Monday, May 14, 2018

The Case for Mesoamerica

Mormonism is full of urban (and rural) legends. A person's belief leads to action which triggers a reaction on the part of others which can create positive reinforcement for one's belief that starts the perpetual cycle all over again. Untrue beliefs get propagated in Mormon culture because our leadership model is hierarchical (as it must be in a Kingdom D&C 65) and we tend not to question authority. Hugh Nibley's famous quip in his 1983 Commencement address "Leaders and Managers" was, "we do not question things at the BYU."

One Mormon legend is that Lehi landed in what today is the country of Chile. While I was serving my mission in Peru 1972 - 1974 that belief was pervasive among the Saints. Positive reinforcement over the years had come from such authorities as Spencer W. Kimball, Mark E. Peterson, and Bruce R. McConkie who repeated the legend over the pulpit during visits to South America as a means of relating to their local audience. This legend is dubious at best. See the article "Did Lehi Land in Chile?" in the Book of Mormon Central Archive and the blog article "Prophets Human and Inspired."

The missionary copies of the Book of Mormon we sold or gave away in the early 1970's included photos of Machu Picchu (which we now know was constructed ca. AD 1450) and a person we thought was Elder Spencer W. Kimball standing with his wife, Camilla, inside a "baptismal font" in the Pachacamac ruins outside Lima. It turns out the couple was actually former Argentine and Uruguayan Mission President Frederick S. Williams and his wife, Corraine.
Frederick S. & Corraine Williams at Pachacamac, Photo by Elder Milton R. Hunter
On preparation day we missionaries went to Pachacamac and took pictures of ourselves by that same structure that did resemble a modern LDS squarish baptismal font. In 1975 I was in New York City on a research project and a well-educated fellow asked me at Church if I was one of those "naive people who think every hole in the ground is a baptismal font."

A couple of days before Christmas, 1974, I visited John L. Sorenson in the American Fork, UT home he built while I was in the mission field. In about five minutes he convinced me that the New World portions of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize). More than forty years later, scientific advances have made his logic even more compelling.

Size.  Book of Mormon travel times, expressed in days, limit how large or small the Nephite known world could possibly have been. Most serious students of the text are comfortable with a Nephite world having a maximum extent in the 1,000 kilometer range. Mesoamerica is right in this sweet spot. The distance from Kaminaljuyú (candidate for the southern city of Nephi) to Teotihuacan (candidate for Jacobugath in the extreme north) is 1,044 air kilometers. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
1,044 Air Kilometers Kaminaljuyú to Teotihuacan
Orientation. Dozens of references in the text describe Book of Mormon lands oriented generally in a northward/southward direction. Plotting the continental divide (in red) from Alaska to Chile shows that the principal landmass in the Western Hemisphere oriented generally northward/southward as opposed to north/south is Middle America.
Middle America Oriented Generally Northward/Southward
 Geography. The text consistently mentions an East Sea and a West Sea in the Land Southward, with a major river running through the center of the land between both coasts and the whole nearly surrounded by water. Mesoamerica explicitly fits this description.
Southern Mesoamerica with the Usumacinta River in Red
 Topography. The Book of Mormon describes mountains, hills, and valleys with significant elevation differences between them. Mesoamerica has highly varied landforms with elevations ranging from sea level to 5,600 meters (18,370 feet).

Climate. The Book of Mormon describes armies going to battle dressed in loin cloths around the new year Alma 43:4, 20. Mesoamerica's tropical climate works well with this narrative.

Geology. Earth scientists who study the Book of Mormon generally conclude that the natural disasters described in the text are best accounted for by a combination of seismic and volcanic activity. Mesoamerica is a land of both earthquakes and volcanoes.
Smithsonian  Database of Volcanoes Active in the Holocene (last 10,000 years)
Demography. The Nephite/Jaredite text describes dense populations in the millions Ether 15:2. Mesoamerica had  dense populations in the millions during Book of Mormon times. For dramatic recent corroboration, see the blog article "LiDAR."

Civilization. The Book of Mormon unambiguously describes what cultural anthropologists call "state level society" aka high civilization. See the blog article entitled "State Level Society." In the Western Hemisphere, only Mesoamerica achieved this degree of cultural sophistication during Book of Mormon times.

Literacy. The Book of Mormon clearly describes widespread literacy Mosiah 2:8 with multiple writing systems. In the Americas, only Mesoamerica had widespread literacy with multiple scripts in use during Book of Mormon times.
Drawing of La Mojarra Stela 1 from Veracruz, Mexico
Original is in the Museo de Antropología, Xalapa
The Inscription Includes the Dates AD 143 and AD 156
Architecture. The Nephites built with stone Alma 48:8 and cement Helaman 3:7, 9, 11, materials that tend to preserve well in archaeological contexts. Stone and cement as building materials are attested in Mesoamerican archaeology. See the blog article "Top 10 Archaeological Evidences for the Book of Mormon."

Chronology. The Book of Mormon chronicles events from ca. 2,300 BC to AD 421. Plausible Mesoamerican settings are attested archaeologically in those time frames. Some of the temporal correspondences are striking as in the blog article "75 BC."

Metallurgy in Book of Mormon times is well attested in the Andean region. Seeds from the Levant or Arabia would thrive in Baja California. Some statements by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries do refer to the young United States of America as it existed in the 1830's and early 1840's. Scattered Book of Mormon passages can be interpreted to lend support to an "intimate" aka small-scale geographic model. Viewed comprehensively, though, the preponderance of contextual clues in the Book of Mormon favor a Mesoamerican setting which is why most LDS scholars today look for correlations in that area.

Kirk Magleby volunteers as Executive Director of Book of Mormon Central, the premiere source for Book of Mormon enrichment material  in English and Spanish