Friday, March 27, 2020

Light from St Paul

The Maya Society of Minnesota regularly invites eminent Mesoamericanists to present lectures and labs on the campus of Hamline University in St. Paul. The 2019 - 2020 speakers were intriguing and we have grandchildren in Minneapolis, so I joined the society and managed to make it to two meetings. This is a synopsis of what I found interesting in the presentations from a Book of Mormon perspective. My Book of Mormon insights are bolded.

September 20, 21, 2019 Andrew K. Scherer is a colleague of Stephen D. Houston at Brown Univeristy. Scherer was a student at Hamline who went on to get his PhD from Texas A&M. He taught at Wagner and Baylor before joining the Brown faculty. Bioarchaeology is his focus and he has received funding from NSF, NGS, and NEH. Much of his research has been in collaboration with Charles W. Golden from Brandeis. The two of them are leading authorities on the Usumacinta River area around Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán. Anything they publish has potential relevance because the Book of Mormon geography correlation I consider most likely to be correct (it was the first to pass a strict audit with a perfect score of 100%) locates the land of Melek in and around Yaxchilán. In Community of Christ/Restoration Branch circles, Book of Mormon scholars for over 100 years have correlated Yaxchilán with the city of Zarahemla. M. Wells Jakeman in the 1950's thought El Cayo may have been the city of Zarahemla.
Major Sites in the Area Scherer and Golden Have Studied
Scherer, Golden, Houston, and other collaborators published a major article entitled "Centering the Classic Maya Kingdom of Sak Tzi'i'" in Journal of Field Archaeology, Volume 45, 2020 - Issue 2, pp. 67-85. Sak Tzi'i' (white dog) was known from inscriptions, but archaeologists were not sure which site it was until Scherer et al. positively identified it as the site of Lacanja Tzeltal at the headwaters of the Lacanja River. Sak Tzi'i' was first settled ca. 750 BC.

Notes from Scherer: More than 2,000 ancient human remains have been recovered from Piedras Negras burials. Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán were peers and enemies. Sak Tzi'i' was a smaller site in the orbit of these two giants. Sak Tzi'i' had an Ajaw (lord) while the larger sites had a K'uhul Ajaw (holy lord). La Mar was another site that only had an Ajaw and it was subordinate to Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras Stela 26, Bonampak Lintel 2, and Toniná Monument 8 all mention taking captives from Sak Tzi'i'. Major sites in this area included Palenque, Toniná, Piedras Negras, and Yaxchilán.
About a dozen inscriptions from AD 608 through 864 mention Sak Tzi'i'. It was heavily looted in the 1960's and pieces from Sak Tzi'i' are now in major museum collections such as Denver, Brussels, New York, etc. The site dynasty endured for 300 years from AD 564 to 864.

An inscription from Sak Tzi'i' mentions och bi (road entering) which is a well-known ancient Mayan expression meaning "death." This reminds us of Lehi's words when his demise was imminent that he "must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth." 2 Nephi 1:14.

Stelae in this Upper Usumacinta region are mortuary monuments. This reminds us of the large stone Coriantumr carved to memorialize his life described in Omni 1:20-22.

An inscription from Sak Tzi'i' mentions a deluge event that happened in the remote past. The Maya believed the current world age which began on August 11, 3114 BC (4 ahau 8 kumk'u), was created after a universal flood. The Book of Mormon mentions the flood of Noah three times, in Alma 10:22, 3 Nephi 22:9, and Ether 6:7. See the blog articles entitled "Base Dates" and "Primordial Flood" for additional context.

Sak Tzi'i' was protected by steep riverbanks on one side and defensive walls on the other. The walls were 1 meter wide foundations for wooden palisades. This matches the Book of Mormon precisely. Alma 50:2-3 and 53:4 describe cities surrounded by earthen walls topped with wooden pickets.

UNAM and UADY were excavation partners. Sak Tzi'i' had a triadic group more or less following the pattern of the cross group at Palenque. The Usumacinta sites all had ballcourts in polity capitals. Sak Tzi'i' had a single altar ballcourt like Plan de Ayutla. One carving shows 2 bound captives. Flint and obsidian lance or spear points were deposited in a cache. In other words, this was a typical middle-sized classic Maya city state with 24 stelae, 11 altars, 1 panel, and 11 stone "squat monuments." Rulers are depicted holding serpent bars and some stelae are columnar. This map shows relative site locations.
Sites with Sak Tzi'i' Relationships
Sak Tzi'i' was a large center in the pre-classic. Early pots date from the middle to the late pre-classic. This makes it likely relevant to the Book of Mormon which took place largely in the pre-classic.

Many Sak Tzi'i' rulers had a Te' (tree) element in their names. K'ab' kan Te' is attested AD 628. K'ab' chan Te' is dated AD 636. Another K'ab' chan Te' has a date AD 722. Ye te' K'inich is dated AD 787 and another K'ab' chan Te' is attested AD 864. This is interesting because the idea that humans can become trees as described in Alma 32:28-43 is found throughout Mesoamerican art and iconography.
Pakal Ancestor K'an Joy Chitam as a Tree
Sarcophagus, Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Drawing by Merle Greene Robertson
For more information, see the blog article "Anthropomorphic Trees."

Takeshi Inomata has the most exciting site (Aguada Fénix) in Mesoamerica. See the article "Usumacinta Olmec" for more information. Aguada Fénix will almost certainly re-write the book on Olmec - Maya interaction in the 1,000 - 700 BC time frame. For example, at the same time (ca. 700 BC) that Izapa on the south had over a dozen smaller copies of itself in its orbit (see the blog article "Izapa"), Aguada Fénix on the north had over a dozen smaller copies of itself in its area of influence, all following the "Middle Formative Usumacinta" site layout plan.

The agriculture that supported Piedras Negras was on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta. They used drained fields like the chinampas in Central Mexico. Yaxchilán collapsed AD 810. We see defensive fortifications (earthen walls) at Piedras Negras, Yaxchilán, and La Mar. Moroni commented ca. AD 400 that war was endemic among the Lamanites Mormon 8:8.

Scherer presented at a 2018 Tulane conference on warfare. In the 1940's, Experts thought the Maya were a peaceful people. Sir J. Eric S. Thompson wrote that warfare came late to the Maya area from Central Mexico, and that the Maya were astronomers, theologians, and timekeepers. Sylvanus Morley thought the "old empire" sculpture lacked militarism. In 1949, Life Magazine published an article about the murals at Bonampak that clearly showed warriors fighting. It was largely dismissed because archaeologists had not found fortifications or defensive structures.

The picture began to change when Stephen D. Houston wrote his dissertation at Yale (PhD 1987) describing defensive walls at Dos Pilas. Arthur Demarest published an article in National Geographic showing walls at Dos Pilas and a moat around Punta de Chimino. Chaak Ak' al, occupied from 300 BC to AD 150, had large scale defensive fortifications built ca. 75 BC, precisely at the time the Book of Mormon describes Captain Moroni fortifying cities throughout the greater land of Zarahemla Alma 50:1. The leading Book of Mormon geography correlation (the one that successfully passed a strict audit) identifies Noah with Chaak Ak' al. Scherer's grad student, Omar Andrés Alcover Firpi, studied fortifications at Becan which date from AD 100 - 250. Ceibal also has fortifications that date to ca. 75 BC. The leading Book of Mormon geography correlation places Aaron at Ceibal. Richard Terry and Bob Roylance identify Ceibal with the city of Zarahemla.

La Pasadita was a site subordinate to Yaxchilán. La Pasadita Lintel 1 is in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. It is among a fortified ring of sites north of Yaxchilán that took advantage of natural barriers such as swamps and hills. La Pasadita is surrounded by low, short, linear rubble mounds built with rough, irregular rocks. The Book of Mormon says the Nephites built stone walls as fortifications Alma 48:8. Yaxchilán border settlements were typically on hilltops. Most of the people in Yaxchilán lived in low lying areas on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta. This supports the leading Book of Mormon geography correlation which has Alma II preaching in Melek adjacent to wilderness west of Sidon Alma 8:3, then crossing over Sidon and traveling 3 days journey (about 45 air kilometers) north to Ammonihah Alma 8:6. The correlation we are following places Ammonihah at El Hormiguero II on the Guatemalan San Pedro 7 air kilometers from the Mexican border.

This map shows Becan in the north and Izapa in the south, about 500 air kilometers distant from each other.
Archaeological Sites with Becan in the NE and Izapa in the SW
And this map shows the sites mentioned so far in the upper and middle Usumacinta areas.
Sites from Aguada Fénix in the North to Punta de Chimino in the South
Richard Terry (BYU Plant & Wildlife Sciences, Emeritus) determined that the main market at Piedras Negras was in the southern portion of the site. Helaman 7:10 verifies that Nephite cities had chief markets.

Yaxchilán was surrounded by a defensive ring of fortified settlements that included Chicozapote and Nuevo Guerrero on the Mexican side of the river and Tecolote, La Pasadita, and Oso Negro on the Guatemalan side. They protected Yaxchilán from Piedras Negras, its perennial enemy to the north. The Usumacinta north of Añaite is treacherous with rapids and the steep Chicozapote Canyon. There is an area of marshland around Laguneta Lacandon that is a natural chokepoint and border between Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán. About every 3 kilometers in this area a creek flows into the big river. There are travel routes both east and west of the Usumacinta. To go from Palenque to Piedras Negras to Yaxchilán you would travel east of the Usumacinta. This agrees precisely with the leading Book of Mormon correlation and the text. Palenque is thought to be in the lesser land of Zarahemla and the text says people traveling from Zarahemla to points south typically crossed over Sidon to Gideon and traveled southward from there Alma 6:7Alma 16:7, Alma 17:1.
Book of Mormon Lands According to the Leading (Audited) Correlation
This map zooms in on the heavily fortified border area between Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán.
Piedras Negras, Yaxchilán, Natural Barriers and Fortified Border Sites
West of Piedras Negras are the Cola del Diablo Rapids where the Busiljá River enters the Usumacinta. The Chicozapote Rapids, aka Chicozapote Falls, aka Añaite Rapids, are between Yaxchilán and El Cayo. Arroyo Macabilero by Laguneta Lacandon is the border area. The Usumacinta in this area rises and falls by 10 meters from the dry season to the rainy season and back again. Streamflow varies from just under 500 cubic meters per second at low flow to as much as 5,500 cubic meters per second at peak flow in a wet year. The foliage is so thick and inclines so steep around Tecolote it can take up to 12 hours to travel 3 kilometers. On the other hand, you can walk the gentle slopes from Yaxchilán to La Pasadita in one day. The distance from Yaxchilán to La Pasadita is 15 air kilometers. 15 air kilometers is exactly the distance the leading (audited) Book of Mormon model deduces for the standard measure the text calls a "day's journey." See the blog article "Land Southward Travel Times."

There are low walls south of Arroyo Macabilero in the saddles between hills. 14 walls have been identified at Tecolote, 2 at La Pasadita, and 1 at El Tunel. 1 wall has been discovered at Yaxchilán and  that served as a foundation for wooden palisades or barricades. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his The True History of the Conquest of New Spain translated by A.P. Maudslay and published by the Hakluyt Society of London in four volumes, 1908 - 1916, at approximately p. 300, talks about indigenous American's use of defensive barricades. The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan which depicts Alvarado's conquest of Central America shows native defensive barricades. A restored copy of the Lienzo is in the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City. Some of the Guatemalan barricades had gates. The Lienzo also shows spiked pit horse traps.
Lienzo de Quauhquechollan Painted ca. 1530 Showing Wooden Palisades
Universidad Francisco Marroquín Digital Restoration
In an article entitled "Tecolote, Guatemala: Archaeological Evidence for a Fortified Late Classic Maya Political Border" published in Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 34, 2009, pp. 285-305, Scherer and Golden show a drawing of what defensive wooden palisades looked like anciently in this part of Guatemala.
Andrew Scherer's Drawing of Defensive Wooden Palisades at Tecolote
Andrew Restall in an article entitled "Invasion: The Maya at War, 1520's to 1540's" published in Embattled Bodies, Embattled Places: War in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Andes, Andrew K. Scherer and John W. Verano, editors (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2014) says Maya defensive structures, including wooden barricades, were often designed to funnel and route invading warriors into designated killing fields or alleys.

In the Tecolote area, settlements were on hilltops with defensive structures including palisade-topped walls between the hills. Watch towers have been discovered around Tecolote, La Pasadita, and El Tunel. The Book of Mormon describes watch towers as part of Captain Moroni's defensive fortification strategy Alma 50:4.
Watch Towers Overlooking Defensive Walls in the Tecolote/La Pasadita Area
Map by Andrew K. Scherer published in Scherer and Golden 2009
This is a diagram of what the hilltop watch towers looked like from the air compared with a typical hilltop residential settlement.
a Watch Tower and b Hilltop Residential Patio in the Tecolote/La Pasadita Area
Diagram by G. Valle published in Scherer and Golden 2009
El Kinel is located inside a bend in the Usumacinta. A circular moat was constructed on the other side of the site so it was surrounded by water. This moat is almost identical to the one at Punta de Chimino. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Maudslay translation, p. 305, describes very deep fosse (ditches or moats) used by native Mesoamericans in defensive fortifications. Large ditches were part of Captain Moroni's defensive fortification strategy Alma 49:18,22; 53:3-4.
Remains of Ancient Circular Moat Visible in Aerial Photography
El Kinel, 10 Air Kilometers SE of Yaxchilán
Zancudero is a pre-classic site with a high defensive wall 5 air kilometers east of Yaxchilán. Macabilero has good evidence of pre-classic warfare. On the Guatemalan side of the river are cut stone blocks 15 to 20 feet tall. This kind of megatlithic defensive architecture is rare in Mesoamerica. Megalithic blocks of granite may have been Mormon's defensive architecture strategy at the city of Desolation Mormon 3:6, 4:4. See the blog articles "French Connection" and "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage."

At Macabilero, excavators found quantities of small round sling stones. They are about the size of tennis balls. Houston and Garrison found similar stocks of small round sling stones at La Cuernavilla Fortress west of Tikal. The Book of Mormon says both the Nephites and Lamanites commonly used stones as weapons Alma 49:2,4,19,22. Alma 50:5 says the Nephites cast stones from their defensive towers which probably means they used slings.

This is a screen capture from the video "Dr. Stephen Houston - Recovering a Lost World" of a presentation the noted Mayanist gave at BYU on Monday, October 28, 2019. It shows a Maya warrior on attack.
Maya Warrior Armed with a Stone in His Hand
And these are some of the tennis ball-sized stones found at La Cuernavilla from the same video.
Sling Stones Excavated at La Cuernavilla Fortress near El Zotz, Peten
There are 13 walls in saddles between hills around La Mar, Chiapas. The walls clearly show post holes where wooden palisades once stood. Wall fill includes dart points and bi-faces rather than the pot shards commonly found at other sites.
Post Molds in Defensive Wall from El Kinel, Peten
This photo was published in Golden and Scherer, "Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research Along the Usumacinta River," The PARI Journal, Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 2006. I thank my friend, Richard Terry, for bringing this to my attention.

10 defensive walls have been discovered at Piedras Negras, north of the site center. They date to the early classic. 2 defensive walls have been discovered by Yaxchilán in addition to the one in the city. Lacanja Tzeltal (Sak Tzi'i') was fotified. There were late pre-classic fortresses at Macabilero and Zancudero. Chinikiha also dates to the pre-classic, although no fortifications are presently known from the site. Some walls, such as those at La Mar, protected the city. Other walls, such as those at La Pasadita and Oso Negro, protected the greater polity (in this case, Yaxchilán).
Sites Referenced in the Greater Yaxchilán Area
These are sites referenced in the Greater Piedras Negras Area.
Sites Referenced in the Greater Piedras Negras Area
Andrew Scherer closed out his presentation talking about sacrifices. The Maya sacrificed themselves, animals, children, and captives. Auto-sacrifice was generally done by piercing the tongue or genitals with a stingray spine, obsidian blade, or sharpened bone handle. Yax ch'ab was the royal imperative to feed the gods and placate the supernaturals. Royal blood was dripped on paper which was burned and the ascending smoke was thought to provide divine nourishment, forestall divine ire, and ensure human well-being. Well-known iconographic portrayals include Dos Pilas Panel 19, Yaxchilán Lintel 3, Yaxchilán Throne 1, and a monument from Palenque Temple XXI. The Hauberg Stela references god G1 and depicts a young royal's first bloodletting.
Hauberg Stela, Princeton Museum of Art
The Book of Mormon references the Mesoamerican cultural practice of royal bloodletting in Alma 34:11.

Animals sacrificed by the Maya included bobwhites. The Book of Mormon says the Nephites offerred animal sacrifices Mosiah 2:3.

Child sacrifices are depicted on El Cayo Altar 4 and Piedras Negras Stela 11. El Zotz Burial 9 contained the remains of six children in ceramic vases. They ranged in age from six months to 4 years. El Zotz Burials 6 and 15 also contained sacrificed children whose remains were in ceramic offering vessels.
Child Sacrifice in a Cache Vessel Atop a Tripod, Justin Kerr Photo K1645
The Book of Mormon describes Lamanites sacrificing children Mormon 4:14, 21.

Sacrificing captives was a widespread practice among the Maya.
Captive Prisoners Awaiting Decapitation, Justin Kerr Photo K680
The Book of Mormon describes Lamanites killing Nephite prisoners of war Alma 56:12 and sacificing war captives Mormon 4:14, 21.
On October 19-20, 2019, I was privileged to hear Takeshi Inomata discuss his recent work at Aguada Fénix. He enntitled his presentation "Large Ceremonial Constructions at the Dawn of Maya Civilization." Inomata typically teams up with Daniela Triadan. He directed the Ceibal-Petexbatun Archaeological Project from 2005 - 2017 in Peten, Guatemala and currently directs the Middle Usumacinta Archaeological Project in Tabasco, Mexico. He thrives on paradigm shifts. He received his PhD from Vanderbilt. My notes from a lecture he gave at BYU on March 8, 2016 are in the blog article "Takeshi Inomata."

Maya origins were explosive, not gradual. From 330 BC to AD 250 sites in the Mirador Basin rose to great heights. During the early pre-classic, prior to 1,000 BC, those same sites were pre-ceramic. in 1,200 BC, artisans at San Lorenzo erected an enormous artificial plateau. By the middle pre-classic, 1,000 BC, La Venta was just beginning to develop. Aguada Fénix began at 1,000 BC. It had no direct Olmec influence. La Venta had an E Group. It has been said that La Venta was part of the Middle Formative Chiapas cultural tradition widely attested throughout the Grijalva Basin. That nomenclature is not necessarily accurate. There were E Groups throughout the Maya area. It has been said that greenstone and centerline caches were not present in the Maya area but were characteristic of the Middle Formative Chiapas sites such as La Venta, San Isidro, Chiapa de Corzo, and La Libertad. That is expressly not true. Inomata began working at Ceibal in 2005. They found a cache, then more greenstone caches along the E-W centerline axis of an E Group. They found an Olmec carving in the early Ceibal construction phase from 1,000 to 700 BC. 176 C-14 dates have been analyzed from Ceibal with Bayesian statistical techniques, making it the most accurately-dated Maya site.

Ceramics first appear at Ceibal at 950 BC. They first appear at La Venta 1,000 - 900 BC. La Venta was a large center by 800 BC. Ceibal was founded in the gap after the collapse of San Lorenzo and before La Venta became powerful. La Carmelita, west of the Usumacinta on the outskirts of Emiliano Zapata, Tabasco, dates to 900 BC. It shows both Middle Formative Chiapas (MFC) and Middle Formative Usumacinta (MFU) characteristics. MFC and MFU are planned site layout patterns.
MFC (White Pins) and MFU (Yellow Pins) Sites, San Lorenzo
Aguada Fénix (AF) is only 3 kilometers from the site of El Tiradero which follows the MFC pattern. AF and most of the other MFU sites were discovered with LiDAR. It has ramps, reservoirs, north south causeways, and a 15 meter high artificial platform. It has a 5 kilometer causeway to the north that is 200 meters wide. It has an E Group and a small pyramid. The site is as large as central Tikal or central Teotihuacan. Excavators found a floor with a checkerboard pattern made from different colored clays. It looks like the floral carpets you see in Antigua, Guatemala during Semana Santa.

1,200 BC AF was nothing but a midden. The plateau was built beginning 1,000 BC, which makes AF slightly older than Ceibal. Construction stopped at AF 800 BC. Some of the construction was with large stones. The causeways were built 900 - 800 BC. Some of them have multiple floors. Some comparative sizes:
  • Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan 1,600,000 cubic meters
  • Platform, Aguada Fénix 2,800,000 cubic meters
  • La Danta, El Mirador 2,800,000 cubic meters
  • Platform, San Lorenzo 4,000,000 cubic meters
Some comparative dates:
  • 1,400 - 1,100 BC San Lorenzo
  • 1,000 - 800 BC Aguada Fénix
  • 950 BC - AD 950 Ceibal
  • 800 - 400 BC La Venta 
Comparative characteristics:
  • San Lorenzo had artificial plateaus and no pyramids
  • Aguada Fénix had an artificial plateau and a small pyramid
  • Ceibal had multiple pyramids
  • La Venta had no plateau and pyramids
These sites show movement over time from horizontal monumentality to vertical monumentality. There was not much maize cultivated prior to 1,000 BC. Beginning 1,000 BC, maize was prevalent. The Book of Mormon says the Jaredites raised grain Ether 9:17, 10:12.

Maize agriculture provided the caloric base to support large populations. The Book of Mormon says the Jaredites had large populations Ether 15:2.

Ceramics were well-established in the Olmec heartland by 1,200 BC. They entered the Maya area at 1,000 BC. The clay is similar at San Lorenzo, Ceibal, and AF. No caches have been discovered yet at AF. One cache at Ceibal had greenstones with depictions of the Olmec maize god. The main north south axis at AF is 9 degrees east of true north. The MFC pattern dates from 800 - 400 BC. The Grijalva centers declined in 400 BC along with La Venta. The MFU pattern pre-dates MFC.

Inomata's lab on Saturday focused on LiDAR and then covered a miscellany of topics. Arlen and Diane Chase who dig Caracol were the first to use LiDAR. Inomata followed at Ceibal. LiDAR flights are done at the end of the dry season. Dense vegetation at ground level in northern Yucatan makes LiDAR less effective. You can change from near infrared to intermediate infrared to far infrared depending on the tree canopy cover. Besides Caracol and Ceibal, LiDAR has now been done at Teotihuacan, Aguada Fénix I and II, Izapa, Dzibanche, Peten (PACUNAM I and II), El Mirador, a Belizean consortium funded by the Alphawood Foundation, Mayapan, Chichen Itza, the Coba causeway, Tres Zapotes, Palenque, and Yaxchilán. LiDAR is effective in primary forest, less so in secondary forest.

The Petexbatun E groups end ca. 300 BC, just after the MFC sites in the Grijalva Basin. Around Ceibal, structures were built on high ground. The structural density at Ceibal is 450 structures per square kilometer. Ceibal was abandoned between AD 900 - 950.

Aguada Fénix is oriented 9 degrees E of true N. El Tiradero 3 kilometers away is oriented precisely N S. Aguada Fénix (AF) got its name from Rancho Fénix whose land surrounds it. Balancan, 45 air kilometers west of AF,  has Olmec iconography. Sediment analysis from cores drilled in Lake Pajonal 10 kilometers east of Villahermosa shows data patterns almost identical with those from La Venta. It is possible the Villahermosa area was part of greater La Venta from 800 - 400 BC. This is interesting because La Venta was likely part of the Jaredite land northward. If La Venta extended all the way to Villahermosa, we may have to re-think the current proposal for the land northward/land southward boundary.
La Venta, Villahermosa, and Current Proposed Jaredite Boundary
The Usumacinta at Boca del Cerro pre-dates the mountains which is why it cut right through the ridge. Inomata is impressed with Boca del Cerro. So am I. It is one of the most dramatic physical features I have seen anywhere on earth. It is the point where a lush coastal plain, big river, steep canyon, and high jungle mountain all come together. In the leading (audited) Book of Mormon correlation, Boca del Cerro is the boundary between the lesser land of Zarahemla on the north and the upland wilderness on the south that eventually leads travelers to the land of Nephi.
Boca del Cerro, Tabasco, a Geographical Inflection Point
I did not make it to hear Ruud van Akkeren who is a Research Associate with the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City, but his material is useful to students of the Book of Mormon, so I include a brief note here. A handful of people over the years have spent so much time with the Maya they have practically gone native which makes them invaluable resources for understanding Maya thought processes, speech patterns, and lifeways. Dennis Tedlock is one of these people and he has produced a splendid library of works including the very important Rabinal Achi (See the blog article "Rabinal Achi" for Book of Mormon connections). Allen Christenson is another and he has produced the quintessential Popol Vuh. My friend, Kerry Hull, is another and he has produced dictionaries of Ch'orti' Mayan as well as studies of Maya poetry. Ruud van Akkeren is one of these exceptional Mayanist/ethnographers and he is working on the Kaqchikel Memorial de Sololá.

Dr. Akkeren contends that the division academic specialists make between highland and lowland Maya is artificial and misleading. For him, the Popol Vuh and other Maya documents are highly relevant to our understanding of the classic Maya inscriptions from the lowlands. He emphasizes lineage connections over ethnic or language groups and believes Maya writings are best understood as lineage histories. In other words, blood is thicker than water. The Book of Mormon is a lineage history. Lehi was a descendant of Manasseh Alma 10:3 which tied him into Abraham through Joseph 1 Nephi 5:14. Ammon was a descendant of Zarahemla Mosiah 7:3 who was a descendant of Mulek Mosiah 25:2. Lamoni was a descendant of Ishmael Alma 17:21. Ammoron was a descendant of Zoram Alma 54:23. Before Amulek preached to his fellow citizens in his home town of Ammonihah, he recited an 8 step genealogy that tied him into Joseph who was sold into Egypt, a heroic figure who had lived approximately 1,500 years earlier Alma 10:2-3. We could go on and on. The book of Ether is organized genealogically around the descendants of Jared. After the founding epic, Jared's famous brother gets basically ignored because his descendants were not the Jaredite kings. At the end of his father's record, Moroni stated his lineage Mormon 8:13, like his father before him had done two times 3 Nephi 5:20, Mormon 1:5. The seven founding linages of the Book of Mormon appear near the beginning of the record Jacob 1:13 and twice near the end 4 Nephi 1:37-38, Mormon 1:8. Like Maya writings, the Book of Mormon is best understood as a lineage history.

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 people everywhere. Book of Mormon Central publishes the remarkable new scripture study app ScripturePlus.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Base Dates

The Book of Mormon has several hundred chronological references. Accurate timekeeping was very important to the Nephites as Mormon explicitly states in 3 Nephi 8:1-2.

Point #1. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where accurate timekeeping over centuries was important.

The Book of Mormon has a number of base dates aka zero dates which anchor elapsed time sequences measured in years from a beginning point. 1 Nephi 10:4 dates the coming of Jesus Christ six hundred years after Lehi left Jerusalem. Mosiah 29:44 establishes the transition from Nephite kingship to judges as a new base date. 3 Nephi 3:1 uses the birth of Jesus Christ as a base date just as we do today with our BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini - year of our Lord) conventions. 3 Nephi 2:4-8 is a very interesting passage, a kind of nexus that brings all three historical dating systems together in context. Verses 4 and 5 continue the count based on the reign of the judges that began in Mosiah 29:44. It was important to Mormon to document the fact that Nephite central government endured 100 years because about 20 years later it would be gone 3 Nephi 7:23 Nephi 2:6 correlates this point in time (ca. AD 9) with the original base date of Lehi's departure from Jerusalem. 3 Nephi 2:7 then introduces the new system of long range time measurement based on the birth of Jesus Christ that was the Nephite standard throughout the remainder of their history.

These three systems of long range time measured from a base date are pervasive in the text:
1. Lehi left Jerusalem (mentioned 10 times), 1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8; 2 Nephi 5:28; 25:19; Jacob 1:1; Enos 1:25; Mosiah 6:4; 29:46; 3 Nephi 1:1; 2:6.

2. Reign of the judges (mentioned 97 times), Mosiah 29:44; Alma 1:1, 2, 33; 3:25, 27; 4:1, 5, 6, 9, 10, 20; 8:2, 3; 10:6; 14:23; 15:19; 16:1, 12, 21; 28:7, 9; 30: 2, 4, 5; 35:12, 13; 43:3; 44:24; 45:2, 20; 46:37; 48:2; 49:29; 50:1, 17, 23, 24, 25, 35; 51: 1, 12, 37; 52:1, 14, 15, 18, 23, 35; 56:1; 57:5; 59:1; 62:11, 12, 39, 52; 63:1, 3, 4, 10, 16; Helaman 1:1. 13, 14, 34; 2:1, 12; 3:1, 18, 22, 23, 32, 33, 37; 4:4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 17, 18; 6:1, 15, 32, 41; 7:1; 10:19; 11:1, 24, 29, 35; 16:9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 24.

3. Coming of Jesus Christ (mentioned 5 times), 3 Nephi 3:1; 4 Nephi 4:21; Mormon 3:4; 8:6; Moroni 10:1.

In addition, the text contains hundreds of instances of simple year counts implicit within one of these three systems. Jarom 1:5 (two hundred years from Lehi's departure), Helaman 11:36 (eighty second, eighty third, and eighty fourth years of the reign of the judges), and 4 Nephi 1:14 (seventy first, seventy second, seventy ninth, and one hundredth year from the coming of Christ) are examples.

Point #2. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where long range time was counted from a base or zero date.

Many have commented on the high frequency of year counts in the Book of Mormon that are multiples of 20. Six hundred (1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8; 2 Nephi 25:19; 3 Nephi 1:1), four hundred twenty (Moroni 10:1), four hundred (Alma 45:10; Helaman 13:5, 9; Mormon 8:6), three hundred sixty (Mormon 3:4), three hundred twenty (Omni 1:5, 4 Nephi 1:48), two hundred (Jarom 1:5; 4 Nephi 1:22) and one hundred (3 Nephi 2:5; 4 Nephi 1:14) are examples.

There are also instances in the text highlighting year counts that are multiples of 5. 3 Nephi 5:7-8 shows that year counts (annals) were typical but twenty five years held special significance in the record-keeping process. Jacob 1:1, Helaman 14:2, and 4 Nephi 1:47 are other passages emphasizing five year units.

Point #3. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where 5 and 20 year units were significant in long range time measurement.

In addition to historical time, the Book of Mormon frequently refers to the creation or foundation of the world as an epic event from the distant past that was the spiritual and temporal beginning of life on earth:
1. The creation (mentioned 12 times), 1 Nephi 5:11; 2 Nephi 1:10; 2:12, 13; 6:3; 11:7; Mosiah 28:17; Alma 18:36;. 22:12, 13; Ether 1:3; Moroni 10:3.

2. The foundation of the world (mentioned 22 times), 1 Nephi 10:18; 2 Nephi 9:18; 27:10; Mosiah 4:6, 7; 15:19; 18:13; Alma 12:25, 30; 13:3, 5, 7; 18:39; 22:13; 42:26; Helaman 5:47; 3 Nephi 1:14; Ether 3:14; 4:15, 15, 19; Moroni 8:12.

3. Adam as the first man (mentioned 25 times), 1 Nephi 5:11; 2 Nephi 2:19, 22, 25; 9:21; Mosiah 3:11, 16, 19, 26; 4:7; 28:17; Alma 12:22, 23; 18:36; 22:12; 27:13; 40:18; 42:5; Helaman 14:16; Mormon 3:20; 9:12; Ether 1:3, 4; Moroni 8:8; 10:3.

Point #4. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where the creation was a significant event in the popular worldview.

Anthropologists refer to metaphysical events such as the creation as being in "mythological time." The Book of Mormon bridges "mythological time" and historical time. The Nephite text explicitly associates the creation with human actors and historical events. Alma I linked Helam's mortal life with the foundation of the world in Mosiah 18:13. When Ammon taught King Lamoni, he began at the creation of the world and then brought things forward to Lamoni's day Alma 18:36-38. We see a similar pattern in Alma 22:12-15 when Aaron taught Lamoni's father. Moroni exhorted us to remember things that have happened from the creation of Adam down to our own time Moroni 10:3.
Omni 1:20-22 is similar. Ca. 300 BC, Coriantumr engraved his history on a stela, linking himself to first parents who came from the tower of Babel far back in "mythological time."

Point #5. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where humans in historical time were linked back to heroic events in "mythological time."

The Book of Mormon in two places describes ancient records similar to the biblical book of Genesis. The Jaredites posessed knowledge of the creation of the world, Adam, and events down to the time of the tower of Babel (Ether 1:3). The plates of brass contained the five books of Moses (1 Nephi 5:11).

Point #6. We should find Book of Mormon lands in a part of the ancient world where vestiges of the Genesis creation account were preserved.

If the Book of Mormon took place in the Maya area, all six points (among many others) are amply attested.

Point #1. Accurate timekeeping over centuries was important.
"Like no other people in history, the ancient Maya were obsessed by the study of time. Their sages framed its cycles with tireless exactitude. Yet their preoccupation with time was not limited to calendrics; it was a central trait in their evolving culture." Miguel León-Portilla, Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya, Second Edition, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) Volume 190 in The Civilization of the American Indian Series, back cover.
1988 Book on Maya Timekeeping
Point #2. Long range time was counted from a base or zero date.
The Maya long count began on August 11, 3114 BC (GMT Correlation). That was the date 4 Ahau 8 Kumk'u, the creation date of the current world age. This base or zero date is found in many Maya texts including the tablet from the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. This is my 2015 photograph of the base date on Quirigua Stela C.
Quirigua Stela C East Side with Annotations
Point #3. 5 and 20 year units were significant in long range time measurement.
The famous Maya bar and dot notation was a vigesimal (base 20) numeral system. Just as our modern decimal (base 10) system counts from 0 - 9 in the first (ones) position, then starts over with 1 in the second (tens)position and 0 in the first (ones) position, the Maya counted from 0 - 19 in the first (ones) position, then started over with 1 in the second (twenties) position and 0 in the first (ones) position. One day they called a kin and twenty days they called a uinal. Eighteen uinals (360 kins/days) they called a tun which approximated a solar year (365.24219 days). Twenty tuns (7,200 kins/days) they called a katun and twenty katuns (144,000 kins/days or 400 tuns) we call a baktun (we don't know the original Maya name).  
Maya numerals 0 - 19 with a dot for 1 and a bar for 5
Point #4. The creation was a significant event in the popular worldview.
Creation texts such as the Popol Vuh were "the doctrine which they first imbibed with their mother's milk, and that all of them knew it almost by heart." Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh The Sacred Book of the Maya, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007) Translator's Preface, quoting Francisco Ximénez (1666-1729). We see creation myth imagery at Izapa (ca. 400 BC), El Mirador (ca. 200 BC), and San Bartolo (ca. 200 BC). Creation iconography is widespread throughout the classic period (AD 250 - 900). Justin Kerr, for example, documents hundreds of examples in his famed MayaVase photographic archive.
Popol Vuh 2007 University of Oklahoma Edition
Point #5. Humans in historical time were linked back to heroic events in "mythological time."
"The opening chapters of the Popol Vuh describe the creation of all things as if it were occuring in the immediate present ..." and "The story-teller invites the listener to imagine the setting of his tale, and nearly always tells the story as if it were happening right then, even if it happened in the distant or mythic past." Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh, Translator's Preface. Ancient hieroglyphic texts have a "device apparently used by the Maya to link historical events with the mythological origins of the world, namely by means of extremely Long Counts involving coefficients of '13' at and beyond the baktuns position." Jorge L. Orejel, "A Parallel Long-Reckoning Between the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and a Hieroglyphic Inscription from Yaxchilán," Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing No. 63, Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, October 29, 2019, shared on David Stuart's Maya Decipherment blog. This device can be seen on Step VII of the Hieroglyphic Stairs in Structure 33 at Yaxchilán where eight coefficients of "13" precede the baktuns position. Several inscriptions from Cobá also have long strings of "13" preceding the baktuns position. If taken literally, these long count dates would indicate a time trillions of years in the past. Epigraphers interpret them as a literary way of expressing the completion of many higher-order cycles since the beginning of time. In the Yaxchilán example, ruler Bird Jaguar staged a ball game on (October 15, AD 744) and used the literary device to set his actions in "the realm of sacred behavior within a time frame that approached infinity." Linda Schele and Mary E. Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1986) p. 249. This image is from the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions (CMHI), Peabody Museum, Harvard.
Right Side, Stair VII, Structure 33, Yaxchilán showing long count date
Point #6. Vestiges of the Genesis creation account are preserved.
Genesis 2:2-3 famously says God created the world in seven days, the seventh being a day of rest. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Roys 1967 translation) says "seven was the count of the creation of the world." The Edmonson 1986 translation says "seven is the count of the dawn." According to Jorge Orejel "dawn can then be equated with the creation of the world." Orejel says the phrase under consideration could be rendered "the seventh time during its dawn is the count of its dawn" or "seven steps above 13 times 8,000 after its dawn is the count of its dawn." In the image above, the eight glyphs on the top left all have the number 13 depicted as two bars and three dots. The one on the lower right is in what epigraphers call the pictun (8,000 tuns/years) position and there are seven more coefficients of "13" in higher orders to the left of it. Orejel links this with the Chilam Balam of Chumayel expression that actions happened "for the seventh time" prior to the final dawn of the most recent creation. The Maya envisioned multiple destruction/creation cycles preceding the current world age.

Genesis 1:7 says God made the firmament (Heaven) which divided waters under the firmament from waters above the firmament. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel says water in the sky fell on the earth and destroyed it prior to the current creation. During the creative process, the sky was "lifted up" to its current position above the earth. Linda Schele in the 1987 Notebooks for Maya Hieroglyphic Writing Workshops at Texas interpreted wak chanal as "the beginning of time, 4 ahau 8 kumk'u, when the sky was lifted up."

Genesis 1:2 says darkness prevailed at first. The Popol Vuh (all citations are from Christenson 2007) says "All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night."

Genesis 1:2 describes primordial waters. The Popol Vuh says "Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone."

Genesis 2:10-14 describes four rivers flowing in different directions to four lands. The Popol Vuh says "Thus were established the four corners, the four sides" and "four divisions."

Genesis 1:1 indicates the two fundamental entities created were heaven and earth. The Popol Vuh agrees, calling them "all the sky and earth" and "the womb of sky and the womb of earth."

Genesis 1:1-8 describes the primordial elements before dry land appeared. The Popol Vuh says "the face of the earth has not yet appeared."

Genesis 1:9 describes a gathering process as part of creation. The Popol Vuh describes a time when "There is not yet anything gathered together." Later the surface of the earth was "gathered and become level."

Genesis 1:3 famously says God spoke and the elements obeyed. The actual operative agent of creation was the divine word. The Popol Vuh says "These, then, are the first words, the first speech" and "Then came his word" followed by "Merely their word brought about the creation of it."

Genesis 1:1 highlights God who existed before the creation. The Popol Vuh features "the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent" who existed before the creation.

Genesis 1:3 describes the creation of light. The Popol Vuh says "they conceived light and life" and "a dawn for everyone."

Genesis 1:16 describes the two great lights, the sun and the moon. The Popol Vuh tells an elaborate tale about Hunahpu and Xbalanque apotheosizing into the sun and the moon.
Hunahpu Transformed into Kinich Ahau, the Sun God
Three Cheek Spots are Diagnostic of this Deity
Tzakol Censer, Uaxactun Area
Genesis describes the creation of plants (1:11-12) followed by animals (1:24-25) and finally humans (1:27). The Popol Vuh describes the creation of "cypress groves and pine forests to cover the face of the earth" followed by "the deer and the birds" and other animals and finally humans from mud, wood, and then corn.

In the Genesis account, Eve is tempted by the fruit of a tree, brings death into the world, is able to have children, and gets banished from the Garden of Eden. In the Popol Vuh, Maiden Lady Blood aka Xquic is tempted by the fruit of a calabash tree, becomes pregnant, is sentenced to death, and gets banished from Xibalba.

Genesis 6:1 says humans began to multiply on the face of the earth. The Popol Vuh says the wooden people "began to multiply, bearing daughters and sons."

Genesis 6:5 says humans became wicked, thinking only of evil. The Popol Vuh says the wooden people "did not remember their Framer or their Shaper" and lacked purpose.

Genesis 6:6 says God regretted creating humans. The Popol Vuh has the Framer and the Shaper saying "we have made a mistake."

Genesis 7:21 says God cleansed the earth with a flood and all terrestrial animal life died. The Popol Vuh says "A flood was planned by Heart of Sky" and "they were killed in the flood." See the blog article "Primordial Flood."

Genesis 11:6-7 says humans became too powerful and needed to be restrained. The Popol Vuh says "It is a mistake that they have become like gods." In Genesis, tongues were confounded at the Tower of Babel. In the Maya story, people's eyesight and cognitive abilities were restricted.

This is merely a sampling of the narrative motifs that could be compared. There are enough similarities between the Genesis account of the creation and the Chilam Balam of Chumayel that many have assumed Colonial Christian influence on the Maya text. Jorge Orejel points out parallelism between the Yucatec record and an 8th century AD inscription from Yaxchilán that he believes "documents the survival of Classic Maya beliefs in Colonial texts."
Chumayel, Yucatan 430 Air Kilometers Distant from Yaxchilán, Chiapas
There are enough similarities between the Genesis account of the creation and the Popol Vuh that many have assumed Colonial Christian influence on the Maya creation story.
Hunahpu with his Blowgun, Early Classic Maya Double Vase
Note the Three Cheek Spots. K3150 in the Justin Kerr Database 
Over time, however, dozens of event depictions discovered in pre-conquest art and iconography have re-inforced the Popol Vuh's reputation as an authentic and very pervasive pre-columbian text.

Article by Kirk Magleby who volunteers as Executive Director of Book of Mormon Central which helps build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making the Book of Mormon accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. 

Friday, March 6, 2020

President Nelson and Coronavirus

Helaman 16:13 describes a time when the Nephites could plainly see that the words of prophets such as Samuel the Lamanite and Nephi son of Helaman were being fulfilled before their eyes. Many did not believe the larger narrative (the Savior would soon be born), but they could not deny the prophets among them had been inspired.

We see a similar phenomenon in 2020. In October Conference, 2018, the Prophet Russell M. Nelson and Apostle Quentin L. Cook announced that weekly Church meetings would be shortened from three hours to two. Then, in January, 2019, the Church began following the excellent new Come Follow Me curriculum and the phrase "home-centered, Church-supported gospel learning" entered our vocabulary. Who could have guessed that by March, 2020, the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) epidemic would become a pandemic and church meetings would be temporarily suspended around the world? We have over a year's experience teaching, learning, and sharing the gospel in our homes during the third hour on the Sabbath. Individuals, families, and ministering brothers and sisters are well-prepared to carry on Sabbath devotional activities in private homes.

In October Conference, 2019, the Prophet Russell M. Nelson said General Conference in April, 2020 would be "different from any previous conference" and "a unique conference." He then promised that "general conference next April will be not only memorable; it will be unforgettable." Who could have guessed that a global virus outbreak would lead the Church to transmit April conference virtually, with members gathering in their homes rather than in the Conference Center or in Stake Centers?

In a stake conference transmitted to members in the Houston, TX area on Sunday, August 16, 2020, Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy said these seven emphases and policy changes show that the Prophet and Apostles receive revelation from God that directly benefits our lives:
  1. For years, while he was President of the Quorum of the Twelve, Pres. Nelson emphasized improving our personal Sabbath Day observance. See his General Conference address, "The Sabbath is a Delight," Sunday, April 5, 2015. Now in the COVID era, it is up to each of us as individuals to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy Exodus 20:8
  2. In General Conference on Sunday, April 1, 2018, Pres. Nelson announced that home teaching and visiting teaching would be replaced by a new, holier form of serving others called "ministering." Now in the COVID era, how many ministering brethren have helped those they serve partake of the Sacrament in their homes?
  3. Home-centered, Church-supported worship with time in Church reduced from 3 to 2 hours was announced in General Conference by Pres. Nelson and Elder Cook on Saturday, October 6, 2018. Now in the COVID era, we know what home-centered, Church-supported really means.
  4. On Monday, December 31, 2018, families in the Church began using a new unified curriculum entitled "Come Follow Me." For the first time ever, Primary children, young men and young women, men, and women were all studying the same material during the week and on Sunday. Now, in the COVID era, we realize how important it is to have the entire family unified in their gospel study. 
  5. Monday, May 6, 2019, The First Presidency announced a policy change that couples could now be married civilly and then immediately thereafter get sealed in the Temple. Now, in the COVID era, how many couples have been able to be married civilly, knowing they can be sealed eternally as soon as the Temples open up for live ordinances? 
  6. Wednesday, October 2, 2019. Pres. Nelson announced the policy change that women could be witnesses in baptisms and sealing ordinances in the temples. Some thought the Church was simply bowing to political pressure. Now in the COVID era, how many baptisms have been done with only the immediate family present and women the only available witnesses? 
  7. Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 Elder Gerrit W. Gong in a Face to Face explained details of the new youth activity program that took effect January 1, 2020. The program has youth setting and achieving individual goals with much less emphasis on group activities. Now in the COVID era, with not only Church, but school disrupted, we realize how important it is for young people to set and achieve individual goals.  
People may not believe the larger narrative (we are gathering Israel on both sides of the veil to prepare the world for the Second Coming), but no one can deny the prophets among us have been inspired.
Russell M. Nelson, Prophet of God
John W. (Jack) Welch and I talked about this modern-day revelation with Dave & Lynette Jenkins at the Maddox Ranch House Restaurant in Perry, UT on Thursday, March 5, 2020. 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 people everywhere.

Article last updated August 16, 2020.

Monday, March 2, 2020


I spent Friday, February 21, 2020 in and around Izapa, Chiapas, with friends Javier Tovar (Atotonilco de Tula, Hidalgo), Alejandro Martínez (Puebla, Puebla), Ignacio Salguero (Mexico City), and Ayax Moreno (San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas). We began the day at 6:00 am in Izapa Group F watching the sun rise over Volcán Tajumulco (4202 meters), the highest peak in Central America. Volcán Tacaná (4,060 meters), the second highest peak in Central America, straddles the Mexico/Guatemala border. Both peaks are about 30 air kilometers distant from the site and on a clear day they dominate the Izapan horizon. Sight lines within Izapa orient to both peaks.
3D Renderings of Tacaná and Tajumulco from Izapa
Tapachula (350,000 inhabitants), the principal city in the region, is only 8 air kilometers to the west. Tuxtla Chico (8,000 inhabitants) is a town only 4 air kilometers to the northeast. The small Rio Izapa flows through the eastern edge of the site. The much larger Rio Suchiate forms the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala about 4 air kilometers to the east. Izapa covers between 400 and 600 hectares (4 - 6 square kilometers) depending on who you talk to, which makes it one of the largest sites in Mesoamerica. Izapa is well-known for its dozens of spectacular bas relief carved stone monuments including the supernarrative masterwork Stela 5. Many of the monuments combined a horizontal altar with a vertical stela. The altar/stela complex later became a hallmark of classic Maya public art and architrecture.
Izapa in Context
The fertile coastal plain around Izapa, the Soconusco, is home to dozens of archaeological sites such as El Ujuxte, El Jobo, Las Viudas, Paso de la Amada, and Puerto Madero. NWAF under Gareth Lowe's leadership worked extensively at Izapa from 1962 to 1982. V. Garth Norman published remarkable drawings of the monuments in 1973. Ayax Moreno has been working at Izapa since 1991 and has re-drawn most of the monuments. Many of the monuments still at the site, including Stela 5, have placards from INAH showing both Norman's and Moreno's drawings. Robert M. Rosenswig, University of Albany, recently commissioned a LiDAR survey of the area around Izapa. It revealed at least 41 ancillary sites all oriented to Tacaná and Tajumulco. Many are smaller copies of the larger site that were integrated into what Rosenswig calls the "Kingdom of Izapa" ca. 700 BC. See Robert M. Rosenswig and Ricardo Lopez-Torrijos, "Lidar reveals the entire kingdom of Izapa during the first milennium BC" in Antiquity 92 (365) (October, 2018) pp. 1292-1309. In the map below, the Soconusco is in dark blue, the Kingdom of Izapa in light blue.
The Kingdom of Izapa ca. 700 BC in the Soconusco Plain
Ca. 700 BC this was Olmec territory and several Olmec monuments are visible in Group F.
Olmec Throne 2, Group F, Izapa
Then, according to Moreno, ca. 600 - 550 BC a remarkable transformation occurred. A new group of people came to Izapa, re-arranged some monuments, re-carved others, created a vibrant new artistic style, sculpted many new stone monuments, and imposed a different worldview. The Olmec, like many ancient cultures, revered top-level predators such as jaguars (Panthera onca), harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja), and Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper). Olmec deities included a dragon, bird monster, fish monster, were-jaguar, and feathered serpent.
Bird Monster Image from Offering 1943-g, La Venta, by Peter Joralemon
The new people supplanting the Olmec at Izapa told a different story. Hero twins killed a pompous bird deity, performed miracles, transformed into fish, resurrected, and apotheosized into the sun and the moon. In other words, the famous Popol Vuh narrative may have originated at Izapa shortly after 600 BC. Ayax Moreno sees many elements of what became the Maya creation myth represented at Izapa. The three hearthstones of creation he correlates with the three stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka in Orion's belt. Astronomical alignments at Izapa include Orion rise and set points.
Three Stars in Orion's Belt
The hero twins Moreno correlates with the two stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. Astronomical alignments at Izapa include Gemini rise and set points.
Twin Stars in the Constellation Gemini
Water features at Izapa included a reventadero (bubbling spring) with fish that literally leaped into the air, propelled by water pressure. Moreno correlates the airborne fish with the Popol Vuh's fish resurrection narrative.
Parts of Ancient Water Channels at Izapa
Izapa had a ball court, a feature that figures prominently in the Popol Vuh narrative.
Group F Ballcourt at Sunrise
Stela 25, originally in Group A but now in the Soconusco Archaeological Museum in Tapachula, depicts Hunahpu with a severed arm looking up at a bird atop a three-armed cruciform pole the hero twin holds in his hand. The missing arm is among the bird's tail feathers. Most Mesoamerican anthropologists interpret this scene as an early depiction of the Popol Vuh narrative where Hunahpu shoots Seven Macaw (Vucub Caquix) in a tree with a dart from his blowgun and has his arm ripped off in the process. The blog article "Art and Iconography 2" explores a possible complementary Book of Mormon connection. This reflective transformation imaging (RTI) photo was made by Jason Jones in 2014 and published in V. Garth Norman's excellent Izapa Sacred Space: Sculpture Calendar Codex Revised Edition, 2015.
Izapa Stela 25 Principal Bird Deity and Hunahpu
Stela 12 in Group B shows two figures, very likely the hero twins, flanking a flaming incensario.
Izapa Stela 12 by Garth Norman
Stela 1, originally in Group A but now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, shows two fish swimming in a river. The two hero twins transformed into fish swimming in a river.
Izapa Stela 1 with Two Fish in River
Stela 21, originally in Group A but now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, depicts a decapitation. Sacrifice by decapitation figures prominently in the Popol Vuh narrative. The two figures carrying the spirit of the deceased in a sedan chair may be the hero twins.
Izapa Stela 21 with Sacrificial Victim Being Taken to Heaven
Stela 50, originally in Group B but now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, is a striking depiction of resurrection. An umbilical cord emanating from a skeleton is tethered to new life ascending to heaven. Resurrection is a central theme of the Popol Vuh.
Izapa Stela 50 Graphically Portraying Resurrection
Stela 2 in Group A shows two figures, likely the hero twins, flanking a descending anthropomorphic winged deity. The logo in the masthead of this blog is a stylized representation of the Stela 2 tree.
Izapa Stela 2 by Garth Norman
Stela 18 in Group D shows two figures who may be the hero twins accompanied by attendants flanking a flaming incensario. This artistic style is very similar to Kaminaljuyú Monument 65 currently in the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City.
Izapa Stela 18 by Garth Norman
Stela 67 in Group F again shows two fish swimming in a river, a narrative motif found in the Popol Vuh.
Izapa Stela 67 by Garth Norman with Two Fish in River
Julia Guernsey in a 2015 presentation entitled "Preclassic Sculpture and its Relationship to the Popol Vuh" found correspondences between Izapan art and the Maya creation myth on Izapa Altar 3 and Stela 4, both of which portray winged deities.

One of the strongest Popol Vuh relationships is with the noted Stela 5. We see a deity giving the fruit of the tree of life to two ring-tailed fish.
Izapa Stela 5 Fruit of the Tree Being Given to Two Fish and One Human
The fruit of the tree on Stela 5 functions precisely like a breath bead in Mesoamerican art generally - it represents or facilitates resurrection.
Izapa Stela 5 Fruit of the Tree as Breath Bead
And what happened to the two fish who received the fruit? They gained eternal life. They are depicted descending from the sky panel. In Popol Vuh parlance, the hero twins resurrected.
Izapa Stela 5 Two Fish Descending from Sky Panel
To appreciate these narrative motifs in context, here is an image of the entire Stela 5. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Izapa Stela 5 by Garth Norman
To understand why I believe the various Norman images of Stela 5 are more faithful to the original than the later Clark/Moreno "New Artistic Rendering," see the blog articles "V Garth Norman in Mexico City," and "Art and Iconography 4." For other examples of breath beads and the idea that Izapa Stela 5 is an archetype of this iconographic convention, see the blog article "Partake of the Fruit."

Even though I think his Stela 5 drawing is inaccurate (many others who know Izapa well also ignore it), I greatly respect Ayax Moreno's vast knowledge of the site. He eats, drinks, and sleeps Izapa. Literally. Javier Tovar (his classmate at Benemerito) spent a week with him and they slept in sleeping bags at the site.
Ayax Moreno and Javier Tovar in Group F
On the morning of February 21, 2020, we rousted Ayax out of his sleeping bag at the site. He had been up until 3 am observing constellation rise and set points along various Izapan sight lines. Ayax believes the Popol Vuh creation myth originated at Izapa and spread from there throughout the Maya world. Many well-informed specialists such as Julia Guernsey and Garth Norman agree with him.

Ever since the publication of Dartmouth geographer Vincent Malmstrom's, "Origin of the Mesoamerican 260-Day Calendar," in Science 181/4103 (07 Sep 1973), pp. 939-941, the idea that the Mesoamerican calendar system originated at Izapa has been gaining support. The sun's zenith passages at Izapa's 14.8 degree latitude are precisely 260 days apart (the length of human gestation), occuring most years on August 13 and April 30. The Maya long count base date is August 13, 3114 BC.

Izapa's influence spread far and wide. These are sites where archaeologists have noted some kind of Izapa connection.
Sites Influencing or Influenced by Izapa
Izapa was continuously occupied from early pre-classic (ca. 1500 BC) to post-classic (ca. AD 1200) times. Unlike most other Mesoamerican sites, early construction was not overlaid with later architectural layers. There must have been some ancient notion that Izapa deserved what we moderns call "historical preservation."

Izapa Altar 20 in Group B is a clue why Izapa was important in ancient cosmologies. It shows a bird deity clutching the sun in its talons and giving a fruit of the tree of life in its beak to a human supplicant.
Izapa Altar 20 by Garth Norman
In the Popol Vuh, Hunahpu and Xbalanque did not just resurrect. They apotheosized into the sun and the moon. In other words, they ascended to heaven and became gods. Ascent to heaven is part of the message Izapan monuments communicate. Altar 3 in Group A shows an anthropomorphic bird ascending.
Izapa Altar 3 by Garth Norman with Man-Bird Ascending to Heaven
Stela 9 in Group B is even more explicit. A winged deity ascends to heaven carrying a human on its back.
Izapa Stela 9 by Garth Norman
So, where does Izapa fit in the Book of Mormon picture? Ayax Moreno and I discussed this late into the night at a restaurant in Tapachula the evening of February 21. The Book of Mormon is part of his heritage, but he has not paid attention to it for decades. This is what I think is going on. I believe the Soconusco with Izapa as capital was Lehi's land of first inheritance Mosiah 10:13, Alma 22:28. I believe the Guatemalan highlands with Kaminaljuyú (KJ) as capital was Nephi's land of first inheritance Mosiah 9:1, Alma 54:12-13 many days journey 2 Nephi 5:7 to the east Alma 22:28. This would have put Laman and Lemuel in or near Izapa right at the moment when the former Olmec kingdom of Izapa was radically changed by newcomers who introduced the story of miracle-working hero twins who shot birds, conquered death, and became solar and lunar gods. Were Laman and Lemuel the historical basis for the mythical hero twins? It is possible.

The new group who came to power in Izapa between 600 and 550 BC were not Olmec, but neither were they Maya. They inherited a great deal from the Olmec and the culture they created went on to profoundly influence the Maya. They may have been early Lamanites.

Does Izapa Stela 5 depict Lehi's dream as M. Wells Jakeman (1910 - 1998) naively believed in the 1950's and 60's? No. Professor Jakeman, like many others before and after him, was looking for a silver bullet when the truth is much more complicated and nuanced. There are dozens of similarities between the scene on Stela 5 and Lehi's dream narrative, enough that a historical connection is possible, even likely. See the blog article "Art and Iconography 4." There are other things going on in the scene on Stela 5 that have nothing to do with Lehi's dream, so nicknames like "the Lehi Tree of Life Stone" are overly simplistic and innacurate.  

Was Izapa a Nephite temple center as V. Garth Norman has advocated? No. If KJ was the city of Nephi, then the Soconusco was in the greater land of Nephi south of the narrow strip of wilderness Alma 22:27 which divided Nephite lands on the north from Lamanite lands on the south. Izapa would have been in Lamanite territory. Were the general ideas of a temple present at Izapa? Yes. Moreno and Norman concur on this point. Washings in the river were part of the ritual, as was a symbolic journey culminating in an ascent to heaven and entrance into the realm of the gods. 

Were some of the early settlers of Izapa genetically capable of growing beards? Yes. This greenstone figurine of a bearded individual came from the site. The old man on Stela 5 and the man in the boat on Stela 67 are bearded.
Bearded Figuerine from Izapa
This much we can say. If highland Guatemala was the lesser land of Nephi (the blog article "Kaminaljuyu" outlines part of the rationale for this correlation), then Izapa was in the greater land of Nephi and Lehi landed somewhere on the Soconucso coast. Laman and Lemuel were on the scene at precisely the time when Izapa transitioned from an Olmec polity with dozens of subordinate settlements to a widely-influential purveyor of culture that included the altar/stela complex, the Mesoamerican calendar, and the ubiquitous creation myth that eventually became the Popol Vuh. If all this is true, then the Book of Mormon peoples were much more influential across the length and breadth of Mesoamerica than we have heretofore realized.

If Lehi landed on the Soconusco coast, it looked something like this.
Playa El Gancho 35 Air Kilometers from Izapa
Or, more likely, like this.
Mouth of the Suchiate from La Isla, Chiapas
Are there natural ports along this section of coastline? Yes. Cruise ships began docking at Puerto Chiapas in 2007.

Article by Kirk Magleby who 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 people everywhere.