Commentary on Stoddard “Implications of Radiocarbon Dating …”



Commentary on Ted Dee Stoddard's: 

Implications of Radiocarbon Dating for the Credibility of the Book of Mormon and the Validity
Book of Mormon Geography Models

by Kirk Magleby

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On February 29th, Ted Dee Stoddard's article Implications of Radiocarbon Dating for the Credibility of the Book of Mormon and the Validity of Book of Mormon Geography Models  was published on the BMAF website.  You can read his article  here.

The article that follows is a critique of that article.  Quotes from the Stoddard article are in italics:

Point 6.  Mesoamerican archaeologists today use dating terminology that was initially applied to the Maya but that is now applied almost universally in conjunction with all Mesoamerican cultures. In general, the time periods by name and dates and the Book of Mormon correlations for that dating terminology are as shown in the following table:



Stoddard is not using the current generally accepted dating schema for Mesoamerican chronology. Most mainstream Mesoamericanists today use this schema:

10,000 – 2,000 BC               Archaic

2,000 – 1,000 BC                 Early pre-classic

1,000 – 400 BC                    Middle pre-classic

400 BC – 200 AD                  Late pre-classic

200 – 600 AD                        Early classic

600 – 900 AD                        Classic

800 – 1,000 A                        Terminal classic (varied by region)

900 – 1,200 A                        Early post-classic 

1,200 – 1,519 AD                   Late post-classic

This generally accepted schema is more challenging to correlate with the Book of Mormon narrative than Stoddard’s non standard, obsolete version.

Point 7. If Book of Mormon scholars wonder whether a site or territory is a legitimate candidate for a Book of Mormon site or territory, they should first determine whether the radiocarbon dates from the site or territory correlate adequately with Book of Mormon dates. For example, some scholars label Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta River as the city of Zarahemla on the river Sidon. Such labeling is illogical and illegitimate because Yaxchilan is clearly a Postclassic city.

To call Yaxchilan “clearly a post-classic city” is incorrect. Yaxchilan, as is true of many large sites in the Maya lowlands, had a vigorous pre-classic occupation layer. See for example Robert J. Sharer & Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th Edition (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006). The royal dynastic line at Yaxchilan, attested with Maya long count dates carved on monuments, began on July 23, 359 AD with the enthronement of Yopaat Balam I. Yaxchilan reached its apogee in the classic era. The best current thinking on the Usumacinta-Sidon correlation places Yaxchilan in the land of Melek. See the Book of Mormon Resources blog article entitled “Melek”.


Point 10. From radiocarbon dating studies, we now know that “an estimated 90 percent of the population centers in existence during the Book of Mormon time period are located in the area called Mesoamerica.”

Stoddard’s citation from Joe & Blake Allen that “an estimated 90 percent of the population centers in existence during the Book of Mormon time period are located in the area called Mesoamerica” is  inaccurate. Stoddard’s reference to the Allens (he cites this statistic not once, but twice in his 15 page article) shows incompleteness in his research. The Allens, for their part, are sometimes source uncritical (failing to adequately distinguish between reliable and dubious sources) and they frequently jump to conclusions based on inadequate data. For example, any serious student who examines Joseph L. Allen & Blake J. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd Edition (Orem, Utah: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, LLC, 2008) pp. 16, 17 (the reference Stoddard cites) will be immediately struck with these examples of anomalies & inconsistencies:

·       Do (less than 1%) + (an estimated 90%) + (an estimated 10 – 15%) = 100%? No.

·       Do (a 1979 art history book) + (a 1986 book about the mound builders) + (a 1988 overview of Inca & pre-Inca cultures in Peru) = a credible archaeological site survey of the entire Western Hemisphere which is what the Allens purport to show? No.

·       Are the dates 2600 BC – 250 AD generally accepted time horizons for the Mesoamerican pre-classic? No.

·       Would mainstream anthropologists accept the Allen’s definition of population centers as “civilizations …”? No.

Point 11. .....defensive earthworks identical to those described by Mormon in Alma 49–50 are rather routinely expected in excavations at most of the large cities of the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize. They could very well be a reflection of Mormon’s statement that such defensive earthworks were built “round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites” (Alma 50:1; emphasis added). And, as reflected in some models for Book of Mormon geography, these cities are very likely positioned in the territory known as the “east wilderness” of the Book of Mormon. Richard D. Hansen’s archaeological work in these cities verifies considerable Late Preclassic dating, a fact that by itself suggests a direct relationship with Book of Mormon peoples.

Stoddard is on shaky ground here. Richard D. Hansen, an internationally known LDS archaeologist, and any other competent Mesoamericanist would be chagrined to have their name associated with such faulty logic. There is good reason why John E.  Clark in his important 2011 essay “Revisiting ‘A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies” warns us not to not look at sites until we have a consistent internal model that fits the terrain. We will only be successful when we start with the text. Stoddard’s comments “considerable late pre-classic dating, a fact that by itself suggests a direct relationship with Book of Mormon peoples” and “if for no other reason than the extensive late pre-classic radiocarbon dates from these Mesoamerican territories” are examples of doing exactly what Clark says we should NOT do. Significant late pre-classic material is found in northern Yucatan (Komchen), northern Campeche (Edzna) and north western El Salvador (Chalchuapa sites). Using Stoddard’s reasoning, do these Mesoamerican areas have a direct relationship with The Book of Mormon? Archaeological dating technologies ex textus are simply incapable of answering these questions. Stoddard is trying to solve a multivariate calculus problem using simple arithmetic, which will never work.

Point 12. I maintain that Book of Mormon scholars who attempt to identify such sites as El Ceibal, Cancuen, Chama, Nine Hills, or Nueve Cerros as candidates for the city of Zarahemla cannot produce the appropriate evidence, for one reason or another, for any of these sites to function adequately as the “great city” of Zarahemla. In addition, I maintain that enough explanatory investigations have been conducted along the Usumacinta River to negate the validity of such statements as the following: “We’ll find the city of Zarahemla along the Usumacinta some day; it can’t stay hidden forever” or “Because of the extensive agricultural developments along some sections of the Usumacinta, the city of Zarahemla was probably plowed under long ago.”

Thus, if we use radiocarbon dating as a criterion for choosing between the Grijalva River or the Usumacinta River as the Book of Mormon’s river Sidon, I maintain that the outcomes clearly lean in favor of the Grijalva.

Stoddard uses declaratives like these:

·       “seems justified…

·       I maintain…

·       my research to this point…

·       I maintain…

·       in addition, I maintain…

·       Thus … I maintain”

based on a subjective exegesis of the word “great”, a cursory nod to decades of NWAF and John L. Sorenson scholarship, an erroneous proof-texting of a PARI Journal article, and an unsubstantiated private opinion that is long on bias and short on scholarship. Stoddard’s pedantic statement that “not a single pre-classic city-site large enough to qualify as the city of Zarahemla has been identified in the vicinity of the Usumacinta River” is plainly false. Four obvious questions:

·       How large does a site have to be to qualify? 10 hectares? 100 hectares? 1,000 hectares?

·       How densely populated must a site have been to qualify? 1,000 people? 10,000 people? 100,000 people?

·       How many large public structures must a site have had to qualify? 1? 10? 100?

·       How far away from the river can a site be located and still be “in the vicinity”? 1 kilometer? 10 kilometers? 100 kilometers?

Any one is welcome to play around with these metrics based on their interpretation of the text, but they are a two-edged sword. In Stoddard’s case, many of the sites he favors in the central depression of Chiapas are quite small and would not meet grandiose expectations. This is part of the reason why some of the people intimately associated with NWAF in the early days (Thomas S. Ferguson, Dee F. Green) eventually lost their ardor for the Book of Mormon.

Here are 2 possibilities for Zarahemla on the Usumacinta that come from careful reading of the very sources Stoddard cites:

1.     Thomas A. Lee, Jr. and Brian Hayden, with an appendix b y Phillip L. Walker, Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation Number Fifty-three, San Pablo Cave and El Cayo on the Usumacinta River, Chiapas, Mexico, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1988). In 1956, M. Wells Jakeman dug some test trenches at El Cayo. In 1957, Gareth W. Lowe and Eduardo Martinez E. visited El Cayo and confirmed the presence of a pre-classic occupation layer. In 1962, Bruce W. Warren and Maximo Prado mounted an unsuccessful expedition to El Cayo. Then in 1963, Thomas A. Lee, Jr. accompanied a Utah-based Western Rivers expedition that put in at Tres Naciones (the confluence of the Lacantun with the Usumacinta) and took out at Tenosique. They spent 2 days exploring, mapping and taking samples from El Cayo. In 1964, Richard MacNeish (famous for his studies of the origins of agriculture such as the domestication of maize in Tehuacan, Puebla) visited the NWAF field office in Tuxtla Gutierrez and commented favorably on the antiquity of some of the El Cayo samples. This led Thomas A. Lee, Jr. to return to El Cayo in 1965 for more in-depth field work. The results of that trip were satisfactory enough that Mr. Lee returned a third time to El Cayo in 1970. El Cayo is a substantial site, right on the river, with a major Mamom phase (600 – 300 BC) ceramic layer. Many well-informed people over the years have considered El Cayo a viable candidate for Zarahemla. NWAF also excavated at Aguacatal near the mouth of the Palizada, one of the distributaries of the Usumacinta. See Ray T. Matheny, Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, Number Twenty-seven, The Ceramics of Aguacatal Campeche, Mexico, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1970). Jakeman thought Aguacatal on the Xiacalango Peninsula might be Bountiful.

2.  Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research along the Usumacinta River, The PARI Journal Volume VIII, No. 2, Fall 2006. Figure 3 shows the site of El Cayo, while page 12 mentions El Cayo as one of eight sites near the Usumacinta with pre-classic material (the other seven are Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, Fideo, Macabilero,El Kinel, La Tecnica and Zancudero. The really interesting part of this article, though, is the discussion of three major polities and one minor kingdom along the river. The major sites that controlled large territories are Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras and Pomona. The minor kingdom that exercised some influence in the area immediately south of Boca del Cerro is Chinikiha. All have known pre-classic phases. All are right on the river. Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras are both rank 1 sites, meaning they are in an elite group of only 16 very large sites that were the most important in southern Mesoamerica (as defined by the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane). Pomona is often linked with Palenque, another rank 1 site that also has known pre-classic material. The two are 52 air kilometers apart and the Chacamay River runs between them for 32 of those kilometers. Early Pomona has Olmec influence and the site flourished in the late pre-classic, went into a hiatus midway through the early classic, then flourished again in the late classic. Golden and Scherer document this pattern – late pre-classic fluorescence followed by early classic hiatus followed by late classic fluorescence – at many Usumacinta basin sites. Pomona is a substantial site (INAH maintains a fine museum there), 3.5 kilometers from the river, that dates to Book of Mormon times. Pomona, covering 175 hectares with 6 building groups (only 1 of which has been excavated) is a prime candidate for Zarahemla.

There are many other possible sites, as well. Robert L. Rands (1922 – 2010) spent a great deal of his career studying the archaeology of the middle Usumacinta – the stretch of river downstream from Boca del Cerro and upstream from the permanent flooding in the delta. He found that most of the sites in this area follow the same pattern Golden and Scherer found further south – late pre-classic fluorescence followed by early classic hiatus followed by late classic fluorescence. See Robert L. Rands, The Classic Maya Collapse: Usumacinta Zone and the Northwestern Periphery in The Classic Maya Collapse, edited by T. Patrick Culbert (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1973). Additional candidates for Zarahemla include Tecolpan, Arenitas, and the Nueva Esperanza/Calatraba/Nueva Esperanza II complex. All are significant sites, near the river, that date to pre-classic times. The Nueva Esperanza/Calatraba/Nueva Esperanza II group, for example, extends for hundreds of hectares and includes dozens of large mounds.

The evangelicals right now are having a field day pompously crowing to everyone who will listen that DNA proves The Book of Mormon wrong. Those of us who know and love The Book of Mormon respond that it is not that simple as we trot out Ugo Perego, Scott Woodward, etc. to explain what DNA can and cannot tell us about ancient American human populations. In this article, Ted Stoddard tries to argue that C-14 dating authenticates the Grijalva-Sidon correlation and invalidates the Usumacinta-Sidon theory. It is not that simple.  

Magleby, Kirk