Digging into the Book of Mormon:

By John L. Sorenson

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    Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture

    This is the final article in this series which has attempted to highlight contemporary developments in scholarship and science that seem to support and even clarify the Book of Mormon. Previous articles in the series looked at such topics as geography, the limits of archaeology, population, metal use, and written records.

    Other major topics—political structure, settlement forms, trade, secret societies—could now occupy our attention, but perhaps more valuable will be a demonstration of the wide range of topics on which new light is being shed these days. This sampler of new developments will underline the fact that what some people—even famous people—thought they knew about early American civilization in relation to the Book of Mormon wasn’t necessarily so.

    Latter-day Saint writers have in the past compared the “highways” and “roads” mentioned in 3 Nephi (3 Ne. 6:8; 3 Ne. 8:13) to the lime-surfaced causeways (sacbes), on the Yucatan Peninsula. The ones identified as late as twenty years ago were nearly all concentrated in that restricted area and seemed to date well after Book of Mormon days. Recent studies, however, show that road-building has a long history and occurred from one end of Mesoamerica to the other.

    The earliest causeway known at this time is in Komchen, in extreme northern Yucatan. E. Willys Andrews V and his colleagues from Tulane University date one of them from around 300 B.C.1 At Cerros in Belize (formerly British Honduras) another was in use between 50 B.C. and A.D. 150.2 Later roads were built at La Quemada in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, at the extreme northern limit of Mesoamerica.3 Others were at Xochicalco, just south of Mexico City, where three kilometers of paved roads exist,4 and at Monte Alban.5 Many of the reported thoroughfares are modest local affairs, yet in Yucatan there is a single stretch about one hundred kilometers long.6 Clearly, current knowledge about the dates and nature of road building is not inconsistent with the idea that “level roads” existed which were “spoiled” at the time of Christ’s death. (3 Ne. 8:13.)

    Latter-day Saints have long paid special attention to “cement” in ancient America. Presumably some expert once claimed that there was none. However, nobody in the last two generations of scholars would have said that. Throughout Mesoamerica construction using concrete of various compositions was widespread and long-lasting. What is now especially interesting is not the mere presence of the substance but the relative sophistication exhibited in using it. At El Tajin near the Gulf Coast east of Mexico City, for example, roofs were made of single slabs of concrete covering spans up to seventy-five meters square. The composition in this case was ground seashells plus sand with crushed pumice or fragments of pottery mixed in. It was poured into prepared wooden forms. Sometimes the builders filled a room with stones and mud, smoothed the surface on top to receive the concrete, then removed the interior fill when the floor on top had dried.7 Although the Tajin remains date after Book of Mormon times, we know genuine concrete was already in use before the time of Christ.8

    Animals referred to in the Book of Mormon present a complex question. For one thing, the names translated in English as horse, cattle, goat, and so forth, do not necessarily refer to the species which come to our minds upon reading those terms. Animal naming practices among new settlers worldwide warn us against such over-simplification. For example, the Nephites discovered both “the goat” and the “wild goat” on the land they first settled (1 Ne. 18:25), so “wild” likely does not mean what we at first suppose, for the text indicates that both creatures were found apparently untamed in the forest. Clearly we are unsafe in assuming that the creatures involved in the record here identical to those animals we think of as goats.

    The semantics of animal (and plant) labels is a problem in interpreting all texts of another age. Even a description only four hundred years old—that of Diego de Landa about the Yucatan Peninsula—makes statements which natural scientists cannot clarify today. Transferring linguistic labels and knowledge from one culture to another is fraught with problems. Thus, the Spaniards referred to the American bison (our “buffalo”) as a cow; the Delaware Indians called the European cow by their name for deer; and the Miamis labeled our sheep “looks-like-a-cow.” Meanwhile, the Mayan lowlanders whimsically termed the Spanish sheep taman, which roughly translates as “cotton you can eat.” Bishop Landa considered the brocket deer of Yucatan a “kind of little wild goat.” He also noted that the tapir had the size of a mule but a hoof like an ox, yet a Spanish name given to it translates as “once-an-ass”!9 We see that terminology is a complex puzzle which has to be carefully unraveled.

    Using scientific and historical evidence to establish which animals were actually present in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica gives several possibilities for each of the animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon. For example, an animal potentially in the “cattle” category is the deer; observers with Cortez’s exploring party observed semi-domesticated herds of deer in Maya country,10 and a tribe in El Salvador was reported to herd them routinely. Other evidence indicates that the alpaca, a South American animal related to the camel, may have been present in southern Mexico, and figurines of llamas bearing pack burdens have been unearthed as far north as Costa Rica. Figurines showing humans riding on animals, one unmistakably a deer, have been found in Mexico and Guatemala.11 Perhaps, then, the deer could have been called “horse.”

    Taken together, the clues available make it difficult to accept the view of conventional experts that Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian times had little interest in and made rare use of animals beyond hunting them.12 Not every statement about animals made in the Book of Mormon yet fits scholarly findings, but the two pictures have come much closer in the last couple of decades. More research will probably indicate plausible resolutions of the remaining matters.

    Some of the cultivated plants spoken of in the Book of Mormon have been missing in the inventories of pre-Columbian flora, to the dismay of some readers of the scripture (and the elation of critics). However, our knowledge of ancient cultivated crops is still incomplete because of how little archaeology has actually been done. (It would be optimistic to suppose that our sample of excavated material has reached .001 percent of what could be dug up, and much of the work has been of doubtful quality.) Just last year “domesticated barley, the first ever found in the New World,” came out of digging in southern Arizona.13 This is particularly interesting since the Book of Mormon refers to barley in relation to Nephite money standards as though it was in common use. (See Alma 11:7, 15.) This example should communicate a message of caution to the intelligent reader and expert alike: both “facts” and interpretations change; what is absent today in the historical-archaeological record may be supplied by tomorrow’s research.

    That same message was recently sent by two other archaeologists working in South America who discovered plants that were “not supposed to be there.” Terence Grieder and Alberto Bueno Mendoza reported finding remains of mango fruit and banana leaves in a pre-Columbian site in Peru. Another archaeologist argued in print that they “couldn’t have found” such materials, for those plants did not reach the New World until the Europeans brought them. The excavators’ response confirmed their findings and noted with a bit of exasperation, “If we can only find what is already known, we can avoid the bother of excavating.”14 One wonders what new materials we might find if the sample of excavated materials rose to even double what it now is.

    It is not just more digging which produces significant new information. Linda Schele has been a leader in recent work toward deciphering more of the Maya glyphs, with special concern for the inscriptions at spectacular Palenque in southern Mexico. Dramatic new information has been produced.

    One thing Schele has worked out is the probable periods of reign for Palenque’s rulers. The one in power from around A.D. 600 to 670 seems to have been named Pacal the Great; Chan-Bahlum followed for a thirty-year reign; and later, Kuk was in charge for forty years. Schele asserts that “in fact, long-lived rulers seem to be the rule rather than the exception in Maya dynastic records.”15 Those durations seem unrealistically long to some people. Physical anthropologists who have examined bones recovered from the “royal” tombs at the site (which are notably Egyptian-like, by the way16) believe they are from younger men.

    So a paradox results—the facts from the bones differ from the facts in the writings. We can’t settle the matter yet. Similarly, some critics of the Book of Mormon have found the ages and lengths of reign attributed to the Jaredite rulers incredible. The Book of Mormon, then, joins the Mayan inscriptions in giving information on which science and history have not yet reached a verdict. The important thing is that the Jaredite account is made more believable because it is similar to other ancient writings.

    When we delve into the data on a host of other topics, we discover point after point at which the Book of Mormon increasingly agrees with what is now known by the experts on Mesoamerica, not only in the broad picture but even, occasionally, in neat little details. “Sheum,” the untranslated name of some crop among the people of Zeniff (Mosiah 9:9) has finally been recognized, after 140 years of obscurity, as an Akkadian (Babylonian) word for barley, se’um (interestingly, in this form it belongs in the third millennium B.C. when the Jaredites departed from Mesopotamia, rather than in any later era).17 A Mayan word for gold, naab, echoes Egyptian noub with the same meaning; Zoquean hamatin, copper, is suggestive of Egyptian hmty, copper. Alma and Samuel prophesy of critical events at the end of cyclical periods, including a four hundred “year” period, as did prophets among the Maya.18 And on and on it goes.


    I have said repeatedly that the correspondences in geography, history, and cultural patterns—large scale or micro-scale—between Mesoamerican cultures and the Book of Mormon peoples do not “prove” anything conclusively. Still, the fact that large numbers of such correspondences exist ought to register in the minds of truth-loving people. With this in mind, it is clearly misleading for one scholar to assert that there is no “important archaeological evidence” to support the Book of Mormon story “of Indian origins,”19 or for another to find it amusing to think that anyone would seriously try to compare the Book of Mormon with objective facts of historical importance.20

    Up-to-date, informed people ought not to make such out-dated, naive statements. Nor should archaeologists unprepared in the appropriate materials editorialize off the tops of their heads about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The demonstrated congruence of Book of Mormon patterns with a vast amount of data on Mesoamerica, even without considering its agreement with Old World patterns, really ought to silence would-be commentators until they have carefully investigated what is now a complex body of information. And those who do investigate and discuss the subject should only do so when they follow sound methodology.

    Carefully compared with the facts from external sources, the Book of Mormon is impressive, in my view, though most of the task still remains to be done. Yet the book itself stands above and independent of whatever academic studies of it may show. Neither critics nor apologists change history; they can only provide commentary on a reality more profoundly influential than anything they may say about it.

    That the Mesoamerican experts in the first third of this century should have been poorly informed and seriously mistaken about civilization in the area need not surprise us. They did the best they could with the information available to them, but it was limited. Today, too, the best informed scholars are bound to be mistaken, in the long run, on important topics about ancient America. The best defense against this disability is an open mind.

    Mesoamerican archaeologists were recently taken to task by one of their number for “a determined and often defiant adherence to assumptions that were no longer tenable. … New discoveries … wreak havoc with old hypotheses. Nonetheless, the hypotheses were presented as theories and defended fiercely, to the detriment of … scientific knowledge of the inhabitants of prehispanic Mesoamerica,” so says Dr. Judith Ann Remington.21 The archaeologists now at the top of the Establishment heap, she complains, have considered novel explanations—ideas at variance with their own orthodoxy—as “speculations … dangerously close to talking about the mystical properties of pyramids, the advent of alien cosmonauts, or the search for the lost tribes of Israel.”22 She believes a new generation of Mesoamerican specialists is coming on the scene less hidebound and less worried that unconventional ideas might “disrupt the entire field of Mesoamerican research,” as one of the famous men put it, and more concerned with simply finding truth. We Latter-day Saints can hope that the new generation will seriously consider the Book of Mormon in relation to current archaeological findings.23

    Yet we need not feel self-righteous when the scholars are taken to task for their narrowness. Our people have exhibited a decided tendency to substitute comfortable “folk understanding” for facts on certain subjects, particularly having to do with archaeology. We must expect new facts and new interpretations about the ancient Nephites and Jaredites, for they are bound to come. Elder B. H. Roberts taught us wisely about this openness:

    “And let me here say a word in relation to new discoveries in our knowledge of the Book of Mormon, and for matter of that in relation to all subjects connected with the work of the Lord in the earth. We need not follow our researches in any spirit of fear and trembling. We desire only to ascertain the truth; nothing but the truth will endure; and the ascertainment of the truth and the proclamation of the truth in any given case, or upon any subject, will do no harm to the work of the Lord which is itself truth. Nor need we be surprised if now and then we find our predecessors, many of whom bear honored names and deserve our respect and gratitude for what they achieved in making clear the truth, as they conceived it to be—we need not be surprised if we sometimes find them mistaken in their conceptions and deductions; just as the generations who succeed us in unfolding in a larger way some of the yet unlearned truths of the Gospel, will find that we have had some misconceptions and made some wrong deductions in our day and time …”24 All which is submitted, especially to the membership of the Church, that they may be prepared to find and receive new truths both in the Book of Mormon itself and about it.

    Illustrated by Richard Hull

    A facsimile of the Codex Borgia, which was discovered in central Mexico and reports dynastic events and conquests going back as early as A.D. 700. It is a folded deer-skin “book” identical in form to the codices of the Maya, which were written on paper made from the pounded bark of wild fig trees, which was then covered with lime plaster and painted in multicolors with both figures and hieroglyphs.

    Aerial view of a section of 100-kilometer-long causeway that connected Coba and Yaxuna in northeastern Yucatan, Mexico.

    Map outlines an extensive network of stone-paved roads, still visible today, radiating from Coba.

    The figurine of a man riding a deer adorns the cover of an incense burner, total height 26.5 centimeters. Antlers of the deer and the central element of the man’s headdress are missing. From Poptun, Guatemala.

    Show References


    1. 1.

      E. Wyllys Andrews Vet al., “Komchen: An Early Maya Community in Noahwest Yucatan.” Paper given at 1981 meeting of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia, San Cristobal, Chiapas, p. 15.

    2. 2.

      E. Wyllys Andrews V, “Dzibilchaltun,” in J. A. Sabloff, volume editor, Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 1, Archaeology (Austin; University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 322.

    3. 3.

      Pedro Armillas, “Investigaciones Arqueologicas en el Estado de Zacatecas,” Boletin INAH 14 (Dic. 1963), pp. 16–17.

    4. 4.

      “Current Research,” American Antiquity 45 (1980), p. 623.

    5. 5.

      Richard E. Blanton and Stephen A. Kowalewski, “Monte Alban and After in the Valley of Oaxaca,” in J. A. Sabloff, op. cit., p. 106.

    6. 6.

      Antonio Bustillos Carrillo, El Sacbe de los Mayas: Los Caminos Blancos de los Mayas, Base de su Vida Social y Religion, 2a ed. (Mexico: B. Costa-Amic Editorial, 1974), p. 23.

    7. 7.

      Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, El Tajin: Official Guide (Mexico: INAH, 1976).

    8. 8.

      David S. Hyman, Precolumbian Cements: A Study of Calcareous Cements in Prehispanie Mesoamerican Building Construction. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, 1970), p. ii. Maurice Daumas, editor Histoire Generale des Techniques, Tome I (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), p. 403.

    9. 9.

      John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, in press). Chapter 7 provides extensive documentation.

    10. 10.

      Dennis Puleston, “The Role of Semi-domesticated Animal Resources in Middle American Subsistence,” paper read at the 37th Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, 1972.

    11. 11.

      A. V. Kidder, “Miscellaneous Specimens from Mesoamerica.” Carnegie Institution of Washington, Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology, no. 117 (Mar. 1954), p. 20, Fig. 4e. Related documentation is given in my “Wheeled Figurines in the Ancient World,” Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. Preliminary Report (Provo, 1981), p. 14.

    12. 12.

      Eugene Hunn, “Did the Aztecs Lack Potential Animal Domesticates?” American Ethnologist 9 (1982), pp. 578–88.

    13. 13.

      Daniel B. Adams, “Last Ditch Archaeology,” Science 83 4 (December 1983), p. 32.

    14. 14.

      “Letters to the Editor,” Archaeology 34 (May-June, 1981), p. 7.

    15. 15.

      Linda Schele, “Sacred Site and World-View at Palenque,” in E. P. Benson, editor, Mesoamerican Sites and World-Views (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1981), pp. 112, 116–17.

    16. 16.

      Alberto Ruz L., Costumbres Funerarias de los Antiguos Mayas (Mexico: UNAM, Seminario de Cultura Maya, 1968); Alberto Ruz L., Palenque: Official Guide (Mexico: INAH, 1960), p. 46.

    17. 17.

      Robert F. Smith, “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” in Conference on the Language of the Mormons, 1973 (Provo: Brigham Young University, Language Research Center, 1973), p. 66.

    18. 18.

      Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, Ch. 6, pp. 28–33 of the manuscript.

    19. 19.

      Marvin Hill, “Review of The Mormon Experience,” American Historical Review 84–85 (December 1979), p. 1488.

    20. 20.

      “7EP Interviews Sterling M. McMurrin,” Seventh East Press, Provo, Utah, January 11, 1983, p. 5.

    21. 21.

      Judith Ann Remington, “Mesoamerican Archaeoastronomy: Parallax, Perspective, and Focus,” in Ray A. Williamson, editor, Archaeoastronomy in the Americas, Ballena Press Anthropological Papers, No. 22 (Los Altos, Calif.: Ballena Press, 1981), pp. 200–02.

    22. 22.

      Ibid., p. 202.

    23. 23.

      An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon constitutes the beginning of such a presentation. See note 13.

    24. 24.

      B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God. II. The Book of Mormon. In three volumes, Vol. III. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1951 [1909]), pp. 503–04.