Printer-friendly version

Does Archaeology Support The Book Of Mormon? (Full Version)

Does Archaeology Support The Book Of Mormon? (Full Version)

A Survey of the Evidence

This is the full version of this article. You can also read a condensed version of this article. 


According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church), the Book of Mormon is a divinely inspired revelation that is complimentary to the Bible. 1 First published in 1830, the Book of Mormon tells of the transoceanic migrations of two ancient Near Eastern peoples to the Americas. The first of these peoples, called ''Jaredites," are supposed to have come to the hitherto unpopulated2 New World at the time of the confusing of tongues at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11; Ether 1:3;6:1-18), which the Mormon Church dates at approximately 2,000 B.C.3 The Jaredites are said to have founded a great civilization before battling themselves to extinction about 600-300 B.C.4 A second migration to the pre-Columbian Americas is supposed to have taken place in the early sixth century B.C. (1 Nephi 18:23-25). This migration consisted of two small groups — the Lehites and the Mulekites — both of which are described as Hebrews from Israel. They merged sometime after their separate arrivals in the New World. The Nephite and Lamanite nations whose histories are chronicled in the Book of Mormon are supposed to have derived from these sixth century B.C. Jewish immigrants. Official Mormon missionary literature describes the Book of Mormon as,

. . .the ancient history of this people, telling of their wars, movements, kings, and their religion–which was the religion of Israel, for these people were Israelites and practiced the law of Moses.5

The LDS Church claims in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon that the Lamanites, the last surviving Book of Mormon people, are "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."6 No non-Mormon specialist in New World archaeology supports the premise of a civilization of Hebrew immigrants in the pre-Columbian Americas as described in the Book of Mormon, and even many contemporary Mormon scholars no longer support the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Writing in the independent Mormon scholarly journal Dialogue, Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe of Yale University emphasized this point:

... as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing [that Hebrew immigrants build a civilization in ancient America as described in the Book of Mormon] to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group.7

Despite the controversial nature of the Book of Mormon premise of a pre-Columbian civilization of Hebrew immigrants, official Mormon promotional literature continues to claim archaeological support for the Book of Mormon. For example, a promotional brochure published by the LDS Church entitled What Is The Book of Mormon?, claims that there are —

archaeological evidences that have been unearthed in regions of Central and South America. These remnants of the civilizations that once flowered in the Western hemisphere are supporting proofs that the Book of Mormon is true.8

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the credibility of these claims of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Geography

The Book of Mormon describes the world of its inhabitants as an hourglass–shaped land mass made up of a "land southward" surrounded by water, except for a "small neck of land" connecting it to a "land northward" (Alma 22:32). Determining the geographical location of these lands is a necessary first step before archaeology proper can be employed to evaluate the Book of Mormon, as Mormon archaeologists acknowledge.9 However, when one examines Mormon explanations of Book of Mormon geography, it turns out that there are two very different and mutually exclusive theories. According to the traditional view, the Book of Mormon peoples inhabited all, or virtually all, of North and South America.

Pitted against the traditional view is the so-called "limited geography theory" which posits that Book of Mormon peoples occupied only a 300-400 mile section of southern Mexico and Central America.

The Traditional Theory. The view of Book of Mormon geography taught by Joseph Smith and subsequent presidents and apostles of the Mormon Church includes three major, closely related points: (1) the geographical extent of Book of Mormon lands included all, or virtually all, of North and South America; (2) the New World was unpopulated prior to the arrival of the Jaredites; and (3) the American Indians are the descendants of the Lamanites, a Book of Mormon people of Semitic racial stock.

Regarding point one, the geographical extent of Book of Mormon lands, consider the description of Helaman 3:8 and its traditional understanding as indicated by the footnotes in editions of the Book of Mormon from 1880-1920:

"And it came to pass that they [the Nephites] did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land [g] southward to the land [h] northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea [i] south, to the sea [j] north, from the sea [k] west, to the sea [l] east."

The footnotes provide the following identifications of these lands and bodies of water:

"g, South America. h, North America. i, Atlantic, south of Cape Horn. j, Arctic, north of North America. k, Pacific. l, Atlantic."10

These footnotes demonstrate that in the traditional view North and South America are understood to be the two bulges of the hourglass-shaped land mass described in Alma 22:32, the Atlantic Ocean south of Cape Horn is the "sea south," the Arctic Ocean north of North America is the "sea north," the Pacific Ocean is the "sea west," and the Atlantic Ocean is the "sea east."

There is impressive evidence that Joseph Smith identified the coast of Chile at about 30 degrees south latitude as the place where Lehi's group made landfall in the New World.11 From this southern extreme the Nephites and Lamanites eventually ranged at least 6,000 miles north to New York State, where Smith located the "Hill Cumorah," site of the epic Nephite-Lamanite battle of extinction, near his boyhood home of Palmyra, New York. LDS apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (latter 10th President of the LDS Church) affirmed that the location of Cumorah in Palmyra, New York was the unquestioned teaching of Joseph Smith and successive Mormon presidents and apostles:

... the Prophet Joseph Smith himself is on record definitely declaring the present hill called Cumorah to be the exact hill spoken of in the Book of Mormon. Further, the fact that all his associates from the beginning down have spoken of it as the identical hill where Mormon and Moroni hid the records, must carry some weight. It is difficult for a reasonable person to believe that such men as Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, David Whitmer, and many others could speak frequently of the spot where the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the plates as the Hill Cumorah, and not be corrected by the Prophet, if that were not the fact. That they did speak of this hill in the days of the Prophet in this definite manner is an established record of history.12

The second major tenet of the traditional view of Book of Mormon geography is that the Americas were unpopulated prior to the arrival of the Jaredites (about 2,000 B.C.) In a March 1, 1842 article in the Mormon periodical Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith described the arrival of the Jaredites as the "first settlement" of ancient America:

In this important and interesting book [i.e., the Book of Mormon] the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel [Jaredites], at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era.13

The view that the Jaredites settled a virgin continent is consistent with Book of Mormon internal evidence. There is never any mention of other neighboring peoples to the Jaredites, or to the Nephites and Lamanites who succeeded them.

Following their arrival in ancient America, the small band of Jaredites, which would probably not have numbered more than 100-200 based on Book of Mormon descriptions,14 proceeded to multiply and heavily populate (Ether 6:18) the previously unpeopled continent, according to Joseph Smith. He described this in a September 15, 1842 article in Times and Seasons:

... we read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother came on to this continent from the confusion and scattering at the Tower [of Babel], and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from sea to sea, with towns and cities ... 15

The third tenet of traditional Book of Mormon geography follows from the first two: If the Book of Mormon peoples inhabited the entire Western hemisphere, and if they arrived as the first settlers of a virgin continent, then the native American Indians must be the lineal descendents of these peoples. This, in fact, is what Joseph Smith and subsequent Mormon presidents and apostles taught. Smith wrote in the March 1, 1842 Times and Seasons that,

... the principal nation of the second race [i.e., the Nephites and Lamanites] fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century [A.D.]. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.16

Another example of this teaching is a June 1834 incident in which Joseph Smith identified a skeleton found in an Indian burial mound in Illinois as that of a Lamanite warrior named Zelph. The Zelph incident is especially significant in that Smith claimed to have made the identification by divine revelation:

... the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph ... who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains.17

The LDS Church continues to teach the traditional view that the American Indians are the descendents of Book of Mormon people. This is illustrated by a statement in the Introduction of current editions of the Book of Mormon which describes the Lamanites as "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."18

Objections to Traditional Book of Mormon Geography. In the last fifty years many Mormon scholars have concluded that this traditional view is untenable. This conclusion is based on the inherent improbabilities that arise when one attempts to apply Book of Mormon descriptions of travel times and population growth to the vast expanse of North and South America. For instance, while the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the rival Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were centered near the "narrow neck" of land (in Central America), it says that they agreed to meet for the final battle, in which the Nephites were annihilated and which concludes Book of Mormon chronology (ca. A.D. 421), at the "hill Cumorah" (Mormon 6:1-6), which Joseph Smith and Mormon tradition locate several thousand miles distant in western New York state, near the Mormon prophet's boyhood home. No reason is provided for the armies traveling this immense distance to do battle.19

Another major complication for traditional Book of Mormon geography is the premise that the vast North and South American continents were populated by two small groups of transoceanic, Semitic immigrants. According to the Book of Mormon, the civilization created by the first Near Eastern immigrants to the New World, the Jaredites, was established on a virgin continent about 2,000 B.C. and ended in self-destruction some 1,500 years later. The Americas were then repopulated by immigrants from Israel who arrived in the 6th century B.C. According to Joseph Smith, the American Indians are descendents of this second group of Book of Mormon people.20

This position, which the LDS Church continues to maintain today,21 implies that Native Americans are of Semitic racial stock. There are four major problems with Book of Mormon claims regarding the population of the Americas. First of all, the rapid population growth depicted in the Book of Mormon is highly improbable, if not completely impossible. The claims made for the Nephites in the Book of Mormon in this regard are summarized by Vogel:

[W]e are told in Helaman 3:8 that the people 'did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.' If this statement refers to the entire North and South American continents, it is an incredible accomplishment in population growth. However, it is not surprising that the Book of Mormon author could easily fill the Americas with Nephites and Lamanites. The Book of Mormon peoples get off to a quick start. In the short space of two generations they are already spoken of in terms of 'multitudes' and 'armies' [Jacob 7:17, 21, 25]. And no matter how many thousands are killed in battle, they keep coming back in still greater numbers.22

Second, apart from the improbable nature of the population growth claims of the Book of Mormon, there is no sound historical evidence for its claim that Hebrew immigrants came to the Americas in pre-Columbian times, or if they did, that they established a civilization such as that described in the Book of Mormon. According to the Smithsonian Institution, archaeological evidence shows that the Western hemisphere was populated by East Asian peoples migrating across the Bering Strait and rules out "alternatives involving long sea voyages"23 as a significant contribution to New World settlement, as proposed by the Book of Mormon:

There is no good evidence for immigration via other routes before the Norse arrivals from Greenland and Newfoundland about A.D. 1,000, and if other early voyages occurred, they were insignificant for the origins and composition of New World populations.24

Third, there is no scientific foundation for the Book of Mormon premise that the Native American Indian peoples of North, Central, and South America are of Semitic stock. The overwhelming scholarly consensus is that the native New World peoples are of east Asian Mongolian stock. To cite the words of a 1985 Smithsonian Institution paper on the subject:

The American Indians are physically Mongoloids and thus must have originated in eastern Asia. The differences in appearance of the various New World tribes in recent times are due to (1) the initial variability of their Asian ancestors; (2) adaptations over several millennia to varied New World environments; and (3) different degrees of interbreeding in post-Columbian times with people of European and African origins.25

Fourth, according to the traditional view of Book of Mormon geography the western hemisphere was unpopulated prior to the coming of the Jaredites. But this conflicts with the archaeological evidence which shows conclusively that the New World was populated at least as early as 9,500 B.C., and perhaps as far back as 30,000 B.C., by east Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Straits.26

The Limited Geography Theory.

In order to remove these inherent improbabilities and attempt to salvage the credibility of the Book of Mormon, a number of modern Mormon scholars have proposed several variations of a new approach to Book of Mormon geography, usually called the "limited geography theory." This view, whose most influential proponent is Brigham Young University archaeologist John L. Sorenson, restricts the Book of Mormon setting to a 300-400-mile-long section of Southern Mexico and Central America, with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec corresponding to the "narrow neck" of the hourglass-shaped land mass described above.27 However, the limited geography theory appears to simply replace the improbabilities of traditional Book of Mormon geography with a number of fundamental contradictions of Book of Mormon internal evidence and official Mormon pronouncements and traditions, without resolving the basic incompatibility with the archaeological evidence. For instance, Sorenson locates the hill Cumorah, scene of the epic final Nephite-Lamanite battle, in Southern Mexico, at a site only 90 miles from the "narrow neck" (the nexus of Nephite civilization).28 While this removes the unrealistic requirement of the traditional view that has the two armies marching thousands of miles north to present day New York state to do battle, it conflicts with the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah as "an exceeding great distance" (from the narrow neck) into the "land northward" (Helaman 3:3,4). If the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Sorenson's "narrow neck" of land, at 130 miles across, is "narrow," how can the 90 miles from the "narrow neck" to Sorenson's Cumorah fit the Book of Mormon description of "an exceeding great distance"?29

Another major discrepancy of the limited geography theory is the absence of what the Book of Mormon refers to as the "sea north" and the "sea south." As discussed above, in the traditional view these descriptions correspond to the Arctic Ocean north of North America and the Atlantic Ocean south of the Cape Horn, respectively. Furthermore, since advocates of the limited geography theory accept the tradition that Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates of the Book of Mormon from the "Hill Cumorah" near his Palmyra, New York home, the limited geography view requires a two-Cumorah theory, by which, at some point the heavy Book of Mormon plates are transferred thousands of miles from the Mesoamerican Cumorah to the Palmyra, New York Cumorah.

Yet another serious problem for the limited geography theory is the 45 degree directional skewing that is necessary in order to fit the various geographic features of the Book of Mormon into the proposed Central American site, and the resulting complete absence of a "sea north" and a "sea south," basic features of the area in the Book of Mormon.30 Map 2 shown above, adapted from John Sorenson's book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, illustrates the problem. It shows that the so-called "land northward" and "land southward" are actually oriented along a northwest-southeast line, while the so-called "east sea" and "west sea" are almost directly north and south, respectively, of the Book of Mormon lands. Sorenson attempts to explain this directional skewing by asserting that the Hebrew means of directional orientation, if applied to Central America by immigrants arriving from the west, would result in the orientation required by his theory.31 According to Sorenson, the Hebrews gainedtheir directional orientation by placing their backs to the Mediterranean Sea (Hebrew: yam, "sea," but also "west"), so that east (qedem: "fore" or "east") would be in front of them, south (yamin: "south" or "right hand") to the right, north (semol: "north" or "left hand") to the left, and west behind them.

However, numerous references in the Hebrew Bible shows that it was not the Mediterranean Sea, but the rising sun that ancient Israelites used as the basis for directional orientation.32 This is illustrated, for example, in the biblical descriptions of the orientation of the tabernacle and later temple, as facing "east, toward the rising sun" (e.g., Exodus 27:13; 38:13, New International Version, a quite literal translation of the Hebrew expression, qedemah mizrach). Unfortunately, the King James Version Bible (which is officially endorsed by the LDS Church)33 and which English-speaking Mormons use almost exclusively, is less precise in its rendering of this expression as, "east, eastward." However, the KJV rendering of Ezekiel 8:16 conveys unmistakably the use of the rising sun as the ancient Hebrews' primary directional datum:

And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD'S house, and behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they worshiped the sun toward the east [Hebrew: lashamesh qedmah].

Hebrew immigrants, arriving at Sorenson's proposed Central American site and using the sun as their directional reference point instead of the sea, would have arrived at the same directional orientation we use today. This leaves Sorenson's theory with serious discrepancies on the issues of directional orientation and the absence of a "sea north" and "sea south." Because of these conflicts with Mormon authorities, Mormon tradition, and Book of Mormon internal evidence, the limited geography theory has been repeatedly rejected by the spiritual authorities of the Mormon Church. In 1938 Mormon Apostle, and later President, Joseph Fielding Smith, said of the view:

This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place ... the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years.34

In the 1966 edition of his popular work, Mormon Doctrine, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that the location of Cumorah in New York State is unquestioned because:

Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and many of the early brethren who were familiar with the circumstances attending the coming forth of the Book of Mormon ... have left us pointed testimony ... 35

More recently, in 1979, the Church published an official rebuke of the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory" which labeled it "harmful" and a "challenge" to the "words of the prophets concerning the place where Moroni buried the records [i.e., the New York Hill Cumorah]."36

Clearly, Book of Mormon geography presents Mormons with a serious theological dilemma: on the one hand, the traditional view produces a number of inherent improbabilities that undermine the credibility and historicity of the Book of Mormon; on the other hand, the limited geography theory rejects the clear teaching of Mormon founder-prophet Joseph Smith and the Church's apostles and presidents down to today regarding Book of Mormon geography, and conflicts with Book of Mormon internal evidence at a number of basic points.

Book of Mormon Archaeology - Major Anachronisms

One of the most competent and helpful evaluations of Book of Mormon archaeology is a paper delivered by Brigham Young University archaeology professor Raymond T. Matheny at the 1984 Sunstone Theological Symposium in Salt Lake City.37 After working in the area of Mesoamerican archaeology for twenty-two years, Prof. Matheny reports his conclusion that scientific evidence does not support the theory of a New World setting for the peoples and events chronicled in the Book of Mormon. Matheny presents two basic lines of argument for this conclusion: (1) the Book of Mormon contains a great many major anachronisms, that is, things that are historically or culturally out of place. It introduces old world cultural achievements and concepts into a pre-Columbian New World setting, although there is no historical or archaeological evidence for these things, and (2) defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are left with only scattered bits of anomalous evidence which they interpret apart from accepted scientific standards of archaeological methodology.

Metallurgy. Among the most significant cultural anachronisms in the Book of Mormon is the depiction of Nephite civilization as having iron and other metal industries; we read of metal swords and breastplates, gold and silver coinage, and even machinery (2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3,8; Ether 7:9;10:23). However, there is no evidence that any New World civilization attained such an industry during Book of Mormon times (terminus ad quem A.D. 421). Matheny points out that a ferrous industry is not a simple feat involving a few people, but a complex process that requires a distinct socio-economic context and which leaves virtually indestructible archaeological evidence:

The tools that the people [in cultures that did have metallurgical industries] used are primitive but nonetheless they are there, and they spell out a system of exploitation of those natural resources. In refining ores and then bringing these to casting and true metallurgical processes is another bit of technology that leaves a lot of evidence. You can't refine ore without leaving a bloom of some kind or ... that is, impurities that blossom out and float to the top of the ore ... Also blooms off [sic] into silicas and indestructible new rock forms. In other words, when you have a ferrous metallurgical industry, you have these evidences of the detritus that is left over. You also have the fuels, you have the furnaces, you have whatever technologies that were performing these tasks, they leave solid evidences. And they are indestructible things ... non-ferrous metallurgical industries have similar evidences. No evidence has been found in the new world for a ferrous metallurgical industry dating to pre-Columbian times. And so this is a king-size problem, it seems to me, for so-called Book of Mormon archaeology. The evidence is absent.38

Prof. Matheny notes that while scattered iron artifacts have been found in pre-Columbian settings, in the absence of evidence of a metallurgical industry, they must be accounted for by random means, such as meteorites. But a few random, scattered artifacts are not a basis for scientific conclusions.39

Old World Agricultural Products. The Book of Mormon also depicts Nephite culture as including a number of old world agricultural products, including wheat (Mosiah 9:9), barley (Mosiah 7:22; 9:9), and flax (linen, 2 Nephi 13:23; Mosiah 10:5; Alma 1:29). Each of these products are anachronistic in terms of the archaeological record of pre-Columbian New World cultures. Again, as with metals, Matheny points out that a complex economic and social context is required to produce these products as they are portrayed in the Book of Mormon:

There's a whole system of production of wheat and barley ... It's a specialized production of food. You have to know something to make flax [the source of linen], and especially in tropical climates .... all of these are cultures that are highly developed and amount to systems, and so the Book of Mormon is saying that these systems existed here.40

However, there is no evidence for these agricultural systems in the pre-Columbian New World, according to Matheny. He notes that a 1983 Science magazine article describing barley found in a pre-Columbian setting is wrongly claimed as support for the Book of Mormon because the barley described was not a domesticated old world barley.41

Old World Domestic Animals. A further set of major anachronisms in the Book of Mormon concerns references to various old world domesticated animals, including asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine, and elephants, as integral parts of Book of Mormon culture. For example, Ether 9:18-19 describes the use of old world domesticated animals among the Jaredites:

And also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man; and more especially the elephants and cureloms cumoms.

However, these old world animals not present in the western hemisphere in pre-Columbian times. Furthermore, Matheny points out that each of these animals is a specialization that requires levels of cultural and economic development not attained in the pre-Columbian Americas:

You don't just have a cow or a goat or a horse as an esoteric pet or something. There is a system of raising these things, and the picture that is painted for me as I read this, and others too, is that we have [in Book of Mormon portrayals] ... domestic animals and so forth in the New World.42

Is it valid to claim, as some defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon do, that these names — cow, horse, etc. — are simply being used as substitutes for native New World animals such as peccaries or tape deer? Matheny argues persuasively that this is not legitimate because the Book of Mormon descriptions occur in specific literary contexts that assume complex old world systems for the raising and functioning of the various domestic animals:

I mean in Alma there, you know, about the thirteenth chapter [18:10; 20:6,8] or something like that, he's using the stable there preparing the horses for King Lamoni, and also he's preparing the King's chariots because they're going to take a trip from one city to another over the royal highway. And also the horses are pastured, no less. So there are contexts within the Book of Mormon itself. These are not just substitutions, it seems to me, but the authors of the Book of Mormon there are providing the context, they're not trying to describe a tape deer or something else, it seems to me. This is a weak way to try to explain the presence of these names in the Book of Mormon.43

Miscellaneous Anachronisms. Matheny also discusses other Book of Mormon cultural descriptions that are anachronistic in a pre-Columbian New World context, including a money economy, an understanding of the world as a planet and the movement of the planets, the idea of history, and the use of a lunar calendar.44


Prof. Matheny believes that the efforts of his fellow Mormons to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon on the basis of archaeological evidence are methodologically flawed:

I have felt that Mormons ... have been grasping at straws for a very long time trying to thread together all these little esoteric finds, out of context, and [they] really don't have much meaning when they're isolated.45

Matheny is apparently unable to endorse a single work on Book of Mormon archaeology by any of the various Mormon apologists, amateur or professional, even the magnum opus of his colleague, John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, the definitive work on Book of Mormon archaeology by a qualified Mormon scholar. While Matheny does not mention the book by name, in a 1987 letter (two years after Sorenson's book was published) of response to an inquiry regarding Book of Mormon archaeology, Matheny wrote:

I do not support the books written on this subject, including The Messiah in Ancient America or any other. I believe the authors are making cases out of too little evidence and do not adequately address the problems that archaeology and the Book of Mormon present ... This may sound very negative to you but my intent is [to] let you know that there are very severe problems in this field in trying to make correlations with the scriptures.46

Matheny's overall assessment of the evidence amounts to a blunt denial that archaeology offers any support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon: "I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that it has no place in the New World whatsoever." Nor is Matheny alone in this assessment. The highly respected Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe has written:

The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early immigrants to our hemisphere.47

It is clear that the primary reason Mormon scholars wish to locate Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica is the fact that this was the center of the Maya civilization, the only pre-Columbian new world civilization that had a written language. Written records are a prominent feature of peoples described in the Book of Mormon. However, archaeological study has failed to produce a single piece of evidence that can be identified as Nephite or Jaredite, in Mesoamerica or anywhere else in the New World. This is acknowledged by leading Mormon scholars, including David J. Johnson, Bruce W. Warren, and Hugh Nibley, all of Brigham Young University. Nibley writes,

There is certainly no shortage of ruins on this continent, but until some one object has been definitely identified as either Nephite or Jaredite it is dangerous to start drawing any conclusions.48

And writing in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Prof. Johnson concludes that,

Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological record, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied to any persons, places, or things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).49

Archaeology cannot directly prove the spiritual claims of either the Bible or the Book of Mormon. However, it does serve an important purpose in helping us evaluate the underlying historical claims which both books make. The numerous anachronisms of the Book or Mormon together with the complete absence of direct archaeological corroboration surely explain why the premise that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record of a pre-Columbian New World civilization has failed to gain a single convert among non-Mormon archaeologists.

In contrast to the Book of Mormon, the Bible is widely regarded by archaeologists as an authentic ancient record of the ancient cultures it describes. Over the years archaeologists have discovered many inscriptional materials and artifacts that verify specific people, places and things mentioned in the Bible. Interestingly, an article in the LDS Church's flagship publication, the Ensign magazine, offered specific examples of direct corroborations of the Bible, including the Israelite king, Jehu, who is depicted on a carved stone panel of the Black Obelisk of Shalmanneser III, and Hezekiah's tunnel, described in 2 Kings 32:3-4 and 2 Chronicles 20:20, and rediscovered in 1880.50

Writing in the secular publication Biblical Archaeology Review, Prof. William G. Dever of the University of Arizona concluded that the Bible's status as an authentic record of ancient the ancient people it chronicles must be considered uncontested:

The Bible is no longer an isolated relic from antiquity, without provenance and thus without credibility. Archaeology may not have proven the specific historical existence of certain biblical personalities such as Abraham or Moses, but it has for all time demolished the notion that the Bible is pure mythology. The Bible is about real, flesh-and-blood people, in a particular time and place ... 51

Religious faith, by definition, cannot rest solely on reason. Job's question — "Canst thou by searching find out God? (11:7) — was rhetorical. A faith commitment is certainly needed if one is to accept the Bible's claim to divine origin and authority, yet it is a faith that goes beyond reason, but not against it. However, the same cannot be said for the Book of Mormon.


1. What is The Book Of Mormon? (brochure), Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, p. 1.

2. Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith described the Book of Mormon as "the history of ancient America ... from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel [the Jaredites]" – see the early Mormon publication, Times and Seasons, (March 1, 1842) III:707. This conflicts with the scientific evidence that the western hemisphere has been continuously populated from at least as far back as 9,500 B.C. by east Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait — see, for example, "Origins of the American Indians, " National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 1.

3. What Is The Book Of Mormon, p. 1.

4. Morgan W. Tanner, "Jaredites," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), II:717.

5. Ibid.

6. See the article entitled "Introduction" that appears in the front of editions of the Book of Mormon from 1981 to the present; also, What Is The Book of Mormon, p. 3.

7. Michael Coe, ''Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View,'' in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 8, No. 2 (Summer 1973), p. 42.

8. What is the Book of Mormon, p. 12. See also, Christ in America (brochure), Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, p. 1 — "According to the findings of scholars, he [Jesus Christ] came to American long before the time of Columbus. He taught the ancients his true religion, raised some of their dead, healed many of their sick, taught new and more productive methods of agriculture, and established a government of equality and peace. . . . The ancients regarded him as the Creator, come to earth in bodily form." See also the comments of non-Mormon Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe, p. 40 — "In hundreds of motels scattered across the western United States the Gentile archaeologist can find a paperback Book of Mormon lavishly illustrated with the paintings of Arnold Friberg depicting such scenes as Samuel the Lamanite prophesying on top of what looks like the Temple of the Tigers in Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Any curious archaeologist can hear guides in L.D.S. visitors centers from Sharon, Vermont to Los Angeles, California confidently lecturing that the Nephites built the Maya 'cities' . . ." — ''Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View," op. cit.

9. See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), p. 1 — "Before any type of investigation, we must establish where the Book of Mormon story took place within the western hemisphere." See also the statement of Ross T. Christensen, "If archaeology has any value in connection with the study of the Book of Mormon, then certainly geography must be involved . . . archaeology has to be oriented in terms of time and space ... there is no such thing as archaeology without geography." — "Geography in Book of Mormon Archaeology," Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 147 (December 1981), p. 2, as quoted by Dan Vogel, "Book of Mormon Geography: Mormon Efforts to Relocate Nephite Lands," unpublished paper, no date, p. 46. Vogel presented a similar, paper, "The New Theory of Book of Mormon Geography: A Preliminary Examination," at the Sunstone Theological Symposium - West (August 23, 1986).

10. Book of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Northern States Mission Publishers, 1908), p. 434.

11. See Joseph Smith's "Lehi's Travels" revelation in Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium of the Gospel, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1884), p. 289. Many modern Mormon scholars who espouse the limited geography theory challenge the provenance of this document. They assert that (1) Joseph Smith did not issue the revelation, or (2) that he issued it only as opinion, or (3) that he latter changed his view and located Lehi's landing in Panama. However, there are good historical grounds establishing the document as a claimed revelation of Joseph Smith, as historian Dan Vogel has demonstrated ("Church Tradition of Lehi's Landing In Chile: What Is Its Origin?", unpublished paper, no date, available from the Institute for Religious Research). Consistent with the Lehi's Landing revelation is an 1840 brochure authored by LDS apostle Orson Pratt entitled "A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records" (Edinburgh, England: Ballantyne and Hughs, 1840; reprinted in Elden J. Watson, The Orson Pratt Journals, (Salt Lake City: Elden J. Watson, 1975, pp. 473-474.). In it Pratt states that "They [Lehi's party] built a vessel in which they were safely brought across the great Pacific Ocean, and landed upon the western coast of South America." Moreover, the fact that the footnotes of the editions of the Book of Mormon from 1876-1921 are premised on a Chile landing site for Lehi's party, argues forcefully that this view had a very strong basis in early Mormon tradition.

12. Doctrines of Salvation , 3 vols., ed. by Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956) III:232-243.

13. Times and Seasons (March 1, 1842) III:707.

14. While the Book of Mormon does not mention the number of Jaredite immigrants, it does say that they traveled to the western hemisphere in eight "small barges" (Ether 2:16). If we suppose that one of these "small barges" could have held 25 people and sufficient provisions to sustain them during a transoceanic crossing, the entire group would have numbered perhaps 200. Mormon General Authority Brigham H. Roberts estimated the total number of original Jaredite immigrants at 100 (Studies of the Book of Mormon, University of Illinois, 1985, pp. 355-58).

The original sizes of the two groups of Book of Mormon immigrants that are supposed to have arrived in the Americas in the 6th century B.C. (at about the time the Jaredites had battled themselves to total extinction, Ether 15:12-34), can be determined with somewhat greater precision from Book of Mormon internal evidence. Kunich surveys this evidence and shows that there were a total of 23 adults in Lehi's party. While no exact number can be determined for Mulek's original party, based on its numbers as given later in the Book of Mormon, it is possible to extrapolate backwards to an estimate of its original size. By such a process Kunich concludes that, "the size of Mulek's original reproductively capable group must have been less than half that of Lehi's emigrants, given the above information from Mosiah 25:2-3." See John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes," Sunstone, Vol. 14, No. 3 (June 1990), p. 27.

15. Times and Seasons (September 15, 1842) III:922.

16. Times and Seasons (March 1, 1842) III:707.

17. History of the Church, 7 vols. (Deseret Book Co., 1946), II:79,80.

18. See the article titled "Introduction," which appears in the front of editions of the Book of Mormon from 1981 to the present.

19. Prof. John L. Sorenson of Brigham Young University raises this objection to traditional Book of Mormon geography in his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), pp. 44-45.

20. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1946), I:315.

21. See note 18.

22. Vogel, p. 34. For an interesting study of population issues in the Book of Mormon see John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes," op. cit., pp. 27-44.

23. See "Origin of the American Indians," National Museum of Natural History-Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 1.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. See, for example, "The Latest on the Earliest," Discover, January 1990, p. 50; also "Origins of the American Indians," op. cit., pp. 1-3.

27. Sorenson's theory is detailed in his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, op. cit. It is notable that although this is the most significant contemporary work on Book of Mormon archaeology by a Mormon scholar, since its publication in 1985 it has apparently never been reviewed by a professional non-Mormon archaeologist.

28. Sorenson, p. 347.

29. See also Vogel, p.32, who also points out that based on Sorenson's identifications, it is 155 miles between the Book of Mormon cities of Nephi and Zarahemla (Kaminaljuya, Guatemala and Santa Rosa, Mexico, respectively). However, if 155 miles is reckoned a short distance by a Nephite, Sorenson's identifications of the narrow neck and Cumorah–which are only 90 miles apart–do not accord with the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah as "an exceeding great distance" into the land northward (Helaman 3:3,4).

30. See Vogel, pp. 40, 41.

31. Sorenson, pp. 38-41.

32. "Orientation," in Interpreter's Bible Dictionary, 4 vols., (New York: Abington Press, 1962), III: 608, 609.

33 See the article, "First Presidency Statement on the King James Version of the Bible," in Ensign (August 1992), p. 80.

34. Church News, 10 September 1938, pp. 1,6; reprinted, 27 February 1954, pp. 2,3; and compiled by Bruce R. McConkie in Doctrines of Salvation, 3: 233, emphasis in the original, as cited by Vogel, 3,4.

35. Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), p. 175, as cited by Vogel, p. 4.

36. Deseret News, Church News 48, No. 30 (29 July 1979), p. 16.

37. A typescript is located in Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Most of the anachronisms discussed by Matheny are also cited in a 1973 article by Michael Coe, a leading (non-Mormon) Mesoamerican archaeologist, in, "Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1973), pp. 40-54.

38. Ibid., p. 23.

39. Ibid., p. 24.

40. Ibid., p. 29.

41. Ibid., p. 28.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid., p. 30.

44. Ibid., p. 27.

45. Ibid., p. 33.

46. Letter from Raymond T. Matheny to Jerry Bodine, dated December 17, 1987. The Institute for Religious Research has a photocopy in its library.

47. Coe, p. 46.

48. 48 Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964, 1979), p. 370.

49. David J. Johnson, "Archaeology," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), I:62; see also Bruce W. Warren, "Book Reviews," in BYU Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Summer 1990), p. 134 – "What is imperative for eventually producing a provable model of Book of Mormon geography is to find place names in languages, codices, written documents, emblem glyphs, or art symbolism from Mesoamerica that parallels in meaning and pattern the place names in the Book of Mormon. No one would object to a revelation on the matter."

50. Ross T. Christiansen and Ruth R. Christiansen, "Archaeology Reveals Old Testament History: Digging for Truth," Ensign (February 1974), pp. 60-66.

51. William G. Dever, "Archaeology and the Bible: Understanding Their Special Relationship," Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1990, p. 56.