Monday, September 12, 2011

Asking the Right Questions

Updated January 19, 2015
One of the best ways to discover the truth is to ask the right questions. The eventual question we want to answer is "Which river, the Mezcalapa-Grijalva or the Usumacinta, is the river Sidon in the Book of Mormon? To arrive at the answer, we put on our Sherlock Holmes hat and pose a series of intermediate questions designed to draw contextual meaning from what The Book of Mormon does and does not say:
  1. What was the nature of the Jaredite - Mulekite relationship? Did the Mulekites settle among the Jaredites (Olmec)? Or did the Mulekites establish Zarahemla on the periphery of Jaredite culture? The Jaredites & Mulekites were contemporaries for about 200 years until the Jaredite collapse. The Mulekites did not migrate very far away from their original homeland in Zarahemla Omni 1:16. When the Mulekites discovered Coriantumr, he was not previously known to them Omni 1:21. Coriantumr lived the last few months of his life among a strange people Omni 1:21, Ether 13:21. No one in the Mulekite community had enough experience with Jaredite culture to translate Coriantumr's stela. It remained a mystery to them until Mosiah I come down to Zarahemla from Nephi with the interpreters which allowed him to read Coriantumr's inscription Omni 1:20. Answer: The Mulekites did not establish Zarahemla among the Jaredites. They lived on the margins of and somewhat isolated from the strong influence of the Jaredite culture core.
  2. Where were the Mulekites most likely to have founded their capital city? Where do ocean-going migrants typically locate first generation cities? Think Boston on the Charles, New York on the Hudson, Philadelphia on the Delaware and Augusta on the Savannah. Think London on the Thames, Alexandria on the Nile and Shanghai on the Yangtze. Answer: The most likely place for the Mulekites to have founded their city was in a coastal plain, on the navigable portion of a major river, upstream from the seasonal floods in the delta but not beyond the head of navigation at the fall line. Portland on the Columbia, Buenos Aires on the Plata, Seville on the Guadalquivir, Bordeaux on the Garonne - the list could go on and on. The best Book of Mormon scholarship has the Mulekites landing first at the mouth of the Papaloapan River in southern Veracruz Alma 22:30Helaman 6:10, then coasting along the Gulf of Campeche. They must have investigated the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River and the mouth of the Mezcalapa-Grijalva which at that time ran where the Tonala River flows today. The Mulekites almost certainly did not abandon their ocean-going vessel(s) and portage their goods inland past the fall line on their river of choice. Such behavior is simply atypical of first generation settlers arriving by sea. Movement by water is so much more energy efficient than overland cartage, that historic settlement patterns favor the area downstream from the head of navigation. Upstream areas tend to remain "wilderness" for generations.
  3. Did the Mulekites site Zarahemla in a populated area? Answer: No. The Book of Mormon text specifically says they established their city in a wilderness Mosiah 25:2Alma 22:31.
  4. What was the nature of the Mulekite - Nephite relationship prior to the mass migration under Mosiah I? The two groups were totally isolated - unaware of the other's existence for hundreds of years Omni 1:14. Their languages evolved to become so dissimilar that at initial contact they could not understand each other Omni 1:17. Answer: They had no relationship - zero communication for centuries.
  5. What was the nature of the Land of Zarahemla - Land of Nephi relationship during the reigns of Kings Mosiah I, Benjamin, Mosiah II, Zeniff, Noah, Limhi, Lamoni & Lamoni's father? The first group who made the journey enjoyed divine help Omni 1:13. Subsequent travel happened intermittently, but the routes were not yet well-established. Groups got lost as they traveled or attempted to travel between the two lands Mosiah 7:4, Mosiah 8:8, Mosiah 21:25. Tracks became impossible to follow after only a few days Mosiah 22:16. People even got lost trying to find their way back home Mosiah 23:35, 36. People who had been on the trail recently and more or less knew the way still did a lot of wandering around Mosiah 9:4. There was little or no regular communication Omni 1:30, Mosiah 7:14. Former Nephites introduced writing to the Lamanites Mosiah 24:6, which fueled an immediate economic boom Mosiah 24:7. Answer: Travel was very difficult and unpredictable. Many journeys suffered delays or outright failure because the guides became disoriented and could not decide which way to go. Communication was almost non-existent.
  6. What was the nature of the Land of Zarahemla/Land of Nephi relationship during the Nephite/Lamanite wars? The Lamanites were able to mount surprise attacks, even on the capital city Zarahemla Helaman 1:19.  The Nephites were over-extended, struggling to defend their large territorial holdings with the relatively small number of men they had under arms Alma 58:32. The Nephite population was scattered in pockets with wilderness in between the enclaves Alma 62:34. Nephite hegemony reached its apogee. Lamanite invasions came into the west, the south and the east of Zarahemla. Answer: Repeated Lamanite attacks with little or no warning on less densely populated Nephite lands.
  7. Did the Nephites and the Lamanites speak the same language? Nephite dissenters traveled to Nephi and had themselves crowned king Alma 47:35, Alma 52:3. Former Nephites occupied most of the top leadership posts in several Lamanite armies Alma 43:6, Alma 48:5, Helaman 1:15. Nephite missionaries proselytized effectively among Lamanites of various social classes Alma 26:28-31. A Nephite among Lamanite elites was considered a demi-god Alma 18:2 and engaged royalty in subtle and profound communication Alma 18:17-41. Lamanites became Nephites Alma 47:29. Nephites became Lamanites Alma 43:4. Converted Lamanites preached to the Nephites in the land of Zarahemla Helaman 6:4. Answer: Yes. The Nephites and the Lamanites spoke a very similar language - similar enough that they had no difficulty understanding each other. This is a case where The Book of Mormon's silence is instructive. Mormon goes to some length to explain to his readers the linguistic difficulty the Mulekites had with Mosiah I and his Nephite migrants when they first arrived in Zarahemla Omni 1:18. Between the Nephites and Lamanites, though, the text never implies any verbal language incompatibility. Educated Nephites who kept the national records had an esoteric written language Mosiah 1:2Mosiah 9:1 that the Lamanites eventually acquired Mosiah 24:4
  8. Was the River Sidon on a linguistic/cultural boundary? Answer: No, the text of the Book of Mormon indicates that by the time of Alma II and Helaman, people on both sides of the river spoke a common language and shared a similar material culture. Alma 6:7, Alma 8:3, Alma 62:46-48.
  9. What was the nature of the terrain between the Land of Zarahemla and the Land of Nephi? Extensive wilderness lay between the two lands Mosiah 22:13. Nephi was at a higher elevation than Zarahemla Alma 26:23, Alma 27:5. Distinctive Narrow Strip of Wilderness mountains large enough to form a line of military defense Alma 50:11 ran in an east-west direction separating the two lands Alma 22:27. Answer: Zarahemla was down, Nephi was up and an east-west mountain barrier plus lots of wilderness lay between them. 
  10. What was the general direction from Nephi to Zarahemla? Answer: Zarahemla was north of Nephi. Most serious internal reconstructions of Book of Mormon geography show Zarahemla on the north Alma 22:33 and Nephi on the south Alma 50:7 with the River Sidon flowing northward from the highlands to the sea.
  11. Was the Land of Zarahemla centrally located within the Land Southward? The Nephites conceived of a center with four quarters extending in the four cardinal directions. Mosiah 27:6. Captain Moroni positioned armies in those four quarters Alma 52:10, Alma 56:1, Alma 58:30, Alma 58:35. Zarahemla was the heart Alma 60:19Helaman 1:18 or the center Helaman 1:26,27 of the Nephite polity. Answer: Yes, the Nephite worldview positioned the Land of Zarahemla more or less in the center of the Land Southward north of the Narrow Strip of Wilderness.
  12. Did the Lands of Nephi and Zarahemla share a similar climate? Answer: No. Nephi was higher in elevation, so the people there enjoyed a cooler, breezier, drier climate than those in the lower Zarahemla. The most likely explanation for the Zeniff colony's irrational return to Nephi Mosiah 7:21, Mosiah 9:3, Mosiah 9:10, Mosiah 10:18 is a more hospitable climate in the highlands.
  13. Did the Lands of Nephi and Zarahemla share similar topography? Answer: No. The Land of Nephi had metallic mineral mining operations which implies mountainous highlands 2 Nephi 5:15. People in the City of Nephi could see into neighboring jurisdictions Mosiah 11:12, Mosiah 20:8 which indicates long-range atmospheric visibility and moderate relative humidity. Residents of Zarahemla suffered seasonal fevers and other climatically-influenced maladies Alma 46:40, suggesting tropical lowlands. Military heat exhaustion Alma 51:33 also favors lowlands.
  14. Did the River Sidon ever change course? Answer: Not during Book of Mormon times. When Mormon as a youth visited the densely populated Land of Zarahemla by the river Mormon 1:6, it was in the same area the Mulekites had settled almost a thousand years earlier.
  15. Did the River Sidon have any major obstructions that inhibited movement up and down the river? Answer: No. The text describes difficult travel both up and down river, but nothing that required a major detour Mosiah 7:16, Mosiah 9:3.
  16. How swift was the current in the River Sidon? Rivers are measured by flow - the volume of water moving in the channel and current - the speed of the water. In The Book of Mormon, people cross the Sidon all the time in both directions with no particular difficulty mentioned Alma 16:6Alma 43:40. It is almost second nature to them. This implies a slow current in a relatively placid river. Many readers of The Book of Mormon are under the misconception that Nephites and Lamanites walked across the Sidon like the Mormon Handcart Pioneers fording the Sweetwater. This is simply not true. Both the Mezcalapa/Grijalva and the Usumacinta are much too large and deep for pedestrian fording, even at low water during the dry season. When the Spanish conquistadores swept through Chiapas and Guatemala in the early 1500's, they described very large numbers of small (and some not so small) watercraft on both of these huge rivers and on hundreds of smaller streams. Small boats must have been the dominant mode of transport on the rivers in Book of Mormon times as well. The verbiage in Alma 43:40 "crossed the waters of Sidon" suggests the terminology elsewhere in the text where marine crossings explicitly involve boats 1 Nephi 17:17, Ether 2:6. Alma 43:35 indicates that the Lamanite army took some time to get across the Sidon, which allowed Lehi and his men to engage those who still remained on the east bank of the river. The Book of Mormon also describes a volume of water flowing down the Sidon large enough to wash thousands of dead human bodies out to sea Alma 3:3, Alma 44:22Answer: The Book of Mormon describes a high flow, slow current river which means gentle slope gradients.
  17. Did the River Sidon flow through wilderness areas? Answer: Yes, along much of its length Alma 8:3Alma 16:6, 7. In the case of Captain Moroni downstream from Manti, the wilderness (think dense vegetation) on the west bank of the river was so thick it concealed one of his armies Alma 43:27
  18. Were the territories in modern day Belize and Quintana Roo part of The Book of Mormon picture? A generation ago, the Caribbean coastal area was a poorly explored archaeological backwater, not well represented in the Mesoamerican literature. Then the nation of Belize made it easy to obtain excavation permits and a scientific florescence ensued. Today, we realize that one can't fully understand what is going on at Palenque, Tikal & El Mirador without also taking into account Cuello, Lamanai and Altun Ha. Major Jaredite (Olmec) presence is currently being uncovered in the area around Chetumal Bay. Izapan influence has been documented at Kohunlich. Answer: Yes. Most of the New World events described in The Book of Mormon happened in the Land Southward. The Caribbean coastal areas of Quintana Roo and Belize were important during Jaredite (Olmec & Epi-Olmec), Nephite-Mulekite (Izapan & Maya pre-classic) and Lamanite (Maya pre-classic, classic & post-classic) times. The Nephites held an expansive view of their own territory Mosiah 27:6, Helaman 3:8. In the days of Helaman I, Parhoran (critical text orthography) & Captain Moroni, Nephite settlement expanded eastward to the sea coast Alma 50:9. The east sea coast was generally oriented in a north/south direction. Alma 50:13, Alma 27:22. The greater land of Nephi had an east sea coast Alma 50:8 which could only be the Caribbean.