Thoughts On Book of Mormon Geography

Thoughts from authors
in a Church & Science e-mail list

I have been looking at the map that John Sorenson proposes for the location of Book of Mormon activities. As a professional geographer, I have a problem with it. He apparently identifies the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the "narrow neck of land" mentioned in the Book of Mormon. I have no way of knowing for certain whether he is right or not, although my geographic experience tells me that he might not be correct.

The problem, in my opinion, is one of perspective. Both the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Isthmus of Panama appear to be "narrow necks of land" only when viewed on a map of global scale. Unless we are to presume that the writers of the Book of Mormon had such a map, neither of these places qualify. A person on the ground in either place would have absolutely no perspective of either of these places as being a "narrow neck of land." Such an observation would be made only if the person making the observation could see the entire feature being described as such. I fear that this is one of those cases where a person might just possibly be assuming that the writers of the Book of Mormon had the same perspective then that we have now, with the benefit of modern cartography.

Are we even really sure they are talking about a land mass bounded by bodies of water? A narrow neck of land could refer to some other geological formation, could it not? The narrow neck of land might possibly be a deep mountain valley, or the one that even stands out in my mind better is a low-lying coastal region surrounded by mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

A long time ago, I borrowed another book on Book of Mormon geography. The thesis of this book was that the "narrow neck of land" was not bound between two bodies of water, but was merely impassable on either side. The author put the narrow neck along the western coast of central America, bounded on the west by the ocean and on the east by a cliff and mountainous land. If you were to have to travel north but weren't able to use the narrow neck, you'd first have to travel many miles to the east. This made the narrow neck of land very important from a military and trade standpoint.

I think the genius of Sorenson's contribution was not trying to find a placement for the Book of Mormon geography, but the realization that the Book of Mormon took place in a very limited location. (Sorenson may not have been the first to realize this but he was the most effective at evangelizing it.) Up until Sorenson's book, most members believed the Book of Mormon covered the entire western hemisphere and covered all peoples living in the western hemisphere. When I grew up (in Provo, UT), most people thought Panama was the narrow neck, Central and North America was the land northward and South America was the land southward. And I was taught that the western hemisphere was empty when Lehi landed here.

Sorenson put an end to this nonsense by convincing us that it was, indeed, nonsense. And what a change the whole notion of a limited geography made to archeologist's efforts to locate Book of Mormon territory. Almost all researchers now agree it was in Central America at the time of the Maya. Just keep in mind that we've only been working on this for 20 years or so amid difficult political circumstances in that region, not the 150 you might expect.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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