Is Mesoamerica the Setting
of the Book of Mormon?

by Maurine and Scot Proctor
Editor-in-chief, and Publisher
of Meridian Magazine
http://www.ldsmag.com

When the Lord told the Nephites that if they did not serve Him, they would be swept off the face of the land, he was as good as his word.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of two lost civilizations, and travel through these regions paints the picture of how truly lost they are.

Here are ancient pyramids swallowed in the tropical jungles, mounds and walls entangled in vegetation, remains of cities buried in lava flows, hidden in lakes, and buried under centuries of earth. Archaeologists have touched perhaps only 5% of the ruins of the ancient civilizations that once dotted these lands, and they estimate that there may be as many as 100,000 sites to explore.

Though scholars of every persuasion work to solve the riddle of Mesoamerica, it remains one of the great mysteries of the world.

When we came home from our first photographic journey to the Book of Mormon lands and described the ancient, man-made fortifications we had seen that were just like Captain Moroni had created, the magnificent ruins that erupted out of dense greenery, everyone we knew wanted to come and see it too.

It is tempting to look at the people presented in the Book of Mormon not as flesh and blood who actually lived, ate, dwelt in houses, and were finally buried somewhere, but rather as vague ghosts who lived in a nowhere land.

In this we do them a disservice, for the message they would give us comes with the urgency and passion of real people. It is to cast them against their backdrop and fill in the blank corners of our imagination that we have traveled to the possible Book of Mormon lands.

We were at one ancient city, a candidate for Zarahemla, back in the deepest part of the Guatemalan jungle, that had been partially exposed ten years earlier, and now, it was gone again, its crumbling walls intertwined and shrouded by dense growth. With howler monkeys calling overhead, we scouted the edges of the 18-mile long city, looking for any signs of its walls, its massive pyramids. Nothing, but lumps under vegetation. Here indeed is a buried civilization, a lost world.

But, there are clues that intrigue and entice. The winged serpent Quetzalcoatl is a theme on many pyramids and carvings. Nearly every 16th century writer talks about a white god, Quetzalcoatl, and every school child in Mexico knows the importance of his role.

Weights and measures among the native people mirror what we see in the Book of Mormon.

The time frames when the Mesoamerican civilizations flourished are consistent with the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations.

The geography described in the Book of Mormon resonates with the water, mountains and landforms of Central America.

Why Mesoamerica?

Still, the question arises—why do most scholars lean toward Mesoamerica as the setting for the Book of Mormon and not, say, Peru or Chile or even Panama?

Neither Joseph Smith nor any other Church leader has shared revelation or given us a definitive answer on where the Book of Mormon is set. Most of the original geographical ideas on the matter seem to be merely a reflection of early leader’s best thinking, given the evidence available.

Church leaders have been careful to avoid tying the Book of Mormon to a specific location, because testimony of the book’s truth stands not on outward evidences but on the witness of the Holy Ghost.

We cannot, then, draw a map based on authority. The Lord has not revealed the locations of the action of the Book of Mormon as yet; He has left us to piece together the puzzle the best we can.

That invitation is open to us. In 1841, a book entitled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan was published, presenting to the world a picture of the ancient cities of Mesoamerica as seen by John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood. Opening the door on this unknown world swept the nation with excitement.

During Joseph Smith’s time and in a newspaper he supervised, then, we are pointed to southern Mexico and Guatemala as the possible Book of Mormon lands, but recent scholarship has centered there for many more reasons.

First, the Book of Mormon gives us a clear, consistent picture of the location of its landmarks.

We learn, for instance, of a land southward and a land northward separated by a narrow neck of land. The land southward is divided into the land of Nephi in the south, where the Lamanites live, and the land of Zarahemla in the north, where the Nephites live.

The land of Nephi is in the highlands; the land of Zarahemla in the lowlands. They are separated by a narrow of wilderness, perhaps a mountain range that runs east and west. The entire land southward is nearly surrounded by seas. A major river they called the Sidon drains the area, running north. The west wilderness, again perhaps a mountain range, runs along the sea in the west. What area matches this rather specific description? Southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Mesoamerica becomes an even more likely candidate when its history is considered.

Ninety percent of the ruins in the Americas that date to the appropriate time are found in this region.

The people who lived here are the only people before the Europeans arrived who had a written language. Their civilization was marked by high cultural achievement in religion, architecture, agriculture, calendrics, and astronomy.

What’s more, the history of the area reveals interesting comparisons to our Book of Mormon history. Anthropologists note that two traditions are evident here.

The Olmecs

The first tradition, the Olmecs, stretched from perhaps 2,500 B.C. to just after 600 B.C. New scholarship points to their having come from across the ocean. Their society was marked by periodic rises and declines and ended in an internal upheaval. When their strength as a society was destroyed, remnants of the people remained and influenced the populations that followed, just as the Jaredites influenced the Nephites.

The Maya

It is not easy to pinpoint the beginning of the second tradition, which is associated with the Maya, but clearly by 125 B.C., when King Benjamin ruled in the Book of Mormon, they were moving into a period of high civilization and growth.

Near 75 B.C. “a rather sudden change” occurred. People abandoned many of the scattered settlements and moved into major communities. This is best explained by the threat of war.

In 73 B.C., of course, the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites began that would stretch on for thirteen years.

Then the first century A.D. leaves a quiet archaeological record, what one researchers calls “a pause in their headlong course of development” that seems to coincide with the simplicity and classlessness of a perfect society.

At last, “The Second Tradition reached peak vigor between A.D. 240 and 300.” True to the Book of Mormon’s description of apostasy, the society was marked by wealth and class distinction, elaborate building programs, and the predominance of ceremonial religion.

While the classic period (A.D. 200-900) was a time of cultural flourishing when many ancient Mesoamerican temples were built, it was also a time of warfare and rivalries.

While this description of Mesoamerica is only a broad sweep, the conditions described in the Book of Mormon clearly fit the problem.

What’s more the record in the Book of Mormon describes a high civilization, with a written language, a centralized government, a religious hierarchy, and controlled trade activity.

Since Mesoamerica is the only place in all of the Americas that meets these requirements, we are obligated to at least begin our search for potential evidence here.

Still, we are left with a multiplicity of questions. For instance, we see many cultural groups in Mesoamerica, not just two, and studying the area leads you to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is the record of two lineage groups, the Nephites and Jaredites, and not the history of all the Indians.

If we were to write the history of the Latter-day Saints, it would not be the history of the United States. We would write what was important to us. This may be the case with the Nephites. What happened to them is only a fraction of what happened during the same period in Mesoamerica.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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