Sunday, September 22, 2019

Seasons of War

The Book of Mormon states that war among the Nephites was seasonal Omni 1:3. In an often-cited study, John L. Sorenson demonstrated that warfare in the Book of Mormon generally took place in months 11 - 3, occasionally in months 4, 5, and 10, and seldom in months 6 - 9. See John L. Sorenson, "Seasonality of Warfare in the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica" in Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, editors, Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990). See also John L. Sorenson, "Seasons of War, Seasons of Peace," in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, editors, Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991). Assuming the Nephite new year began on or about the winter solstice (December 21 or 22), a reasonable assumption given the pattern in most ancient cultures, Nephite battles were generally not fought in the time period roughly corresponding to our June through September.

Southern Mesoamerica has well-defined rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season generally begins in May and runs through October. The dry season generally begins in November and runs through April. Crops are typically planted at the onset of the rainy season and harvests are generally over by the onset of the dry season.

NASA Blue Marble imagery shows the surface of the earth in natural color. In other words, this is what the planet really looks like from high altitude with no cloud cover. There is a dramatic visual difference between the dry season and the rainy season in southern Mesoamerica.
Southern Mesoamerica in April at the End of the Dry Season
In April, streams run low, wetlands have shrunk, paths are hard packed, and ground cover is sparse.
Southern Mesoamerica in October at the End of the Rainy Season
In October, streams run high, wetlands are overflowing, paths are muddy, and ground cover is dense.

In Mesoamerica, the dry season was when agriculturalists were mobilized into fighting forces, surplus food supplies were available for provisions, infantry marches were feasible, and conditions in field camps were tolerable. Battles in southern Mesoamerica were generally not fought in the season corresponding to our June through September, the height of the rainy season.

Numerous war events recorded in Mayan inscriptions can be securely dated, and they follow the expected seasonal pattern. The Maya went to war in the dry season and stayed home tending their crops in the rainy season. See Stephen Houston's blog post "Watery War" in the blog Maya Decipherment, June 17, 2019, where he references data from Simon Martin.

Burned Cities

General Shiz spread terror through the Jaredite countryside by annihilating inhabitants and then burning their cities Ether 14:17. Lamanite armies ca. AD 379 used a similar scorched-earth tactic, destroying Nephites en masse and then burning their towns, villages, and cities Mormon 5:5.

Belligerent Maya city states burned enemy cities as an extreme military tactic. One word for this act of war in Mayan is puluy or puluuy. The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary edited by Peter Mathews and Péter Bíró has this entry for puluy:
Puluy Hieroglyph Drawn by John Thompson
Mayanists for years wondered if this term was literal or metaphorical. When coupled with a place name, it was clearly used in a war context like "chopping" (ch'ak), but some clung to old romantic notions of Maya pacifism.

All that ambiguity disappeared on August 5, 2019 when the article "Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya" appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior. In a rare convergence of disciplines, authors David Wahl (UC Berkeley), Lysanna Anderson (US Geological Survey), Francisco Estrada-Belli (Tulane), and Alexandre Tokovinine (Alabama) showed how lake sediment cores containing charcoal from Laguna Ek' Naab, charred structures from the adjacent archaeological site of Witzna (ancient Bahlam Jol), and epigraphic texts using the term puluy from the site of Naranjo were inter-related. On May 21, AD 697, Naranjo brutally destroyed Witzna by torching the city and environs. The conflagration deposited a layer of charcoal an inch thick in the sediment on the bottom of Laguna Ek' Naab.
Charcoal in Sediment from Laguna Ek' Naab
Photo by Lysanna Anderson
Ruling elites in Naranjo then memorialized their scorched-earth victory by carving inscriptions on Stelae 22 and 23 describing how Witzna (Bahlam Jol) puluy "got burned." See Alexandre Tokovinine, Place and Identity in Classic Maya Narratives, (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2013) pp. 33-34.

Naranjo inscriptions describe a similar fire at Buenavista del Cayo (ancient Komkom) which puluy "got burned" on March 27, AD 696. As they had at Witzna, archaeologists found charred structures at Buenavista del Cayo that date to the indicated time period. Naranjo Stela 22 describes five sites being burned over a five year period. See Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

"Puluuy ... is a clear verb for war meaning 'to burn' in Cholan languages and has been noted in many war contexts ... the hieroglyph ... puluuy is a well-accepted verb for war." James Brady (Cal State LA) and Pierre R. Colas (Vanderbilt), "Nikte' Mo' Scattered Fire in the Cave of K'ab Chante' " in James Brady and Keith M. Prufer, editors, In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005) p. 158. "Puluuy was a common war statement and such tactics were not rare." Wahl, et al., op. cit.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Moroni's Total War

In Mormon Chapter 8, a solitary Moroni ca. AD 400 finishes his father's record and documents widespread warfare among the Lamanites: "the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war" Mormon 8:8. A few years ago, most specialists did not believe warfare was endemic in Mesoamerica ca. AD 400. Mayanists in the previous generation thought the natives engaged in "ritualized," small-scale, token warfare until the Terminal Classic (AD 850 - 1,000) when droughts reduced the food supply. The combination of drought-induced famine and highly destructive "total war" were thought to have jointly caused the Classic era collapse.

Recent developments support Moroni's description of "total war" centuries earlier. An article by David Wahl (UC Berkeley), Lysanna Anderson (US Geological Survey), Francisco Estrada-Belli (Tulane), and Alexandre Tokovinine (Alabama) entitled "Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya" was published in Nature Human Behavior August 5, 2019. They document the near total destruction of Witzna (ancient Bahlam Jol) by fire on May 21, AD 697.
Charcoal in Sediment from Laguna Ek'Naab Adjacent to Witzna
Photo by Lysanna Anderson
Witzna was the victim of an incendiary attack launched by Naranjo, a city-state 32 air kilometers to the south. Naranjo also burned the site known  today as Buenavista del Cayo (ancient Komkom), Ucanal (ancient K'an Witznal) and the unlocated K'inchil near the same time.
Witzna, Naranjo, Buenavista del Cayo, and Ucanal in Context
Epigrapic and lake sediment core evidence indicate Witzna was invaded militarily and burned on a previous occasion, and charcoal layers point to as many as two earlier burnings. This and other evidence are the reason specialists are now saying the Maya practiced highly destructive "total warfare" through most of the Classic period (AD 250 - 900). Works espousing this new view are in a book edited by Andrew Scherer (Brown) and John Verano (Tulane) entitled Embattled Bodies, Embattled Places: War in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Andes, (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2014).

Takeshi Inomata (Arizona), author of "War, Violence, and Society in the Maya Lowlands" in the 2014 Scherer and Verano volume, said "There is an increasing understanding that there were destructive wars throughout the Classic period." James Brady (Cal State LA) concurred "I was never convinced that warfare before the Terminal Classic was only ritualized. It must have been a fact of life from a very early time, and it often had serious consequences." Both quotations are from Tim Vernimmen, "Ancient Maya practiced 'total war' well before climate stress, National Geographic, August 5, 2019.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Volcanic Eruptions Near the Time of Christ

Book of Mormon Central's KnoWhy #530 "Is there evidence for great destruction in the land northward at the death of Christ?" is superb. It discusses recent scientific literature about the massive eruption of Popocatépetl very near the time of Christ's death. This is of interest, of course, because professional geologists tend to interpret the destruction described in 3 Nephi 8, 9 as a combination of volcanic, seismic, and meteorological phenomena. Most Mesoamerican models of Book of Mormon geography place Popocatépetl in the land northward.
Popocatépetl with the Great Pyramid of Cholula in the Foreground
"Popo" as the locals know it, is the second highest peak in Mexico (5,426 meters or 17,802 feet) after Orizaba. It sits between the valleys of Mexico and Puebla. It remains a very active, dangerous volcano. I have maintained a software development office in downtown Puebla since 1999, so I travel there quite often on business. In all those years, I have only flown into the Puebla airport one time. The airport is so often closed due to volcanic ash in the air that most travelers fly into Mexico City and take a 2.5 hour bus ride to Puebla.

The Book of Mormon also describes great destruction in the land southward 3 Nephi 8:11. Many read the text of 3 Nephi 8, 9 and imagine multiple volcanic, seismic, and meteorological events all happening simultaneously. Evidence has recently been published that Tacaná also erupted very near the time of Christ's death. Most Mesoamerican models of Book of Mormon geography place Tacaná in the land southward. 
Tacaná with Tajumulco in the Background
Tacaná is the second highest peak in Central America (4,060 meters or 13,320 feet) after Tajumulco. It straddles the border between Chiapas, Mexico and San Marcos, Guatemala. It remains an active, dangerous volcano. The ca. AD 30 eruption is documented in José Luis Macías, et al., "Late Formative Flooding of Izapa after an Eruption of Tacaná Volcano" in Ancient Mesoamerica 29 (2018) pp. 361-371. See also Robert M. Rosenswig & Julia Guernsey, "Introducing Izapa" in Ancient Mesoamerica 29 (2018) pp. 255-264. The eruption caused mud flows upslope and massive flooding in lower elevations as stream flows were temporarily dammed by volcanic ejecta.

How do paleogeologists date volcanic eruptions? They submit organic matter encased in a lava or ash strata for Carbon-14 dating just as archaeologists and paleontologists do. How expensive is one C-14 test? In the neighborhood of $500 - $650 assuming adequate sample preparation and no special handling. So, most projects can only afford a handful of C-14 tests. These are the results of C-14 tests run on the Tacaná eruption under consideration.
Tacaná Eruption Dated to ca. AD 30
Tacaná has erupted at least 11 times in the Holocene Epoch (the last 10,000 years). The magnitude of a volcanic eruption is measured in volcanic explosivity index (VEI) numbers ranging from 1 to 8 on a logarithmic scale. The numbers represent the volume of pyroclastic material ejected by the volcano. The Popocatépetl eruption had a VEI of 6. The Tacaná eruption at about the same time had a VEI of 3. The Nephite text explicitly says there was great destruction in the land southward, but even greater devastation in the land northward 3 Nephi 8:11-12.