High Level Written Language in the New Workd
High-Level Written Language in the New World
Copyright © 2009
Let us assume that our goal is to make a valid determination of that New World “somewhere” of the Book of Mormon. How should we go about identifying that “somewhere”?
|Clark further explains his thinking about the “correct” approach to take in identifying the New World setting for the Book of Mormon as follows:||
It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon—a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion.3
An in-depth examination of all the critical criteria—derived from a careful examination of the Book of Mormon itself—will not be discussed here. Only one of the critical criteria will be explored here; that criterion can be worded as follows:
The area must show evidence of a high-level written language that was in use during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.
As worded, that criterion noticeably does not cover the need for a high-level written language during the Jaredite time period. Yes, we could modify the criterion to read as follows: “The area must show evidence of at least two high-level written languages, one of which was in use during the Jaredite time period and the other of which was in use during the time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.” That wording is also legitimate, but it will not be applied in connection with the discussion that follows.
An outcome of the criterion for a high-level written language during the time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites could be a statement such as the following:
Show me a New World geographic area that archaeologically and historically supports a high-level written language during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites, and I will seriously consider that area as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon.
An extension of that statement could be the following statement:
If any proposed New World geographic area does not support archaeological and historical evidence of a high-level written language during the time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites, that area should be deleted from consideration as the New World setting of the Book of Mormon.
Contrary to Clark’s approach to determining the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, the steps being advocated here in working with potential geographic settings are the following:
1. From the content of the Book of Mormon, determine critical criteria that are nongeographic in nature and that must be met by any potential territory being considered as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon.
2. Apply those criteria to any potential geographic area being considered as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon.
3. Delete from further consideration any geographic area that does not meet the criteria.
4. Continue investigating any geographic area that does meet the criteria by then determining whether the geography of the area matches the details of Mormon’s map in the Book of Mormon.
5. To the extent possible, identify the locations of macro Book of Mormon geographic areas in any geographic area that meets the criteria.
6. To the extent possible, identify the locations of micro Book of Mormon geographic areas in any geographic area that meets the criteria.
What follows is an analysis of the extent to which two proposals for the New World setting for the Book of Mormon meet the criterion of a high-level written language. These two proposals are the “Heartland Model”4 and the “Mesoamerica Model.”5
The Heartland Model
Simplistically, if either the Adena or Hopewell culture (or both) can be legitimately identified as the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites, we should be able to find evidence of a high-level written language in the geographic area where the Adena and Hopewell cultures lived. Because that area involves the continental United States territory south of the Great Lakes, its advocates call their model for Book of Mormon geography the “Heartland Model.”
Question: Does the Heartland Model exhibit evidence of a high-level written language in use during the time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites?
That answer has stood the test of decades of intensive investigation and historical events beginning in the nineteenth century, including the intentional planting of fake artifacts that were designed to “prove” the existence of a high-level written language.
For example, E. O. Randall spent a considerable part of his journalistic profession in dealing with the Mound Builders. In his last editorial contribution in 1919 to the Columbus Evening Dispatch, the newspaper introduced the editorial by saying, “It may be considered his final word on a subject to which he had given much thought and on which he had frequently written.” In his editorial, Randall summarizes his lifetime of investigative work on the Mound Builders as follows: “The Mound Builders, so-called for want of a better name, had no written language and left no inscriptions, hieroglyphics, symbols or records of any kind save the earthen temples, graves, village sites and forts.”7
As another example, J. P. Maclean, who authored one of the most prominent and respected books on the Mound Builders during the nineteenth century, says the following:
American archaeologists have been more or less interested in the question whether or not the Mound Builders had a written language. All the evidence is against the supposition. We have no evidence that they had attained to the same condition as that possessed by the semi-civilized nations of Europe, who themselves had not arrived at the construction of an alphabet. It must be borne in mind that the alphabet is a very high attainment, and belongs to the civilized and enlightened. Nations much in advance of the Mound Builders had not attained to this state, and hence it would be unwarrantable to assign to them such a superiority. It would be a reversal of the teachings of history, and an exception to the law of harmonious development. Notwithstanding this manifest fact, there is hardly a year passes unsignalized by the announcement of the discovery of tablets of stone or metal, bearing some mystical inscription. Under scientific scrutiny, these alleged discoveries are proven to be frauds, or else resolve themselves into very natural productions. So long as there is an expectation that the mounds will yield some thing that will give a clue to a written language, it may be expected that these fraudulent operations will be continued.8
In a subsequent section of his book, Maclean deals with fraudulent artifacts that were perpetrated in an attempt by charlatans to support, among other ulterior motives, the existence of a high-level written language among the Mound Builders. Speaking of these frauds, Maclean says the following:
If the Mound Builders had a written language, they were in possession of abundant means to have perpetuated it. Numerous plates of copper and polished slate were at their command, and if they possessed this art, letters would certainly have been engraved upon them, and uniform characters would have been found from the Great Lakes to the Gulf.
The following observation from Nott and Gliddon’s “Types of Mankind” (p. 283), may be quoted with propriety: “No trace of an alphabet existed at the time of the conquest of the continent of America; but some tribes possessed an imperfect sort of picture-writing, from which a little archaeological aid can be derived; though we are compelled to look chiefly to traditions, which are often vague, and to the light which emanates from the physical characters, antiquities, religions, arts, sciences, language, or agriculture.”
We should hesitate a long time before placing the Mound Builders higher intellectually than the ancient Mexicans or Peruvians. All pretences to a discovery of alphabetical characters should be regarded with doubt, and not received unless supported by the most convincing or unquestionable testimony.9
At this juncture, whether consciously or unconsciously, the primary advocates of the Heartland Model are grasping at straws as they attempt to “prove” that their Heartland Model for the New World setting for the Book of Mormon is valid. We can assume that they know the Adena and Hopewell cultures did not have a high-level written language. However, that lack of knowledge does not deter them from using subterfuge and deceptiveness in their attempts to surmount the high-level written language hurdle.
Initially on his DVD, as a subtle, deceptive way of planting in the minds of his listeners a suggestion that the Mound Builders did have a written language, Rodney Meldrum alluded to so-called “artifacts” that are known as the “Michigan relics.” Subsequently, he must have been challenged about the legitimacy of his inclusion of information about the Michigan relics because his comments about them were taken out of his DVD presentation. However, he still makes comments about the Michigan relics as if his readers should consider them as part of the archaeological evidence in support of the Heartland Model. On his DVD, he says:
There are things, though, some criteria for determining whether an artifact is a fake. I have actually removed from this presentation artifacts that are very amazing, that depict things like a person on a cross and so forth that were found in different caves. But these artifacts have been declared as fakes and as hoaxes, and so we’ve taken them out to be less controversial.
But the important thing here is that none of them that I know of have gone through these five scientific steps for determining whether or not an artifact is a fraud or is real. These are the five steps that should be taking place:
Was a complete scientific study performed?
Is the investigator qualified to do this study?
Is the investigator biased or objective?
And is the basis for a fake determination clearly stated in a written report?
Was the report peer reviewed?
Those are the only things that need to be done, but these artifacts that have been declared as fakes have not gone through that process that I’m aware of.10
The Michigan relics played a minor, nondescript role in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.11 Following is the detailed account of one Web-based file that deals with the Michigan relics. It reads like an intriguing short story, and it gives most of the important information about the Michigan relics:
In a storeroom of the Michigan Historical Museum, state archaeologist John Halsey examined the newly acquired artifacts purported to be the remnants of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization that settled in Michigan thousands of years ago.
He pointed to the pictures engraved on slate tablets, telling stories from the Old Testament.
Here’s God directing Adam to the Garden of Eden. Here’s Eve. Here’s the apple tree. Here’s God banishing them from the Garden. Here’s Moses with the Ten Commandments. And here’s a scene depicting the crucifixion of Christ.
But, wait a minute, how did that get in there?
“If you’re going to tell an Old Testament story,” Halsey said, “Jesus shouldn’t be there.”
It’s one of many indications the so-called “Michigan Relics,” once hailed as the greatest archaeological discoveries since Pompeii, are fakes.
“It’s the physical evidence of the largest archaeological fraud in the state’s history,” Halsey said, then, on further reflection, he added: “It is arguably the largest archaeological fraud ever in this country, and the longest running.”
More than a century after the first relics were discovered, some people still believe them to be authentic. Some influential members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) once considered them evidence of the church’s connection to a Near Eastern culture in ancient America. The Mormon Church for decades kept a large collection of the artifacts in its Salt Lake City museum, but never formally claimed them to be genuine.
This past summer, after scholars examined the relics and declared them fakes, the church donated the 797 objects to the Michigan Historical Museum, which plans to exhibit them beginning next month.
James Scotford claimed he found the first relic—a large clay casket—while digging a post hole on a Montcalm County farm in October 1890. He hurried into the nearby village of Wyman to announce his discovery, touching off a frenzy of digging all over the Lower Peninsula.
Over the next 30 years, thousands more artifacts—tiny caskets, amulets, tools, smoking pipes and tablets—were found, including some in Kent County. The items were made of clay, copper and slate, and most bore the mark “IH/,” which some interpreted as a tribal signature or a mystic symbol. Some thought it was a variation on IHS, the ancient Hebrew symbol for Jehovah.
A syndicate was formed in Stanton to corner the market and sell the items to the highest bidder, perhaps the Smithsonian Institution.
Oddly, nearly all were found when Scotford, a former magician and sleight-of-hand expert, was present.
Almost from the beginning, skeptics cast doubt on the finds, among them University of Michigan Latin Professor Francis Kelsey who in 1892 called them forgeries. He noted the inscriptions on some of the relics appeared to be a “horrible mixture” of ancient alphabets, such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform, and spelled nothing.
The clay tablets appeared to have been molded on a machine-sawed board, Kelsey said.
But the relics had their vocal promoters, chief among them Daniel Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State, forced to resign because of corruption. In the early 1900s, Soper teamed with Scotford to sell the objects. They enlisted the support of the Rev. James Savage, priest at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Detroit.
Historians and archaeologists today believe Savage, who became the most avid collector, was not privy to the scam, but was duped to give the finds credibility. Savage believed the artifacts were left by the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel or a colony of ancient Jews. He became an easy mark for Soper and Scotford, Halsey said, because the artifacts confirmed his religious beliefs.
“They were very clever in who they picked as their marks,” Halsey said.
Typically, Scotford and Soper would invite prominent members of a community—a postmaster, a wealthy farmer, a sheriff—to accompany them on their digs. Scotford would point out a likely place to dig, and, when an object was found, which it inevitably was, he would invite his guest to remove it from the ground. Those accompanying Scotford and Soper were asked to sign affidavits, attesting the items were authentic, because they saw them removed from the ground.
Soper and Scotford were incensed when anyone questioned the objects’ authenticity, and tried to discredit their critics.
When some experts said the unfired clay objects would quickly dissolve in Michigan’s damp soil, the pair uncovered fired clay objects. When some said the slate tablets showed the marks of modern saws, chisels and files, Scotford and Soper unearthed crude saws, chisels and files fashioned from copper. When some questioned what happened to the makers of the relics, a tablet surfaced depicting a battle with Indians.
Over time, the story behind the finds changed. Some said the relics were the work of Egyptian Coptics. Some speculated they were the charms of wandering Japanese Buddhist monks.
Notably, wherever Scotford went, more artifacts were found. When he moved to Detroit, pieces were unearthed in Southeast Michigan. Eventually, relics were found in 16 Michigan counties, all baring the IH/ imprint.
Halsey and other modern archaeologists believe Scotford and his sons were making the relics, and Soper was marketing them. Some neighbors complained the pounding coming from Scotford’s shop kept them awake at night. In 1911, Scotford’s stepdaughter signed an affidavit saying she saw her stepfather making the relics, but she insisted the statement remain secret until after her mother’s death.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, some still believe the relics prove foreigners settled here centuries before Columbus sailed.
“To call them an outright fraud is a big mistake by the archaeological professionals,” said Wayne May, a self-described “armchair archaeologist” and publisher of the Ancient American, a Wisconsin-based magazine dedicated to the proposition that overseas visitors arrived here long before Columbus.
May conceded some of the Michigan Relics may be fake, but “I believe there’s a lot of pieces that are not fraudulent,” he said, reached while leading a tour of Ohio burial mounds. “Some day something’s going to give, and it’s going to prove there were (foreign) people here long before Columbus.”
Savage died still believing the Michigan Relics were genuine. He bequeathed his large collection to Notre Dame University. In 1960, a pair of Mormon missionaries found the collection there, and Notre Dame gladly donated it to the church.
In 1977, the church asked Richard Stamps, an Oakland University archaeology professor and practicing Mormon, to examine the relics. Stamps concurred with the conclusions of earlier scholars the relics were fakes. The copper relics, he said, were made from ordinary commercial copper stock, not hammered copper ore. The copper had been treated with chemicals to produce the green patina of aged copper, Stamps said.
The slate tablets appeared to have been cut using the English measuring system of inches and feet and were too smooth and uniform to have been fashioned by an ancient civilization, he said. The slate apparently came from quarries on the New York-Vermont border, he said, and may have been scavenged from a Detroit slate yard.
In 1998–99, Stamps again studied the relics in the Mormon collection and again pronounced them fakes in an article published in 2001 in BYU Studies, a Latter-Day Saint journal.
“Poor Father Savage. I feel so sorry for this Catholic father,” Stamps said. “I think Scotford was cranking these things out and slipping them into the ground, and I think Savage didn’t have a clue. I think he (Scotford) probably had some sleight-of-hand technique.”
Last June, Stamps visited the Slate Valley Museum on the New York-Vermont border and asked workers there to examine several of the relics. The workers could identify the specific quarry each piece came from and what it originally was made to be: a window sill, a shingle or other construction pieces. But one trapezoidal tablet still puzzled Stamps. In the next room, he looked at a display of items made from slate, including a laundry tub. On closer examination, he noticed the end pieces of the tub were trapezoids, exactly matching the tablet.
“It was obvious,” Stamps said. “That was a buzz for me.”
Through Stamps, the Mormon Church decided to donate its collection to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. It arrived there recently, and workers began preparing the Michigan Relics for an exhibit opening Nov. 15 and running through Aug. 15.
“We thought it was such an important collection historically,” Halsey said, “and, since Michigan was the setting of all the finds, that this is where it belonged.”
He added that “we’re fully cognizant that no matter what we do, people are going to believe in them.”
It may be significant that no more relics were found after Scotford died in the 1920s. Soper eventually moved to Chattanooga, and both men went to their graves insisting the objects were authentic.
Ironically, they had wanted the aura of legitimacy that a museum exhibit would give their finds—although not one portraying them as the greatest archaeological con men in American history.
“They’d call us cowards and scoundrels,” said Steve Ostrander, preparing the items for display, to which Halsey added: “They’d be after our jobs.”12
In 1909, James E. Talmage, who became a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in December 1911, encountered the Michigan relics while he was directing the Deseret Museum, and he set out to test them carefully and scientifically. He published his findings about the relics in 1911.13 He declared the relics to be fake in every respect.
If the Heartland Model advocates could use the Michigan relics in support of their Heartland Model as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, they would have the only evidence available that would support their need for a high-level written language among the Mound Builders. In spite of their probable knowledge that the relics are fakes, they have had great difficulties in resisting the urge to use the relics in support of their Heartland Model.
David Wyrick, of Newark, Ohio, was an uneducated man, but on the subject of mathematics possessed decided ability. He had held the office of county surveyor until he was forced to retire on account of long-continued attacks of acute rheumatism. He was regarded as an eccentric character and incapable of deliberate deception. He had adopted the idea that the Hebrews were the builders of the earthworks of the West, and as often as his disease would permit he sought diligently for proofs of his theory. His first discovery was made during the month of June, 1860. This discovery consisted in what is known as the “Newark Holy Stone” and was found about a mile southwest of the town, near the center of an artificial circular depression, common among the earth-works. As soon as he found it he ran away to the town, and there with exultation exhibited it as a triumphant proof of his Hebrew theory. Upon examination it proved to be a Masonic emblem representing the “Key Stone” of an arch formerly worn by Master Masons. The Hebrew inscription has been thus rendered into English: “The law of God, the word of God, the King of the earth is most holy.” The stone did not have the appearance of antiquity, and probably was accidently dropped into the depression, and then covered over by the accumulation of loam and vegetable matter continually washed into the center of the cavity.
Wyrick continued his researches and soon made a startling discovery. During the summer of 1860, with three other persons, he repaired to the spot where the stone mound had stood and there dug up the trough which had been re-entombed by the farmers in 1850. In the following November Wyrick, with five other men, met at this spot and made still farther examinations. They found several articles of stone, among which was a stone box enclosing an engraved tablet. Upon one side of the tablet is a savage and pugnacious likeness of Moses, with his name in Hebrew over his head. Upon the other side of this stone is an abridgment in Hebrew of the Ten Commandments. Archaeologists never had much faith in the Holy Stone and the discovery of Moses and the Ten Commandments soon established Wyrick’s character as an impostor. “Not long after this he died, and in his private room, among the valuable relics he had so zealously collected, a Hebrew Bible was found, which fully cleared up the mystery of Hebrew inscriptions ‘even in Ohio.’ This had been the secret and study of years, by a poverty-stricken and suffering man, who, in some respects, was almost a genius. His case presents the human mind in one of its most mysterious phases, partly aberration and partly fraud.”14
The very two artifacts described by Maclean late in the nineteenth century as being fakes are the two that are shown in the Heartland Model publication, Book of Mormon Evidences in North America. And in his oral presentations, Heartland Model advocate Wayne May holds up replicas of these artifacts as he presumably tells about the translation of the characters on them. At that point, he has been known to say something like, “I’m not saying that these are the real thing, but they feel good to me.” His approach makes the artifacts “feel good” to unknowledgeable members of his audience who think they have just been informed about indisputable archaeological evidence supporting the existence of a high-level written language among the Mound Builders of the Heartland Model.
In summary, the Adena and Hopewell cultures—the Mound Builders of the continental United States territory from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south—did not have a high-level writing system. On that basis alone, as a critical criterion for identifying the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, the Heartland Model can be declared an invalid model. Further, that Heartland Model advocates would intentionally use fake relics in an attempt to support their model for New World Book of Mormon geography clearly represents unethical personal and scholarly behavior of the highest magnitude.
The Mesoamerica Model
The natural question that readers should ask at this point is the following: Do the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica support a high-level written language in use during the time period of the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites?
The answer: Yes—the written language of the Maya of Mesoamerica. In the entire New World, only Mesoamerica and the written Maya language satisfy the critical criterion of a high-level written language during the Book of Mormon time period of the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites. On this basis alone, readers of the Book of Mormon can rest assured that the New World setting for the Book of Mormon is that of Mesoamerica.
But is Maya as a language a “high-level written language”? Not until the last few decades could that question be answered legitimately.
From a modern perspective in understanding what the Maya scholars and epigraphers faced in answering that question, English-only readers of the Book of Mormon might envision their attempting to translate a page of Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic writing without any assistance or direction beyond the characters themselves on the pages. Essentially, that’s the task faced by Maya scholars and epigraphers in trying to “crack the code” of the Maya hieroglyphs.
The translation process that Joseph Smith mastered in learning to “crack the code” of the reformed Egyptian symbols on the golden plates very likely had many similarities to the scenario experienced by Mesoamerican epigraphists and others as they learned to translate the Maya hieroglyphs from Mesoamerica. In telling the story about cracking the Maya code, Linda Schele and David Freidel say, “Ancient Maya writing became an abiding part of the public imagination with the publication in 1841 of Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. . . . During the ensuing century and a half, many inspired scholars and afficionados contributed to the growing body of knowledge about the Maya and their writing system.”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars had “worked out the fundamentals of the calendar and basic questions of reading order.” However, decipherment efforts were hampered beyond those discoveries because some prominent scholars concluded that Maya writing was not phonetic; and, according to J. Eric Thompson, one of the greatest Maya scholars of the twentieth century, Maya writing was concerned only with “the stately passage of time” (history was not to be found in the inscriptions; the texts did not contain recorded history).
In a similar fashion, Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone comment about the decipherment of Maya inscriptions as follows:
Almost 160 years ago [as stated in 2001], thejungle-shrouded ruins of the ancient Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America were discovered by the American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and his companion Frederick Catherwood, an English topographical artist. It was Stephens’ hope that some Champollion would soon come along and decipher the strange hieroglyphs on the many carved monuments that they had encountered, but that was not to be. A century of intensive research on the glyphs resulted in the unraveling of the complex Maya calendar and astronomy, but decipherment—meaning the matching of signs to the language encoded in the script—was not to occur on any significant scale until the decade of the 1950s. Since then, there has been substantial progress, and it can now be said that we can actually read the majority of Maya texts, whether inscribed on stone or written in codices (books), in their original language.15
Shele and Freidel complete the story as follows:
Yet knowing that the contents of the inscriptions concerned history did not help the historical epigraphers figure out how the Maya spelled their words. That discovery belongs to a young Russian named Yuri Knorozov, who in 1952 proposed that the Maya system was not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform in that it was a mixed system composed of full word signs combined with signs representing the sounds of syllables. None of the big three, Thompson, Proskouriakoff, or Berlin, was ever able to accept Knorozov’s ideas. Partly it was because the Russian bureaucracy couched his discovery in the political rhetoric of the day, but just as important was the fact that they never saw the promise of “phoneticism” fulfilled. In one of his many damning criticisms of phoneticism, Thompson said it this way: “A point of some importance, I feel, is that with a phonetic system, as with breaking a code, the rate of decipherment accelerates with each newly established reading. . . . The first flow of alleged decipherments has not swollen to a river; it has long since dried up.”
In retrospect, the reason the river of decipherment dried up was because only a few hearty souls were ready to ride the current of phoneticism. David Kelley, Michael Coe, and Floyd Lounsbury were the only Western scholars to give Knorozov a fair hearing until the dam broke open at the First Mesa Redonda of Palenque, a tiny little conference held in the village near the ruins in December 1973. At that conference, a new generation of eipigraphers, including Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, were initiated into the mysteries of glyphic decipherment. They joined Kelly and Lounsbury in blending Knorozov’s phoneticism with Proskouriakoff’s “historical approach.” During the next five years, in a series of mini-conferences sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks, this group of epigraphers developed a highly successful collaborative approach and forged the last key—the axiom that the writing reflected spoken language and thus had word order that could be used to determine the function of glyphs, even when we could not read them. Thus, while we might not know what a particular glyph meant, we could figure out whether it was a verb or noun by where it fell in a sentence. That simple assumption let us begin paraphrasing inscriptions and dealing with them as whole texts. It was a breakthrough as important as phoneticism and the historical hypothesis because it gave us a larger framework in which to test readings and reconstruct history.
The conjunction of these three approaches—phoneticism, the historical approach, and syntactical analysis—began the acceleration that Thompson evoked as proof that the right system had been found. Now  each new discovery ripples outward to trigger other discoveries, which in turn trigger still others. The number of glyphs deciphered and the interpretative fallout is growing exponentially. As the results of epigraphic research have been published, more and more archaeologists have realized that the Maya inscriptions and imagery offer a primary source of data about how the Maya thought about themselves. They are merging epigraphic and iconographic studies with archaeological projects destined to find out how this “history” epigraphers recover looks in the ground. This is a time  of marvelous adventure and unprecedented discovery. The process is ongoing and unbelievably exhilarating to those of us privileged to participate in it.
The Maya writing system used to record this ancient history was a rich and expressive script, capable of faithfully recording every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in the writer’s language. Calligraphically, it has an unsurpassed elegance, deriving its form from the beauty of freely flowing painted line. Maya scribes, whether carving limestone, engraving jade, inscribing shell, or incising bone, never lost the eloquence of their writing’s original painterly grace. And throughout their history the Maya continued to use the original medium in which writing developed—accordion-folded books made from beaten bark paper that was surfaced with a thin layer of plaster.16, 17
Or, as Coe and Van Stone describe Maya writing, “In the early stages of the decipherment [of Maya inscriptions], it was thought that the ancient Maya scribes could only approximate the sounds of their language in the script. We now realize that the Maya writing system was extremely advanced in how it recorded not only the phonetic distinctions . . . but also fine nuances of their complex grammar. In the hands of their specialists, it was a highly sophisticated and supple instrument to express whatever they wanted to say.”18
Currently, each passing month provides additional evidence—often monumental in nature and scope—that the written Maya language of Mesoamerica fully meets the criterion for a high-level written language:
The area must show evidence of a high-level written language that was in use during the Book of Mormon time period for the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites.
On the basis of that one criterion alone, readers of the Book of Mormon should be interested in exploring Mesoamerica as the New World setting for the Book of Mormon. In that respect, the following statement has been proven to be a true statement by thousands of Latter-day Saints who have visited Mesoamerica as the proposed New World setting for the Book of Mormon:
The more we know about the archaeology, history, architecture, geography, cultures, and traditions of Mesoamerica, the more we know about the Book of Mormon.
First through Fourth Centuries AD Historical Events in Mesoamerica:
Jacob, the brother of Nephi, succinctly reports the death of Nephi as follows: “And it came to pass that Nephi died” (Jacob 1:12). Contiguous to this announcement, Jacob, sometime between 544 and 421 BC, reports the following at this early point in the history of the Nephites:
Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.
But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings. (Jacob 1:13–14)
This basic nomenclature of “Nephites” and “Lamanites” continued among the Nephites until the coming of Christ. At one point in the interim, about 120 BC, Mormon reports the following:
And now king Mosiah caused that all the people should be gathered together. Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant of Mulek, and those who came with him into the wilderness.
And there were not so many of the people of Nephi and of the people of Zarahemla as there were of the Lamanites; yea, they were not half so numerous. (Mosiah 25:1–3)
Not long after the visit of Christ to the New World, we are told the following was the situation during the first century AD:
And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land; but there were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus.
And it came to pass that the seventy and first year passed away, and also the seventy and second year, yea, and in fine, till the seventy and ninth year had passed away; yea, even an hundred years had passed away, and the disciples of Jesus, whom he had chosen, had all gone to the paradise of God, save it were the three who should tarry; and there were other disciples ordained in their stead; and also many of that generation had passed away.
And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. (4 Nephi 1:13–17; emphasis added)
The final verse is a key verse in our understanding of what was happening during the first and second centuries AD in Mesoamerica, and the verse permits us to merge the history of Mesoamerica with Book of Mormon history. That is, if Mesoamerica is indeed the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, we can be assured that Jesus visited the people of Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon’s land southward, which was the land east of and southward from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. According to Mesoamerican history, this territory was exclusively Maya territory.19 That information enables us to make the following statements:
• Because the people who lived “in all the land” in the first century AD were one people, without any “-ites,” we can legitimately call all the people at this time by the Mesoamerican name of Maya.
• Therefore, the Nephites were part of the great Maya civilization. If we merge the Book of Mormon history with Mesoamerica history, we can refer to the Nephites as the “Nephite Maya.”
• Likewise, the Lamanites were part of the great Maya civilization. When we merge their two histories, we can refer to the Lamanites as the “Lamanite Maya.” We know from the Book of Mormon record that the Lamanite Maya far outnumbered the Nephite Maya throughout the thousand-year history of the Nephite Maya culture.
• The rationale that results from understanding the implications of “no manner of -ites” and the general “oneness” of the people for more than two centuries following the visit of Christ leads to the following statement: Mormon was a fourth century AD Maya!
When we truly understand the relationship between the Mesoamerican historical people from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD and the Book of Mormon people from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD, we can begin to appreciate the value of knowing as much as we can about Mesoamerica. The result generates a full appreciation of the value of the following statements:
1. The more we know about Mesoamerica, the more we know about the Book of Mormon.
2. The more we know about the Maya, the more we know about the Book of Mormon peoples.
3. The more we know about the Book of Mormon, the more we know about Mesoamerica and its peoples.
The above discussion invites Book of Mormon readers to explore the outcomes of associating the Maya of Mesoamerica with the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites of the Book of Mormon. That is, when we investigate the critical criterion of a high-level written language throughout the New World during the time period of 600 BC to AD 400, the only geographic area whose archaeological and historical records reflect a high-level written language is the territory of Mesoamerica inhabited by the Maya. Therefore, if the hypothesis is true that Mormon was a Maya, we can use that information in improving our understanding about the use of the “high-level written language” among the Nephites and Lamanites in such incidents as these two:
Giddianhi and Lachoneus. In AD 16, Giddianhi, the leader of the Gadianton robbers, wrote an “epistle” by his own hand to Lachoneus, the governor of the land, and requested him to “yield up unto this my people, your cities, your lands, and your possessions” (3 Nephi 3:6). Lachoneus did not respond to Giddianhi’s epistle; instead, Lachoneus “sent a proclamation among all the people,” requesting them to gather together in one place for protection (3 Nephi 3:13; emphasis added).
As a result, the Nephites gathered together in the land southward with enough provisions for seven years while they exercised patience in starving out the Gadianton robbers. Eventually, Giddianhi and his armies went up to battle against the Nephites, with the result “that there never was known so great a slaughter among all the people of Lehi since he left Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 4:11). Giddianhi was slain, and although a new leader named Zemnarihah was appointed, all the robbers were slain, including Zemnarihah, except those who surrendered.
In the Mesoamerica Model, these events took place in the land southward, which was hard-core territory of the Maya—according to the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica.
The written language used by Giddianhi for his epistle and by Lachoneus for his proclamation was very likely Maya, which was the high-level written language in Maya territory during this time period of the Nephites and Lamanites.
Mormon and the king of the Lamanites. One of the events that preceded the last great battle between the Nephites and Lamanites at the hill Cumorah involved an exchange of written communications between Mormon and the king of the Lamanites. In AD 360, Mormon said that “the king of the Lamanites sent an epistle unto me, which gave unto me to know that they were preparing to come again to battle against us” (Mormon 3:4; emphasis added). The king of the Lamanites, in the Mesoamerica Model, lived in the land southward—or in Maya territory according to the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica.
Subsequent battles in the next few years between the Nephites and the Lamanites did not go well for the Nephites. Eventually, according to Mormon:
I, Mormon, wrote an epistle unto the king of the Lamanites, and desired of him that he would grant unto us that we might gather together our people unto the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah, and there we could give them battle.
And it came to pass that the king of the Lamanites did grant unto me the thing which I desired.
And it came to pass that we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents round about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites.
And when three hundred and eighty and four years had passed away, we had gathered in all the remainder of our people unto the land Cumorah. (Mormon 6:2–5; emphasis added)
Thus, just a few years before the final battle at Cumorah, Mormon and the king of the Lamanites exchanged written communications. In fact, through “written epistles,” the last great battle at Cumorah was arranged.
In the Mesoamerica Model, the king of the Lamanites at this time lived in the land southward, which was dominated totally by the people we could call “Lamanite Maya.” That is, from the perspective of the Nephites, all the people living at this time in the land southward were Lamanites. And from the perspective of the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica, all the people living in the Book of Mormon’s land southward, the territory to the east of and southward from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, were Maya.
Here is an instance when the leader of the Nephites and the leader of the Lamanites communicated with each other in the high-level written language of Mesoamerica at the time. If we trust the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica, the leaders probably communicated in the Maya language, as it was the high-level written language in Mesoamerica during this time period.
Other Book of Mormon events occurred that required the Nephites and the Lamanites to communicate with their people or with each other via epistles or proclamations. According to the Mesoamerica Model, all these events took place in Maya territory because they happened in the land southward of the Nephites. That being the case, the high-level written language used for written communications in the land southward, which the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica designate as Maya territory, was likely the Maya language.
In summary, Mesoamerica is the only place in the entire New World where a high-level written language was used during the time period of 600 BC to AD 400, the time period of the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites. Therefore, based on the critical criterion of a high-level written language, Mesoamerica—and only Mesoamerica—is the legitimate New World setting for the Book of Mormon. Further, based on this one critical criterion for identifying the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, the so-called “Heartland Model” is fatally flawed because a high-level written language simply did not exist in the geographic territory of the continental United States between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico during Book of Mormon time periods.
1. John E. Clark, “Evaluating the Case for a Limited Great Lakes Setting, FARMS Review of Books 14, no. 1 (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2002), 58.
2. See Wayne N. May, Rod Meldrum, and Bruce Porter, Book of Mormon Evidences in North America (n.p.: Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism, 2009), 22–23.
3. John E. Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” FARMS Review of Books 1, no. 1 (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 1989), http://ispart.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=1&num=¬1&id=7&print (accessed February 4, 2009), 1.
4. For details about this model, see the DVD by Rodney Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography: New Scientific Support for the Truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; Correlation and Verification through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social, and Cultural Evidence (n.p.: Rodney Meldrum, 2008), and May, Meldrum, and Porter, Book of Mormon Evidences in North America.
5. For the most comprehensive example of what is being called the “Mesoamerica Model” in this analysis, see Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008). Intentionally, reference is excluded here to John L. Sorenson’s model based on Mesoamerica as reflected in his books, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996), Mormon’s Map (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), and The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992). Some of the critical geographic content in these books is flawed because Sorenson distorts Mormon’s map initially by misinterpreting Alma 22:32 and then creating what some scholars call “Sorenson’s north,” which results in his placement of the east sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Thereafter, he commits critical errors by failing to identify correctly such geographic areas in Mesoamerica as the east wilderness, the narrow strip of wilderness, and the land of Bountiful.
6. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2004), s.v. “Mound Builder.”
7. Emilius Oviatt Randall, “Who Were the Mound Builders?” The Columbus Evening Dispatch, September 2, 1919; as given in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 1920), 142; emphasis added; see http://publications.ohiohistory.org/ohstemplate.cfm (accessed March 4, 2009).
8. J. P. Maclean, The Mound Builders; Being an Account of a Remarkable People That Once Inhabited the Valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, together with an Investigation into the Archaeology of Butler County, Ohio, 6th ed. (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1893), 90–91; emphasis added.
9. Maclean, The Mound Builders, 122.
10. Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography, section 16, “Nephite Implements.”
11. For a complete, intriguing report of the entire history of the Michigan relics, including their connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, see “Digging up Controversy: The Michigan Relics” at www.sos.state.mi.us/history/michrelics.
12. Pat Shellenbarger, “Archaeology’s Great Hoax,” The Grand Rapids Press, October 26, 2003, www.religionnewsblog.com/4841/archaeologys-great-hoax (accessed March 1, 2009); emphasis added.
13. See James E. Talmage, “The ‘Michigan Relics’: A Story of Forgery and Deception,” Deseret Museum Bulletin (New Series), no. 2 (1911).
14. Maclean, The Mound Builders, 119–21.
15. Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone, Reading the Maya Glyphs (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 7.
16. Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 46–50; emphasis added.
17. As an interesting aside to the “accordion-folded books” that were widely used throughout Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest, Joseph L. Allen and Blake J. Allen say: “The concept of unfolding the scriptures is . . . represented in the Book of Mormon on several occasions. When Alma and Amulek were preaching to the people of Ammonihah, Alma bore witness to or expanded upon what Amulek had taught. Alma began to ‘explain things beyond, or to unfold the scriptures beyond that which Amulek had done’ (Alma 11:1; emphasis added). In our culture, we say, ‘Open your scriptures.’ In the Jewish culture, they ‘unroll’ the scriptures. In the Nephite/Maya culture, they ‘unfolded’ the scriptures. The Nephites not only wrote on brass and gold plates but also on large stones (Omni 1:20) and on beautifully painted codices [‘accordion-folded books’].” (Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 247)
18. Coe and Van Stone, Reading the Maya Glyphs, 9; emphasis added.
19. For a comprehensive discussion of these points, see Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.