The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record

Chapter 15

The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record

John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson is a professor emeritus of anthropology
at Brigham Young University.



Many interpreters or critics of Joseph Smith Jr. and early
Mormonism suppose Joseph produced the Book of Mormon himself. Most suppose
that the volume was a personal literary creation, vaguely mediated through
Smith’s remarkable native intelligence from the intellectual environment of
Joseph’s day. Others propose that Joseph revised a preexisting work that some
contemporary had written. Few have said anything specific about how the scripture
characterizes the Nephites or the Lamanites or their lands and cultures. At
most the claim has been that Smith drew upon supposedly general notions of
his day about “the Indians” or “the Moundbuilders.”1

Latter-day Saint scholars over the past fifty years have been
vigorously analyzing the text of the scripture. Their work has demonstrated
conclusively that the territory where the events it reports took place had
to be a small area, in the book’s own terms. They have also shown that this
territory matches with a large number of geographical, cultural, historical,
and other dimensions in the area of ancient high civilization in Mexico and
northern Central America, which is called Mesoamerica. No other area in the
Americas fits the book and its story.2

Where did Joseph Smith suppose the Nephites had been located
on the American map? Let us allow for a moment the critics’ argument that
Joseph created the Book of Mormon by himself. He must then have envisioned
some place as the scene, for a sizable portion of the text directly or indirectly
treats physical and sociocultural environments. Furthermore, the setting represented
shows remarkable consistency. The distribution of lands and cities, the “ups”
and “downs” of the topography, and the directions and dimensions
involved all manage to avoid anomalies. Could he have come up with a mental
map of a fantasy land, like Tolkien did? Was it by sheer bluff and luck that
23-year-old Smith dictated to his scribes over seven hundred statements in
the scripture that involve geographical matters, while staying consistent
in them all? Yet his own and his friends’ comments about the scripture make
patent that they considered the people and places of the scripture literally
historical. Well, then, did he rely on his personal experience with the New
England and New York environment—the only region he knew firsthand—in
order to characterize the ” promised land” of the Nephites? Those
who look to Smith’s immediate environment as the prime influence upon him
should emphasize this point about the book’s geography, it would seem. But
only one recent believer in environmental influence on Smith has claimed such
a thing in print, and his flimsy proposal looks more like a spoof than a serious
thesis.3 After the Book of Mormon had been printed, Joseph Smith
and those around him spoke of the Nephites and the Lamanites as having been
spread over the entire Western Hemisphere. What might he have known concretely
about New World geography and its ancient cultures, and where might he have
learned this information in a geography-ignorant frontier milieu?4
Whatever explanation is chosen by those who reject Smith’s assertion that
the scripture came to light by divine power, they are faced with explaining
how it happens that the one geographical scene where the narrative does fit
turns out to be Mesoamerica.

Only a handful of statements exist that indicate Joseph Smith’s specific views
about the geography of the Nephite record.5
They are so brief that they do not tell us much of what he thought. Neither
did people around him clearly explicate what they heard from him about the scriptural
geography. But a tradition did originate among Smith’s first followers and has
endured persistently in popular Mormon thinking. There is every reason to suppose
the originators of this tradition were following Smith’s lead in the matter
of geography, as they were in just about everything else in the new religion.
The essence of this popular view of where the Nephites were located was that
the entire Western Hemisphere was populated by Nephites and Lamanites, and that
their wars and travels encompassed the whole of it. Their “model”
conceived “the land southward” as South America and “the land
northward” as North America, an obvious interpretation. This view further
held that Lehi1 and his party landed in South America, and that the
final battle of the Nephites and Lamanites took place in New York, at which
time Moroni2 deposited his plates at the battle site that they considered
to be the ” hill Cumorah” near Joseph Smith’s home. While the statements
that exist from early Saints about geography fail to spell out this model transparently,
all that is said is consistent with the idea that this is what they believed.
It is plausible that Smith and his associates assumed this interpretation of
the geography from their first reading of the Nephite account and for years
failed to imagine there could be an alternative.

Nephite geography was not a subject about which Mormons were
seriously concerned in the nineteenth century. For that matter, the Book of
Mormon was but a minor resource for both internal discussion and external
teaching compared with the Bible.6 In the third generation of Mormons,
a few Church members eventually got around to marking up general maps of the
Americas with speculative sites for Nephite lands and cities, but none of
them were equipped with enough facts about either the scriptural account or
American geography to make their guesses clear, let alone convincing.7
The low level of interest in the geography question is shown by the fact that
for over a century the Saints used the Book of Mormon without anyone systematically
determining what it itself had to tell about the geography and cultures of
the peoples it treats. Such ideas as were held on those topics were derived
from the general tradition undisciplined by research.

A corollary to this geographical viewpoint was that all Indians
were descended from Lamanites, savages whose ancestors had killed off the
white-skinned, civilized Nephites before A.D. 400. Newspapers and magazines occasionally
mentioned ruins or exotic artifacts being found. To the minds of the early
Mormons, any such archaeological traces of cultures more complex than they
could see among the “redskins” on the western frontier they supposed
to have been produced by the Nephites before their destruction.8
Only in the twentieth century did a legitimate scholarly field of “archaeology”
emerge even among non-Mormons to treat the American ruins. Before that, “experts”
were about as likely to speculate wildly about American antiquities as the
public was.

There was one brief episode in Nauvoo when Nephite geography
received new attention. A phenomenally popular book by John Lloyd Stephens,
Incidents of Travel in Central
America, Chiapas and Yucatan
(New York, 1841), came into the possession
of Church leaders in Nauvoo in 1842. It constituted the first body of information
of any substance from which they, together with most people in the English-speaking
world, could learn about some of the most spectacular ruins in Mesoamerica.9
The Saints’ newspaper, the Times and Seasons, published
long excerpts from the book. Apostle Orson Pratt later recalled, “Most
of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original . . .
[i.e.] had not been described by previous travelers.”10 Stephens’s
biographer confirms Pratt’s recollection: “The acceptance of an ‘ Indian
civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition
of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an
Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly
waged. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g.,
Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.’ In the
universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American

Enthusiastic comments published at Nauvoo showed that the
Church’s leaders, including Joseph Smith, were immensely stimulated by the
new information. Within a few weeks of the first notice, they announced they
had just discovered, by reading Stephens’s book, that the Nephites’ prime
homeland must have been in Central, not South, America.12 An implication
was that South America might not have been involved to a major degree, or
perhaps not at all. (Also implicit was the point that the old interpretation
was not considered by them to have come by revelation.) But the potential
significance of this new model was never explored, in print at least. Within
a short time, Joseph was martyred, and the demands of survival and practical
pioneering precluded further thought about the esoteric subject of scriptural

The view of common Saints seems never to have been affected
by the notion of Book of Mormon geography centering around Central America
that half-germinated in Nauvoo’s leading circle. It was the general membership’s
whole-hemisphere interpretation that endured and dominated what little LDS
talk there was about this topic in the post-Nauvoo years. Until well into
the twentieth century, with only a few exceptions Mormons held to the simple
two-continent theory with hardly a thought that an alternative might be possible.

In recent decades, closer examination of the scriptural text
by LDS researchers has changed the picture. They have found that the hundreds
of statements and allusions about geography demonstrate that the volume’s
chief author, Mormon2, held a mental map of Nephite lands that
was consistent throughout, but its scale was limited to hundreds, not thousands,
of miles. The first attempt to sketch out that map from the text of the scripture
was not published until 108 years after the Book of Mormon appeared in print.13
Even slower to develop was the concept, as Apostle John A. Widtsoe eventually
put it, that “perhaps [Joseph Smith] did not know . . . where,
on the American continent, Book of Mormon activities occurred.”14

Against the popular LDS view of their scripture’s geography,
the map in the head of editor Mormon2 covered an area just a few
hundred miles in length and width, bounded on two sides by oceans.15
The whole hemisphere could not possibly have qualified as the scene for the
events and peoples he wrote about. Furthermore, the cultural features attributed
by the book to the ancients, even the Lamanites, are not those of what nineteenth-century
folk considered “the Indians.”

Then where was this smallish territory that Mormon2
and Moroni2 knew firsthand? When all the options within the Americas
are matched against the text, it turns out that only one place qualifies as
Nephite territory—Mesoamerica, or some part of it. Only that region
fits the geographical conditions specified or implied in Mormon2‘s
record. It alone was the home of ancient literate cultures that agree at many
points with what the account says about the civilization in which Nephites,
Lamanites, and Jaredites participated.

What may startle some about this situation is that most of
what Joseph Smith said or implied about geography indicates that he did not
understand or was ambiguous about the fact, as it turns out, that Mesoamerica
was the particular setting for Nephite history. Until he encountered the Stephens’s
book, Joseph gave no hint that he was aware that such a limited area with
a distinctive civilized culture even existed in the Americas. Even with Stephens’s
material in mind, he made no more than a passing attempt to relate the Book
of Mormon’s story to the newly-found ruins. And in the long run, the little
blip on the Latter-day Saints’ mental screen caused by the explorer’s book
faded as the mistaken folk view reasserted its dominance.

This leaves a paradoxical situation for those who claim that
Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon. Note the anomalies they face: (1)
The map and cultures told of in the scripture fit in only one limited area,
yet it seems that Smith thought the book was set throughout the 11,000-mile
long Western Hemisphere; (2) in 1830 Smith was not aware that Mesoamerica
had ever existed as a distinctive geographical and cultural area, yet it is
the one place where Mormon2‘s map and his picture of Nephite culture
fit; (3) least of all could Smith have known any significant facts about the
cultural tradition of that area, which has only been grasped and appreciated
since the scholarly research of the past century.

That Joseph could have composed the intricate, detailed, internally
consistent volume that the Book of Mormon actually is while failing to be
aware of so much about both the scripture and New World geography is hard
to explain for those who see him as the volume’s author. Had he been the creator
of the book, would or could he have written about a limited territory and
specific cultures and events while still indicating to his disciples that
the whole hemisphere was the scene? For that matter, could anyone
in 1829—say, a John Lloyd Stephens or a Professor Charles Anthon—have
written a lengthy book that was congruent at a fundamental level with historical,
geographical, and cultural aspects of ancient Mesoamerica? Absolutely not.
No one in the world knew enough about those cultures and that area to have
produced such a book.

 Joseph Smith’s feat in creating the Book of Mormon,
had he done so, would be comparable to an archer’s shooting at the broad side
of a barn and thinking he had hit it, while referees later discovered that
his arrow had hit the center of a small target that he did not even know existed!

This paper demonstrates that point in relation to one cultural category. It
follows a format in which what is known by scholars about Mesoamerican records
is first presented, under several rubrics. That is followed by what the Book
of Mormon tells us about Nephite, Lamanite, and Jaredite records, both through
the example of Mormon2‘s book in the form we have it and through
what it describes or connotes about records and books in the cultures it describes.
We shall look at the forms of records, their functions, the scripts they utilized,
features of style, and many other aspects. On all basic points and on many specific
ones, the two bodies of information will be found to agree or at least be congruent.
The degree of congruence is so overwhelming that only one conclusion can be
reached— Mormon2‘s record must be viewed as having originated
as part of the Mesoamerican tradition of documents. The whole question of whether
Joseph Smith creatively authored the volume, which has been raised by those
skeptical of his own account of its origin, becomes moot because of the Mesoamerican
form and content it displays. In 1830 it would have been impossible for him
or any other author in his day to be informed about such matters on the basis
of either the publicly accessible or archival sources in America or Europe.


Literacy and the Tradition of Books: Mesoamerica

In only one part of the New World has genuine ancient writing
been shown to have been in use on a regular, culturally significant basis.
That was Mesoamerica. Nowhere in North America, South America, the West Indies,
or lower Central America do we have consistent evidence for writing or written
records.16 In a few of those places, there is fragmentary evidence
for one script or another, but the evidence is equivocal, or if some system
were present, it was of only marginal significance.17 But in the
sixteenth century, the European invaders found in Mesoamerica large numbers
of books in use that the natives held in great respect. Michael D. Coe supposes
that “there must have been thousands of such books in Classic times”
(generally A.D. 300–900).18 For nearly
2500 years before the Spaniards arrived we find direct evidence for writing
in the form of actual remains of records themselves (mainly on stone) and
indirect evidence through representation in art depicting records or scribes.
Furthermore, the earliest writing is already sophisticated, not in any sense
primitive.19 That implies that still earlier specimens await discovery.
At least fifteen different scripts or writing systems are known from this
area, and they are stretched over millennia.20

Our modern experience may mislead us in judging the impact
of books on ancient societies. As will be explained below, the nature of the
writing systems in use in most early civilizations demanded much instruction
and practice in their use. The number of people who were seriously literate
was restricted. Only with the rise of the alphabet, which made learning to
write and read relatively easy, was anything like widespread literacy possible.
The usual case was that only members of the elite—most often priests—had
the resources available to permit their acquiring a mastery of writing. As
a consequence, the whole idea of a script and records had a connotation of
sacredness, if not magic, about it.21

Any society in which literacy was limited depended upon oral transmission of
most information between the generations. The written sources therefore reflected
many forms and features of the dominant, oral communication pattern.22


Literacy and the Tradition of Books: Book of Mormon Peoples

The Book of Mormon reports that books were used by the Jaredites,
Nephites, and Lamanites from near the third millennium
B.C. until at least A.D. 400. Stone monument carving of texts
was practiced no later than the third century B.C. (see Omni 1:20–22). By the first century B.C., the Nephite account reports:
“There are many records kept of the proceedings of this people, by many
of this people, which are particular and very large,” as well as “many
books and many records of every kind” (Helaman 3:13, 15). Mormon2,
the last major writer in the Nephite tradition, buried a whole library of
documents during his people’s final days in the fourth century A.D. (Mormon 6:6; cf. Mormon 1:3). Moreover, the tradition
of literacy quite surely continued after the destruction at Cumorah among
“robbers” (see Mormon 8:9; they were probably either ex-Nephites
or totally “other” people) and among descendants of the Nephites
who defected to the Lamanites (see Moroni 9:24). The Lamanites were earlier
said to have copied the Nephite pattern (see Mosiah 24:6); that tradition
may have continued separately regardless of what happened among surviving
(ex-)Nephite groups.

The limit on literacy among Book of Mormon peoples is evident
at many places in the text (for example, 3 Nephi 6:12, and see discussion
below). William Eggington has analyzed language in the Book of Mormon that
develops this point and contrasts the oral and literate dimensions of Nephite
and Lamanite cultures.23 He points out persuasive evidence that
orality was predominant and that writing was reserved for restricted kinds
of activities, along lines typical throughout the world in similar social
and historical situations.


Kinds of Books and Their Uses: Mesoamerica

Aztec records are the ones described in the fullest detail.
They included “annals of ancient times, contemporary events, year counts,
accounts compiled yearly, specific records for each year, books of each day
and day-by-day count or diaries.”24 Some of the records constituted
histories of whole peoples, and they incorporated accounts of “victories,
defeats, the lives of rulers, memorable ceremonial occasions” and
even “the adventures of individual heroes, often in intimate and vivid
detail.”25 Letters were also written. According to Spanish
eyewitnesses who talked with native priests about their books, the Maya of
Yucatan “used to write their histories and the ceremonies and method
of sacrifices to their idols, and their calendar, in books.” Also “they
had written records of important things which had occurred in the past . . .
the prognostications of their prophets and the lives . . . of their
lords.”26 Another description mentions “brief chronicles,
fragmentary historical narratives, rituals, . . . mythological accounts
of the creation of the world, almanacs and medical treatises,” as well
as prophecies of future events.27 Tax and trade records were also
kept.28 Other Mesoamerican peoples had similar types of documents.

We know a good deal about the Maya writing tradition from
the content of the four surviving Maya codices, from sixteen lineage histories
from Yucatan (the “Chilam Balam” records), and from inscriptions
on many stone monuments, which are now substantially deciphered. At least
during the Postclassic period (from A.D.
900 on), the Mayas wrote prophecies forecasting what would take place during
each coming calendrical period, and they had public readings of those prophecies.
The predictions were compiled in books (huunob), while historical memorials were also engraved
on stone. They also wrote letters to one another. Those same types of records
were surely kept long before, as well. In fact, many of the documents near
the time of the conquest were “simply transcriptions of the old hieroglyphic
manuscripts” put into Spanish characters.29 “The Postclassic
codices certainly suggest that the Classic Maya [A.D. 300–900] had books of divination
and astronomy, and it would be surprising if they [like their Post-Classic
descendants] had not had books of historical prophecy.”30
Gordon Brotherston uses slightly different categories to refer to the kinds
of records kept by the Maya: “highly structured ritual and cosmogonical
histories, . . . political and migration histories, genealogies
and lives, and year-by-year annals.”31

One additional interesting type of document may have been used anciently. On
the basis of the scenes painted on vases found in Maya tombs, Coe believed that
rites for the dead leaders interred there might well have utilized the text
of “a long hymn which could have been sung over the dead or dying person.”
Indeed, “it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there was a real
Book of the Dead for the Classic Maya, akin [in function] to the Book of the
Dead of the ancient Egyptians.” The scenes and texts reproduced on the
hundreds of funerary vases are all that survive of such a document, if it existed.32
The Maya handling of death differed only in details from the ways of other Mesoamericans.
There could have been parallel funerary texts in other cultures, for “there
was a single, unified body of thought in Mesoamerica . . . which we would call
a Mesoamerican religion,” Coe and others believe.33 In fact,
an actual book or codex was found in a tomb at the site of Mirador in western
Chiapas that probably dates to around A.D. 400–450, and possible fragments
of others from tombs are known. Unfortunately the condition of the Mirador codex
was not good enough to learn anything of its content.34


Kinds of Books and Their Uses: Book of Mormon Peoples

The Book of Mormon emphasizes its necessary brevity (see 3 Nephi 5:8,
“this book cannot contain even a hundredth part of what was done among
so many people in the space of twenty and five years,” let alone centuries).
There simply was not room on the plates containing the sacred record to discuss
incidental matters; hence, we cannot make an exhaustive comparison to Mesoamerica
or any topic. But even the cursory view that is permitted to us is interesting
when we compare the types of documents given in the sources cited above with
the purposes and contents of Nephite records alluded to in the scripture.

Annals by Year

The annalistic format is frequent in the Book of Mormon, as
illustrated by Alma 63:4–6, which begins “And it came to pass that
in the thirty and seventh year of the reign of the judges” and ends “And
thus ended the thirty and seventh year.” A particularly interesting example
has been discussed by John W. Welch. He shows that Helaman 6:7–13 constitutes
a fine chiasm, obviously drafted at the end of a notable year to formally
document the most salient events and conditions.35

Contemporary Events

Many incidents are treated in such fine detail that only contemporary
records could have supplied editor Mormon2 with that much information.
An example is the account of Ammon’s fight with the thieves at the waters
of Sebus, as told in Alma 19.


A number of letters are included in the Book of Mormon. Specific
mention is made of the sending of messages in this form (for example, the
interchange of Giddianhi with Lachoneus [see 3 Nephi 3]).

Victories and Defeats

There are scores of battle accounts in the Book of Mormon,
ranging in detail from the merest mention to the intricate account of the
war begun by Amalickiah that continued for many years.36

Lives of Rulers

The pattern obviously began with Nephi1, but especially
the material on Benjamin and Mosiah2 clearly continues it.

Adventures of Individual Heroes

The Book of Mormon gives many examples, such as Nephi1,
Ammon, Teancum, and Helaman1.

Political and Migration Histories

The primary narrative in the middle of the book is, of course,
a rather detailed political history, abridged by Mormon2 from the
formal records kept by the Nephite rulers. Over a dozen migrations are described,
ranging from the epic Jaredite trek and voyage across the ocean, to the final
Nephite retreat. Political history was one of two basic kinds of Nephite records:
“the history of this people which are called the people of Nephi”
was one, while the other dealt with “preaching which was sacred, or revelation
. . . or prophesying” (Jacob 1:2, 4). It is of interest
to see the same distinction in Carrasco’s discussion of Mesoamerican documents,
which he dichotomizes as respectively historical-genealogical and ritual-calendrical.
Moreover, in his view, “one of the important relations expressed in these
[Mexican] books is the relation between ancient or mythic events and future
or prophetic events” where “sequences of events, loaded with sacred
meanings, which were set in motion in a remembered past, are enacted in the
present, and will lead toward an expected repetition in the future.”37 The principle guiding the preparation of the major Nephite records
could hardly be phrased more appropriately than that.


A major part of the first chapter of Ether gives that prophet’s
genealogy. Lehi1 rejoiced because the brass plates contained his
own genealogy (see 1 Nephi 3:12). Enos and others felt strongly the need
to maintain the tradition of recording one’s line (see Jacob 7:27; Jarom 1:1;
Omni 1:1, 9). Zarahemla recited his ancestors (see Omni 1:18), and Mormon2
was well acquainted with the line of his forefathers (see Mormon 8:13).

Memorable Ceremonial Occasions

Most notable is the detailed recounting of the inauguration
of Mosiah2 as king.38 Other occasions are noted but
not treated so extensively, presumably because no farewell speech as choice
as Benjamin’s was delivered on the other occasions or because of the need
for brevity (see 1 Nephi 7:22). The nature of the Book of Mormon, which
is primarily a lineage history, no doubt explains why another of the functions
of Mesoamerican documents, that is, as a guide to the conduct of ceremonies,
is mainly missing. This is not a handbook. But notice three tantalizingly
brief instances of ceremonies, all involving executions: (1) Mosiah 19:24,
concerning Noah, “after they had ended the ceremony”; (2) Alma
1:15, “they carried [Nehor] upon the top of the hill Manti, and there
he . . . did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that
what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there
he suffered an ignominious death”; (3) 3 Nephi 4:28–33, “Zemnarihah,
was taken and hanged upon a tree, yea, even upon the top thereof until he
was dead. And when they had hanged him until he was dead they did fell the
tree to the earth, and did cry with a loud voice. . . .”
More could and probably would have been said about each ceremony had there
been room in the record, although the casual dropping of the word ceremony
in the first case also suggests that here was a case of “everyone knows
about that,” which was felt not to need explanation.


Substantial sections of the scripture are devoted to recording
and interpreting prophecy. A notable example is that by Samuel the Lamanite
in Helaman 13–15. The importance of this function for the records was
underlined by Jesus Christ’s chiding the Nephite record keeper for not having
written down a particular bit of prophecy by Samuel (see 3 Nephi 23:7–13).
(See also below on the role of prophets in relation to records.)

Year Counts, Calendar, and Calendric History

The Nephite record is meticulous, throughout Mormon2‘s abridgment
from the historical plates of Nephi (Mosiah to 4 Nephi) as well as in his
own account, to specify exact year dates for all events. Numbered months, numbered
days, and “hours” are also noted on occasion (for example, see Alma
56:1 and 3 Nephi 8:2). The extensive treatment of Nephite chronological
systems by Randall P. Spackman should be consulted to appreciate the intricacies
of what can be gleaned from the scripture on these matters. In summary, he asserts
that “if the Book of Mormon is to be placed in a Mesoamerican context,
then there should be a correlation between the chronology and astronomy of the
Book of Mormon, the Bible, Palestine, Babylonia and Mesoamerica. In fact, there
appears to be such a correlation—not just to general time periods, but
to the exact day.”39 He lists and analyzes the statements
in the Book of Mormon congruent with his position. Two passages out of many
illustrate the deep concern of the Nephites with the calendar, with prophecy,
and with historical fulfillment.

Now it came to pass that the ninety and first year had passed away and it
was six hundred years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem; and it was in
the year that Lachoneus was the chief judge and the governor over the land.
. . . And it came to pass that in the commencement of the ninety and second
year, behold, the prophecies of the prophets began to be fulfilled more fully;
for there began to be greater signs. . . . But there were some who
began to say that the time was past for the words to be fulfilled, which were
spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite. And they began to rejoice over their brethren,
saying: Behold the time is past, and the words of Samuel are not fulfilled. . . .
But behold, they [the believers] did watch steadfastly for that day and that
night and that day which should be as one day. (3 Nephi 1:1, 4–6,

The other states:

And now it came to pass that according to our record, and we know our record
to be true, for behold, it was a just man who did keep the record—for
he truly did many miracles in the name of Jesus. . . . If there
was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and
third year had passed away;

And the people began to look with great earnestness for the sign which had
been given by the prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, yea, for the time that there
should be darkness for the space of three days over the face of the land. . . .
And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on
the fourth day of the month, [the sign appeared]. (3 Nephi 8:1–3,

An intriguing possibility arises in connection with the prophecy
of Samuel. He prophesied that “four hundred years pass not away save
the sword of justice falleth upon this people,” the Nephites (Helaman
13:5, 9). (He here echoes Alma2 in Alma 45:10: The Nephites, “in
four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself
unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief.”) Now, in certain areas of Mesoamerica,
we know of prophecies being made for several calendrical periods—one
year, the 20-year (7200-day) katun,
the 52-year cycle, and the 256-year period.40 Another major cycle
in the Maya numeration system was 400 years. The 400-year prophecies by Alma2
and Samuel would be on a potentially correct calendrical target even though
so far we lack documentation from secular sources for occurrence of prophecies
for a like period.

Another parallel is also of interest. In Yucatan at the time
of the Spanish conquest, the ruler or his spokesman, the Chilam, had the duty
to prophesy five years in advance what fate the next twenty-year katun would bring.41
Samuel the Lamanite prophesied “in” the 86th year of the Judges
(Helaman 13:1–2). If a related katun
prophecy pattern prevailed then (and of course it might not), the fulfillment
of Samuel’s predictions should have commenced in the 91st year. The initial
fulfillment is, instead, reported in the 92nd year. But the people might have
expected the fulfillment sometime in the previous year, for “there were
some who began to say [in the 92nd year] that the time was past for the words
to be fulfilled, which were spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite” (3 Nephi
1:5). This response would make sense in terms of a five-year prediction. Even
if the details of this comparison are somewhat speculative, the general concern
of the Nephites with prophecy tied to the calendar rings true in Mesoamerica.

Edmonson has offered suggestions on how the heavily anticipated
beginning of the 256-year cycle may mark major turning points in Maya history,
and Puleston is in general agreement.42 Several notable Nephite
events fall at or near Maya calendrical turnings, according to Edmonson’s
reckoning (see below). Among many other indicators of Nephite- Lamanite concern
with chronological determinism are the New Year’s Day behavior of the Lamanites
upon finding their leader dead (Alma 52:1) and the setting of an appointment
for war at Cumorah (Mormon 6:2–5). The point of interest, though, is
less the specific dates than the cultural expectation that calendar and history
were closely related (see Carrasco above). This view was shared by Israelites
and all Mesoamericans, as well as by various other Old World civilizations.43

Divination and Astrology

There is no direct confirmation of this type of information
in the Nephite record, but several confirmatory points may be seen in the
indications of calendrical concerns. The mention of “sorceries”
and ” witchcrafts” could be related (see Mormon 1:19). Besides,
the strong interest in divination in earlier Israel and the development of
astrology in neighboring Babylonian culture from a base that Lehi1
shared may be indicative.

Funerary Texts

Nothing in the scripture indicates these to have been in
use; however, neither do we positively know that such texts existed in Mesoamerica,
except for Coe’s plausible suggestion on the basis of the painted funerary
vases (see above). That a ceremonial document was involved in Nephite and
perhaps even Lamanite burial ceremonies is not illogical given the evident
ritualization indicated in Alma 18:43–19:1 and Alma 30:2.

Tax or Tribute List

While in the nature of the Book of Mormon as a sacred text
we would hardly expect to find any trace of this sort of list, in fact, this
type of document is reflected there. King Noah’s tax on the Zeniffites is
enumerated in Mosiah 11:3: “one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth
part of their gold and of their silver, and . . . a fifth part of
their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.” Mosiah 19:15
gives us the Lamanite list of tribute put upon the conquered Noah and his
people; they had to “deliver up their property, even one half of all
they possessed, one half of their gold, and their silver, and all their precious
things, and thus they should pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites from
year to year.” Jarom 1:8 may reflect another such list. The previous
verse focuses on “our kings and our leaders,” who taught the people
and led their defense against the Lamanites. Verse 8 then lists forms of Nephite
riches: gold, silver, precious things, fine workmanship of wood, buildings,
machinery, iron, copper, brass, steel, tools of every kind to till the ground,
and weapons of war. The connection is suggestive. But King Benjamin points
out the contrast in his (probably unique) reign: he had personally labored
to support himself “that [his people] should not be laden with taxes”
(Mosiah 2:14). Ether 10:5–6 shows us the Jaredite tribute system at
a particularly onerous moment: Riplakish “did tax them with heavy taxes;
and with the taxes he did build many spacious buildings. And he did erect
him an exceedingly beautiful throne; and he did build many prisons, and whoso
would not be subject unto taxes he did cast into prison.”

Altogether, it is possible to see virtually all the kinds of documents or texts
known in Mesoamerica manifested or referred to in the Book of Mormon.


The Forms of Books: Mesoamerica

Screenfold books were the most common form of document. These
consisted of long strips made from the bark of a type of fig tree.44
The material was first soaked, then pounded to make a paper; a thin coating
of lime plaster was then spread over it to stiffen it and make a smooth, clean
surface on which characters were painted. The strips were folded back and
forth in an accordion fashion to pile up “pages.” A book could be opened
either to a pair of folds/pages or several adjacent pages could be exposed
simultaneously. This paper was relatively easy to manufacture. Finished books
were harder to produce, of course, because the symbols or pictures on the
pages had to be hand painted by scribes.

There could have been other forms of perishable documents
that we do not know about because the products have not been preserved. The
Catholic fathers burned many of the paper books in the early sixteenth century
out of zeal against “the heathen rites” they pictured. An Aztec
ruler, Itzcoatl, caused many books to be burned a century before the Spaniards
came (see below). It has also been suggested that mass destructions of records
happened earlier, especially at the time of the collapse of Classic Maya civilization.45
Records on stone—both those on which script appears and others bearing
nothing but symbolic art—were also destroyed in the history of Mesoamerica.
One view is that conquerors who were of differing beliefs deliberately sought
to eliminate traces of those whom they had defeated, and thus their history.46

Characters were typically, though not invariably, arranged
in pairs of columns, which were read in alternating steps from top to bottom.
“The column seems to be the essential organizing principle.”47
Script signs so arranged were combined with mythological or genealogical scenes
according to the needs of the content. In the centuries just preceding the
Spanish conquest in central Mexico, a zigzag manner of reading pages prevailed
instead of columns, so there could have been additional formats in earlier
times that we have not learned about for lack of surviving examples.

The other large class of documents of which we know consisted
of inscribed stones. Those too typically were written in double columns. Again
some human figure or a more complex historical or mythological scene would
be presented. Sometimes it was the texts that were primary, and the art secondary,
and at other times, the reverse. Large stelae (free-standing stone monuments)
or architectural insets of stone are best known because their size has allowed
them to survive, but small portable objects of stone and bone bearing inscriptions
are known in a few cases.

The Aztecs and Mixtecs usually used deer skin for codices,
although they also used paper abundantly. In Colonial times the natives sometimes
painted on leather and cloth. It is usually thought that the lack of very
early forms of writing may be because they were done on wood instead of stone
monuments; of course, any such objects would be likely to have decayed away.
(If writing was a result of stimulus from the Old World, as a few scholars
suppose, that would explain, in an entirely different way, why no formative
stage of Mesoamerican glyphs has been discovered.) Nor is there any example
of their use of clay surfaces, on which they pressed characters, as with cuneiform
writing in ancient Mesopotamia, although abundant Mesoamerican ” cylinder
seals,” or “rollers,” very similar to those of the Near East
are known whose uses in this hemisphere remain uncertain. Usually it is supposed
that they served to make decorative marks on the human body, or perhaps on
paper, but there is no actual evidence to support these suppositions.48

There is very limited evidence in America for the use of hammered metal on
which records were written (as described for the Nephites’ most precious records).49
It would be far-fetched to expect that such precious objects would come to light
through routine archaeological excavations, although there is always a slight


The Forms of Books: Book of Mormon Peoples

In 1976 I pointed out that “the text published as the
Book of Mormon was broadly similar [in many ways] to the class of ancient
documents from Mesoamerica termed codices.” Elements of form, style,
and content were arrayed to demonstrate a “congruence . . .
between Book of Mormon–described cultural patterns [of record keeping]
and those of Mesoamerica.”50 Scores of features common to
the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican codices were noted; many of the cultural
patterns mentioned or implied in the scripture are shared not only with Middle
American civilization, but also with that of the Near East. Inasmuch as the
1976 publication is still available, the information on content featured there
will not be repeated. The original points about style and form are here expanded.

The only firm descriptions we have of the arrangement of Mormon2‘s
text come secondhand from Charles Anthon, the professor to whom Martin Harris
took a copy of some “caractors” on the plates. Later, on two occasions
(in 1834 and 1841), Anthon described in letters to anti-Mormon inquirers what
he recalled of the material Harris had shown him. He said he saw “all
kinds of singular characters . . . arranged and placed in perpendicular columns,
and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle, divided into various
compartments, arched with various strange marks, and evidently copied after
the Mexican calendar by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray
the source.”51 His letter seven years later generally confirmed
the form of the document: “The characters were arranged in columns, like
the Chinese mode of writing. . . . Greek, Hebrew and all
sorts of letters, more or less distorted, . . . were intermingled
with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects,
and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac.”52

The published versions of the “Anthon transcript”
of characters drawn from the plates show something quite different.53
They have only rather cursive signs printed in horizontal rows. According
to David Whitmer, Joseph Smith personally prepared “a copy of the hieroglyphics
made from the first of the gold plates” on which he spent “a whole
week to copy so particular was he that the characters should be perfectly
reproduced and that the ‘ reformed Egyptian’ language should be shown up in
all its native simplicity.”54 Whitmer possessed what he repeatedly
claimed was the original Anthon Transcript.55 One statement by
him implies that he also had copies of other characters from the plates.56
Joseph Smith reported at the beginning of his translation effort, “I
commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number
of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them.”
Very soon afterward, Martin Harris “got the characters which [Joseph]
had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York.”57
One of the earliest sources to publicly report the Harris incident said that
he took with him “several manuscripts in his pocket . . . for
the purpose of showing them” to a professor, who thought “them”
very curious but admitted that he could not decipher “them.”58
That more than one paper was involved is confirmed directly by Harris
in the most often cited account. He said that he first presented to “Professor
Anthony the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof. . . .
I then showed him [in addition] those which were not yet translated.”59
It is plausible that the seven-line piece familiar to us (which would hardly
have taken Joseph Smith a whole week to copy, no matter how meticulous he
was) constituted one of the papers Harris showed the scholar, but there had
to be at least one more, likely one sheet of the “considerable number”
referred to by Joseph Smith. Anthon’s letters must have described a second
sheet that Harris put before him. For example, there are no traces in the
only published transcript we have in hand of the “half moons, stars,
and other natural objects,” which he explicitly described, let alone
of anything like a “Mexican zodiac.”60

In any case, existing sources of information fail to provide
definitive information about or authority for the horizontal arrangement in
which the known transcript has invariably been printed. One would think
that Anthon’s description of “perpendicular columns” ought to have
an objective basis. As a scholar in antiquities he probably was a good observer
and describer of inscriptions. Perhaps if we had the second sheet before us,
we could resolve the apparent contradiction in the vertical versus horizontal
question. It is true that the professor’s two letters are not consistent regarding
what went on during his interview with Harris. There are direct conflicts
between the two letters in what he says, for instance, about giving a certificate
or not doing so.61 It appears that he was trying to “contain
the damage” to his professional reputation from the notoriety of the
incident involving him and the Mormons. Understandably, he wanted his professional
judgment put in the best light possible and so put his own belated spin on
the story about the “certificate.”62 But to return to
the matter of the technical description of the sheet and its characters, there
is no reason to think he would not give an unbiased recollection as far as
memory served him; the two letters are in reasonable agreement in this respect.
So it seems that something Harris showed Anthon displayed columns of characters.
Confirmation about the “rude delineation of a circle” also reported
by the professor comes from a statement in a newspaper in the Palmyra area:
“Harris was in the habit of exhibiting to his hearers what he claimed
to be a facsimile copy of the title page of the forthcoming book. The following
description of it is given by one of the lucky ones who obtained sight of
it. ‘On it were drawn rudely and bunglingly, concentric circles, between,
above and below, which were characters, with little resemblance to letters.’ “63
The sources thus seem to provide significant evidence that the original document,
the plates, was inscribed in a manner consistent with a Mesoamerican codex
format, with vertical columns and other appropriate features, despite the
Latter-day Saint readers’ impressions based solely on the seven-line horizontal
Anthon Transcript.

The record obtained by Joseph Smith was engraved on thin
metal plates having “the appearance of gold.” However, using such
an expensive material to ensure the permanency of a record was exceptional
for the Nephites, not the norm. Jacob 4:2 acknowledges that “whatsoever
things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish
away; but we can write a few words upon plates. . . .”
This is an oblique acknowledgment that the majority of their writing was on
perishable materials. Note that when those who believed the preaching of Alma2
were being persecuted by the people of the city of Ammonihah, “they also
brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast
them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire”
(Alma 14:8). Paper seems the obvious substance. The same would be true of
the material used when King Benjamin “caused that the words which he
spake should be written and sent forth,” on the spur of the moment,
to the waiting congregation of his subjects who could not hear his voice (Mosiah
2:8). Note that Lehi1 and Nephi1 would surely have been
fully familiar with Egyptian paper made from papyrus; one would expect Lehi1‘s
and Nephi1‘s records on which they kept the account of their journey
through Arabia to have been written on paper, considering that they carried
only a minimum of materials beyond their subsistence necessities.

Other media were no doubt also used. One is mentioned: Omni 1:20–22 reported
“a large stone” on which were “engravings” that gave genealogical
and historical information about the last Jaredite king. That inscription was
read by the Nephite ruler, and nobody seemed surprised at the idea of writing
on stones, for, after all, in the Near East, inscribing on stone was common.
Moreover, the Nephites possessed the brass plates that contained “the five
books of Moses” (1 Nephi 5:11), where surely they read about the stone
tablets at Sinai. All the peoples around their homeland were familiar with stelae
(free-standing erect stones), which were carved with scenes involving divinities
or sovereigns and bearing inscriptions.64


Lineage Histories: Mesoamerica

One type of historical record has been termed a ” lineage
history.” (A lineage may be considered a group whose members are related
by claiming descent from a common ancestor.) We know most about their function
among the tribes of highland Guatemala, where they were important both before
and after the Spanish conquest. “Almost every major lineage of the preconquest
period is known to have written a lineage history comparable to the fourth
section of the Popol Vuh,
the most famous book of the Maya.65 These were maintained and interpreted
by priest-scholars on behalf of the lineage. The records were consulted to
settle questions of history and policy and to foretell the future. They recited
the formal origin story of the group, and so they served as symbols of the
power and legitimacy of its rulers. Other sacred artifacts were significant
symbols too, but a book had special validating power that was linked to the
sacredness of writing and the superior social status of knowing one’s ancestors
beyond question.66 Leaders publicly displayed their historical
documents on ceremonial occasions and had portions of them read to their subjects.
The records also served to justify and explain how the existing social order
came to be, including why there was cooperation or conflict with surrounding

The use of lineage records must have begun thousands of years
ago. At least, many of the stories found in the Popol
already existed in Classic Maya times (as can be seen in scenes
on funerary vases from that period), and some stories probably are represented
on the monuments at Izapa, before the time of Christ.68 Lawrence
H. Feldman has described similar kinds of records for central Mexico. He refers
to “migration traditions,” which were numerous. One subtype of these
emphasized some particular people or other in each account, “migrants
who suffer trials and win triumphs as they make their way to a predestined
homeland. . . . The purpose of these accounts is quite clear,
it was a recital ‘of the genealogy and lineage of the Lords’ . . . given in
order to establish the rights of their descendants to certain privileges.”69

It should be emphasized that lineage accounts are not histories of territories
but of groups. The Quichés, like the fabled “Tultecas” before them,
were in constant movement. They seized power in an area, including domination
of resident peoples of different language and ethnicity, but “they
moved by lineage, not by town or tribe. Thus, few of the major town sites were
actually abandoned at any point. Rather, they passed from the control of one
lineage to that of another—indigenous or foreign—in response to
the fortunes of war, the terms of priestly office, and the vicissitudes of lineage
politics. The Popol Vuh chronicles the spectacular success of one such lineage:
the Kaveks of Quiche.”70 It largely ignores other groups surrounding
the Kaveks simply because its writers did not care about them, so it is impossible
to reconstruct on the basis of this history “what happened” throughout
a given territory.71


Lineage Histories: Book of Mormon Peoples

The Nephite record in itself or in what it says of its ancient
source documents exhibits all the characteristics enumerated for Mesoamerica,
and the Jaredite story shows many of them.

Each Lineage Had Its Own Record

Nephi1, the founder of the ruling Nephite line,
personally crafted and began writing on two sets of metal plates. On one he
wrote those sacred things “which are good in my sight, for the profit
of [my] people . . . that which is pleasing unto God” (2 Nephi
5:30, 32). The other record dealt with “the more particular part of the
history of [Nephi1‘s] people” consisting of “an account
of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions” (2 Nephi
5:33 and 1 Nephi 9:4). It was from the latter record—the Nephite
lineage history—that Mormon2, “a descendant of Nephi”
(Mormon 1:5; I think he was probably the last head of the lineage [compare
Mormon 1:15; 2:1–2; and Words of Mormon 1:11]), constructed his abridgment
of that lengthier history that we have in the books of Mosiah through Mormon
(see Words of Mormon 1:3, 5).

The presence of alternative lineage histories is implied by
a statement in Alma 54:23–24. A Nephite dissident who gained power among
the Lamanites, Ammoron, claimed descent from Zoram, “whom your [the Nephites’]
fathers pressed and brought out of Jerusalem.” But Nephi1‘s
history gives a completely different version of events, representing Zoram1
as being satisfied with the oath-bound deal he struck with Nephi1
and the other brothers to come along with them (see 1 Nephi 4:20–37;
compare 2 Nephi 1:30). Conflicts in tradition like this fueled the Nephites’
judgment that Lamanite accounts were “not correct” (Mosiah 1:5).
Ammoron’s spin on the story in Alma 54:16–17 must have come either from
a tradition among his own (sub-)lineage or from the Lamanites whom he now
claimed to represent.

An even more egregious case of conflict in the historical
documents or traditions must have prevailed between the Nephites and “the
people of Zarahemla,” who were more numerous than the Nephites per se
(see Mosiah 25:2). Is it not likely that the ” Mulekite” account
would see Mosiah1 as a usurper over chief Zarahemla? (see Omni
1:19). Meanwhile, among the nominal Lamanites, relationships and records (perhaps
mainly oral) of specific groups must have been equally complicated. One noticeable
case involves Lamoni. As king over a land named for Ishmael, he may have been
a descendant of Ishmael, and so too, presumably, was his father, the king
over all the Lamanites. This situation implies a separate identity for the
Ishmaelites and probably a tradition or record of their own.72

For the Jaredites on this point it is sufficient to note that
Ether, the last prophet and record keeper, traced his genealogy back exclusively
to Jared. His line held the right of rulership (see Ether 6:22–25),
and Ether’s record is mainly the dynastic history of that line. At least one
other lineage reigned at times, but about those rulers we are left ignorant.
Ether 10:30–31 tells us that in the days of a king named Hearthom, the
kingdom “was taken away” from him—obviously by another lineage,
since the name of the new king was not even recorded in Ether’s account. Thereafter,
four more of the rightful (i.e., Jared line) kings lived out their days in
captivity, obviously under the domination of someone from another lineage.
(Competitors for the throne from within the Jared lineage are mentioned by
name, as at Ether 7:15; there were eight barges on the transoceanic journey,
so there could have been a total of eight lineages [see Ether 3:1, and note
the “friends” in Ether 1:41.]) Meanwhile, the brother of Jared held
the role of religious leader at the beginning. Not surprisingly, the brother’s
descendants are mostly ignored in Ether’s own dynastic record; mention is
made of one such descendant who gained the throne (Ether 11:17), but he remains
anonymous. Surely the priestly lineage’s record would tell the story differently.

Nonterritorial History

Gaps and mysteries appear if we attempt to interpret the Nephite
account as a territorial record. It is much more economical to interpret it
as intentionally ignoring important areas of their nominal “lands”
because those territories were of only secondary concern to the Nephi lineage.
Three examples will suffice. First is the enigmatic reference to “the
most capital parts of the land” of Zarahemla, which are described as
lying between the city of Zarahemla and Bountiful (Helaman 1:27). The “many
cities and strongholds” said to have been taken there by invader Coriantumr2
seem never to be named. Second is the lack of identification of the area where
the Nephite dissidents, the Amlicites at one time and the king-men at another,
were at home. I have analyzed the geographical texts to show that “the
most capital parts” must have been chiefly along the river Sidon downstream
from the city of Zarahemla and that the dissenters’ territory fits there too.73
Probably it was a region long held by “the people of Zarahemla .”
Captain Moroni1 invaded their area and defeated the rebellious
king-men and their armies “in their cities” (Alma 51:17–20)
without any concern to name those places—all this inside “the land
of Zarahemla” and necessarily in the same area as “the most capital
parts.” Third is that when Alma2 went on his preaching mission
(Alma 5–15), he circled right around this area. At the end of their
teaching, he and Amulek, his companion, “came over to the land of Zarahemla”
from Sidom (Alma 15:18); the “over” implies a highland route. Traveling
along the river would seem a more direct way, but it would also have taken
them through those dissident centers. Many other examples could be given of
places within Nephite lands about which we are told essentially nothing but
which make sense if we interpret the Book of Mormon as a nonterritorial history
of just one lineage.

Kept by Religious Specialists

A detailed treatment of the references to record keepers would
show that it was elite religious functionaries who kept the national, that
is, the royal lineage’s, documentary archive. A few examples are typical:
Mosiah 28:20, when King Mosiah2 abdicated his office in favor of
a chief judge, “he took the plates of brass, and all the things which
he had kept, and conferred them upon Alma2 (the high priest), .
. . yea, all the records, . . . and commanded him that he should keep and
preserve them, . . . handing them down from one generation to another,
even as they had been handed down from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem.”
That is, the ruler had primary responsibility for his lineage’s records, although
obviously he would have had specialists actually handling them. (Notice
Mosiah 2:8, where the king “caused that the words which he spake should
be written,” and Mosiah 27:22, “he caused that the priests should.”)
Following the pattern, 3 Nephi 1:1–2 says, “It was in the
year that Lachoneus was the chief judge and the governor over the land. And
[the prophet] Nephi . . . had departed out of the land of Zarahemla,
giving charge unto his son Nephi [a prophet and probably a priest], who was
his eldest son, concerning the plates of brass, and all the records which
had been kept.” Among the Zeniffites the priests were the apparent custodians
and interpreters of “the words which are written, and which have been
taught by our fathers” (Mosiah 12:20; compare 4 Nephi 1:19–21,
47–48 and Mormon 1:16–17; 4:23).

Symbol of Legitimacy of Rulers and Right to Privileges, and Public
Display and Reading from Records

Noel B. Reynolds has discussed the question, “Did Nephi’s
descendants and those who followed them have a legitimate right to rule? Or
should the right have belonged to Lehi1‘s oldest son Laman1
and his descendants? This quarrel is the cause of centuries of political and
military struggle.”74 He argues persuasively that the small
plates of Nephi, those we have in translated form in the early part of the
Book of Mormon, were written in part “as a political tract” to “defend
the Nephite tradition and refute the account advanced by the Lamanites and
dissenters.”75 Ammoron, king of the Lamanites, was only one
who made clear that the essential quarrel between the two lineages was over
the “rights to the government” (Alma 54:24; see also Alma 54:18).
The issue that motivated the dissidents, whether their rhetoric was about
“Lamanite rights” or “Nephite robbery,” was not just a
preferred version of “history” or even about government in a mere
political sense, but about feudal privilege and perquisites.76
Giddianhi, a leader of the robbers, claimed that he wished to “recover
[the] rights and government [for those] who have dissented away from you because
of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government”
(3 Nephi 3:10). What he was talking about, he then makes clear, was control
of “cities” and “lands” and “possessions” (see
3 Nephi 3:6–7), that is, of enjoying the revenue from tribute or
taxes. One of the strengths of the Nephite claim to this right was that they
possessed the sacred records that confirmed those privileges on the Nephite
rulers. The Lamanites, the robbers, and the people of Zarahemla all lacked
similar authoritative, ancient credentials. They claimed that Nephi1
had stolen the artifacts that were the tokens of power; “they said that
he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands. . . .
And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness
. . . and took the records, . . . for they said that he
robbed them” (Mosiah 10:15–16). Already in the third Nephite generation,
Enos reported that the Lamanites “would destroy our records and us, and
also all the traditions of our fathers” (Enos 1:14). And still, at the
end of Nephite history, Mormon2, “having been commanded of
the Lord that [he] should not suffer the records which had been handed down
by [his] fathers . . . to fall into the hands of the Lamanites,
(for the Lamanites would destroy them)” (Mormon 6:6), hid the lineage
archive in a safe place. To nail down their political “rights” after
Cumorah, the avengers no doubt destroyed such Nephite books and monuments
as they could find (as Aztec monarch Itzcoatl did) in an effort to rewrite
history in their favor. Given the absence of clear references to the Nephites
in surviving Mesoamerican records, it appears that they generally succeeded.77

Possession of physical tokens of political legitimacy in the
form of sacred objects, including records, must have been influential on the
public mind in granting legitimacy to their rulers. That would be especially
true in a society where a majority of the people were not literate. It seems
likely that the ascendency of immigrating King Mosiah1 over the
“people of Zarahemla,” while partly a consequence of his possession
of an impressive store of other sacred artifacts, also would have involved
the books he carried with him (Omni 1:18–20). For “Mulekite”
religious personnel, as for commoners, the most spectacular objects possessed
by incoming Mosiah1 could well have been the Liahona (ball/compass/directors;
see Mosiah 1:16, etc.) and the sacred translating stones, for there were Mesoamerican
parallels to both those.78 But in terms of political authority,
his possession of books that “proved” his regal ancestry, joined
with the ability to write down for nonliterate chief Zarahemla that man’s
oral genealogy, must have been an ultimate convincing argument that Mosiah1
should rule. Without documents, whatever bona fides one might offer would
always be suspect of having been manufactured for convenience.

Within the tradition of Nephite rulership, possession of the
records helped confirm legitimacy. When Mosiah2 was being installed
as king by his father, Benjamin, “he gave him charge concerning all the
affairs of the kingdom. Moreover, he also gave him charge concerning the records”
(Mosiah 1:15–16).79 Records were involved in coronation too.
King Benjamin’s installation of his son, which is reported in the first chapters
of the book of Mosiah, seems to have co-incided with the Israelite Feast of
Tabernacles. The Torah was publicly read on such an occasion in the land of
Judah. John Welch points out why we may suppose the same thing happened at
Benjamin’s ceremony and why such ceremonial reading would have been normal
among the Nephites.80 Mosiah2, on a later occasion,
“read the records of the people of Zeniff” and also “the account
of Alma and his brethren” (Mosiah 25:5–6) to an assembly. When
the Savior appeared to a body of surviving Nephites, the key record was close
at hand in the charge of the senior religious functionary. (See 3 Nephi

Genealogy of Rulers

Their sacred books were valued by the Nephites as a record
of their ancestry. Lehi1 rejoiced to find his genealogy on the
brass plates (see 1 Nephi 5:16–17). Later, the record of Nephi
was added to specifically so “that [the Nephites’] genealogy may be kept”
(Jarom 1:1; compare Omni 1:1). It must have been in part from the records
in his possession that Mormon2, many centuries later, could state
confidently that he was “a pure descendant of Lehi” (3 Nephi
5:20; compare Words of Mormon 1:9–11) and “a descendant of Nephi”
(Mormon 1:5). Interestingly, in later Yucatan the noble class were distinguished
from the peasants because the former knew their ancestry while the folk did
not, hence “ye motherless and ye fatherless,” as well as “orphans”
and “monkeys,” referred to the commoners.81

Origin, Migration History, and Trials En Route to Their Promised Home

In large measure this is a succinct characterization of much
of the historical aspect of the Nephite record, particularly 1 Nephi.

Incorporates Sacred Myths

 Knowledgeable references are made in the Book of Mormon
to mythic events central to the official Nephite belief system, such as Adam
and creation (e.g., Alma 12), Moses and the children of Israel at Sinai (e.g.,
Mosiah 13:5), the crossing of the Red Sea (e.g., 1 Nephi 17:26–27),
the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g., 2 Nephi 1:4), and the saving of the
fathers in crossing the sea to the promised land (see 1 Nephi 17–18).
The account of the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites is
only the most dramatic of a long series of “sacred myths” in the
Nephi lineage’s own history that were central to their religious life. (John
Clark has suggested to me in a personal communication that the whole book
of Ether might be seen as a myth of “hero twins,” Jared and his
brother, a motif common in later Mesoamerica.)

Used to Foretell the Future

Scores of pages contain prophecies about the Nephite and Lamanite
future and events to come in the day of the Gentile [i.e., European] invasion
and occupation of America. Among the more notable prophecies that were used
to foretell or interpret the future were those by the lineage founder, Nephi1,
his brother Jacob2, Benjamin, Alma2, Abinadi, Samuel,
and Mormon2.

Defines Relations with Other Groups

Among the relationships defined in the Book of Mormon are Nephites to Lamanites
and vice versa, all Lehi1‘s descendants to the Gentiles, Nephites
to the people of Zarahemla (“Mulekites”), and Jaredites (and presumable
descendants from them) to the Nephites. For example, Mormon2 refers
to the historical record to explain the revival of the Lamanites, Lemuelites,
and Ishmaelites in the third century A.D., a century and a half after their
disappearance as overt social categories (see 4 Nephi 1:38).


Ethnocentric Bias and Politically Motivated Revision of “History”:

Customarily “history was [periodically] rewritten to
conform with contemporary political realities. Because of the nature of the
means of recording data, ancient legends were also reinterpreted in terms
of contemporary cultural reality. This was due [in part] to the need for the
interpretation of [the written] symbols having several possible meanings.”82
Dieter Dütting agrees, speaking of “the multiple meanings of many Maya
words, which sometimes can be reconciled with totally different text interpretations.”83
In other words, ambiguity in the characters allowed differing interpretations
of history to be given to “the same” record.

A more potent problem for our trying to discern ancient history
is that all records—Old World, until the Greeks, or New World—were
produced according to an agenda that rarely featured straightforward reporting
of events. “We encounter a disconcerting degree of in-built bias and
have to face the fact that Mesoamerican sources are seldom unprejudiced in
their accounts.” And “as a general rule, the documents offer the
official historical version of one city-state, laying particular stress upon
the claims to legitimacy of its rulers and on their success in conquering
their neighbors against adverse odds.”84 Furthermore, “the
history of ancient peoples tended toward concepts different from our own,
being devised to edify as much as to instruct.”85 The consequent
confusion of facts is not peculiar to Mesoamerica, of course; for example,
Egypt’s “Ramses III enumerates his conquests in Asia, but his list is
simply copied from that of the previous pharaoh, Ramses II, who in turn had
used one that really originated with Tuthmosis III.”86 Facts
often take second seat to the political or ideological agenda of the editorial

Recognizing that, many scholars now view with skepticism any
uncritical acceptance of details of “history” put forward in local
documents or on monuments. William Sanders speaks of “the strong likelihood
that the ‘histories’ were deliberately manipulated for political ends,”
and he is convinced that “much of Mesoamerican political ‘history’ consists
of outright propaganda.” What is told there “was written by political
leaders for political purposes and clearly was used as propaganda to enhance
the prestige and power of the ruling class.”87 Andrea Stone
concurs, speaking of “ideological manipulation rather than historical
events,”88 while Debra Nagao warns of “a high degree
of manipulation of public monuments to communicate a political image rather
than a true reality.”89

A blatant example of recasting history—a process that
surely occurred many other times as well (as it did in the Old World)—was
perpetrated by Itzcoatl, the fourth chief of Aztec Tenochtitlan, before it
became the dominant center in the Valley of Mexico. At his accession in 1428
he ordered all historical picture manuscripts to be burned, at the insistence
of a wily political advisor. As we would expect, thereafter the official histories
are in close agreement with each other. But those written before that date
that happened to survive outside the ruler’s control show considerable conflict
in the history they report. Itzcoatl’s act permitted the construction of a
new, slanted history that made his people—country rubes in their actual
origin—appear to have long been part of the existing civilization into
which they had in fact recently migrated.90 Coe suggests that the
same type of destruction of records occurred upon the collapse of the Maya
Classic civilization around A.D.
900.91 Resultant discontinuities in the sources hinder our coming
up with any definitive history of the Mesoamerican past, for archaeology provides
only a vague “history.”

The Spanish conquest of Mexico can be taken as a model for
interpreting earlier conquests of one Mesoamerican people by another. The
conquistadors were anxious to picture the Indian peoples whom they defeated
as heathens for whom they were doing a favor. The Europeans felt they had
a burden to civilize the natives by extirpating all trace of the old ideology,
as far as they could manage it. One tool toward that end was to teach a “new
history.” It had to involve Spain, her royalty, and Christianity, and
these had to claim superiority to the defeated Mexica state and its heathen
gods, like Tezcatlipoca. What the new Iberian conquerors tried to do was broadly
the same as earlier conquerors, such as the Toltecs and Aztecs, had done with
the nations they had subdued and redefined historically in their day. But
most of the native empire-builders were more tolerant and less sweeping than
the Spaniards in demanding change. Lamanite expansionists centuries before
were the most like the Spaniards in causing a “complete revolution throughout
all the face of the land” (Mormon 2:8). The role of the native books
as symbols and prime vehicles of cultural continuity was a central concern
for the Spaniards. “The material and spiritual conquest of the Mexican
kingdom [by the Spaniards] was partially accomplished by the destruction of
indigenous monuments, books, images, and symbols.”92 More
than formal political legitimacy or emotional ethnic rivalry was involved.
The issue was gaining the power to control the people, the wealth-producers
of society. The conquerors wished to dominate and exploit the land and its
inhabitants, and they had to destroy the culture, not just defeat the
armies resisting them, in order to control those inhabitants. Consequently,
the calculated destruction of books and other symbols of all the most powerful
kinds in the native society was “part of a much larger plan of cultural
alteration, a plan to gain control of the content and transmission of the
ancient worldview in order to transform it. One does not have to read far
into the documents to see that the Spaniards had more in mind than the destruction
of dead men’s thoughts lingering in the screenfolds [books].” Particularly
the Spanish priests intended to “put an end to everything indigenous,
especially in the realm of ideas, even so far as to leave no sign of them.”93
So while the native books were of significance in themselves as historical
validators of power, more important to a determined conqueror was to destroy
the cultural (including religious and political) power that the records provided
for native lifeways. As long as the old documents were available, a resistance
movement could continue to challenge the conquest in “the hearts and
minds of the people” by maintaining the old ways underground. Only total
destruction of the old worldview and its symbols could make the new rulers
feel safe.

In the earlier cases where there was no single conqueror, constructing a replacement
“history” was more of a problem. Several competing “histories”
could arise, so the would-be historian’s task today is complicated. For instance,
among highland Guatemalan peoples, the history and even the genealogy in the
Popol Vuh has been confused by old rivalries and changing political fortunes
of multiple lineages. As a result, the Quiché record, the Popol Vuh,
came to differ in certain ways from The Annals of the Cakchiquels,
the parallel account from a related but rival tribe. The genealogical lists
for their earlier shared ancestry differ, for example. This represents “a
mythological and genealogical rationalization . . . subject to conflict
and change with the rise and fall of various ‘houses’ and their differing viewpoints
about the myths by which they validated their positions.”94
Furthermore, “all the lineages appear to have ‘adopted’ [that is, fudged]
some illustrious ancestors in order to confirm the principles of older-younger
brother seniority and father-son succession by primogeniture, but these principles
were [in fact] honored mainly in the breach.”95 (Such genealogical
rationalizations are well-known elsewhere, notably in biblical and tribal lists.)96


Ethnocentric Bias and Politically Motivated Revision of “History”:
Book of Mormon Peoples

Political and historical differences in interpretation of
tradition and records were a key issue in the millennium-long conflict between
Nephites and Lamanites. We saw above how their traditions differed drastically
in interpreting past events. So much was at stake between the two dominant
groups that there would be no give or take on the key issue of who was to

The epistles exchanged between Nephite captain Moroni1
and Ammoron, the Lamanite leader, underline the highly charged rivalry: “Our
armies shall come upon you except ye withdraw, and ye shall soon be visited
with death” (Alma 54:10); “thou art a child of hell” (verse
11); “I will come against you with my armies; yea, even I will arm my
women and my children, and I will come against you, and I will follow you
even into your own land, . . . and it shall be blood for blood,
yea, life for life; and I will give you battle even until you are destroyed
from off the face of the earth” (verse 12); “I will avenge [my brother’s]
blood upon you” (verse 16); “we will wage a war which shall be eternal,
either to the subjecting the Nephites to our authority or to their eternal
extinction” (verse 20). The same absolute enmity recurred four centuries
later (see Mormon 5). And the stance of Coriantumr2 and Shiz, the
Jaredite rivals for the kingship, was just as adamant (Ether 15).

Ethnic bias on both sides is manifested frequently. Rare glimpses
of kinder or more objective views of “the other side” only underline
the prevalence of ethnochauvinism. Compare Jacob2‘s positive evaluation
of Lamanite family relations (Jacob 2:35) with Nephi1‘s harsh contrast
between his people and the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:21–24). (Might
Nephi1 have recognized his bias, perhaps shown by the last sentence
in 2 Nephi 4:27?) The good guy/bad guy stereotyping continues in Enos
1:20–21. Opposing judgments of the Lamanites are again featured in Zeniff’s
reminiscence of his first encounter with them, in which his personal experience
contradicted his cultural bias (Mosiah 9:1–2). Lamanite condemnation
of all things Nephite is illustrated pointedly by the words and actions of
the Lamanite king in relation to his son Lamoni and to Ammon: “Lamoni,
thou art going to deliver these Nephites, who are sons of a liar. Behold,
he robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that
they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may
rob us of our property” (Alma 20:13). The reverse side of that prejudice
is once more shown when Ammon2, near the completion of a fourteen-year
proselytizing mission among the Lamanites, with his companions reminisces
about conditions when they began: “Now do ye remember, my brethren, that
we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of
Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites, and they laughed us to
scorn? For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites
to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites
of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiff-necked a
people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days
have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of
a transgressor from the beginning? . . . Let us take up arms against
them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land” (Alma
26:23–25). In short, “the only good Lamanite is a dead Lamanite.”

Central to the quarrel was the record that their fathers had shared in the
beginning, the brass plates, and perhaps Lehi1‘s own record, both
of which Nephi1 had taken with him when he fled from his brothers
(see 2 Nephi 5:12). In fact, it was the adamant hostility of those brothers
that caused Nephi1 to prepare his record in the form he did, as a
political testament justifying his actions, his retention of the ancestral emblems,
and his rulership.97 But as with the Spanish conquerors, so with
the Lamanites. The only safe Nephite culture was a dead Nephite culture, and
destruction of the records would kill it, as Lehi1, Nephi1,
and Benjamin had understood. Carrasco’s statement above about the Spaniards’
intent to utterly destroy native Mexican culture in order to ensure their own
ascendancy is a perfect parallel to the intent of the Lamanite conquerors as
seen by the Nephites. They knew their enemies were “angry . . .
because of [their] religion” (Alma 44:2) and more; consequently, they were
“contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families,
and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion” (Alma
43:47). All were wrapped together in a single cultural package held together
by the records. The Lamanites, like the Spaniards, while ready to destroy their
foes’ records, to repeat Carrasco’s words, had “more in mind than the destruction
of dead men’s thoughts.”98


Obscure Language: Mesoamerica

There was “a true consciousness of history”99
in Meso-america, but it encountered difficulty being expressed. One reason
was the nature of the script, which hindered clear communication. Glyphic
writing systems were never capable of conveying perfectly crisp information.
For instance, “a slurred line [of characters put down by a scribe] might
result in a totally different reading.”100 Yet even where
the writing was impeccable, glyphic characters were always subject to interpretation
because they endeavored to convey many whole concepts rather than simply to
represent spoken words. Particularly problematic was “the richness of
metaphors and the techniques of paraphrasing,” as well as the use of
cover names, nicknames, or code terms. For example, in the colonial era documents
kept by the Yucatec Mayas, the Spaniards were referred to by nicknames: “guayaba
eaters,” “red beards,” “foreigners,” “white
men,” and “sons of the sun.”101 Puns and wordplay
were also common. Jill Leslie Furst notes an instance from the Mixtec Codex
Vienna where stars are represented by human eyes, reflecting a pun on the
Mixtec word for star. She demonstrates how the single image of the eye could
have been used by a skillful storyteller to mean “the chief or head eye
of the heavens, an object that moves and returns to its proper place—and
that in doing so, marks the passage of time.”102 Another form
of metaphorical expression has been termed “difrasismo” or “kenning”;
for example, to the Aztecs skirt
and blouse
signified the sexual aspect of woman, flower and song meant “poetry
and art,” and my hand, my
stood for “my body.”103 Meanwhile Dieter
Dütting observes the difficulty that “lies in the multiple meanings
of many Maya words, which sometimes can be reconciled with totally different
text interpretation. Intended ambiguity in meaning, enhanced by metaphorical
expressions, seems to be one of the crucial features of the Maya texts. The
loss of [knowledge of ancient] metaphors severely restricts all attempts towards
decipherment.”104 A “literal interpretation” of
any text utilizing a great deal of such symbolism was thus impossible. Of
the Popol Vuh, which
is no different from other documents in this respect, Edmonson concluded that
the subtleties of the language “have eluded all its translators, including
me,” especially because “often a dozen or more quite disparate meanings
may legitimately be proposed for a particular monosyllabic root.”105

One had to be deeply schooled in the relevant Meso-american
language to catch its allusions. In native priestly schools, students were
taught explanations of the paintings and glyphs in the codices accompanied
by interpretive commentaries that they had to learn by rote. The nucleus of
the teachings was indeed in the documents, but commentaries were necessary
to shape the tradition “correctly.”106 Regarding the
Maya glyphs, Dütting notes “a content dictated by the historical and
ritual-religious interests of a small sophisticated nobility.”107
Carrasco calls the central Mexican codices “part of the art of the ruling
classes [that] contained stories painted and understood by very few individuals,
usually the priestly sons of noble families who memorized the stories and
pictorial conventions of their culture.”108 No degree of linguistic
fluency in everyday speech would serve.

 The problem was worse for Mixtec and Aztec documents,
which were more dependent on pictures with resulting “creative leeway
in interpretation” for the specialists. And those trained experts in
language and script liked to show off a “penchant for varying place-names
and name signs, employing different graphemes and grapheme combinations to
produce the same result.” Ideographic puns and complex metaphorical meanings
were embedded in apparently simple signs. This complexity and ambiguity is
behind the problem of translation, from picture manuscript to Nahuatl to Spanish,
of the Aztec Codex Mendoza immediately following Cortez’s conquest of Mexico.
In the process, “the Indian interpreters of the pictures in the document
argued so intensely over a number of images” that the Spanish
official in charge of the project became frustrated over the delay.109

In southern Mesoamerica there was a traditional “language
of Zuyva,” which one needed to learn in order to master the key records.
It is not clear if this only consisted of a special body of knowledge of the
myths and metaphors or whether a distinct tongue existed.110 In
either case, “it came eventually to mean only mysterious words which
were obscure to all but the ruling class.”111 Common people
and even most leaders did not have the leisure or social opportunity to invest
in the complicated learning process entailed in controlling this “occult

Much, if not all, in Mesoamerican documents is in poetic form.
For example, we are told “The Popol
is primarily a work of literature, and . . . it cannot
be properly read apart from the literary form in which it is expressed”;
indeed, it “cannot be accurately understood in prose.”113
A pattern of phrasing in parallelistic couplets is fundamental in Mesoamerican
documents in general and is even found in contemporary Quiché Maya speech
(e.g., “on the road of day, on the road of light”).114
J. E. S. Thompson said of this duplicative pattern, “There are close
parallels in Maya transcriptions of the colonial period, and, I am convinced,
in the hieroglyphic texts themselves to the verses of the Psalms, and the
poetry of Job.” Both “have an antiphonal arrangement in which the
second line of a verse answers or repeats a variant of the first.”115
The same pattern occurs in many other Mesoamerican languages.116

One of the best-analyzed and most highly developed forms of stylistic parallelism
in ancient literature is called chiasmus (defined as a literary form in which
the second part of a passage is inverted and balanced against the first). Its
presence and many detailed examples have been detected in the Hebrew Bible,
in the New Testament, and in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and
Sumerian literatures.117 Because of a somewhat similar emphasis on
parallelistic style that is evident in Maya speaking and writing, it occurred
to me that chiasmus might have occurred in Mesoamerica too. So, about twenty-five
years ago, I asked Sir Eric Thompson if he was aware of its presence in Maya
documents. He was not acquainted with the form, but when it was explained and
illustrated, he suggested that indeed certain passages in the translated Chilam
Balam texts might qualify and urged a closer look for it in the original language,
which he did not control.118 That remained for Allen J. Christenson
to pursue. Christenson discovered that early sixteenth-century native texts
from Guatemala, which were apparently based on pre-Columbian documents and stylistics,
did utilize the chiastic form. Yet no examples could be found in native writings
after a half century or more of Spanish influence had displaced the old style.
Obviously chiasmus was pre-Columbian in Mesoamerica; it did not spring from
imitating the Bible or from any Spanish influence. The Popol Vuh yields
a nice example of a six-line chiasm, while The Annals of the
incorporates one having seven elements with two subordinate
chiasms inside it.119


Obscure Language: Book of Mormon Peoples

When Mormon2 outlined his responsibility and stated
his intent in making his record, he emphasized that “there are many things
which, according to our language, we are not able to write” (3 Nephi
5:18). His son Moroni2 echoed the point in the books of Mormon
and Ether, where he lamented, “Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these
things, because of our weakness in writing; . . . thou hast
not made us mighty in writing. . . . Thou hast made us that
we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. . . .
Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write
them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because
of the placing of our words” (Ether 12:23–25; see also Mormon 8:12,
17; 9:31, 33). Despite reassurance from the Lord that his “weakness”
would not matter, Moroni2 came back to his concern in Ether 12:40
and again, finally, on the Book of Mormon’s title page, where he worried once
more about the remaining “faults . . . of men.”

Jacob2, Moroni2‘s distant uncle, had
referred to the brevity and obscurity problem nine centuries earlier: “I
cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving
our words upon plates” (Jacob 4:1). His expression “difficulty of
engraving our words” joins with Moroni2‘s “because of
the awkwardness of our hands” to reveal a problem that evidently went
beyond the scribe’s skill in making marks on metal . Moroni2 had
plenty of time on his hands and should have been able to work to the most
meticulous level, if only the technological problem of making the right marks
stood in the way of clarity. Neither was it their tongues or minds that limited
expression. Rather, it must have had something to do with the script system
they were using. Of course their “engravings” had to be got reasonably
right or the reader would be puzzled, yet in using alphabetic writing, for
example, a good deal of leeway remains where even poor spelling or awkward
hand do not hurt clear expression that much. Moroni2‘s and Jacob2‘s
shared frustration seems more with the whole system—that is, with their
inability to express through their writing system the subtleties of what they
were thinking and feeling. Mesoamerican scribes seem to have felt much the
same limitation about the records alone, which is why commentaries on the
texts were essential. Through them subtleties could be conveyed orally, beyond
the inexactness of the glyphs, but the Nephite writers would not have that
privilege, their people being doomed to extinction.

Moroni2 was perfectly aware that it was possible
to write with greater clarity using other systems. He was filled with admiration
for the writing of the brother of Jared: “Behold [Lord], thou hast not
made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest
him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the
overpowering of man to read them” (Ether 12:24). (Likely his appreciation
came about in the course of his assignment to translate the account of the
superlative vision from this great early prophet; see Ether 3:25–27
and 4:4–5.)120 Moroni2 could read and appreciate
the Jaredite record by use of the sacred interpreter stones, but the Lord
had told the brother of Jared, “The language which ye shall write I have
confounded” (Ether 3:24). Moroni2 could feel the contrast
in quality of expression between his text and that of Ether, but he had to
stick with the language and script that he knew and that his fathers had used.

He also had knowledge of the superior Hebrew alphabetic system.
Of it he said, “If our plates had been sufficiently large we should have
written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we
could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in
our record” (Mormon 9:33). That reinforces the point that it was the
” reformed Egyptian” writing system, not his speech or engraving
skill, that caused his problem of incoherence.

The lack of clarity stemming from the script that the Nephites
used for their key sacred and historical documents is implied also by the
difficulty of learning the system. King Benjamin wanted his three sons to
become “men of understanding,” so he “caused that they should
be taught in all the language of his fathers . . . that they might
know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their
fathers” (Mosiah 1:2). The expression “in all
the language” conveys that degrees of learning were possible. He
wanted them to have mastery of the system, not a superficial knowledge only.
“The language of their fathers” refers to the script system, with
its many characters and modifiers. (A glyphic system like Egyptian uses over
seven hundred characters, with many variants, but each sign could have multiple
meanings, all of which, with their contexts, had to be memorized). But he
could also be referring to the complex semantic content needed to read the
characters as fully and accurately as possible. Nephi1 had spoken
of this phenomenon in the founding era of their history. “I, Nephi, have
not taught [my people] many things concerning the manner of the Jews”
(2 Nephi 25:2). Then he repeats, “I, Nephi, have not taught my children
after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem,
wherefore I know concerning the regions round about” (2 Nephi 25:6).
He is not talking here about the script, which he surely did teach to his
children so they could keep their record. The only thing he could have meant
is the body of literary, historical, and theological allusions; stylistic
forms; vocabulary; and nuanced interpretations the Jews had elaborately developed
surrounding their books. But it was only that part of this esoteric information
which Nephi1 considered perverse that he held back. In order to
comprehend what was written on the plates of brass, his descendants would
have had to control a great deal of Jewish contextual information regardless
of what Nephi2 may have omitted. King Benjamin knew that without
being able to penetrate the brass plates text, “[the people] must have
suffered in ignorance, . . . not knowing the mysteries of God”
(Mosiah 1:3). To avoid that, Lehi2 had “taught them [i.e.,
the mysteries/interpretations] to his children” with “the help of
these plates,” so that the children “could teach them to their children
. . . even down to this present time” (Mosiah 1:4). Benjamin
was seeing to it that his sons “might read and understand of [God’s]
mysteries” (Mosiah 1:5) by mastering both the script in a mechanical
sense and “the language of his fathers” (Mosiah 1:2) in a conceptual
sense. Rather similarly, Nephi1 began his record by speaking of
“the language of my father, which consists of the learning [i.e., culture]
of the Jews and the language [i.e., script] of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi
1:2).121 Lehi1 had “been taught in the language
of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings” (Mosiah 1:4)
on the brass plates. This “language” had to include a lot of subtle
interpretive coloring, and that could not be grasped without significant schooling.
The time investment required would explain the later observation that “some
were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning
because of their riches” (3 Nephi 6:12). Unlike Benjamin’s princes, the
Nephite poor could not afford the years of study needed to master literacy.
The notion of interpretational subtlety and depth also fits with the description
of the Nephite script system as ” reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32),
for “the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4) is
notoriously complex to interpret fully, even when one may simplistically “read”
a sequence of characters.

All this also sounds very much like Mesoamerican writing,
where, we have noted, extensive training was necessary to fully grasp the
metaphors, paraphrasings, and esoteric cover names.122

One of the most striking developments in modern research
on the Book of Mormon has been John Welch’s discovery of chiasmus in it. He
has shown that the volume is “replete with precise and extensive chiastic
compositions.”123 Not only are there detailed minor constructions,
even large sections are structured on the chiastic principle. For example,
one segment consisting of twenty-two chapters of 1 Nephi treats ten topics
in sequence, culminates in the eleventh chapter, where Nephi1 has
a direct experience with “the Spirit of the Lord,” then moves through
the ten subjects in reverse order. Meanwhile the thirty verses making up Alma
36 form “a rigorous chiastic pattern.” “It is difficult to
imagine a more paradigmatic or a more effective use of chiasmus than this.”
It is “worthy in form to the best of any [Old World] ancient chiastic
writer.”124 In many cases quite complex subchiasms are included
in larger structures.

Most interestingly for the question of a Mesoamerican connection, Welch has
also shown that Helaman 6:7–13, a “fine example of chiasmus,”
is an annal of events for the sixty-fourth year of the reign of the Nephite
judges. “Since the chiasm encompasses the entire report for the year, this
unifying structure strongly suggests that the account was written as a single
literary unit that Mormon2 copied verbatim from the Large Plates
of Nephi into his abridgment.”125 Welch further observes, “It
may be that other reports from antiquity were written in chiastic form. The
Mesoamerican Chilam Balam of Chumayel, like Helaman 6, not only focuses
chiastically on the migration of the people into the land they now occupy, but
also similarly features, at the center, a wordplay on the land’s name, as J.
E. S. Thompson has noted.”126


Writing Systems: Mesoamerica

Many treatments of Mesoamerican writing systems have tried
to sort out the scripts and to relate them to general conceptions of
what writing is or is not. None are fully satisfactory. The scholars do not
agree on definitions or their application to particular sets of characters.
For example, Coe supposes that certain signs used at the Olmec site of La
Venta are “pseudo-writing,” not real writing,127 while
others are confident that it is.128 The usual view in such studies
is that an evolutionary progression moved from sheer “picture writing”
to full-fledged writing. (Few scholars take seriously the idea that New World
scripts owe anything to those in the Old World, but see below.) However, the
evolutionary scheme is highly problematic, since chronologically late writing
systems (e.g., the Aztec) display characteristics that qualify as “more
primitive” in this analytical scheme than systems in use earlier that
are more “advanced.”129 Moreover, examples matching all
the claimed “evolutionary stages” of writing occur simultaneously
(for instance, in the complete Maya system).130 Even at the level
of sheer observation there are conflicts. The level of expert difference of
opinion is shown again where Sylvia Méluzin agrees with Thompson that
the very early glyphs on Kaminaljuyu Stela 10 “appear to be Maya or Maya-like,”131
yet Coe sees “no resemblances” between them and the Maya.132
Agreement is still a long way off both about what concepts and principles
should be used and about the data. Méluzin speaks correctly of an “ill-defined
array” of non-Maya and early regional Maya script systems in use during
late B.C. and early A.D. centuries.133

What is best known is the Classic Maya system, in use in lowland
Guatemala from about A.D. 250
(or perhaps from three centuries earlier). It continued being used, in modified
form, until long after the Spanish conquest, although no European ever wrote
down much useful information about it. This system was able to represent a
wide variety of types of information, as indicated above. Different types
of glyphs had distinct functions. A study by Linda Miller Van Blerkom concluded
that the same six types of signs were employed in Mayan script as in Egyptian:
(1) primary signs or simple pictographs; (2) associative signs or pictures
used to stand for concepts related to the pictures; (3) abstract geometric
forms; (4) determinatives used to clarify the meaning of expressions that
sound the same but have different meanings; (5) phonetic signs used for rebus
writing (e.g., in English, a picture of an ant to represent the word
aunt); and (6) phonetic
complements that clarify or reinforce the sound value of other signs.134
That is to say, Maya writing was structurally similar to Egyptian, although,
of course, concepts and phonetics differed according to culture and language.

All the Mesoamerican glyph systems about which we know enough
to judge seem similar in important respects to the best-known, that of the
Maya lowlands.135 All depended heavily on “logographs,”
which convey one concept per character. Potentially, one had to memorize thousands
of characters, each character having a different semantic significance. (To
be truly literate in Chinese, a similar system, a person had to learn at least
seven thousand characters.136 ) The systems also involved a phonetic
principle, so that names and words could be, and often were, sounded out.

The Maya system is so well documented that much of our knowledge
of other schemes has developed by extending principles outward from the knowledge
base about Mayan.137 That system apparently took its form in an
area where one particular language of the Mayan family, ancestral Cholan,
was used. Decipherment is succeeding based upon connecting words from modern
Chol to glyph after glyph using the principles of homophony and polyvalence.138
At their origin the glyphs apparently represented speech sounds specific to
ancient Cholan, but “in time, as the language changes, the phonetic side
of the script becomes less and less obvious.”139 Various graphic
and linguistic devices were developed that allowed the system to function
across other speech communities, “internationally.”140

It is apparent to most researchers that many, and perhaps
all, of the hieroglyphic writing systems in Mesoamerica are related to each
other. Historical details of those relationships or influences remain unclear
because of the lack of sufficient inscriptions to permit tracking the details
through time and space. We know that individual glyphs or types of glyphs
were changed in order to adapt older systems to fit the needs of communicating
in new languages amidst new sounds, customs, and beliefs.141 Such
“reformed” usage may be related to the well-known fact that many
ruling elites in Mesoamerica were ethnic foreigners who dominated varied local
populations and who related to each other by sociopolitical interaction, by
intermarriage, and probably by genes. The governing elite sector sometimes
spoke a different language from the one the commoners spoke.142
This puts in question just how everyday language and the glyphs were related.
As Méluzin notes, “It is frequently true that writing is a property of
the elite who may not be identical in ethnic, and therefore linguistic, affiliation
with the masses,” while “the presence of a substratum language,
different from that of the rulers, may affect the official language and its
reflection in writing. For example, the person who ordered a text in the official
language, who dictated it, so to speak, may not have been a native speaker
of that language—it was his second, acquired language.” She also
points out that the writing of “religious and/or political subject matter
raises the question of anachronisms, of words, phrases, and styles purposely
retained from an earlier time and possibly even from another language.”143

It is evident that certain writing systems flourished for
a time then died out. An example that is under intense study today is that
of southern Veracruz as represented on the Tuxtla Statuette and La Mojarra
Stela 1.144

Claims have been made that actual Old World scripts have been
found fragmentarily in Mesoamerica, but these assertions are not accepted
by orthodox scholars working on New World writing systems. For example, Wei
ChuHsien, Dennis Lou Wing-Sou, and Francisco Loayza have discussed
and shown American artifacts on which are Chinese characters.145
More notorious is a cylinder seal found in 1957 at Chiapa de Corzo in southern
Mexico. Thomas Stuart Ferguson publicized it with a flourish in his 1958 book.146
He cited correspondence with noted Near Eastern archaeologist William F. Albright,
of Johns Hopkins University, in which Albright affirmed the presence of “several
clearly recognizable Egyptian hieroglyphs.” In the face of ensuing controversy,
Albright seems to have waffled somewhat (judging by reports of more cautionary
letters he later sent to inquirers). However, there is no question about the
definiteness of his initial response to Ferguson. George F. Carter, who was
a professor at Hopkins at the time, has reported, “Albright called me
to his office to look at those items [several seals from Chiapa de Corzo]
with him. He recognized a letter or two and concluded that these were degenerate
cartouches of Mediterranean inspiration. He was roundly denounced for such
a heresy.”147

Alphabetic writing is not considered by most scholars to have been present
in Mesoamerica.148 Yet a few believe that an alphabet may be present
on isolated objects. One candidate is a cylinder seal reported by David H. Kelley.149
This find came from incidental digging at the site of Tlatilco in central Mexico;
hence its date is not certain. However, it appeared in a context that suggests
it “may well be the earliest writing known from Mesoamerica,” perhaps
600 B.C., give or take a couple of centuries. Kelley noted its “sequences
of arbitrary symbols which are surely parts of a hitherto unknown writing system.”
None of the symbols are pictures (i.e., pictographic); hence, it may be unrelated
to any hieroglyphic system. John Graham has said of this writing that it may
“represent the most advanced script ever developed in the New World,”
even though it would be the oldest! He goes on: “The markings of this seal
closely resemble various oriental scripts ranging from Burma and China to the
rim of the Mediterranean. If the signs of this seal were writing, and the seal
were accepted as authentic, we would almost surely be dealing with an instance
of Trans-Pacific contact during the Pre-Classic.”150 That no
other example has been found is puzzling at first glance, but Graham observes
that “most of our excavations into the Central Mexican Pre-Classic [the
area where the seal was found] have not been conducted in localities where the
retrieval of specimens of writings would be likely.”151 Meanwhile,
other objects are known on which are seen what could be alphabetic or syllabic
signs.152 The whole story of Mesoamerican writing systems has by
no means been fully reconstructed yet.


Writing Systems: Book of Mormon Peoples

Lehi1‘s party came from the civilized heart of
the ancient Near Eastern world where a majority of the crucial developments
in writing took place. They had direct knowledge of Hebrew and its script
and also of “the language of the Egyptians” (Mosiah 1:4). It would
not be surprising if they had also had exposure to Mesopotamian writing—at
least the basic elements of it—in view of the role of the Babylonians
in Palestine during Lehi1‘s and Nephi1‘s lifetime immediately
prior to the Babylonian captivity. They would have been aware that multiple
systems were in use, so from their beginning, the Nephites as a people were
faced with linguistic decisions about how to keep their records.

 The “Egyptian” they came to utilize is not
likely to have been the demotic writing coming into common use in Lehi1‘s
day.153 Their purpose in obtaining the brass plates was to “preserve
unto our children the language of our fathers” (1 Nephi 3:19). Had “the
language of our fathers” merely referred to the Hebrew tongue, or
the content of the Jewish sacred canon (generally our Old Testament), Lehi1
would quite surely not have had his sons go to so much trouble to obtain one
particular record, the brass plates; they could have obtained a copy of the
regular Jewish scripture written in alphabetic Hebrew by simpler means than
sneaking into Laban’s treasury. What they did get differed substantially from
the contemporary Jewish scripture in two ways: (1) it was in characters called
“the language of the Egyptians,” and (2) the content of the volume
was significantly different from the Jewish Torah. “The fathers”
whose words Lehi1 was most concerned about were not his immediate
ancestors, about whom nothing is said in the record we have. The ancestor
of prime concern to Lehi1 was Joseph1, the one with
the strongest Egyptian connection. In 2 Nephi 3, Lehi1 cited
unique information on Joseph1 that he found on the brass plates.
He includes in his last instruction to his family specific reference to Joseph1,
alone, as “my father of old” (2 Nephi 3:22). A parallel phenomenon
is seen when Amulek recites his genealogy. He traces his ancestry to Nephi1,
then to Lehi1, jumping then to Manasseh, and terminating with “Joseph
who was sold into Egypt” (Alma 10:2–3). Mormon2 refers
to “our father Jacob,” but he does so primarily because of that
patriarch’s prophecy about “a remnant of the seed of Joseph,” whom
Mormon2 interprets as his Nephites. I have shown elsewhere that
on many points, the brass plates account displays connections with the Northern
Kingdom of Israel and the Joseph1 super-tribe.154

That the brass plates account should be written in “the
language of the Egyptians” is best explained historically by reference
to Joseph1‘s connection to high Egyptian culture (e.g., note his
introduction of Egyptian embalming to his family [see Gen. 50:2–3, 26]).
The text on the brass plates was apparently written in an Egyptian script
that had its origin as a vehicle for Israelite record keeping in that people’s
experience with Egypt in the time of Joseph1, and that usage probably
started with him personally. Lehi1 read and quoted Joseph1‘s
words in the first person from the brass plates (see 2 Nephi 3:4–22).
Consistent with this preeminence of Joseph1 as “father,”
Latter-day Saint interpreters have, since the 1830s, maintained that the Book
of Mormon is “the stick of Joseph
referred to in Ezekiel 37:19.

The most logical scenario for transmission of the brass plates
is that chosen men among Joseph1‘s descendant tribes, Ephraim and
Manasseh, continued the record and carried the plates with them upon the exodus
from Egypt. Joseph1‘s descendants must have kept on using “the
language [characters] of the Egyptians” by his commandment and in honor
of their quasi-Egyptian founder father. The record would have come south from
the Northern Kingdom to the land of Judah with the Josephite ancestors of
either Laban or Lehi1, or more likely of both of them.155
(It included also “a record of the Jews,” within which category
Lehi1, Ishmael, and Laban, all formally Josephites, had become
a functional part [see 1 Nephi 5:12.]) At the time Lehi1‘s
sons obtained the plates at such high risk, the record was still being kept
up, for it contained some of the then current prophecies of Jeremiah (1 Nephi

Note that Lehi1 had been “taught in the language
of the Egyptians” so that he could read the sacred engravings on the
brass plates (Mosiah 1:4). There is no hint as to how he came to this closely
held knowledge; no indication whatever in our text suggests that he had learned
this or any other form of Egyptian writing through engaging in commerce with
Egyptians, as some have suggested, and even if he had been exposed to the
contemporary script, it would not have served for reading the archaic text
on the brass plates.

The system employed on the brass plates was that adopted by
Lehi1 and Nephi1 for their own records (see 1 Nephi
1:2; compare Mosiah 1:4–5). For his personal records—one sacred,
the other historical and kingly—Nephi1 followed his father’s
example and adopted what he obviously considered by then the approved script
for sacred record keeping; thus he too wrote in “the language of the
Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). Jacob2‘s firsthand charge from
his brother Nephi1 to continue writing in the records (Jacob 1:2)
would not have permitted him to use another writing system. (Born in the Arabian
wilderness, where would Jacob2 have learned any alternative?) John
Welch has demonstrated the cultural continuity and conformity of Jacob2‘s
descendants thereafter for the next several centuries in the manner of keeping
the small plates.156 Later, Benjamin said that Lehi1
taught the contents of the brass plates to his children “that thereby
they could teach them to their children, and so . . . even down
to this present time” (Mosiah 1:4; ca. 130 B.C.).
That could not have been done without their descendants having been “taught
in the language of the Egyptians” as was Lehi1. Spackman argues
persuasively also that the calendar system that was set in motion by Lehi1
would be very unlikely to be changed by his descendants, short of a major
and noted crisis; we would expect the script to continue for the same initial
reasons he adduces.157 Anywhere in ancient times, it would have
taken a daring scribe (almost an oxymoron) to change scripts in the middle
of a record; the Nephite writers were clearly traditional and conformist—not

The use of antiquated languages and scripts for sacred purposes
is well attested. Latin was the language of sacred record throughout the Middle
Ages. Sumerian was a language of scholarship and cult in Mesopotamia for millennia
after the spoken tongue had gone out of general use.158 And Middle
Egyptian continued to be regarded as the “classical” language of
Egypt for literary, religious, and monumental writing clear down into the
Graeco-Roman period. The hieratic writing system was the Egyptian norm, the
form that all later priests learned first because “it was the standard
script for letters, accounts, and literature; most of the great literary works
of Classical Egyptian are preserved in hieratic. . . . Hieratic
. . . remained in use alongside the newer [demotic] writing [down
to the fifth century A.D.], but
it was reserved primarily for religious papyri written in the older (semi-Classical)

In Benjamin’s day the same script and system of record transmission
that Nephi1 used were still in use, and they continued on via Mosiah2
to Alma1 and beyond. We reach the final custodian, Moroni2,
with no hint intervening of any system change. He lumps all the writers of
the record—himself, his father, and “them who have written before
him”—in a unified “we”/”us,” which he repeats
often in verses 31 to 35 of Mormon 9: “We have written this record . . .
in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed
down and altered by us, [only] according to our manner of speech” (v.
32). The most economical historical explanation of his statement is that the
system of writing known to Lehi1 and Nephi1 was in use
in the Near East for at least two thousand years—from the origin of
the brass plates in Egypt ( Joseph1 dates nominally to around 1600–1700
B.C.) through early sixth century
B.C. The system then was transferred
to Lehi1‘s Mesoamerican land of promise where it continued to the
fourth century A.D.

What about Moroni2‘s statement that changes in
the characters were made “according to our manner of speech”? There
would, obviously, have been changes in vocabulary over the millennia even
if some version of ” Hebrew” had remained their tongue. Supplementary
characters would be required and certain others would have been lost from
regular use because of changes in physical, social, and historical environments.
But Moroni2‘s inclusive “we” again links all the Nephite
writers with the use of “reformed Egyptian” characters. It may be
that he is saying that the system used was being reformed in minor but cumulative
ways from the very beginning of its adoption by Joseph1. Obviously,
no writing system fails to change. Yet if we think of the standard hieroglyphic
Egyptian as a basis for Joseph1‘s system, then Middle Egyptian
hieratic script was already “reformed.” Or reformed may refer primarily
to changes that take account of phonetic elements.160 Elements
may have been added to permit spelling out Hebrew names, for example. Later
on, the same degree of phoneticism would permit use of the system to write
some other, Mesoamerican language. It is understandable how, after so many
centuries of incremental change, Moroni2 could say, “None
other people knoweth our language” (Mormon 9:34). (Of course he is referring
to the “characters,” because he had just distinguished in verse
32 “our manner of speech” as a different phenomenon.) Moroni2‘s
point was that nobody in Joseph Smith’s day was going to be able to decipher
what was on the golden plates by reference to knowledge of that day.

It is impossible for me to believe that the script Lehi1
learned and used was the old pictorial hieroglyphics. After all, the Anthon
Transcript fails to show anything like them. What we see there are somewhat
cursive signs, not unlike hieratic. Some non-LDS Egyptologists have stated
that the “caractors” shown to Professor Anthon were derived from
hieratic Egyptian.161 Hieratic originated by simplification of
the original hieroglyphics due to the speeding up of the writing process incident
to hand-copying documents on papyrus. It was in use from around the time of
the Hebrew patriarchs in the second millennium B.C.
Demotic Egyptian was still more abbreviated, but although it evolved continuously
out of hieratic, it was still being developed as a distinct system out of
late hieratic in Lehi1‘s day.162 That would have been
too late for it to be utilized on the brass plates. If that record was begun
in the era of Joseph in verse 32 in Egypt, as proposed above, it probably was
written in hieratic. In that case the characters first used were already “reformed”
from the original hieroglyphic Egyptian, regardless of what the descendants
of Lehi1 or Nephi1 might have done with them later.

Use of a hieratic form of Egyptian writing would have entailed
just the kind of uncertainties and frustrations Moroni2 encountered
in trying to express himself. “The cursive characters have this disadvantage
that they often obliterate the characteristic forms of the [original hieroglyphic]
signs. . . . Thus mistakes of all kinds crept in.”163
At least the possibility of mistakes was ever present. Only by diligence could
a scribe avoid being tripped up.

Moroni2 observed that the characters that he and
the other keepers of the Nephite records used had been “handed down and
altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32), even
beyond the system employed by Nephi1 and Lehi1. His
description of the basis for changes in the signs agrees with what we know
about phonetic elements in both the Egyptian and Mayan writing systems.

The only explicit description of the relationship between
individual characters on the plates and the English translation written down
by Smith’s scribes comes from David Whitmer. According to one interview with
Whitmer, “Some [characters] represented but one word or, name. Some represented
several, and some [individual characters represented] from one to nearly two
lines [of translated text].”164 To the degree that this statement
is accurate, it agrees with at least some of the characters being logographs
or ideographs, that is, representing whole concepts, yet it also allows for
a phonetic element.

Conventional archaeologists and linguists will have none of
the idea that actual Egyptian hieroglyphs have been found in Mesoamerica.
Less-skeptical observers point to evidence that a few inscriptions found in
that area do show Egyptian characters and that notable elements of Egyptian
culture and language provide supporting evidence. Potentially the most dramatic
material is a pair of ushabtiu
figurines, which, in Egypt, were placed in burials. These two figurines bear
on their fronts typical cartouches containing hieroglyphic inscriptions of
exactly the sort found on Egyptian examples. For years a pair of Egyptian
ushabtiu figurines
located in the national museum in El Salvador provoked interest in the possibility
that they might prove to be concrete evidence for an intrusive Egyptian presence
in ancient Mesoamerica. But it has always been obvious that the chance of
finding any actual Old World artifacts in an American site that were introduced
by a colonizing party is microscopically tiny. It had been claimed that these
specimens were excavated in 1914 from a ruin in western El Salvador, not far
from where Lehi1‘s party likely landed. One would like
to examine them directly, but it has now been established that they disappeared
in a burglary a few years ago. The matter is moot, however, since John Gee,
an Egyptologist, now believes he has established that they were part of a
set of fake ushabtiu
figures made early in this century and then “found” in a number
of countries around the world. He plans to publish his evidence soon.165

Other scholars have hypothesized an Egyptian origin for or
Egyptian influence upon Mesoamerican civilizations. The most elaborate argument,
which also contains considerable interesting data, is in the works of R. A.
Jairazbhoy, a historian with substantial knowledge of the ancient Near East.166
Additional data on the topic are found in my article in the important scholarly
compendium Man across the Sea.167
Moreover, David H. Kelley has shown that a sequence of three Maya day names
bear an enigmatic relationship to the Semitic alphabet. He shows that certain
Asian calendrical signs are tied to the alphabet, which had its origin in
Phoenicia. Each letter was represented by an animal or some other feature
in nature. Those in turn related to sign sequences in India, Southeast Asia,
and China. Mesoamerican calendar terms match certain of the Asian sequences
in significant ways. Specifically, the Maya day name manik,
represented by a glyph in the form of a hand, was probably pronounced “ka”
(on the basis of the Yucatec Maya word kab,
“hand”), and this corresponds in the Old World sequence with the
position where the Hebrew letter k
fits. The Hebrew letter, he says, probably was once represented
by a picture of a hand and was pronounced “kaph.” The next Maya
day in sequence was named lamat,
while the corresponding letter in the Hebrew alphabet was lamed.
Then came Maya mulu(c),
represented by a shark; the Aztec equivalent day sign meant “water.”
In the Hebrew alphabet the equivalent character was mem (“waters”; compare
Semitic neighbor Assyrian mu,
“?water”).168 Recall also the discussion above of the
cylinder seal excavated by the New World Archaeological Foundation at Chiapa
de Corzo, Mexico, which Professor Albright said contained Egyptian characters
in the form of a cartouche.

None of these bits of evidence is definitive, to be sure,
yet they have enough substance that anyone would do well to keep the book
open on whether literal Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, per se, not just some
structural local analogue to it, may have been present in Mesoamerica at the
same point in time.

The cylinder seal from Tlatilco, which was mentioned earlier,
was the subject of an important study by Carl Hugh Jones.169 Jones
carefully compared the characters on it with those on the Anthon Transcript,
as published by B. H. Roberts; he made no attempt at decipherment. He
found that of the twenty-four symbols, only two did not have “readily
identifiable counterparts” on the transcript. From this he concluded,
“The Tlatilco roller stamp is indeed an archaeological example of the
type of script represented in the Anthon Transcript.” He also compared
characters on a cylindrical seal or stamp from the site of La Venta,
Tabasco,170 which is probably of about the same age as the one
from Tlatilco. He found transcript equivalents for all the second seal’s symbols
too (they were a good deal simpler than those from Tlatilco; hence, they were
easier to match).

“The language of Nephi” was “taught among all
the people of the Lamanites” by Nephite dissidents at the command of
the Lamanite king (Mosiah 24:4; the date was between 150 and 125 B.C.). This “language” was probably
a script, not a spoken language. It is hard to believe that a new tongue could
be taught so quickly and widely as is implied here, or that the Lamanites
would accept the notion of using their enemy’s actual tongue, if it was different,
even for commerce. Two verses later the nature and usage of this “language”
is clarified. “The language of Nephi” referred to a writing system,
for the aim in implementing it was “that they should keep their record,
and that they might write one to another” (Mosiah 24:6). It is not made
clear whether or how “the language of Nephi” related to “the
language of the Egyptians,” the writing system mentioned earlier as the
vehicle for keeping the official records of the Nephites. The different name
may suggest that a different system of characters was used, although perhaps
based on similar principles. (When Mosiah1 and his Nephite party
first arrived in Zarahemla, he caused that “the language of Mosiah”
be taught to some of the people of Zarahemla; however, the context establishes
that in this case, it was speech that was involved, not script [see Omni 1:18].
Obviously, though, the more numerous ” Mulekites” would not all have learned the Nephite
tongue.) The fact that a script was taught among the Lamanites implies two
things of interest here: (1) it appears that the Lamanites had not had a writing
system of their own before this event, and (2) it was possible to use “the
language of Nephi” script among speakers of a (presumably, but not certainly)
different tongue from that of the Nephites. The “internationalization”
point recalls the Maya system.

The case of the Amulonites among the Lamanites is one illustration
of the principle that it was an elite minority that controlled the script
and the documents (see above). Furthermore, the priests of Noah were custodians,
analysts of and teachers from the sacred record of the Zeniffites, which is
shown in Mosiah 12:18–28, where they debate with Abinadi. The same was
true of priests among the Nephites. The secular records of the Nephi lineage
were in the hands of the king, the holder of the office of ” Nephi,”
while the sacred record was kept in the family of Jacob2, the earliest
high priest and brother of the first king (see Jacob 1:1–4). The elite’s
connection with literacy and record keeping among the Nephites is further
shown in 3 Nephi 6:12 and elsewhere.

The decipherment of many Mayan inscriptions has revealed that
individuals had personal names or titles that were spelled out in syllables.
For example, the name of a famous ruler of Palenque, constructed by epigraphers
as “Pacal,” was spelled out by three phonetic (syllabic) signs as
pa-ca-l(a).171 (I
suppose it is by coincidence, though not without interest, that among the
clearest cases for the use of specifically Egyptian personal names in the
Book of Mormon are three that begin with the pa-
prefix; see Nibley’s discussion of a whole class of late Egyptian names beginning
thus, and particularly the names of Nephite chief judge Pahoran and his three
sons, Pahoran, Paanchi, and Pacumeni.)172 One source reported that
in translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph “Smith . . .
was ofttimes compelled to spell the words out, not knowing the correct pronunciation.”173
Presumably proper names would have been the hardest to deal with in this respect.
In the Near East the practice was known to use Egyptian characters to transliterate
Semitic words, including names one had to spell out to read.174

Another point has recently been of considerable interest to
some Latter-day Saints. A set of Maya glyphs has been translated as signifying
“it came to pass,” a phrase common in the Book of Mormon.175
Obviously every language will have some way to convey this idea of narrative
progression; nevertheless, it is interesting that the Maya used the concept
often enough that a particular glyph suffix and word or phrase was used to
state the formulaic notion concisely and precisely. The text of the Book of
Mormon also must have had a regularized sign for the idea, judging by its
frequency and consistency of translation.

We are not told in the Nephite account whether they came to
utilize any Jaredite writing system. At least one Jaredite system is reported
to have come to their knowledge. Omni 1:20–22 mentions a large stone
“with engravings on it” on which Coriantumr2, the last
Jaredite ruler, had written historical material during his nine-month sojourn
with the ” Mulekites” before his death. Mosiah1 interpreted
the writing “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). We have
no way of knowing whether Coriantumr2‘s script was the same one
used by Ether (compare Ether 3:22) to prepare his lineage history, from which
Mormon2 or Moroni2 translated/composed the book of Ether.
We do know that substantial Jaredite cultural and linguistic influence reached
the Nephites by some other channel, apparently by way of the “Mulekites.”176
These included linguistic elements—personal names and terms in the system
of measures, as well as crop names (and if there were crops, how could there
not have been an agricultural calendar for planting the indigenous cultigens?).
Given such extensive survivals, it would not be surprising if elements of
Jaredite (i.e., Olmec-age) writing continued on through time via the “Mulekites,”
who would have incorporated surviving elements of the earlier population,
but with the Nephites failing to associate the origin of such features with
the “extinct” people.

There is one probable instance of transmission of a Jaredite
document down to the Nephite period. Ether 8:9 says that the daughter of Jared,
son of King Omer, referred to an Old World book among them: “Hath [my
father] not read the record which our fathers brought across the great deep?
Behold, is there not an account concerning them of old, that they by their
secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory?” That document, of
course, was brought by the Jaredite fathers from “the great tower”
in Mesopotamia. From this record sprang a secret organization that was represented
among the Jaredites more or less continuously until the demise of the dynasty
represented by Coriantumr1. Millennia later, among the Nephites,
Giddianhi, “the governor of . . . the secret society of Gadianton
[a Jaredite name],” brags in a letter to Nephite chief judge Lachoneus
about his organization, “which society and the works thereof I know to
be good; and they are of ancient date and they have been handed down unto
us” (3 Nephi 3:9). There is virtually a one hundred–percent
chance that he refers to an ultimate Jaredite origin for his organization
and its symbols. Helaman3, or Mormon2 (the editor at
this point), supposed that “those secret oaths and covenants . . .
were put into the heart of Gadianton” by the devil (Helaman 6:26). But,
while the idea might be credited to that source, it is difficult to believe
that knowledge of the operational code for conducting the organization was
transmitted by that means or by merely oral tradition. Giddianhi’s statement
seems to me to point to his having an actual Jaredite record. It appears 
that we are being told of a document whose substance came down from the early
second millennium B.C. or earlier to Gadianton’s day, near
the Christian era. This record would have been entirely different from Ether’s
plates, for Helaman 6:26 assures us that information about the secrecy pattern
was not derived from the twenty-four gold plates Helaman3 held.
We cannot tell how the script of the secret document might have compared with
that of Ether.

We know that certain spoken languages and writing systems failed to survive
from the Mesoamerican past.177 The fact of their extinction reminds
us of Moroni2‘s assurance that “none other people knoweth our
[Nephite] language” (Mormon 9:34). Ether’s “language” (script?)
also failed to survive (Ether 3:24). Whether Jaredite spoken language(s) continued,
we do not know, although the use of Jaredite terms among the Nephites suggests
the affirmative.178 Some Nephite groups survived past Cumorah’s decimation,
of course (see Alma 45:13–14; Moroni 9:24), but we do not know whether
their language(s) also continued, although it seems probable.179


Mesoamerican Priesthood and Records

Most Mesoamerican records were in the hands of priests, for
few other than they were thoroughly literate (see above).180 To
be sure, a larger number of the populace would probably have had a functional
knowledge of portions of the system, as shown, for example, by the existence
of Classic-age graffiti that only commoners would have produced.181
Presumably, merchants knew a certain amount. (Interestingly, at the time of
the Spanish arrival, the noted exceptions among the Maya to the rule of mainly
priestly use of writing were “some of the principal lords . . .
from curiosity” and some sons of the lords “if . . . they
had an inclination,” which recalls Mosiah2 and his sons.)182

The priesthood among the Mesoamerican peoples consisted of
several levels of power and jurisdiction, and priests varied in their functions,
but many of them had to do with books. Among the Maya of Yucatan, a “high
priest” was held in general respect, and a similar office existed elsewhere
in Mexico.183 He did little in the way of routine sacrificing or
divination, but “provided [other] priests for the towns when they were
needed, examining them in the sciences and ceremonies . . . and
provided them with books and sent them forth. And they employed themselves
in the duties of the temples and in teaching their sciences as well as in
writing books about them. . . . The sciences which they taught
were the computation of the years, months and days, the festivals and ceremonies,
the administration of the sacraments, the fateful days and seasons, their
methods of divination and their prophecies.”184 That list
of activities pretty much defines also what the lower-level priests did—scheduled,
planned, and carried out community ritual events and provided some religious
instruction, all of which required a certain degree of literacy.

Both “prophet” and “seer” were established
roles, and as indicated above, records of their statements were kept as part
of the general historical archives of official documents of native states.
Among different groups and in different ages, details of the roles no doubt
changed, but essential functions did not. The Quiché Maya had hiq’ vachinel, “far seers,”
who were prophetic diviners with second sight able to “see at a distance”
or scrutinize (niq’oh)
and peer into (vachih)
things. Peering into special stones was widespread in Mesoamerica185
and elsewhere in the world.186 An ilol
was another type of seer (from iloh, “see”), one
who interpreted omens.187 Among the Aztecs, a type of diviner was
called tlaachtopaitoani,
or “prophet,” while another was the quinextiani,
whose title was translated to Spanish as “revelator.”188
A prophet in Yucatan was called ah
. The man holding the office of Chilam
(“spokesman”) was not only a prophet but the
prophet—the official prophet in his city-state for the katun calendar period. He had
to be highly trained and a sage (ah
). When disagreements arose over the prophecies, he was the
one to resolve them (compare 3 Nephi 1:4–8). Failing that, a convocation
of sages would be called. There are also mentions of “false prophets.”189
The document Chilam Balam of
reports that a prophet named Xupan Nauat prophesied in
Yucatan in A.D. 1527 that strangers
(whose description and actions turned out to fit the Spaniards) would arrive
in three years.190 Other prophets gave similar predictions about
the coming of the foreigners.191

The role of seer seems to have been connected with rulership—and
particularly with the possession and use of mirrors. Use of a mirror was a
special manifestation of the widespread Mesoamerican use of polished stones
into which priests gazed to divine the future, as mentioned above. Concave
mirrors were formed from a mosaic of polished fragments of iron ore or from
a single polished stone, such as obsidian; they were used from Olmec to Aztec
times. They sometimes served to divine the future. One of their characteristics,
which must have seemed magical, was that as the convex face was moved toward
one’s eyes, at a certain distance related to its focal length, the image suddenly
flipped upside down, an impressive phenomenon. Also, the use of a mirror to
concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire must have been impressive.192
(The use of bronze mirrors in a number of similar ways was highly developed
in China.)193 Moctezuma (the Aztec “Montezuma”) saw his
coming tragic fate at the hands of the Spaniards in a prophetic mirror said
to be fixed in the forehead of a magical crane (bird). The Aztec lord of Tacuba
saw in a clouded mirror that Mexico would be lost to the Spanish. The Motul
dictionary of the Maya language relates nen,
“mirror,” with rulership. Certain gods were directly connected with,
used, or are depicted wearing mirrors, such as Aztec Tezcatlipoca, who bore
the title “Smoking Mirror.”194 There probably was a mirror
ceremony involved with transfer of royal power; among the Maya, “the
mirror ceremony might have conferred the all-encompassing office of wiseman,
seer, and priest as well as of secular leader of the people.”195

One specific function of foretelling was related to war. A highland Guatemalan
high priest, his assistant, and four other priests would meet to ascertain “by
sorcery and enchantment” (such was the Spanish assessment; a native might
have called it “revelation”) if they should make war, or if foes were
coming to attack them. They then told the caciques, or rulers, “whether
they should go to meet them.”196


Nephite Priesthood and Records

The Nephites had a priesthood structure with many of the
same positions and functions as the Mesoamerican peoples had. Record keeping
was a special concern for them too. The small plates of Nephi, particularly,
were passed down in the line from the first Nephite head priest, Jacob2,
under a formulaic commandment to keep them and record on them special religious
materials.197 Moreover, the main Nephite historical record was
also kept by religious functionaries, such as Alma1 and his descendants
(see 3 Nephi 1:2–3). “The other plates of Nephi . . .
upon [which] the records of our wars are engraven” were termed “the
writings of the kings,” but even those were probably kept by some sort
of priest, for the ruler only “caused” their contents to be written
(Jarom 1:14).

The Book of Mormon speaks fairly often of written communications
playing a role in public life among the Nephites. This does not contradict
the view that mainly priests and the social elite were the ones who controlled
most writing.198 For instance, Mosiah 29:4 reports that King Mosiah2
sent “even a written word . . . among the people.” But
in the short time frame implied and in the absence of a system of printing,
for which there is not the slightest evidence, his communication could only
have been reproduced in a limited number of hand copies, which would be sent
to regional or local rulers. (It need not have been in the same script as
the sacred records.) They in turn probably would have read the document to
an assembly of local kin group heads for discussion. This system of local
government we see at work in Alma 46:36, where Moroni1 “caused
the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land”
as the means of mustering support of the people, following the model of King
Benjamin himself (see Mosiah 2:7–8). A situation occurred among the
dissident Nephites reported in Alma 51:20 that is consistent with this view
of the role of documents in the political process; the rebels were “compelled
to hoist the title of liberty upon their towers”; that is, local noble
lords had to demonstrate to their people—not in writing, but via political
ritual—that Moroni1 had their loyalty, though reluctant.
The same system of predominantly oral/visual communication prevailed among
the Lamanites, where commoners were stirred up by Amalickiah, who “did
appoint men to speak unto the Lamanites from their towers, against the Nephites”
(Alma 48:1). But no doubt Nephite local leaders and merchants also controlled
enough of some script to decipher royal documents, being able to “keep
their record, and . . . write one to another,” and especially
use writing to facilitate “trade one with another” (Mosiah 24:6–7).
Some among the Lamanites imitated the Nephites in this and quickly learned
to do just the same things (see Mosiah 24:7). However, few of them would have
gained the kind of mastery of the most complex or sacred system of writing,
which Benjamin (who was actually a quasi-priest, as shown in his sermon),
his princes, and presumably his priests learned by long effort that commoners
were not expected to exert (see Mosiah 1:1–4). We have seen that some
rulers as well as motivated elite youths were among those taught in the Maya

Nephite groups had “high priests” who consecrated
and generally administered the activities of lesser priests (see Mosiah 11:11;
18:18; Alma 4:7; 8:23; 13:8–10; 45:22; 46:6, 38; 3 Nephi 2:9).
Alma1 ensured that the lesser priests whom he ordained would preach
and teach only “the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken
by the mouth of the holy prophets,” implying that he furnished them copies
of whatever sacred documents they needed (see Mosiah 18:19; Alma 1:10), as
with the Maya.

Book of Mormon peoples sometimes reported the presence of
“churches” among them. Were there corresponding “churches”
in ancient Mesoamerica? Maybe, but this is a definitional, not a substantive
question. Ignacio Bernal speculated that within the general stream of “Mesoamerican
religion,” there may have been “branches” similar to “Catholicism,
Protestantism, or other Christian religions.” Conflict among these could
explain the violent destruction of religious images that frequently occurred
in Mesoamerica.199 Eva Hunt, one of the best-informed ethnohistorians
on ancient central Mexico, has referred to “the pre-Hispanic church organization,”
which may have crossed state and national boundaries, as did that of the Nephites
on occasion (see, for example, Helaman 4:23 and 5:14–20). It was her
opinion “that the pre-Hispanic religious cults of each state were organized
in an integrated manner involving the priesthood of more than one temple”200
and sometimes local cult units of multiple states, according to a specialized
calendar. This parallel may enlighten us about the nature of “the church”
in Nephite times (see, for example, 4 Nephi 1:1, 27–30).

There is no evidence for the presence of priests among the
Lamanites until Nephites began to have influence (although the brevity of
the record about the Lamanites makes the picture uncertain). Amalekite and
Amulonite dissidents at least had priests to serve their own minority enclaves
in the midst of the Lamanites (see Alma 22:7). When the Nephite missionaries
began to have success in Lamanite territory, they “did establish a church
among [the Lamanites]” and local priests were then activated (see Alma
19:35; compare Alma 23:16 and 21:1–6). (This relative lack of religious
specialists is understandable since the Lamanites were clearly at a “lower
level of sociopolitical integration,” as anthropologists say, than the
Nephites. The former would be considered by scholars to have been organized
only into “chiefdoms,”201 as shown in Alma 20–22
and other places, but the Nephites were at times at an incipient “state”
level, as shown in 3 Nephi 6:11.)

The functions of priests among the Nephites are nowhere spelled
out in detail, but until the coming of Christ among them, “they observed
to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord. And they
profaned not; neither did they blaspheme. And the laws of the land were exceedingly
strict. . . . Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and
the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the
people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses” (Jarom 1:5, 11). Their
priests would, this shows, have followed generally the pattern of preexilic
Jewish priests, paying considerable attention to setting dates for ceremonies
by calendrical tracking, officiating in community-related rituals, and serving
as custodians and watchdogs of the ethnic, mythic, and ideological tradition
and of the ritual and moral purity of their people.

Among the Jews at the time of the Babylonian exile, “Jeremiah
tells us that it is the peculiar function of the priests to handle the Torah,”202
and we could assume that it would be so among the Nephites, who derived from
Jeremiah’s Jerusalem. The determination of the date for the coronation of
Mosiah2 as told in Mosiah 1:10 would probably not have been done
without their expert input, for example. The reckoning of time among the Nephites
appears to have been specifically in charge of a religious officiant: “According
to our record, and we know our record to be true, for behold, it was a just
man who did keep the record—for he truly did many miracles . . .
—if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time,
the thirty and third year had passed away. . . . In the thirty
and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there
arose a great storm” (3 Nephi 8:1–2, 5). With this concern
with chronology in the hands of religious personnel, it must be assumed that
astronomical knowledge was also in their control. The few statements in the
Book of Mormon relating to Nephite astronomy are all made in a religious/prophetic
context and involved religious functionaries: Alma 30:44, the motion of the
earth and “the planets”; Helaman 12:15, the sun moves around the
earth; Helaman 14:20 and 3 Nephi 1:8, absence of light from the sun,
moon, and stars as a prophetic sign; and Helaman 14:5 and 3 Nephi 1:21,
a new star appears. No mention is made of astrological phenomena, but it would
be no surprise if they were present among some groups connected with the Book
of Mormon population, considering their Near Eastern background where astrology
was routine.203

Prophets and prophecy were frequently noted among the Nephites
(see, for example, Enos 1:22; Mosiah 2:34; Helaman 13:24; and 3 Nephi
6:25 and 7:14). False prophets were also a social fixture (see Words of Mormon
1:16; Helaman 13:26; 4 Nephi 1:34).

Ten times the office or function of ” seer” is mentioned
directly, and the activity as such appears at other times (see, for example,
Mosiah 8:13–17). Of special concern was the device called the ”
interpreters,” which originated with the brother of Jared (see Ether
3), then eventually came into the hands of King Mosiah2 by unspecified
channels. It consisted of stones “wherewith that he can look. . . .
And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer”
(Mosiah 8:13). How Mesoamerican mirror- and stone-gazing might have related
to similar practices reported among the Israelites (compare “the Urim
and Thummim”), Jaredites (“interpreters”), and Nephites is
not clear but deserves consideration.

One particular divinatory function among the Nephites was
related to war. Just as Mesoamerican priests sometimes served as guides in
planning and conducting war, so did Alma2. “He that had been
appointed chief captain over the armies of the Nephites . . . knowing
that Alma . . . had the spirit of prophecy, therefore [the chief
captain and his sons] went unto him . . . to know whither the Lord
would that they should go . . . in search of their brethren, who
had been taken captive by the Lamanites” (Alma 16:5). Alma2
“inquired of the Lord” and then gave the military folks detailed
instructions about the spot to which they needed to proceed (see Alma 16:5–6).
The setting of the appointment for the final Nephite- Lamanite battle at the
hill Cumorah might well have been done according to astronomical or calendrical
omens (see Mormon 6:2–6).204 Other instances, even less explicit
but of the same tenor, could be cited.

Finally, it should be noted that certain priests among the Nephites either
held political power themselves or were closely allied with rulers; that is,
they were part of the elite (see Mosiah 17:6; 29:42; Alma 14:18; 30:29; 4 Nephi
1:34). The king’s court at the time of Mosiah2 had a corps of priests
around the monarch who seem to have had no connection to the “church”
(see Mosiah 27:1). Sometimes the rulers as such were also religious leaders,
as in Jarom 1:7; Words of Mormon 1:17; and Alma 4:16–17 and 35:5 (compare
Alma 50:39).


Mesoamerican History and the Calendar

In Yucatan the basic Maya “year” for religious
purposes was the tun of 360 days. Twenty tuns made a katun, that is, 7200 days or
nearly twenty of our years. Each katun
was identified by the name of the day that began it; for example, the katun 11 Ahau had its start
on the day named 11 Ahau. The way the complex calendar system(s) worked, katun 11 Ahau would be followed
twenty years later by katun
9 Ahau. It would be 256 years before the day 11 Ahau would again begin a katun.

The Maya, as well as other Mesoamerican groups, held a profound
faith that each period of time would see essentially a reenactment of what
had gone on the last time that calendar label was in use. Priests were expected
to consult the sacred astrological books and announce in advance what calendrical
fate had decreed for the next 20-year or 256-year cycle. Predictions for a
katun were customarily
drawn up five years before its beginning and were announced at the inauguration
of the Jaguar (Balam), ruling lord/priest for that katun. It was also his duty,
or that of his spokesman (the Chilam) to write the history of the katun five years after leaving
office, as a basis for future prophecy.205 Details of this mode
of thinking and ritual for other Mesoamerican areas are not so clearly known,
but the sense of a strong fate tied to the calendar was probably universal,
although it was not manifested everywhere in the same form or to the same

Puleston, Edmonson, and other Mayanists consider that Maya
peoples’ minds supposed that the fate prophesied was so inexorable that they
acted as though all that could be done was to bow their heads and accept what
had been announced. This literally made for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Edmonson
suggests that the actual pattern of Maya history that can be detected in the
written records and archaeological remains strongly suggests that major changes
really did take place at “the turning of the may” (the time when the beginning date 8 Ahau
came around). He suggests how this recurring anniversary might have marked
actual, important points in Maya history.207

We know details about a dramatic instance of the power of
this sense of prophecy and fate. The Spaniards conquered northern Yucatan
in three phases between 1527 and 1546. But a defiant group, the Itza Mayas,
maintained an anti-Spanish, anti- Christian center deep in the jungle to the
south at Tayasal among the great ruined cities of the Peten region. When Cortez
first tried to deal with them (in 1539), they rejected him as premature, according
to their calendrical expectations. Another attempt at conquest in 1618
they successfully repelled. But in 1697 when katun 8 Ahau approached, the
Itzas concluded that the time for change was propitious, and they sent a messenger
to Mérida to ask the Spanish governor to send Catholic priests to convert
them when the critical day arrived. “Obliging with their usual obtuse
alacrity,” as Edmonson puts it, a Spanish armed force arrived with the
priests some days before 8 Ahau began; the Itza were confused that the Spanish
did not understand the cultural rules that were so apparent to them; consequently,
they fled into the forests. But on the “correct” day, true to the
katun cycle prophecy as they
interpreted it, the Itzas did submit.208

Other Mesoamerican groups were not quite as calendar-beholden
as the Maya. The view of the Mexica or Aztecs was closer to the Mesoamerican
norm: “Among attitudes, fate was prominent, but humanity was not left
in despair. Through dedicated and active participation in rituals and careful
attention to astrology and divination, any Mexica could help mold fate. In
the large-scale ceremonies, it was critical that the Mexica perform penances
and other acts of devotion properly and sincerely. . . . In individualized
rites involving the interpretation of one’s astrology or other forms of divination,
the Mexica attempted not only to discover fate but also perhaps to manipulate

Despite the existence of the calendar-based format, this does
not mean that other styles of presentation of history and prophecy were not
also present. There were multiple formats, as noted above in the section on
the kinds of books.


Nephite History and the Calendar

The Nephites manifested continuing concern with the repetitiveness
of history and prophecy. The record as we have it starts out with emphasis
on the prophesied doom of Jerusalem and the Jews, and with Lehi1‘s
and Nephi1‘s concern to avoid a similar fate for their own group.
The first historical substance of 1 Nephi has Lehi1 learning,
from a heavenly book that was shown to him in revelation, that Jerusalem “should
be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof” (1 Nephi 1:11–13).
A leading motif in the whole history of Lehi1‘s people is established
when Nephi1 believes his father’s revelation, but brothers Laman1
and Lemuel do not “believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be
destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto
the Jews who were at Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 2:13; see also 1 Nephi
2:12, 16). Again and again the Nephites were “destroyed” in part,
only to be saved in the nick of time by a measure of repentance and divine
mercy. A dramatic counterinstance is told with some relish by Mormon2.210
He tells how the Nephites in the land of Ammonihah echoed back to Alma2
nearly the same fateful words as the Jews at Jerusalem when Lehi1
warned them: “We will not believe thy words if thou shouldst prophesy
that this great city should be destroyed in one day.” Alma2‘s
pointed response was, “Do ye not remember that our father, Lehi, was
brought out of Jerusalem by the hand of God?” (Alma 9:4, 9). Then shortly
afterward, “every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed,
and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because
of its greatness. But behold, in one day it was left desolate” (Alma

The Nephites’ deep concern with prophetic history linked with
the sacred records is dramatized best on the occasion of the birth of Jesus
Christ. Samuel, the Lamanite prophet, had prophesied the rise of a number
of precursor conditions and then a specific day when the birth would occur.
“In the commencement of the ninety and second year, behold, the prophecies
of the prophets began to be fulfilled more fully; for there began to be greater
signs and greater miracles wrought among the people. But there were some who
began to say that time was past for the words to be fulfilled, which were
spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite. And they began to rejoice over their brethren,
saying: Behold the time is past, and the words of Samuel are not fulfilled”
(3 Nephi 1:4–6). Then “there was a day set apart by the unbelievers,
that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except
the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet”
(3 Nephi 1:9). That very day, the Nephite record states, the predicted
sign (a night without darkness) came to pass. Calendrical fulfillment of prophecy
was clearly of major importance in the Nephites’ sacred records.

Finally, despite prophetic warnings in abundance about where
their rebellion against God was taking them, in the late fourth century A.D., prophesied destruction caught up
with them, and they reached a point of no return: “From this time forth
did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off
by them even as a dew before the sun” (Mormon 4:18). In order that his
ultimate readers might not miss the lesson so plainly laid out in the record
of his own people, Moroni2, the last writer, tacked on the history
of the Jaredites, “those ancient inhabitants who were [similarly] destroyed
by the hand of the Lord” (Ether 1:1).

While the language of the prophecies in the Book of Mormon
is often conditional, from the beginning their “future history”
bore a sense of inevitability. First Nephi 12:19, for instance, is definite
about the destruction at the crucifixion and the final demise of the Nephites.
Alma2 prophesied of the Nephite fate in unconditional terms (“this
prophecy shall be fulfilled” [Alma 45:10–14]). Furthermore, he
said that “in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall
manifest himself unto them, [the Nephites] shall dwindle in unbelief,”
“the people of Nephi shall become extinct,” and “the fourth
generation shall not all pass away before this great iniquity shall come”
(Alma 45:10–12). Samuel the Lamanite was equally definite about chronology:
“four hundred years pass not away save the sword of justice falleth upon
this people,” despite a final pleading, “if ye will repent . . .
I will turn away mine anger, saith the Lord” (Helaman 13:5, 11; see also
verses 8–11). Maya prophecy partakes of the same tone of decreed fate.

It may be of some interest also that certain turning points in the “Mayan”
(it was in use by earlier peoples who were probably not Mayan speakers) calendar
system, as noted by Edmonson, could relate to hinge events in Nephite history.
Most notable of the cycle turnings is 590 B.C., which could correspond closely
to the end of the Jaredites.211 Another “turning of the may
fell at 77 B.C., near the time (we cannot correlate Nephite chronology to our
own precisely) of Amalickiah’s seizing power over the Lamanites and his subsequent
grand offensive, aimed to take control of the land northward. Considering the
panicked response of the Lamanites upon Amalickiah’s death at Teancum’s hand
on their New Year’s Eve (see Alma 51:34–52:2), it is possible that their
extreme reaction was triggered by the fact that that particular new year actually
marked the 77 B.C. Maya/Lamanite “turning of the may,” î
la Edmonson, rather than being just a regular year change! (Amalickiah may have
timed his offensive on the assumption that he could reach and capture his most
crucial objective, the city Bountiful, precisely on the key date.) Still another
pivotal date in the Nephite record is A.D. 175, roughly corresponding with the
reemergence of the Lamanites as a people, as per 4 Nephi 1:2. That date
is another 256-year time marker in the Maya calendar. While all these notions
are speculative, given the correspondence we have seen in Nephite/Lamanite and
Mesoamerican treatments of history and the calendar, at least the possibility
is opened up of reexamining Book of Mormon chronology in terms of possible correlation
with Meso-american calendrical calculations. Spackman’s work on chronology has
begun to do exactly that, but more needs to be done.212



A detailed comparison has been made between the Book of Mormon, considered
as an ancient American record, and the books and other records known from prehispanic
Mesoamerica. This comparison has demonstrated that a substantial degree of similarity
exists. In respect to form, content, social functions, materials, scribes and
users, writing systems, and other features, the Book of Mormon fits in all general
ways and in many detailed ways within the class of records known from pre-Columbian
Mesoamerica. The following table displays the most salient of the similarities.

of Mormon


The geographical, cultural, historical information in the text of this
volume fits only in Mesoamerica.

is the area of greatest civilizational complexity in the Americas; only
here are there recognized scripts and written records.

Jaredites had many books

of books are reported


more than one language, and


many languages, and


at least three scripts


many scripts

records in use for millennia

records in use for millennia


writing already sophisticated


writing already sophisticated

use of documents; literacy limited, orality primary

use of documents; literacy limited, orality primary

or uses of records:

or uses of records:


of events by year


of events by year


events record


events record










wars, battles, victories recorded


wars, battles, victories recorded


of sacred matters, rites


of sacred matters, rites


year counts


year counts






of rulers


of rulers


of heroes


of heroes






ceremonial occasions


ceremonial occasions





of documents:

of documents:


on perishable material


on perishable material


on metal sheets (not the norm)


on hammered metal sheets (limited evidence for)


likely in vertical columns
(limited information)


often in vertical columns


on stone


on stone


of cylinder seals plausible from cultural background


of cylinder seals




groups had, written or oral


groups had, written or oral


did not agree


did not agree


kept the records


kept the records


needed interpreting


needed interpreting


story, key to social order


story, key to social order






of right to rule


of right to rule


display, reading


display, reading


history to predestined homeland


history to predestined homeland






title from name of early ruler


title from name of early ruler


artifacts with record


artifacts with record


incorporate sacred myths


incorporate sacred myths


the future


the future

political bias:

political bias:


slanted reporting of events


slanted reporting of events


in history”


in history”


own group and its values


own group and its values


to destroy rival records


of rival records








concepts, context needed to interpret


concepts, context needed to interpret


of script


of script


learning time


learning time


literary style


literary style








Egyptian” system


system similar in structure to Egyptian




finds of Egyptian characters, cultural parallels


logographs (sign=concept)




according to speech sounds


according to speech sounds


and words could be spelled out


and words could be spelled out


by speakers of different languages


by speakers of different languages


became extinct


became extinct


alphabetic Hebrew known


alphabetic signs

functionaries and records:

functionaries and records:


kept and used by priests


kept and used by priests


coordinated record-using priesthood


coordinated record-using priesthood


and records


and records


and their devices


and their devices





format for history:

format for history:


for set periods


for set periods


at specified dates


at specified dates


of inevitability


of inevitability

Similarities between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Records

As mentioned earlier, my paper “The Book of Mormon as
a Mesoamerican Codex” constitutes a treatment of the contents of the
scripture—symbolic, ritual, social, artistic, and historical motifs
and other cultural patterns—”which could be found without surprise
in a translated Meso-american document of codex form.”213
Those materials supplement the parallels treated in the twelve categories
listed above. Moreover, I have presented in another paper many cultural parallels
between Mesoamerica and the Near East that further flesh out a picture of
apparent ancient relations between the two areas.214

Not surprisingly, the Book of Mormon is also dissimilar in some ways, just
as no Mesoamerican codex is like others of the class in all features, although
their “family resemblance” is generally obvious. Similarly, the Jewish
Torah is like other ancient Near Eastern records in many ways while unique in
certain features.



More than sixty general and specific ways have been presented
that show that the Book of Mormon aligns with much of what is known about
Mesoamerican records, documents, or books. Significant, supplementary cultural
parallels have also been pointed out. It is legitimate to ask the question,
Could this degree of similarity be found between the Book of Mormon or Mesoamerican
records on one hand and those of some other area of the world on the other?
While I have not made a systematic comparison with, say, Southeast Asian books,
cursory consideration indicates fewer and vaguer similarities. It appears
to me that the parallels considered above cannot be considered fortuitous
but are very significant and indicative of a genetic or historical connection
between Mormon2‘s document and Mesoamerican records. Furthermore,
it is totally implausible that such an array of similarities could have been
produced by poorly educated Joseph Smith Jr . Significant information on most
of the points discussed above had not been discovered or was inaccessible
to him or any other American in 1829, so the Mesoamerican-like features of
and in the Book of Mormon could not be due to any early-nineteenth-century
author. Nor is it plausible that such a set of Mesoamerican features could
have been produced as fiction by a Smith or any American creative writer of
his era.

In light of the facts presented here, the only sensible explanation for the
Mesoamerican cultural form and content shown in and by the Book of Mormon is
that it was a translation from a Mesoamerican document, that is, in general
terms, a codex or native book.


An Epilogue for Mesoamericanists

To assert that the Book of Mormon derived from a Mesoamerican
document is to challenge scholarly orthodoxy about both Mesoamerica and the
Book of Mormon. Experts on Mesoamerica suppose there will not be major new
discoveries of documents for their use but only increments in knowledge from
piecemeal archaeological interpretation, gradual epigraphic decipherment,
and patient investigation of Spanish archival documents. They are little prepared
to deal with the considerable cultural information offered in the Book of
Mormon because it yields data that they believe to be contrary to what they
“know.” So many have so often rejected the Book of Mormon as an
authentic historical record that they are not likely to welcome what this
paper has to say about the antiquity of its source. Besides, it is a “religious”
book, which makes secular scholars nervous a priori. (Of course, virtually
every document from or about Mesoamerican cultures dating before 1900 that
is of substantial value is “religious” in some sense, “native”
or Catholic.)

In contrast, some respected researchers on the history of
religion including Christianity have come around to seeing the Book of Mormon
as a source with which they need to deal seriously. The noted specialist on
Old World Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth, was drawn to look at the
Book of Mormon because “there are many . . . important parallels
between the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon that deserve careful examination.”215
Krister Stendahl, then dean of Harvard Divinity School, added, “I have
applied standard methods of historical criticism, redaction criticism, and
genre criticism [to the Book of Mormon]. From such perspectives it seems very
clear that the Book of Mormon belongs to and shows many of the typical signs
of the Targums and the pseudepigraphic recasting of biblical material. . . .
It is obvious to me that the Book of Mormon stands within both of these traditions
if considered as a phenomenon of religious texts.”216 How
long must we wait for the chauvinism of “neutral scholarship” to
abate in Mesoamerican studies so that someone in that field has the courage
to manifest similar concern with the Book of Mormon?

Parallel situations in Mesoamerican scholarship may provide
valuable perspective. The lessons they convey can give logical and methodological
guidance in dealing with the appropriate exploitation of this “new”

The Popol Vuh
is a quintessentially religious volume. Probably no “facts” in it
are unaccompanied or uncolored by Quiché beliefs about the supernatural. Its
text is arcane. Its theology and mythology are weird to most moderns. Yet
dozens of different translations have been made of it by scholars in an attempt
to clarify its content and make it accessible. Its text is combed assiduously
and cited repeatedly by any scholar who seriously wishes to contribute to
understanding Mesoamerican civilization. How it is to be related to culture
historical research has never been very clear. Robert Carmack attempted to
relate its ” Toltecs” to the highland Guatemalan archaeological
setting, but his results were indeterminate.217 He found evidence
from linguistic examination of the text that “small numbers of the Toltec
ancestors must have [entered the area and] come in contact with large, autochthonous,
well-established populations.” But thereafter the culture and genes of
the intruders, as well as their language, “were apparently absorbed by
the . . . much more numerous indigenous populations.”218
Because this “Book of Counsel” of the ancient Quiché was the product
of an elite minority, an enclave within a larger people, only a handful of
specifically “Toltec” features it mentions have been found in the
area’s archaeology or language—so far. “Many . . . features
which would be expected as a result of [the presence of the immigrant party]
. . . are lacking,”219 so that what might be called
“the archaeology of the Popol
” is of limited scope or value. (Mormon readers may be
forgiven a special moment of déjî vu at this point.) The cultural and historical
situation behind the Popol Vuh
is obviously not simple, yet the source remains indispensable for scholars.
And researchers have been able to deal with the volume without feeling threatened
about being converted to Quiché religion.

Another perspective comes from the situation presented not
by an accepted text but by one whose authenticity has been called into question,
like the Nephite book. Michael D. Coe, in his book Breaking
the Maya Code,
tells of a dispute that arose in 1971 over a purported
Mesoamerican book, a newly discovered codex. He was a principal protagonist
in the fight, arguing for the authenticity of the document.220
The circumstances of the codex’s discovery were mysterious; it was claimed
to stem from unauthorized “archaeology” in southern Mexico (most
archaeologists would call it looting).221 Eventually labeled the
“Grolier Codex, the document came to public attention under conditions
that led conventional Mesoamericanists to label it a fake, without giving
it much, if any, scrutiny. Coe took up the cudgels for it. His favorite villain
and longtime friend, famed Mayanist Sir J. E. S. Thompson, played the role
of key antagonist.

In Breaking the
Maya Code,
Coe describes how Thompson earlier had “hammered
away” at Yuri Knorosov, the Soviet linguist to whom much of the credit
eventually has gone for launching the successful decipherment of the Maya
hieroglyphics. Knorosov had had the audacity to offer a theory about the glyphs
in opposition to Thompson’s reigning viewpoint; Thompson considered the Knorosov
position completely mistaken and responded with “a contemptuous review,”
as Coe terms it, labeling the Russian’s work “a Marxist hoax.” Thompson’s
stance toward the new codex might be paraphrased as something like, “The
Maya canon of books is already full. A codex? A codex? We already have three
codices!”222 He reviewed Coe’s publication of the Grolier
document, writing in his typical slashing style. Coe says of that review that
Thompson “ignor[ed] the main argument while concentrating on some detail
where he thought the chances of a quick kill were best.”223
With justified satisfaction Coe tells the story of the codex’s subsequent
vindication. The Grolier Codex is now generally acknowledged to be authentic,
based on the characteristics of the document itself rather than on its unorthodox
discovery. Coe comments on “the irony of the whole business” of
the Grolier Codex.224 Had it had a less-prejudiced origin, he says,
had it been found “while rummaging around in archives during the mid-nineteenth
century, it would [have been] accepted by even the most rock-ribbed scholar
as the genuine article.”225

It seems only fair to point out the irony in Coe’s treatment
of the Book of Mormon. In an article in 1973, Coe discussed some of the history
of Latter-day Saint concerns with “Book of Mormon archaeology” in
a fairly well-informed, nonhostile manner; he had done a respectable amount
of homework on that history in preparing his piece.226 He thought
nothing written under that heading was worthwhile, and he peremptorily ruled
Mormon2‘s scripture out of scientific court. No serious Mesoamericanist
could take seriously such a bit of nineteenth-century folly, he courteously
but firmly insisted. Yet nowhere in his discussion did he show that he had
more than superficially studied the text of the Book of Mormon as a possible
ancient document. The irony is heavy, because Coe did with the Book of Mormon
exactly what Thompson did with the Grolier Codex. Both men responded by reflex
on the basis of opinions each had long since fixed in intellectual concrete
of his own mix. In his 1973 article, Coe dismissed Joseph Smith’s “outrageous
claims,” what Coe deemed “all the . . . nonsense generated
by a nineteenth-century American subculture [i.e., Mormonism] intellectually
grounded in white supremacy and proexpansionist tendencies.”227
This is just as arrogant, mistaken, and irrelevant in judging the text as
was Thompson’s use of the “Marxist” brush to smear Knorosov’s scholarship.
By using epithets, each tried for a cheap dismissal of the case, thus avoiding
the drudgery of doing that serious, unprejudiced, scholarly investigation
that ought to precede a judgment about the authenticity of any potentially
ancient text. Thompson found enough “nonsense” to disqualify the
Grolier Codex without giving it the examination it deserved; Coe dismissed
the Book of Mormon without studying it more than casually—six of one
and half a dozen of the other.

More recently, a newly discovered stela from La Mojarra, Veracruz,
has been labeled a fake by a Mexican archaeologist. John S. Justeson, who
is confident it is not fraudulent, asks, “Who could have faked it? At
the time that the monument was discovered, no one had all the linguistic and
cultural knowledge needed to produce such a text.”228 That
issue—Who could have faked it?—is considered key to establishing
the monument’s authenticity. We ask precisely the same question about the
Book of Mormon.

Is there hope that, in light of the comparisons made in the
present work, professionals who have prejudged the Book of Mormon might look
at it anew? Might they adopt the persona of the serious scholar long enough
to examine the Nephite record as possibly stemming from a fourth-century Mesoamerican
source? Or will they continue to assume that the Book of Mormon can only be
a nineteenth-century fraud that, in some inexplicable manner, issued from
the hands of a barely literate frontier youth? Mesoamericanists, non-Mormon
or Mormon, would uphold the ideals of scholarship better if they would follow
Charlesworth’s and Stendahl’s example and get on with the job. Although puzzled
by what they discovered inside the Book of Mormon, they might conclude that
secular scholars have already lost too much for too long by excluding Mormon2‘s
pseudepigraphical codex from the field of Mesoamerican studies. It would be
the responsible course for them to undertake careful scholarship on it regardless
of any discomfort they may feel personally about how the New York farm boy
brought the volume to light or about the church he founded.



1.    The most ambitious attempt is Dan Vogel’s
Indian Origins and the Book of
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986); the long, cautionary
review of Vogel’s book by Kevin Christensen in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon
2 (1990): 214–57 points out some of the problems with Vogel’s book,
but much could be added about the book’s selectivity and oversimplification
in regard to the nineteenth-century intellectual picture. There were a score
of competing answers being put forward at that time to the question, From
where did the American Indians originate? Most of Vogel’s attention goes to
general notions about “Jews” and “the Ten Tribes,” but
they were just part of a cacophony of opinion. If Joseph Smith were so environmentally
influenced as some claim, why would he reject them all, including the ten
tribes view, and come forward with a new theory only superficially like any
of the others?

2.    This development is treated in John L.
Sorenson, “Part 1. A History of Ideas: The Geography of Book of Mormon
Events in Latter-day Saint Thought,” in The Geography of Book of Mormon Events:
A Source Book,
rev. ed. (Provo: FARMS, 1992), 5–35. See also
Sorenson, An Ancient American
Setting for the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and
FARMS, 1985); Sorenson, “Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing
Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture,” Ensign (September 1984): 30
nn. 6, 8; and David A. Palmer, In
Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico,

rev. ed. (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1992).

3.    Vernal Holley, Book
of Mormon Authorship: A Closer Look
(Ogden, Utah: Zenos Publications,
1983). See the review by L. Ara Norwood in Review
of Books on the Book of Mormon
1 (1989): 80–8. Holley’s fantastic
search for (modern) place-names that vaguely parallel Book of Mormon names
is spread from Michigan to Pennsylvania, from Ohio to Ontario, only a tiny
portion of which Joseph knew by 1829. And is it reasonable for a man living
in upper New York State who is supposedly drawing upon his own experience
of the physical environment to produce a book that fails to mention “cold,”
“snow,” or “ice” in the climate of the ” promised
land,” or for him to write of oppressive heat at New Year’s (see Alma
51:33 and 52:1)?

4.    The point is well illustrated by a letter
from W. W. Phelps to Oliver Cowdery (two of the more literate disciples of
the time) published in Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate
2 (October 1835): 193, as cited by Grant Underwood in “Book of Mormon
Usage in Early LDS Theology,” Dialogue
17/3 (1984): 45. The letter says, “The parts of the globe that are known
[today] probably contain 700 millions of inhabitants, and those parts which
are unknown may be supposed to contain more than four times as many more. . . .
There may be a continent at the North Pole, of more than 1300 square miles,
containing thousands of millions of Israelites.”

5.    Most are printed in Sorenson, A
Source Book,
appendix A.

6.    See Underwood, “Usage,” 52–60.

7.    In 1890 President George Q. Cannon lamented
that “No two of them [students of Book of Mormon geography], so far as
we have learned, are agreed on all points, and in many cases the . . .
differences of views lead to discussion, contention and perplexity.”
The matter could not be settled without further revelation, he maintained
(“Editorial Thoughts,” Juvenile Instructor [1 January
1890]: 18).

8.    For instance, in the early citations
of the Book of Mormon analyzed by Underwood (“Usage,” 40–1),
explanations of “archaeological findings” were keyed to specific
passages, such as Alma 48:7–8.

9.    The generally low level of public information
and chaotic jumble of “fact” on “pre-Indian” settlers
of America that prevailed in Joseph Smith’s day is illustrated by Josiah Priest,
American Antiquities and Discoveries
in the West
. . . (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1833).
In this credulous mishmash of opinions and excerpts from many books, mainly
about eastern North America, he believes that “not only Asiatic nations,
very soon after the flood,” but also “Polynesians, Malays, Australasians,
Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Tartars, Scandinavians,
Danes, Norwegians, Welch, and Scotch, have colonized different parts of the
continent” (p. iv). “All the principles of the stoic school of the
Greeks are found in the practice of the American savages” (p. 386). Priest
cites Humboldt in curious ways. Page 246 reproduces a drawing of the Aztec
calendar stone from him, and he is the cited source for Priest’s supposition
that Quetzalcoatl, far from being identified with Jesus Christ, was a Buddhist
or Brahman missionary from India (p. 206), yet contradictorily, he also thinks
that this “white and bearded man” came from some island in the Pacific
“on the northeast of Asia” whose inhabitants were more civilized
than the Chinese (p. 208). Clavigero is the source for his notion that the
Aztecs came from the China coast by sea near the Bering Strait, then on to
Mexico (p. 272). Christian symbolism arrived via Asiatic Nestorian Christians
who crossed to America in Mongol ships. The ten tribes reached America by
ships via Norway, having amalgamated with the Scythians (=Tartars), hence
the “Jewish” parallels evident among the Indians.

Incidentally, Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, no doubt the same person
who was seen by Martin Harris, is one of the “antiquarians” whose
opinions are summarized regarding the origin of the Indians; in Mitchell’s
view they included Malay, Tartar, and Scandinavian transoceanic voyagers.
Also, see a piece in the Portsmouth
(New Hampshire) for 1 November 1834, that reported, obviously
on the basis of some urban newspaper, the vague information that expeditions
into Mexican back country in 1786, 1805, and 1807 had produced drawings and
detailed descriptions of ancient monuments; however, these had remained in
the portfolios of the Mexican Museum until 1828, when “M. Abbebaradere,
a French savant,” became possessor of them. He planned to publish them
in Paris. The discoveries included “ancient idols of granite, . . .
pyramids, subterranean sepulchres, . . . colossal bas-reliefs
sculptured in granite or modeled in stucco, zodiacs, hieroglyphics differing
from those of Egypt,” and so on. But no such publication was ever issued,
nor was there any equivalent volume until Stephens’s. Clavigero’s volume on
Mexico appeared in an English edition in 1817 in Philadelphia, but it was
mainly a description of the Aztecs that gave little ancient historical information.
Humboldt’s English edition of Vues
des cordillères
came out in London in 1814, but neither could it
have informed Smith about more than snatches of fact on Mesoamerican civilization.
The 1833 volume by Priest, who had vastly better library resources and scholarly
skills than Smith, does not cite either Clavigero or Humboldt.

10. Pratt, Millennial Star 11/8 (15 April
1849): 116.

11. Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya
Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens
(Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1948), 75. Also on the novelty of Stephens’s explorations,
see his own book, Incidents of
Travel in Central American Chiapas
(New York: Dover, 1969), 1:98–9:
“The first new light thrown upon this subject as regards Mexico was by
the great Humboldt. . . . Unfortunately, of the great cities
beyond the Vale of Mexico, buried in forests, ruined, desolate, and without
a name, Humboldt never heard. . . . It is but lately that accounts
of [even] their existence reached Europe and our own country.”

It is interesting also that Stephens had studied at Columbia
College (later, Columbia University) under Professor Charles Anthon, “America’s
most famous classicist.” Stephens graduated from Columbia in 1822 at
age seventeen, being the same age as Joseph Smith Jr. Anthon was only eight
years older.

12. See Times and Seasons 3/22 (15 September
1842): 921–2. The impact of the book on their thinking was dramatic.
A passage from those pages reads: “From an extract from Stephens’ Incidents
of Travel in Central America, it will be seen that the proof of the Nephites
and Lamanites dwelling on this continent, according to the account in the
Book of Mormon, is developing itself in a more satisfactory way than the most
sanguine believer in that revelation, could have anticipated.” The October
1st issue shows even more how the new information stimulated study of the
Book of Mormon along new lines: “Since our ‘Extract’ was published from
Mr. Stephens’ [book two weeks earlier], we have found another important fact
relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon.” Their new “important
fact” was that “Central America, or Guatimala [sic]” was where
“the city of Zarahemla . . . stood” (Times
and Seasons
3/23 [1 October 1842]: 927). Incidentally, until 1824,
Chiapas was part of Guatemala, and most maps continued to show it so for years

13. Lynn C. Layton, “An ‘Ideal’ Book of Mormon Geography,”
Improvement Era 41
(July 1938): 394–5, 439.

14. John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?”
Improvement Era 53
(July 1950): 547. For a history of this whole topic, see Sorenson, “A
History of Ideas,” Source
10–35; see also Source
appendix A, especially the statement authored by George Q.
Cannon (pp. 384–6).

15. See especially Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting,
chap. 1; references in footnote 2 above; and
Sorenson, “Part 8. A Trial Map Incorporating the Criteria from the Text,”
Source Book, 365.

16. See, for example, Thomas S. Barthel, “Writing Systems,”
in Native Languages of the Americas, ed. Thomas A.
Sebeok (New York: Plenum Press, 1977), 2:27; or Miguel León-Portilla, “Pre-Hispanic
Literature,” in Archaeology
of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 1,
vol. 10 of Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Gordon
F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 452–8.

17. Victoria de la Jara has made the strongest case that writing
(actually two systems) was in use in Peru, but her view has not been accepted
by most Peruvianists, perhaps because her interesting evidence is little known,
having appeared in an obscure publication. (See “La découverte de l’écriture
péruvienne” and “Le déchiffrement de l’écriture inca,” Archeologia
62 [Dijon, France: September 1973]: 9–15, 16–25). In any case,
there is no evidence of books having existed in Peru.

18. Michael D. Coe, The Maya Scribe and His World (New
York: Grolier Club, 1973), 8.

19. See Barthel, “Writing Systems,” 32.

20. See Coe, “Early Steps in the Evolution of Maya Writing,”
in Origins of Religious Art and
Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica,
ed. Henry B. Nicholson (Los
Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center and Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles,
1976), 107–22, 110, wherein Coe identifies thirteen writing systems,
but his list is not complete (see below).

21. See Carleton T. Hodge, “Ritual and Writing: An Inquiry
into the Origin of Egyptian Script,” in Linguistics
and Anthropology: In Honor of C. F. Voegelin,
ed. M. Dale Kinkade,
et al. (Lisse, Belgium: Peter de Ridder Press, 1975), 333–4, 344. Compare
Ralph L. Roys, Book of Chilam
Balam of Chumayel
(Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institition of Washington,
1933), 3–5. For example, in colonial Mexico, the Spaniards considered
“anything written in hieroglyphics” to be “prima facie evidence
of the crime of idolatry” (p. 5).

22. See, for example, Jack Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences
of Literacy,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History
5 (1963): 304–45, and Deborah Tannen, “Oral and Literate Strategies
in Spoken and Written Narratives,” Language 58/1 (1982): 1–21.

23. See Eggington, “‘Our Weakness in Writing': Oral and
Literate Culture in the Book of Mormon” (Provo: FARMS, 1992).

24. George C. Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico (Harmondsworth,
England: Penguin Books, 1950), 202–3, citing Chimalpahin, Anales (1889), vii–viii.

25. Frances F. Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial
(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), 158.

26. Alfred Marston Tozzer, ed., “Landa’s Relacion
de las cosas de Yucatan
: A Translation,” Harvard University
Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology Papers no. 18 (1941), 28.

27. Roys, Chumayel, 3, 5.

28. Part II of the Codex Mendoza, for example, is a copy of
a pre-Spanish document known as the “Tribute Roll of Moctezuma.”
It was written on maguey (cactus) paper and lists, in glyphic form, the nature
and amounts of tribute payments in goods made to the last independent ruler
of Mexico by over four hundred towns (see Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript, Commentaries
by Kurt Ross
[Fribourg, Germany: Miller Graphics, 1978]).

29. Roys, Chumayel, 5.

30. Munro S. Edmonson, “Some Postclassic Questions about
the Classic Maya,” Estudios de Cultura Maya 12 (1979): 166

31. Gordon Brotherston, “A Key to the Mesoamerican Reckoning
of Time: The Chronology Recorded in Native Texts,” British Museum Occasional
Paper no. 38 (1982), 2.

32. See Coe, Maya Scribe, 22; see also Coe,
“Ancient Maya Writing and Calligraphy,” Visible Language 5/4 (1971): 292–307.

33. Coe, Maya Scribe, 8; see also David
H. Kelley, “Astronomical Identities of Mesoamerican Gods,” Archaeoastronomy (supplement
to Journal for the History of
) 11/2 (1980): S52–S54. In Ancient American Setting, I compared that religion,
in general terms, to the Baalism of Canaan and Israel (pp. 216–9).

34. See Pierre Agrinier, “Mounds 9 and 10 at Mirador,
Chiapas, Mexico,” Brigham Young University New World Archaeological Foundation
Papers no. 39 (1975), 99–100. See also the discussion of that material
in Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 340–2.

35. See Welch, “Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13″
(Provo: FARMS, 1987), summarized in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring
the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992),

36. All battle references are listed in “Annals of the
Nephite Wars,” appendix to Sorenson, “Seasonality of Warfare in
the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica,” in Warfare
in the Book of Mormon,
ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J.
Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 462–74.

37. Davíd Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths
and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition
(Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1982), 25–7.

38. See John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the
Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals” (Provo: FARMS, 1985); and John
A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” By
Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley,
John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS,
1990), 2:197–237.

39. Randall P. Spackman, “Introduction to Book of Mormon
Chronology: The Primary Prophecies, Calendars, and Dates” (Provo: FARMS,
1993), iii; see also pp. 6–33.

40. See Edmonson, “Some Postclassic Questions,”

41. Munro S. Edmonson, The Ancient Future of the Itza (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1982), xi–xii.

42. Edmonson, “Some Postclassic Questions,” Table
1, and Dennis E. Puleston, “An Epistemological Pathology and the Collapse,
or Why the Maya Kept the Short Count,” in Maya
Archaeology and Ethnohistory
, ed. Norman Hammond and Gordon R.
Willey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979),

43. Robert F. Smith has offered provocative conjectures on
this subject on an unpublished chart, “Research Outline of Book of Mormon
Chronology,” 5th draft (1984). Smith notes the concern of Hebrew chronologists
and prophets with specific prophetic times (see Gerhard Larsson, The
Secret System: A Study in the Chronology of the Old Testament
Netherlands: Brill, 1973], 41–3, 53–4) similar in concept with
the Akkadians, Hindus, and Mesoamericans. Of course, many people have noted
the coincidence of the Maya era, which was measured from 3114 B.C., with dates very near that for era
markers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. Smith notes the following possible
intervals, based on a chronology of Book of Mormon events he had worked out:

From the “Great Tower” (in Mesopotamia, ca. 3140
B.C.) to Moroni2‘s termination
of his record (Moroni 10:1) encompasses 3600 tuns
or 9 baktuns, which
equal 72 Israelite fifty-year jubilee periods. From the Jaredite arrival to
their destruction was 2600 tuns
(=52 jubilees). From Lehi1‘s departure from Jerusalem to the nativity
of Jesus, 600 tuns
(=12 jubilees). From the birth of Jesus to the destruction at Cumorah, 400
tuns or 1 baktun (=8 jubilees).

44. A classic paper by Paul Tolstoy, “Cultural Parallels
between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark Cloth,”
Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences no. 25 (1963), 646–62,
not only describes the industry in Mesoamerica, but also demonstrates conclusively
that the whole complex of tools and techniques involved must have reached
the New World from Southeast Asia.

45. See Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 4th ed. (New York:
Thames and Hudson, 1987), 128.

46. See Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas A. Lee Jr., and Eduardo Martínez
Espinosa, “Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments,” Brigham
Young University New World Archaeological Foundation Papers no.
31 (1982), 28; and Lowe, “The Mixe-Zoque as Competing Neighbors
of the Early Lowland Maya,” in The
Origins of Maya Civilization,
ed. Richard E. W. Adams (Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1977), 235–40.

47. Joyce Marcus, “The Origins of Mesoamerican Writing,”
Annual Review of Anthropology
5 (1976): 39. Coe, “Early Steps,” 113–5, shows early examples
of both double- and single-column glyph sequences.

48. George F. Carter and Sol Heinemann recap the evidence
for deriving American cylinder and stamp seals from Old World predecessors
in “Pre-Columbian Sellos: Another Artifact Showing Possible Cultural
Contact and Transpacific Diffusion,” Anthropological Journal of Canada
15/3 (1977): 2–6. They claim that two forms of alphabetic writing can
be seen in examples from Mesoamerica. Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of
Ur in Mesopotamia, considered the cylinder seal to be “a peculiar type
[of artifact] not likely to be invented independently in two different countries. . . .
Paper-using people would never invent the cylinder seal”; hence Mesopotamia
is the obvious origin point, for their use there to mark wet clay makes sense
(see Woolley, Digging up the Past [Harmondsworth,
England: Penguin Books, 1937], 76). On the uncertain function of New World
seals or stamps, there has been little progress made since Muriel Noé Porter’s
indeterminate guessing in “Tlatilco and the Pre-Classic Cultures of the
New World,” Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology no. 19 (New York:
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc., 1953), 41–2,
76. See also Jorge Enciso, Design
Motifs of Ancient Mexico
(New York: Dover, 1953).

49. See Sorenson, “Metals and Metallurgy Relating to
the Book of Mormon Text” (Provo: FARMS, 1992), 56, under the index item
“Metal, records written on.” For the Old World, see the extensive
discussion and bibliography in H. Curtis Wright, “Ancient Burials of
Metal Documents in Stone Boxes,” University of Illinois Graduate School
of Library and Information Science Occasional Papers no. 157 (1982), 1–42,
reprinted in By Study and Also
by Faith,
  ed. Lundquist and Ricks, 2:273–334.

50. See “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex,”
Newsletter and Proceedings of
the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (S.E.H.A.)
139 (December
1976): 1–9, reissued as a FARMS Reprint in 1976 and summarized in Ancient
American Setting,

51. The mention of (Alexander von) Humboldt probably refers
to Monumens Americaine
(two volumes, Paris, 1816), which was in Anthon’s personal library, or perhaps
to Vues des cordillères, et monuments
des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique
(Paris, 1810) or to the two-volume
English translation of it published in London in 1814, both of which the college
collection could have included. (Anthon listed part of his library in an 1845
work; see FARMS Staff, “Martin Harris’ Visit with Charles Anthon: Collected
Documents on ‘Shorthand Egyptian'” (Provo: FARMS, 1990), 25. It would
be far-fetched, however, to suppose that Joseph Smith or anybody else west
of the Hudson had seen a copy of any of Humboldt’s tomes by the time the Book
of Mormon was translated. In any case, Humboldt showed only an “Aztec”

52. FARMS Staff, “Harris’ Visit,” 16–18, gives
the full text and lists their publication history. See also B. H. Roberts,
Comprehensive History of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Provo: Brigham Young
University Press, 1965), 1:100–8.

53. See Roberts, Comprehensive History, 1:100–8.

54. Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David
Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness
(Orem, Utah: Grandin
Book, 1991), 198. The George Q. Cannon interview refers to the transcript
seen in David Whitmer’s possession as “seven lines, the first four being
about twice as long in size as the three last” (ibid., 107–8).
The James H. Hart interview describes the transcript simply as “on unruled
paper, about three and a half inches deep, by seven inches wide” (ibid.,

55. See ibid., 212–3, Edward Stevenson interview and
in other interviews. Of course, Whitmer also insisted wrongly that the manuscript
copy of the text of the Book of Mormon in his possession was “the original,”
when it was really the printer’s copy.

56. Ibid., 21. The P. Wilhelm Poulson interview reads: “I—How
did the engravings look? He—They were characters. We copied some, and
if you visit my brother John, . . . John can show you some of the
old manuscript which he borrowed from me.” There is no transition in
this sentence indicating that he has switched reference to the printer’s manuscript,
and the care with which he guarded that big manuscript leads one to doubt
that he would divide it up, even with his brother. The interviewer’s record
may be garbled, of course (Whitmer said it was about other matters [see ibid.,
n. 4]), but one interpretation of these words could be that sheets are referred
to that contained the copies of the engravings that he said “we”
had made, that is, a different document than the one paper he claimed was
given to Anthon. One transcript, but not the other, ended up in the historical
archives of the RLDS Church.

57. Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints,
2nd ed. revised (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,
1980), 1:19. Royal Skousen, in a presentation for the FARMS Book of Mormon
Brown Bag Lecture Series on 21 June 1995, said that Joseph’s first procedure
in translating seems to have been to copy characters from the plates to paper,
after which he wrote the translation on those sheets, probably underneath
the drawn characters, by means of the interpreters.

58. Canandaigua (New York) Morning Courier and Enquirer
(1 September 1831), cited in Stanley B. Kimball, “The Anthon Transcript:
People, Primary Sources, and Problems,” BYU
10/3 (1970): 343; see also Smith, History of the Church, 1:20.

59. Times and Seasons 3 (2 May 1842):
773; reproduced in Joseph Smith—History 1:64–65 in the Pearl of
Great Price.

60. Roberts, Comprehensive History, 1:105.

61. See “What Did Charles Anthon Really Say?” in
Reexploring, 73–5.
A more heavily documented version of the same appeared as “Martin Harris’
Visit with Charles Anthon: Collected Documents on ‘Shorthand Egyptian'”
(previously cited).

62. See FARMS Staff, “Harris’ Visit,” 6.

63. Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps
and Gorham’s Purchase, and Morris’ Reserve
(Rochester, N.Y.: Alling,
1851), 215. An account based on Turner appeared in Shortsville Enterprize 35 (ca.
1883); the quotation given here is from this. The mention of “the title
page” recalls that Whitmer is reported to have said Joseph Smith made
the transcript for Harris, and thus for Anthon, “from the first of the
gold plates.” See Cook, Whitmer,
198, from the Omaha Herald
interview. Wayne D. Hamby, in “The Anthon Transcript,” an unpublished
paper (1975) in this author’s position, briefly but astutely argues the point
made here about there being multiple sheets, referring to “transcript
A” and “transcript B.”

64. They were ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. For example,
note the stelae at Tell el-Husn in Palestine, biblical Beth-shan, described
in Henry O. Thompson, “Tell el-Husn—Biblical Beth-shan,”
Biblical Archaeologist
30/4 (1967): 122; or the well-known Moabite
Mesha Stela and the Rosetta Stone.

65. Munro S. Edmonson, “The Book of Counsel: The Popol
Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala,” Tulane University Middle American
Research Institute Publication no. 35 (1971), xv.

66. For example, Toltec ethnic elements who settled among
the Tarascans in west Mexico “lacked the investitures of authority and
did not set themselves up as rulers over the native populations, but were
themselves subject to the Tarascan ruler at Tzintzuntzan” (Robert M.
Carmack, “Toltec Influence on the Postclassic Culture History of Highland
Guatemala,” in Archaeological
Studies in Middle America,
Tulane University Middle American Research
Institute Publication no. 26 (1970), 84. In contrast, the Quiché rulers had
a “powerful aristocratic orientation, with emphasis on careful tracing
of descent, elaborate investiture ceremonies, and multitudinous titles,”
all of which were facilitated and demonstrated by written records (see ibid.,
73, citing Henry B. Nicholson, “Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan: A Problem
in Mesoamerican Ethnohistory,” doctoral dissertation, Harvard University,
1957). Furthermore, there was increased surety that a ruler would be acceptable
if he could trace descent and authority from a fabled ancient center of civilization
and sovereignty. In Mesoamerica the center in later times was “Tollan,”
or “Tula.” This was true of the Aztecs and the Quiché, as well as
of “peoples of remoter regions [who] were just as ready to claim descent
from a city-state endowed by legend with a vast empire and posthumously famed
as a great center of art and learning. The tendency for rulers to derive authority
from some ancient site, presently bereft of temporal power, is not confined
to Postclassic Mesoamerica; both Charlemagne and Napoleon were crowned in
Rome and the emperors of far-off Ethiopia continued to proclaim themselves
the Lion of Judah” (Nigel Davies, The
Toltec Heritage: From the Fall of Tula to the Rise of Tenochtitlán

[Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980], 9–10). Note the Amalekite
and Lamanite naming of the city they established as “Jerusalem, calling
it after the land of their fathers’ nativity” (Alma 21:1).

67. See Robert M. Carmack, Quichean
Civilization: The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Sources

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 16–8.

68. See Coe, Maya Scribe, 8–18; V.
Garth Norman, “Izapa Sculpture, Part 2: Text,” Brigham Young University
New World Archaeological Foundation Papers no. 30 (1973), 325; and Lowe, et
al., “Izapa,” chap. 15.

69. Lawrence H. Feldman, “Tollan in Central Mexico: The
Geography of Economic Specialization,” Katunob
8/3 (1973): 3, 5.

70. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel, xvi.

71. Ibid., xvi. The Kaveks were preceded by other “great
houses” in highland Guatemala. The originator of the earliest in their
record, or the first lineage, “Was he who had born and engendered sons. . . .
This is the first lord then” (ibid., 203). In the list of titles following,
one of the sons of this first lord is named Lol
Met Keh Nay
. In trying to translate the name, Edmonson notes the
following: “The Origin of the Lords of Zapotitlan [another document]
says in a remarkable passage:

This Chief Two [the given name of the first ruler] engendered Keh Nay
     And five other sons,
Who were provided by this king as governors.
     Hence until the Spaniards came
The kings had this name of Keh Nay
     Because it is like [the royal title] ‘Caesars’
among the natives.” (Ibid.)

This use of title is interesting—as a cultural pattern,
if not as a historical fact—in light of Jacob 1:9–11, where we
read, “Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore,
he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according
to the reigns of the kings. The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he
having been a great protector for them . . . Wherefore, the people
were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in
his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth,
according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people,
let them be of whatever name they would.” Interestingly, Nephi1
was one of six sons, like Keh Nay. Meanwhile, the Lamanite
kings may have used ” Laman” as a title, in parallel to the use
of “Nephi” by the Nephites (see Ancient American Setting, 242;
and Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia
of Mormonism
[New York: Macmillan, 1992], 1:191, s.v. “Book
of Mormon peoples”).

72. See Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:191,
193. The possibility exists, of course, that the presumed Ishmaelites in the
land of Ishmael were ruled by intrusive kings of the Laman lineage, including
Lamoni. Even if that was so, the fact that there was a distinct land of Ishmael
argues for continuity and separateness of their own tradition. For both the
” Mulekites” within the polity of the “Nephis” and the
minor lineages within the broad Lamanite category, it is quite expectable,
in Mesoamerican terms, that conflict would be endemic over power and perquisites.
Compare the king-men business and the factionalism among the Lamanites reported
in Alma 24–25 with this statement from an article by Robert S. Santley,
Michael J. Berman, and Rani T. Alexander: “The picture that emerges [regarding
later Tula] is one involving continual political strife and occasional open
hostilities between factions of the city’s elite, not effective centralization
of authority” (“The Politicization of the Mesoamerican Ballgame
and Its Implications for the Interpretation of the Distribution of Ballcourts
in Central Mexico,” in The
Mesoamerican Ballgame,
ed. Vernon L. Scarborough and David R. Wilcox
[Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991], 9).

73. See Sorenson, Source Book, 230, 266, 288.

74. Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,”
in Rediscovering the Book of
ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 220–1.

75. Ibid., 221.

76. Interestingly, when the Quichés started their “developing
conquest state . . . [that] began to expand . . . like
a spreading fire,” they soon made their real motive clear. “The
collection of tribute . . . became a primary, perhaps the primary,
object of the conquests, for the luxury goods thus obtained were needed to
maintain the expanding Toltec-originated upper class” (Carmack, “Toltec
Influence,” 77).

77. The site of Mirador in western Chiapas is in an area that
I have suggested may contain the land of David mentioned by Mormon2
as on the Nephite route of retreat (see Mormon 2:5). Archaeologists have found
that Mirador was abandoned near A.D.
400, then reoccupied by invaders. One of the things the new occupants (or
possibly the departing old inhabitants) did was to smash and bury a highly
symbolic, sacred monument. They may have smashed other monuments, but pieces
of only the one were located in the limited excavation effort completed (see
Agrinier, “Mounds 9 and 10,”
9, 90).

78. According to the Popol
and the Anales
de los Cakchiqueles,
the post-Classic rulers of highland Guatemala
traveled to “Tulán,” perhaps Chichén Itzá or an unknown site in
Tabasco where “the language of Zuiva” was known, to receive their
investiture of politico-religious authority (see Davies, The
Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula
[Norman: University of Oklahoma
Press, 1977], 38; Adrián Recinos, Anales
de los Cakchiqueles
[México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1948],
170). Lord Nacxit, “King of the East, . . . the only supreme
judge of all the kingdoms, . . . gave them the insignia of
the kingdom and all its distinctive symbols,” even “the insignia
of royalty” (e.g., the canopy and the throne). (See Adrián Recinos, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient
Quiché Maya,
trans. Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley [Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1950], 207–9.) Among their important symbols
were “the paintings of Tulán, the paintings, as these were called, in
which they wrote their histories” (p. 209). Incidentally, the description
of the nature of Lord Nacxit’s power, which was primarily symbolic and charismatic
rather than administrative, suggests how the king of the Lamanites described
in Alma 22:27 managed to be king “over all the land” (Alma 22:1),
which was spread over a vast area, through sub-kings subject to him.

The Quiché had already received from their founding fathers
a sacred emblem, the Pizom-Gagal,
or “bundle . . . of power,” which had been left to them
as a “symbol of [the ancestors’] being” (ibid., 205–6). This
object consisted of a sacred stone “which they used in their incantations.”
The Título de los Señores de
another lineage history, speaks of “the precious
gift which our father Nacxit gave us; it will be useful to us, because we
have not yet found the place in which we are going to settle” (p. 205);
in other words, it served as an instrument to receive divine guidance as to
where they should travel and settle. Carmack, following Nicholson, says that
“this sacred symbol of power corresponds precisely” with the sacred
bundle revered by descendants of the Toltecs in central Mexico. There it consisted
of green stones (jade or turquoise) set into pieces of wood with holes bored
in them and wrapped in cloth mantles; it symbolized “the hearts of [their]
gods” (see Carmack, “Toltec Influence,” 73).

I find the similarities to the Liahona and the ” interpreters”
of the Nephites striking. The Liahona was a guide for Lehi1‘s party
when they had “not yet found the place in which they were to settle.”
The interpreters were sacred stones set in a device to facilitate their handling.
Both instruments were divine gifts that reminded the holders of godly power
to reveal; they were reminders of the ancestral founders; and they were among
the insignia of office passed on between Nephite rulers. It seems possible
that replicas, at least conceptual replicas, of the original objects held
by the Nephite leaders may have been passed on by Lamanite or apostate Nephite
rulers, which served as models for the paraphernalia of later groups.

79. Three recent treatments of the sacred Nephite tokens and
accompanying records are valuable: Brett L. Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban
as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies
2/1 (1993): 39–72, includes a helpful
table that tracks the transmission of the “regalia” from ruler to
ruler and prophet to prophet among the Nephites; see also Gordon C. Thomasson,
“Mosiah: The Complex Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the
Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
2/1 (1993): 21–38, and Daniel N. Rolph, “Prophets, Kings, and Swords:
The Sword of Laban and Its Possible Pre-Laban Origin,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
2/1 (1993): 73–9.

80. See John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech,”
16–8, 38ff; and see Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin.”

81. See Edmonson, Ancient Future, 47.

82. Feldman, “Tollan in Central Mexico,” 1.

83. Dieter Dütting, “‘Bats’ in the Usumacinta-Valley.
Remarks on the Inscriptions of Bonampak and Neighboring Sites in Chiapas,
Mexico,” Zeitschrift für
103 (1978): 53.

84. Davies, The Toltec Heritage, 14.

85. Davies, The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula,
16. Compare the title page of the Book of Mormon.

86. Ibid.

87. William T. Sanders, “The Epiclassic as a Stage in
Mesoamerican Prehistory: An Evaluation,” Mesoamerica after the Decline of Teotihuacan,
A.D. 700–900,

ed. Richard A. Diehl and Janet Catherine Berlo (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks,
1989), 216–7; however, Coe, in Breaking
the Maya Code
(New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 271–4,
considers Sanders among the dirt archaeologists who are simply reluctant to
face up to the documentary version of history that is being revealed by the
epigraphers, hence they denounce it.

88. Andrea Stone, “Disconnection, Foreign Insignia, and
Political Expansion: Teotihuacan and the Warrior Stelae of Piedras Negras,”
in Mesoamerica after the Decline
of Teotihuacan,

89. Debra Nagao, “Public Proclamation in the Art of Cacaxtla
and Xochicalco,” Mesoamerica after the Decline of Teotihuacan,

90. Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico, 107. A
full discussion is in R. C. Padden, The
Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico,
(Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1967).

91. See Coe, The Maya,  128.

92. Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl, 23.

93. Ibid., 14–5, quoting Angel Maria Garibay K.

94. Edmonson, Book of Counsel, 157.

95. Ibid., 254.

96. For example, see Abraham Malamat, “Tribal Societies:
Biblical Genealogies and African Lineage Systems,” Archives
européennes de sociologie (European Journal of Sociology)
14 (1973):
126–36, or Robert R. Wilson, “The Old Testament Genealogies in
Recent Research,” Journal
of Biblical Literature
94/2 (1975): 169–89.

97. See Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,”
220–9. Also see Richard L. Bushman, “The Lamanite View of Book
of Mormon History,” in By Study and Also by Faith, ed. Lundquist and Ricks,
2:52–72. He conjectures that ” Lamanite history would be a bitter
story, of a people obsessed with a perpetual sense of deprivation, wronged
at the beginning, so they thought, and wronged ever after” (p. 70). True,
but the analysis in his article fails to recognize two keys: (1) the nature
of the records and sacred tokens as political and cultural validators, and
(2) the practical consequences of their lack in keeping would-be Lamanite
and dissident dynasts from receiving the tribute to which they considered
themselves entitled. Taking those linked factors into consideration, it would
be less of a puzzle to Bushman why “Nephi’s one-time claim to rule [would]
arouse the wrath of the Lamanites generation after generation for hundreds
of years” (p. 55).

98. Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl, 14.

99. See Barthel, “Writing Systems,” 34.

100.  Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico, 204.

101.  Edmondson, Ancient Future, 55.

102.  Jill Leslie Furst, Codex
Vindobonensis Mexicanus I: A Commentary,
State University of New
York at Albany Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication no. 4 (1978),
14, as cited in Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl, 23.

103.  “Parallelism, Merismus, and Difrasismo,”
in Reexploring, ed.
Welch, 80–2.

104.  Dütting, “Bats,” 53. Such a situation
at least casts doubt on how thoroughly “translated” are the Mayan
inscriptions handled by the Schele/Lounsbury group.

105.  Popol Vuh, xii. Currently considered
the best translation of the Quiché record is Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1985).

106.  See León-Portilla, “Pre-Hispanic Literature,”

107.  Dütting, “Bats,” 53.

108.  Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl, 20.

109.  Ibid., 23, quoting Henry B. Nicholson, “Phoneticism
in Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican Writing Systems,” in Mesoamerican
Writing Systems,
ed. Elizabeth Benson (Washington, D.C.: Harvard
University Press, 1973), 3. An interesting comparison is in Robert M. Laughlin’s
fascinating account of his struggles, while working on a dictionary, to gain
agreement among his Tzotzil informants about even simple denotative terms
(see The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo
Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology no. 19 [Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975], 1–21).

110.  Bruce Warren has pointed out to me that Brian Stross,
in “The Language of Zuyúa,” American Ethnologist 10 (1983):
150–64, considers this to have been a distinct Mixean language, that
is, related to the tongue of the ancient Olmec people.

111.  Roys, Chumayel, 98 n. 1.

112.  Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,”

113.  Edmonson, Popol Vuh, xi.

114.  This has been termed “conceptual rhyming,”
because it involves the planned repetition of ideas, not of sounds, as in
much poetry in European languages (see ibid.).

115.  J. E. S. Thompson, Maya
Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction
(Norman: University of Oklahoma
Press, 1971), 2, 61; compare the discussion in Sorenson, “Digging into
the Book of Mormon,” Part 2, Ensign (October 1984): 16.

116.  Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman, “Mayan
Linguistics: Where Are We Now?” Annual Review of Anthropology
14 (1985): 194.

117.  See John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus
in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis
(Hildesheim, Germany:
Gerstenberg, 1981).

118.  Personal communication (13 June 1970).

119.  See Allen J. Christenson, “The Use of Chiasmus
by the Ancient Quiché-Maya,” Latin American Literatures Journal
4/2 (1988): 125–50, summarized in Reexploring,
233–5. A much fuller version of this research is in Allen J. Christenson,
“The Use of Chiasmus in Ancient Mesoamerica” (Provo: FARMS, 1988).

120.  It is a reasonable guess that the superior ability
of the brother of Jared to express himself had to do with his use of a syllabic
script, such as was known early in Mesopotamia, from whence he came. Such
writing permits full spelling out of words and thus presumably clearer expression
than the only partially phonetic/substantially ideographic system of glyphs
on the Egyptian model that Moroni2 used.

121.  That the Egyptian element consisted of “characters”
is made clear by Moroni2 in Mormon 9:32. I am, of course, aware
that others, particularly Hugh Nibley and Robert F. Smith, think that the
Egyptian tongue was involved, not just the writing system. Aside from Moroni2‘s
clear statement to the contrary, it seems obvious in any case that Nephite
literacy would have been miniscule had it depended on all writers and readers
having to be schooled in a second, archaic tongue. I cannot read the text
of the Book of Mormon as restricting literacy to that degree.

122.  Barthel, “Writing Systems,” 45.

123.  John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,”
in Chiasmus in Antiquity, 198.

124.  Ibid., 206–7.

125.  Welch, “Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13,”
summarized in Reexploring,

126.  Ibid., 232, citing the personal communication from
Thompson to Sorenson mentioned above.

127.  See Coe, “Early Steps,” 111, and J. Marcus,
“The Origins of Mesoamerican Writing,” Annual
Review of Anthropology
5 (1976): 35–67.

128.  For example, Carlo T. E. Gay, “Olmec Hieroglyphic
Writing,” Archaeology 26/4 (1973): 278–88;
and José Luis Franco C., “La escritura y los códices,” in Esplendor
del México Antiguo
, 3rd ed., ed. Raúl Noriega, et al. (México:
Centro de Investigaciones Antropológicas de México, 1978), 361–78. Franco
illustrates a seal from Tlatilco (see below for a second, very different one)
on which are signs that he considers to be Olmec writing, and David Kelley

129.  Barthel, “Writing Systems,” 35.

130.  See Coe, “Early Steps,” 109, agreeing
with Gelb and Knorosov. A devastating critique of the assumptions behind and
evidence for a supposed evolutionary sequence for writing systems in general
is found in C. F. Voegelin and Florence M. Voegelin, “Typological Classification
of Systems with Included, Excluded and Self-sufficient Alphabets,” Anthropological
3 (1968): 55–96, especially the last half a dozen

131.  Sylvia Méluzin, “The Tuxtla Statuette: An
Internal Analysis of Its Writing System,” in The
Periphery of the Southeastern Classic Maya Realm
, ed. Gary
W. Pahl (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin America Center Publications, 1987), 108.

132.  Coe, “Early Steps,” 115.

133.  Méluzin, “The Tuxtla Statuette,”

134.  Blerkom, “A Comparison of Maya and Egyptian
Hieroglyphics,” Katunob 11/3 (1979): 1–7.

135.  Coe lists thirteen Mesoamerican glyph systems as
follows (dates for the likely earliest appearance of each are my own):

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, ?700 B.C.

(One scholar has suggested, however, that the system in use in M.A. I and
II, up to ca. A.D. 300, was very different from that used in subsequent
M.A. IIIA, which could be due to “a change of population and even of
language.” See Hanns J. Prem, “Calendrics and Writing,” in
R. F. Heizer and John A. Graham, Observations on the Emergence of Civilization
in Mesoamerica,
University of California Archaeological Research Facility
Contributions no. 11 [1971], 121–2.)

Kaminaljuyu Stela 10, ?150 B.C.

(See Graham, “Commentary on: Calendrics and Writing by Prem,”
Observations on the Emergence of Civilization, 135. Graham thinks
this must be “a very sophisticated system,” even though nobody
can read the unique inscription yet.)

Southern Veracruz, ?100 B.C.

Maya, ?100 B.C.

Teotihuacan, A.D. ?100

Ñuiñe (Coe’s “Huajuapan”), central Mexico, A.D. ?400

Tajín, north-central Veracruz, A.D. ?500

Borgia Group codices, central Mexico, A.D. ?500

Xochicalco, central Mexico, A.D. ?600

Cotzumalhuapa, coastal Guatemala, A.D. ?600

Mixtec, south-central Mexico, A.D. ?600

Aztec, A.D. ?1350

To these glyph systems may be added Olmec (?1000 B.C.) and possibly others (see below).

136.  Coe, The Maya, 180.

137.  See, for example, the effort at decipherment of
the Monte Albán system based on principles and data from the Maya area, by
Gordon Whittaker, “Los jeroglíficos preclásicos de Monte Albán,”
Estudios de Antropología e Historia
27(México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia y Centro Regional
de Oaxaca, 1981).

138.  An exceptionally clear and very interesting treatment
of the decipherment process is in Coe’s Breaking
the Maya Code
, especially chap. 10. However, Dütting and Barthel,
constituting “the Tübingen group,” question the efficacy or accuracy
of “the Yale school” (Lounsbury, Schele, et al.) decipherment reported
(exclusively and confidently) by Coe. They question it in part because the
latter group pick and choose from the lexicons of a number of Mayan languages,
not just the one, Chol. The Germans follow a different scheme. When they read
the Palenque inscriptions, “a covert Hindu program” is revealed,
and “Sanskrit terms become consistently apparent behind the Maya glyphs,”
while the Yale school decipherments yield no light on relations to India.
The Germans believe that into the rapidly blossoming city of Palenque, around
A.D. 400 to 600, representatives of Hindu
brahmanism injected new key linguistic and cultural elements (see Thomas S.
Barthel, “Hindu-Maya Syncretism: The Palenque Focus,” Ibero-Amerikanisches
11 [1985]: 51–63).

139.  Coe, The Maya, 180.

140.  See Brotherston, “Mesoamerican Reckoning of
Time,” 1–2, where he distinguishes “hieroglyphic” writing,
the initial form, from “iconographic” writing, the international

141.  See Méluzin, “The Tuxtla Statuette,”

142.  See Eva Hunt, “Irrigation and the Socio-Political
Organization of Cuicatec Cacicazgos,” in Chronology
and Irrigation,
vol. 4 in The
Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley
, ed. Frederick Johnson (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1972), 4:206, 214–5. Compare Robert J. Sharer,
“Diversity and Continuity in Maya Civilization: Quirigua as a Case Study,”
in Classic Maya Political History: Hieroglyphic
and Archaeological Evidence,
ed. T. Patrick Culbert (Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 187, 186: “It is becoming
increasingly clear that Classic Maya civilization was sustained by a population
that spoke more than one language,” however “the element of sociocultural
diversity within Maya civilization is seldom emphasized, owing mostly to the
difficulty in detecting this kind of variability in the archaeological record.”

143.  Méluzin, “Tuxtla Statuette,” 107–8.

144.  See ibid., 68–113, and Fernando Winfield
Capitaine, “La estela 1 de La Mojarra, Veracruz, México,” Research
Reports on Ancient Maya Writing
16 (Washington, D.C.: Center for
Maya Research, 1988).

145.  See John L. Sorenson and Martin H. Raish, Pre-Columbian
Contacts with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography
Research Press, 1990),
vol. 2: entries L?274
and W?075. Most recently
H. Mike Xu (Origin of Olmec Civilization
[Edmond, Oklahoma: University of Central Oklahoma Press, 1996]) claims to
have deciphered inscriptions on cached Olmec celts as Shang Chinese characters.

146.  Thomas Stuart Ferguson,
One Fold and One Shepherd
(San Francisco: Books of California,
1958), 22–3.

147.  “Before Columbus,” The
Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture
, ed. Paul R. Cheesman (Provo:
BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988), 164.

148.  Voegelin and Voegelin, “Typological Classification
of Systems,” 68–80, hedge on “alphabetic” by considering
that Maya, like Chinese, Egyptian, and Hittite glyphic systems and the Sumerian-Akkadian
cuneiform system, is of a type that they term “Alphabet Included Logographic

149.  David H. Kelley, “A Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco,”
American Antiquity 31 (1966): 744–6.

150.  Graham, Emergence of Civilization, 132.

151.  Ibid., 133. John Clark has suggested from a quick
inspection of the Alexander Von Wuthenau collection of figurines at Tepoztlan,
Morelos, that similar seals may be therein (personal communication, 1993).

152.  Information is in the files of George F. Carter
and John L. Sorenson. Examples include: a cylinder seal from Nicaragua on
which are characters that are repeated on a spindle whorl from the Huasteca,
Gulf Coastal Mexico (see Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua [New York:
Museum of the American Indian and Heye Foundation, 1926], vol. 8, part 2:
378, and Gordon F. Ekholm, “Excavations at Tampico and Panuco in the
Huasteca, Mexico,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural
History 38/5 [1944], 463, item R); also two oval-shaped stamp seals each bearing
a single column of nonpictoral characters somewhat resembling each other,
one from Chiapas (in Carlos Navarrete, “Un reconocimiento de la Sierra
Madre de Chiapas: Apuntes de un diario de campo,” Universidad Nacional
Autónoma de México, Cuadernos 13 [1978], fig. 5a), and the other, which comes
from coastal Oaxaca (Méluzin, “The Tuxtla Statuette,” fig. 71a [p.
100], redrawn from de Cicco and Brockington, 1956). Méluzin shows and discusses
others, as does Kelley (in “Cylinder Seal”).

153.  See, for example, the argument to that effect by
Stephen E. Thompson, following Nibley (see the review of Southwestern
American Indian Rock Art and the Book of Mormon,
by James R. Harris,
in Review of Books on the Book
of Mormon
4 [1992]: 74–6), who erroneously supposes that
the writing system started with Lehi1, rendering the argument moot.

154.  See John L. Sorenson, “The ‘Brass Plates’
and Biblical Scholarship,” Dialogue 10/4 (1977): 31–9.

155.  According to Bryant G. Wood, “The archaeological
evidence suggests that toward the end of the eighth century Jerusalem expanded
westward, apparently to accommodate refugees fleeing from the north”
from the Assyrians (“Scholars Speak Out,” Biblical
Archaeology Review
21/3 [May–June 1995]: 34). This is the
most plausible time for Lehi1‘s, Ishmael’s, and Laban’s ancestors
to have arrived in the land of Judah. Does it also hint that Lehi1‘s
estate was “down” westward from Jerusalem, which happens to be in
the direction of the most important trade route with Egypt (see 1 Nephi

156.  See John W. Welch, “The Father’s Command to
Keep Records in the Small Plates of Nephi” (FARMS, 1985).

157.  Spackman, “Book of Mormon Chronology,”

158.  David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor
Bible Dictionary
(New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:231, s.v. “Sumer,

159.  Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:190,
s.v. “Egyptian Language and Writing.”

160.  Ibid. The system from the beginning used “phonograms,”
representations of consonantal sounds that could have changed as vernacular
speech required.

161.  See FARMS Staff, “Harris’ Visit,” 7,
13; Robert C. Webb [James E. Homans], The Case against Mormonism (New
York: L. L. Walton, 1915), 22–3; William C. Hayes, letter to Paul M.
Hanson, President of the RLDS Council of the Twelve, published in Saints’ Herald 103 (12 November
1956): 1098, supported by Kimball’s interview with Hayes, reported in Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A.
126 (August 1971): 1–5; Ariel L. Crowley, “The Anthon
Transcript,” Improvement
45 (1942): 14, 15, 58–60, 76–80, 124, 125, 150–1,
182–3; Crowley, “The Anthon Transcript,” Improvement Era 47 (1944): 542–3,
576–83 (reprinted in his About
the Book of Mormon
[Idaho City, Idaho: Ariel Crowley, 1951], chapter
2; re-issued by Deseret Book [Salt Lake City, 1961]).

162.  Some have considered some of the transcript characters
to be demotic. See Homans, Case against Mormonism, 23;
Crowley, About the Book of Mormon,
esp. pp. 18, 20; R.
Parker, in an interview with Richard Bushman reported by Kimball in Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A.,
mentioned in the previous note. Other specialists have said they see no relationship
to either hieratic or demotic (see John A. Wilson and Alan H. Gardiner in
Hanson, Saints’ Herald,
1098, among others).

163.  Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (New York:
Dover, 1971), 342.

164.  Cook, ed., Whitmer Interviews, 115, 124.

165.  “Two Figurines from the Belleza and Sanchez
Collection,” in Reexploring, 18–9; Mariano
Cuevas, Historia de la Nación
(México:Talleres Tipográficos Modelo, 1940), 16; and personal
communications from Romeo Hristov, April 1997, and John Gee, March 1997.

166.  Extensive abstracts of his article, all of which
are published in obscure outlets, are included in Sorenson and Raish, Pre-Columbian
vol. 1: entries J?012
to J?017. An extensive
set of additional material is found in Sorenson, “The Significance of
an Apparent Relationship between the Ancient Near East and Mesoamerica,”
Man across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian
ed. Carroll L. Riley, et al. (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1971), 219–41.

167.  See Sorenson, “The Significance of an Apparent

168.  David H. Kelley, “Calendar Animals and Deities,”
Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 16 (1960):
325–9. This k=kaph=kab feature calls to mind a
glyph in the form of an open hand that appears on the anomalous Kaminaljuyu
Stela 10 inscription and that is very similar to an Egyptian glyph; this inscription
is one of the earliest specimens of writing in southern Mesoamerica, dating
to perhaps 150 B.C.; it comes
from the site I identify as probably the city of Nephi. The similarity could
still be a coincidence, however.

169.  “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican
Cylinder Seals,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A. 122
(September 1970): 1–8.

170.  See Philip Drucker, “La Venta, Tabasco: A
Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art,” Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American
Ethnology Bulletin no. 153 (1952), fig. 43 (p. 142).

171.  See Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 206.

172.  Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the
(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 24–5, 29–30.
(The version of this book republished as Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were
vol. 5 of The
Collected Works of Hugh W. Nibley
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
and FARMS, 1988] has about the same material on pages 22–3; 27–30.)

173.  See Cook, Whitmer Interviews, 174. On
page 32 of the original edition of Lehi
in the Desert
(1952), Nibley says, “Joseph never pronounced
the proper names he came upon in the plates during the translation but always
spelled them out” (emphasis
in the original). The reference given was to the Edmund C. Briggs/Rudolph
Etzenhouser interview in 1884; that interview is found on page 126 in Cook’s
volume, but no statement in it supports Nibley’s emphasis. All that is said
is a quote from Emma Smith: “He could not pronounce the word Sariah.”

174.  See John A. Tvedtnes, “Linguistic Implications
of the Tel Arad Ostraca,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A.
127 (October 1971): 1–5; and Tvedtnes, review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations
in Critical  Methodology,
ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994):
37–8. Also see J. W. Crowfoot and G. M. Crowfoot, “The Ivories
from Samaria,” Palestine
Exploration Quarterly
(o.s., January 1933): 13, where it says that
a small ivory plaque bears two rows of hieroglyphs: “It is possible to
read on them a Semitic name . . . A?L?Y?W?Sh?B=ELIASHIB, ‘God requites or
restores'” (p. 13).

175.  See, for example, Linda Schele and Peter Mathews,
Notebook for the XVIIth Maya
Hieroglyphic Workshop at Texas
(Austin: University of Texas at
Austin, 1993), 33–4, under “Ut ‘It Happened.'”

176.  See Sorenson, “The ‘Mulekites,'” BYU
30/3 (1990): 17–8; and Sorenson, “When Lehi’s
Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
1/1 (1992): 19–22.

177.  Implied in Terrence Kaufman, “Archaeological
and Linguistic Correlations in Mayaland and Associated Areas of Meso-America,”
World Archaeology
8/1 (1976): 101–18; and Kaufman, “Areal Linguistics and Middle
America,” in Native Languages
of the Americas,

178.  Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman, “A Linguistic
Look at the Olmecs,” American Antiquity 41 (1976):
80–9, demonstrates that the Mixe-Zoque languages in isthmian Mesoamerica
are descended from a language in use among the “Olmec.” We have
no way of knowing, however, exactly how “the Jaredites” related
to “the Olmecs,” although see suggestions in my review of “Does
the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” by Deanne
G. Matheny, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon
6/1 (1994): 354–7.

179.  The whole subject of the languages (tongues) spoken
by Book of Mormon groups has yet to be studied exhaustively from the text.
See comments in Sorenson, “The ‘Mulekites,'” 11–2. Most linguists
suppose that there are no connections between Old and New World tongues, but
that negative judgment has been based on failure to compare the possibilities
systematically, rather than on any demonstration of a negative relation. Certain
linguistically competent studies in recent years have shown apparent interhemispheric
linguistic relationships.

The most sweeping and best-documented proposition is that
of Otto Sadovszky. He has found that the California Penutian languages, such
as Wintun and Costanoan, are so clearly similar to the Ob-Ugrian group of
western Siberia that they must be classified in the same family. The data
require that a direct migration took place to central California on the order
of 500 B.C. (see Sorenson and
Raish, Pre-Columbian Contact,
vol. 2: entries S?008
to S?017). Brian Stubbs
(“Looking Over vs. Overlooking Native American Languages: Let’s Void
the Void,” Journal of Book
of Mormon Studies
5/1 [1996]: 1–49) demonstrates that Uto-Aztecan
languages yield more than a thousand similarities to Hebrew, in phonological,
morphological, and semantic patterns consistent with modern linguistic methods.
See also Ludlow, Encyclopedia
of Mormonism,
1:179–81, s.v. “Book of Mormon Language.”
David H. Kelley (“Linguistics and Problems in Trans-Pacific Contacts,”
Proceedings, 35th International
Congress of Americanists
[México, 1962], 1:17–8, based on
his 1957 Harvard dissertation) demonstrates the presence of some fifty cognate
ritual and sacred terms from Uto-Aztecan in early Polynesian. Pierre Agrinier
(“Linguistic Evidence for the Presence of Israelites in Mexico,”
Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A.
112 [1969]: 4–5) reports on evidence for a relationship between
Zapotec and Hebrew, which Robert F. Smith extended substantially in an unpublished
manuscript, “Sawi-Zaa Word Comparisons,” dated September 1977. Mary
LeCron Foster, of the University of California at Berkeley, maintains and
documents that there were specific relationships between the Egyptian
language and the Mixe-Zoquean family of languages of southern Mexico, as well
as ties between Uto-Aztecan and Indo-European languages, following Morris
Swadesh, who saw relations specifically between Aztec and Latin. See Foster,
“Old World Language in the Americas: 1,” a paper given at the annual
meeting of the Association of American Geographers, San Diego, California
(20 April 1992); and Foster’s overlapping paper, “Old World Language
in the Americas: 2,” read at the annual meeting of the Language
Origins Society, Cambridge University, England (September 1992). Lengthy abstracts
are given in Sorenson and Raish, Pre-Columbian
second ed., entries F-146B and F-146C.

180.  Ralph L. Roys, “Lowland Maya Native Society
at Spanish Contact,” in Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica,
Part 2, vol. 3 of
Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed.
Gordon R. Willey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 673.

181.  Neil Steede, Catálogo preliminar de los Tabiques de
(Cárdenas, Tabasco, México: Centro de Investigación
Pre-columbina, 1984). The illustrations in this work make points of interest,
especially about Maya script characters appearing in graffiti; however, the
discussion and conclusions are generally unreliable.

182.  Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,”

183.  Ibid.; and Henry B. Nicholson, “Religion in
Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico,” in Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part

184.  Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,”

185.  See Edmonson, Popol
17. For the Maya at the conquest and in modern times, see
Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,” 117, 130; on
the Huastec Indians of the Gulf Coast, see Guy Stresser-Péan, “Ancient
Sources on the Huasteca,” in Archaeology
of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 2,
vol. 11 of Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Gordon
F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 600;
for the Aztec scrying in a polished obsidian surface, virtually a “mirror,”
see Nicholson, “Religion,” 440.

186.  In general, see George F. Kunz, The
Curious Lore of Precious Stones
(Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1913).

187.  See Edmonson, Popol

188.  See Nicholson, “Religion,” 441.

189.  See Edmonson, Ancient
, 32 n. 514.

190.  Ibid.; also Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,”
42, 207, 217. A number of other accounts were recorded of prophecies about
the coming of Europeans. One of particular interest because it recalls Alma
19:16 (and 2 Nephi 29:7) is in Don Domingo Juarros’ history, A Statistical and Commercial History of the Kingdom of Guatemala,
in Spanish America
(London: John Hearne, 1823), translated by J.
Baily from an 1809 Spanish publication and reprinted by AMS Press, New York,
1971. In 1622 Spanish missionaries attempted their first entry among the Xicaque
Indians of Honduras by a pair of them simply having themselves set ashore
in the area. After two days alone, they were approached by a sizable party
led by an elite Indian who greeted them warmly. He had long expected them,
he explained, and gave this reason: “Being one day at work in his plantation,
there appeared to him a white child, more beautiful than any thing he had
ever before seen or could imagine; it looked at him with great tenderness,
and said, ‘Know that you will not die before you become a Christian; there
will come here some white men, with robes of the colour of this ground, reaching
to their feet; when they arrive, receive them kindly, and do not permit any
one to anger them, for they are ministers of God, who has granted thee this
signal mark of his mercy, because thou hast done well, and hast supported
those who wanted assistance!’ It is worthy of notice that this old man, even in his idolatry, had employed himself in acts
of kindness; he cultivated maize to distribute among those who were in distress;
he composed strifes, and settled all disputes among his neighbours; besides
performing many other kind offices where they were wanted” (italics in

191.  Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion,”
42–3; Hubert Howe Bancroft, The
Native Races of the Pacific States
(San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft,
1883), 2:464–9.

192.  Suggested by John B. Carlson, “Olmec Concave
Iron-Ore Mirrors: The Aesthetics of a Lithic Technology and the Lord of the
Mirror,” The Olmec and Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew
W. Stirling
, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton
Oaks, 1981), 117–47.

193.  Ibid., 126, 132. See also Peter S. Probst, “Mirrors
of Ancient China and Pre-Columbian America” (master’s thesis, Columbia
University, 1963).

194.  Carlson, Olmec, 124–6.

195.  Ibid., 126–9.

196.  See Lawrence H. Feldman, “Papers of Escuintla
and Guazacapan: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of South Eastern
Guatemala,” University of Northern Colorado Museum of Anthropology Occasional
Publications in Mesoamerican Anthropology no. 7 (1974), 23.

197.  See John W. Welch, “The Father’s Command to
Keep Records in the Small Plates of Nephi” (Provo: FARMS, 1985).

198.  Gordon C. Thomasson, “Mosiah: The Complex
Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies
2/1 (1993): 24, argues for “widespread
public literacy rather than a narrowly specialized literate priestly elite.”
I do not find the existence of a substantial number of historical source documents
that he enumerates—but spread over a number of generations—to
be evidence of such wide literacy as he supposes. It is completely agreeable
to the kind of literary tradition, chiefly in priestly hands, that we know
from among the Mayas and that yielded for them literally thousands of books.
The scripture deserves a comprehensive survey regarding the question.

199.  Comment in Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec,
ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1968), 75. (Conference
held 28–29 October 1967.)

200.  “Irrigation and the Socio-Political Organization
of Cuicatec Cacicazgos,” in The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley,
ed. Frederick Johnson, vol. 4 in Chronology
and Irrigation
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972), 207.

201.  The basic concept of chiefdom as a stage in cultural
evolution is laid out in Elman R. Service, The
Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution

(New York: W. W. Norton, 1975). For a rather strained application of the concept
to highland Guatemala, see Joseph W. Michels, “Political Organization
at Kaminaljuyu: Its Implications for Interpreting Teotihuacan Influence,”
Teotihuacan and Kaminaljuyú: A Study in
Prehistoric Culture Contact
, ed. William T. Sanders and Joseph
W. Michels (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 453–67.

202.  Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:308,
s.v. “Levites and Priests”; see also Jeremiah 2:8.

203.  Compare Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:504–7,
s.v. “Astrology in the Ancient Near East.” Certain Mesoamerican
divinatory and astrological practices are very much like those of the Near
East, although nobody has systematically explored the parallels.

204.  Michael D. Coe, review of Skywatchers
of Ancient Mexico,
by Anthony F. Aveni, Archaeoastronomy:
Bulletin of the Center for Archaeoastronomy
4/1 (1981): 40, notes
that investigators recently showed “that the timing of the famous battle
shown in the Bonampak murals was set by an event in the synodic period of
[the planet] Venus; ‘Star wars’ indeed!” he exclaims.

205.  See Puleston, “An Epistemological Pathology,”
63–71; and Edmonson, Ancient Future, xi.

206.  See, for instance, Nicholson, “Religion,”

207.  Edmonson, Ancient Future, xi; see also
Edmonson, “Some Postclassic Questions,” Table 1.

208.  Edmonson, Ancient Future, xix; and Grant
D. Jones, “Rebellious Prophets,” New
Theories on the Ancient Maya,
ed. Elin C. Damien and Robert J.
Sharer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992), 197–204.

209.  Berdan, An Imperial Society, 120.

210.  See Grant R. Hardy, “Mormon as Editor,”
in Rediscovering the Book of

211.  Edmonson, “Some Postclassic Questions,”
Table 1. My reasoning in dating the Jaredite final wars to this period
of time is in Sorenson, “The ‘Mulekites,'” 13–4.

212.  See Spackman, “Book of Mormon Chronology.”
Some may fear that this articulation with the calendar hints of a benighted
“magic,” “numerology,” or “astrology,” yet obviously
there is a divine calendar for key earthly events. If it were not so, how
would the “new star” have appeared at the time of the Savior’s birth
(see Helaman 14:5), for quite certainly the cosmic physical phenomenon that
made the “star” visible to people’s eyes at that moment took place
in some distant place in the heavens long before—years before—yet
it was scheduled to be seen first on earth at that precise date long afterward.
Note too that the Prophet Joseph was visited by Moroni2 and then
received the plates at the autumnal equinox (which was also the Jewish New
Year), and the appearance of Elijah in the Kirtland Temple took place on a
Passover anniversary. These examples could be multiplied.

For the record, I note that an odd calendrical pattern that
deserves analysis is manifested in one Nephite count of years. Gareth Lowe
pointed out to me years ago that 4 Nephi 1:6 has “the thirty and
eighth year pass away, and also the thirty and ninth,” but then jumps
to the “forty and first.” The pattern is repeated in the jump from
“forty and nine years” to “the fifty and first . . .
and even until fifty and nine years had passed away.” Verse 14 continues
the scheme, from the “seventy and first . . . and in fine,
till the seventy and ninth year had passed away.” Why are the decadal
years omitted?

213.  Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican
Codex,” 4.

214.  Sorenson, “The Significance of an Apparent
Relationship between the Ancient Near East and Mesoamerica,” 219–41.

215.  James H. Charlesworth, “Messianism in the
Pseudepi-grapha and the Book of Mormon,” in Reflections
on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels,
ed. Truman G. Madsen
(Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 129.

216.  Krister Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount
and Third Nephi,” in Reflections on Mormonism, 152.

217.  See Carmack, “Toltec Influence.”

218.  Ibid., 71.

219.  Ibid., 64.

220.  Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 227–9.

221.  I find an interesting parallel in Stephen Williams’
unique notion that the gold plates that Joseph Smith had were obtained by
“discovery and excavation,” and that the LDS faith “has deep
roots in what must be called the ‘archaeological discoveries’ in 1827 by Joseph
Smith” (Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory
[Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991], 161, 25). Also see
Diane E. Wirth’s review of his book and my review in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon
4 (1992): 251–3 and 254–7, respectively.

222.  Compare Williams, Fantastic

223.  Ibid. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 229.
Chapter 6 tells in gory detail how effective Thompson had been against previous
foes following this critical strategy. I discussed that point and the Coe/Thompson
conflict in my review of “Does the Shoe Fit?” by Deanne G. Matheny,

224.  Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 229.

225.  Ibid.

226.  Michael D. Coe, “Mormons and Archeology: An
Outside View,” Dialogue 8/2 (1973): 40–5.

227. Ibid., 47.

228. A. M. H.
Schuster, “Case of the Suspect Stela,” Archaeology (September–October,
1994): 53.