I Have a Question

Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

What is the current status of research concerning the “Tree of Life” carving from Chiapas, Mexico?

V. Garth Norman, Director of Archaeological Research Consultants (ARCON), research associate of BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures, and past researcher with the New World Archaeological Foundation. In 1941 a Smithsonian/National Geographic Society expedition reported the discovery of an unusual stone monument from the ruins of Izapa in southern Mexico. This carving, designated Izapa Stela 5, is the most important monument so far discovered from the pre-Maya Izapan cultural period, which dates from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 1

What makes the monument so interesting to Latter-day Saints is its possible connection to the Book of Mormon. In the 1950s and early 1960s, studies by Dr. M. Wells Jakeman of the BYU Department of Archaeology indicated that certain features of the monument seem to correspond to features of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. (See 1 Ne. 8.) 1 The most obvious of the parallels is a fruit-bearing tree in the center with a stream running by. A pathway extends from the river’s head to the tree, and a broad grooved line paralleling the path lines suggests the rod of iron. Two cherubim-like beings attend the tree, and seated around it are six people who, it was suggested, could represent Lehi’s family in the attitudes they assume in Lehi’s vision. Attaching their names to the figures, we see Lehi, on the left and attended by Sariah, facing Laman, and on the right Nephi, attended by Sam, facing Lemuel. In fact, Dr. Jakeman deciphered possible name hieroglyphs above the heads of two of these figures as “Lehi” and “Nephi.”

Soon after Dr. Jakeman’s interpretation of Stela 5 appeared in print in 1958, the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation began researching the ruins of Izapa. Since then, many additional sculptures have been discovered, bringing the stone monuments similar to Stela 5 to a total of eighty-nine. 2 The Mexican government later made the ruins an archaeological park, where students and tourists can view the monuments. A cement copy of Stela 5 is on display at BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

The years of research since Dr. Jakeman’s first study have neither proved nor disproved his thesis. As yet, published data has been inconclusive, and will continue to be until we have a more complete picture of Izapan culture. In the 1970s I published an interpretive study of Izapa monuments, including Stela 5, in a large work entitled Izapa Sculpture. 3 The study shows that Stela 5 occupies a central position, conceptually speaking, in relation to the other carvings discovered in Izapa, which display, among other concepts, the following: (1) There is an anthropomorphic god whose prime symbol is the sun and who dwells in the heavens and on mountains. (2) He is god of the Tree of Life, which relates to life after death. (3) At death, the human spirit rises into heaven from the body. (4) A physical resurrection is implied. (5) Worship involves sacrifice and a divine sacrificial atonement. And (6) the spirit of an unborn child originates in the heavens.

One important contribution of my study was a more accurate and detailed rendering of Stela 5 (see the figure), which permitted examination of details previously unrecognized. While some prior interpretations of Stela 5 were invalidated, most motifs previously analyzed were confirmed. For instance, the cipactli glyph, a bared jawbone and possible name glyph for “Lehi” (Lehi in Hebrew means “jawbone” or “cheek”) is sustained by examination of the new details. On the other hand, the interpretation of “Nephi” for the other name glyph now appears doubtful to some scholars, but the glyphic details do identify a priest leader or prophet.

Some of the new details do more than support previous interpretations; they strengthen those interpretations in deeper and more meaningful ways. 4 For example, there is a glyph beyond the head of the river where the path line originates, decipherable as “dark mists,” in its relationship to Maya hieroglyphics. In the Lehi vision context this glyph could express the duality of the spiritual journey from darkness into the full gospel light achieved at the Tree of Life. (See 1 Ne. 8:4–8, 22–24.) It is located at the far right center of the carving, where the creation life-cycle begins in which rain bands or “mists” cover the eyes and ear of a human head. Other concepts now recognizable are that immortality is connected with eating the fruit of the tree, and that the two cherubim mentioned earlier are male and female, as was the case in the ancient Israelitish temple, and function together in behalf of man in bringing him to the Tree of Life.

There have been other studies made, some supportive of the Tree-of-Life thesis, others divergent. One valuable contribution was made by Michael T. Griffith; who undertook a detailed study of the evidence to refute attacks on the Book of Mormon by its critics. Except for his discussion of the supposed “Nephi” name glyph, his defense of Dr. Jakeman’s interpretations, entitled “The Lehi Tree-of-Life Story in the Book of Mormon Still Supported by Izapa Stela 5,” 5 is convincing. He notes that the attacks on the Book of Mormon that he studied almost always misused the evidence and revealed the critics’ lack of expertise in ancient American studies.

One of the refinements to come out of the last twenty-five years of research in Izapa is that the central temple-complex there, together with its sculptures, was planned and constructed as a unit beginning in the early part of the third century B.C. This fact, and the true concepts about God and the plan of salvation which the sculptures seem to express, may lead us to the identity of those who built Izapa. If the complex was constructed by Book of Mormon peoples, we can assume that it was probably built by Nephites rather than Lamanites or some other group. By the third century B.C. the Lamanites and “Mulekites” had lost knowledge of the nature of God and the plan of salvation. (See Omni 1:17; Alma 18:24–40.) It is unlikely that a group who did not understood those doctrines could have built Izapa.

If this is true—and, again, we must remain cautious and tentative until all the evidence is in—Stela 5 may prove to be the first deciphered artifact from the Nephite civilization.

My current research involves astronomical orientations and calendar significance of the monuments at Izapa. This study could provide a key to help unlock the meaning of the monuments as a whole, integrated unit supporting the Izapa temple center function. Also, Old World comparative studies are under way to help trace the roots of Izapan culture and evaluate its role in the rise of Mesoamerican civilization. Again, if we are dealing with Nephite remains at Izapa, it will not be surprising if ancient Near Eastern cultural roots turn up.


  1.   1.

    See, for example, The Complex “Tree-of-Life” Carving on Izapa Stela 5; A Re-analysis and Partial Interpretation, Brigham Young University Publications in Archaeology and Early History, Mesoamerican series, no. 4 (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1958).

  2.   2.

    See Ross T. Christensen, Stela 5, Izapa: A Review of Its Study as the “Lehi Tree-of-Life Stone,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A., no. 156, p. 4.

  3.   3.

    New World Archaeological Foundation, paper no. 30.

  4.   4.

    See V. Garth Norman, Izapa Stela 5 and the Lehi Tree-of-Life Vision Hypothesis: a Reanalysis, Mesoamerican Research Papers (American Fork, Utah: Archaeological Research Consultants, 1985).

  5.   5.

    Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A., no. 151, pp. 1–13.