The Book of Mormon’s Historicity and Supporting Evidence – part 1

by Cody Calderwood

This is going to be a two part series.  The first part will explain why I am writing this and why I am referring to Mesoamerica.  The second part will discuss some of the interesting examples to support my claim.

First of all, let me just say that as interesting as I find all of this corresponding evidence from Mesoamerica (region of Guatemala and southern Mexico), I recognize that it is only through the Spirit that one can gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon.  This is because religion is a faith based endeavor, not an empirical evidenced based one.  It is only through the Spirit that one can gain a testimony of Jesus Christ, and that is the central mission of the book.  I have felt the peaceful confirmations through the Spirit.  I have seen the power the Book of Mormon brought into the lives of people I taught on my mission, and I have a personal belief and testimony that the Book of Mormon contains prophetic counsel, witnesses of Christ, and lessons that we can learn and apply in our life to achieve greater happiness and peace.

Having said that, many people have had their testimony of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith shaken because of evidence they have been presented or encountered that seemed to have called into question the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

My point of providing this piece is not to compile a comprehensive list that proves the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It would require way too much time and energy to put forth such a work, and I don’t think you will ever be able to prove beyond a doubt the historicity of the book.  I believe that God allowed enough ambiguity to require faith.  My intent is merely to provide some links that allow people to see that there is a possible connection with the Book of Mormon and actual historical peoples that will allow you to continue in faith, believing that the Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith claimed it was.  My hope is that after reading some of this you will come away saying that yes it is very possible that the Book of Mormon is an actual historical document.  I have provided some references that should help allow people to see that it is not so farfetched to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  These references are brief, but I’m of the opinion that each point that gets referenced is worthy of an entire discussion.  This is not meant to be a scientific paper that can withstand severe scrutiny, but rather an appetizer.  It is meant to show that there is actual scientific data and evidence to support my claims and to refute many of the claims of the critics of the Book of Mormon.  If after reading this you still disagree, that’s just fine by me.  We can still be friends.

For context with this discussion I think it is helpful to dismiss a commonly held misconception of the people of the Book of Mormon.  Some members of the church erroneously believe that the people mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Jaredites, Nephites, Lamanites and Mulekites) were the only human inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere.  This is untrue.  There is evidence enough in the Book of Mormon that there were other people populating this continent at the same time as them.  One example is in 2 Nephi 5:6 when Nephi refers to “all those who would go with me.”  He already specifically named his family, the other unnamed individuals are likely non-Lehite descendants.  Another example is In Jacob 7:1–26 we read of Sherem’s encounter with Jacob. Since Jacob was one of the original Lehites in the New World, the maximum adult population among the Lehites couldn’t have been more than a dozen people.  Yet Sherem had come from another settlement and had never met Jacob, the chief Nephite priest.

I personally believe that the Lord led many other groups of people to this hemisphere.  Look at Jacob chapter 5 and read Zenos’s olive tree allegory as an example that the Lord led many groups of people away to populate different parts of the world that could include North, Central, and South America.  Like the Mulekites, it’s possible that these other groups of people didn’t keep a record and fell into apostasy and illiteracy.  Or, it’s possible that some of the other groups of people did keep records but the Lord hasn’t brought their records to light yet.

The other peoples interacting with the Nephites and Lamanites aren’t explicitly mentioned because that is not the purpose of the Book of Mormon.  The Book of Mormon is essentially a family journal.  This family journal was kept by divine commandment to help those members of this family (house of Israel) that landed in Mesoamerica and others who read to be convinced “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (taken from the title page of the Book of Mormon)  Think of it this way.  If you were commanded by God to keep a journal of the miracles you had experienced, the spiritual lessons you had learned, and the importance of Christ, would you list a detailed record of politics, sociology, and all of your neighbors?  Most likely not.  It is my personal opinion that we would have received much of that information in the lost 116 manuscript pages that would have been the Book of Lehi.  That is the book that was charged with keeping record of the history of the people, whereas the plates of Nephi were charged with keeping record of the more spiritual matters.  This is a big reason why the Book of Mormon doesn’t have detailed records of the history of the people. Thankfully though there is sufficient evidence to draw some parallels.

Some of the biggest critiques of the Book of Mormon are concerning the perceived anachronisms found therein.  An anachronism is defined as: “something (such as a word, an object, or an event) that is mistakenly placed in a time where it does not belong.” Many critics point to these anachronisms as proof that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon from his own mind.  Before I list some of these anachronisms, it’s important to understand two critical points.  First is how archaeology works.  Archaeology is the study of material remains.  That means that archaeologists can only draw conclusions based on the limited material that remains.  One important thing to remember is that if an item has not been found, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.  The absence of evidence is not proof.  This is very important with respect to the Book of Mormon because you will see that many of the early anachronisms associated with the Book of Mormon have since been discovered to actually be an accurate portrayal of Mesoamerican life.  Many critics prematurely jump to a conclusion based off of limited archaeological data, which is incorrect.

The other important point to remember is that a lack of evidence in Mesoamerica has an explanation from Mesoamerican cultures with respect to conquering nations.  In Mesoamerica we have evidence of warring nations battling each other.  The nation that is victorious would then destroy the temples, the sculptures, the monuments and the historical record of the conquered people in an attempt to subjugate them and eliminate their past from memory so as to better control them.  It is well documented[1] that the Aztecs and Maya both practiced this on occasion.  We have an example of this in the Book of Mormon.  The final battle of the Nephites and Lamanites ended in the utter destruction of the Nephites.  It is very possible that the Lamanites then proceeded to destroy the temples, sculptures, monuments and history of the Nephite people as was practiced by the Aztecs and Maya.  Another tragic event that likely erased evidence of the Nephites was at the hand of the Spaniards who conquered the Americas in the 1500’s. When they came the overzealous priests destroyed all written records they could find because they viewed the Aztecs and Maya as heathens worshipping pagan Gods [2].  And all gold that they found they caused to be melted down into gold bars and shipped back to Spain.

The Lord in his infinite wisdom caused the prophet Moroni to bury the gold plates in the earth far away from where the Spaniards were destroying all written records and were melting all gold down.  I sometimes wonder what academic treasures we would have today had the Spaniards not destroyed so much of Mesoamerican written culture.  There are only four written pieces, or codices, that survived the Spanish destruction.  In fact, a quote by a famous Maya scholar, Michael D. Coe, represents well my thoughts with this.  He said, “Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim’s Progress).”  Can you imagine if every historical document of the United States’ young 250 year history was destroyed except for 4 small books?  What limited conclusions would future civilizations be able to draw from such a small source?  Now to put that in perspective, the Mesoamerican culture that we know of spanned over 3,000 years.

maya-codex3

Knowing that archaeology is limited in drawing conclusions about an ancient people, and knowing that most of the written record of Mesoamerica had been destroyed, we need to tread carefully in drawing any final and lasting conclusions from the current scientific evidence we have.  This is not to say that science is evil or bad.  Quite the contrary.  Science can be a wonderful avenue for arriving at truth. But we need to use caution at drawing final conclusions and instead need to keep open the possibility that scientific theories will continue to change as new evidence comes forth.

Back to the anachronisms.  When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 there were many anachronisms found in it.  Critics immediately latched on to these as proof that Joseph Smith was a fraud.  Here is a sample of some of those anachronisms:

 

Steel sword

Brass plates

Golden plates

Gold smelting

Silver smelting

Copper smelting

Brass

Iron

Precious ores

Molten stone (glass)

Silk

Cow

Oxen

Horse

Ass

Goat

Wild Goat

Sheep

Wild Beasts

Bees

Elephants

Wheat

Barley

Barley-based monetary system

Solomon-like Temple

Stone monuments

Thrones

Palaces

Large Cities

Fortifications

Cement

Highways

Military costumes

Swords

Spears

Scimitars

Javelins

Bows and arrows

Slings

The wheel

Chariots

Large armies

Human sacrifice

Submarine barges

Hebrew language

Reformed Egyptian script

Natives could read

Natives could write

Book of Mormon place names

Book of Mormon personal names

Two advanced civilizations

Older in north

Younger in south

Older disappeared

Younger spread north

Younger destroyed

200 year period of peace

3 culture sequence

Narrow neck of land

East and West seas

North -> South flowing large river

Southern highlands

Highland lake

Wide eastern sea coast

Narrow west coast

 

Clearly there are others that I haven’t thought of, but this is a pretty substantial list of anachronisms.  One can see why initially Joseph Smith would have been thought of as a fraud.  As of today, most of these have since been proven to have existed in the era the Book of Mormon was written.  So, either Joseph Smith was an improbably lucky guesser with a very creative imagination, or the book was actually written by someone with intimate personal experience and knowledge of Mesoamerican life.

Why Mesoamerica

Let’s briefly discuss why I say the Book of Mormon occurred in Mesoamerica, and not in upstate New York or the Midwest like some Mormons believe.  Using the information from the Book of Mormon itself, we can develop a very good idea of what the geography of their land looked like.  A hemispheric or continental scope is contrary to the text.  Mormon’s map cannot possibly be matched by such a large territory as North or South America, let alone by the entire western hemisphere. The total extent of the lands that Mormon knew about, based on his own words, did not exceed about 600 miles in length and 300 miles in width.  This is why scholars now point to a smaller geographic area, in particular the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico as the narrow neck of land.  This reason alone is enough to eliminate the one Hill Cumorah theory and the Heartland theory.

An example of a generic map drawn to Mormon’s descriptions of the land:

Mormon's Map

A view of possible locations in Mesoamerica:

book-of-mormon-map

Some people claim that we can’t know where the Book of Mormon took place based off of the descriptions found in the book due to large, catastrophic events that took place that changed the face of the land.  Ancient geographical features were for practical purposes the same as those we see today. There weren’t large shifts in the position of the continents or oceans. For example, references to the narrow neck and the narrow pass were the same in Moroni’s (Mormon’s son) day as in the days of captain Moroni a few centuries earlier.

Most of the lands about which Mormon wrote were described as being advanced civilizations and that there were “cities”.  Also many of the peoples involved were literate; the existence of many books was a cultural feature of note.  That we know of, only one area in ancient America had cities and books: Mesoamerica.  Also Mesoamerica is the only area in North America that has evidence of a civilization that numbered in the millions, like we saw in the Book of Mormon.  Some scholars estimate the population of Mesoamerica to have reached well over 40,000,000 people at its peak.[3]  Most modern scholars are more conservative in their estimates but still consider that the area had between 20 and 25 million people.  The Native Americans of North America (north of Mexico) numbered in the most about 40,000[4] at the largest city, and that peak population was in the establishment known as Cahokia. Cahokia didn’t reach that amount until about 800 years after the Nephites were exterminated.  That population size is nowhere near the magnitude that would be required for the Book of Mormon peoples, and did not occur during the time period of the Book of Mormon people. This is another huge thorn for the supporters of the One Cumorah theory or the Heartland theory.

The climate of the Book of Mormon would indicate a temperate climate that was warm year round.  There were battles described in the book of Alma that took place constantly over the course of several years.  The Lamanites were described in these wars to have fought wearing nothing but a loin cloth.  Fighting a battle in the cold months of fall through spring in nothing but a loin cloth would not be possible in the cold climate of upstate New York or the Midwest states.  Mesoamerica on the other hand fits that type of climate perfectly.

Using Mesoamerica as the location for the Book of Mormon not only lines up well geographically, but it also parallels what archaeologists have found with cities in the same time frame in that area.  The rise and fall of population (both at the end of the Jaredite period and the end of the Nephite period) described in the Book of Mormon coincides very well with what archaeologists have found in Mesoamerica.

As of now there is really only one location in the western hemisphere that consistently matches what we read about in the Book of Mormon.  That location is the region of Mesoamerica that is around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.


[1] Arther A. Demarest et al., “Classica Maya Deffensive Systems and Warfare in the Petexbatun Region: Archaeological Evidence and Interpretations,” Ancient Mesoamerica 8 (1997): 248.

[2] Robert J. Sharer et al., The Ancient Maya (2006): 126

[3] Helmuth O. Wagner, “Subsistence Potential and Population Density of the Maya on The Yucatan Peninsual and Cuases for the Decline in Population Density in the Fifteenth Century,” Proceedings of the 38th International Congress of Americanists (Stuttgart-Munich, 1968) (Munich: Renner, 1969), 1:194

[4] 1975 A Population Estimate for Cahokia. In: PERSPECTIVES IN CAHOKIA ARCHAEOLOGY. Illinois Archaeological

Survey Bulletin No. 10, pp. 126-136. Urbana.

 

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Cody was born and raised in Utah. He received his bachelors of science from BYU and later his DDS from the University of Maryland. He is a dentist in Park City, Utah and is busy saving the world one tooth at a time. He and his wife Lisa have four wild and crazy kids. He served his LDS Mission in the Mexico Hermosillo Mission. He has served in various capacities in his ward as scout master, ward mission leader, gospel doctrine teacher, and now in the elders quorum presidency.

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