Monday, September 19, 2011

A Note about Wilderness

The term "wilderness" occurs over 200 times in the text of The Book of Mormon. Divinely guided journeys through the wilderness Mosiah 1:16 were powerful symbols of the Exodus motif in the Nephite worldview. Some wilderness areas were distinctive enough to have a name Alma 2:37, Ether 14:14. Most were simply east, west, or south of somewhere else Alma 62:34. The Book of Mormon describes different kinds of terrain as wilderness. Deserts 1 Nephi 2:5, mountains Helaman 11:31, jungles Mosiah 22:16, Alma 43:27, and swamps Alma 2:36-38 are all suggested in the text. Some wildernesses were near oceans 1 Nephi 16:14 or rivers Alma 16:6. Not all Book of Mormon wildernesses were uninhabited. In fact, some were home to quite a few people Alma 22:28Alma 31:3. People living in a wilderness often had a hunter-gatherer or predatory lifestyle Enos 1:20. Wilderness areas figured prominently in warfare Alma 46:31Ether 14:5. Colonizing wilderness areas through forced relocation settlements was a tool the Nephite state used to strengthen their defenses against Lamanite invasion Alma 50:9. Wildernesses were conserved as important game habitat Ether 10:21. A great deal of human suffering happened in the wilderness 1 Nephi 17:1. The difficulty of distinguishing landmarks or milestones in the wilderness created confusion and misdirection for travelers Mosiah 7:4. Some Nephite cities had wilderness immediately adjacent to the settlement Alma 58:13. The common threads in Book of Mormon wildernesses were a lack of permanent built-up areas and an absence of effective political control. If the central authorities in Nephi or Zarahemla did not excercise sovereignty over an area, it could be classed as wilderness. In other words, wilderness was frontier territory that lacked law and civilization (as defined by the authors of the text). For example, when Captain Moroni evicted the Lamanites from the east wilderness, they had built strongholds there Alma 50:11, but since they were not Nephite strongholds, chronicler Helaman I (abridged by Mormon) called the area "wilderness."   The Book of Mormon describes developed settlements as small villages, villages, towns and cities Alma 8:7, Mormon 5:5. Populated places were then grouped together in lands. A city/state pattern, familiar from Maya culture, is often evident in the text where a principal city and its environs form a land Mosiah 23:25. Lands were grouped together in vast, sweeping entities with political (kingdoms, countries) or physical geographic (land northward, land southward) meaning. Names and sizes of these multi-land entities changed frequently throughout Nephite history Alma 22:31, Helaman 6:10. Nephite wilderness areas were buffers, corridors, even barriers between lands and countries. All of these territories (wilderness, lands, countries) had borders and a great deal of the action in The Book of Mormon takes place in border regions.
Archaeologists are often quite thorough in site surveys, cataloging remains of human occupation even if formal excavation has not yet been done. The first thing many archaeologists do when they enter a new region is a wide-area reconnaissance with some surface scavenging. After they create a map and get a feel for the potential sites in a given area, they may then choose to focus on one of the more promising prospects. Over time, the accumulated maps from all of these site surveys can give us a good idea of ancient settlement patterns. We are blessed in the greater Maya area to have a marvelous resource, The Electronic Atlas of Ancient Maya Sites: a Geographic Information System (GIS), (EAAMS) compiled by Dr. Clifford T. Brown, a Maya archaeologist with Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Walter R.T. Witschey, a Maya archaeologist with Longwood University. The project is closely associated with the Middle American Research Institute (MARI) at Tulane. These researchers have compiled a data base of over 6,000 known archaeological sites in the Maya area with geographic coordinates and made that information available for us to use in Google Earth. We will use EAAMS data as a control to spatially analyze potential wilderness areas mentioned in The Book of Mormon.
Data from the Electronic Atlas of Ancient Maya Sites (EAAMS)
showing over 6,000 known archaeological sites in the greater
Maya area.