A NEW MODEL FOR
BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
By James Lee Warr
Farms Review of Site
The Book of Mormon communicates clearly four fundamentals about its setting: its lands were warm, narrow in at least one place, flanked by "seas," and small. Many inferences flow from these facts, the most salient being that Book of Mormon events occurred somewhere in Middle America. But where? Dozens of correlations have been proposed over the years, with no consensus in sight. In this essay I review two recent proposals and consider their merits against the backdrop of adjacent alternatives. In doing so, I presume that getting the geography right is important for a variety of reasons and that there are clear tests for making the determination. Here I evaluate two models in light of geographical, archaeological, and anthropological criteria. Physical features and city locations need to conform to the claims in the text, sites need to date to the right time periods, and there should be evidence (or a plausible presumption) of the cultural practices mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
Response to Clark's Review
Sent: Wednesday, February 16, 2005 7:34 PM
To: John Edward Clark
Subject: Farms Review
Re: review in FARMS Review 16 #1.
I have read your review of my theory (A New Model for Book of Mormon
Geography) in the recent issue of FARMS Review and am complimented that
you felt it worthy of review. I think you were fair and reasonable in
your treatment of my proposals, and I concede that there are a number of
points which you appropriately criticize such as populations (much too
high), and lack of clarity in place names (Lake Nicaragua as both east
and north sea). I am in the process of correcting these and the other
errors. But I remain unpersuaded on the remaining points, and would
like the opportunity to defend them if you have the time to indulge me.
Sincerely, James Warr
17 Feb. 2005
Dear James: Great to hear from you, and thanks for checking in. I
learned much from your website and hope to learn more. I would
appreciate seeing a more convincing argument, and I do not think I have
closed the door on your model. Best, John E. Clark
25 Feb. 2005
Following your invitation, I have tried to provide some more convincing arguments on the points that I feel are of most importance. I am sorry that I have taken so long to respond, but my wife has me fully involved in a remodeling project, so my study time has been limited. I would appreciate your comments, or counter arguments on the following points.
I agree that there are cultural differences in the interpretation of direction and these are evident in groups such as the Maya. However I contend that the Nephites use of direction, at least as it is translated in the Book of Mormon, is consistent with our modern view. In the introduction to your paper A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies you seem to argue for the same thing when you emphasize that one should "assume a literal meaning" when attempting to interpret Book of Mormon geography.
Several examples will illustrate the consistency of this logic. As Lehi's group traveled along the shore of the Red Sea, Nephi informs us that they were traveling in a nearly south-southeast direction (1 Ne. 16:13). Later they changed their course to "nearly eastward" (1 Ne. 17:1). These directions correspond precisely to the directions which would be taken, using "modern" directions, to arrive at the proposed land of Bountiful in Oman. There doesn't seem to be any "cultural" confusion here. Cannot we therefore assume that, at least in the beginning, the Nephites were using "standard" cardinal directions.
I have also reviewed the Old Testament to try and find a cultural difference in the Hebrew's use of directions, but cannot find any. There are numerous directional references, but they all correspond to modern usage. I am not familiar with Hebrew, so I don't know if these correct directional references resulted from the translation process. But if this were the case, one could also argue that the translation process would have also rendered the Book of Mormon directionally correct for the modern reader.
Others also seem to disagree with Sorenson's assumption that the Nephites used a culturally distinct directional system. For example Randall Spackman, (FARMS Review 15:1) in his review of Sorenson's book, states: "Sorenson's treatment of the Nephite directional system in Mormon's Map is for me the least satisfying discussion in the entire book. It is not a step forward.-----Finally, Sorenson turns to passages in the Book of Mormon having something to do with directions. He begins by mentioning the obvious difference between terms such as north and northward, south and southward. He then jumps to what I consider an unsupportable conclusion. ‘By their frequency of using the ‘-ward' suffix, we can infer that Mormon and his ancestors used a somewhat different cultural scheme for directions than we do' (p. 80). Why is this a reasonable inference? Did Mormon use the suffix or did Joseph Smith, in his attempt to express a Nephite concept? How does frequency of use necessarily require a different directional system? What if the Nephite directional scheme were exactly the same as ours, but the more important geographic areas were not directly north or south of the Nephites? Wouldn't Joseph Smith then refer to northward and southward as a matter of accuracy and fact, rather than to indicate a different directional scheme? Indeed, in an earlier chapter of Mormon's Map, Sorenson uses the term northward to help explain his reason for tilting the hourglass-shaped Nephite lands away from a strict north-south axis (pp. 18–20). That is, his argument about the need for a tilt in the axis of the Nephite land of promise is founded on an interpretation of the Nephite directional system so that it included cardinal directions. Clearly, this matter has not been thoroughly examined, and we have no reason at this point to disregard a directional system based on cardinal directions."
Quoting again, "The best that Sorenson seems to be able to muster in this section is an expression of caution. ‘Beware of making assumptions about meanings that may prove to be misleading because they spring from modern-day assumptions rather than from ancient ways' (p. 81). However, Sorenson has not guided us through an examination of passages leading to the conclusion that a literal reading is not appropriate when it comes to the Nephite directional system. In fact, he acknowledges that not enough work has been done on this topic. While commenting that ‘directional matters' are often ‘subtle,' he expressly notes that there is much yet to be considered ‘before we even know all the right questions about Nephite direction systems'."
"[Later] Sorenson seems to throw his required caution to the wind when he interprets north and south seas literally. .these seas seem to serve his purpose of tilting the axis of the Nephite promised land to an orientation similar to that of Mesoamerica. Frankly, my conclusion from this very brief review of Book of Mormon directions is identical to Sorenson's in one regard: so little work has apparently been done on the topic that we do not yet know all the right questions to ask."
Quoting again from your paper (A Key.....) "My assessments of distance are based upon travel times". You then go on to give an example of estimating distance by the number of hours it takes to travel from Provo to Burley by automobile. I agree with this concept completely. But it is of little value unless it is based upon average speed, average weather conditions, etc. It is of no value whatsoever to estimate your ground travel time by comparing it with the time it takes an airplane to travel the same distance. As you (and Sorenson) correctly observed that there are cultural overtones in directional orientation, it is also important to consider the cultural overtones in perception of distance. The ancients looked upon time much differently than modern man does, and our interpretation of Book of Mormon distances should take that into consideration. I contend that just as our "mile" needs to be standardized to be useful, the Nephite's "days travel" was roughly standardized to an average distance in order to be culturally useful.
It is much more useful to take our examples of distance from indigenous sources rather than comparing them with modern marathon runners or "Guiniss Book of Records" type examples. And although the Tarahumara Indians were exceptional runners, we have no evidence that the Nephites were similarly endowed. Also there is no evidence that the Nephites were notably more swift or of greater endurance than the Lamanites.
Now several examples to illustrate my point. (You have probably already read these in my paper, but you did not comment on them.) On Columbus' 4th voyage he spent quite a bit of time on the coast of western Panama near Bocas del Toro. The native had told him about the Pacific ocean and he asked them how long it would take to travel overland to it. They told him it would take nine days which is apparently the time it took them to travel this distance of approximately 65 miles, traversing the sierra and going through the tropical growth. This is a rate of about 7 miles per day. A second example is from the life of Balboa. In planning his expedition across Panama to the Pacific, he also questioned the natives who told him it would take six days to travel this distance of 45 miles. Again a rate between 7-8 miles per day. It actually took Balboa much longer, but these examples give us an idea of the pre-conquest peoples measure of distance. It was just as you implied in your paper. It was based upon the distance that would normally be traveled in one day by the average native. It could also be noted that in the northern Native American culture, distances were also generally measured in days travel time.
One final point. I agree with the military context of Mormon's measurements. However, I do not think that he was referring to special personnel, such as military couriers, but was specifying the distance he could move a body of troops in a days time. Here again, an average measurement. Such a measurement would be useful in his duties as military commander. Exceptional values on the other hand, which would vary with the individual, would not be of particular value.
2a. The Narrow Neck of Land.
In conjunction with distance, I also need to discuss the distance across the narrow neck, which was defined as a days journey (or a day and a half journey in a second reference). In view of the above section, the 15-18 mile width of the Isthmus of Rivas is within reason. Also if it is compared with historical travel, such as the Mormon Pioneers, it is very comparable as they averaged about 15 miles a day. In addition, it seems as if the "narrowness" is in its favor. Where in all the literature (except in Book of Mormon geography papers) can you find Tehuantepec referred to as a "narrow neck"? Of course if you use the definition of isthmus, narrow is part of the definition. The Nephites did not have maps (at least not in our sense of the word), and did not understand vertical geography as we do (another cultural variable!). They had a horizontal view of their world. A "narrow neck" would have had to have been observable by the individual on the ground. Such is not the case with Tehuantepec. You would need a map, or an aerial view, in order to even be aware that Tehuantepec is an isthmus. On the other hand, someone climbing to the top of the coastal range on the Isthmus of Rivas could observe both bodies of water and know that it was indeed an isthmus or "narrow neck of land". In addition the incident of the plague of snakes in Jaredite history would be much more feasible with a narrow isthmus.
2b. The Limhi party.
Different authors have used the incident of the Limhi party to justify a "wide" narrow neck of land (isn't that an oxymoron?). They claim that Limhi's people would have known if they had passed through a truly "narrow" neck of land. This is based on several assumptions which aren't necessarily correct. First is the assumption that they were aware of the geography of the land northward. Second, that they were able to see both seas from their route of travel. Third, that they actually passed all the way through the isthmus. I personally believe that these assumptions are incorrect. Concerning the first one, it is evident from the record that they were not at all familiar with the geography. The fact that they were lost for almost the entire journey is good evidence of this. The first mention of the "narrow neck of land", or similar expressions, in the text of the Book of Mormon is given by Mormon who inserted it in a narrative dated about 90 BC (Alma 22:32--and this is actually an aside, I believe, written during the abridgement process at a much later time). The second reference is 67 BC (Alma 50:34–again likely an interpolation by Mormon). The Limhi expedition took place prior to 121 BC, so it is entirely plausible that they had no conception of the northern geography. They didn't even know where Zarahemla was. How could they possibly know about the land northward. In fact it seems that all the Nephites were ignorant of the basic geography of the land north of Nephi. We see them continually being lost. The original Mosiah didn't seem to know where he was going, but was led by the Lord to Zarahemla (Omni 13). Ammon's party didn't know the way back to the Land of Nephi and was lost for 40 days (Mos. 7:4). Zeniff's group wanders (lost?) in the wilderness many days, even though he had recently been to the Land of Nephi (Mos. 9:3). Ammon apparently remembered the way back to Zarahemla, and led Limhi's people there (Mos. 22:13); however the Lamanite army pursing Limhi's group became lost. They found Amulon's group somewhere in their wanderings, but the Amulonites didn't know the way back to Nephi either. They were only able to orient themselves after encountering Alma's group who showed them the way back (Mos. 23:36-37). So we see a basic pattern of ignorance of the Nephite geography until sometime after 100 BC. (However, it is true that the Mulekites were at least superficially aware of the northern geography [Alma 22:30-31] and could have passed some of this information on to the Nephites, but Limhi's group was three generations removed from that contact).
Regarding the second assumption, it is entirely possible that the Limhi party never ascended to a point where they could observe the basic geography. If we take the example of the Isthmus of Rivas, if one travels the easy, level route along the west shore of Lake Nicaragua, one would never see the Pacific Ocean until he were approaching Honduras. The coastal range effectively blocks any view of the Pacific.
And the last assumption, it is not at all necessary for the Limhi party to have penetrated all the way north to Cumorah (Ramah), as many authors have asserted, to comply with the text of the Book of Mormon. The descriptions of the last battles of the Jaredites have them traveling all over the kingdom, fighting on one coast, then crossing to the other. First in a population center, then in the wilderness. It is likely that there were battles in the city of Lib, which was located on the narrow neck.. Also the capitol, Moron, was near the narrow neck (Ether 7:6) and there were undoubtably dead bodies strewn over the southern Jaredite lands. Isn't it likely that before they ever got to Cumorah, a large part of the population had already been killed. Two million (Ether 15:2) were dead before the last battles even started, and it is likely that these casualties would have been close to the capitol area. The wars went on for many years, and the whole face of the land (south as well as north) was littered with the dead until the inhabitants could not bear the stench (Ether 14:21-23). Therefore, it would only have been necessary for the Limhi party to have discovered the first one or two southern Jaredite cities in order to gain the experience and obtain the evidence that they brought back with them.
3. Evidence of Writing.
One of the points that you have made previously, and that you reassert in your review is that there should be surviving evidence of a written language, because of course the Nephites were literate and kept extensive written records. This of course would tend to eliminate Costa Rica as a possible site as there is little evidence of written records in the archeological record or pre-conquest cultures. However this assertion is based on the assumption that the Nephite records or writing system would somehow survive, at least in part. Is it possible that this assumption is erroneous? Isn't it just as likely that every vestige of Nephite culture would have been eradicated by their zealous enemies, the Lamanites? Consider what some of the Nephite prophets have said.
Jacob. We know that the things which we write upon plates must remain; But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away. (Jacob 4:1-2.)
Enos (speaking of the Lamanites). For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers. (Enos 1:14.)
Mormon. And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni. (Mormon 6:6.)
Several things can be derived from these scriptures. First, although the Nephites apparently wrote upon perishable materials, they knew that only those things written on plates would endure. (Note: this is a good indication that they did not write on stone. If they had written on stone, such records would have endured. No where in the record is it stated or implied that they wrote on stone as did the Olmec and Maya. The only instance of such writing is that of Coriantumr and he was a Jaredite.) Second, the Lamanites (except for periods of righteousness) had sworn to, intended to, and probably succeeded in destroying any Nephite records which came into their hands. (The Spanish conquerors weren't the only ones who destroyed another culture's history.) Third, not only did the Lamanites want to destroy Nephite records and scriptures, they intended to destroy Nephite traditions and culture. Fourth, a major part of the Nephite's struggle with the Lamanites was precisely to preserve their records, religion, and culture which was distinct from that of the Lamanites. Fifth, all surviving records written upon plates which had been passed down through the kings and prophets were hidden by Mormon in Cumorah, except those given to Moroni which were later deposited in the New York Cumorah..
From the above, I have formed the opinion that following the annihilation of the Nephites, the Lamanites did their best to extinguished every trace of Nephite society and culture. In such a scenario, one would not expect to find surviving examples of Nephite script, much as when the Hysos kings were driven out of Egypt and all record of their reign erased, including the history of Joseph.
One additional point regarding Nephite script. The glyphic writing of the Maya, Olmec, etc. in no way resembles the example of the Reformed Egyptian that we have from the Anton Transcript, so it doesn't follow that the evidence of writing in Mesoamerica proves anything in relation to Book of Mormon geography.
In your review you suggest that Lake Nicaragua would not have been considered a "sea" as it was not a large enough body of water. However, it seems that it was originally thought of as a sea. The pre-conquest natives called it Cocibolca which I understand means Sweet Sea. The Spaniards followed the same line of reasoning when they named it Mar Dulce. In addition, the Nephites came from a culture where small bodies of water were called seas, i.e. the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea (unless they were called something else in Hebrew which I suppose is a possibility). Both of these bodies of water are smaller than Lake Nicaragua.
5. Jaredites in the land southward.
I contend that the Nephites occupied the land southward, and only began moving into the land northward after about 100 BC. The Jaredites on the other hand primarily occupied the land northward, and although aware of the land southward, maintained it as a hunting reserve. There apparently was no significant Jaredite construction in the land southward. The following examples support this view. When the Mulekites traveled up into the land of Zarahemla, they went up into a wilderness, not an occupied land, or even a previously occupied land (Alma 22:30-31). The Limhi party wandered in the wilderness, never mentioning any occupants or evidence of former civilization until they reached the scenes of the Jaredite destruction in the land northward (Mos. 8:7-8). The Nephites also never mention any evidence of previous occupation until they begin exploring the north country which they called Desolation. Desolation was the land northward that had been previously been "peopled" and destroyed, in contrast to the land south of it which was a wilderness that had not been previously "peopled" (Alma 22:30-31). Thus I conclude that there should be no evidence of Formative or Olmec civilization in the land southward prior to 500 BC (however, some small "hunter-gatherer" type sites would be expected). Any such evidence would preclude such a location as the land of Zarahemla.
A second point is that the Nephites did not appear to use rock construction in building their buildings. I discuss this in more detail in my paper, and will not take the time to do so here. However, if this contention is correct, stone construction would also tend to preclude a location as a former Nephite land.
Regarding Sorenson's dating of King Lib, I believe 1500 BC is much too early. Lib falls in the middle range of the Jaredite civilization, with 15 generations before and 12 after. Placing 15 generations before 1500 BC would extend the time frame too far back in my opinion. I would estimate that he lived about 900-1000 BC. But, even if he were dated at 1500 BC, the previous paragraphs would tend to preclude any Jaredite expansion into the land southward.
A note regarding Dr. Sorenson. I don't want you to interpret my disagreement with his placing the narrow neck of land at Tehuantepec and his interpretation of direction as a rejection of his work. I believe he is truly the pre-eminent scholar on the subject of Book of Mormon geography and I have always appreciated his writings and insight. If I need information, or have questions, I turn to him first as the recognized authority