The Light Is Better Over Here

Review of V. Garth Norman. Book of Mormon Geography-Mesoamerican Historic Geography.
American Fork, UT: ARCON/Ancient America Foundation, 2006. vii + 22 pp., with bibliography and map with gazetteer.

The Light Is Better Over Here

Reviewed by Lawrence L. Poulsen

There is an old fable that recounts the story
of someone coming upon a man busily studying the ground under a lamppost.
He asked the man what he was looking for and offered to help. The man told
him that he had lost his pocket watch and graciously accepted the offered
help. After searching fruitlessly for some time, the helper asked the man,
“Where did you lose the watch?” The man responded, “Over there,”
indicating a location about fifteen feet away outside the pool of light shed
by the streetlight. Aghast, the helper asked, “Why are you searching
here by the lamppost instead of over there where you lost your pocket watch?”
The man answered, “The light is better over here.”

Since the publication of John Lloyd Stephens’s
book about his travels in Central America, archaeologists and anthropologists
have been amassing a growing mountain of data about the
Maya.1 Until recently, most of this information was focused on the
Classic Maya culture from AD 400 to 600. However, with the discovery of the Preclassic ruins at San Bartolo,
there has been increased interest in the Preclassic period.

Just as the lamp on the lamppost brightly illuminates the area around
its base, all of this information brightly illuminates the nature of the Maya
culture and the location of a multitude of Maya ruins and artifacts. With
so much light shed on the Maya, it is difficult to resist searching among
Maya ruins for signs of Book of Mormon culture. After all, “the light
is better over here.” In other words, there is more data and information
about the Maya, so let’s look here first.

Unfortunately, the location of Book of Mormon events is lost like
the man’s pocket watch. And the authors of the Book of Mormon text, the men
who could tell us where those events took place, are not readily available
to enlighten us. All we have been told is that it was someplace on the American
continent. The only source we have for exactly where is the text itself.

In the letter accompanying this thirty-page booklet and map,
V. Garth Norman, the author, describes the booklet as an aid to stimulate
reading of the Book of Mormon from “an archeological historic approach.”
It contains an annotated gazetteer describing seventy-six Book of Mormon geographic
features with the author’s proposed locations indicated on the accompanying
map. For each feature, the gazetteer references applicable verses in the Book
of Mormon text relevant to its location. It also gives the author’s reasons
for each location’s placement on the map.

Based on the assumption that the Book of Mormon culture took place
among the ancestral Maya, Norman has certainly packed a large amount of Maya-related
data and history into his map and its accompanying descriptive gazetteer.
In fact, there is so much information there that it would require an essay
several times the length of the original publication to adequately cover all
of the information presented. I will, however, limit this review to several
of the points that I find problematic. Although Norman cites the Book of Mormon
text in connection with each of his proposed locations, he freely admits that
it is a work in progress and subject to modification and change with further

Some of the areas that I find problematic follow. In a brief description
on the back of the map, Norman explains his methodology for map construction.
He defines directions as “north/south/east/west–literal planetary
cardinal directions.” Unfortunately, this definition imposes a global
geocentric definition of direction on the Book of Mormon text. Clearly this
text was written by an ancient agrarian culture and ignores the original concept
of direction prevalent in ancient cultures. A study of the origin of the modern
word used to denote the cardinal direction east gives the following results:

English: “The etymology of east is from a Proto-Indo-European
Language word for dawn. Cf. Latin aurora and Greek eōs

Latin: oriens (stem orient) “rising, rising sun, east”;
from oriri
“to rise”3

A similar study of the words translated as “east” from
native Mesoamerican languages gives:

Classic Maya: hok’ k’in “sunrise, east” and *k’ah k’in
“sunset, west”4

Nahuatl: “As Nahuatl did not adopt Spanish terms for cardinal
directions until the mid-seventeenth century, bills of sale initially used
such indigenous phrases as iquiçayampa tonatiuh itzticac, ‘facing east
[literally where the sun rises].'”5

Quiche Maya: relibal q’ij (n) east (“its coming out

The concept of direction in ancient cultures was centered on the
movement of the sun, in particular its movement relative to the individual’s
location. This is an anthrocentric rather than a geocentric view of direction.
In other words, it is based on personal orientation rather than on contemporary
global map orientation.

Figure 17 shows a
compass rose depicting the modern geocentric concept of directions on the outer rings and the anthrocentric Mesoamerican concept
in the center and in the ring next to the center with the Cholan words for

Norman’s use of a global orientation leads him to designate both
the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico as the east sea of the Book of Mormon.
He then designates the Gulf of Mexico as the north sea as well, a contradiction
in his use of directions that he explains by saying this is required by the
Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of two civilizations, the Nephite/Lamanite
civilization and the Jaredite civilization. Based on the anthrocentric view
of directions, it is possible for these two different cultures to have had
different concepts of the direction toward the various seas surrounding Mesoamerica
than we currently have. The book of Ether offers no information on seas in
the New World other than a reference (Ether 9:3) to a seashore located to
the east of the Jaredite settlement area where it is recorded that the last
battles occurred, this being the location of the Hill Ramah (known as Cumorah
by the Nephites). Here again, Norman locates the Hill Cumorah at Tres Zapotes
(a site where ruins have been found) rather than further north where the Gulf
coast is actually located to the east. Recent publications about the Tamtoc
ruins found in eastern San Lois Potosi indicate that an Olmec-like culture
existed in this area about 2000 BC with a written language differing from
those found further south. Although this culture is designated “Olmec-like,”
there is still some question as to whether it was part of the same culture
found in eastern Veracruz.8 Based on the text
of the book of Ether, I find this to be a much better location for the Jaredite
culture and the Hill Ramah. This would make the Gulf of Mexico the east sea
of the Jaredite culture but not the east sea of the Nephite-Lamanite culture.

Norman dismisses the Grijalva River as the river Sidon on the basis
of a lack of any significant ruins that could be identified with the city
of Zarahemla and problems with John L. Sorenson’s view of directions (p. 15).
The seeming lack of an identifiable ruin for the city of Zarahemla is also
applicable to Norman’s model. Although he places the city in the locality
of Palenque, he writes, “Classic Palenque is not Zarahemla, but Late
Preclassic ceramics in the region with unexcavated large mound sites qualifies”
(p. 21). Although the site at Santa Rosa lacked imposing ruins, the two-colored
nature of the excavated floor might suggest the possibility of a relationship
with the Book of Mormon city of Zarahemla. There are at least four geographic
features that identify the location of the city of Zarahemla: (1) it is north
of the head of the river Sidon and the narrow strip of wilderness, (2) it
is on or near the west bank of the river Sidon, (3) it is south and east of
the wilderness of Hermounts, and (4) it is south of the narrow neck.

The description of the narrow strip of wilderness in Alma 22:27 includes
the phrase “by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards
the west.” Norman identifies two rivers that form part of the Guatemala-Mexico
border and that have headwaters in the Cuchamatán mountains as the narrow
strip of wilderness. A ridge similar to the Continental Divide results in
one of the headwaters running from east to west and the other running from
west to east. Both rivers exit the mountain range to the north. Norman and
others favoring the Usamacinta as the river Sidon, whose headwaters run from
west to east, choose to either ignore this phrase or claim that the phrase
is a redundant description of the mountain range. On the other hand, as pointed
out by Patrick L. Simiskey,9 correct English parsing of the citation
shows this phrase to be a modifier of the noun river Sidon.
Assuming the parsing is correct, then the river Sidon is identified as the
Grijalva River, and Zarahemla must be located in the highlands somewhere between
the narrow strip of wilderness and the wilderness of Hermounts.

Norman and most advocates of a limited geography identify the Isthmus
of Tehuantepec with the narrow neck spoken of in the Book of Mormon. The eastern
edge of the passage through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is formed by an uninhabited
mountain wilderness. This wilderness is sparsely inhabited even now. Meleseo
Ortega Martinez, in his Reseña Historico de Tehuantepec, recounts the origin of the
word Tehuantepec.10
It is derived from the Nahuatl words tecuanitepec.
Tecuani has the meaning of “wild beast,” and
tepec translates as “hill.” According to the Nahuatl dictionary,
tecuani also means “man-eating beast.” The composite has the meaning
“Hill of the Fierce Beasts.” Alma 2:36-38 describes the fate of a Lamanite army after its defeat
by the Nephites:

And they fled before the Nephites towards the wilderness which was west and north,
away beyond the borders of the land; and the Nephites did pursue them with
their might, and did slay them. Yea, they were met on every hand, and slain
and driven, until they were scattered on the west, and on the north, until
they had reached the wilderness, which was called Hermounts; and it was that
part of the wilderness which was infested by wild and ravenous beasts. And
it came to pass that many died in the wilderness of their wounds, and were
devoured by those beasts and also the vultures of the air; and their bones
have been found, and have been heaped up on the earth.

The almost exact correlation in meaning for Tehuantepec and Hermounts
suggests that the wilderness of Tehuantepec is an ideal candidate for the Book of Mormon wilderness of
Hermounts. A line drawn from this wilderness to the headwaters of the Grijalva
River intersects with the Grijalva River near the ruins of Santa Rosa and
never comes near the Usamacinta River except at its headwaters. The probable
identification of Tehuantepec with Hermounts gives strong support to Sorenson’s
identification of the Grijalva River as the Book of Mormon river

Figure 2 depicts the relationship between the
borders of the Nephite quarters and a pathway between the center of the land
and Hermounts (based on a three-dimensional view of the Grijalva basin using
Google Earth).

Over twenty years ago, Sorenson carefully documented
the textual, geographical, and anthropological data that supported his conclusion
that the Nephite culture was located in the Chiapas highlands and not in the
Maya lowlands.12 Since then, Norman and others
have discounted his conclusions and continued attempting to equate the Nephites
with the Maya in the lowlands. They often use the review of John Lloyd Stephens’s
discovery and description of the Maya ruins in Guatemala and eastern Mexico
published in the Times and Seasons as support for this
conclusion.13 They mistakenly attribute this
review to Joseph Smith, although it is unlikely that he wrote it, because
he was in hiding, as reported in the same issue. John Taylor probably wrote

Norman’s conclusions about the relationship of Nahuatl place-names
with Hebrew and biblical place-names are in most cases a stretch, and in the
case of Tehuantepec, they are completely erroneous (see the above definition
of Tehuantepec). Norman claims to derive it from tehuan
rather than tecuani. In addition, Robert M. Carmack
has used the Popul Vuh and other historical documents to show that Nahuatl
arrived in the Maya lowlands no earlier than AD 800, well after the demise of the Nephite
Although it was customary for surviving cultures to gloss
geographic features with names from their own language having similar meanings
to an earlier name, Norman’s attempt to equate this word with a Hebrew place-name
is highly unlikely in light of the known derivation of the word.

These problematic areas in Norman’s publication suggest that perhaps
he, like the man who lost his watch, is looking in the wrong place merely
because “the light is better over here.”

Norman suggests that we use his map as a jumping-off point for further conversations about the
Book of Mormon. I agree, but in doing so we should be careful not to take
everything he says as proof that his views are correct; but if we are to better
understand the geography of the Book of Mormon, we should examine multiple
models including this one and compare them to the text. As John Clark has
admonished, we should take care to ask the right questions and make the right


1. John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America,
Chiapas, and Yucatan
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841).

2. (accessed 3 December 2007)

(accessed 3 December 2007), s.v. “oriens.”

4. Brian Stross, “Classic Maya Directional Glyphs,”
Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 1 (1991): 97.

5. Rebecca Horn, “Nahuatl and Spanish Sources for Coyoacan.”
Available at (accessed 8 November 2008).

6. Allen J. Christenson,
“K’iche’-English Dictionary,” s.v. “relibal q’ij.” Available
at (accessed 8 November

7. Adapted by Lawrence Poulsen from “A Mesoamerican compass rose,”
available at
(accessed 8 November 2007). The Mesoamerican concepts are based on Brian Stross,
“Classic Maya Directional Glyphs,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
1 (1991): 97-114, and on the Cholan words for directions. The figure in the center is from a map in the Codex
Osuna (1565).

8. “Mexican monolith could change history,” found at (accessed 3 December 2007).

9. Patrick L. Simiskey, The Zarahemla Puzzle, vol. 1,
A Study in Nephite Geography (Decorah, IA: Amundsen Publishing, 2002), 169-70.

10. Melesio Ortega Martánez, Reseña Historico
de Tehuantepec
(Oaxaca, Mexico: H. Ayuntamiento Constitucional de Tehuantepec,
1998), 5.

11. See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting
for the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 33-36.

12. See, for example, Sorenson, Ancient American Setting,
33-38, 41-42, 342-43.

13. “Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons 3/22
(1 October 1842): 927-28.

14. See Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents
and Early Interpretations,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 243-48.

15. Robert M. Carmack, The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán: The
Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom
(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 45, 128.

16. See John Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,”
Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1 (1989): 20-70; see especially 20-22.