A NEW MODEL FOR
BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
By James Lee Warr
The Land of Zarahemla
The criteria for the land of Zarahemla:
It was located to the west of the River Sidon, and probably at least half way up its course (Alma 6:7).
It was lower in elevation than the Land of Nephi to the south (Alma 27:5).
There should be no Jaredite style ruins (i.e. of stone) (see Nephite buildings).
It was divided from the Land of Nephi to the south by a narrow strip of east-west wilderness. (Alma22:27)
It was in a central part of the Nephite lands which were south of the narrow neck of land (Hel. 1:27).
It had a mixed (and probably segregated) population of Nephites and Mulekites which probably resulted in separate barrios or twinned cities (Omni 1:16-19; Mosiah 25:4).
The City of Zarahemla had a wall (it does not specify whether it was of stone or timber) (Hel. 1:21).
It was located at a distance of 20 days travel from the City of Nephi (apparently in a northward direction) (Mosiah 23:3; 24:25).
It was occupied by the Nephite faction from about 200 B.C. to 322 A.D. (The Mulekites may have arrived there fifty years or so earlier.)
It was bordered on all sides by areas of wilderness (Alma 22), including a west wilderness (Alma 8:3), the Wilderness of Hermounts northwest from Zarahemla (Alma 2:37), and the east wilderness (Alma 25:5).
South of Zarahemla and the narrow strip of wilderness, lay the expansive south wilderness of the Lamanite domains (Alma 22:27).
It was burned at the time of the crucifixion (3 Ne. 9:3).
The city of Gideon lay a short distance to the east (Alma 6:7).
It was an area where tropical diseases (i.e. fevers) and their remedies were present (Alma 46:40).
It is proposed that the local Land of Zarahemla was located in Costa Rica in the Upper Reventazon Valley. This is to be distinguished from the greater Land of Zarahemla which included all Nephite lands between the land of Nephi and the land of Desolation. After studying the various criteria, I feel that the city of Zarahemla was most likely located near the modern city of Turrialba. There are several archeological sites near there which date to the Book of Mormon time period, and which could possibly have been the Nephite capitol. One is several miles south of Turrialba and is called La Montana (7). The other (which I favor) is several miles east of Turrialba and is composed of the combined sites of La Zoila, La Mora and La Isabel (these are one continuous site, but are located on different modern properties, and each segment was given the name of the local farm) (7).
How well does this area match the criteria for the Land of Zarahemla? A a major river runs through it. This is the Reventazon River, which I believe is the River Sidon. The area is bordered on the south, north, and northwest by mountainous (wilderness) areas, and on the east by lower mountains which descend into rain forest. To the west is the Central Valley, where the capitol San Jose is located. To the immediate south is the formidable barrier of the Talamancan Cordillera, which viewed from the Zarahemla area would appear as a straight line of mountains.
This area of Costa Rica is a beautiful, temperate region, with moderate rainfall. To the north rise a series of volcanoes-Poas, Barva, Irazu and Turrialba-two of which are still active. It is approximately 40 miles long by 20 miles wide, and consists of stepped benches descending from the mountains, which are cut by many streams and ravines. The area ranges in elevation from 3200–6500 ft.
Whereas lower elevations in Costa Rica have a more inhospitable climate, the higher elevations of the uplands result in mild temperatures year round. As a consequence of this ideal weather, it is considered to be one of the three best climates in the world. Is it any wonder that seventy percent of the modern Costa Rican people reside in this region of the country. With fertile soils, and moderate rainfall, it is the breadbasket of the nation. Because the volcanic soils are very fertile, it is possible to grow two to three crops a year. Due to this fertility, the pre-Columbian Indians probably did not have to practice slash and burn agriculture as in other areas, which could have resulted in more sedentary and stable communities. It is indeed a "promised land".
Yet some may ask, "Where are the ruins?" This is actually one of the proofs of Nephite culture. There should be no large, Jaredite style, ruins (see previous discussion on Nephite buildings). The Nephites built with wood, and not stone. Wood does not survive over time. Nibley correctly observes "Nephite communities will give no spectacular ruins.... People underestimate the capacity of things to disappear, and do not realize that the ancients almost never built of stone"(8). All we can expect are the actual sites where the Nephites built and lived, which is exactly what we find in Costa Rica.
In and around the Meseta Central there are a number of archaeological sites, especially toward the east, some carbon dated as early as 500 BC (9). Some of these sites appear to be twin cities. There are diverse burials suggesting a mixed or varied population such as we might find with mixed Nephite/Mulekite populations, and later Lamanite invaders. The population growth seems to match the Book of Mormon sequence. The Costa Rican archeologist Michael Snarskis comments "From c. 100 BC to 200 AD, there was a veritable explosion of sites [i.e., population] and a trend toward social stratification, evidenced by a new series of high-status artifacts ... Sites of the El Bosque (middle Atlantic watershed) and Pavas (Central Highlands) phases, dating from c. 100 B.C.--500 A.D., are numerous and large." (10) Again quoting Snarskis, he summarizes the pre-history of this area from an archaeologist's perspective: "Starting 1000 B.C.: a few small sedentary communities with pottery and perhaps a northern South American subsistence pattern, i.e., mostly root cropping, followed by a rapid increase in population and social complexity, perhaps stimulated by developing maize agriculture, complimented by polycropping and hunting. A culmination occurred around the time of Christ [my emphasis] in sedentary, fairly large nodes of population, characterized by stratified society with complex ritual connections to Mesoamerican trade networks, and probably a redistributive hierarchy.... The first five or six centuries A.D. saw sporadic intergroup resource competition and warfare,.... possibly indicating population pressure, the apparent intromission (c. 500-700 A.D.) of foreign peoples and traditions; changes in house and tomb forms; and the gradual degradation of ceramics,...The "balkinization" of these zones took place in the late period; they broke into relatively small ... settlements"(9). This sounds much like a typical archaeologist might describe and summarize Book of Mormon history.
One might suppose that there is a problem with this proposal due to the apparent lack of commercial mineral deposits in Costa Rica , especially of the precious metals. The Book of Mormon refers to the richness of mineral deposits in the "promised land" (1Ne.18:25; 2Ne.5:15; Jacob 2:12; Jarom 1:8). However it will be noted that these references are all to the land of Nephi, not Zarahemla. Never-the-less, one scripture Hel. 6:9-11, does indicate that there were mineral deposits in both the land northward (Zarahemla) and the land southward (Nephi). However, it should be noted that there are small to medium size mineral deposits of copper and gold in modern Costa Rica (refer to map 2). These may have been worked anciently; and former deposits could have been exhausted (such as easily worked placer deposits) or covered by recent (since Book of Mormon times) ash fall from the adjacent volcanoes. Also the Osa Peninsula had rich deposits of alluvial gold and many of the streams along the Pacific slope carry placer gold. There is also a zone of gold deposits near Juntas toward the west coast. In addition the Talamancan Indians have legends of gold mines in the Talamanca Mountains (which remain largely unexplored).