March 25, 2010 at 2:05 AM 20 comments

Scholarly theories that place the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica define the “small neck of land” that separated the “land northward” from the “land southward” (see, e.g, LDS Alma 22:27-34 / CofChrist Alma 13:68-80; LDS Alma 50:6-16 / CofChrist Alma 22:6-16) to be some portion of the Isthmus of Tihuantepec. This immediately raises questions about the geographic correlation for modern readers and makes many Mormons look for alternative locations  because that isthmus separates what we would consider “east” (Yucatan) from “west” (Central Mexico).

In his book, An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon, John L. Sorenson spends some time explaining that the directions we use are cultural artifacts that are not universally shared. For example, modern Western nations define east to be the direction of sunrise, and west as the direction of sunset. In fact, though our cultures did that long ago, we actually transitioned to defining north and south once we had compasses and then laid out a global system of four cardinal directions for the entire planet even though the direction of sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year and by how far we are from the earth’s equator.

At the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Sorenson notes, it was common for people in Judea to define east and west by orienting to the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea — the rise and fall of the sun was a convenient reference point because the Med’s coast runs nearly modern north-south, but secondary to the fundamental basis of definition. “West” was seaward; “east” was inland or “desertward”. 

So Sorenson suggests that the Nephites and Lamanites, landing on a modern westnorthwest-eastsoutheast trending Pacific coast kept their convention, and called Central Mexico “north” of both Yucatan and Guatemala.  And, Sorenson also points out, we have even less evidence to suggest how the Jaredites conceived of north and south.

What we know from the internal evidence of the Book of Mormon is that the early Nephites described directions such as east and west perfectly consistently with modern understandings until they pushed off into the Indian Ocean. Then there are no directional statements in the writing for centuries until the Nephites find refuge in the Land of Zarahemla after losing possession of the Land of Nephi — by which time the later writers are using the same orientations that some moderns find problematic.

Sorenson is wedded to the conventional dating of the Jaredite crossing as occurring after 3000 BCE to match the Biblical chronology of the Tower of Babel. In this context, Sorenson can offer no explanation for why the earlier Jaredites and later Nephites saw directions in the same non-modern framework (i.e.,  the Isthmus of Tihuantepac separates north from south) while their cultures clearly paid so much attention to directions of sunrise and sunset.

I previously posted an argument that many problems in interpreting the Book of Mormon come from carrying over the Biblical chronology to the Book of Mormon when we have reason to think the Biblical chronology is wrong.  Specifically, a great deal of evidence suggests that any “flood” in Genesis occurs thousands of years before any “Tower of Babel”. The former event gets carried down as oral tradition all over the planet because it is associated with a world-wide natural geophysical event: the end of the ice-age. And it then gets incorporated in both the oral tradition of Israel and the Nephites along with the much later “tower” tradition.  In short, the ancestors of all Americans can cross the North Pacific from Siberia by boat early enough to match the DNA evidence, and still carry the flood tradition from the drowning of the Persian Gulf.

This interpretation also naturally suggests a new answer for the direction problem. If your ancestral population spent thousands of years in the Arctic, the sun rises in the south, not the east. (In fact, Sorenson uses the example of Arctic peoples to make the point of the cultural dependence of connecting east to sunrise.) Move toward the equator, and the direction of the sunrise changes, but not your word for that direction. The word for the land where the sun rises is still descended from the word from “south”, even millenia later among the Olmecs (the last Jaredite dynasties) when its origin is forgotten.

So now look at Sorenson’s explanation for Nephite interpretations of directions in the light of this Jaredite origin. The Nephites have a word for the direction the sun rises that’s derived from “inland”. The people of Zarahemla have a word for the direction of sunrise derived from the concept of “south” that’s been common throughout all of Mesoamerica.  Sunrise is a common referent in either language, so the words are considered to mean the same in either language, even though the conceptual sources are radically different. For the Nephites, the “land southward” becomes the direction of sunrise as seen from Zarahemla. The “land northward” becomes the direction of sunset as seen from Zarahemla. The eastern lands and the East Sea become the territory to your left as you face the sunrise; the West is to your right. The result, using Sorenson’s proposed location for Zarahemla is illustrated by clicking on the thumbnail at the beginning of the post. 

And when JS translates by the power of God in the 19th Century, those would be the concepts he receives.

This line of thought immediately suggests another: might we also have a clue to the centuries-long gap in any directional information being contained in the Book of Mormon before Zarahemla? After all, Nephi and his successors are unlikely to have stopped writing directional words when they got to the promised land. If Sorenson was correct about the Nephite landing point and conceptual framework, there would have been no great difference in continuing to use the Jewish words for East and West to describe their movements during the subsequent centuries. But Mormon, who faithfully transcribed those directions from the Old World he’d never seen, never wrote anything about travel of his ancestors in the promised land, even though he clearly knew the geography of his homeland well enough to be able to infer those directions.

So try this on: what if the Nephites’ records of their “wanderings” made no sense to the post-Zarahemla prophets because Nephi didn’t land on the Pacific Coast of Central America, but on the Atlantic? If facing sunrise, unlike in the Med, meant facing seaward, not landward? If your whole framework for thinking of directions was suddenly flipped 180 degrees, with your “north” becoming “south”? Once you did move inland, your whole conceptual framework would become meaningless, and you’d stop using those meaningless directional words. And when you did meet up with the descendents of the people of Mesoamerica, you’d be hungry to adopt their directional framework and language.

This seems like a radical idea because the Sorenson model clearly tags the primitive ruins on which Gualemala City evolved as the City of Nephi, just as it places Zarahemla in the Grijalva River Valley in Chiapas. But ask yourself: if you ever get to play God, and you want to get people from Yemen to Guatemala City, do you intend to send your children across thousands of extra miles of Pacific Ocean and through already settled lands? Or do you intend to send them around Africa, across the much smaller Atlantic, and then lead them overland over a couple of hundred miles of relatively unpopulated river valley? 

I think I know which way I’d lean.

Entry filed under: archeology, Book of Mormon, geography, Mormon Scripture, Mormonism, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .


20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mormon Heretic  |  March 25, 2010 at 3:03 AM

    Interesting post FireTag. I think you explained Sorenson’s position pretty well, but I’m not sure what to make of this statement.

    If your whole framework for thinking of directions was suddenly flipped 180 degrees, with your “north” becoming “south”?

    It seems to me Sorenson is flipping directions more along the lines of 90 degrees, so the North becomes West. I heard an interview once where he said (paraphrasing), ‘Is Los Angeles West, or South of Salt Lake City? Well it’s both–actually Southwest, but most people refer to LA as west of SLC.’

    While I think there is some merit to Sorenson’s argument, it just seems to me that the Yucatan Peninsula is more of an East-West orientation than a North-South. Sure, perhaps the sun is in a different position in the sky there as opposed to the US, but I still think these directions are a bit of a stretch for Sorenson.

    On a side note, my father-in-law attended a lecture by Garth Norman a few weeks ago. He bought a short book on Norman’s geography. While Norman and Sorenson generally agree, Norman believes the Sidon River is the Usumacinta rather than Grijalva River. It was funny to hear Norman’s discussions of some of these debates, as I didn’t realize that Norman’s theory had some differences from Sorenson. Since you seem to have a much better grasp of geographical features, do you have any opinion on these 2 rivers?

  • 2. FireTag  |  March 25, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    Sorenson’s model does alter our conceptions not quite 90 degrees, not 180 degrees.

    What I’m further speculating in the 180 degree comment is that Sorenson’s rationale for the Nephite transition of directions is being applied to the wrong landing spot. I’m suggesting that Nephi’s wanderings in the wilderness involved traveling a few hundred miles overland from the Atlantic Coast for some months or years to reach Guatemala City (Kaminaljuyu), the site of Nephi in Sorenson’s model and where the archeology starts to show up.

    This speculation is a “bonus” of the interpretation about directions, since my primary purpose in this post is to provide a consistent explanation of why Nephites and Jaredites would both end up with the same orientation for the land southward.

    I think Sorenson in general doesn’t pay enough attention to what was going on in Petain during the period from Alma onward. The Guatemalan government itself seems to be appreciating that the lowlands play a more critical role in the origins of the Mayan culture than it was at the time of Sorenson’s book, and the Usumacinta was the highway of the Mayan as that civilization developed later.

    I think Sorenson makes a much better case for Grijalva as Sidon, but I can’t really read my copy of Norman’s alternative map even with a large magnifying glass. My suspicion is that the buildup along the Nephite’s “eastern” seashore is against threats coming out of the Petain, and that the Usumacinta does not play a more prominant role in the Book of Mormon because, unlike the Grijalva, the Nephites could never get a toehold to control it. It was always in enemy territory.

  • 3. FireTag  |  March 25, 2010 at 4:49 PM

    I’ve now added a map to the main post to illustrate directions as they would be viewed from Sorenson’s proposed location of Zarahemla at Santa Rosa. These are LOCAL frames of reference, so if the record keepers had lived in, say, Bountiful, this scheme would lead to different cities being north, east or south in the records.

    However, there had to be some general agreement to coordinate trade and military movement, so I’m assuming Zarahemla was used for these purposes, even though other ceremonial centers would base their religious observances and lay out their cities on local sunrise and iconic features like mountains.

    Away from ceremonial centers, the boundaries between north and east or south and west would not be straight lines but would tend to be assigned to geographical features. So for example, “Cumorrah” would be thought of as north, even though the Tuxla Mountains might lie a few miles toward the Gulf Coast from the “surveyor’s” boundary. Similarly, Nephi would be south of Zarahemla, even though Kaminaljuyu lies a few miles toward the “west” coast. The boundary between south and west would probably be the string of stratovolcanoes that border the Guatemala Valley. And of course the Sidon flowed “north” from Zarahemla, regardless of the twists and turns of the Grijalva downstream.

  • 4. linescratchers  |  March 25, 2010 at 9:29 PM

    I’m having trouble seeing your map FireTag. Very interesting article though. My favorite thing about the Book of Mormon is its ability to withstand such scrutiny, and the way it unfolds in such layers. Being a religious history, it leaves the rest of us historically- or scientifically-minded people to wonder and infer.

    • 5. FireTag  |  March 25, 2010 at 9:34 PM

      By “trouble”, do you mean it’s not clear, or that you can’t open it?

      If it is the former, try clicking on it for an enlargement. If the latter, its a jpg file.

      Is anyone else having trouble?

  • 6. linescratchers  |  March 25, 2010 at 9:42 PM

    It’s leading me to a “page not found” page. Maybe it’s just me.

    • 7. FireTag  |  March 25, 2010 at 10:15 PM

      Amazing. It worked automatically for me as owner, but not when I came in from outside. Deeply sorry.

      I asked for divine intervention. Try it now.

      • 8. linescratchers  |  March 25, 2010 at 10:22 PM

        Hmm, at around 10:16 pm a conduit opened up from the ceiling, a beam of light descended on my laptop, and the image appeared. Curious.

      • 9. FireTag  |  March 25, 2010 at 10:25 PM

        Satellite delay — or CofChrist prayer requests are farther down in the queue. 😀

  • 10. linescratchers  |  March 25, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    Certainly not!

  • 11. Mormon Heretic  |  March 26, 2010 at 1:10 AM

    Good one FireTag! Well, better late than never, right? 🙂

    The map worked for me when I clicked on it.

    I haven’t studies Norman much yet, and I still need to get back to Sorenson some time, though I find these other theories much more entertaining. I’ve got a Baja one coming up next month. (I’m Trying to put a Passover one together, but not sure if I’ll make it in time–apparently my queue is a bit long with the Lord right now….)

    Anyway, if the map is shifted so Usumacinta is in Nephite territory, doesn’t that make a difference in locations of everything else?

    • 12. FireTag  |  March 26, 2010 at 1:44 AM

      If the Usumacinta is the Sidon, shifting the origin of the direction grid dozens of miles to the modern “east”, creates a number of problems.

      First, there’s too much west, which is sort of a minor direction in the BofM, and no good candidates for the pre-Zarahemla cities. The Lamanites would be confined to the Lowland Maya cultural core, as Sorenson refers to it. There are also problems with military movements that Sorenson can explain already with his geography. Military campaigns are very different in the jungle lowlands than in the highlands.

      Further, in a future post, I’ll show how the volcanic eruptions critical in the crucificion catastrophy CAN work in Sorenson’s geography, even though he’s talking about the wrong volcanoes in his book. The volcanic explanation doesn’t really work that far “east”.

  • 13. Margie  |  April 7, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    For those of us that do not accept that the Book of Mormon is a factual history of the Nephite and Jaredite migrations, it doesn’t matter where the landing occurred. I believe the book is a 19th century creation of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.

    • 14. FireTag  |  April 7, 2010 at 8:05 PM

      Wouldn’t assuse you of believing otherwise, Margie. 😀

      I’ll probably see you on Saint’s Herald later tonight to discuss the new Q&A on the Section 164 counsel. What do you make of the answers about infant baptism from other denominations, the lack of mention of priests having the power to baptize (or did we actually grant teachers and deacons that authority — can’t tell), or the logistical difficulties of having any national conference on gay issues before the 2012 or 2014 time frames?

  • 15. Kate  |  April 13, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    This is unrelated, but I just wanted to tell you (Firetag) that I look forward to hearing what happens at the World Conference. Sounds like it is supposed to to historic.

    Eagerly awaiting your thoughts on the week!

    • 16. FireTag  |  April 15, 2010 at 1:27 AM


      Acceptance of the document as Section 164 occurred Wednesday afternoon. I’ll need to read the minutes when they are posted in the morning to see whether the implementing legislation proposed by the Presidency was passed with or without any amendments, or whether that will be discussed on Thursday.

  • 17. FireTag  |  April 13, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    I will post at Mormon Matters about the conference and I’m targeting this weekend. There’s no doubt in my mind WHAT will happen. The letter of counsel will be approved as Section 164. The First Presidency will then rule most of the legislation and all of the legislation related to gay rights out of order as appropriate only for discussion at national conferences in light of Section 164.

    The church will then devote itself toward implementing new policies and procedures for accepting and confirming members baptized under authority outside of CofChrist priesthood so that the policies are in place by September 2011

    The theological disputes between the various demographic blocs in the church of the Western World will thereby be quarantined to the Western Church and deferred until 2012, or 2014 or later. (We are unable logistically to mount both a World Conference and a US or Canadian National Conference in 2013, though we are small enough in Europe for that to be a possibility.)

    The interesting thing will be what happens AFTER the Conference, because many on both the conservative and liberal side don’t think a deferred theological battle is worth sticking around for, and both sides have other denominations to which they can go.

    • 18. FireTag  |  April 18, 2010 at 8:26 PM


      First schedulr opening on MM is Wednesday PM, so that’s when I guess the conference post will go up.

  • 19. Stephen M (ethesis)  |  May 16, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    What about the fact that the indo-european root tongue appears to have come from people living in what is now the bottom of the black sea, which is also a historical flood, albeit later than the end of the ice age.

    Interesting post though, and I liked it.

    • 20. FireTag  |  May 16, 2010 at 8:57 PM

      Stephen M:

      There is actually some evidence that the Black Sea flooding occurs as a secondary flood as the Siberian lakes are blocked from draining North and eventually overtop a drainage basin and erode a passage west. If you look at “DNA and Dynastic Chronologies”, linked in the original post, the DNA shows that crossing to America preceded the Black Sea flooding, but is quite consistent with the timing of the Siberian Lakes.

      So I have no problem with the Black Sea flooding working its way back into the Judaic tradition as a merged event with the much earlier Persian Gulf (and Indochina, Beringia, etc.) flooding. But you need the earlier floods to account for the Siberian origin of the DNA.

      Not to mention, those Jaredite boats are a fantastic Arctic design, and the North Pacific Gyre has just the right location and speed to match the Book of Ether.


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