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.