Saturday, February 8, 2020


I spent Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at the site of Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala with my friends, Javier Tovar, Ignacio Salguero, and Alejandro Martinez.
Tovar, Magleby, and Salguero at Cacaxtla
We filmed a video in Spanish that establishes the case for Mesoamerica being the land where New World Book of Mormon events took place from twenty different perspectives. Cacaxtla is renowned for its vibrant murals and for the fact that it is essentially a Maya site in the heart of central Mexico. Three things are interesting about the site right off the bat:
  1. The first settlers of Cacaxtla showed up ca. AD 400 just after the Nephites were exterminated and while Moroni was wandering during his solitary last 35 years of life. Cacaxtla reached apogee AD 600 - 900.
  2. Later historians called these first settlers the "Ulmeca Xicalanca" and archaeologically we know many of them came from the Gulf Coast of Tabasco and Campeche. The Book of Mormon describes large migrations beginning ca. 55 BC from the land southward into the land northward Alma 63:6, 7 and those migrations continued to the end of the record Mormon 2:28, 29.
  3. The site of Xicalango, Campeche, is 685 air kilometers distant, 800 kilometers if you follow Mexican Highways 150 and 180. We know from archaelology that Cacaxtla and Xicalango maintained a strong trade and cultural relationship in middle to late classic times. This distance is in the ballpark of the size most serious students of the text deduce for Nephite lands (1,000 - 1,200 air kilometers maximum extent of terra cognita).
Cacaxtla's sister site 1 kilometer away, Xochitecatl, was occupied ca. 800 BC and abandoned ca. AD 150 after Popocatépetl erupted yet again. Popocatépetl (5,426 meters or 17,802 feet) and Ixtaccíhuatl (5,230 meters or 17,159 feet) are the second and third highest peaks in Mexico (after Orizaba's 5,636 meters or 18,491 feet) and these two impressive volcanos dominate Cacaxtla's horizon.
Aerial View of Ixtaccíhuatl in Foreground, Popocatépetl in Background
Cacaxtla in context:
Cacaxtla Maintained Trade and Cultural Relationships
with Maya Sites Hundreds of Kilometers Distant
This was my third trip to Cacaxtla over the years. During that time INAH has made significant improvements to the site including the addition of an excellent small museum. From a Book of Mormon perspective, these are the things at Cacaxtla that caught my attention.

1. Mormon 4:14-15, 21 talks about the Lamanites sacrificing Nephite children. At Cacaxtla excavations revealed more than 200 sacrificed children buried as an offering during construction of the Palace. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Sacrificed Children Interred in the Cacaxtla Palace 
2. It is clear from the text that the Book of Mormon peoples were very aware of the surrounding oceans. See the blog article "Smoking Gun." Even though it is more than 200 kilometers from the nearest salt water, Cacaxtla preserves ample evidence of a marine mindset.
Marine Shells on Display, Cacaxtla Museum
Marine creatures are on the bottom of this Jaguar-themed mural.
Aquatic Animals Depicted on Cacaxtla Mural
3. The text describes mountains that move and respond as animate beings (Jacob 4:6; Alma 12:14; Helaman 10:9; 12:9-10, 17; Mormon 8:24; Ether 12:30). Ancient Mesoamericans viewed mountains as living beings, particularly big volcanoes such as Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl that breathed smoke, emitted rumblings, and occasionally erupted.
Representations of the Two Volcanoes Near Cacaxtla
The Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I (14th century AD) describes mountains as living beings.
  Placard in the Cacaxtla Museum Referencing Codex Vindobonensis
4. The Book of Mormon mentions shields as part of a warrior's protective armor (Alma 43:19, 21; 44:9; 46:13; 49:6, 24; Helaman 1:14; 3 Nephi 3:26; Ether 15:15. 24). Cacaxtla has several war murals which all depict elaborately decorated shields.
Cacaxtla War Mural Depicting Various Types of Shields
The Nahuatl name for shield is chimalli.
Placard in the Cacaxtla Museum Referencing Chimalli (Shields)
Spanish (Escudos)
5. The Book of Mormon mentions spears (Alma 17:7) and javelins (Jarom 1:8, Alma 51:34, 62:36) as offensive weapons. Several murals show spears or lances.
Cacaxtla War Mural Showing Spears or Lances
Volcanic glass (obsidian) was fashioned into projectile points.
Obsidian Lance Points
6. The Book of Mormon twice lists grains important to the Nephite diet (Mosiah 7:22; 9:9). In both cases, corn appears first on the list. Corn was clearly a staple crop among Book of Mormon peoples (Mosiah 9:14). Corn was the principal food crop grown throughout ancient Mesoamerica and Cacaxtla has numerous depictions of it.
Ears of Corn in Ceramic, Cacaxtla Museum
Corn figures prominently in the famous Cacaxtla murals.
Ripe Corn with Silks
Corn today is the most important food crop on the planet, generating more agricultural income than rice, wheat, or any other staple. Consequently, corn has been intensively studied and its origins are widely-known. It was domesticated in central Mexico ca. 6,000 BC. By 5,000 BC it had spread throughout Mesoamerica and the Andes. It was then carried to the American Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico) ca. 2,100 BC and finally began entering the Mississippi River Basin ca. AD 100. Widespread corn (zea mays) cultivation in the Mississippi drainage and points east began ca. AD 900, enabling the rise of Cahokia, the first true city in the region.

How do we know these dates? The Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (CARD) contains tens of thousands of C14 dates from all over the world. The University of British Columbia has created a subset of CARD they call the Ancient Maize Map. This map visualizes hundreds of macro samples (corn cobs) and micro samples (corn pollen, phytoliths) from the Americas which have been competently radiocarbon dated.
University of British Columbia Ancient Maize Map
An exhibit on display in the Ohio History Connection Museum in Columbus validates this data. Isolated corn kernels have been found in Hopewell (ca. 100 BC - AD 500) mounds, but widespread corn cultivation and consumption in Ohio did not begin until centuries after the Hopewell.
Display in Ohio History Center Museum
The absence of corn during Book of Mormon times is a fatal flaw in any model that attempts to locate Nephite and Jaredite lands. Corn is the only grain grown widely enough in ancient America to supply the caloric needs of the populations (Ether 15:2 says millions) mentioned in the text. I am indebted to BYU's prolific Mesoamericanist, Kerry Hull, for this profound insight. The first true city in what is today the USA was Cahokia in East Saint Louis, IL. Cahokia's population at apogee (AD 1050 - 1200) reached 20,000. It was the arrival of widespread maize agriculture in the area around Cahokia that allowed the urbanization to coalesce. No corn, no city.

Mesoamerica, on the other hand, had extensive and intensive corn cultivation since early Jaredite times.
Ears of Corn from a Carved Stone Panel in the
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
7. The Book of Mormon contains the curious idea that a human and a plant can co-exist in the same physical body, that people can become trees (Alma 32:28, 41). We see anthropomorphic plants among the luxuriant Cacaxtla murals.
Human Heads as Ears of Corn on a Cornstalk
8. The Book of Mormon says people in the land northward used cement as an architectural building material (Helaman 3:7, 9, 11). Cacaxtla is in the part of Mesoamerica most Book of Mormon modelers consider the land northward. Major public structures at Cacaxtla were built using cement.
Elaborately Worked Cement Pillar at Cacaxtla
9. The Book of Mormon says the Nephites reaised flocks and herds and animals of every kind 2 Nephi 5:11. That may have included birds such as the South Mexican wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo which has been found in a preclassic context at El Mirador in Guatemala's Peten. The Palace at Cacaxtla had a room dedicated to aviculture.
Cacaxtla Room with Bird Cages (Jaulas)
10. The Book of Mormon associates Jesus Christ with both a bird and a serpent. The bird serpent imagery comes from the incident where fiery flying serpents were biting and killing the Israelites in the wilderness 1 Nephi 17:41, Numbers 21:6. Moses was instructed to create a metallic serpent and lift it up on a pole. Whoever was bitten by the poisonous serpents and looked upon the brazen serpent was instantly healed 2 Nephi 25:20, Numbers 21:8,9. The serpent on a pole, of course, was a symbol of the Savior on the cross John 3:14.
Moses Raising the Brazen Serpent in the Wilderness
The Book of Mormon mentions or alludes to the brazen serpent incident and its attendant avian imagery several times. The raised or lifted serpent motif is more prominent in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible:

  • 1 Nephi 11:33 The Savior at His crucifixion would be lifted up.
  • 1 Nephi 17:41 the fiery serpents could fly, combining avian & reptilian characteristics.
  • 1 Nephi 19:10 The Savior at His crucifixion would be lifted up.
  • 2 Nephi 25:13 After the crucifixion, the Savior would resurrect with healing in his wings.
  • 2 Nephi 25:20 Moses raised up the brazen (bronze) serpent. The act of raising up symbolizes flight or ascension to heaven.
  • Alma 33:19 The serpent Moses raised up in the wilderness was a type of the Savior.
  • Helaman 8:14, 15 The brazen serpent lifted up by Moses symbolized life through Christ.
  • 3 Nephi 10:4-6 The Savior compared Himself to a hen gathering chickens under her wings.
  • 3 Nephi 25:2 The Savior would arise with healing in his wings.
  • 3 Nephi 27:14-15 The Savior was sent to earth to be lifted up on the cross and draw all men unto Him.
  • 3 Nephi 28:6 Jesus Christ was lifted up by the Jews.
  • Ether 4:1 The Savior would be lifted up upon the cross.
It may be that bird serpent imagery is prevalent in the Book of Mormon because a Mesoamerican belief in a feathered serpent was common and the Nephites were trying to liken the scriptures unto themselves. This is a feathered serpent image from La Venta Monument 19 which dates to ca. 600 BC.
Serpent with Feathers on La Venta Monument 19 in the
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Parenthetically, many have commented over the years how the bucket-like object in the anthropomorphic figure's right hand is similar to objects depicted on Assyrian bas relief panels from Nimrud. This panel is from Ashurnasirpal II's palace. He reigned from 883 - 859 BC.
Bucket-like Object in Anthropomorphic Figure's Left Hand
Assyrian Relief in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art
 And this is a feathered serpent image from Teotihuacan which dates to ca. AD 300.
Serpent Scepter with Feathers in the Site Museum, Teotihuacan
The Mesoamerican feathered serpent is strongly correlated with the pan-Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl. Quetzal in Nahuatl means "precious feathers" alluding to the famous Quetzal bird from the cloud forests of Guatemala. Coatl in Nahuatl means "serpent." This is one of several represenations of Quetzalcoatl from Cacaxtla. This mural dates to ca. AD 700.
Cacaxtla Priest or Ruler Representing Quetzalcoatl
This personage has prominent wings at his shoulders and he holds a serpent bar as a symbol of power. He has bird feet and he is standing on a feathered serpent. This is a close-up of the feathered serpent from the replica mural in the site museum.
Cacaxtla Feathered Serpent with a Beard
Several of the murals at Cacaxtla have a similar feathered serpent around their border.

11. One last small item. The Book of Mormon mentions sounding a trumpet (3 Nephi 13:2, Ether 14:28). An artifact from Cacaxtla shows a figure blowing on a conch shell trumpet.
Sounding a Trumpet, Cacaxtla Museum
Cacaxtla is a terrific site, well worth a visit.

Kirk Magleby volunteers as Executive Director of Book of Mormon Central which builds enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making the Book of Mormon accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to the entire world. Book of Mormon Central publishes the remarkable new scripture study app ScripturePlus.