Friday, September 18, 2015

Blank Spots on the Map

I am reading a terrific book by Mary Ellen Miller, Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale and former Dean of Yale College. Miller is a highly respected Mesoamericanist. Her book with Linda Schele, The Blood of Kings (1986) is a classic. My current read, The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec published by Thames & Hudson, has gone through five editions since it first appeared in 1986. I am reading the fifth edition published in 2012. I met Miller at a Maya Conference in Los Angeles in April. See the article "Light from L.A." She is a vivacious, engaging speaker as well as a first rate scholar. In 288 pages Miller takes her readers through the panorama of high civilization in Mesoamerica by focusing on art and architecture. 250 illustrations show the splendor of Olmec, Late Formative (Lehite time period), Teotihuacan, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Pacific Coast of Guatemala, Maya, Toltec and Aztec accomplishments. Miller illustrates the greatest achievements of these cultures, their most noted works of art, the high water marks of their civilizations.

She includes a map of all the sites referenced in her text:
Sites Mentioned by Mary Ellen Miller in 2012
It should be obvious that the large blank spots on this map are relative cultural backwaters, places where the art and architecture did not reach the level of sophistication Miller finds impressive. It is interesting that Miller only shows four rivers: The Coatzacoalcos in the Olmec heartland, the Motagua draining the Maya highlands, the Pasion which is tributary to the Usumacinta, and the Usumacinta which is the quintessential Maya river. The Grijalva does not appear on her map because she found so little of note along its banks. Except for one mention of an early long count date on epi-Olmec stela 2 at Chiapa de Corzo, Miller does not treat anything from the Grijalva drainage basin and no art or architecture from the area appears in any of her illustrations. The Grijalva River and its tributaries are a large blank spot on her map because the ruins found there tend to be minor and pedestrian. Even the Chiapa stela 2 mention may not survive in future editions of Miller's book. For some time, the 36 BC date from Chiapa de Corzo has been widely acknowledged as the earliest long count date yet discovered in Mesoamerica. Some scholars are now interpreting a weathered date on Takalik Abaj stela 2 as 236 BC. A stone block text recently discovered at San Bartolo could have a long count date as early as 295 BC. Garth Norman interprets a date on Izapa stela 12 as correlating with 176 BC.

In 1974, while serving my mission in Peru, I began corresponding with Elder Milton R. Hunter of the Seventy. Elder Hunter was the point man among the brethren for all things Book of Mormon, a role he had been assigned by Pres. David O. McKay. I shared with him some of the interesting things my companions and I were finding as we visited college professors, archaeological sites, and libraries on our preparation days. Elder Hunter got rather excited and arranged for me to remain in Peru for two extra months at the end of my mission so I could do full-time research. He explained that he was very disappointed with the research results coming out of Mesoamerica. The BYU New World Archaeological Foundation had been digging in Chiapas for 20 years at that point, and they had not found much of anything Elder Hunter deemed compelling. His attitude of disenchantment was shared by Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Dee F. Green, and others whose enthusiasm for Book of Mormon archaeology waned as NWAF kept uncovering unremarkable sites. NWAF at that time was excavating primarily in the Grijalva drainage basin, the large blank spot in the middle of Mary Miller's map.

This raises an important question. What are we likely to find when we finally locate Nephite and Lamanite remains? Should we be looking for a Quirigua if not a Copan or a Palenque? Or is Sorenson's small and relatively plain Santa Rosa as much as we should expect? In other words, did the Nephites and Lamanites participate in Mesoamerican high civilization or were they cultural underachievers?

If the Nephite city of Nephi was Kaminaljuyu as many LDS Mesoamericanists believe, then they were right in the thick of high culture in the region for several hundred years. Kaminaljuyu is on Miller's map. It is on everyone's map because it had fine art, advanced architecture, a substantial encircling wall, long distance trade relations, strong ties with Teotihuacan, etc. 2 of Miller's 250 illustrations are from Kaminaljuyu.

Ca. 200 BC when Mosiahled the Nephites through the wilderness to join the Mulekites in Zarahemla, did the Nephites lose their sophistication and go into cultural decline? No. The text describes a progressive, expansive, literate society Helaman 3:14-15 with widespread access to luxury goods Alma 4:6 and a thriving professional class Alma 11:20. The text further describes Nephite society as generally more advanced than Lamanite culture Alma 43:19-21, Alma 49:5.

Does it follow then that the Nephites were located along the Grijalva where the ruins are so small and simple they failed to impress Elder Milton R. Hunter in 1974 or Mary Ellen Miller in 2012? No. The Mulekite-Nephite capital was probably not located in a large blank spot on Miller's map.

Now, things get very interesting. Pinpoint correspondences are generally less impressive than broad patterns because widespread models result from many individual data points. This is a copy of Mary Miller's map with the large blank spots along the Grijalva River outlined in red.
Blank Spots in Tabasco - Chiapas and Chiapas - NW Guatemala
And this is a copy of the Book of Mormon map elaborated since 2011 on this blog. It too has large blank spots along the Grijalva River where our correlation of Nephite and Lamanite geography finds nothing noteworthy enough to get mentioned in the text.
Blank Spots in Tabasco - Chiapas and Chiapas - NW Guatemala
Very similar blank spots are found on the maps proposed by V. Garth Norman and F. Richard Hauck - Joe V. Andersen. Aric Turner's blank spots are not as large, but he still shows almost nothing happening along the banks of the Grijalva.

I return to the question: "Were the Nephites and Lamanites in the Mesoamerican cultural mainstream or were they in the backwater?" The way I read the text they were in the mainstream which makes it unlikely their most important settlements were in large blank spots on the map.