Mesoamerica: the technical term applied to the region that now embraces southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, most of Honduras, Costa Rica, and part of Nicaragua; the land whose ancient ruins are tombstones of past civilizations; the realm of extinct cultures whose achievements often rival—even surpass—those of their Old World counterparts.
Because the Book of Mormon, “the keystone of our religion,” is a record of some of the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica, the ruins and artifacts of this region of the New World hold a special fascination for Latter-day Saints.
A strange aura of mystery and excitement seems to hover about the crumbling monuments of those almost unknown people. As Latter-day Saints, we are particularly sensitive to it, perhaps because we are keenly aware of so much there that relates to peoples of the Book of Mormon: their religious practices, such as baptism; their belief in a bearded white god; their tremendous architectural achievements; their agricultural developments; their exquisite arts and crafts; their beautiful works in gold and other metals.
Conjectures? Yes. The stuff theories are made of. But the physical remains of these pre-Columbian cultures will one day fit together to increase our understanding of the Book of Mormon peoples.
Yet, it is good to remember that these relics are not just keys to the past; they also help us understand our fellow Saints in modern Mexico and Central America. These ancient structures are a legacy bequeathed by venerable forefathers to modern descendants who cannot help but feel a sense of dignity, integrity, and pride in springing from so splendid a heritage. Much of the language, the lore, and the cultural make-up of these modern descendants finds its roots in the distant past, a past closely tied with these citadels of a bygone age.
Continued archaeological investigation can surely broaden our understandings of our brothers and sisters in these lands today. And who knows, in time we may even unravel the mystery of the ruins themselves and discover their full significance.
The following reproductions, which I have chosen from a wide selection of photographs, capture both the mystery and the dying grandeur of these monuments of vanished peoples.
COPAN Copan is thought to be the second largest ancient metropolis in the southern half of the peninsula and a great seat of learning for ancient inhabitants. The city is dated at A.D. 176. Elaborately carved altars and monoliths (stelae) found in the plaza represent the efforts of the great sculptors of their time. A superb hieroglyphic stairway, 33 feet wide and with 62 steps, contains between 1,500 and 2,000 glyphs. Researchers believe that the exact length of intervals between eclipses was first calibrated here. It is also thought that great astronomers and mathematicians regulated the lives of the people by astrological soothsaying.
TEOTIHUACAN Located thirty miles northeast of Mexico City, Teotihuacan is the site of a vast complex of ruins. Various dates have been assigned to them, but they appear to have been built about 300 B.C., during Book of Mormon times. The largest building that remains is the Pyramid of the Sun; nearby are twelve altar buildings. The total area covered by the pyramid is larger than that covered by the great pyramid at Cheops, Egypt. Concourses, plazas, palaces, public buildings, and many other dwellings still remain. Cement streets cover underground drain conduits. Walls are plastered or decorated with murals. The Aztec name of this beautiful city, Teotihuacan, means “The Place Where the Gods Reside.”
MONTE ALBAN It would be difficult to find more beautiful structures than the ones atop a 1300-foot hill overlooking the modern city of Oaxaca, Mexico, 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. The ancient city of Monte Alban, built 800 years before the Savior’s birth, still stands today. Gold work, articles of precious jade, obsidian, bracelets of gold and silver, a gold diadem, an elegant translucent vessel, and many other exquisite artifacts have been unearthed in this ancient city.
LA VENTA The so-called Olmec culture of La Venta in southern Mexico is dated somewhere near 880 B.C. Large freestanding basalt sculptures of human heads were made by these people and are considered by some scholars to be the portraits of nobles. This unknown people must have been unusually gifted in engineering as well as in art, since the material from which these great carvings were made had to be hauled over fifty miles from the Tuxtla mountains northwest of La Venta. The massive heads, some measuring almost ten feet in height, are one of the triumphs of ancient American art, yet their function and purpose remain a mystery. At a later time, La Venta apparently drew people from far and near to worship Quetzalcoatl, and here the cross was carved into the stone walls five centuries before the birth of Christ.
PALENQUE The ruins of Palenque lie in the shadow of a lush mountainside east of Villahermosa, Mexico. A four-story tower rises from the complex, and a series of stairs extends from the ground level to the top. It is believed this was used as both an astronomical observatory and a watchtower. Inside the Temple of Inscriptions, located near this tower and below ground level, is a burial tomb containing the body of a seventh century dignitary. On the surface of the sarcophagus lid, there appears to be the Tree of Life insignia carved in the shape of a cross. These ruins, the remains of a magnificent civilization dating back before the birth of our Lord, stand as a mysterious monument to builders we do not know.
TIKAL The great ruin Tikal is located in Guatemala, close to the British Honduras border. There are over 3,000 separate structures in this tropical archaeological site, including temples, palaces, shrines, sacrificial altars, ceremonial platforms, residences, ball courts, terraces, causeways, bathing places, and more than 800 stone monuments. Over 100,000 ceremonial objects, tools, personal ornaments, and other items have been discovered. The age of the buildings at Tikal may date back as far as 600 B.C. Pictured here is the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, the most significant in the main plaza, though it is not the largest structure in the complex.
CUICUILCO Sometime before the birth of Jesus, the oval Pyramid of Cuicuilco was built near the outskirts of Mexico City. This ruin, actually a truncated cone 80 feet high and 389 feet in diameter, the top made of four sections connected by a ramp and stairway, retains only a general resemblance to its original form. By the time the Christian era was ushered in, a great catastrophe annihilated the site of Cuicuilco. Small Xitle, a nearby volcano, insignificant in appearance, erupted and covered with lava not only the buildings of Cuicuilco, but also a vast region to the southwest of the Valley of Mexico, known today as the Pedregal (stony ground).
DZIBILCHALTÚN Close to the ocean, north of the city of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, lie the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, covering more than twenty square miles. The city is believed to have been a trade center for a vast area. The levels of occupation indicate that the earliest habitation could have been near 2000 B.C., and the site appears to have been continuously inhabited until the Spanish conquest. Discarded and broken pottery, in a sequence of ceramics covering several thousand years, has been found in the foundations and walls.
Dr. Cheesman is head of the Institute for Book of Mormon Projects at Brigham Young University and has made more than twenty trips to Central and South America to study the ruins of these lands.