Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Some Questions and a Rule

My friend, John W. (Jack) Welch, is fond of quoting the German proverb "a good question is half an answer." This proverb harks back to Socrates (ca. 469 B.C. - 399 B.C.) "understanding a question is half an answer" and Solomon ibn Gabirol ben Judah (A.D. 1021 - 1058) "A wise man's question contains half the answer." If we ask the right questions we will discover the best fit correlation between the Book of Mormon text and the modern map. In September, 2011, we asked a series of 18 questions designed to discover whether the Mezcalapa-Grijalva or the Usumacinta better fits the textual requirements for the river Sidon. See the article "Asking the Right Questions." The results were conclusive in favor of the Usumacinta. See the article "The Usumacinta Sidon Correlation." We now address the larger issue of a comprehensive correlation with Nephite lands, cities and places in the land southward by asking a series of questions and positing one interpretive rule. First, the rule.

Rule of Book of Mormon Interpretation 
Textual phrases must be interpreted consistently. Sounds simple enough. We run that up the flagpole and almost everyone will salute. In reality, though, it has proven frustratingly difficult. All previous Book of Mormon correlations of which we are aware (there are dozens) violate this principle, some more egregiously than others. For example:

1. Some correlations suggest the sea south and sea north mentioned in Helaman 3:8 were metaphorical rather than physical salt water oceans. Following our rule of consistency, we locate suitable candidates for all four seas referenced in the text. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Candidate Seas North, South, East and West
2. Some correlations suggest there was a "Nephite" north, south, east and west different from the cardinal directions we use today. Following our rule of consistency, we illustrate the "nearly eastward" of 1 Nephi 17:1 and the "east" of Alma 51:26 using the same Google Earth directionality tools where a heading of 360 degrees = due north, 180 degrees = due south, 90 degrees = due east and 270 degrees = due west.
Bountiful in Oman Nearly Eastward from Nahom in Yemen
Cities on the East Borders by the Seashore
Note that Alma 51:26 in the 2013 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon contains one of only a handful of known errors in the text. In that verse, the city "Nephihah" should be "Moroni." See the article "Scribal Error." For more information about cardinal directions in the Book of Mormon, see point #10 in the article "The Usumacinta Sidon Correlation" and the article "Water Fight on the River - Round Ten."

3. Some correlations are content with a travel distance of approximately 12 air kilometers per day when Almaled his followers with their flocks and herds from the city of Nephi to the local land of Zarahemla Mosiah 23:3 + Mosiah 24:20 + Mosiah 24:25. Those same correlations often then increase that daily travel distance by more than one order of magnitude so a superstar ultra marathoner could have crossed the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (216 kilometers from sea to sea) in a day and a half Alma 22:32 or even a single day Helaman 4:7. Following our rule of consistency, we take the Nephite phrase "a day's journey" as a standard unit of measure and derive an estimated value based on known historical journeys in southern Mesoamerica. See the article "Land Southward Travel Times." We then apply that derived distance (15 straight line kilometers per day) everywhere the text mentions a day's journey. Thus, Alma1's 21 day journey comes out at 320 air kilometers (including 5 extra kilometers for the long day between the land of Helam and the valley of Alma Mosiah 24:20) and the day and a half across the east west Bountiful/Desolation boundary line comes out at 23 air kilometers.
Plot of Alma's 21 Travel Days from Nephi to the Local Land of Zarahemla
1.5 Travel Days Across the Bountiful/Desolation Border Line
4. Most correlations proof text the Book of Mormon. That means they cherry pick select words or phrases  for private emphasis, ignoring other occurrences of the same word or phrase that evidence a contrary meaning. Some of the most prolific words are the most problematic because the amount of work required to analyze every occurrence in the text is huge. Key words that need to be understood include:
  • relative elevation prepositions "up" and "down"
  • relative distance prepositions "near" and "far"
  • the relative location preposition "over"
  • adjectives "exceeding,""great," "large," "narrow," "small," "strait"
  • nouns "borders" and "wilderness"
How does one go about analyzing every occurrence of a word or phrase in the text? George Reynolds' A Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon has been available since 1899. R. Gary Shapiro's An Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price appeared in 1977. The searchable lds.org version of the text has been online for over a decade. A major problem is that none of the sources above index such ubiquitous words as "up." To search for ultra common words in the text, one has to do a lot of copy and paste from the lds.org edition into a Word document, PDF or similar format and then use the search functionality available for that format. Click here, for example, to download the complete 1981 LDS text of the Book of Mormon as a word document. Even though the preview doesn't finish loading, you can still click on File and then Download or click on the download arrow. Click here to download the same text as a PDF. Note: the doc and pdf files are raw words, not formatted with chapters or versification. They are research tools, not versions intended for use by the general public. Only text that was on Nephi's and Mormon's plates (including colophons) is included. Modern accretions such as chapter summaries are not in the files. And even after all this work to get the text in a common searchable format, it can still be difficult to find a search engine that will distinguish the word "up" without also including "upon" in the search results.

So, how have we tried to avoid the bias inherent in proof texting? We have patiently analyzed every occurrence of the words "narrow," "small" and "strait" in the article entitled "Narrow and Small Things." We have similarly analyzed every occurrence of the words "near" and "far" in the article entitled "Things Near and Far." We have looked at every occurrence of the phrase "great city" in the article entitled "Great Cities." We have begun the process of analyzing demographics in the article "Population Sizes and Casualty Counts." We have looked at the various meanings of the phrase "cross over" in the article "Crossing Things." We have done a preliminary analysis of Nephite polities in the article "Nephite Political Geography." And, we have tried to understand the Nephite meaning of the word "wilderness" in the article entitled "A Note about Wilderness." There is much more to do along these lines, but the idea is clear. Before we can pontificate about a narrow this or a great that, we have to do our homework so we can accurately represent what the Nephite text means or implies when it uses a particular word or phrase.

Royal Skousen's experience is highly insightful. When he began his critical text project lo these many years ago, he was initially excited to find "errors" in the various printed editions of the text. As he patiently worked through the material, though, much more exciting patterns began to emerge. His textual emendations trended strongly toward greater consistency in the text, so much so that he coined the term "systematic phraseology" to represent the Book of Mormon authors' tendency to employ the same word constructs over and over again to convey standardized meanings in similar contexts. See Royal Skousen, "The Systematic Text of the Book of Mormon" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 11, Issue 2, Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2002.

5. Many correlations reach a point where the dots don't quite connect so the authors engage in pure speculation without any basis in the text. There are lacunae in the Book of Mormon. It is clearly abridgment literature. But what we do have is so rich, nuanced and internally consistent that we have little need to resort to baseless conjecture, particularly in Nephite areas prior to the Savior's appearance in Bountiful. We reference the text incessantly to stay grounded in Nephite reality and avoid mere supposition to the extent possible. There are well over a hundred hyper linked textual references in this article, for instance. We'll cite a typical example of pure speculation. Some correlations insist that the Lamanite attack on Ammonihah came from the west because Ammonihah's wilderness side "must have been" west of the city Alma 16:2, Alma 25:2.That assertion is simply atextual. The text is ambiguous on this point. The attack on Ammonihah could have come from the south as many other Lamanite invasions did. The text explicitly describes a southern defensive line in one case Alma 27:23, presaging an incursion that did come from the south Alma 43:15, Alma 31:3. The wilderness side of Ammonihah could have been south of the city as Alma 8:18 implies. See the article "Sidon East then West" for a preliminary overview of 35 battles in the greater land of Zarahemla, many of which were attacks on the southern flank of a Nephite polity.

6. Some correlations posit two cities of Aaron, two cities of Bountiful, or two cities of Nephihah in order to make their schema work. We follow Occam's razor and favor the simpler explanation as more likely. We accept multiple definitions of the terms "land Bountiful," "land Desolation," "land of Nephi" and "land of Zarahemla" because the text explicitly attests more than one meaning in these cases. See the article "Zarahemla" for one example. In all other cases, we assume unitary topoynyms correlated to discrete locations on the modern map.

7. Few correlations make a serious attempt to synthesize space and time. The 1979 LDS edition of the Bible contains 21 maps. 20 of them represent some portion of the Mediterranean world at a particular point in time. In the outstanding Mapping Mormonism just published by BYU Studies, maps and timelines are inseparable. In similar fashion, geography and chronology must be analyzed synthetically to interpret the Nephite text consistently, because that is the way Mormon and the other authors wrote it. We reference approximate time (e.g. ca. 72 B.C. which was an axial moment in Nephite history) routinely and important spatial insights have resulted. See for example, "Expansion of the Nephite Nation," "Sidon East then West," "The Church in Zarahemla," and "Captain Moroni in Space and Time."

Hard work facilitated by great tools allows us to interpret textual phrases consistently. We should not undervalue the work done by diligent pioneers who made sense of many Book of Mormon spatial relationships in the era before lds.org, Google Earth and the 2009 Yale University Press edition of the text. "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants," Isaac Newton letter to Robert Hooke, 1676. Now that powerful analytical tools exist, though, we should demand consistent interpretation from authors who explicate the Book of Mormon. For other aspects of textual exegesis germane to this discussion, see the article "Plainness."

Some Questions
1. Was the land southward nearly surrounded by water? Yes. Alma 22:32. If that is true, what are we to make of Jacob's comments that the Lehites inhabited an isle of the sea 2 Nephi 10:20-21? Jacob was explaining his earlier recitation of Isaiah 51 2 Nephi 8:5 that referred to the isles. Jacob was likening 2 Nephi 6:5 the words of Isaiah to the Nephites as Nephi had previously done 1 Nephi 19:23-24, 1 Nephi 22:8. Isaiah uses the term "isles" frequently referring to the far reaches of the earth where the house of Israel has been scattered (e.g. Isaiah 24:15, Isaiah 49:1). In Isaiah's prophetic and symbolic worldview, the Western Hemisphere was an isle.

This map shows one interpretation of Alma 22:32 where "water" = salt water.
Land Southward Nearly Surrounded by Salt Water
In the map above, total circumference = 3,808 kilometers. 445 kilometers or 11.69% is land. 3,363 kilometers or 88.31% is water.

This map shows another interpretation of Alma 22:32 where "water" = fresh + salt water.
Land Southward Nearly Surrounded by Fresh + Salt Water
In the  map above, we have included sections of the large Coatzacoalcos and Ulua Rivers. Total circumference (because of river meanders) = 4,249 kilometers. 698 kilometers or 16.43% is fresh water. 3,415 kilometers or 80.37% is salt water. 136 kilometers or 3.20% is land. In this correlation, water = 96.8% and land = 3.2%.

"Nearly surrounded by water" probably means a waterline to land ratio above 75%.

2. Did the greater land of Nephi extend from the sea east to the sea west? Yes. Alma 50:8 says the land of Nephi ran from the east sea in a relatively straight line toward the west. Alma 50:11 adds the land of Nephi ran from the west sea eastward to the head of Sidon. Alma 50 describes the geo-political situation ca. 72 B.C. So, ca. 72 B.C., the greater land of Nephi extended from the sea east to the sea west, passing by the head of Sidon in the middle. Alma 22:27 confirms that the greater land of Nephi extended from the sea east to the sea west 18 years earlier, ca. 90 B.C.
Greater Land of Nephi in White Overlay Running from
the Sea East Past the Head of Sidon to the Sea West
Zooming in on the eastern part of the greater land of Nephi, we place a 135 kilometer black line along the narrow strip of wilderness boundary. In this correlation, Nephi's comment that the border ran in a straight course from the east sea to the west Alma 50:8 strikes us as remarkably accurate.
Greater Land of Nephi in White Overlay Running in
a Straight Course from the East Sea to the West
3. Did the greater land of Zarahemla extend from the sea east to the sea west? Yes, but not until the Nephites reached their territorial maximum in the days of Helaman1 and Captain Moroni. We know that at the time Mosiah1 discovered them in and around the local land of Zarahemla, ca. 200 B.C., the people of Zarahemla (Mulekites) had a large population Omni 1:17. In the nearly 400 years they had been in the New World, the Mulekites had not settled far afield from their homeland in the local land of Zarahemla Omni 1:16. Among King Mosiah2's subjects ca. 120 B.C., the Mulekites outnumbered the Nephites, but the alien Lamanites were much more numerous than the Mulekites + Nephites combined Mosiah 25:2-3. That was the fundamental problem the Nephite nation faced during the 500+ years from Mosiah2 (ca. 120 B.C.) to Moroni2 (ca. A.D. 385). The Nephites were vastly outnumbered by their enemies Helaman 4:25, yet they had large expanses of territory to defend Alma 58:32.

In the days of Mosiah2 and Alma1 the geo-political entity we call the greater land of Zarahmela was beginning to develop. It consisted of a number of federated lands allegiant to the monarchs and later the chief judges resident in the capital city Zarahemla which was in the local land Zarahemla. See the article "Zarahemla" for a description of the multiple ways the Nephites used that toponym. In Mosiah 25:19 the phrase "all the land of Zarahemla" refers to the greater land of Zarahemla where Alma1 founded 7 churches Mosiah 25:23. We know that one of those seven churches was in the land of Gideon because Alma2 ca. 83 B.C. on his first visit to Gideon Alma 7:1 preached to an existing church established by the preceding generation Alma 6:8. Nine years before, Gideon himself, after whom the land was named Alma 2:20, Alma 6:7, had served as a teacher of the church in Gideon Alma 1:7. For a discussion of the 7 churches established by Alma1 in the greater land of Zarahemla (we determine they were in the lands of Ammonihah, Melek, Gideon, perhaps Minon, and various locations within the local land of Zarahemla) see the article entitled "The Church in Zarahemla." This incipient greater land of Zarahemla is referenced in Words of Mormon 1:14 where lands (plural) are noted during the reign of King Benjamin and in Mosiah 27:2 where it is called "the land round about." This greater land of Zarahemla is the sense of three very similar passages describing the Nephite nation under Benjamin Mosiah 1:1, Mosiah2 Mosiah 27:35, and Alma2 Mosiah 29:44. The rapid expansion of the greater land of Zarahemla is the point of Mosiah 27:6.

This map shows our correlation of the greater land of Zarahemla ca. 120 B.C. when Mosiah2 had been on the throne for about 4 years and Alma1 was in his prime as the high priest, establishing churches throughout the land.
Proposed Greater Land of Zarahemla ca. 120 B.C.
Key features illustrated on the map above:
  • The circle represents the land round about the local land of  Zarahemla Mosiah 27:2
  • North south and east west transects represent the quarters of the land Mosiah 27:6
  • structure icons represent the 7 churches established by Alma1 throughout the greater land of Zarahemla. See the article "The Church in Zarahemla."
  • The white background represents the approximate extent of Nephite settlement ca. 120 B.C. Notice that all settlement at this early period in Nephite history was along the central Sidon corridor or along major tributaries (San Pedro coming in from the east, Lacantun coming in from the west). This image shows our interpretation of Mosiah 27:6 with settlement north, south, east and west of the local land of Zarahemla. Major settlement activity in the next 50 years would be primarily eastward along the San Pedro and the Pasion, eventually reaching the east sea ca. 72 B.C.
  • The 4 yellow polygons enclosed in black represent areas not likely to have ever been under Nephite control - the Tabascan Chontalpa from La Venta to Comalcalco, the Mirador Basin, the Altar de Sacrificios - Dos Pilas area, and the Piedras Negras area.
30 years later, ca. 90 B.C., the Nephite nation had expanded significantly. Alma2 was the newly-elected chief judge residing in the city of Zarahemla. The 4 sons of Mosiah were on their 14 year mission to the Lamanites in the greater land of Nephi. In this setting, Mormon authored his most extensive geographical treatise, Alma 22:27-34, intended to show how the Nephite and Lamanite nations related to each other spatially ca. 90 B.C. These 8 verses have been the source of so much confusion over the years we will go through them phrase by phrase to illustrate the clarity consistent interpretation brings to a complex subject.
--
Alma 22:27 The king was Lamoni's father, the Lamanite emperor who reigned over several kingdoms Mosiah 24:2. The phrase "all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land" was a stock phrase among the Nephites. Earlier in this article we referenced this phrase being used for the Nephite nation under Benjamin Mosiah 1:1, Mosiah2 Mosiah 27:35, and Alma2 Mosiah 29:44. Lamoni's father resided in the local land of Nephi Alma 22:1, probably in the ancient city Kaminaljuyu whose ruins are currently engulfed by the urban sprawl of modern Guatemala City. The "regions round about" are the Lamanite lands and cities surrounding the capital city of Nephi represented by the circle on this map.
Proposed Regions Round About the City of Nephi 
The map above is crude and very incomplete since the vast majority of our time has been spent on Nephite cities, lands and places with little effort expended to date on Jaredite or Lamanite locations. The white line represents the continental divide separating Pacific from Atlantic (Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico) watersheds. Note that our proposed city of Nephi, Kaminaljuyu, sits right atop the continental divide.

Alma22:27 The greater land of Nephi ca. 90 B.C. (white overlay) bordered both the east sea and the west sea. It was continental in scope. (See question #2 above). The greater land of Nephi was divided from the greater land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness (thin green polygon). Like the greater land of Nephi south of it, the narrow strip of wilderness also ran from the sea east to the sea west. See the article "The Narrow Strip of Wilderness." Near the west coast, the narrow strip of wilderness bent in a circular fashion "round about on the borders of the seashore." This circularity is highlighted by a white circle on the map below. As in previous maps, the white line represents the continental divide.
Proposed Greater Land of Nephi and Narrow Strip of Wilderness
Alma 22:27 So far in this verse, Mormon has taken us twice from the sea east to the sea west, first in his description of the greater land of Nephi and second in his description of the narrow strip of wilderness. He is about to take us a third time on a continental sweep from the east to the west, noting features the narrow strip of wilderness passed in its course. Beginning at the sea east and moving west, the narrow strip of wilderness passed a wilderness on the north (the Zarahemla side) of the Nephite/Lamanite boundary. This wilderness goes by various names in the text depending on the author's point of view at the time.
  • Here in Alma 22:27 Mormon called it "the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla." Was it in the land of Zarahemla? No. Mormon was describing the geo-political situation ca. 90 B.C. and at that time the greater land of Zarahemla did not yet extend to the east sea. What was the wilderness north of? It was north of the narrow strip of wilderness, the principal subject of this verse and Mormon's point of view in this description.
  • Alma 31:3 calls it "the wilderness south" because it was south of the land of Antionum, the principal subject of this verse and Mormon's point of view in this description.
  • Other references, though, call it the "east wilderness." In Alma 25:5-8 we learn that descendants of the wicked priests of King Noah fled into this east wilderness and were hunted and slain in fulfillment of Abinadi's prophecy Mosiah 17:18.  Alma 50:7-11 explicitly links the east wilderness to the narrow strip of wilderness boundary with Nephite lands on the north and Lamanite lands on the south. Alma 50:9 calls it "the east wilderness, which was north of the lands of their (the Lamanites) own possessions" using language very similar to Alma 22:27. What was the wilderness east of? The river Sidon and the greater land of Zarahemla which had been moving eastward for decades and finally reached the east sea ca. 72 B.C. Alma 50:9.
This map shows our correlation of the greater land of Zarahemla ca. 90 B.C. (white background) pushing northward to the Bountiful line, eastward along the San Pedro and Pasion Rivers and southward along the Sidon. New features added since the ca. 120 B.C. map above are the lands of Sidom, Noah & Manti and the city of Aaron. All of these Nephite polities are attested in the text by ca. 81 B.C. with Manti mentioned ca. 90 B.C.  The map also shows the east wilderness as it probably existed at that time (green polygon) north of the narrow strip of wilderness (thin green polygon) which itself was north of the greater land of Nephi (faint white overlay).
Proposed Greater Land of Zarahemla & East Wilderness ca. 90 B.C.
Prior to the establishment of the land of Manti, groups routinely got lost travelling in either direction between Zarahemla and Nephi. See the article "Asking the Right Questions" Point #5. After Manti was incorporated into the Nephite sphere sometime between ca. 120 and 90 B.C., the text never again mentions any groups getting lost along this travel route.

This map shows our vision of how the Nephite nation had expanded and the east wilderness shrunk by ca. 74 B.C. In those 16 years, the lands of Jershon and Antionum had been settled, the result of significant eastward expansion along the San Pedro River, across the Maya Mountains, and down northern Belizean drainages. The land of Siron was a Lamanite polity, on the northern border of Lamanite territory at the time Alma 39:3. This agrees with Alma 31:3 describing the area south of Antionum as a wilderness south full of Lamanites. As explained above, the wilderness we call "east wilderness" was south from the point of view of the land of  Antionum, north from the point of view of the narrow strip of wilderness and east from the point of view of the river Sidon and the Nephite culture core. Note that a "land," albeit a Lamanite one, existed within a "wilderness." Furthermore, the Lamanites erected "strongholds" in this east wilderness Alma 50:11. Important insights about the nature of wilderness are in the article "A Note About Wilderness." Wilderness in Nephite terminology was not vacant of human activity. It was often sparsely settled, always outside Nephite political control.
Proposed Greater Land of Zarahemla & East Wilderness ca. 74 B.C.
This map shows our correlation of the greater land of Zarahemla ca. 72 B.C. when the east wilderness disappeared after an onslaught of Nephite soldiers followed by settlers Alma 50:7-9. The cities and lands of Moroni, Nephihah and Lehi were all in the Nephite nation by ca. 72 B.C. Alma 50:13-15. Note that coastal areas of the land of Moroni subsided into the ocean ca. A.D. 34 3 Nephi 8:9. By ca. 72 B.C., the greater land of Zarahemla extended from the central Sidon corridor to the sea east.
Proposed Greater Land of Zarahemla ca. 72 B.C.
If our correlation is reasonably accurate, the greater land of Zarahemla increased significantly in size from ca. 120 B.C. (approx. 12,758 square kilometers) to ca. 90 B.C. (approx. 21,000 square kilometers). That is a territorial growth rate of about 60% in 30 years, or 2% per year. The Nephite domain then expanded again from ca. 90 B.C. (approx. 21,000 square kilometers) to ca. 74 B.C. (approx. 29,477 square kilometers). That is a territorial growth rate of about 40% in 16 years, or 2.5% per year. All that early growth, though, pales in comparison with the unprecedented expansion we see from ca. 74 B.C. (approx. 29,477 square kilometers) to ca. 72 B.C. (approx. 46,357 square kilometers), a rate of nearly 29% per year. What was going on that allowed the Nephites to grow their territory so dramatically in just 24 months? Captain Moroni's brilliant defensive innovation of fortified cities. Following striking victories at Ammonihah and Noah Alma 49:1-25 the Nephites sensed their strategic military advantage and national optimism was at an all time high Alma 50:12, Alma 50:23.

The last few paragraphs have shed some light on the east wilderness, south of Antionum and north of the narrow strip of wilderness. We return now to our phrase by phrase exegesis of Alma 22:27-34.In Alma 22:27, Mormon wrote in broad, continental terms. His descriptions moved from south to north and from east to west. Beginning with the greater land of Nephi, he swept from the sea east to the sea west. Moving on to the narrow strip of wilderness immediately north of the greater land of Nephi, he swept a second time from the sea east to the sea west. Moving on to the territory north of the narrow strip of wilderness, Mormon swept a third time from the east to the west, this time describing 3 different geographic features the narrow strip of wilderness passed along its way.
  1. The east wilderness. Mormon calls it "the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla." In the text, the term "borders" means boundary, frontier, edge, littoral. The "land of Zarahemla" was the greater land of Zarahemla, expanding inexorably eastward ca. 90 B.C.
  2. The borders of Manti, meaning the area immediately south of the land of Manti through the narrow strip of wilderness itself. The narrow strip of wilderness ran through (blended into) this border region. This agrees with Alma 16:6-7 that describes the borders of the land of Manti (and the adjacent south wilderness) on the south of Manti and east of Sidon.
  3. The head of the river Sidon which we correlate with the confluence of the Chixoy-Negro and the Salama. The narrow strip of wilderness did not go through or cross over the head of Sidon. It passed by it. We have not yet analyzed every occurrence of the word "by" in the text to get a sense of the Nephite meaning of that term, but clearly it implies some degree of geographic proximity.
This map shows the narrow strip of wilderness "running from the east towards the west" passing 3 major geographic features along its way.
Proposed East West Narrow Strip of Wilderness Passing the
East Wilderness, the Borders of Manti, and the Head of Sidon
Zooming in, our correlation shows the precision and accuracy of Mormon's verbiage.
Closeup of Narrow Strip of Wilderness Running East to West Past
the East Wilderness, the Borders of Manti, and the Head of Sidon
Key features illustrated on the map above are described in Alma 22:27 unless otherwise noted:
  • The white line running between the city of Nephi on the south and the city of Manti on the north represents the typical ancient travel route between Kaminaljuyu and Chama. It followed the Motagua, the Salama and the Cahabon Rivers as the modern highway does today. The Salama Valley and the area around the modern city of Coban, Alta Verapaz were major waypoints on the trail. In the area between the Chixoy (our Sidon) and Cahabon Rivers, the trail threaded its way between large mountain massifs. Our Hill Riplah to the west rises to 2,200 meters. Cerro Xucaneb to the east rises above 2,500 meters.
  • The narrow strip of wilderness ran on the borders of the east wilderness. In other words, the two wildernesses were contiguous, sharing a common boundary.
  • The narrow strip of wilderness ran through the borders of Manti. In other words, the two areas overlapped, sharing some of the same territory. This area of overlap was a strategic transportation corridor between the greater land of Nephi on the south and the greater land of Zarahemla on the north.
  • The narrow strip of wilderness ran by the head of river Sidon. In other words, they were close to each other, but there was some distance between the two.
  • South of Manti was a river crossing referenced in Alma 16:6-7 and Alma 43:35. It was located in the south wilderness beyond the borders of Manti. The wilderness itself was east of Sidon, higher in elevation than the nearby borders of Manti. Another wilderness area lay opposite this river crossing to the west of Sidon.
  • In the south wilderness east of Sidon, at the point of the river crossing, a significant valley drained to the river. This valley was north of Hill Riplah Alma 43:34-35.
Zooming in still further, we see more evidence of Mormon's verbal precision.
Extreme Closeup of Narrow Strip of Wilderness, East Wilderness, South
Wilderness, Hill Riplah, Borders of Manti and Head of Sidon
The text says the south wilderness was up Alma 16:6 from the borders of Manti, meaning at a higher elevation. We have two ways of quickly measuring average elevation: 1) we can set a terrain plane at an absolute elevation and all points higher show through the surface of the plane. 2) we can place NE to SW and NW to SE transects through an area, have Google Earth compute the average elevation of those transects, and then average the two average elevations. Using these two techniques shows the borders of Manti in our correlation are on average about 250 meters lower in elevation than the south wilderness. Travelling from the borders of Manti to the south wilderness at almost any point along the boundary would have been an uphill movement. The text further says the Hill Riplah had a south slope Alma 43:31 and a north slope Alma 43:34. Replacing the standard Google Earth base map with a shaded relief layer shows our Hill Riplah is an east west ridge line extending for about 19 kilometers with obvious northern and southern slopes. On the map below, the green line represents the northern edge of the narrow strip of wilderness.
Extreme Closeup of Narrow Strip Head of Sidon Area in Shaded Relief
The text says the valley east of Sidon was north of Riplah Alma 43:34-35. That is obvious in the map above. It also says the Nephite army under Captain Lehi came out of hiding south of Hill Riplah and engaged the Lamanites in the valley east of Sidon on the same day, implying a modest distance between the south slope of Hill Riplah and the valley battleground. Placing a ruler on our map shows that distance to be approximately 8 straight line kilometers, easily within reason. For many other impressive correlations between the area on the map above and the battle narrative in Alma 43 & 44, see the article "Manti." After patiently working through textual details in their likely topographical setting, we are in awe of Captain Moroni's military acumen (aided by prophetic insight). On the battlefield in the valley east of Sidon Captain Lehi had 3 major advantages over the Lamanites: 1) His men were fresh. They had been in hiding south of Hill Riplah and in the valley east of Sidon Alma 43:31. 2) His forces wore body armor Alma 43:38. And 3) No matter which direction the Lamanites turned in the valley east of Sidon, the Nephites had an overwhelming uphill advantage. Notice how steep the hillsides are in both branches of our candidate valley east of Sidon, shown here in Google Maps with the terrain layer turned on. This watershed is so steep the Guatemalan government has built a hydroelectric plant near the mouth of the river to capture some of the kinetic energy stored in the falling water.
Proposed Valley East of Sidon with East and South Branches
Is it any wonder Lehi's men prevailed Alma 43:39 over a vastly superior Alma 43:51 enemy force? Lehi's victory was so dramatic his legend grew among the Lamanites and they feared facing him in future conflicts Alma 49:17. This is one of the few Nephite battles Mormon, himself a brilliant military commander, refers to later in the text Alma 49:16. Captain Lehi's next victory over the Lamanites at fortified Noah was even more decisive, so much so that it forever changed the nature of Nephite defensive warfare Alma 49:23. Note that in our correlation, this valley east of Sidon is the same place Captain Zoram liberated the Nephite captives ca. 81 B.C. Alma 16:6. This unique terrain afforded Zoramthe same advantage it did Lehi7 years later.

Alma 22:27 concludes with a restatement of the principal subject of the passage - the narrow strip of wilderness as the dividing line between the Lamanites on the south and the Nephites on the north - "and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided."
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Alma 22:28 is Mormon's description of the west wilderness areas both south and north of the narrow strip of wilderness dividing line. As we saw in verse 27, he describes the southern greater land of Nephi first and the northern greater land of Zarahemla second. He then returns to add additional detail about the west wilderness in the southern land of Nephi. Why does he start with the greater land of Nephi? His point of view in this section begins with King Lamoni's father, the Lamanite emperor, entertaining Aaron and his brethren at the royal courts in the local land of Nephi Alma 22:25.

Alma 22:28 describes idle Lamanites living in tents in the wilderness. The Lamanite development we noted earlier in the Nephite east (land of Siron Alma 39:3) was conspicuously absent in the Nephite west, although Lamanite strongholds existed in both the east and the west Alma 50:11). The Lamanites in this west wilderness area were not concentrated in any one region. They were spread through the wilderness. In official Lamanite territory south of the narrow strip of wilderness, this west wilderness was part of the greater land of Nephi. Recall from our discussion of question #2 above that ca. 90 B.C. the greater land of Nephi did extend from the sea east to the sea west. We then have a "yea clause" where Mormon provides more detail about the previous phrase. The west wilderness containing idle Lamanites also extended into nominal Nephite territory north of the narrow strip of wilderness. We say "nominal" because the Nephites ca. 90 B.C. did not yet control the western part of the greater land of Zarahemla. That dominion would not happen for another 18 years Alma 50:11.

Alma 22:28 makes a critical distinction between the west wilderness south of the narrow strip of wilderness and the west wilderness north of it. South of the dividing line, the west wilderness was incorporated into the greater land of Nephi, owing some degree of fealty to the Lamanitet emperor in the local land of Nephi. North of the dividing line, the west wilderness was west of the greater land of Zarahemla. In other words, the greater land of Zarahemla ca. 90 B.C. did not yet reach this far west and the Lamanite squatters or indigenous natives living there recognized no authority from the Nephite nation headquartered in the city of Zarahemla in the local land of Zarahemla. Both south of the narrow strip of wilderness and north of it, the west wilderness extended to the west seashore. In the greater land of Nephi, this west wilderness area was also know as the place of their father's first inheritance. This same territory is called "the land of their first inheritance" in Mosiah 10:13. This is not to be confused with the Nephite use of the term "the land of our first inheritance" Alma 54:12-13 or "the land of our father's first inheritance" Mosiah 9:1 to refer to the local land of Nephi.

Alma 22:28 concludes restating a second time that the west wilderness bordered by the seashore. The wording "borders by the seashore" was a stock phrase in Nephite usage, occurring more than a dozen times in the text (e.g. Alma 50:9, Alma 62:25, Ether 14:26). Analyzing the various contexts where they used the phrase, it is clear the Nephites meant the actual shoreline rather than a point some distance inland Alma 51:32.

This map illustrates our correlation of the wilderness west in the greater land of Nephi and west of the greater land of Zarahemla, both in green. Note that ca. 90 B.C. the greater land of Zarahemla and the land Bountiful were separate entities. The Nephites maintained a defensive presence on the west sea in the land Bountiful at a strategic point that allowed them to control Lamanite movement into the land northward Alma 22:32-33 via the coastal route.
Proposed Wilderness West in the Greater Land of Nephi
and West of the Greater Land of Zarahemla
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Alma 22:29 is Mormon's synthesis of the U-shaped wilderness surrounding the Nephite nation ca. 90 B.C. The Lamanites on the east by the seashore inhabited the east wilderness (aka the wilderness north of the narrow strip of wilderness and south of Antionum depending on the author's point of view) discussed above. Were all the Lamanites along the eastern seashore natives indigenous to the area? No. They had been driven there by the gradual eastward expansion of the Nephite nation in the decades prior to 90 B.C. See the articles "Expansion of the Nephite Nation" and "Sidon East then West." We calculated above that Nephite territory had been growing by approximately 2% per year between ca. 120 and 90 B.C. Most of that growth was east (Sidom, Noah, Aaron) and south (Manti) of the Nephite culture core along the central Sidon corridor. Had the Lamanites along the western seashore also been driven there by Nephite settlement? No. The Nephite nation did not begin major westward expansion until ca. 72 B.C. Alma 50:11. The Lamanites in the Nephite west were living there voluntarily taking advantage of a Nephite settlement vacuum. In the case of extensive pre-classic settlement (primarily Zoque) through the Central Depression of Chiapas along the Mezcalapa-Grijalva, non-Nephites had been living in that area for hundreds of years. With the two sides of the U-shaped wilderness east and west of them, the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites. This map shows our view of what Mormon meant by "nearly surrounded." Lamanite areas are outlined in black.
Proposed Lamanite Controlled Areas Nearly Surrounding Nephite Lands
Alma 22:29 The Nephites ca. 90 B.C. envisioned their land, the greater land of Zarahemla, as everything north of the narrow strip of wilderness boundary line. They did not control all of that vast territory, far from it, but they claimed it with an expectation of future occupation not unlike the manifest destiny that eventually established the U.S. from sea to shining sea. The verse in question says the Nephites controlled all the northern parts of the land. What land was it? The greater land of Zarahemla that ideally extended from the narrow strip of wilderness on the south to the land Bountiful on the north with seacoasts east and west. This map shows our correlation of Mormon's "land bordering on the wilderness at the head of the river Sidon" or in other words, the continental greater land of Zarahemla claimed by the Nephites (faint white overlay) partially occupied by the Nephites ca. 90 B.C. (white background). The continental greater land of Zarahemla measures 157,618 square kilometers, a little larger than the modern U.S. state of Georgia (153,909 square kilometers) and a little smaller than Wisconsin (169,639 square kilometers). Nephite lands actually settled ca. 90 B.C. attested in the text measure only 21,000 square kilometers, a little smaller than New Jersey (22,588 square kilometers).
Greater Land of Zarahemla Claimed by the Nephites and
Actually Settled by the Nephites ca. 90 B.C.
Alma 22:29 What did Mormon mean when he said the Nephites had "taken possession of all the northern parts of the land?" He meant that ca. 90 B.C. along the northern edge of the narrow strip of wilderness boundary line, the Nephites only controlled the area immediately south of Manti, but along the northern boundary of the greater land of Zarahemla, south of the land Bountiful, the Nephites controlled much greater extensions of territory, enough to merit the sweeping phrase "from the east to the west." This map is our correlation of Mormon's northern parts of the land (faint white overlay).
Proposed Northern Parts of the Greater Land of Zarahemla ca. 90 B.C.
Key features illustrated on the map above:
  • Black perimeters demarcate Lamanite areas.
  • White background identifies settled Nephite lands and cities in the greater land of Zarahemla attested in the text by ca. 81 B.C. (Sidom, Noah and Aaron are presumed to have existed ca. 90 B.C.)
  • Red circles indicate our correlations for other Nephite settlements A) the land Bountiful along the west sea Alma 22:33 and B) the area for the future land of Jershon attested in the text ca. 77 B.C. Alma 27:22.
What was the likely nature of Nephite presence in these northern parts of the land outside the lands and cities named in the text? Sparse populations scattered among extensive wilderness areas. Frontier conditions. Military patrols enforcing territorial claims.The outpost in the land Bountiful on the west sea was ostensibly military and defensive Alma 22:33-34. Jershon ca. 77 B.C. was probably lightly and newly settled since the Nephites gave it up so readily, forcing the existing inhabitants to re-locate Alma 27:22. Jershon, as one would expect in a frontier area, had a significant military presence Alma 27:23-24.

Alma 22:29 The Nephites ca. 90 B.C. occupied the northern part of their greater land of Zarahemla in a broad continental expanse that went from the east to the west with curvature around the wilderness areas controlled by Lamanites. The white line on this map represents our view of this east to west expanse running round about on the wilderness side.
Northern Parts of the Land East to West and Round About 
As the map above clearly shows, on its northern extreme the greater land of Zarahemla (faint white overlay) in our correlation bounded the land Bountiful (bright green polygon).
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Alma 22:30 So far in Alma 22:27-30 Mormon has taken us on a grand tour of Lamanite and Nephite lands ca. 90 B.C. starting in the south where the author's point of view was the local land of Nephi. In order, Mormon has described:
  • the greater land of Nephi that ran from the sea on the east to the sea on the west
  • the narrow strip of wilderness that also ran from the sea east to the sea west, separating Lamanite lands on the south from Nephite territory on the north
  • the Nephite east wilderness immediately north of the narrow strip of wilderness
  • the borders of Manti coterminous with the narrow strip of wilderness
  • the head of the river Sidon midway along the east west narrow strip of wilderness
  • the wilderness on the west in the greater land of Nephi
  • the wilderness on the west of the greater land of Zarahemla
  • the wilderness on the west in the greater land of Nephi (2nd time) coterminous with the Lehite's land of first inheritanace
  • the west seacoast inhabited by Lamanites
  • the east seacoast inhabited by Lamanites who had been driven there by Nephite expansion eastward
  • the northern parts of the greater land of Zarahemla that ran east to west, bordered on the south by the narrow strip of wilderness at the head of the river Sidon and on the north by the land Bountiful
The land Bountiful was the northernmost part of the land southward. And what was northward from the land Bountiful? The land Desolation in the land northward, coterminous with the land of Cumorah where the Jaredite nation met their demise Mosiah 8:8, Mosiah 28:17. This map shows a correlation of Bountiful (bright green), Desolation (brown) and Cumorah (grey) that fits the text.
Likely Lands Bountiful, Desolation and Cumorah
Alma 22:30 We correlate Mulek's New World landfall with the mouth of the large Papaloapan River as shown on the map below.
Proposed Mulek Landfall, Coasting & Settlement
This is the route we currently believe Mulek took to reach his eventual home in the New World:
  • Made landfall at the mouth of the Papaloapan, the wetlands area we (and many others) correlate with the waters of Ripliancum Ether 15:8.
  • Sailed eastward along the coast, investigating the mouths of the Coatzacoalcos and Mezcalapa-Grijalva Rivers. Note that ca. 586 B.C. the Mezcalapa-Grijalva emptied into the Gulf of Mexico where the Tonala flows today, running past the large Olmec site of La Venta. See the article "Wandering River."
  • Sailed up the mighty Usumacinta approximately 190 river kilometers (130 air kilometers) to higher ground (approximately 35 meters average elevation) upstream from the permanent and seasonal flood plains in the delta but downstream from the head of navigation at the fall line (Boca del Cerro southwest of Tenosique, Tabasco). In this area a 200 kilometer stretch of meandering river (55 air kilometers) is known to archaeologists as the middle Usumacinta. It contains many ancient sites with pre-classic (Book of Mormon time period) occupation layers. Palenque is the most notable site in the region. The 90 - 110 kilometer wide territory between the middle Usumacinta and the Chilapa is the area we correlate with the local land of Zarahemla. We think Mulek settled in this area and his descendants, though numerous Omni1:17, had not emigrated far by ca. 200 B.C. when King Mosiah1 discovered them Omni 1:16.
Why did Mulek and company choose the Usumacinta over the Papaloapan, Coatzacoalcos or the Mezcalapa-Grijalva to establish their settlement? One good reason was probably the relative isolation (Alma 22:31 explicitly says Mulek settled in a wilderness). The Mulekites could have occupied the middle Usumacinta area without a great deal of competition from indigenous populations. The other 3 options were all located in the Olmec heartland outlined in orange on the map below. Each orange pyramid represents a known Olmec or Olmec-influenced site. The most commonly accepted date for the Olmec collapse is ca. 400 B.C., so many of these sites would have still been viable when Mulek arrived on the scene ca. 586 B.C.
Olmec Sites and the Olmec Heartland
There are two Olmec-influenced sites currently known along the middle Usumacinta - Balancan and Pomona. All of the other drainages have a dozen or more known Olmec sites.
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Alma 22:31 This verse continues Mormon's description of Mulek's travels. After making landfall in the land northward, the former prince of Judah and his companions came up into the south wilderness. The use of the elevation preposition "up" indicates vertical rise. Our candidate for the city of Zarahemla, the unexcavated site of Nueva Esperanza/Calatraba, Chiapas, 6 air kilometers from the town of Emiliano Zapata, Tabasco, sits at an average elevation of 35 meters. This map shows the approximately 200 hectare site with 68 mounds marked. Many smaller mounds are unmarked. For context around this surface area metric, see the article "Site Sizes."
Site of Nueva Esperanza/Calatraba in Chiapas from Satellite Image
with Some of the Larger Mounds Marked
This is what the site looked like from the ground when Garth Norman, Jorge Merino and Kirk Magleby briefly explored it in September, 2006. Over 100 mounds were clearly visible.
Site of Nueva Experanza/Calatraba in Chiapas from the Ground
Photo by Kirk Magleby, September, 2006
And this is what one of the larger mounds looked like.
One of the Larger Mounds at the Site of Nueva Esperanza/Calatraba in Chiapas
Photo by Kirk Magleby, September, 2006
Someone had cut gashes near the top of a few of the larger mounds with a backhoe. Observing pot shards visible in the gashes, Garth concluded the site has a pre-classic occupation layer, typical of sites in the region (See Robert L. Rands, "Palenque and Selected Survey Sites in Chiapas and Tabasco: The Preclassic," FAMSI: 2002.

Placing elevation transects across our candidate local land of Zarahemla, we let Google Earth calculate the average elevation of each transect. The results are 53 meters and 37 meters respectively.
Elevation Transects Across the Proposed Local Land of Zarahemla
Averaging the 2 averages, we calculate a mean elevation of 45 meters for our local land of Zarahemla. So, in our correlation, Mulek & Company traveled 190 river kilometers upstream and settled where they found higher ground (35 - 45 meters elevation) above the permanent and seasonal flood plains. This image of our local land of Zarahemla with the shaded relief layer turned on clearly shows the boundary between the the low, level wetlands in the delta and the beginning of the piedmont zone. It also shows the mountains to the south. We believe this piedmont zone was the Mulekite heartland, known to the Nephites as the land of Zarahemla and identified in our classification system as the local land of Zarahemla.
Proposed Local land of Zarahemla in Shaded Relief Showing the
Wetlands/Piedmont Boundary with Mountains to the South
Alma 22:31 describes 3 geographic locations using 6 different terms mentioned 8 times in the verse.
  • "they" are the Mulekites who made landfall in the land northward but settled in the land southward
  • "there" refers to the land of Cumorah which was coterminous with the northern part of the land Desolation
  • "the south wilderness" is another name for "the land on the southward," also called simply "Bountiful" as well as "the wilderness which is filled will all manner of wild animals"
  • "the land on the northward" is a variant of "land northward" which appears later in the verse, also called simply "Desolation"
Comparing the lands northward and southward we would expect more wilderness characteristics, great vertebrate species diversity and higher animal populations in the land southward. This is a map of national parks and UNESCO designated biosphere reserves in southern Mexico based on data from INEGI. The white line is our boundary between the land northward and the land southward, which is also the border between our lands Desolation and Bountiful. The yellow line represents the route we believe Mulek followed before establishing a permanent settlement in and around the city of Zarahemla. The green polygons are wilderness or official Mexican government flora & fauna protection areas.
National Parks & Biosphere Reserves in Southern Mexico
 Key features illustrated (or not) on the map above:
  • Guatemala is home to 3 UNESCO designated biosphere reserves, including the very large (21,602 square kilometers which is about the size of the state of New Jersey) Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Peten. Guatemalan parks and reserves do not appear on the map above because our data came from the Mexican government.
  • The green polygon in the isthmus of Tehuantepec represents the 9,334 square kilometer Selva Zoque (Zoque Forest) covering parts of the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. This is now and always has been one of the most dense wilderness areas in the region with limited human occupation. It borders the Selva El Ocote biosphere reserve to the east. 
  • Note the huge disparity between the tiny reserves in the visible parts of the land northward and the huge reserves in the land southward. Biosphere reserves are created and maintained specifically because they harbor abundant biodiversity and habitat supporting important plant and animal populations.
  • Our proposed route for Mulek goes through the wetlands called Pantanos de Centla in Tabasco. This enormous swamp (the UNESCO designated territory is 3,020 square kilometers, about the size of the state of Rhode Island) certainly fits the description in Alma 22:31 that Mulek came "into the south wilderness." In our correlation, this riparian area is the wilderness of Hermounts described in Alma 2:37. See the article "Hermounts" for fascinating details.
Our proposed land Bountiful includes parts of 4 biosphere reserves (La Sepultura, Chiapas; Pantanos de Centla, Tabasco; Calakmul, Campeche and Sian Ka'an, Quintana Roo) in addition to the Selva Zoque wilderness area and 2 flora and fauna protection areas (Laguna de Terminos, Campeche & Uaymil, Quintana Roo. The Bountiful area, even today after lumber, rubber & petroleum booms have degraded the ecosystem, is a verdant landscape with many large expanses of species-rich wilderness and wetlands supporting significant animal populations.
Proposed Land Bountiful Crossing 7 Protected Natural Areas
Known in Mexico as Areas Naturales Protegidas (ANP)
Alma 22:31 describes the land southward as a vast wilderness ca. 586 B.C. when the Mulekites arrived. The term "wilderness" in the Book of Mormon meant an area, usually but not always sparsely populated, outside formal political and military control of the group authoring the passage. See the article "A Note about Wilderness." Certainly to the Mulekites, newly arrived up into the south wilderness, this description was apt. Even today, when large urban areas like Villahermosa, Tabasco; Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas and Guatemala City, Guatemala dot the landscape, there are still large expanses of territory with wilderness characteristics. A fascinating way to visualize areas with little human activity is through NASA's stunning "Earth Lights at Night" satellite imagery. This is a night view of Mesoamerica with major cities marked. The white line is our Bountiful/Desolation boundary. The large light in the Gulf of Mexico comes from gas flares on oil platforms. 
Modern Mesoamerican Cities via Night Satellite Imagery
Zooming in on the presumed land southward, we highlight areas with little human activity in red.
Land Southward Areas with Low Contemporary Population Densities
The Electronic Atlas of Ancient Maya Sites (EAAMS) is the most widely-available comprehensive data set of archaeological sites know to science in southern Mesoamerica. It contains over 6,000 geo-coded sites and was built specifically to allow archaeologists to work with Maya land use and settlement patterns. Plotting EAAMS data in our area of interest, we highlight areas with few known ancient sites in yellow.
Land Southward Areas with Low Ancient Population Densities
The degree of overlap between areas with low levels of human activity anciently and small contemporary populations is striking. Certain areas are simply more likely to support human settlement in any time period. Areas with less evidence of human presence are A list candidates for Book of Mormon "wilderness."
Potential Wilderness Areas Compared
Alma 22:31 references vertebrate species diversity ("all manner of wild animals of every kind") in the land southward wilderness. We saw above that many biosphere reserves and protected natural areas have been created in the area we correlate with the land southward. Just how biologically diverse is this area? Mexico is one of only a handful of nations considered "mega-diverse" in species richness. Only Brazil, Colombia, China and Indonesia have a greater variety of species. In mammalian species, Mexico ranks 3rd in the world behind only Indonesia and Brazil. In reptilian species, Mexico ranks 2nd in the world behind only Australia. These numbers are from CONABIO, the Comision Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. And among the 31 Mexican states, which are the most species rich? Oaxaca is #1 and Chiapas is #2. Measuring only vertebrate species, the ranking is Veracruz (1,361), Oaxaca (1,322) and Chiapas (1,117), these three states being far ahead of any others in the country. See Capital Natural de Mexico published by CONABIO, cuadro 11.11. This map shows Mexican state boundaries in our area of interest. Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas all have territory in our land southward and our land Bountiful includes portions of them all.
Mexican States in Proposed Land Southward
So, the area we correlate with the land southward is in the most biologically diverse part of one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet. Not bad corroboration for a statement engraved by the Prophet Mormon about 1,650 years ago.
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Alma 22:32 Up to this point in Mormon's geographic treatise, he has taken us on a continental journey of immense proportion using grand vocabulary:
In the 5 verses Alma 22:27-31 there is only 1 reference to something small: the dividing line between the greater land of Nephi on the south and the greater land of Zarahemla on the north was a "narrow strip" Alma 22:27. See the articles "Narrow and Small Things" and "The Narrow Strip of Wilderness" for context. And even the narrow strip of wilderness was small only in width - its length was coast to coast Alma 22:27.

Alma 22:32 changes tone. Mormon used diminutive terminology "only the distance of a day and a half's journey," "small neck of land" to focus our attention on a relatively modest-sized area that looms large in Nephite affairs. How far was a day and a half's journey for a Nephite? In the first place, we take the term "day's journey" Mosiah 23:3, Alma 8:6, Helaman 4:7 as a standard unit of measure among the Nephites. Just as they had standard precious metal values for exchange of goods, they had standard measures Alma 11:4 and the multiple references to a "day's journey" in the text convince us that lineal distance was one of their cardinal measures. To deduce a likely value for a Nephite day's journey, we analyzed 18 known historical journeys in southern Mesoamerica and plotted daily travel rates. We then did a reality check by comparing our results with well-documented journeys in other parts of the world. See the article "Land Southward Travel Times." Ultimately, we determined that 15 air or straight line kilometers was a reasonable, defensible approximation of the Nephite distance measure. By that metric, the distance described in Alma 22:32 would have been about 22.5 air kilometers.

How does 22.5 kilometers compare with the continental distances noted above? Mormon's use of the term "only the distance of a day and a half's journey" means 22.5 kilometers was not considered far in Nephite usage. See the article "Things Near and Far" for an idea of what distances the Nephites did consider "far" in their culture. This map shows relative distances in our correlation.
Continental Distances Relative to 23 Kilometers
In our view, 22.5 air kilometers Alma 22:32 is 6.7% of the distance from the head of Sidon to the southern border of the land Bountiful (336 air kilometers) Alma 22:29 and 5.3% of the distance from the sea east to the sea west along the narrow strip of wilderness (424 air kilometers) Alma 22:27. So, Mormon, in the diminutive language of Alma 22:32, was describing a distance between 1/15th and 1/20th as far as the much longer distances he had just described and implied in Alma 22:27-31. In this context, his use of the term "only the distance of a day and a half's journey" seems highly appropriate.

Alma 22:32 describes a line approximately 22.5 kilometers long that ran east west separating the lands Desolation on the northward from Bountiful on the southward. Royal Skousen's critical text emends this phrase to read "the line between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation," closely matching the phrasing in 3 Nephi 3:23. Alma 63:5 calls the area just south of this line "the borders of the land Bountiful by the land Desolation." There is one other analogous passage in the text where a line ran between two polities. Alma 50:11 refers to the narrow strip of wilderness as a "line between the Nephites and the Lamanites, between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi." Two verses later, Mormon called the narrow strip of wilderness "the line of the possessions of the Lamanites" Alma 50:13.

Alma 22:32 continues describing this boundary line between the lands Bountiful and Desolation. It began at some unspecified point in the east and ran to the west sea. The map below shows our candidate for this east west line in red running from an elevation of 525 meters up the Pacific slopes of the Sierra Madre to the Mar Muerto saltwater lagoon. Mar Muerto opens to the Pacific and could reasonably be considered an extension of the sea west. It is one of the most productive salt water fisheries in Mexico. For a great deal more detail about this unique part of the Chiapan coast, see the articles "The Narrow (Small) Neck of Land" and "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage." We purposely scaled back the opacity of the land Bountiful green polygon in this view so the base map detail shows through clearly.
Proposed Line Between the Land Bountiful and the Land Desolation
With the west coast portions of the lands Bountiful & Desolation described, Mormon has now taken us on a grand circle tour around the entire land southward. In order, he has described:
  1. The greater land of Nephi running from the sea east to the sea west Alma 22:27.
  2. The narrow strip of wilderness, also running from the sea east to the sea west, separating the greater lands of Nephi on the south and Zarahemla on the north Alma 22:27.
  3. The narrow strip of wilderness, running from the east to the west, passing wilderness to the north, the borders of the Nephite land Manti, and the head of the river Sidon Alma 22:27.
  4. The west coasts of both the greater lands of Nephi and Zarahemla (occupied by Lamanites ca. 90 B.C.) Alma 22:28.
  5. The east coast of the greater land of Zarahemla (occupied by Lamanites ca. 90 B.C.) Alma 22:29.
  6. The northern part of the greater land of Zarahemla Alma 22:29.
  7. The land Bountiful northward from Zarahemla Alma 22:29.
  8. The land Desolation northward from land Bountiful Alma 22:30.
  9. The hill Ramah-Cumorah area where Mulek & company made first landfall in the northern portion of the land Desolation Alma 22:30.
  10. The term Desolation applied to the land northward Alma 22:31.
  11. The term Bountiful applied to the land southward Alma 22:31.
  12. The strategic interface between the lands Bountiful & Desolation along the west coast Alma 22:32.
This map, illustrating the geo-political situation in Book of Mormon lands ca. 90 B.C., shows Lamanite territory outlined in blue, Nephite territory in red, and other territory in white. The numbers 1 - 12 with circle icons correspond to the 12 geographic features itemized in the list above.
Proposed Correlation of 12 Geographic Features
from Mormon's Description in Alma 22
Alma 22:32 Point 12 on our map above, the east west defensive boundary between the land Bountiful on the southward and the land Desolation on the northward was the last piece in Mormon's puzzle, the last remaining area of Nephite settlement not yet described in Alma 22:27-31. It was also the only coastal Nephite settlement ca. 90 B.C. It was a strategic military outpost, very remote from the Nephite culture core. It was in the west sea portion of land Bountiful. The greater land of Zarahemla ca. 90 B.C. was land locked, although the Nephites were moving eastward driving the Lamanites before them Alma 22:29 and by ca. 77 B.C. they had settled the land of Jershon by the east sea Alma 27:22.

Alma 22:32 After taking us us on a verbal grand tour around the circumference of Book of Mormon lands, Mormon had laid enough groundwork to share a summary statement "and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water." The land of Nephi referenced here was the greater land of Nephi that had both an east coast Alma 50:8 and a west coast Alma 50:11. The term "Zarahemla" had multiple meanings in Nephite usage. See the article "Zarahemla." One of those meanings was a continental land of Zarahemla that included the land Bountiful Ether 9:31. In its continental sense, the land of Zarahemla + the greater land of Nephi constituted the whole of the land southward. So, even though the greater land of Zarahemla would require another 25 years to finally extend from the east coast Alma 50:13 to the west coast Alma 56:31, ca. 90 B.C. the combination of the continental Zarahemla + Nephi was a multi-coastal entity. In question #1 above we illustrate our correlation of the term "nearly surrounded by water."

Alma 22:32 concludes with a description of the narrow (small) neck of land, the final topographic feature Mormon introduced in his primary geographic treatise Alma 22:27-34. Why is it mentioned here at this point in the text? Because the narrow (small) neck of land was one of a cluster of features all associated with the strategic border area between the land southward and the land northward described in Alma 22:32-34. Where was this border area? The text is absolutely explicit on this point - the defensible border between Bountiful on the south and Desolation on the north, the narrow (small) neck of land region, was on the west sea Alma 22:32, Alma 22:33, Alma 63:5. What distinguished this particular place - the area identified as #12 on the map above? This was the one location in Nephite territory where the mountains came close enough to the sea to create a natural choke point narrow enough that a modest-sized military garrison could control northward-southward movement along the preferred coastal route. On the map below, the continental divide is shown in white and the narrow (small) neck of land region is marked with a red circle.
Proposed Narrow (Small) Neck of Land Region Where
the Topography Greatly Aids Military Defense
The cluster of geographic features in the narrow neck region included:
  1. Narrow (small) neck of land Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5, Ether 10:20.
  2. Narrow pass Alma 50:34, Alma 52:9, Mormon 3:5.
  3. Narrow passage Mormon 2:29.
  4. Line between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation [1.5 day's journey] (borders of the land Bountiful by the land Desolation) Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5, 3 Nephi 3:23.
  5. Bountiful defensive line [1 day's journey] Helaman 4:7.
  6. Lib's city Ether 10:19-20.
  7. City of Desolation Mormon 3:5-7.
  8. Hagoth's port Alma 63:5.
  9. Place where the sea divides the land Ether 10:20.
  10. Sea west Alma 22:32-33Alma 50:34Alma 63:5.
  11. Sea on the west and on the east (sea west eastern component) Alma 50:34.
  12. Teancum vs. Morianton battlefield Alma 50:34-35.
  13. Land Bountiful Alma 22:32Alma 63:5, 3 Nephi 3:23.
  14. Land Desolation Alma 22:32Alma 63:5, 3 Nephi 3:23.
  15. Land which was near the land Bountiful Helaman 4:5.
  16. Land which was between the land Zarahemla and the land Bountiful 3 Nephi 3:23.
This map shows all 16 features in our correlation with numbered circle icons. The continental divide ridge line of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range is in white. Rivers in the Mezcalapa-Grijalva drainage basin are in blue. Rivers draining to the Pacific are in yellow. The red circle has a radius of 33.75 kilometers. The faint yellow path is Mexican Federal Highway 200, the Carretera Pacifico. The Trans Isthmian railroad is in magenta. Our land Bountiful is in light green overlay. Green circle icons represent natural features. Red circle icons represent Nephite features. Orange circle icons represent Jaredite or Jaredite-related features. The local Barra San Marcos and Cabeza de Toro roads are in black. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge
Narrow (Small) Neck of Land Area within Red Circle
16 Geographic Feature Marked with Circle Icons
For more detail about the clustered features in this compact area, see the articles "The Narrow (Small) Neck of Land" and "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage." On the map above, there are two icons labeled "1" because we correlate the narrow (small) neck of land with the ancient sandbar known as Barra San Marcos on the Chiapan side and Barra de Tonala on the Oaxacan side of the Mar Muerto outlet. The outlet itself, #9 on the map above, we correlate with the place where the sea divides the land.

Alma 22:32 says the narrow (small) neck of land ran between the land northward and the land southward. The actual boundary in this region between the land northward (Desolation) and the land southward (Bountiful) was the east west line identified as feature #4 on the map above. This map shows our interpretation of "between the land northward and the land southward." The continental divide is in white. The land Desolation (land northward) is in brown overlay. The narrow (small) neck of land is in green. The east west Bountiful Desolation boundary line is in red. In our correlation, the land northward/southward border along the Pacific coast is precisely at the Mar Muerto outlet to the sea, the place where the sea divides the land.
Proposed Narrow (Small) Neck of Land Between the
Land Northward and the Land Southward
Alma 63:5 says the narrow (small) neck of land led into the land northward. This map shows the Barra San Marcos road and the Cabeza de Toro road (both in black) intersecting at the modern town of Cabeza de Toro. The ancient archaeological site of Cabeza de Toro, among others, is shown as a red pyramid icon. These modern roads lead past the east west Bountiful Desolation line (in red) into the  land northward precisely as Mormon's description indicates.
Proposed Narrow (Small) Neck of Land Leading into the Land Northward
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Alma 22:33 describes a Nephite military outpost in the land Bountiful on the west sea. Nephites inhabited the area immediately south of the east west Bountiful Desolation boundary line. Mormon uses nearly identical language to describe the boundary line itself Alma 22:32 and the Nephite settlement zone adjacent to the line Alma 22:33. The whole purpose of this remote Nephite defensive garrison was to prevent Lamanite incursion into the land northward. Along the entire Pacific Coast from Guatemala to Oaxaca, the Nephites could not have chosen a better place to keep the restive Lamanites "hemmed in" on the south. The terrain around the Laguna de la Joya creates narrow travel corridors between the ocean and the steep slopes of the Sierra Madre. Lamanites moving northward along the narrow (small) neck of land would have been hemmed in by saltwater on either side. As this map shows, the narrow (small) neck itself is barely over 2 kilometers wide and its connection to the mainland just under 3 kilometers wide. Dense mangrove swamps, inherently difficult to transit, line the edges of this corridor to the mainland.
Proposed Narrow (Small) Neck of Land Hemmed in by Saltwater
The Trans Isthmian rail route (in magenta on the map below), along the southern edge of Cerro Bernal, is even more restricted. At the point we identify as the narrow  pass, we place a 500 meter transect beginning at the Laguna de la Joya waterline (sea level) and running up the steep slopes of Cerro Bernal. The elevation after a 500 meter run is 135 meters. That is a rise to run ratio of 135/500 or a 27 percent slope. This rugged, steep terrain with very little coastal plain favors defenders and disadvantages attackers in most military scenarios. Lamanites coming northward along this route would have been hemmed in by saltwater on one side and mountains on the other.
Proposed Narrow Pass Hemmed in by Saltwater & Cerro Bernal
Mexican Federal Highway 200 runs through the valley we correlate with the narrow passage. This valley, approximately 1 kilometer wide, lies at an average elevation of 80 meters between Cerro Bernal to the southwest and the Sierra Madre to the northeast. Mountains rise several hundred meters on either side. The aqua line on the map below represents the shortest distance from saltwater to continental divide of any point along the 500 kilometer long Guatemalan or Chiapan Pacific coast. Lamanites attempting to cross this narrow valley would have been hemmed in by mountains on both sides.
Proposed Narrow Passage Hemmed in by Cerro Bernal and the Sierra Madre
 Alma 22:33 describes Nephite occupation of the land Bountiful south of the east west Bountiful Desolation boundary line from an unspecified eastern point to the west sea. This occupation was evidence of Nephite wisdom because it allowed their guards (sentries, lookouts) and their armies to keep Lamanite foes hemmed in on the south. In this unique area, the Nephite military could prevent Lamanite movement into the land northward along the favored coastal route. Fortifying Alma 52:9, Helaman 4:7 the one place along the entire Pacific coast of Guatemala or Chiapas where the  terrain strongly favors defenders in a military engagement strikes us as the height of wisdom. The combined length of the battle lines exposed to a direct frontal assault in the area around Laguna de la Joya and Cerro Bernal would have been a modest 5 kilometers (narrow (small) neck of land 2-3 kilometers + narrow pass .5 kilometers + narrow passage 1-2 kilometers). This is small enough to have qualified for the adjective "narrow" in Book of Mormon usage. See the article "Narrow and Small Things." Assuming our correlation of the west sea with the Pacific coast of Guatemala and Chiapas is correct, we can state unequivocally there is no other place along that 500 kilometer stretch of coastal plain where the Nephite defensive fronts would have been this small. The combination of a mountain spur reaching the water's edge (Cerro Bernal) and sizable saltwater lagoons (Mar Muerto + Laguna de la Joya) created a natural choke point the Nephites wisely exploited for centuries.

How many men at arms may have been in the Nephite army manning the west sea Bountiful defensive post ca. 90 B.C.? The text does not specify, but we can extrapolate backward from firm numbers reported in the next generation. During the seven years' war (ca. 67 - 61 B.C.) the Nephites were fighting an all out war on two fronts - the east coast from Moroni Alma 62:33 on the south to Mulek Alma 53:2 on the north and the south western flank of the greater land of Zarahemla from Manti Alma 58:28 on the east to Antiparah Alma 57:4 on the west. Troop strength under Helaman1 and Antipus varied between 6,000 and 16,000 during active campaigns in the southwestern theater. See the article "Population Sizes and Casualty Counts." Numbers in the eastern theater were probably similar because Captain Moroni, after putting down insurrection in the local land of Zarahmela, sent 6,000 reinforcements to each front Alma 62:12-13. Based on these metrics, it is likely the military force guarding the narrow (small) neck of land region ca. 90 B.C. did not exceed 5,000 men. As a point of comparison, the size of a legion in the fabled Imperial Roman Army (ca. 30 B.C. to A.D. 284) was about 5,000 men. Augustus, first emperor of Rome (ca. 30 B.C. to A.D. 14) had 25 legions at his command.

Could a Nephite force of approximately 5,000 have effectively guarded the narrow (small) neck of land, narrow pass and narrow passage from Lamanite invasion? Given the small size of the actual defensive front (approximately 5,000 meters) and the uphill advantage afforded by much of the local topography, the answer is yes. Some interesting points to consider:
  • This Bountiful Desolation interface area anchored the western end of the Nephite line of defense against the Gadianton robbers ca. A.D. 17 3 Nephi 3:23.
  • Mormon gathered the Nephite nation together in the land of Joshua ca. A.D. 327. We correlate the land of Joshua with the region immediately southward from west sea Bountiful. This is probably the same area referred to in Helaman 4:5 (ca. 35 B.C.) as the land near the land  Bountiful. See the map below for a visual reference. 
  • The text does not record a Lamanite breach of the defenses in this area until ca. A.D. 345 when the Nephites were driven into the land northward Mormon 2:16-17.
  • Archaeologists studying this region point to several ancient sites whose primary function seems to have been control of the northward southward travel routes through this naturally constricted area. See Akira Kaneko, Centro INAH Chiapas, "Investigacion Arqueologica en la Region Tonala de la Costa del Pacifico de Chiapas" in J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo & H. Mejia, XXII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala, 2008, Guatemala City: Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, 2009, pp. 562-579. 
  • Mormon again gathered the Nephite nation together in the city of Desolation ca. A.D. 360 Mormon 3:5-7. The city of Desolation was in the narrow (small) neck of land, narrow pass, narrow passage region.
  • The city Teancum, first attested in the text ca. A.D. 363, was near the city of Desolation Mormon 4:3 in the narrow (small) neck of land, narrow pass, narrow passage region. See the article "Things Near and Far" for an idea of what the Nephites considered geographically "near."
This map shows our correlation of the Bountiful/Desolation border region including the city Teancum northward and the land of Joshua (land near the land Bountiful) southward.
Proposed Narrow (Small) Neck of Land, Narrow Pass, Narrow Passage Region
including City Teancum Northward and Land of Joshua Southward
Viable modern day correlates exist for for every geographic feature mentioned in the text in this Bountiful/Desolation border region except one. We have yet to identify a suitable candidate for the city Teancum. Fortunately, INAH is currently investing archaeological resources in this area and much more information should be forthcoming. The large site Iglesia Vieja was just opened to the public in 2012. See "Refrenda el Presidente Apertura de Zonas Arqueologicas." A key research question archaeologists are anxious to answer: the nature and degree of Teotihuacan influence in the area. This is a place where influences are known from the Olmec, Zoque, Mixtec and Maya. It was an important transit corridor for people and goods moving between the gulf coast, the central Mexican plateau, the Maya highlands, and the central depression of Chiapas. 

Alma 22:33 concludes with a statement of the Nephite strategy to keep Lamanites out of the land northward.
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Alma 22:34 elaborates on the Nephite containment policy. This map shows our correlation of Lamanite lands in the greater land of Nephi (in white) and the wilderness round about (in light green) ca. 90 B.C. The land Bountiful is in dark green and the river Sidon with major tributaries and distributaries in red.
Proposed Greater Land of Nephi with Wilderness Round About
Alma 22:34 goes on to articulate the Nephite dread of being surrounded with no escape route Alma 52:9. They envisioned the land northward as a potential homeland should the Lamanites in the land southward ever completely overpower them, which was in fact precisely what happened ca. A.D. 350 Mormon 2:28-29.
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This concludes our phrase by phrase exegesis of Alma 22:27-34 and our explication of question #3 "Did the greater land of Zarahemla extend from the sea east to the sea west? The answer is yes, by ca. 66 B.C.

4. Did the narrow strip of wilderness extend from the sea east to the sea west? Alma 22:27 explicitly says yes. See the article "The Narrow Strip of Wilderness."

5. Did the land Bountiful extend from the sea east to the sea west? Yes. The text refers to the land Bountiful in 3 different contexts: a) east sea Bountiful where the city of Bountiful was located, b) central Bountiful north of the local land of Zarahmela, and c) west sea Bountiful where the narrow (small) neck of land, narrow pass and narrow passage were all located, along with a number of other clustered geographic features.See the articles "The Narrow (Small) Neck of Land" and "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage." Some of the relevant texts:

Bountiful East
Alma 27:22 The land of Jershon was by the east sea. The land Bountiful was north of Jershon. Therefore, the land Bountiful was also by the east sea.
The city of Bountiful in the land Bountiful was not far from the city of Mulek Alma 52:17, Alma 52:27. The city of Mulek was explicitly on the east seacoast Alma 51:26. So, the city of Bountiful was also near the east seacoast as Alma 51:32 indicates.

Bountiful Central
Alma 22:29 Beginning at the head of Sidon roughly in the middle of the greater land of Zarahemla and moving northward through Nephite-occupied territory along the central Sidon corridor, one eventually came to the land Bountiful.
Helaman 1:27-29 Coriantumr invaded the greater land of Zarahemla and captured the Nephite capital city of Zarhahemla. He was marching in a north easterly direction through the most capital parts of the land when Lehi2 stopped his advance before he reached the land Bountiful.

Bountiful West
Alma 22:32-33 An east west line separating the land Bountiful on the south from the land Desolation on the north ran from an unspecified point in the east to the west sea. Nephites ca. 90 B.C. inhabited the land Bountiful south of this line, again from an unspecified point in the east to the west sea. So, the land Bountiful had a west seacoast.
Alma 63:5 Hagoth launched ships into the west sea from a port in the land Bountiful just south of the east west Bountiful/Desolation boundary line. So, the land Bountiful had a west seacoast.

So, the answer to question #5 is a resounding yes. The land Bountiful extended from the sea east to the sea west with a significant northern exposure in the center of Nephite territory. Our land Bountiful (53,871 square kilometers) is shaped somewhat like and is close to the same size as the modern nation of Croatia (56,594 square kilometers).
Land Bountiful Running from the Sea East to the Sea West
6. Did the narrow (small) neck of land extend from the sea east to the sea west? No. The text does not associate the narrow (small) neck of land with the sea east. It was a regional geographic feature associated exclusively with the west sea Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5 and a cluster of features (narrow pass, narrow passage, etc.) in close proximity to the east west Bountiful/Desolation boundary line. See the articles "The Narrow (Small) Neck of Land" and "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage."

7. Was the Isthmus of Tehuantepec the narrow (small) neck of land? No for a variety of reasons.

A. The text says the narrow (small) neck of land led from the land southward into the land northward Alma 63:5 and ran between the land northward and the land southward Alma 22:32. This means the narrow (small) neck of land was oriented southward to northward. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is oriented east west.

B. The text says the narrow (small) neck of land was by the west sea Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec runs between the sea north and the sea south.

C. The text says the narrow (small) neck of land was narrow and small Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5, Ether 10:20. At 57,629 square kilometers, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is neither narrow nor small. Its surface area is larger than 9 of the 50 United States. It is 211 kilometers wide from east to west, running from the 94th to the 96th meridians of west longitude (official International Geographical Union, IGU, definition). It is 216 kilometers wide from north to south. Tehuantepec is one of the widest isthmuses on planet Earth. See the article "Isthmuses." It is orders of magnitude larger than the size the Nephites meant or implied when they used the terms "narrow" and "small." See the article "Narrow and Small Things."
Isthmus of Tehuantepec NOT Nephites' Narrow (Small) Neck of Land
8. Was the local land of Zarahemla closer to the mouth or the head of the river Sidon? In other words, was it upstream in the highlands or downstream in the lowlands? The answer is the Nephite culture core was closer to the mouth than to the head of Sidon. The capital of the far-flung and often tenuous Nephite nation was downstream in the lowlands rather than upstream in the highlands. Before we elucidate the evidence for that correlation, we need to look closely at the river itself.

The river Sidon flowed generally south to north. See the article "River Sidon South to North." Book of Mormon scholars have recognized this orientation since serious textual studies began in the 19th century. In George Reynolds' A Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon, first published in 1899, the entry for Sidon, River reads "The most important river in Nephite History; known today as the Magdalena. It runs northward through the United States of Colombia and empties into the Carribean (sic) Sea." Reynolds' correlation reflects the powerful influence of Orson Pratt's (1811-1881) thinking. Pratt advocated a hemispheric model with the Isthmus of Panama as the narrow (small) neck of land. The 1981 LDS edition of The Book of Mormon index entry for Sidon, River reads "most prominent river in Nephite territory, runs north to sea." The 2013 LDS edition of the text changed that index entry to read simply "most prominent river in Nephite territory" much to the delight of those who nonsensically propose the Mississippi as the Sidon. Nevertheless, the Sidon flowed generally northward from southern highlands.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, two rivers have received significant Book of Mormon scholarly attention - the Usumacinta and the Mezcalapa-Grijalva. The map below shows the Usumacinta with its major upstream tributary, the Chixoy Negro in red. The Mezcalapa-Grijalva with its major upstream tributary, the Selegua, is in blue. The Mezcalapa-Grijalva is shown emptying into the Gulf of Campeche where the Tonala River runs today. See the article "Wandering River" to understand why Tabascan hydrologists believe the large Mezcalapa-Grijalva flowed past the Olmec site of La Venta in Book of Mormon times.
Mezcalapa-Grijalva and Usumacinta Rivers
In 1983, I (Kirk Magleby) authored the script for the FARMS "Lands of the Book of Mormon" multimedia presentation. John L. Sorenson was my editor on that project. The script read "The Sidon was probably the Grijalva river flowing from Guatemala through Chiapas and Tabasco and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, or it may have been the Usumacinta river 130 air miles to the east." In 2013, I am convinced with near certainty that the Usumacinta was the Sidon and the weight of scholarly opinion is gradually coalescing around the larger, more sluggish river. The correlation published in this blog "Book of Mormon Map," "Book of Mormon Model" assumes the Usumacinta was the Sidon. See "The Usumacinta/Sidon Correlation."

Geographers and archaeologists divide the Usumacinta river into 6 major sections marked on the map below.
6 Sections of the Usumacinta River
The Chixoy Negro runs for 175 river kilometers, 115 air kilometers, and descends from 2,132 meters to 720 meters elevation. The Chixoy runs for 232 river kilometers, 89 air kilometers, and descends from 720 meters to 125 meters elevation. Most of that vertical drop (720 to 270 meters) is in the first 78 kilometers of the Chixoy's course. The Salinas runs for 114 river kilometers, 46 air kilometers, and descends from 125 meters to 109 meters elevation. The upper Usumacinta runs for 227 river kilometers, 145 air kilometers, and descends from 109 meters to 17 meters elevation. The middle Usumacinta runs for 200 river kilometers, 55 air kilometers and descends from 17 meters to 4 meters elevation. The lower Usumacinta runs for 190 river kilometers, 118 air kilometers, and descends from 4 meters elevation to sea level.

The Chixoy Negro becomes the Chixoy at its confluence with the Salama, the point we identify as the head of Sidon. The Chixoy becomes the Salinas at the Guatemala - Mexico line. The Salinas becomes the Usumacinta at its confluence with the Pasion. The lower Usumacinta becomes the middle Usumacinta at the spectacular Boca del Cerro where the river makes a dramatic exit from the mountains. The middle Usumacinta becomes the lower Usumacinta at the boundary between the piedmont and the permanent + seasonal flood plain in the delta. Based on annual volume of water discharged (105 billion cubic meters), the Usumacinta (which in modern times inlcudes the Mezcalapa-Grijalva with which it shares a common mouth) is the 7th largest river on earth.

We correlate the head of the Chixoy with the head of Sidon, the Chixoy area with Manti, the upper Usumacinta area with Melek and Minon, the middle Usumacinta with the local land of Zarahemla, and the lower Usumacinta with the wilderness of Hermounts and the land Bountiful along the coast. This map shows the various relationships.
6 Sections of the Usumacinta River with Proposed Nephite Lands
Our research question is whether the local land of Zarahemla is closer to the mouth (downstream lowlands) or the head (upstream highlands) of river Sidon. The river distance from the head of the Chixoy to the mouth of the Usumacinta is 232 + 114 + 227 + 200 + 190 = 963 river kilometers. The midpoint of that length would be kilometer 482, fairly close to the Yaxchilan oxbow on the upper Usumacinta. The air distance (in stages) from the head of the Chixoy to the mount of the Usumacinta is 89 + 46 + 145 + 55 + 118 = 453 air kilometers. The midpoint of that length would be kilometer 227, also fairly close to the Yaxchilan oxbow on the upper Usumacinta. So, we will draw an east west transect through the greater land of Zarahemla that intersects the Yaxchilan oxbow. Any feature north of (downstream from) that line we will consider in the northern part of Nephite lands, closer to the mouth than to the head of Sidon. Any feature south (upstream) we will consider in the southern part of Nephite lands, closer to the head than to the mouth of Sidon.
East West Transect through Yaxchilan Oxbow, Midpoint of Nephite Lands
A. Absolute Distance. We saw earlier in this article that the distance Almaand his converts traveled from the local land of Nephi Mosiah 23:1 to the local land of Zarahemla Mosiah 24:25 was on the order of 320 air kilometers assuming our derivation of the Nephite standard distance measure as explained in the article "Land Southward Travel Times." We like John L. Sorenson's suggestion (accepted by most LDS Mesoamericanists) that Kaminaljuyu, capital of the highland Maya culture core, was the city of Nephi. Google Earth calculates an air distance of 326 kilometers from Kaminaljuyu in greater Guatemala City to Boca del Cerro south of Tenosique, Tabasco.
326 Straight Line Kilometers from Kaminaljuyu to Boca del Cerro
Clearly our local land of Zarahemla in the piedmont zone west of the middle Usumacinta is a reasonable distance from our local land of Nephi in highland Guatemala based on the travels described in Mosiah chapters 23 and 24. Alma1's travel distances indicate the local land of Zarahemla was north of the greater land of Zarahemla midpoint, downstream closer to the mouth and not upstream closer to the head of Sidon.

B. Lands Along the River. The text explicitly describes the local land of Zarahemla, the land of Gideon and the land of Minon clustered together. Zarahemla was west of the river Alma 2:15 and Gideon was east of the river Alma 6:7. Minon was upstream from (south of) the local land of Zarahemla Alma 2:24 in the direction of the land of Nephi far to the south. The Amlicites crossed over the river from Gideon to Minon and joined their Lamanite allies fighting their way toward the local land of Zarahemla Alma 2:25. The Nephite army also crossed over the river from Gideon to the local land of Zarahemla and engaged the Lamanite + Amlicite force on the west bank of Sidon Alma 2:34. From this we learn that the local land of Zarahemla and the land of Minon were contiguous west of the river, opposite the land of Gideon east of the river. This map shows the relationships. See the articles "Gideon" and "Minon." By virtue of their proximity, these 3 lands formed the heart of the Nephite culture core. Gideon in particular was generally loyal to the Nephite religious tradition Alma 30:21 and patriotic to the Nephite republican form of government Alma 61:5-7
Local Land of Zarahemla, Land of Gideon & Land of Minon
Clustered Together on Either Side of River Sidon
We have elsewhere discussed textual evidence that the land of Ammonihah was an eastward extension of the Nephite culture core, incorporated into the greater polity at least as early as Alma1's church plantings ca. 120 B.C. See the articles "The Church in Zarahemla," "Sidon East then West," and "Ammonihah Noah & Sidom all East of Sidon." In contrast with Gideon, though, Ammonihah was a rogue state, apostate religiously Alma 15:15 and seditious politically Alma 2:9. See the articles "Ammonihah" and "Peripatetic Amlici." We site Ammonihah along the San Pedro river east of Gideon as this map shows.
Proposed Nephite Culture Core Including Ammonihah to the East
The text gives us enough detail about the land of Manti to site it on the extreme southern border of Nephite lands, near the narrow strip of wilderness and head of Sidon Alma 22:27, Alma 43:22, east of the river Alma 16:6-7. This means the land of Manti was definitely upstream in the highlands near the head of Sidon. See the article "Manti" and our correlation on the map below.
Proposed Land of Manti South Along the River
The land of Melek was also along the river. We know this because the text uses the phrase "west of the river Sidon" to describe it Alma 8:3 and every other Nephite use of the phrases "east (or west) of Sidon" can be shown in context to be riverside. Furthermore, several textual references link Melek to the southern tier of Nephite lands. We know, for example, that the land of Melek was approximately 45 air kilometers south of the city of Ammonihah Alma 8:6. In our correlation, this puts most of Melek south of the greater land of Zarahemla midpoint line. See the article "Melek" and the map below.
Proposed Land of Melek 3 Days' Journey South of the City of Ammonihah
Once the people of Ammon (Anti-Nephi-:Lehies) migrated from the land of Jershon to the land of Melek ca. 74 B.C. Alma 35:13, Melek became a preferred destination for Lamanites coming up from the greater land of Nephi to the south Alma 47:29, or from the Nephihah area which was also in the south Alma 62:17.

Helamanrecruited 2,000 young men from among the people of Ammon in Melek to fight with him on the southwestern front Alma 53:8, Alma 56:9-15.

A supply line for provisions was established from Melek to the southwestern front Alma 56:27 ca. 65 B.C. That supply line was still intact ca. 63 B.C. when the Nephites were preparing to liberate Cumeni Alma 57:6. The supply line was disrupted later that year when Nephite forces reached the Manti area Alma 58:7. This suggests Melek was close enough to Manti to suffer communication and transportation failures due to the massive Alma 58:2, Alma 58:5 Lamanite troop buildup in and around Manti.

This map plots relationships (in yellow) described or implied in the text between Melek and entities known to be along the southern tier of Nephite lands or farther south in Lamanite territory.
Melek Relationships Southward
Taking all these data points into account, the relationship of the lands along the river that best fits the text is the local land of Zarahemla/Minon/Gideon/Ammonihah cluster northward, Manti southward, and Melek in the middle.

C. Relative Distances. We know from the text that the Nephite phrase "take journey" meant a long trip, generally through wilderness, requiring advance preparation and logistical support (tents, etc.) en route. We will analyze this phrase in detail in a future article, but for the time being it is sufficient to note that when the Nephites "took their journey" it was much more than a casual day trip Mosiah 24:24, Mosiah 28:9. Knowing this helps us set bounds around the relative distance between the city of Zarahemla and the land of Melek Alma 8:3 and between the city of Ammonihah and the city of Aaron Alma 8:13.We would expect the distances in both cases to be at least 6 days' travel, 90 air kilometers according to our derivation of the Nephite standard unit of distance measure (see the article "Land Southward Travel Times"). Where did our 6 day minimum come from?
  • Our derivation of the absolute distance between the local land of Zarahemla and the local land of Nephi (320 kilometers). See point A above.
  • Preliminary analysis of the context of other passages using the Nephite phrase "take journey."
  • The observation that shorter distances are often specified in absolute terms e.g. Helaman 4:7, Alma 22:32, Alma 8:6.
  • The fact that the city of Aaron is associated in the text with the lands of Nephihah and Moroni Alma 50:14 in the southeast quarter Alma 50:13 of Nephite lands.
  • Alma's comment that his journey from Ammonihah toward the city of Aaron and back again to Ammonihah had taken "many days" Alma 8:26.
This map shows our correlations of the distances between the city of Zarahemla and the land of Melek in yellow, and between the city of Ammonihah and the city of Aaron, also in yellow.
Proposed Distances City of Zarahmela to Land of Melek
and City of Ammonihan to City of Aaron
On the map above, the distance between the city of Zarahemla and the land of Melek is 135 air kilometers or about 9 days' travel. The distance between the city of Ammonihah and the city of  Aaron is 122 air kilometers or about 8 days' travel. Both of these distances support the placement of the Zarahemla/Minon/Gideon/Ammonihah Nephite culture core north of the greater land of Zarahemla midpoint, downstream closer to the mouth than the head of river Sidon.

D. Relative Directions. We know that the land of Melek was south of the city of Ammonihah Alma 8:6 which itself was east of Gideon. See point #B above and the article "Ammonihah."  We also know that the land of Manti was south of the land of Gideon Alma 17:1 which itself was east of the local land of Zarahemla Alma 6:7. In addition, we know that the wilderness of Hermounts was north and west of the local land of Zarahemla Alma 2:37. How far northwest of Zarahemla could Hermounts have been? It must have been immediately adjacent to the Nephite capital because the text describes severely injured Lamanite fighters staggering across the border and dying in the wilderness of their war wounds. See the article "Hermounts" for evidence this wilderness was likely the Pantanos de Centla swamp in the Usumacinta delta. These relative directions all support the location of the Zarahemla/Minon/Gideon/Ammonihah Nephite culture core north of the greater land of  Zarahemla midpoint, closer to the mouth than the head of the river.

E. Downstream from Zarahemla. The text describes only 3 entities north of (downstream from) the local land of Zarahemla.
  1. The wilderness of Hermounts to the northwest Alma 2:36-38.
  2. The most capital parts of the land Helaman 1:27 to the northeast (toward the city of Bountiful Helaman 1:23).
  3. The land Bountiful Alma 22:29, Helaman 1:29.
This map shows our correlation of these 3 places.
Proposed Hermounts, Most Capital Parts of the Land, Land Bountiful
North of (Downstream from) the Local Land of Zarahemla
All references to river Sidon itself in the text describe the Nephite culture core (local land of Zarahemla, Gideon, Minon) or points south. See the article "Downstream from Zarahemla." References to the river support the location of the local land of Zarahemla and environs north of the greater land of Zarahmela midpoint, downstream closer to the mouth than to the head of Sidon.

F. Proximity to Bountiful. The local land of Zarahemla was not far from the land Bountiful Helaman 1:28-29. Bountiful was north of the local land of Zarahemla Alma 22:29. Bountiful in the New World was a coastal entity Alma 22:33, Alma 27:22, Alma 63:5 as Bountiful in the Old World had been 1 Nephi 17:5. See the article "Bountiful - Context." Proximity to coastal Bountiful strongly indicates the local land of Zarahemla was in the downstream lowlands nearer the mouth of the river and not upstream in the highlands nearer the head. Another land was also geographically proximate to the land Bountiful - the land of Jershon Alma 27:22. Jershon was explicitly not far from the coast. Because of their locations south of land Bountiful, we would expect Jershon and the local land of Zarahemla to be at approximately the same latitude. This map shows our correlation of the two lands with the 17 degrees 30 minutes north latitude line in yellow running through both the local land of Zarahemla and the land of Jershon.
17 Degrees 30 Minutes North Latitude Line Running through Our Proposed
Local Land of Zarahemla and Land of Jershon, Both South of Land Bountiful
G. Northern Parts of the Land. Alma 22:29 describes the Nephites ca. 90 B.C. occupying the central Sidon corridor with their most extensive occupation in the northern parts of the greater land of Zarahemla. See the extended exegesis of Alma 22:27-34 earlier in this article. Again, the text guides us to conclude the local land of Zarahemla was northerly, downstream on the river, nearer the mouth than the head of Sidon.

H. Relative Elevations. People in the Book of Mormon traveled down to Zarahemla from the land of Nephi Omni 1:13, Alma 27:5. Zarahemla was down from Antiparah which was in the south east corner of Nephite lands Alma 56:25. Zarahemla was down from Cumeni which was along the southern tier of Nephite lands between the west sea and the land of Manti Alma 57:15. Moroni and Parhoran (critical text orthography) went down from Gideon to Zarahemla Alma 62:7. Many Lamanites, some of whom already lived in the greater land of Zarahemla Helaman 5:52 went down to the local land of Zarahemla to preach and testify to the Naphites Helaman 6:4. The text describes many groups going down to Zarahemla from a variety of points. It describes going up to Zarahemla only once, and in that case the starting elevation was sea level Alma 22:31. All these references to elevation prepositions support the location of the local land of Zarahemla in the lowlands, downhill from most other places in Nephite territory.

I. The Limhi Expedition traveled from the city of Nephi to hill Ramah-Cumorah, so we have reasonable correlations for the two end points of their journey. Possible routes between these two points show that the explorers spent a great deal of their time out of the mountains, in the lowlands wandering around the coastal plain. They thought they had found Zarahemla, so we have compelling textual evidence from ca. 121 B.C. that Zarahemla was in the coastal plain. See the blog article "Test #8 Limhi Expedition." More information about river Sidon and its relationship with Zarahemla is found in the blog article "Test #9 River Sidon."
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We submit the combination of the 18 questions we asked in the article "Asking the Right Questions" and the 8 questions just asked lead one to the best fit correlation of New World Book of Mormon lands with the modern map so long as textual phrases are interpreted consistently. Our best fit correlation as of May, 2013:
  • The river Sidon was the Chixoy/Salinas/Usumacinta running between Guatemala and Mexico. The head of Sidon was the head of the Chixoy at the confluence of the Chixoy Negro with the Salama.
  • The land southward was southern Mesoamerica from the Coatzacoalcos in Mexico to the Ulua in Honduras. The sea east was the Caribbean. The sea west was the Pacific coast of Chiapas. The sea north was the Gulf of Campeche along the southern edge of the Gulf of Mexico. The sea south was the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca.
  • The greater land of Nephi was the area south of the Polochic fault in southern Guatemala and southward of the Huixtla in southern Chiapas. The city of Nephi was the ancient site Kaminaljuyu surrounded by modern Guatemala City.
  • The greater land of Zarahemla was the area north of the Polochic fault in southern Guatemala and northward of the Huixtla in southern Chiapas.
  • The narrow strip of wilderness was the Polochic fault in southern Guatemala which is the boundary between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. The narrow strip of wilderness passed through the Sierra Madre de Chiapas at Motozintla and then followed the Huixtla to the Pacific coast. For much of its length, the narrow strip of wilderness followed the dividing line between the highland Maya to the south and the southern lowland Maya to the north.
  • The land Bountiful was a largely coastal area averaging about 1,000 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide. It had an east sea, central and west sea component. Entirely in Mexico, it crossed the modern states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. For much of its length, its northern boundary followed the dividing line between the southern lowland Maya to the south and the northern lowland Maya to the north.
  • The narrow (small) neck of land was the Barra San Marcos on the Chiapan side and the Barra de Tonala on the Oaxacan side of the Pacific coast of southern Mexico. The narrow (small) neck of land was part of a cluster of more than a dozen geographic features including the narrow pass, narrow passage, Hagoth's port, the place where the sea divides the land, and the east west Bountiful/Desolation border line all in the municipio of Tonala, Chiapas.
  • The local land of Zarahemla was the piedmont area west of the middle Usumacinta and east of the Chilapa. The ancient site Palenque was and is notable. The city of Zarahemla was the large unexcavated Calatraba/Nueva Esperanza site 6 kilometers northwest of Emiliano Zapata, Tabasco.
  • The hill Ramah - Cumorah was in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz.
Our map as of May, 2013. Click to enlarge.
Proposed Map of Book of Mormon Lands May 2013
Our challenge. This correlation reasonably accommodates every phrase in every verse of the Yale University Press 2009 edition of the Book of Mormon. But, don't take our word for it. Install Google Earth on your PC, Mac or Linux machine. Read the article "Book of Mormon Model" and then download the model. Explore the Book of Mormon in many new and exciting ways. Discover for yourself how astonishingly precise Mormon and the other Book of Mormon authors were in their use of the words "up," "down," "east," "west," "northward," "southward," "over," "hill," "valley," "wilderness," "narrow," "small," "near," "far," "center," round about," etc.