Implications of Radiocarbon Dating for the Credibility of the Book of Mormon and the Validity of Book of Mormon Geography Models
Implications of Radiocarbon Dating for the Validity of
Book of Mormon Geography Models
From the perspective of the credibility of the Book of Mormon, radiocarbon dating (also called carbon-14 dating) is clearly one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. Following World War II, a team of scientists led by Professor Willard F. Libby of the University of Chicago developed the radiocarbon method. Libby subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 “for his method to use Carbon-14 for age determinations in archaeology, geology, geophysics, and other branches of science.”
Among the unique, singular features of the Book of Mormon, in addition to its account about the Jaredites, is the pervasive use of dates by Mormon and other Nephite writers as they recorded events associated with the Nephites’ thousand-year history. Perceptive Book of Mormon nonbelievers of the past failed to challenge what they could have labeled Joseph Smith’s audacity in thinking that his “creative insanity” could enable him to date precisely the year-by-year historical events of the Nephites throughout their thousand-year history. In fact, both nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics of the Book of Mormon missed a golden opportunity to add to their trove of anti–Book of Mormon criticisms by failing to use the book’s dating procedures and associated content as another indicator of its illogical creation. However, the opportunity for such criticism has now passed into oblivion because of the development of radiocarbon dating.
In general, most of the dates in the Book of Mormon for the Nephite culture are very precise, enabling readers to glance at the bottom of the page to see the BC and AD dates associated with the content of the page. And when we examine Mormon’s careful attention to the calendar, we can almost feel the process he went through of examining a year’s worth of records from the Large Plates and then deciding what to include from that year in his abridged record.
Today, most scholars who attempt to identify the New World lands of the Book of Mormon select Mesoamerica as the location of all New World Book of Mormon events. But does the quite precise dating of Book of Mormon events in the record itself correlate positively with dating from the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica?
Largely because of radiocarbon dating, today’s Mesoamerican archaeological and historical reports enable us to compare many Mesoamerican dates of events with the similar dates recorded in the Book of Mormon. Where such dating comparisons can be made, today’s correlations between Mesoamerican records of events and the Book of Mormon record of comparable events offer intriguing outcomes about the credibility of the Book of Mormon.
A Simplistic Explanation of Radiocarbon Dating
So what is “radiocarbon dating” that has brought about this revolution that is relatively unknown by Book of Mormon believers and that is essentially totally unknown by its critics? From a simplistic viewpoint, right up to the moment of death, all living organisms maintain a content of carbon 14 in equilibrium with that available in the atmosphere. Radiocarbon dating then uses the amount of carbon 14 found in living creatures as a measuring stick. When an organism dies, the amount of carbon 14 available within it begins to decay at a half-life rate of 5,730 years (that is, 5,730 years elapse for one-half of the carbon 14 found in the organism that has decayed). Another 5,730 years elapse to decay half of the remaining half of carbon 14—and so on to infinity.
When scientists compare the amount of carbon 14 in a dead organism to available levels of carbon 14 in the atmosphere, they can estimate the date of the organism’s death. The process, called radiocarbon dating, has altered the study of archaeology forever. Today, all archaeologists, including those working at sites in Mesoamerica, routinely apply the techniques of radiocarbon dating as they examine evidence from archaeological digs in the form of such things as charcoal, wood, seeds, bones, leather, mud and sediment, pollen, hair, pottery, wall paintings, textiles, fish remains, insect remains, antlers, and so forth in determining dates associated with a particular archaeological site.
Is radiocarbon dating foolproof and infallible? The answer: Definitely not. The process has many limitations, but it is continually being refined. We might even say that the science of radiocarbon dating is still in its infancy. However, the interesting, relevant point for today’s readers of the Book of Mormon to consider is that radiocarbon dating is responsible, in general, for bringing the archaeological and historical dates for Mesoamerican sites into positive correlations or comparisons with dates for Book of Mormon events. Though Book of Mormon readers cannot have complete faith in radiocarbon dating outcomes, they should keep that point in mind as they attempt to correlate Mesoamerican historical events with the events of the Book of Mormon.
Frankly, when radiocarbon dating was first introduced and for several years thereafter, I was a hard-core skeptic about the science. For example, if a scientist reported that an organism had lived thirty thousand years ago, I both consciously and subconsciously refused to accept the validity of the report because I felt that thirty thousand years was not in the realm of possibility for something associated with Earth. Looking back, I now realize that my skepticism came from two sources: (1) what I had been taught about the creation stages as given in Genesis and (2) the fact that I unwittingly accepted the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo—the world was created out of nothing.
In the first instance, I believed that each “day” of the creation sequence lasted a thousand years, or a total of seven thousand years for the creation scenario. When I added that figure to the six thousand or so years since Adam lived, I then concluded that no radiocarbon dates older than thirteen thousand years or so could be valid.
In the second instance, for whatever reason, I believed that “created,” as in “God created the heaven and the earth,” meant what it said: God “created” the earth out of nothing. In fact, my Catholic catechism taught me as follows: “What is God? God is the Creator of heaven and earth and all things. What does ‘Creator’ mean? The word ‘Creator’ means that God made all things out of nothing.”
When I finally washed those two beliefs out of my belief system, I was ready to accept the dating outcomes from radiocarbon dating—at least to a point. I soon understood that the range of accuracy of radiocarbon dating decreases as the dates get larger. As an example of that fact, one source reports the following:
Raw radiocarbon ages (i.e., those not calibrated) are usually reported in “years Before Present” (BP). This is the number of radiocarbon years before 1950. . . . Radiocarbon dating laboratories generally report an uncertainty for each date. For example, 3000 ± 30 BP indicates a standard deviation of 30 radiocarbon years. Traditionally this included only the statistical counting uncertainty. However, some laboratories supplied an “error multiplier” that could be multiplied by the uncertainty to account for other sources of error in the measuring process. More recently, the laboratories try to quote the overall uncertainty, which is determined from control samples of known age and verified by international intercomparison exercises. In 2008, a typical uncertainty better than ±40 radiocarbon years can be expected for samples younger than 10,000 years. This, however, is only a small part of the uncertainty of the final age determination. . . . Samples older than the upper age-limit cannot be dated. . . . Some facilities will not report an age greater than 60,000 years for any sample.
A Word of Caution and Two Upfront Personal Conclusions
A further word of caution seems appropriate here. Though I’m dealing largely with the implications of radiocarbon dating in support of the credibility of the Book of Mormon, I’m fully aware that other dating processes also contribute to the book’s credibility. For example, Michael Coe says the following:
The dating of the ancient Maya civilization now rests on four lines of evidence: “dirt” archaeology itself, particularly the stratification of cultural materials like pottery; radiocarbon dating, in use since 1950; native historical traditions passed on to us by post–Conquest writers but bearing on the late pre–Conquest period; and the correct correlation of the Maya and Christian calendars.
As a result of the almost countless hours I have spent in reading library sources about Mesoamerican archaeology, geography, history, and cultures, I have come to two personal conclusions:
First, prior to the advent of radiocarbon dating, the archaeological dates from Mesoamerican literature are often rather grossly out of step with, or at least radically different from, subsequent radiocarbon dates for comparable sites and artifacts. In addition, wide disparities existed between the correlations of Mesoamerican archaeological dates with dates contained in the Book of Mormon.
Second, once the procedures for radiocarbon dating were refined, the dates from Mesoamerican literature positively correlate, in most instances, with the Book of Mormon’s internal dates.
Implications of Mesoamerican Radiocarbon Dating Outcomes
My purpose here is not to document the veracity of those conclusions. Rather, from my perspective, I give below several implications about the Book of Mormon’s credibility that are outgrowths, as I see them, of radiocarbon dating applied to Mesoamerican archaeological endeavors. I readily admit that, for one reason or another, I have biases that influence my personal justification for what I say about each implication. In other words, I do not explore comprehensively the historical background and extended consequences of each implication. In most instances, a separate article could be written about each implication if that information were included. And I understand that I cannot expect all Mesoamerica Model Book of Mormon scholars to agree with me on every implication I give below:
1. Until the middle of the twentieth century, historians and scientists believed that the mother culture of the Americas was the Maya culture. Today, however, as documented by radiocarbon dating, they point to the Olmec culture as the mother culture of the Americas.
2. The Olmec culture yields radiocarbon dates that correspond very favorably with dates for the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon, strongly suggesting that the Olmecs and the Jaredites were the same culture.
3. The demise of the Olmecs in their geographic heartland coincides very adequately from a time perspective with the demise of the Jaredites at the hill Ramah, suggesting strongly that we should look for the hill Ramah/Cumorah in the Olmec heartland. Significantly, both the historical record of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon tell us about primary civilizations that ended in the geographic heartland of the Olmecs/Jaredites at essentially the same BC time period (the Olmecs around 400 BC and the Jaredites, depending on the scholar, around 350 BC). As a result, we can hypothesize with reasonable accuracy that the geographic heartland for the Olmecs/Jaredites is the crescent-shaped territory along the Gulf of Mexico west and east of the top of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. We can also hypothesize with reasonable accuracy that this same territory was occupied by the Nephites prior to their demise at the hill Cumorah.
4. Radiocarbon dating now tells us that the Olmecs/Jaredites, as the mother culture of the Americas, spread west/northward and east/southward beyond their geographic heartland and thereafter influenced all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, including the Nephites, Mulekites, and Lamanites. In other words, the Olmecs/Jaredites met their demise in their geographic heartland but continued to influence other cultures throughout Mesoamerica in territories labeled by Olmec archaeologists as the “hinterlands” of Mesoamerica. Further, radiocarbon dating helps Book of Mormon scholars of today conclude that every Jaredite other than Coriantumr was not killed at the last great battle at Ramah.
5. Occupation of the “hinterlands territories” by the Olmecs set the stage for what I call the “Maya problem,” a problem that Book of Mormon Mesoamerica Model scholars must resolve if their models for Book of Mormon geography are to be valid.
That is, in the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography, the land southward is the territory to the east and southward of the narrow neck of land, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. That’s the territory where most of the thousand-year history of the Nephites took place. I refer to this territory as the “Nephite homeland.” Moreover, the territory of the land southward is also the homeland of the great Maya civilization of Mesoamerica.
In other words, from the Book of Mormon perspective, the land southward was inhabited primarily by the cultures known in the Book of Mormon as the Nephites and the Lamanites. And from the perspective of modern archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and geographers, the territory known in the Book of Mormon as the land southward was inhabited primarily by the cultures known in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as the Maya.
That’s where the “Maya problem” surfaces. That is, Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists cannot get around the fact that the land southward in Book of Mormon times not only was the homeland of the Nephites and Lamanites but also was the homeland of the Maya. The problem for the scholars can be worded as follows: What shall we do with the Maya in the land southward before, during, and after the thousand-year period of the Nephites? Potential related questions are the following:
a. Were the Nephites Maya? Were the Lamanites Maya? Were both the Nephites and the Lamanites Maya? Were neither the Nephites nor the Lamanites Maya?
b. What do we do with the historical and radiocarbon-dated data that date the origins of the Maya as early as 1500–1000 BC—long before the origins of the Nephite and Lamanite cultures?
c. Did the Maya originate as a “remnant” of the Olmecs (probably the Jaredites) who lived in the “hinterlands” of the Olmec/Jaredite heartland and who were not destroyed at the last battle at Ramah? (See Mosiah 8:12 for a hint from King Limhi about such a remnant.)
d. Did the Maya originate as another culture that came from the Old World to the New World and that was unknown to the Nephites and therefore unnamed in the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon issues associated with the “Maya problem” may never have surfaced without the outcomes of radiocarbon dating.
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:
Book of Mormon readers and scholars who want to understand the correlations between dates from Mesoamerica and Book of Mormon dates must internalize those dates to the point they automatically come to mind when readers and scholars are dealing with dates from either Mesoamerica or the Book of Mormon.
The primary conclusions that result from the Maya dating terminology seem obvious:
First, most Mesoamerica radiocarbon dates associated with the Preclassic time periods should be associated potentially with Book of Mormon peoples who lived during Book of Mormon times.
Second, if events are radiocarbon-dated pre–600 BC, they potentially should be associated with the Olmecs/Jaredites or with cultures that were spinoffs of the Olmecs/Jaredites.
Third, if events are radiocarbon-dated post–600 BC to ca. AD 400, they should be associated potentially and primarily with the Nephite-Lamanite cultures but should also be investigated for possible connections with the Olmecs/Jaredites, especially if the dates are connected to territories in the “hinterlands” of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization.
Fourth, most Mesoamerican radiocarbon dates associated with the Early Preclassic and Middle Preclassic probably should be associated exclusively with the Olmec/Jaredite civilization—or, during the Middle Preclassic, perhaps with cultures that were spinoffs of the Olmecs/Jaredites.
Fifth, any Mesoamerican radiocarbon dates associated with the Late Preclassic and the first 150 years of the Early Classic should be associated potentially and primarily with the Nephite-Lamanite cultures, although the dates should also be investigated for possible connections with the Olmecs/Jaredites, especially if the dates are connected to territories in the “hinterlands” of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization.
Sixth, any Mesoamerican radiocarbon dates associated with the last two hundred years of the Early Classic, the entire Late Classic, and the entire Postclassic Periods should be associated potentially and primarily with the “Lamanite” cultures, which are post–Book of Mormon cultures that the Book of Mormon collectively refers to as “a remnant of the house of Israel.” I prefer using the term “Remnant Seed,” rather than “Lamanites,” in referring to these cultures.
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. As another example, Joseph and Blake Allen speak as follows about Tulum:
Any serious student of Book of Mormon history should become acquainted with the accepted scientific dates of a particular people before attempting to make a correlation with any particular event in the Book of Mormon. Many tourists have stepped off a cruise ship in the Caribbean and, after visiting the Postclassic (AD 1200–1500) site of Tulum, have returned with the feeling they have just seen a Nephite city. Without our taking into consideration its location or the type of activities that took place there, the simple fact that Tulum did not exist as a city center until eight hundred years after the close of the Book of Mormon, regardless of its honeymoon setting, negates it as a potential candidate for its being a Nephite city based on what we see as we view its ruins.
However, scholars should be prepared to modify their conclusions in case radiocarbon dates subsequent to those previously determined are proven to be more accurate. For one reason or another, such updatings of radiocarbon dates in Mesoamerica have occurred in some instances.
8. Radiocarbon dates that identify sites as Early Preclassic or Middle Preclassic will normally negate those sites as Nephite sites. However, that dating should not rule out entirely the possibility that the Nephites subsequently occupied such sites at some point during the Late Preclassic or Early Classic Periods.
For example, the Nephites can easily be associated with Izapa, which was probably an Olmec/Jaredite site but which was probably in the Lehites’ land of first inheritance (on the Pacific coast near the border between Mexico and Guatemala). If the Nephites and Lamanites lived at Izapa, they probably moved in with an existing culture and thereafter dominated that culture. A similar scenario probably ensued when the Nephites left the land of first inheritance and moved to the land of Nephi. That is, when the Nephites settled in the territory they called the land of Nephi, most likely in territory associated with the Guatemala City valley, they probably settled among indigenous people who may have lived there for hundreds of years.
As another example, Maya sites such as Lamanai near or along the east coast of Belize might be associated with the Nephites during the first century BC when Captain Moroni overpowered the Lamanites in the territory of the east sea. And because the Book of Mormon is so incomplete in its content about the first and second centuries AD, such sites in that territory could have been associated with the Church of Christ. That is, Mormon tells us that during this Late Preclassic Period, “There was no contention among all the people, in all the land” (4 Nephi 1:13; emphasis added). Further, “There were no . . . Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ” (4 Nephi 1:17).
9. Most of the stupendous buildings and pyramids we examine with the naked eye in Mesoamerica are Classic or Postclassic Period structures from a construction-dated perspective. However, as archaeologists tunnel into these structures, they frequently discover that they are built on top of other structures that date to the Nephite times of the Late Preclassic or Early Classic Periods.
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.” That outcome alone should preclude any serious investigation of territories outside Mesoamerica as legitimate candidates for the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon. Specifically, when we trust in the outcomes of radiocarbon dating in the Americas, we can rule out such territories as Canada, the eastern United States, including the Great Lakes and upstate New York regions, Baja California, and Panama as logical, legitimate territories where the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place.
11. Any geographic area of Mesoamerica that reflects cultures of the Late Preclassic Period and the first 150 years of the Early Classic Period should be examined carefully to determine its potential relationship with the Nephite culture of the Book of Mormon.
In that respect, two models for Book of Mormon geography come to mind here: John L. Sorenson’s model and the model proposed by F. Richard Hauck and supported by Joe V. Andersen. Both models disregard two significant territories with high population densities during the Late Preclassic Period: (a) the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize and (b) the entire south to north area off the east coast of Belize. In both models, these geographic territories are overlooked or ignored in correlations of Mesoamerica and Book of Mormon territories.
However, even though many sites and artifacts from these territories are dated to the Middle Preclassic Period, other sites and artifacts from these territories are dated to the Late Preclassic, or Nephite, Period. I continue to maintain that, based on radiocarbon dating as well as other relevant criteria, the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize and the territory all along the east coast of Belize very likely might have positive correlations with Book of Mormon peoples in the Late Preclassic and Early Classic Periods.
For example, 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.
And as we examine reports about any of the defensive earthworks, we should keep in mind that Captain Moroni was their “inventor” in 72 BC because they were prepared “in a manner which never had been known among the children of Lehi” (Alma 49:8). That fact provides an interesting anchor from which we can examine all Mesoamerican archaeological reports dealing with defensive earthworks. That is, if we believe in the accuracy of what’s in the Book of Mormon and if an archaeological report about defensive earthworks dates those earthworks prior to 72 BC, what should our stance be toward that archaeological report? And what can we legitimately conclude if a site’s defensive earthworks are dated to the first century BC?
Further, one of the major geographic landmarks of the Book of Mormon is the east sea. Under the assumption that the Nephites worked with cardinal directions, the Caribbean Sea off the east coast of Belize naturally fulfills all criteria for being the Book of Mormon’s east sea. Coincidentally, Late Preclassic archaeological sites south to north along or near the east coast of Belize very naturally can be associated with such Book of Mormon cities as Nephihah, Lehi, Morianton, Omner, Gid, Mulek, and Bountiful.
Therefore, I maintain that excluding either the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize or the east-sea territory along the eastern coast of Belize from a realistic model for Book of Mormon geography is akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water—if for no other reason than the extensive Late Preclassic Period radiocarbon dates from these Mesoamerican territories.
All discussions associated with this item are connected directly to issues that arise from what I call the “Maya problem.” I maintain that Book of Mormon scholars cannot ignore the Maya problem—both because of the territories involved in the land southward and the radiocarbon dates from those territories.
12. In a similar vein, if a geographic area of Mesoamerica does not yield appropriate Late Preclassic dates or dates coinciding with the first 150 years of the Classic Period to correlate positively with a specific historical event of the Nephite culture, we should be willing to discount the validity of that area for correlation purposes and then look elsewhere for another territory that does yield appropriate Late Preclassic dates or dates coinciding with the first 150 years of the Early Classic Period.
For example, when we are attempting to choose between the Usumacinta River or the Grijalva River as the river Sidon of the Book of Mormon, we should look for the presence of extensive Late Preclassic city-sites that are associated directly with the river and that could have sustained the Late Preclassic Period population base required in conjunction with the river Sidon in the land of Zarahemla. At least one of those city-sites should be a Late Preclassic site that was large enough to function as a logical candidate for the city of Zarahemla based on its proximity to the river and its Late Preclassic dating. After all, much like the Book of Mormon refers to Jerusalem of the Old World as a “great city,” it also refers to the city of Zarahemla as a “great city,” which suggests that we should look for a site that was not just a mere village in the Late Preclassic Period.
As documented by the work of the New World Archaeological Foundation, very adequate Late Preclassic city-sites, more than one of which could have been the city of Zarahemla, were located along the Grijalva River. Therefore, its choice as the more logical one between it and the Usumacinta River for the river Sidon seems justified. Furthermore, as magnificent as the Usumacinta River is, I maintain that its territory does not yield adequate numbers of appropriately sized city-sites from the Late Preclassic Period to support the Usumacinta’s choice as the more logical candidate for the river Sidon. In fact, my research to this point justifies the following statement: Not a single Late Preclassic city-site large enough to qualify as the city of Zarahemla has been identified in the vicinity of the Usumacinta River.
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.
13. Regrettably, the Book of Mormon is noticeably silent about most of the events that occurred among Book of Mormon peoples during the first two hundred or so years following Christ’s visit to the New World. This time period correlates with the end of the Late Preclassic Period. During most of this time period, as noted previously, Mormon makes a special point of telling us that there were no “Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but [the people] were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17).
This historical fact from the Book of Mormon raises several pertinent questions that should be addressed in connection with correlations between Mesoamerica radiocarbon dating and Book of Mormon dates. For example:
a. Did the “oneness” of the people extend throughout Mesoamerica, or was the “oneness” merely a “localized oneness” involving only a small segment of Mesoamerica’s population?
The fact that no culture was labeled as “Lamanites” during that time period suggests that the “oneness” involved all Mesoamerica cultures of the time. This conclusion once again suggests the necessity of including the territories and peoples of the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize and the east-coast territory of Belize in a truly valid model for Book of Mormon geography.
b. Were the Book of Mormon Nephites a culture of the Maya civilization? Were the Book of Mormon Lamanites a culture of the Maya civilization? Should we exclusively correlate the Lamanites, but not the Nephites, with the Maya civilization? Should we include both the Nephites and the Lamanites in correlation discussions involving the Maya?
In all Mesoamerican models for Book of Mormon geography, the territory of the Maya—the Book of Mormon’s land southward—encompasses territory in which such major Book of Mormon landmarks as the land of first inheritance, the land of Nephi, land of Zarahemla, narrow strip of wilderness, river Sidon, east wilderness, and east sea, along with several minor landmarks, are located in Maya territory. In other words, as one singular outcome of radiocarbon dating in Mesoamerica, we are faced with the dilemmas of either saying that the Maya civilization included the Lamanites and Nephites or saying that the Lamanites and Nephites were the Maya civilization—at least during the last two hundred or so years of the Late Preclassic Period, the time period when “there were no -ites” among Book of Mormon peoples. This issue is an important component of what I call the “Maya problem”—or the relationships any Book of Mormon scholar proposes between the Maya of the Book of Mormon land southward and the Book of Mormon peoples of the land southward.
c. Worded another way, what exactly is the relationship between the Maya civilization and the Nephites and Lamanites of the Book of Mormon?
As indicated earlier, 90 percent of the archaeological sites that date to the Book of Mormon time period are located in Mesoamerica. Further, a large majority of the sites found among that 90 percent are located exclusively in Maya territory—the Mesoamerica territory to the east of and southward from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In other words, most of the recorded accounts of the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon took place entirely in exclusive Maya territory—the land southward of the Book of Mormon. That appears to be an inescapable outcome of choosing Mesoamerica as the location of all New World lands and events of the Book of Mormon.
Thus, in any truly credible discussion about the entire New World Book of Mormon geography, we must somehow deal with the Maya in attempting to explain their archaeology, geography, history, and culture in relation to the Lamanite and Nephite cultures of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the most forward-looking solution to this issue is the one adopted by Joseph and Blake Allen in which they routinely speak of the “Lamanite Maya” and the “Nephite Maya.”
From my perspective, because of the outcomes of radiocarbon dating in Mesoamerica, failure to resolve, or at least attempt to deal with, the “Maya problem” in any proposed geographical discussion of the New World geography of the Book of Mormon justifies the labeling of that model as invalid or without credibility. In other words, if we place the New World events of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica, we must pay attention to the Maya because radiocarbon dating tells us that the Late Preclassic and the first 150 years of the Early Classic history of the Maya correlate positively so well in so many instances with the bottom-of-the-page dates for the Nephites and Lamanites.
Bottom line: What we don’t know about the Maya during the Preclassic and Early Classic Periods in the territories that I firmly believe are the east wilderness and east sea may be more important than what we do know. For me, I admit that there is more I don’t know than I do know when I try to associate these territories and their Maya people with the Nephites of the Book of Mormon. However, I think the Book of Mormon contains significant hints about these territories to the extent that we cannot delete them from a Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography without potentially compromising the validity of the resulting model.
Perhaps amazingly, radiocarbon dates from Mesoamerica are, in general, positively correlated with dates found in the Book of Mormon. Could any reputable archaeologist of the nineteenth century have foreseen that Mesoamerican dating outcomes would so closely parallel associated dates in the Book of Mormon?
If for no other reason than the positive correlations of Mesoamerica radiocarbon dates and Book of Mormon dates, we can conclude that Joseph Smith did not author the Book of Mormon as a figment of his imagination. Rather, we are justified is stating simply that he did what he claimed he accomplished—he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
In the twenty-first century, outcomes of radiocarbon dating from Mesoamerica should be used routinely as a significant criterion in helping determine the locations of Book of Mormon geographic landmarks.
1. As the editor of the second edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, I wrote some of this material as end-of-chapter “content filler” for chapter three. I’m using this material with permission from the authors. (See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. rev. [American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2011], 83.)
2. Thomas Higham, www.c14dating.com (accessed January 10, 2012).
3. See www.c14dating.com or dozens of other comparable sites for more information about radiocarbon dating.
4. William J. Cogan, A Catechism for Adults (Forest Park, IL: D. Farrell Co., 1951), 10.
5. “Radiocarbon Dating,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiocarbon_dating (accessed February 11, 2012).
6. Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 7th ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 25.
7. I spent the first half of my life believing that Coriantumr was the last living Jaredite. After all, I reasoned, that’s what I read in Ether 15:12: “And it came to pass that they did gather together all the people upon all the face of the land, who had not been slain, save it was Ether.” Subsequently, “all the people” mentioned here except Coriantumr and Ether died in the last battles. Readers of the Book of Mormon can use this account in understanding the Book of Mormon’s use of such all-inclusive words as “every,” “all,” and “whole.” That is, in the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography, we now know via radiocarbon dating that thousands and thousands of Jaredites who lived outside the Jaredite heartland did not die at the last battle at Ramah. How, then, do we interpret Moroni’s words in Ether 15:12, “all the people” and “all the face of the land”? I suggest that “all the people” perhaps refers to all those who were living in proximity to the heartland or all who were willing to gather to Ramah for the battle. And I suggest “all the face of the land” refers to the heartland itself and not to the “hinterlands” (the term used by most Olmec scholars in relating to Olmecs who lived outside the heartland).
Following are a few instances of other Book of Mormon all-inclusive terms that cannot truly be as inclusive as they sound initially:
And it came to pass that Moroni caused that his armies should go forth into the east wilderness; yea, and they went forth and drove all the Lamanites who were in the east wilderness into their own lands, which were south of the land of Zarahemla. (Alma 50:7; emphasis added)
And he said unto me that while the thunder and the lightning lasted, and the tempest, that these things should be, and that darkness should cover the face of the whole earth for the space of three days. (Helaman 14:27; emphasis added)
And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder. (3 Nephi 8:6; emphasis added)
And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth. (3 Nephi 8:17; emphasis added)
And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land. (3 Nephi 8:18; emphasis added)
8. Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 56–57.
9. Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 16.
10. See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996).
11. See F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988); see also the discussion and map in Joe Andersen, “City Desolation Could Not Have Been San Lorenzo or Near the Gulf of Mexico,” http://www.bmaf.org/articles/city_desolation__andersen.
12. See, for example, chapter 5, “The East Wilderness,” in Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.
13. See, for example, “El Mirador,” http://www.authenticmaya.com/mirador1.htm (accessed January 19, 2012) and Richard D. Hansen, “Mapping the Mirador Basin: Exploration and New Technology in the Cradle of Maya Civilization,” http://www.newmedia.ufm.edu/gsm/index .php/Mapping_the_Mirador_Basin:_Exploration_and_New_Technology_in_the_Cradle_of_ Maya_Civilization (accessed January 19, 2012).
The website www.authenticmaya.com/ancient_guatemala.htm notes that around three thousand archaeological sites are located in the Peten territory. Interestingly, the following quotation comes from this website: “There is no evidence yet to link the Preclassic Maya from Peten and those from the Pacific coast, but undoubtedly, they had cultural and economical links. North Central Peten has particularly high densities of Late Preclassic sites, including Naachtun, Xulnal, El Mirador, Porvenir, La Florida, Pacaya, La Muralla, Nakbe, Tintal, Wakna (formerly Guiro), Uaxactun, Cival, San Bartolo, Holmul, Polol, and Tikal.” (emphasis added)
14. See Helaman 1:18, “And it came to pass that because of so much contention and so much difficulty in the government, that they had not kept sufficient guards in the land of Zarahemla; for they had supposed that the Lamanites durst not come into the heart of their lands to attack that great city Zarahemla.”
Further, Nephi, the son of Helaman, referred not only to Zarahemla as a “great city” but also the cities nearby as “great cities”: “And for this cause wo shall come unto you except ye shall repent. For if ye will not repent, behold, this great city, and also all those great cities which are round about, which are in the land of our possession, shall be taken away that ye shall have no place in them; for behold, the Lord will not grant unto you strength, as he has hitherto done, to withstand against your enemies” (Helaman 7:22; emphasis added).
And Samuel the Lamanite also referred to the city of Zarahemla as a “great city”: “Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla; for behold, it is because of those who are righteous that it is saved; yea, wo unto this great city, for I perceive, saith the Lord, that there are many, yea, even the more part of this great city, that will harden their hearts against me, saith the Lord” (Helaman13:12; emphasis added).
Christ himself called Zarahemla a “great city”: “Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof” (3 Nephi 9:3; emphasis added).
My summary contention continues to be the following: Because Book of Mormon scholars cannot identify a Late Preclassic Usumacinta River site that qualifies as a “great city” from that period, they should cease looking on the Usumacinta and move to the Grijalva.
15. See the numerous New World Archaeological Foundation reports located in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. See also Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
16. See, for example, Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, “Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research along the Usumacinta River,” The PARI Journal 7, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 7–13.
17. See Joseph Lovell Allen, Blake Joseph Allen, and Ted Dee Stoddard, “‘The Waters of Sidon’: The Grijalva River or the Usumacinta River?” http://www.bmaf.org/articles/sidon_grijalva_or_usumacinta__allen_et_al. See also Ted Dee Stoddard, “The Grijalva River Is the Book of Mormon’s River Sidon,” presentation given at the ninth annual conference of the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, Salt Lake City, UT, November 5, 2011.
18. See the numerous references to the “Lamanite Maya” and the “Nephite Maya” in Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.