History at the Time of The Book of Mormon

Critics of The Book of Mormon have always complained that what is found in its pages doesn’t conform to actual history. They point to all kinds of what are considered anachronisms that many later turned out correct with more research. Some historical answers are found in paying attention to the text and not assumptions about the text. Yet, there are still mysteries left as to why details are included that don’t match up to what is known. No matter what side a person might be on the historicity of this religious masterpiece, the past isn’t a neatly cataloged set of facts or evidence. It is always open to new possible discoveries or interpretations. Few times and places are as shadow covered as the Pre-Columbian Americas with its deep jungles and hidden ruins.

Trying to create an outlined history of the Americas before European arrival is not an easy task. What will be produced is a list of known ruins and cultures covered in mystery and vagueness. How many cultures and ruins are always in doubt. There are a handful of classified cultures with many smaller ones contested if they are a part of them or separate. Even the recognized cultures have been downgraded from Empires to regional social powers. They can’t even be considered united by political authority, usually appearing feudal with Greek like city-states. The chaotic boundaries and ever changing allegiances make The Book of Mormon much more believable than ever before.

This is, of course, coming from preliminary research and not expert historical studies. It just seemed appropriate to look into exactly what was happening during The Book of Mormon times. Perhaps understanding what was known to have happened outside the pages of the text, the book could gain a new context. This isn’t a compare and contrast study to provide evidence of authenticity (although that comes up), but a look at the cultural, religious, and political climate of the time periods. These would play a large role in shaping the experiences of the people portrayed, assuming they did indeed exist.

Lehi, Nephi, and Jerusalem

Before getting into the history of the Americas, it is important to realize where Lehi and Nephi came from to see what might have influenced their own posterity in the new land. Obviously, unlike the rest of The Book of Mormon places, the existence and location of Jerusalem is not in doubt. The city was situated in what remained of the land of Israel after half of it was conquered. Because Israel was situated as a crossroad, the land had been attacked and seized many times. During Lehi’s day, the three “superpowers” of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon fought each other for control. Lehi was born in Israel during the time of Assyrian vassal authority over the land. Israel’s King Josiah in 609 B.C. fought against an advancing Egyptian military force and lost both his life and the battle. For several years Israel was controlled by Egypt who won it over Assyria.

By the time of King Zedekiah around 600 B.C. Babylon had defeated Assyria and gotten the upper hand against Egyptian control. Israel was now in control of Babylonia and the famed King Nebuchadnezzar. Despite the warnings of prophets Jeremiah and Lehi that Jerusalem needed to repent of many sins or be destroyed, many other false prophets proclaimed safety and righteousness. Many wanted to unite with Egypt to defeat Babylon and become more independent. These sought the lives of warning prophets, with Lehi receiving a vision to leave Jerusalem with his family before its destruction. A few years after his family left into the wilderness never to return, Israel broke with Babylon to join Egypt and Assyria in an attempt to overthrow them. There were sieges in retaliation that established Babylon as a leading power over Assyria, pushed back Egypt into its lands, and destroyed Jerusalem as prophesied.

The New World

The history of the Americas, particularly Mesoamerica, is broken up into several periods based on archaeological and cultural discoveries. The bulk of The Book of Mormon takes place during the Pre-classic or Formative period (2000 B.C to 250 A.D.) with the first part of the Classic period (250 to 900 A.D.) including the last of the Nephites. Before these are the Paleo-Indian period (10,000 to 3500 B.C.) when the supposed land bridge migration occurred, and the Archaic Era (before 2600 B.C.) when the basis of civilizations were established. All of North, South, and Central America was widely populated with a large variety of cultures and technology.

Although there are some Mormons who insist that the New York area of North America is where the Nephite history takes place, it is Mesoamerica that seems most promising. There isn’t the amount of architecture or technology in most of North America to support all the events claimed. Large mounds built by the Indians are impressive, but not enough to consider them candidates for Nephite history. Many finds used to point to North America are of questionable providence and considered hoaxes. Because professional historians don’t accept many artifacts as real, conspiracy theories are prominent in the “heartland” community. Probably the best possibility for North America as Nephite territory is the Mississippi culture with its vast number of buildings. But they come much later in time and don’t have the required geography. No written history exists and oral traditions are at best inconclusive if not hard to find.

And that is where a large amount of trouble to understand ancient America stands. Modern society is a text based world. At no other time in history have so many been able to read with the amount of text available at the fingertip. In fact, the whole of European and Asian history is dependent on the written word. The title “pre-history” is based on when writing became available for telling the human story. The earliest known writing is 3000 B.C. Sumarian Cuneiform, although there are some claims of earlier fragments found in the Indus Valley. This is a lot earlier than the possible 900 B.C. of The Americas as the soonest. Although the Olmec civilization has some later evidence of writing on Stone, it is the Maya with the longest history of hieroglyphic-like writing recently made decipherable. With so few examples of writing, the history of the Americas are rather silent. Monuments of stone are most of what remains to tell the tales of civilizations lost and found.

The Olmec and the Maya

Leaving out North America as a Nephite candidate, Mesoamerica consisted of at least two large cultural influences. Again, what used to be called Empires has been downgraded because there is a lack of evidence for central seats of government. The first major cultural group is the Olmecs founded around 1200 B.C. to about 400 B.C. when it declined. Some Mormons, following after the late Hugh Nibley, believe they are the Jaredites because of similarities. Their name is actually of later Aztec origin and means “rubber people” because of the rubber balls they manufactured to play games. Today they are known for monumental religious building complexes, chocolate, and most of all the large African looking (archaeologists believe they are meant to represent squashed cat-like human) stone faces. They had many gods of nature and animals, particularly the Jaguar. Of great interest is a sky-dragon god that would be transformed into the snake gods Kukulcan for the Maya and Quetzalcoatl for the Aztecs. Caves seemed to be of some religious significance to the Olmecs where many paintings and rock carvings are found. where the Olmec came from or why they disappeared is a mystery, but later cultures would adapt some of their ways.

The decline of Olmec power coincided with the rise of new and long lasting groups of culture builders. Around 500 or 600 B.C. (notice the date) the Zapotec or “Cloud People” civilization formed from the smoldering ashes of Olmec culture. They are known for well developed architecture, engineering projects, writing, and trade. Evidence indicates they mixed well with other cultures around them, with the later Teotihuacan even having part of the city specifically for the Zapotec people. It too mysteriously disappears around 900 A.D. like its Olmec predecessors.

Besides the later Aztecs, the best known ancient Americans are the Maya civilization. Their discovery in the 1840s by explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood caused a sensation. No one has a clear date when the Maya culture developed (some say 2000 B.C.), but 750 B.C. represents the first cities. Of all the cultures, the Maya were the most prolific in writing. Because of this, there is actually a rather clear history of Kings, wars, beliefs, and life compared to others. Rather recently before the writing could be read it was believed they were a peaceful almost Utopian people. Once the hieroglyphic-like writing was deciphered this all changed. In fact, war was a constant part of life and fulfilled possible religious ritual necessities. They didn’t have any central authority, consisting of city states that sometimes fought with each other if not outsiders. Unlike the other civilizations that mysteriously vanished, the Maya people remain a recognized ethnicity. The ancient Maya are also the most likely to be a major portion of Lamanites who were constantly fighting the Nephites until destroying them off the face of the land.

The End of an Era and Start of Another

With the combined acknowledgement that ancient Americas history is not well known (particularly before about 200 B.C. when wars picked up) and how many small cultures existed and intermingled with larger ones, the Nephite history is very plausible. Those who say that no Nephites have been discovered either don’t understand or deliberately ignore how little evidence exists for any named civilization. Almost all of the names given to pre-Columbian peoples come from later peoples. And that is for those who could be named. That is especially the case for smaller city-states that were influenced and controlled by larger well established ones; if not wiped out altogether. As implied by The Book of Mormon, the Nephite purity didn’t last for long before getting swallowed up by larger surrounding established peoples. They were also scattered and lost to each other that makes sense in the dense unforgiving landscape such as Mesoamerican geography.

Speaking of landscapes, Mesoamerica is very volatile with earthquakes and volcanoes. There is every possibility a great calamity could have happened in the 1st Century. Near the end of the 1st Century history records that a city was destroyed by a volcano, opening up Teotihuacan for dominance in the region. There is even at least one city found covered by a lake more than likely because of a volcano disaster. No real question exists (assuming again that North America is out of the running) as to the probability of Nephite missionaries involved in the falling of a building or mega destruction and thick darkness covering the land. An actual surprise is that more of these kinds of events do not play a bigger part in Nephite history.

And then there is the constant and unrelenting wars. Again, there seems to be a pick up of massive fighting around 200 B.C. with lesser ones before that. Not much specific can be pointed out, but the spread of Maya writing around that time gives a clearer picture how nasty things got. And then there is the 250 A.D. date that seems to indicate something significant. Great urban centers were created, new powerful city-states sprung up, and the Maya reached the height of sophistication. It is likewise around the time when Nephite descriptions of a peaceful utopia were replaced by pride and a breakdown in society. History seems to also record great military clashes starting around that time and continuing unabated until the European discovery of the New World. This period turns a corner for the Nephites as they become over the top wicked beyond physical redemption. It has been speculated that, like Israel at the time of Lehi, the Nephite lands were between two powerful civilizations who both wanted trading access. The simultaneous rise of different centers of power that become known for their hostility does make trade wars possible. After the Nephites are destroyed around 400 A.D., Teotihuacan continues until around 900 A.D. and the Maya continue until around 1524 A.D. It is during the Classic Period that the New World and the Old officially recognize each other’s existence.

How much can really ever be known of the Nephites (for those who believe they existed) is very little. Closer readings of The Book of Mormon indicate a small band of people who early on integrated with larger populations. Whatever distaste Nephi had with his brothers Laman and Lemuel leaving to join other groups, a generation later didn’t seem to feel the same way. All kinds of people come and go among the Nephite alliance who weren’t there at the beginning. A cultural group called “The Lamanites” were outside political groups surrounding the central people of the narrative. The true history of the Americas along with better readings of the Nephite record have challenged popular perceptions of both. There are still details that haven’t been reconciled, but each new discovery bridges the gaps. The wider story told between the pages purporting to be about the ancient Americas can no longer be easily dismissed.


Jerusalem at the Time of Lehi

Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem

Heartland as Hinterland

Mesoamerican chronology

Mesoamerican writing

Literacy and Orality in The Book of Mormon

Olmec Civilization

Maya Civilization

Zapotec Civilization

Evidence of Sunken City

What Caused the Darkness and Destruction

19 thoughts on “History at the Time of The Book of Mormon

  1. “the Nephites are destroyed around 400 B.C.”

    I think you meant A.D.


  2. I didn’t mean to just be nit-picky. The article was very interesting. Especially the part about the ice cores.

  3. Nice write-up. The more information that becomes available through *all* disciplines having to do with the Study of the Book of Mormon–the more it seems that Mesoamerica is the *only* place that fits the text’s requirements.

    It’s like a million-piece jigsaw puzzle with only a basic outline of the final image to go from–not a crisp laser photo. It’s coming along slowly. The outer edge is almost complete–and some spots here and there have come together nicely. And my guess is that as we continue to fill in the middle–the process of fitting the right pieces together will speed up exponentially.

  4. Many Mormon scholars these days, believe the Book of Mormon lands are indeed in the United States—-centered from the north central region of New York state—-west through the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio—-including the Finger Lakes of NY, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie—-and beyond. The Hill Cumorah by name is mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon—and where is the Hill Cumorah?

    What is even more convincing to me, is what the Book of Mormon says about this land: “Choice land above all others,” “a land of liberty,” a land “set up as a free people,” “the Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles–even upon the face of this land.” IMO, these verses are in no way referring to the nations/lands of Mesoamerica.

    Of course, it’s all conjecture. No one knows for sure, and the Church has not taken a position on this question—but it is interesting to discuss/ponder.

  5. custer,

    While I’m sympathetic to the notion that the mighty gentile nation is the U.S., I think a case can be made for a broader interpretation of the phrase “this land.” If, for example, we presume that Nephi sees Columbus in his vision, then we must acknowledge the fact that his contact only with peoples and lands south of the U.S. border presupposes a larger scope to the definition of “this land” than the boundaries of the U.S. Also, we need to factor in such descriptions of the promised land as Jacob’s “isle of the sea.” By so doing, we get a broader sense of how the boundaries of the promised land might be interpreted.

  6. “Many Mormon scholars these days, believe the Book of Mormon lands are indeed in the United States”

    I would have to say, unless someone can find even one, that NO Mormon scholars these days believe this. Even the number of amateurs who investigate where the Book of Mormon took place is no more than a handful. With all due respect for those who believe it took place in what is now the U.S., but there is not much evidence. What is used as evidence is not very convincing since contested hoaxes are often used to bolster lesser evidence. There are simply not enough ruins, artifacts, or geographical similarities. I started out as a North American supporter when first investigating locations. However, the evidence (even if not enough for a non-believer) is overwhelming from texts, culture, and ruins or artifacts to be at least Central America. I agree with Jack that our national biases make interpretations less than what they probably are. This whole side of the world is the promised land.

  7. “The Hill Cumorah by name is mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon—and where is the Hill Cumorah?”

    This argument has always been a non-starter for me. There is abundant evidence in the Book of Mormon that the people in the Book of Mormon took names from other places and reused them.

    How many cities/towns/townships named Springfield are there in the US? We do this all the time, too.

    Not saying that this precludes NY from being the location. It just does not support it in my opinion.

  8. I appreciate the article and the comments but I who encourage caution on such topics as these. I served a mission in Mexico though in the north (Mexico Chihuahua). I see that there is a lot of compelling facts and some evidence I would encourage everyone to take the chill pill and chomp on the fact we do not have nearly enough evidence to make the judgments of whether Mesoamerica or American heartland models work best. Aside from that Joseph Smith never did make and comprehensive statements based on revelation from the Lord that this is there and that is there.

    I have expressed this concern because currently (unfortunately my wife is one of them) have some less active to ex members who feel the Mesoamerican model is false and have such turned away/against the church as a whole. I would think we need to “wait on the Lord.” I imagine that the Lord intentionally had the Jewish/Christian Nephites not make maps on the plates of gold so as to give us the trial of faith.

    First we need to understand what are the false and truthful paradigms of how we view the Book of Mormon. I think we need to be careful as in the case of Rod Meldrum stating that some scholars are in apostasy for not acknowledging the heartland model and those who ignore Adena/Hopewell native cultures based on incomplete analysis.

    I know the Mesoamerican model passes the eye test of the great cities and monuments from central Mexico to Guatemala. The stories of legends of the great Quetzalcoatl visiting the people. All is palpable however we do need to acknowledge that Nephites for good stretch of their history were practicing the Law of Moses as cultural Jews would. So the concepts of keeping kosher seems to be in conclusive in the Mesoamerican models. The lack of metallurgy beyond gold, silver and copper melting is a problem.

    The heartland models has legends of a God/Prophet that visited them as well. more samples of pre Columbus metal of copper alloyed metals and iron have been found in North America. Some native tribes of the East Woodland and plains carried on remarkably similar customs that could be interpreted as Jewish. Also ALL of the Hebrew “hoaxes” seem to be occurring here. There just happens to be less evidence of any unified or confederated cultures in North America.

    I know the Book of Mormon is true but I am not going to belittle and backbite anyone else who wants to say how it is true. I believe the Lord will reveal that at a later time. I encourage to be careful because we are contending against the paradigms of: “Ancient peoples could not sail across the Pacific or Atlantic.” “Ancient Jews could not possibly have lived in the Americas.” “Ancient American civilizations primarily were isolated.” “Ancient Americans were not as sophisticated as the Old World civilizations of metal work.” “The America’s do not have the creatures that the Book of Mormon describes.”

    Let us begin with a lot of scholars today settle on a lack of evidence on what ancient man could not have done or have made. I find our current smugness by which we view the past has shown that pride of humanity is pervasive even in the supposedly objective learned and scholarly persons. I you really what to start and find the lands I suggest you start from the most refutable witness that Joseph by instruction extracted the plates from the hill close to his home. In my opinion two main paradigms need to be refuted. First the Mesoamerican model needs to prove the means of Moroni to move from Mesoamerica to deposit the plates in the New York area and is due to cross cultural movements of the North and Central American tribes. Second the heartland model needs overcome the lack of uniformity by scholars on the Adena/Hopewell cultures as a civilization and not a morass of random clans that existed.

  9. Andrew Bowles,

    The Central American model does have problems that I acknowledge. Perhaps I will look into the Heartland one again since it has been years, but for me the Book of Mormon represents a hot climate and volcanic active geography.

    Morgan Deane,

    I ended up reading your post about a day after posting this one. It was a fascinating read. I will be honest, however, that Wheat and Tears is not my kind of blog for discussing issues of any kind.

  10. I am not the most astute in the Book of Mormon reader/scholar could point to me which verses indicate a hot/tropical climate, please? I am having the most difficult time trying to find them. I would say Guatemala and Mexico with earthquakes and volcanoes are indeed helpful with reading the text of giving us an idea of where it is. I would encourage you to study more about the Mississippi rift valley fault line. This gives “some” credence to the heartland model of the volatile fault line the quakes every 300-500 years. The last time it quaked in 1819 it was two massive quakes of approx 7.0 or more within a two months of each other. Witnesses stated the sun was blotted out by plumes of sand that shot out like a geysers, the Mississippi river reversed course temporarily and other water bodies either emptied from wetlands or overflowed dry areas. Albeit North America’s volcanoes at not close to the heartland model as in the Mesoamerican model bear in mind the Mt St Helen’s eruption cast ash as far away as Minnesota and volcanologists view that eruption as a mediocre eruption compared to their studies of the other volcanoes in the region. So a very violent eruption in west could (and I only emphasize could in the realm of possibility) have effected the heartland model.

  11. I understand where you are coming from. The comments on that thread were infuriating and certainly reinforced your point. I still think there is room for a historical view of the BoM there, so I hope M* readers and authors will be willing to check in occasionally. Have a great day!

  12. @ Jack: Thank you for the article it was a good read and it has some sound reasoning. Though it did not provide I would the say the verses that provided the obvious language that says the lands were in tropical/temperate areas. I also find that the discussion when the Jews in the Bible and the Book of Mormon talk about snow it is the metaphor for purity. So the history of the Jews is never discussed like “on a cold day in winter” or “on a snow covered plain or mountain”. I do not says this to doubt the Mesoamerican model I would just say that let’s not jump to conclusions. Human reason is good but it has been known to make leaps out of God’s guidance.

  13. “I imagine that the Lord intentionally had the Jewish/Christian Nephites not make maps on the plates of gold so as to give us the trial of faith.”

    Or b/c there’s not really a way that Joseph Smith could have dictated a map to one of his scribes …

  14. @Ryan Mullen I agree the Book of Mormon is religiously spiritual book that has historicity that ultimately testifies of Christ as the Messiah/Redeemer of Israel. The book was never composed to put in the hands of learned men that do research of ancient lands and peoples but to given to a prophet that will advocate for the message of the book says. The Book of Mormon’s message is what the subtext of the title a Testament of Jesus Christ not history of Jews in the New World or some other form. Mormon says that the text does not even contain a hundredth part of the Nephite nation. This book is to build faith not reason and history.

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