by Ross Christensen


No record of the past offers a more exciting challenge to the archaeologist, and to other students of human history, than does the Book of Mormon account of the early history of the New World. This account, if true, solves at one stroke one of the major problems of archaeology--that of the origin of the ancient civilizations of the New World: it explains these civilizations, not as the result of independent development in America out of primitive hunting cultures, as generally held, but as the work of civilized White colonists from the Old World. It also brings to light some 3000 years of New World history previously unknown, including events of extraordinary interest and importance. Its truth or authenticity, moreover, can be definitely determined by scientific means; i.e. by comparing its history and civilizations of ancient America with the history and civilizations of this continent as independently established by modern archaeological research.

Before applying this comparative archaeological test to the Book of Mormon account, however, we must first be sure that we are dealing with the same area and same period of time. The Book of Mormon must not, of course, be held responsible for developments in ancient America outside the area and period of its civilizations. But on the other hand, it must meet completely the test of archaeological comparison in this area and period. Here, this test will be decisive.

Of these two main space and time aspects of the Book of Mormon civilizations basic to the comparative archaeological test, their spatial aspect or area of development presents the more difficult problem. The most popular view among readers of the Book of Mormon as to this area is what may be termed the "general New World identification" or "Panama theory," in which the entire American continent is considered the area of development of the Book of Mormon civilizations, with the main "land northward" division of the Book of Mormon area all North America., the main "land southward" division all South America, and the connecting isthmus or "'narrow neck of land" the Isthmus of Panama. In view of certain internal requirements of the Record, a more recent theory restricts the area to the middle part only of the New World, identifying the "land northward" with central and southern Mexico, the "land southward" with Central America, and the connecting "narrow neck of land" with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. (The identification of the land southward" division with Central instead of South America, in this "Tehuantepec" theory, is in agreement with a statement of the Prophet Joseph Smith--i.e. the one who brought forth the Book of Mormon--that the city of Zarahemla, which was in the "land southward," was located in Central America. This "Tehuantepec" theory is also strongly supported by the evidence of modern archaeology. It should be noted that this restriction of the Book of Mormon area to the central part of the New World does not rule out the possibility that the Book of Mormon peoples, before and after the end of the Record, established settlements also in parts of North and South America outside this area.

As to the other main aspect of the Book of Mormon civilizations, the time or period of their development, the Record is fairly explicit. This was the period of some 3000 years or more from the third millennium BC probably from around 2800 BC, according to the evidence of recent Mesopotamian archaeology-to about 400 AD. The first and longer part of this period (ending between 600 and 200 BC) was that of the development of the first civilization of the Record, that of the Jaredites, a people from Early Sumerian Mesopotamia. The main region of this "Jaredite Sumerian" civilization in the Book of Mormon area of the New World was the "land northward," i.e. central and southern Mexico, according to the "Tehuantepec" theory of Book of Mormon geography. The latter part of the period was that of the rise and fall of the second civilization of the Record, that of the Lehite and Mulekite colonies from Early Israelite Palestine--a culture at the urban level of development like that of the Jaredites, and strongly religion-centered or theocratic in character. This civilization had its beginnings or "formative" stage (C-585-100 BC) in the "land southward" part of the Book of Mormon-area,, i.e. Central America. In its "florescent" stage (c.100 BC-200 AD) it spread into the "land northward" region, i.e. southern and central Mexico, where its remains should be found overlying, in proper stratigraphic sequence, those of the older "Jaredite Sumerian" civilization. In this or in the following,
"decadent " 11 stage (c.200-400 AD)--a period of religious decline and social disintegration but (in its first phase) of increasing material prosperity and population--it may have been carried beyond the limits of the main "land northward" and "land southward" divisions, into parts of North America north of Mexico and into South America. After the destruction of its principal bearers, the Nephites, in the wars of the fourth century and the end of the Record at that point, a partial survival of this theocratic "Israelitish" civilization--at least in the main area, i.e. Mesoamerica--may have carried on to the coming of the "Gentiles" or Europeans in the sixteenth century.