A NEW MODEL FOR
BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
By James Lee Warr
Book of Mormon Cities and Lands
(Revised July 25, 2005)
It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon-a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion. John Clark
In attempting to interpret the geography of the Book of Mormon lands, it is wise to begin with more of John Clark's advice, found in his paper "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies" (1). He recommends that we consider the following criteria when evaluating Nephite geography:
(1) Assume a literal meaning.
(2) Assume no scribal errors unless internal evidence indicates otherwise.
(3) Assume no duplication of place names unless the text is unambiguous on the matter.
(4) Assume that all passages are internally consistent and can be reconciled.
(5) Assume that uniformitarian rather than catastrophic principles apply to the actual Book of Mormon lands (i.e., that the locality where the Book of Mormon events took place was not unrecognizably altered at the time of the crucifixion, that geographic details in the Small Plates and in the Book of Ether are therefore compatible with those in Mormon's and Moroni's abridgment, and that the principles of natural science that apply to today's environments are also pertinent to Nephite lands).
(6) The best internal reconstruction is one which reconciles all of the data in the Book of Mormon with a minimum of additional assumptions.
It is of course tempting to try and rearrange the landscape to fit our favorite ideas about Book of Mormon lands; however, as Clark logically points out, we need to accept the text literally for locations, directions and distances. Many have attempted to explain the difficulty of locating Book of Mormon geography with the notion that the form of the land was changed at the time of the crucifixion. This is not a logical assumption. A careful analysis of the text will show that most of the geographic references in the Book of Mormon were inserted by the prophet Mormon, who abridged the records beginning about 385 A.D., over 350 years after the destruction which accompanied the crucifixion in 33 A.D. Mormon, of course, was very familiar with the his geography as any military commander would need to be.
In making the following proposals every attempt will be made to stick as close to a literal interpretation of the facts as is possible. Present day topography will be used in all cases (although the temptation to juggle the geography is strong at times). Spatial relationships will be assumed to be accurate and literal. A literal interpretation of the directions given in the Book of Mormon will be assumed. Although I am familiar with the argument that Book of Mormon peoples had a different directional orientation than the modern one (2), I completely disagree with it and feel that it has only been introduced to justify a geography that does not fit the commonly accepted directional system.
It should be recognized that Book of Mormon peoples looked at geography differently than we do. Although they may have used rough charts, they did not have an aerial view of topography such as we are familiar with, and probably saw the land from a horizontal perspective rather than the vertical one which is familiar to those of us who use modern maps. Hobby and Smith (3) point out that we confuse the issue when we "attempt to relate the geographical data in the Book of Mormon to the world as [we] view it, rather than as the ancients viewed it....students have viewed Nephite perception as though they possessed a modern map. In reality they [Nephites] saw only inlets, forest, forks, banks, jungle, plains, and mountains. ... The principle 'lands' of the Book of Mormon can be defined as the drainage basins of single or interconnected river systems. ... each 'land' ... [was] a drainage basin surrounded by mountains. ... The perception of the Nephites was biased by their mode of travel and their experience, which was always based upon the time they had travelled, which they could correctly perceive, not distance, which they could not correctly perceive. ... a mountain range, regardless of its width, is perceived as a line when viewed horizontally."
The practice of the Nephites was to name their cities and lands after the first settler or founder. " Now it was the custom of the people of Nephi to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them;" (Alma 8:7). Thus we can assume that place names actually reflect the names of the founders. For example, the city of Zarahemla was named after the then current leader of the Mulekites. This means that the city was named and settled during the lifetime of the Mulekite leader Zarahemla (sometime around the period 279-130 BC), and not by one of his progenitors, and especially not by Mulek, the father of the Mulekites, thus dating the city to post 300 BC. Incidently, this also indicates a late date for the contact of Coriantumr with the Mulekites (Omni 1:20-21), assuming that Zarahemla and his contemporaries were the ones who found him.
Assuming that Book of Mormon peoples followed the practices discovered by archeologists for this time period, they would have established their cities along or near perenial streams or springs, in valleys or on benches, and on fertile lands suitable for farming. Later on when warfare became common, the defensibility of the site would have been a consideration. The original named location would have been the city, the surrounding land (usually the entire river or stream drainage) termed the "land" of such and such a city, and in the case of national reference (such as Zarahemla and Nephi) the entire domain of a specific people. For example there was the city of Zarahemla, the local land of Zarahemla (which likely included the valley in which it was located), and the greater land of Zarahemla (which included all the Nephite lands from the narrow neck of land, south to the narrow strip of wilderness which was the northern border of the Lamanite lands). Nevertheless, most geographic names would have reference to only the city and the local surrounding land.
A Clue from Columbus.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi foretold the coming of the Europeans to the Americas. The fulfillment of this prophecy gives us a clue to the location of the Nephites "promised land". Nephi wrote:
"And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land (my emphasis).
And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.
And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.
And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations."
This prophecy was fulfilled literally. We recognize this "man among the gentiles" (verse 12) as Christopher Columbus, who first crossed the Atlantic in 1492 (and although he was not the first European to do so, he was the catalyst that initiated the European colonization). He made three more voyages to the Americas in subsequent years, and during these visits made contact with the Lamanites in the promised land. Where did he visit in the New World? Columbus did not visit Mexico or Guatemala, and certainly not the shores of the continental United States. Most of his initial contacts were in the islands of the Caribbean. But on his 3rd voyage in 1498 he briefly landed in Venezuela, and on the fourth voyage, in 1502, he spent four months exploring the Caribbean coast from Honduras to Panama. On that occasion he was impressed with one area which he named Costa Rica (Rich Coast). There he found the natives using a gold-copper alloy (called tumbaga) for ornaments and jewelry. But he was much more impressed with the southern region of Central America which he named Veraguas (now in western Panama). There the natives ostentatiously displayed pure gold jewelry and ornaments (the chronicles especially made mention of “gold mirrors” [i.e. round disks, or pectorals, of gold] which the Indians wore around their necks.) He traded with them extensively, and even successfully learned one local source of this gold. The Spaniards found they could trade simple trinkets, worth several cents, for gold objects worth hundreds of times more. (4)
John Sorenson has expressed his opinion that the fullfillment of Nephi's prophecy in 1 Nephi 13 took place in Latin America and not in the United States where we normally assume it took place. As noted above, Columbus contacted the Lamanites in Central America, the lands of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish could also qualify as the “mother Gentiles” (verse 17) who fought against the Gentile settlers in the promised land. In this part of Latin America the "gentiles" revolted against the "mother" country and won their freedom in much the same way, and about the same time, as the people of the United States won theirs. This view completely changes the implications of Nephi’s prophecy. It seems that the Nephite "promised land" was located in southern Central America, although this is difficult to accept for those of us in the United States who have the provincial attitude that only the U.S. could be the "promised land".
A Costa Rican Setting for Book of Mormon Geography.
Assuming that the Isthmus of Rivas in Nicaragua is the narrow neck of land described in the Book of Mormon, it follows that Costa Rica would have been the land southward, including the greater land of Zarahemla, and farther south the greater land of Nephi (which extended into western Panama). An attempt will now be made to identify the principal cities, lands and features mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Where possible these will be linked with recognized archeological sites dating to the Book of Mormon period; however, I am still in the process of trying to identify such sites, and many of them may still be undiscovered as the country has only been partially explored archeologically.