Monday, October 10, 2011

The River Sidon - Precis

We began our investigation of the River Sidon in The Book of Mormon by recommending several scholars whose disciplined work over decades warrants careful consideration. Hugh W. Nibley, John W. Welch, John L. Sorenson, and V. Garth Norman were highlighted as bold, source-critical students of the Nephite text. See the article "Book of Mormon Scholars" in this blog. Our purpose was to acknowledge a standard of excellence that should pervade serious Book of Mormon research.

Much of what has passed for Book of Mormon scholarship in the LDS community is not academically defensible because it lacks rigor, depth, and breadth. I will recount one telling example. While a student at BYU in the mid 1970's, I worked as Dr. Paul R. Cheesman's research assistant. He was a retired construction executive from Florida who returned to BYU mid-life and earned his doctorate in Religious Education in 1967. In his former career, Dr. Cheesman had worked extensively throughout the Americas and acquired a noteworthy collection of ancient artifacts. He was an indefatigable traveler, keen observer, and excellent photographer. He published several books on the history of The Book of Mormon and possible New World archaeological correlations. Metal plates, Mesoamerican wheeled toys and evidences of ancient transoceanic contact were some of his particular interests. As an entrepreneur, he was one of the founding fathers of the thriving publishing industry that interprets The Book of Mormon for LDS children in illustrated picture books and cartoon videos. As a scholar, though, he was not credible outside the myopic, incestuous little world of so-called "Book of Mormon Archaeology." He once returned from a trip to the University of Florida where he had been invited to speak, and as he entered the office, he was visibly upset. The LDS Institute in Gainesville had set up the event, billed at first as a lecture on "The Book of Mormon and Ancient American Archaeology." At the last minute, under pressure from the University, the organizers were forced to drop The Book of Mormon from the agenda and Dr. Cheesman was asked to give his  lecture simply on "Ancient American Archaeology." He was devastated. "I may be one of the world's experts on Book of Mormon archaeology" he complained, "but I don't have much to say about archaeology by itself."

We next guided the reader on a whirlwind tour of Book of Mormon geographical thought from the time of Joseph Smith to the publication of John L.Sorenson's landmark An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1985. See the article "Book of Mormon Lands 1830 - 1985" in this blog. For a much more detailed look at this curious atlas of theories, see John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, Provo: FARMS, 1992, as well as the unpublished work of Alan C. Miner on a history of thought about Book of Mormon Geography. We introduced The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) that set the standard for solid Book of Mormon work for decades after its founding in 1979. As the year 1985 ended, Mesoamerica was The Book of Mormon's ancient New World setting. There were two candidates for the River Sidon: the Grijalva and the Usumacinta, and the winds of LDS scholarship were blowing toward the Grijalva. Many serious students of Mormonism's defining text were looking for ancient Zarahamla in the central depression of Chiapas.

In the years following 1985, the data have increasingly favored the Usumacinta. See the article "Book of Mormon Lands 1986 - 2011" in this blog. We discussed the gradual decline of FARMS after it officially became part of BYU in 1997 and highlighted the important but little known work of V. Garth Norman.

Some students of The Book of Mormon, lacking an unambiguous sense of time and place in the text, conclude that physical externalities are unimportant, even pejorative to their spiritual testimonies of the scriptural record. In the article "Why Do We Care?" in this blog, we explain that studying The Book of Mormon in its cultural, chronological and spatial contexts adds depth and meaning to our understanding and helps us share its divine message with the world.

We then recap the general consensus about Book of Mormon lands that has existed since the 1970's in the LDS scholarly community. See the article "The Book of Mormon Map as of September, 2011" in this blog. We list some of the leading individuals and institutions that form this consensus. With some background established, we are then ready to take an in-depth look at two very large rivers.

We clarify nomenclature by explaining that modern maps of Guatemala, Chiapas, and Tabasco show the Grijalva after the 1675 Spanish colonial diversion that re-routed the river just below Cardenas, Tabasco. We show that the lower Grijalva has flowed in a number of different channels over the years from the Tonala River on the west to the current mouth of the combined Grijalva/Usumacinta at Frontera, Tabasco, today. See the article "Wandering River" in this blog. We explain why the name "Grijalva" is confusing and give rationale for using the more accurate "Mezcalapa-Grijalva" when referring to the river that flows through the central depression of Chiapas and El Sumidero Canyon. We conclude with a map of the Mezcalapa-Grijalva and the Usumacinta rivers in their drainage basins as they flowed at the time the Mulekites founded their capital, Zarahemla. Using Google Earth, we will overlay a number of spatial data sets on top of this map to compare and contrast various characteristics of the two river systems.

We illustrate how different the Mezcalapa-Grijalva and the Usumacinta are by comparing 17 different physical and cultural characteristics of each river. See the article "Sizing up the Candidates" in this blog.

We then get to the heart of the matter by asking 18 probing questions about communities and events in The Book of Mormon and their relationships to each other and to their Mesoamerican setting. The 18 questions are documented with 84 scriptural passages hyperlinked to the electronic version of the text. See the article "Asking the Right Questions" in this blog. It is our belief that if we have asked the right questions, the answers will indicate whether the Mezcalapa-Grijalva or the Usumacinta is The Book of Mormon's River Sidon in a powerful, clear and convincing way.  An old German proverb says "Gute Frage ist halbe Antwort," "a good question is half an answer." John E. Clark in his excellent article "Revisiting A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies" Mormon Studies Review (Formerly FARMS Review) 23:1, 2011 argues that any attempt at spatial correlation must begin with a thorough exegesis of the text. Our 18 questions are precisely that kind of in-depth analysis of what The Book of Mormon does and does not say.

Before we answer the 18 questions, we describe and illustrate the nomenclature standards hydrologists, geographers and archaeologists use when they refer to the Mezcalapa-Grijalva and the Usumacinta. Each river divides into upper, middle, and lower sections. See the article "Dividing the Rivers" in this blog. Each river also has a rate of fall or slope gradient, which we calculate.

The Book of Mormon uses the term "wilderness" over 200 times. With 27 scriptural references hyperlinked to the electronic version of the text, we show that some wildernesses were heavily populated, while others had few inhabitants. Some wildernesses were clearly mountainous, while others were obviously in the lowlands. See the article "A Note about Wilderness" in this blog. We then introduce the fundamentally important Electronic Atlas of Ancient Maya Sites (EAAMS). This data base of 6,000+ known archaeological sites from pre-Hispanic southern Mesoamerica is a project closely affiliated with the Middle American Research Institute (MARI) at Tulane. Over more than a dozen years, many Mesoamericanists led by two MARI Research Fellows have geo-coded and compiled source references for sites documented in mainstream Mesoamerican and particularly Mayan archaeological literature. This gold mine of geographical information system GIS data allows us to easily work with an unprecedented number of ancient sites as overlays on top of Google Earth base maps. We will use EAAMS data to control the presence or absence of potential wilderness areas in specific geographies of interest.

We answer the 18 questions in order, using this format:
Our questions and answers are firmly grounded in the text of The Book of Mormon. Exhibit data comes from generally unimpeachable sources such as:
See the 18 articles in order from "Water Fight on the River - Round One" to "Water Fight on the River - Round Eighteen" in this blog.
After analyzing 18 questions, answers, exhibits, and conclusions, the running score is Mezcalapa-Grijalva 0, Usumacinta 18. We declare unequivocally our belief that Mesoamerica is the site of the New World events described in The Book of Mormon, and that the River Sidon mentioned 37 times in the Nephite text is the Usumacinta River system in Guatemala; and Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico.