1. Did Lehi and His Family Encounter Other People upon
Arriving in the Americas and, If So, Whom?
Copyright © 2015 by Jerry L. Ainsworth
The vast majority of people who research and write on Book of Mormon geography believe the setting of the book is in Mesoamerica. And with rare exception, these people, myself included, believe Lehi landed on the Pacific side of Guatemala near the border that separates Guatemala from Mexico—in Book of Mormon terms, the land of first inheritance.
Were Other People Living in Mesoamerica before 600 BC?
The answer given in the 2007 Maya conferences at the Universities of Texas and Pennsylvania is, “Yes, there were people already living in this area, and they had been living there for hundreds of years.” At the Texas conference, a number of cities were reported to have existed in this geographical area as far back as 1200 BC, with others dating back to 800 BC.
To appreciate how many people may have lived in Mesoamerica at 600 BC, we should remember that the United States of America has been in existence for only around 350 years. Further, we should keep that thought in mind as we look at the population of the United States today because we can then easily understand that when Lehi landed, one or more cultures could have been living in Mesoamerica with large populations.
Upon their landing, Lehi and his family must have encountered cultural events, customs, celebrations, traditions, and beliefs of other cultures. To appreciate what happened at the landing of Lehi, all we have to do is to imagine twenty strangers coming to the city where we live and then ask, “What kind of evidence would they leave of their arrival?”
Rather than the culture Lehi brought with him becoming preeminent, his culture was, to a large extent, absorbed by the existing culture(s).
Mormons, for example, celebrate Christmas in December, although we know that was not the month Jesus was born. It was just the existing custom that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was exposed to after the restoration of the gospel. Rather than trying to change the celebration of the birth date of Jesus to April, we simply adopted the existing custom. Lehi and his people may have made similar adaptations.
Who Were These People?
Lehi and his family landed south of the narrow neck, and Ether 10:21 states that the descendants of Jared and his brother did not take their culture south of the narrow neck. A few Jaredites did go into the land southward during their battle with the serpents (see Ether 9:32), but very few were involved.
The secret as to who the pre–Lehites may have been may lie in understanding Ether 6:1, where we are told that four categories of people came over from the great tower:
Jared with his family and the friends of Jared and their families, a total of at least three separate families, and
The brother of Jared and his family and the friends of the brother of Jared and their families, again totaling at least three families.
Thus, a total of at least six families made the trip. The pre–Columbian history states that Mexico was originally settled by seven families.
Ether 2:1 explains that the Book of Ether is about Jared and the brother of Jared and their descendants. It does not say it is a record of the other families who came with them. So, although Jared and his brother decided not to expand their culture south of the narrow neck, that prohibition did not, as far as we know, include their friends’ families.
I conclude that the people Lehi encountered upon his landing in Mesoamerica were descendants of the friends of Jared and his brother—or possibly other people whom the Lord may have led here. Genesis says the following about the people at the tower of Babel: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build another city” (Genesis 11:8).
Today, the archaeological and historical evidence supports the presence of people in South America at the same time the Jaredites thrived in Central America. Therefore, either the Lord scattered a separate group of people to that part of this continent or the friends of Jared or his brother migrated that far.
Henrietta Mertz in her book Pale Ink states that very good evidence shows that people from China landed on the western coast of this continent (northern California) during Book of Mormon times and that these people had some contact with the Maya.
Archaeologically, we know that virtually every succeeding group who inhabited Mesoamerica adopted at least part of the culture of the Jaredites (Olmecs)—their architecture, their calendrics, some of their language, and some of their theology.
Ether 1:43 states that the civilization descending from the Jaredites would be “a great nation. And there shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of their seed, upon all the face of the earth.”
I believe that these are the people whom Lehi and his family encountered upon their landing and that this outcome explains why they emulated the existing culture rather than the other way around.