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The Scientific Search for Nephite Remains

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The Scientific Search for Nephite Remains

Luke P. Wilson

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Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon presents itself as an historical record of God's revelation of Himself to the human race. Both books tell of Jesus Christ and various prophets appearing to what are presented as real people living at specific times and places in human history. These historical claims have sent scholars in search of archaeological evidence for the existence of the peoples and events described in the Book of Mormon, and they make the subject of Book of Mormon archaeology relevant.

Of course there are limits to what archaeology can investigate. It is not suited to proving or disproving the supernatural claims or spiritual truths of the Book of Mormon. However, by searching for evidence of the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon, archaeology can help us evaluate the underlying historical credibility of this scriptural record. Evidence regarding the historical claims of Book of Mormon may well have a bearing on our confidence in its spiritual message.

Geographical Considerations

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 "narrow neck" of land connecting it to a "land northward" (Alma 22:32). Determining the location of these lands is the necessary first step before archaeology can be employed to evaluate the Book of Mormon, as LDS scholars acknowledge.1

One might expect that determining the geographical setting of the Book of Mormon lands would be a fairly simple undertaking. Instead, the topic has become a matter of considerable controversy in which the theories of modern Mormon scholars are pitted against the traditional teaching of the LDS Church.

The Traditional View

According to Joseph Smith and subsequent presidents and apostles of the LDS Church, the geographical extent of Book of Mormon lands included virtually all of North and South America.2 Joseph Smith identified the coast of Chile as the place where Lehi's party arrived in the New World,3 while he located the Hill Cumorah, site of the epic Nephite-Lamanite battle to extinction, some 6000 miles north in Palmyra, New York. Thus, North and South America were understood to constitute the two bulges of the hourglass, connected by the "narrow neck" of Central America.4

Joseph Smith also taught that the American Indians were the descendants of the Lamanites. The History of the Church records an incident from June 1834 in which he identified, by divine guidance, a skeleton found in an Indian burial mound in Illinois as that of the Lamanite warrior Zelph:

... 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.5

The LDS Church continues to teach that Native Americans are the direct descendents of Book of Mormon peoples. For example, the "Introduction" in current editions of the Book of Mormon (since 1981), describes the Lamanites as, "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

Why LDS Scholars Object

Despite the teaching of the Church's spiritual leaders, unquestioned for a hundred years, a number of Mormon scholars have concluded that the traditional view of Book of Mormon geography is unrealistic. Their conclusions are based on a number of major problems that arise when one attempts to apply Book of Mormon descriptions of travel times and population growth to the vast territories 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 (understood to be somewhere in Central America), it says that they agreed to meet for their epic final battle at the "Hill Cumorah" (Mormon 6:1-6). Joseph Smith and Mormon tradition locate this site several thousand miles distant in New York state. It is difficult to find a reasonable explanation for why the armies would travel this immense distance to do battle.

Another significant problem for traditional Book of Mormon geography involves the premise that the native populations of the vast North and South American continents are the descendents of two tiny groups of transoceanic Semitic immigrants (the Jaredites, who arrived in the New World between 3000 - 2000 B.C. but later battled themselves to extinction, and the Nephites and Mulekites, who arrived beginning about 600 B.C.). Archaeological evidence shows conclusively that the western hemisphere was populated at least as far back as 10,000 B.C. by east Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait. It is these Mongolian peoples who are the ancestors of the American Indians, according to the Smithsonian Institution:

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."6

There is no solid evidence for immigration via other routes involving long sea voyages (prior to the Norse arrivals from Greenland and Newfoundland about A.D. 1000), as proposed by the Book of Mormon, and if such voyages did occur, they were not significant for the origins and composition of New World populations.7

The Limited Geography Theory

In order to remove these inherent improbabilities and protect the credibility of the Book of Mormon as authentic history, a number of LDS scholars have proposed a new approach to Book of Mormon geography called the "limited geography theory." The most influential proponent of this view is Prof. John L. Sorenson of Brigham Young University. Sorenson restricts the Book of Mormon setting to an approximately 400-mile-long section of Central America, with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico corresponding to the "narrow neck" of the hourglass-shaped land mass described above.8

While the limited geography theory appears to resolve some of the flaws of traditional Book of Mormon geography, it creates other problems that are equally serious. It conflicts with details in the Book of Mormon, contradicts the teaching of a long line of LDS presidents and apostles, and in the end cannot produce a single piece of archaeological evidence that can be identified as Nephite or Jaredite (a fact which BYU professors such as Hugh Nibley, Bruce W. Warren, and David J. Johnson all acknowledge).9

Two Cumorahs?

One area of major contradiction between the limited geography theory and the Book of Mormon concerns the identity and location of the hill Cumorah. Sorenson locates Cumorah in Central America, at a site only 90 miles from the "narrow neck". While this removes an unrealistic requirement of the traditional view, which has the two armies marching thousands of miles north to do battle at what is now Palmyra, New York, 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 120 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"?10

The limited geography theory also seems to be at odds with the Book of Mormon by requiring two Cumorahs. This is necessary since it locates the final Nephite-Lamanite battle at a Cumorah in Central America, whereas Joseph Smith retrieved the Book of Mormon plates from the traditional hill Cumorah in New York State. This also leaves Moroni with the task of single-handedly transporting the hefty Book of Mormon plates (not to mention the entire Nephite library) over two thousand miles to the New York Cumorah.

Directional Skewing

Another major discrepancy of the limited geography theory is the 45 degree directional skewing that results when the geographic features of the Book of Mormon are superimposed onto the proposed Central American site. Map 2 illustrates the problem. It shows that the Book of Mormon's "land northward" and "land southward" are actually oriented along a northwest-southeast line. This places the "east sea" and "west sea" almost directly north and south of these proposed Book of Mormon lands. It is clear from the Bible that the ancient Israelites used the rising sun as the basis for directional orientation (e.g., Exodus 27:13; 38:13; Numbers 2:3; Ezekiel 8:16). Therefore, one must ask, "Would Hebrew immigrants arriving at the proposed Central American site and using the sun as their directional reference, have arrived at the severely skewed directional orientation suggested by Sorenson?"

Still another conflict is the absence of the "sea north" and the "sea south" (Helaman 3:8). In the traditional view, these descriptions correspond to the Atlantic Ocean below the tip of the South America (Cape Horn), and the Arctic Ocean north of North America, respectively. Editions of the Book of Mormon from 1888 to 1921 included a note to this effect at Helaman 3:8-9. Because of these conflicts with Mormon tradition and Book of Mormon internal evidence, the limited geography theory has been repeatedly condemned by LDS leaders, including Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. (10th President), Harold B. Lee (11th President), and Bruce R. McConkie.11 In 1979 the Church News labeled it "harmful" and a "challenge" to the "words of the prophets concerning the place where Moroni buried the records."12

Book of Mormon geography raises a theological dilemma: on the one hand, the traditional view produces a number of improbabilities that undermine the historical credibility of the Book of Mormon; on the other hand, the limited geography approach rejects the clear pronouncements of Joseph Smith and subsequent presidents and apostles, and conflicts with Book of Mormon teaching on a number of important points.

An LDS Archaeologist's Conclusion

As was noted earlier, the Bible and the Book of Mormon are alike in presenting themselves as records of ancient history. However, whereas the authenticity of the Bible is widely accepted even by secular scholars (see article titled "Does Archaeology Support the Bible?"), no non-LDS archaeologist accepts the Book of Mormon as authentic history, and now even many LDS scholars no longer support its historicity.13 Why do archaeologist take such a dim view of the Book of Mormon?

One of the best answers to this question was offered by former Brigham Young University anthropology professor, Dr. Raymond T. Matheny at an August 25, 1984 Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City.14 After working in the area of Mesoamerican archaeology for twenty-two years, Prof. Matheny reported his conclusion that the scientific evidence simply does not support the existence of the peoples and events chronicled in the Book of Mormon, be it in Central America or anywhere else in the western hemisphere.

Dr. Matheny described the Book of Mormon as filled with anachronisms — things that are out of place historically and culturally. It introduces Old World cultural achievements into the pre-Columbian Americas, though the archaeological evidence shows no such levels of culture were attained during this period. Defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are left with only scattered bits of evidence which they interpret apart from accepted scientific standards. The following are among the more significant Book of Mormon anachronisms described by Prof. Matheny:

An Iron Industry. Nephite civilization is depicted as having iron and other metal industries; we read of metal swords and breastplates, gold and silver coinage, and even machinery. However, according to Matheny, there is no evidence that any Mesoamerican civilization attained such an industry during Book of Mormon times (terminus ad quo: A.D. 421). He pointed out that an iron industry is not a simple feat involving a few people, but a complex process that requires a specialized socio-economic context and leaves virtually indestructible archaeological evidence. However, Matheny reports that:

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 kind of problem, it seems to me, for so-called Book of Mormon archeology. The evidence is absent.15

Prof. Matheny noted 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. A few random, scattered artifacts are not a basis for scientific conclusions.16

Old World Agricultural Products. The Book of Mormon depicts the Nephites as producing wheat, barley, flax (linen), grapes, and olives, but none of these products existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. As with iron, Matheny pointed out that a complex economic and so- cial level 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. Grapes and olives ... all these are cultures that are highly developed and amount to systems, and so the Book of Mormon is saying that these systems existed here.17

Matheny noted 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 grain described was not a domesticated old world barley.18

Old World Domestic Animals. Another whole group of anachronisms involve various old world domesticated animals which the Book of Mormon describes as integral to Nephite culture. These include asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine, and elephants. Here again, Matheny pointed out that these domesticated animals are each specializations that require a specific cultural level 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.19

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 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 use of the various domestic animals:

I mean in Alma there [18:10; 20:6,8] , you know 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.20

No Place In The New World

Matheny's overall assessment is that archaeology offers no support for the Book of Mormon as history: "I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that it has no place in the New World whatsoever."

Prof. Matheny is not 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.21

This article began by acknowledging that archaeology cannot directly prove or disprove the spiritual claims of the Book of Mormon or the Bible. However, it can evaluate the historical claims which both books make, and that evaluation shows that while the Bible's claim to be authentic history is supported by objective evidence click for article on the Bible and archaeology, the same cannot be said for the Book of Mormon.


1. See for example, 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.

2. That Joseph Smith and successive generations of Mormon presidents and apostles taught that the Nephites and Lamanites ranged over all or most of South and North America and fought a battle to extinction at the Hill Cumorah in New York State, is documented by Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th President of the LDS Church, in his well known work, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Bookcraft, 1955), 3:232-243.

3. 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 Co., 1884), p. 289.

4. This geographical overview was spelled out in the footnotes of editions of the Book of Mormon from 1876 through 1920.

5. History of the Church, 1948 ed., II: 79-80.

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

7.  Ibid.

8. Sorenson's theory is detailed in his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, (Deseret Book, 1985).

9.  Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964, 1979), p. 370; Bruce W. Warren, "Book Reviews," BYU Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Summer 1990), p. 134; David J. Johnson, "Archaeology," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:62-63.

10. As noted by Dan Vogel, "Book of Mormon Geography," p. 32, unpublished paper, no date.

11. 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, op. cit., 3:233.

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

13. Michael Coe, "Mormons and Archeology: An Outside View," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1973), p. 42 — ". . . 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 to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group."

14. Most of the anachronisms discussed by Prof. Matheny are also mentioned by the eminent (non-Mormon) Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe in the Dialogue article cited in note 13, pp. 40-54.

15. Matheny, p. 23.

16. Ibid., p. 24.

17. Ibid., p. 29.

18. Ibid., p. 28.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 30.

21. Coe, p. 46.

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