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.