Monday, November 30, 2015

Great Western Trade Route

Brent K.S. Woodfill and Chloe Andrieu published an article in the September 2012 journal Ancient Mesoamerica entitled "Tikal's Early Classic Domination of the Great Western Trade Route: Ceramic, Lithic, and Iconographic Evidence." They describe a well-known trail that led from the Pacific coast of Chiapas up to Kaminaljuyu on the continental divide, then down the Motagua drainage, up over the Sierra de las Minas, through the Salama Valley and around the Cahabon River to modern Coban, then down to Cancuen on the Pasion, through Dos Pilas near the head of the Usumacinta, then down the Usumacinta past Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, down the San Pedro to Moral-Reforma, then down the Usumacinta and Palizada to Aguacatal on the western edge of Laguna de los Terminos, and finally along the western coast of Campeche. Important points on the trail were the confluence of the Pasion with the Salinas to form the Usumacinta, and the confluence of the San Pedro with the Usumacinta.
Great Western Trade Route with Tikal Extension
The Tikal extension went through Seibal and around Lake Peten Itza to Tikal on the continental divide between the San Pedro and Belizean drainages.

Many Book of Mormon scholars believe Kaminaljuyu was the city of Nephi. Following the Great Western Trade Route from Kaminaljuyu to Moral-Reforma takes you right to our land of Gideon across the Sidon from our lesser land of Zarahemla. This is of some interest because the Book of Mormon says Alma, wishing to travel south from Zarahemla to Manti, first crossed over the river and began his southward journey from Gideon Alma 17:1.
Trade Route Linking Proposed Nephi and Zarahemla
Archaeologists believe the Great Western Trade Route was used in late pre-classic times and well-established by the early classic period ca. AD 250. This corresponds nicely with our current understanding of Book of Mormon geo-political history.
  • ca. 592 BC The Lehites landed on the west coast of the land southward and established the land of first inheritance Alma 22:28. In our correlation, the land of first inheritance corresponds with the Soconusco region in the general vicinity of Izapa. The Great Western Trade Route began on the Pacific coast of Chiapas in this region. 
  • ca. 588 BC Nephi took those who were willing to follow him and traveled many days eastward to the city of Nephi 2 Nephi 5:7-8. In our correlation, he traveled from the Izapa area to Kaminaljuyu, precisely following the first leg of the Great Western Trade Route.
This map shows the section of the Great Western Trade Route running eastward from the Chiapas coast to Kaminaljuyu.
Proposed First Inheritance Eastward to Nephi
It is about 180 air kilometers from Izapa to Kaminaljuyu. This distance certainly qualifies as "many days" travel according to our derived metric of 15 air kilometers per day. See the blog article "Land Southward Travel Times."

The Nephites maintained their capital at the city of Nephi for generations. Then, ca. 200 BC, Mosiahled the Nephite faithful on an exodus down from Nephi to the local land of Zarahemla. This was a long and arduous trip. The Nephites did not know the way beforehand. They were guided by divine revelation Omni 1:13. There is a concept in geo-spatial modelling called the least-effort path. This is a route through the topography that gets you from point A to point B with minimal expenditure of energy. A few years ago I came up with an idealized route from proposed Nephi to proposed Zarahemla This was my attempt to create a least-effort path, shown in black on the map below.
Proposed Nephi to Zarahemla via Least-Effort Path
On the map above, red represents the streamflows of the Usumacinta drainage basin. White is the Great Western Trade Route attested by archaeology. Black is a hypothetical least-effort path from Nephi to Zarahemla.Under the best of circumstances, the trip from Kaminaljuyu to Moral-Reforma was long and arduous. The fact that a known travel corridor connected them adds to the viability of our Nephi and Zarahemla candidates.

From ca. 200 BC to ca. 121 BC travel between Nephi and Zarahemla was sporadic. Most groups got lost en route. This is consistent with the archaeological record which reports the Great Western Trail little used during this time period. Between ca. 121 BC and ca. 90 BC Manti was established as the southernmost outpost of Nephite influence along the central Sidon corridor. That was a turning point in Nephite affairs. After the settlement of Manti, the text never reports another group getting lost and travel between Nephi and Zarahemla became routine Alma 17:1. This corresponds precisely with the picture we see from archaeology. Travel along the Great Western Trail became standardized during the late pre-classic and by the early classic ca. AD 250 the route was well-established.