramid is the one with the hieroglyphic stairway. The hieroglyphic stairway has a lot of genealogy on it: names of rulers, their accession to the throne dates, death and burial dates. 

  Inside this pyramid is another parentage statement, and it’s on Stela 63 dating to AD 435, just 50 years after the Nephite/Lamanite wars ended. It reads: “It is recorded, the number tree,” then a glyph shows it was recorded by a scribe, then the name of the child, “Popol Hol K’inich,” then the glyph for “child of father,” and last is the name of the father, Yax Ku’k Mo Kinich, who was the founder of Copan in Honduras.

In Palenque, Kan-Bahlam listed his ancestry back to the first founder of the dynasty, and then even farther back in time to the gods from whom his royal line was believed to have been descended.  If you want to make a comparison with scripture, a similar type of accounting was used by Luke when he wrote the genealogy of Christ (Luke 3:23-38), ending with Cainan "Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God."

  Genealogy was truly one of the more important preoccupations of the entire Mesoamerican community. In illustrations of the family tree, a twisted umbilical cord was one of the prime essentials of their artistic expression of family lineages.  The umbilical cord may be seen in this interesting sixteenth-century genealogical tree of the Maya Tutul Xiu family, wherein a bearded figure, the founder of his lineage, has a twisted umbilical cord extended from the neck to the waist [Use Pointer]. I know, it’s on his back, but archaeologists have clearly identified this as a lineage umbilical cord. Out of this historic person's loins a tree emerges similar to European representations of the Tree of Jesse.  The circles, like fruits of the tree, are his ancestors.  Also notice the flower on his thigh which I’ll explain in a minute. There is a slight Spanish influence in this illustration, and I do mean slight, because many of the elements, especially the tree, the fruit, and the umbilical cord, are in keeping with Mesoamerican tradition. Let’s examine trees and tree parts and their symbolism with regard to genealogy in Mesoamerica.

  Here’s another early Post-Conquest illustration in a Codex from Mexico. The deceased is buried and lies in his grave [Use Pointer]. From him emerges a tree with heads of his ancestors like fruit (the deceased usually have closed eyes in Mesoamerican art). Some of the codices written before the arrival of the Spanish, contain dynastic narratives, many giving lengthy genealogical lists--often covering dozens of pages.

There is a similarity in the scriptures with these Mesoamerican traditions. People were compared to trees throughout the scriptures. For example, Isaiah 14:8 reads: “The fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, since thou art laid down, no fellar is come up against us.” [Unquote] Do fir trees rejoice and do cedars speak? Of course not. These trees are symbolic of people. We are all familiar with the parable of the Olive Tree in the scriptures. The Olive Tree represents the 12 tribes of Israel, and in Jacob 6:4 it reads: “And how merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches.”

And Abinadi speaks of Christ, and quotes Isaiah, “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground…” (Mosiah 14:2 and Isaiah 53:2).  Trees, branches and roots, and even flowers, therefore by extension, can refer to men, rulers of men, and even nations

The Messiah, in particular, is called a Branch by Isaiah. That’s also from an Isaiah scripture in Second Nephi 21:1. In this particular scripture the Hebrew word for Branch is Semah, meaning “sprout.” There’s a “sprout” glyph in Mayan, which is significant here. It consists of two bundles of branches. A lineage founder of a dynasty was oftentimes referred to as ch’ok-te-na ahaw, meaning “Sprout Tree-House Lord.” The word te in ch’ok-te-na, meaning “tree,” refers directly to his lineage tree, and he is the ch’ok, or sprout of that tree. This title validates his ruling position as descending from the lineage founder. In fact, the word for “leaf” in Yucatec Mayan is le, and le in Quiché Mayan is “generation.” 

There is also the matter of flowers or fruit on a tree. The Maya spoke of related people in a family as being on the same stem of a fruit tree. With the human body symbolized as a tree, the children produced by the human family were sometimes considered flowers or fruits as well as branches.  Remember when I showed the parentage glyph with a hand holding a flower face which represented the child? And remember the flowers on the thigh of the founder of the Tutul Xiu dynasty? (That’s the one with the umbilical cord on his back.) His wife also had flowers on her robe. The flower motif represented their children, while the thigh was a symbol of fertility among the Maya. I’ll show this illustration again at the end of my presentation.

In his voluminous work on Jewish symbols, Professor E. R. Goodenough describes the Dura Europos synagogue murals discovered in 1932 in Israel.  One mural above the Torah shrine contains an extraordinary representation of a tree with the twelve sons of Jacob (or Israel) portrayed beneath its spreading branches. Jacob is on the left with his twelve sons, and to the right is Joseph with his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Goodenough explained that the tree is related to life in two ways: it is the "tree of life and salvation which led to the supernal throne," as well as a tree associated with the life and lineage of the family--in this case, the family of Israel.

The Book of Mormon uses this terminology as well; Lehi compares the people of the house of Israel to an olive tree (1 Nephi 10:12-14). This symbolism is also familiar to later Old World cultures where family genealogy charts are visualized as a tree.  For this reason, association of the tree and its branches or roots representing human lineage, is of even more significance when found in Mesoamerica.

According to Aztec legend, the split tree represents the garden in Tamoanchan, comparable to what we know as Paradise.  This severed tree is in a locale referred to as the "place of birth," the "place where gods and men originated." When the tree broke in Paradise, because a flower was plucked from its branches by the first woman, the blood spewing from its break represented death that entered into the world. When the first parents of mankind were banished to the earth, this locale became known as the “house of descent.” Perhaps this is the reason Mesoamericans, like many other cultures, express their genealogical roots as coming from a tree, where the descendants are sometimes referred to as branches or shoots of the original tree.  

  An earlier culture than the Aztec, called the Mixtec, was a group that settled in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, about A.D. 1000. The Mixtec compared trees to ancestors who watched over their descendants, as the full grown tree protects its buds. In fact, they called themselves, “descendants of the trees.”

   It stands to reason that the Mixtec are often depicted as born from trees. This is from the Selden Codex. Here we see a child being born from the split trunk of a tree. Directly under him is his umbilical cord which has fleshy wavy lines [Use Pointer].

It comes as no surprise that the Mixtec associated descent from trees, because the Zapotec, an even earlier culture from the Valley of Oaxaca, also carved genealogical scenes of great significance.   Royal Zapotec genealogical portraits and texts are given.  This illustration from Matatlan, Oaxaca, shows an elderly bearded man and his spouse, below the open mouth of the heavens, from which descends a plant/tree with leaves [Use Pointer].  The female figure holds a staff/tree with leaves, topped by a bird's head. [Use Pointer] A typical scenario of a bird element atop the World Tree is found in both the Middle East and Mesoamerica.  In addition, the slab gives the names of the seated couple as well as their relatives whose heads are represented beneath them [Use Pointer].

Among the Maya, we can look to Palenque for the same tradition. Pacal had one of the most magnificent burials in all of Mesoamerica. In his tomb, the name and death dates of his ancestors are recorded in stone. Their portraits are arranged around his sarcophagus where they are depicted emerging from trees that grow from cracks in the earth--metaphorically the womb of the earth.  In this case we are observing the resurrection of this ruler's ancestors, because resurrection is considered a rebirth.

  Here is another example of birth from a tree. The reason I’m showing this one is because of the similarity with the one I just showed from Palenque, which dated to about AD 680. Look at the right column of this page--the second set of figures [Use Pointer]. Like those at Palenque, these ancestors sprout trees, and even have roots. This is from the Codex Vindobonensis that was made by the Mixtec. It was made approximately 800 years later than the Palenque carvings, and shows the enduring nature of Mesoamerican traditions, especially with regard to genealogy. The whole page of this Mixtec codex records their genealogy.

This illustration shows a similar scenario among the Maya. This is called the Berlin Pot or Vase by archaeologists (that’s because it is housed in Berlin). The vase is very complex. I’ll divide the two scenes—one on one side, and the other on the other side of the vase.

  In the upper illustration we have the deceased, wrapped on his funerary bench [Use Pointer]. The lower illustration, which is the other side of the vase, shows the deceased as a skeleton [Use Pointer]. Above his rib cage, he is resurrected with a tree sprouting from his body. Behind him is a temple [Use Pointer]. Surrounding him are his ancestral parents—his father to the left, his right, and his mother to the right, his left [Use Pointer]. I mention this because in Mesoamerica, the right side of your body represented the male, and the left side, the female. But notice, they too, like Pakal’s ancestors, are depicted as trees. This means they are resurrected ancestors. Noticed that the once dead, now resurrected person in the center, touches his parents fingers, a true sign of affection and linkage to his parents and ancestry.

Another way in which Mesoamericans and the Book of Mormon people have a similar tradition in family history, is their legend of seven distinct families or lineages.  In the Book of Mormon, seven family groups are described as having evolved from the families who came from Jerusalem to the New World.  In general, the Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites and Zoramites rallied under the name of the Nephites.  The Lamanites took up the balance of the divided groups; namely the Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.

Father Diego Duran, a Dominican friar who lived thirty-two years among the Mexican Indians in the sixteenth century, wrote of these seven tribes. This slide is from the Codex Duran showing the seven families or tribes in caves.

Seven family groups were part of the mythological history throughout Mesoamerica.  There were times in their history when the seven tribes were united.  During other periods, when wars were fought, the tribes became divided.  This was also true of the seven lineages in the Book of Mormon.  

The Popol Vuh, the sacred and historical record of the Quiche Maya, speaks of their origins from the East.  Other legends say their world was dark while they lived in seven caves, but during that time, they received guidance from the gods.  They crossed the sea, using stepping stones which may represent islands, and finally arrived in the new land. 

Caves are of great significance in Mesoamerican symbolism and were closely associated with birth and creation.  To a Mesoamerican's way of thinking, the darkness of a cave was comparable to the womb.  Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish missionary, wrote in his early chronicles that, and I quote:

“Concerning the origin of these peoples, the report the old men give is that they came by sea from the north, and true it is that they came in some wooden boats but it s not known how they were hewn, but it s conjectured by a report found among all these natives that they came from seven caves, and that these seven caves are the seven ships or galleys in which the first settlers of this land came, as gathered from likely conjectures” [Unquote].

Some scholars theorize that what the natives said about “coming across the sea” is metaphorical, not literal, and sometimes other scholars considered the sea as just a lake that was crossed, not the ocean. I mention this because I want you to hear the opinion of others. My personal opinion is that in the 16th century when these legends were recorded, that even though almost 2,000 years had passed since the arrival of Lehi’s party, there still was a lingering story of their voyage from the Near East to this promised land. By the way; all these legends referred to Mesoamerica as the “promised land.”

This slide is another example of the 7 tribes within caves. The whole formation is like a petaled flower. Remember what I said about flowers being offspring in a genealogical sense. Diego Duran learned from the native elders that the seven tribes of people believed God had promised them this land and that they were a people he held dear to His heart. This was certainly true of the Book of Mormon peoples when they came to the New World under the Lord's guiding hand, and throughout their history when they followed the Lord’s precepts.

Similarities between the Book of Mormon account and Mesoamerican traditions regarding genealogical record keeping, symbolism of the tree with ancestral lines, and the historical accounts of seven lineages, give support to pre-Columbian voyages to the New World, and as such, are additional external evidences of the Book of Mormon.

The Mesoamerican people went to untold lengths to record the lineages of their rulers and their accomplishments.  Today the stones and codices give mute evidence of how important genealogical records and history were to these people.  Hundreds of codices have been lost to us as a result of burning by the Spanish, and others have been destroyed due to time and climate; many assuredly contained detailed records of their ancestors.

  Once again I show the Tutul Xiu Maya family tree. It shows that the natives correlated a tree and its branches with man's ancestry, much like the manner popular in European genealogical trees.  It was to show the Spanish Crown that they too considered themselves descendants of nobility. Nevertheless, the concept is pure Mesoamerican. Out of the figure's loins a tree emerges, while the circles on the tree representing his ancestors which are numbered. They, like the Hebrews, had their genealogy memorized.

What is really exciting for our day, is that Allen Christenson and Daniel Stewart at BYU, and others, hope to submit 850 Maya names to the Church for temple ordinances. At first, the Church’s reaction was, “but these dates are really early, and no one has dates that accurate and that early in time.” However, these dates are literally carved in stone. There are many Maya descendants in the Salt Lake area that would be able to do the ordinances, and of course, many in Guatemala City where there is also a temple.

In closing I’d like to read Jacob 6 verse 4 from the Book of Mormon: “And how merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches, and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long . . . .”  



1 Title: Genealogy in Mesoamerica and in the Book of Mormon


2 “Behold, it came to pass that I, Omni, being commanded by my father, Jarom, that I should write somewhat upon these plates, to preserve our genealogy.” (0mni 1)


3 “. . . after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory, and they are written, but not in these plates.” (Omni 18)


4 Tomb of Pakal


5 Day of the Dead


6 PAR V2 & PAR V1


7 Dumbarton Oaks Panel, Yaxchilan Stela 10


8 Painting a Codex


9 K’inich K’an Joy Chitam (Dumbarton Oaks)


10 Screen-folded Codex


11 Hieroglyphs on Pot


12 Marriage in Dresden & Mendoza


13 Hieroglyphs Palenque


14 Ahau Parentage Statements


15 Pyramids on Top of Pyramids, Copan


16 Copan Parent Statement


17 Totol Xiu Tree


18 Codex Techialoyan Tree


19 Sprout glyph


20 Dura Europus


21 Tree Broken in Paradise (Borgia)


22 PAR V10


23 PAR V11


24 PAR V12


25 Vindobonensis Birth from Tree


26 Berlin Pot (whole)


27 Berlin Pot (Burial and Res)


28 Seven Families in Caves


29 Chicomoztoc


30 Tutul Xiu