Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Brief Overview Of The Primary Book Of Mormon Geography Theories: Why The Case For The Tehuantepec Mesoamerica Theory Appears Strongest

The advent of the Book of Mormon has provoked considerable discussion and controversy within the religious world. Despite the fact that it has been available since 1830, no other major Christian denomination has accepted it as canon.

One of the reason is that, unlike the geography of the Bible, which has been amply defined, the precise geography of the Book of Mormon has not been revealed. The leadership of the LDS Church has re-affirmed that there is no official "preferred" geographical model. Perhaps the omission was intentional, as a test of faith. Would we be willing to accept and live by what has been given us before asking for more? In addition, the spiritual message conveyed by the Book of Mormon supersedes any geographical ambiguity; since it corroborates the Bible, the Book of Mormon can be considered "America's Witness To Christ".

Nevertheless, the LDS Church does not discourage research and theorizing about the geographic location of the Book of Mormon civilizations. In part, this is because many Mormons express a healthy curiosity over the locations. In addition, many honest skeptics and even anti-Mormons use the geographical ambiguity against the Church, so research on our part will help combat misconceptions. On September 8th, 2009, the GraceForGrace blog identified five principle theories of Book of Mormon geography. These five theories, along with another, are summarized below, although I've renamed some of them.

(1). Tehuanatepec Mesoamerica Theory: This is centered around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. As illustrated on this map, this theory is the one in which people believe the main location for the Book of Mormon is in Central America and Mexico. The theory is that the land and continent formation is the same as today for the most part and that the archeological findings in that area could be related to Book of Mormon people. It is also a limited geography model in that the geography covers just parts of the Americas rather than all of North and South America.

(2). Caribbean Mesoamerica Theory: This theory is similar to the Tehuantepec theory, except the geography covers most of North and Central America and it also includes areas of the Caribbean that have sunk into the ocean that appear to be cities and/or civilizations.

(3). Baja Peninsula Theory: This theory is a relatively new one that I found the other day which claims that Lehi and company landed on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The theory is that this is one of the only locations in the world that supports a Mediterranean climate similar to the one Lehi and his family departed from.

(4). Great Lakes Theory: This theory is that the whole Book of Mormon took place around the Great Lakes region. Proponents of this theory cite the Niagara Peninsula and the nearby Hill of Cumorah as their strongest justifications.

(5). Malay Peninsula Theory: This one is another relatively new theory. The theory is that the archeological findings in Mesoamerica do not support Book of Mormon civilizations and also that Lehi and company couldn’t feasibly make the journey 16,000 miles to the Americas. Therefore, they landed on the Malay Penninsula , which is in the area of Singapore and Thailand.

(6). Peruvian Theory: Mormon Heretic is the latest to promote this theory. Citing a book entitled "Nephi In The Promised Land", which is authored by George Potter, who also operates The Nephi Project website, Mormon Heretic opines that the Book of Mormon homelands were centered in northern Peru, Ecuador, and southern Columbia. The existence of the Inca Empire is used to corroborate this theory, but in order to account for the limited distances possible in the Book of Mormon, it postulates that South America was once merely two large islands which were raised as much as 5,000 feet upward into a full-blown continent after the cataclysms accompanying the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as described beginning with Third Nephi 8:5. The cataclysm is described to have even changed the whole face of part of the land.

So how do we narrow it down? There are several key indicators within the Book of Mormon that help us prioritize these theories and put forth the most logical conclusion.

(1). Narrow Neck of Land: The primary Book of Mormon homeland will include an area which is contracted into a narrow neck of land, or a relatively narrow geographical passage. While all the leading theories include the possibility of a narrow neck of land, the most likely candidates are the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, the Niagara Peninsula, and the Isthmus of Panama. A credible variation of the Tehuantepec theory is offered on Mormon Geography, which proposes that the narrow neck is located on the west side of Lake Managua in Nicaragua. Believe All Things posts more about the narrow neck of land HERE.

(2). Description of Fevers and the Roots and Plants available: Alma 46:40 states, "And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land — but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate —" . While such fevers and curative plants exist in temperate and tropical zones alike, the greatest fevers are yellow fever and malaria, prevalent in tropical zones. Quinine, which is used to combat malaria, comes from the tropics. Thus this description would tend to rule out the Great Lakes Theory.

(3). No Descriptions of Heavy or Regular Snowfall anywhere in the Book of Mormon: If the Book of Mormon homelands were subject to heavy or regular incursions of snowfall, there would be at least some references to it. There are none, which would tend to exclude the Great Lakes Theory. Jeff Lindsay has some related writings HERE.

(4). Hagoth the Shipbuilder and the Resultant Outmigrations of Groups of Peoples: Alma 63:4-10 describes the case of Hagoth the shipbuilder, who began building ships around B.C. 55 for the purpose of outmigrations. Numerous parties of Nephites left the central homeland and sailed off to the north. The description in the Book of Mormon implies they launched from the west and sailed into the Pacific, but they could also have launched from the west side of the Yucatan Peninsula and sailed north through the Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately, it is possible that excess Nephite populations spread northward into the modern U.S.A., while excess Lamanite populations spread southward into South America.

(5). The Great Cataclysm of A.D. 33: This is further described beginning with Third Nephi 8:5. The descriptions include a great storm (hurricane?), along with cities being burned and buried and several days of thick darkness. This would best fit a massive hurricane, accompanied by a series of volcanic eruptions to spew sky-darkening and city-burying ash into the area. Volcanic eruptions of such magnitude could be accompanied by massive earthquakes. Only Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and the Peruvian area would fit this description; the other areas are not known to be geologically active. Jeff Lindsay writes more about this HERE.

(6). Only short travel distances possible in the Book of Mormon: An October 5th, 2009 article in the Mormon Times most recently addresses this issue. Book of Mormon travel distances, where noted, are always mentioned in terms of how long the trip took. In addition, there was no motorized transport at the time. All travel distances in the Book of Mormon homelands that we can decipher indicate a limited scale, probably no more than a few hundred miles -- perhaps a total area about the size of Tennessee.

The Book of Mormon Archeological Forum lists several Mesoamerican models for the Book of Mormon homelands HERE. Update October 1st, 2010: Tee Dee Stoddard has published a paper entitled "Critical Criteria for Identifying the New World Lands of the Book of Mormon: Implications for the Heartland Model and the Mesoamerica Model", in which he presents more evidence supporting the Mesoamerican Theory or Model over the Heartland Model. The Heartland Model, not discussed in this post, holds that the Book of Mormon core civilizations were in the eastern U.S.

Conclusion: The one theory best combining all of these indicators is the Tehuantepec Mesoamerica Theory. The Caribbean Mesoamerica Theory is intriguing, but the distances involved appear to be too great. Likewise the Peruvian Theory has possibilities, but one would have to accept the possibility that an entire continent was lifted by about 5,000 feet. Possible, but highly improbable. The other theories simply lack too many key indicators. The only remaining difficulty with the Tehuantepec Mesoamerica Theory is the location of the hill Cumorah. It is considered improbable that two groups of people would chase each other for thousands of miles from Mesoamerica to upstate New York merely to fight a final battle; thus, some people have proposed a "two-Cumorah" theory.

But from the accounts of Hagoth's shipbuilding, we can postulate that the Nephites didn't all remain in their central homeland, but began to overspread as far northward as the modern-day southwestern and eastern United States. Thus it is possible that the Nephites led by Mormon at the Battle of Cumorah were a different group of Nephites than those in Mesoamerica. Mormon 3:11 tells us that in A.D. 362, Mormon resigned from command of the Nephite armies because he was appalled by their wickedness. During the next 13 years, the Nephites repeatedly fought the Lamanites, even throwing them out of their lands once. But soon the Lamanites began to sweep the Nephites off, even as the morning sun sweeps off the dew, even though Mormon re-assumed command of the Nephite armies in A.D. 375 (Mormon 5:1). In A.D. 380, the Lamanites won another major battle against the Nephites, driving the Nephites further northward. Finally, in A.D. 385, the grand finale was fought in Cumorah. Mormon could have easily migrated from Mesoamerica to upstate New York over the final 10-year period. So it is possible that there was only one Cumorah.

1 comment:

Mormon Heretic said...

Thanks for the link! Just one minor point of clarification. I do like to talk about geography theories. I've posted on several different theories: Great Lakes, Malay, South America, etc.

I consider myself geographically neutral when it comes to BoM geography, so I don't consider myself a "promoter" of Potter's Peruvian theory, but rather it's one of several theories out there that I want to discuss and weigh overall strengths and weaknesses. I acknowledge Sorenson and the Meso theory as the most formidable, but it has weaknesses, just like all the others do. I think Sorenson has done much to raise the level of scholarship on this topic, and I appreciate what he has done in BoM studies.