Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon
Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon:
Implications for the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model
Copyright © 2010 by Ted Dee Stoddard
Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum
I am fond of using the following statement whenever I talk about the Book of Mormon: “The Book of Mormon is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the New World.” In connection with that statement, I believe that Mormon prepared his abridgment with at least a mental map of New World Book of Mormon geography in his mind; and I further believe that he expected his readers to relate to that map. In the process, he gave his readers many, many geographic pointers associated with Book of Mormon geography.
Sometimes Book of Mormon afficionados say, “Why is it important to study the geography of the Book of Mormon? After all, the doctrine is what’s important in the book.” I agree that the doctrine of the Book of Mormon is important. At the same time, I think the geography of the Book of Mormon is important for at least the following reasons:
1. The geography helps lead us to the doctrine—if we’ll let it do so. Without any question in my mind, Mormon wants his readers to be Book of Mormon geographically literate. And from my perspective, if Mormon could write only a hundredth of what was available to write about, I believe he had reasons for including what we find in his abridgment—including geographic pointers. I believe his fundamental intent associated with everything he selected was to include content to help his readers find their way to Christ and to understand that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, the geography of the Book of Mormon is “there” because it will lead us to the doctrine.
2. Mormon wanted his readers to understand and relate to Book of Mormon geography—for the sake of geography. He knew the importance of understanding where the various New World lands and sites of the Book of Mormon are located, so he gave geographic pointers in about five hundred verses of his abridgment. Without any question in my mind, Mormon wants his readers to be geographically literate.
3. Relating to Mormon’s map helps Book of Mormon readers accept the messages of the book with appropriate power and testimony. That is, understanding Mormon’s map helps us relate to its lands and thereby brings the book to life with the conviction that it is indeed a real account about realpeople.
4. On the assumption that Mormon expected readers to relate to his map, a valid geographic setting for the book must be possible. Therefore, I fully expect the pieces of the puzzle of Mormon’s map to fit together, and I personally have experienced the increased understanding of all messages of the book by being able to relate to a consistent, valid geography based on my travels throughout what I think are the New World lands of the Book of Mormon. Thus, a combination of what’s in the book about geography along with personal visits to proposed lands of the Book of Mormon provides aframe of reference that literally brings the events of the Book of Mormon to life. An equivalent frame of reference results when visitors explore personally the lands of the Bible and then read it from the frame of reference of having seen personally the lands and sites of the Old and New Testaments.
As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in “a former lifetime” of the 1950s, I answered questions about the location of New World lands of the Book of Mormon by beginning at the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York as the site of the last great battles of the Jaredites and Nephites/Lamanites. Then, to myself, I fantasized about whether everything took place in the continental United States or whether at least some of the Book of Mormon’s events took place in what we today know as Mesoamerica. Frankly, in my missionary discussions, I taught that the last battles indeed occurred around New York’s Cumorah; and then I taught what I today consider to be several “Mormon myths” about the so-called land of Cumorah in New York. From there, I was mightily influenced by some of the early writings about and pictures of Mesoamerica in connection with the Book of Mormon. In trying to bridge the gap between the two territories of upstate New York and Mesoamerica, I could never successfully explain how Book of Mormon peoples traveled all the way from Mexico/Guatemala to upstate New York for their last great battles.
When I returned from my mission and took a Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University, I was turned off to Book of Mormon geography because my professor taught “hard-core” geography via the “upright hourglass model.” Using paper and pencil, we as students were expected to locate and label all Book of Mormon lands and sites on the hourglass model. I could never successfully do so because of a mental block induced by my sophomoric thinking: “This is stupid. If the Book of Mormon is true, we should be able to locate its lands and sites on a real map of the New World.”
From a scholarly perspective, let’s suppose we set out to do the best we can to accept the obvious challenge of the Book of Mormon to identify at least the primary locations where the book’s New World events took place. How should we go about that process?
In answering that question, most readers have a natural tendency to (1) associate everything in the Book of Mormon with the upstate New York Cumorah, (2) read about the sites and locations in the Book of Mormon and then try to find real estate somewhere in the New World that equates to their perceptions of those sites and locations, or (3) draw a map based on geographic pointers of the Book of Mormon and then attempt to force that map onto existing territory somewhere in the New World.
According to John Clark, most individuals who attempt to identify the New World setting for the Book of Mormon “put the cart before the horse.” That is, “they use real-world settings to adjust the meaning and reading of the text itself.”1 For example, they adamantly conclude that the hill in upstate New York where Joseph Smith was led to the golden plates of the Book of Mormon is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. Thereafter, they attempt to make the geography surrounding the New York Cumorah fit the geographic pointers of Mormon’s map in the Book of Mormon. That is apparently the approach of the proponents of the Heartland Model—they begin at the Hill Cumorah in New York and then try to locate all lands of the Book of Mormon in relation to that site.
Clark further explains his thinking about the “correct” approach to take in identifying the New World setting for the Book of Mormon as follows:
It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the factsof the Book of Mormon—a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion.2
At issue here is what Clark means by “facts.” That is, he is correct in stating that the first question should evolve around “whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon.” However, he then errs by associating the initial “facts of the Book of Mormon” with geographic specifics as found in the Book of Mormon. I maintain that those are not the kind of facts that should be used initially in identifying the location of the New World lands and events of the Book of Mormon. Thus, Clark himself is guilty of what he accuses other geography afficionados of doing—he gets the cart before the horse.
The first place to seek for knowledge of the Book of Mormon context is in the book itself. . . . Many Latter-day Saints have scrutinized the Book of Mormon’s clues about geography and constructed various maps showing what they consider to be the relations among the cities and lands mentioned. . . . We must indeed construct such a map—systematically and comprehensively. Every statement in the volume must be milked of relevant information, and all of it ought to fit together without contradiction. . . . Building an internally consistent map is but the first step. Next we must match up Book of Mormon lands and rivers and mountains with actual places, location for location. . . . Short of that, Book of Mormon events will remain in geographic limbo; we would have only a make-believe map.3
From my perspective, Sorenson is only half right in his approach—especially when he applies his words to his own approach to Book of Mormon geography. That is, he ignores the fact that the land has a right to dictate geography! In his approach, every statement in the Book of Mormon is “milked of relevant information”—but only in relation to his internal upright hourglass map and not in connection with the land itself. In Sorenson’s mind, he must consider himself the ultimate authority of what an internally consistent map looks like because he doesn’t let the land take first priority in dictating geography. Once we have identified the overall location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon, we should then let the land itself help us with the geography of the Book of Mormon.
In speaking of the approaches of Clark and Sorenson, Randall Spackman says, “With the fervent injunction (and leadership) of Clark and Sorenson requiring us to focus our attention on the text of the Book of Mormon as a first step in creating a realistic geography, the next crucial issue seems to be finding all the passages of text on which our focus is to rest.”4
I contend that both Clark and Sorenson are incorrect in their first-step approaches to Book of Mormon geography. But I confess that I firmly believed in and followed their first-step approaches until I became deeply involved in editing the second edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.5 At that point, I realized that Spackman’s first step of focusing our attention on the “text of the Book of Mormon” does not necessarily mean that our attention must be on the text’s geographical statements.
If we examine the approaches followed by most Book of Mormon readers and scholars in attempting to identify the New World territory where the events of the book took place, we will find that they seemingly begin as a first step with one of the following approaches:
1. Read the geographic statements in the Book of Mormon, and then attempt to find a match for those statements somewhere in the New World.
2. Choose an obvious geographic landmark, such as the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York, and then attempt to associate all other Book of Mormon geographic pointers with that selection.
3. From geographic pointers in the Book of Mormon, draw a map that presumably reflects those pointers, and then attempt to identify the corresponding New World territory based on that map.
4. Live in or serve as a missionary in some specific geographic area in the New World, such as Peru, and then become so enamored with the territory that it seems to be the natural location for New World lands of the Book of Mormon.
5. Become disenchanted with all efforts to find the correct New World geography of the Book of Mormon and then propose an unorthodox, personal-opinion model, such as Malaysia or Baja California, as the locations for the book’s events.
As noted earlier, the second option is apparently the one followed by proponents of the Heartland Model in the development of their model for Book of Mormon geography. That is, Rodney Meldrum, Bruce Porter, and Wayne May believe that the last great battles of the Jaredites and Nephites/Lamanites took place around the hill in upstate New York we now call the Hill Cumorah. Therefore, all other lands and sites of the Book of Mormon must be relatively nearby because that’s how the Book of Mormon’s geography must be interpreted.
A Criteria-Based Approach to Locating Lands of the Book of Mormon
A major point of this article is to declare boldly and authoritatively that all the above first-step approaches to identifying the New World geography of the Book of Mormon are off target and are incorrect and therefore are ineffective in their final results. Frankly, one reason we have so much confusion today about identifying the New World location of Book of Mormon lands can be attributed to the first step followed by most readers and scholars.
So how should we go about the first step in the identification process? A statement by John Sorenson might come to mind as we attempt to answer that question: “The Book of Mormon is the authority on the Book of Mormon. Our problem is to discover what it is saying to us.”6
I agree that the first step in locating lands of the Book of Mormon in the New World involves an examination of what the book itself says—but not what the book says about geography. What does it say about criteria other than geography that we might use in our search for the location of the book’s New World lands?
From my perspective, at this point, we can read the Book of Mormon and develop a list of critical criteria that are nongeographic and that any proposed territory must satisfy if it is to be considered seriously as the territory where the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place.
I propose four nongeographic critical criteria to be used for that purpose:
1. The area must show evidence of at least one high-level written language that was in use during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.
2. The area must reflect two high civilizations that show extensive evidence of major population centers, continual shifts in population demographics, extensive trading among the cultures, and almost constant warfare among the inhabitants—in harmony with the dates given in the Book of Mormon. One of these civilizations must predate the other by hundreds of years.
3. The archaeological dating of the proposed area must reflect thorough analyses of sites and artifacts with resulting radiocarbon dates that agree with the dates given in the Book of Mormon.
4. The historical evidence from the area must provide valid findings that dovetail with the customs and traditions associated with the peoples and dates of the Book of Mormon.7
My contention here is that any territory being proposed as the location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon must satisfy all four nongeographic critical criteria. Failure to meet any one of the four by a proposed territory should automatically disqualify that territory from further consideration.
Notice again that none of the above critical criteria deals specifically with either geography of a proposed territory or with geographical statements in the Book of Mormon. That’s an important distinction between a criteria-based approach that begins with nongeographic critical criteria and, in general, all other approaches used by readers and scholars.
At this point, I will compare very briefly the Heartland Model versus the Mesoamerica Model—from my perspective and knowledge—in relation to the four nongeographic critical criteria.
Heartland Model—No reliable evidence has surfaced to suggest that a high-level written language was in use in the Eastern United States during Book of Mormon times, whether Jaredite, Nephite, or post–Nephite time periods. The Heartlanders continue to try mightily to convince us otherwise, but reputable historians confirm the lack of any high-level written language during Book of Mormon times among any of the native cultures of the continental United States.8
Mesoamerica Model—Epigraphers have now confirmed that the Maya written language during the time periods of the Nephites was indeed a “high-level written language.” Linda Schele and David Freidel’s comments about the Maya written language aptly depict it as a “high-level written language”: “The Maya writing system used to record [the Maya’s] ancient history was a rich and expressive script, capable of faithfully recording every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in the writer’s language.”9
Other high-level written languages were probably also in use in Mesoamerica. For example, according to the historian William H. Prescott, Montezuma, while “imprisoned” by Cortez, “gave audience to those of his subjects who had petitions to prefer, or suits to settle. The statement of the party was drawn up on the hieroglyphic scrolls, which were submitted to a number of counsellors or judges, who assisted him with their advice on these occasions.”10 The high-level written language in this instance was undoubtedly Nahuatl. And Mesoamerican archaeologists are now convinced that the Olmecs of Mesoamerica (logical candidates for the Jaredites) had a high-level written language.
Heartland Model—The Heartlanders’ best (only?) proposals for two high civilizations are the Adena culture for the Jaredites and the Hopewell tradition for the Nephites. However, the Jaredites, according to the Book of Mormon, lived mostly in the land northward, whereas the Adena culture lived in such territory as the states of Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Pennsylvania and New York. According to Heartland geography, based on the Heartlanders’ proposed location of the narrow neck of land, the Jaredites would have lived in Canada, which shows noevidence of a high civilization of any kind. Further, the Hopewell tradition was not truly a culture or society but rather a widely dispersed collection of somewhat related cultures that were connected via trade routes. Most Hopewell centers were mere villages. And Hopewell “cities” struggled to reach twenty thousand in size, whereas Mesoamerican cities frequently reached five to ten times that size. During Book of Mormon times, for every one Hopewell in the continental United States, upwards of seventy-five to a hundred natives lived in Mesoamerica. In other words, the Heartland geography shows no tangible evidence of a “high civilization” in any of its territory.
Mesoamerica Model—Until well into the twentieth century, scholars of all kinds maintained that the mother race of Mexico—and the entire New World—was the Maya. In 1941, however, the world of archaeology was turned upside down when archaeologists announced that a high civilization had been discovered that preceded the Maya by hundreds of years. This civilization, known as the Olmecs, dates precisely to the Jaredite time period. And the Olmecs lived in the land northward near the top of a narrow neck of land (Isthmus of Tehuantepec)—just as the Book of Mormon requires. The Olmecs and the Maya indeed show extensive evidence of major population centers, continual shifts in population demographics, extensive trading among the cultures, and almost constant warfare among the inhabitants—in harmony with the dates given in the Book of Mormon.
Heartland Model: In the Heartland Model, the Adena culture (Jaredites?) and the Hopewell tradition (Nephites?) come “close” to meeting the dating requirements of the Book of Mormon for the Jaredites and Nephites. However, neither begins with early enough BC dates, and neither reflects AD dates that are late enough. Further, the Adena culture does not satisfy what should be found by way of archaeological evidence for the Jaredites: they were “exceedingly numerous” (Ether 7:11), and they were promised by the Lord that no other nation would be “greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:43).
Mesoamerica Model—In the Mesoamerica Model, the Olmecs match precisely the Book of Mormon dating requirements of the Jaredites, and the Maya match precisely the dating requirements for the Nephites/Lamanites. The relatively recent designation of the Olmecs as the “mother race” of Mexico—and of the New World—confirms the correlation of dates between the Olmecs and the Jaredites. And when we consider that around 90 percent of the New World archaeological sites dating to Book of Mormon times are located east and southeast (land southward) of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (narrow neck of land), we know that something significant associated with Book of Mormon dates is going on in Mesoamerica.
Heartland Model—The historical evidence in support of the Heartland Model is puny compared to such evidence in Mesoamerica. In fact, early settlers and historians viewed the natives of the Eastern United States fundamentally as savages who were incapable of civilized society as known by the Europeans. Very little evidence of important Book of Mormon customs and traditions on the part of its peoples is found in the territory of the Heartland Model.
Mesoamerica Model: The historical evidence from Mesoamerica in support of the Book of Mormon is almost overwhelming. That evidence is reflected over and over in the writings of such individuals as Sahagun, Landa, Ixtlilxochitl, Diaz, Prescott, Clavigero, Humboldt, Kingsborough, and many others, as well as in such native documents as The Popol Vuh and The Title of the Lords of Totonicapan. Important cultural aspects of Mesoamerican societies that are contained in the Book of Mormon and that are not found in territory of the Heartland Model include the practice of human sacrifice; the use of cement for building and road construction; a class society involving kings, priests, common people, and slaves; functional calendar and dating systems; extensive possession of gold, silver, and precious things, including precious stones; the presence of corn as the primary staple of the food chain; a society that reflects dualism (opposition in all things) in all aspects of its philosophy, and so forth.
If we apply the above four nongeographic critical criteria to a piece of New World real estate and discover that the resulting territory satisfies all four criteria, we can next, if we are so inclined, test the territory further by applying geographic critical criteria to the proposed territory. This is thesecond step in my proposed critical-criteria approach, but we are not required to take that second step in identifying the location of New World Book of Mormon lands—unless for some reason we desire to do so. In the second step, should we desire to take it, we can investigate specific geographic pointers from the Book of Mormon in testing our proposed New World location that has met the nongeographic critical criteria from the first step.
Drawing upon the Book of Mormon, as Sorenson says we should, I like to test several geographic critical criteria as part of any analyses I make of proposed New World lands of the Book of Mormon. Upon doing so, I have found that the Heartland Model fails miserably in satisfying any of the following geographical critical criteria:
1. The geographic configuration of the area must resemble an hourglass as a reflection of two land masses and an isthmus dividing the two. The hourglass must be on its side in a horizontal position to justify the Nephite cardinal directions of “northward” and “southward” associated with the two land masses. In the Mesoamerica Model, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the narrow or small neck of the hourglass. Only when the hourglass is on its side does it function effectively as a model for the geography of Mesoamerica.
2. The isthmus that divides the two land masses must run north and south, must contain a narrow pass within the isthmus, and must separate a “land northward” from a “land southward.” The Isthmus of Tehuantepec satisfies this criterion perfectly. No one can appreciate adequately the manner in which Tehuantepec meets this criterion until he or she travels on the modern highway through the isthmus. In the area of the isthmus where the mountains of Oaxaca and the mountains of Chiapas tail off, resulting in the epitome of a “narrow pass” between the mountain chains, travelers feel like they can almost reach out and touch the mountains on the west and on the east and, in the process, intimately experience the the nature of a “narrow pass.”
3. The distance across the isthmus (the narrow neck of land) cannot be an aspect of any criterion because the Book of Mormon does not specify the width of the narrow neck of land. That is, the distances of a day and a half’s journey (Alma 22:32—“from the east to the west sea”) and a day’s journey (Helaman 4:7—“from the west sea even unto the east”) both relate to defensive-line positions close to the narrow neck of land rather than distances across the narrow neck of land. In the Mesoamerica Model, the logical location of these defensive lines is the line between Tonala in the mountains on the east and the village of Paredon on the Pacific coast.11
4. The territory must contain a dominant river that originates in mountains in the south, flows to the north, reflects evidence of extensive Preclassic occupation on and nearby the river, and ends up in a sea on the north. From my perspective, that dominant river is the Grijalva River that flows through the central depression of the state of Chiapas, Mexico. Further, proof that the Grijalva is the river Sidon can best be approached from a thorough examination of the Amlicite-Nephite war as contained in Alma 2—all in relation to the wilderness of Hermounts, which unquestionably is today’s Tehuantepec wilderness areas of Uxpanapa and Chimalapa.
5. The territory must contain a narrow strip of wilderness that runs from a sea on the east to a sea on the west—interpreted as a mountain range that stretches from a sea on the east to a sea on the west. The only mountain range in the entire New World that runs east to west and that touches a sea on the east and a sea on the west is that of the massive Cuchumatanes and associated mountains that run from the Caribbean Sea on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west.
6. The geography must reflect a massive wilderness area to the east—an east wilderness area that contains extensive defensive earthworks around most cities as described in Alma 49. The wilderness areas of Peten and Belize satisfy perfectly the east wilderness of the Book of Mormon. The area is due east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the proposed land of Zarahemla with its center along the Grijalva River in the Chiapas depression. Only about 15 percent of the archaeological sites in the lowland jungle area of Peten and Belize have been excavated, and archaeologists routinely find defensive earthworks around the territory’s cities as they proceed with their excavation efforts.
7. During the Book of Mormon time period, the territory must contain an extensive, uninhabited wilderness area to the west and north of the river Sidon/land of Zarahemla and in close proximity to the top of and east of the narrow neck of land—as a reflection of the wilderness of Hermounts in Alma 2. As pointed out briefly in item four above, the wilderness areas of Uxpanapa and Chimalapa satisfy perfectly the requirements for the wilderness of Hermounts. Essentially, this massive wilderness area has been uninhabited for centuries and still functions as a natural sanctuary for the wild beasts and birds of Mexico.
8. On the east boundary of the model, the geography must accommodate an east sea and associated territory along with archaeological sites that show evidence of extensive Preclassic occupation. Clearly, the Book of Mormon requires that the city of Bountiful and several other cities be located near the east sea. The only sea that is east in Mesoamerica is the Caribbean Sea. Several archaeological sites, including the megalopolis of Dzibanche in Belize, are found near the east coast of Belize and date precisely to such Book of Mormon sites near the east sea as the city of Bountiful.
9. The topography of the territory must support the presence of two prominent “lands” that were “up” (Nephi) and “down” (Zarahemla) in elevation as travelers moved from one to the other. In the Book of Mormon, the narrow strip of wilderness separates the land of Nephi (up) from the land of Zarahemla (down). The “up” territory of Guatemala City satisfies very adequately the Book of Mormon requirements for the land of Nephi, and the “down” territory of the Chiapas depression in Mexico satisfies very adequately the requirements for the land of Zarahemla. The outcomes of the excavations of the New World Archaeological Foundation in the Chiapas central depression, funded by the Church of Jesus Christ via Brigham Young University, seem to be lost among the stacks of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. In unique ways, the NWAF reports support the Chiapas depression as the land of Zarahemla.
10. The territory must show evidence of a massive civilization that began about 2500 BC, lived in close proximity to the top of the isthmus that constitutes the narrow neck of land, lived adjacent to an uninhabited wilderness area adjoining the narrow neck of land on the east, and lived near a hill of considerable size near the top of the isthmus where the last great battle of the Jaredites took place. The massive Olmec civilization, located primarily in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, fully satisfies the Book of Mormon requirements for the Jaredites. After years of studying the Book of Mormon, I am fond of making the following statement: “Show me where the Jaredites lived, and I’ll have no difficulties in showing you where the Nephites and Lamanites lived.” If the Olmecs are the Jaredites, we can easily locate the lands of the Nephites and Lamanites—because of Mormon’s and Moroni’s geographic pointers.
Notice that the critical criteria involved in the second step are all geographic in nature and are derived from the Book of Mormon’s geographic pointers. The above critical criteria are indicative of the geographic criteria that can be identified when we draw upon the Book of Mormon for guidance—but certainly do not account for all the geographic critical criteria that might be relevant in verifying the location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon. And because we have determined the overall location of the lands and events of the Book of Mormon via the nongeographic critical criteria, we can at that point let the geography of the land help lead us to the geography of the Book of Mormon.
As noted, the geographic critical criteria are impossible to document adequately in territory associated with the Heartland Model. However, in the Mesoamerica Model, those geographic criteria result in a map whose pieces fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
When we apply a critical-criteria approach to our search for the New World lands of the Book of Mormon, we remove any heartburn or personal biases from our search—at least if we begin with critical criteria that are nongeographic in nature and that are derived as required criteria by the Book of Mormon itself. If we are honest with ourselves, we will be able to make the following summary statements as a result of our critical-criteria approach:
1. The proposed nongeographic critical criteria are generic in nature and are derived from the content of the Book of Mormon. They do not require readers and scholars to begin their search for New World lands of the Book of Mormon via any of the first steps commonly employed by readers and scholars of the Book of Mormon. The nongeographic critical criteria unequivocally negate the Heartland Model’s approach of beginning with the hill in upstate New York and then forcing unrealistic territories of the Eastern United States to be labeled as lands of the Book of Mormon.
2. The only documented New World high-level written language in use during Nephite Book of Mormon times is the Maya written language of Mesoamerica. Epigraphers can now read about 90 percent of the Maya glyphs they find in Mesoamerica. Reputable historical scholars agree that none of the native cultures of the Eastern United States during Book of Mormon times had a high-level written language.
3. Throughout the nineteenth century and almost the first half of the twentieth century, the scholarly world maintained that the mother race of the western continent of America, including North America, Central America, and South America, was the Maya. In 1941, that perspective changed with the announcement of the discovery of the Olmec civilization. With radiocarbon dating, the dates of the Olmecs match very closely the dates of the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon. Thus, the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica is the only New World civilization that satisfies all Book of Mormon requirements for the Jaredites, including the one stipulated by the Lord: “There shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of they seed, upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:43). Indeed, as previously noted, the Olmecs lived around the top of a narrow neck of land (the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), with an uninhabited wilderness area to the east and southward of the narrow neck of land (the wilderness areas of Uxpanapa and Chimalapa), and with a hill of considerable size near the top of the narrow neck of land (the Hill Vigia in Veracruz, Mexico).12 No native culture of the Eastern United States has in any way been considered by reputable historical scholars as the mother race of the New World.
4. Although some models involving archaeological dating purportedly reflect some radiocarbon dating that coincides with dates for the Preclassic Nephites, no model other than that of Mesoamerica can identify a civilization that matches the dates of the Jaredites. And when we accept the fact that around 90 percent of all the archaeological sites that date to Book of Mormon time periods are found in Mesoamerica, we begin to realize the impact of radiocarbon dating in helping us identify the location of the lands of the Book of Mormon.
5. Historical evidences that point to the Book of Mormon are found throughout the Americas—but nowhere with such volume and weight as those evidences associated with Mesoamerica. In that respect, when Book of Mormon readers and scholars acquaint themselves with the writings of such New World historians as Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Bernardino de Sahagun, Diego de Landa, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, Francisco Javier Clavijero, Miguel Leon-Portilla, Adrian Recinos, Fray Juan Torquemada, Bernal Diaz, and William H. Prescott, as well as others, they will realize the weight of historical evidences that tie the lands of Mesoamerica to the lands of the Book of Mormon.
6. The four nongeographic critical criteria overwhelmingly point to Mesoamerica as the location of New World Book of Mormon lands—to the exclusion of all other models for Book of Mormon geography. Failure to recognize this outcome bespeaks ignorance of the facts of Mesoamerica associated with the critical criteria of a high-level written language, two high civilizations, archaeological evidences, and historical evidences.
7. Geographical critical criteria need not be pursued initially as readers and scholars set out to identify the location of New World lands and events of the Book of Mormon. However, once the nongeographic critical criteria point to the appropriate New World territory of the Book of Mormon, readers and scholars should be able to reinforce the validity of the nongeographic critical criteria by identifying with relative preciseness such primary Book of Mormon geographic territories as the narrow neck of land, narrow pass, land northward, land of Desolation, land of Moron, hill Shim, hill Ramah/Cumorah, waters of Ripliancum, place where the sea divides the land, land which was northward, east sea, west sea, place of Lehi’s landing, land southward, river Sidon, land of Zarahemla, wilderness of Hermounts, land of Manti, east wilderness, narrow strip of wilderness, land of Nephi, waters of Mormon, land of pure water, land of Bountiful, and land among many waters. Like a jigsaw puzzle’s pieces that fit together to form the whole puzzle, these geographic territories should “fit together” to comprise Mormon’s map of Book of Mormon lands. At this point, the land should take over in dictating the unique features of Mormon’s map.
8. When we deal rationally and consistently with geographic issues of the Book of Mormon as a reflection of investigating any proposed territory via the critical-criteria approach, we will recognize the validity of the following statements: The more we know about the geography of the Book of Mormon, the more we know about the Book of Mormon. In a similar vein, the more we know about Mesoamerica, the more we know about the Book of Mormon. Working together, the geography of the Book of Mormon and the territory of Mesoamerica help lead readers to the doctrines of the Book of Mormon.
9. We should use the nongeographic critical criteria to determine initially the general location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon. The geography of the general location should then help identify specific geographic locations with the assistance of geographic critical criteria. Geographic criteria are secondary in importance to nongeographic criteria in helping Book of Mormon readers and scholars initially verify the location of the New World lands of the Book of Mormon.
10. Once we have identified the overall New World territory of the Book of Mormon via the nongeographic critical criteria, we should then let the land itself help dictate the geography of Mormon’s map in the Book of Mormon. That is, Mesoamerica meets all requirements of both the nongeographic critical criteria and the geographic critical criteria. At that point, the process is relatively simple of letting the geography of Mesoamerica assist us in identifying the various lands, hills, valleys, rivers, seas, wilderness areas, and cities of the Book of Mormon.
11. When nongeographic critical criteria and geographic critical criteria are applied to all potential territories as prospective New World locations of the lands of the Book of Mormon, the only territory that meets all requirements is Mesoamerica. If Book of Mormon readers and scholars will apply objectively the critical-criteria approach to any proposed territory as the location of the New World Book of Mormon lands and become knowledgeable about Mesoamerica, they will eventually agree with the validity of that statement.
12. We should accept the premise that Mormon had legitimate reasons for including geographic pointers throughout his abridgment. And when we understand the concept of types and shadows as reflected in Mormon’s writings, we should let the geography of the Book of Mormon help lead us to the doctrines of the Book of Mormon.
1. John E. Clark, “Evaluating the Case for a Limited Great Lakes Setting, FARMS Review of Books 14, no. 1 (2002): 58.
2. See John E. Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” FARMS Review of Books 1, no. 1 (1989): 20–70, http://ispartnewsite.farmsresearch.com/publications/review/?vol=1&num=1&... (accessed June 21, 2010); emphasis added.
3. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996), 5–6; emphasis added.
4. See Randall P. Spackman, “Interpreting Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review of Books 15, no. 1 (2003): 19–46, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=15&num=1&id=464 (accessed June 21, 2010).
5. See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008).
6. John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 415.
7.7. These four criteria are those that were pursued intensively by Joseph Allen and Blake Allen as they developed their Mesoamerican model for New World Book of Mormon geography. See Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, for the ways in which they used the four nongeographic critical criteria in support of Mesoamerica as the location of all New World lands of the Book of Mormon.
8. For further discussion about the lack of a high-level written language in the Eastern United States during Book of Mormon times, see my article, “‘I Write unto All the Ends of the Earth’: The Need for Evidence of a High-Level Written Language in the New World,” at the Web site for the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum:www.bmaf.org/node/237.
9. Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 50.
10. William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 470.