(in the Isthmus 100 BC to AD 400)

by Joe V. Andersen
February 2012

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This article will discuss an interesting theory that correlates those Nephites who migrated into the Jaredite land northward (Isthmus of Tehuantepec), with a recently discovered language/culture that existed in the Isthmus from about 100 BC to AD 500. It will also show a brief overview of the Mesoamerican language system and how it probably had a common beginning prior to ca 2000 BC. This identification of a distinct language/culture within the Isthmus of Tehuantepec that coincides with the Nephite culture within the Jaredite land northward is also significant additional evidence that the Book of Mormon did in fact take place within Mesoamerica.

After the Olmec sudden collapse, circa 250 BC to 300 BC [1] the area vacated began to be reoccupied, beginning about 200 BC, with the remnant Olmec from the surrounding areas. A distinct culture/language developed within an area that extended from about Tapachula on the south to about the Papaloapan Basin on the north. It included all of the Isthmus. I am proposing that, included in this reoccupation of the Olmec heartland, there was a constant migration of the Nephites, including Ammonites and perhaps other converted Lamanites from the land southward, who merged with other people moving into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec area and formed this distinct language/culture now being called the Epi-Olmec or Isthmian culture.

When the invading Lamanite force from the land southward finally conquered and destroyed the Nephite culture, AD 400, the fighting continued for many years. Why? Does it make sense that this invading force from the land southward turned on itself? Why did they not just return to their homeland in the land southward?  It makes more sense to me that this invading force from the land southward, after “searching” and killing every Christian-believing Nephite from among the “Epi-Olmec”, turned its destructive force against the rest of the Epi-Olmec. For whatever reason by about AD 500 there was no longer one distinct prevalent language/culture in the area.

In the following map the blue line represents the area where the “Epi-Olmec” or “Isthmian script” has been found. [2] The area within the green line represents the area where I believe the Book of Mormon locates the Nephites about AD 349 after Mormon chased the Lamanites from Shem, located within the Isthmus, back to Joshua, located on the west sea coast (Mormon 2:6) probably near Izapa. The area within the white line represents the area occupied by the Nephites after the AD 350 treaty wherein the Nephites gave up all of the land southward starting at the treaty line located at Horcones.


History of language/cultures leading to the formation of the Epi-Olmec people

The body of knowledge about the Epi-Olmec has been growing steadily for the past twenty years or so and the area of study that is responsible for this new information comes mostly from the study of ancient language scripts. I believe it helpful, as well as very interesting, to show, albeit with a very broad brush, some of the Mesoamerican languages/cultures from about 2000 BC to the time of the Epi-Olmec. The following is a map showing the Mesoamerican Linguistic area (in red) where the languages seem to have had a common beginning sometime prior to 2000 BC. The yellow circles and ovals represent major language families and/or cultures between 2000 BC and about AD 500 within the Mesoamerican language system. The blue oval represents where the Epi-Olmec script has been found. ( Mesoamerican writing system).

The following quotations from several of the more recent studies about Mesoamerican languages/cultures, provides the basis for the information that I used to create the above maps. Quotations will be italicized in black. My comments and references within the quotes will be in red:

  The Oto-Manguean language family is the most diverse and most geographically widespread language family represented in Mesoamerica. The internal diversity is comparable with that of Indo-European, and the Proto-Oto-Manguean language is estimated to have been spoken some time before 2000 BCE. This means that at least for the past 4000 years Oto-Manguean languages have coexisted with the other languages of Mesoamerica and have developed many traits in common with these, to such an extent that they are seen as part of a "sprachbund" called the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area…[This is the area within the red line on the above map].

Extending from the deserts of northern Mexico to the dry tropical forests of northwestern Costa Rica, Mesoamerica is a geographically and ethnically diverse area that included thousands of cultures united by similarities in religion, art, language, and sociopolitical organization. Some of the familiar Mesoamerican cultures include the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Olmecs, with lesser publicized groups such as Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos, Mixtecs, and Tarascans thrown in the mix. [The oldest ones include Monte Alto, Tak'alik Abaj and Izapian cultures on the Pacific coast].

Among one of the common cultural traits found in many Mesoamerican groups is writing. In fact, Mesoamerica is the only place in the Americas where indigenous writing systems were invented and used before European colonization.[3] While the types of writing systems in Mesoamerica range from minimalist "picture-writing" to complex logophonetic systems capable of recording speech and literature, they all share some core features that make them visually and functionally distinct from other writing systems of the world. [ Mesoamerican writing system] The undeciphered Zapotec script is one of the earliest forms of Mesoamerican writing. [Wikipedia: Oto-Manguean languages].

In addition, there was a highly elaborate and conventionalized system of symbols that appeared in the Pre-Classic throughout much of Mesoamerica. This means that symbols carved in, say, Oaxaca, could be interpreted by a knowledgeable person (maybe a chief or a shaman) in the Gulf Coast or in Morelos. While archaeologists once agreed this uniformity of symbols and icons as a product of Olmec influence (cultural, political, military, or any combination of these), now there is more of an opinion that the Olmecs were only one of the many advanced people during the Pre-Classic and thus many different cultures might have led to the development of this system of symbols. ( Mesoamerican writing system) (These “advanced people during the Pre-Classic” included the Pre-Zapotec in Oaxaca beginning about 1800 BC; the Olmec, beginning about 1500 BC and suddenly ending about 300 BC; the Maya beginning about 1500 BC and diminishing substantially about AD 150; the Izapa, Takalik Abaj, and Monte Alto cultures beginning about 1800 BC or earlier. Could the eleven families arriving with Jared and his brother have contributed to the development of these other “advanced people” during the early Preclassic?)

Until a few years ago, the Pre Classic, was thought to be a formative period, with small villages of farmers, that lived in huts, and few permanent buildings, but this concept has been proved to be a big mistake, due to recent findings all over Guatemala, such as a 25 meter high Pyramid and a quatrefoil altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, some 3 meters in diameter from 1000 BC;  Ceremonial sites at Miraflores, and El Naranjo from 800 BC, near Kaminaljuyú, in Guatemala City, El Portón in Baja Verapaz,  The Mural paintings in San Bartolo, Petén, the Stucco Masks and monuments in Cival and of course The Mirador Basin's major cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador, the Cradle of the Maya Civilization, where, the cities were not only numerous, but very sophisticated, and developed, with architectonic structures from 1400 BC,  indeed the two biggest cities of the Maya Civilization (Mirador and Tintal) are there, with the same religious believes, astronomical, mathematics and writing knowledge that those in the Classic period.[ Ancient Guatemala]

The renowned Archeologist Dr. Richard Hansen is sure that the Maya at Mirador Basin developed the first True political state in America, (Tha Kan Kingdom), around 1500 BC, (although Maize (corn) pollen samples have been documented in lakes in the area dated in 2400 BC) not as thought before that the Olmec was the mother culture in Mesoamerica, he thinks, due to recent finding at Mirador Basin, Northern Petén, Guatemala, that the Olmec and Mayas developed  its cultures, separately,  and merged in some places like Tak'alik Abaj on the Pacific Low Lands; there is no evidence yet to link the Pre Classic Maya from Petén and those from the Pacific coast, but undoubtedly, they had cultural and economical links.  North Central Petén has particularly high densities of Late Preclassic sites, [4] including  Naachtún, Xulnal, El Mirador, Porvenir, La Florida, Pacaya, La Muralla, Nakbé, Tintal, Wakná (formerly Güiro), Uaxactún,, Cival, San Bartolo, Holmul, Polol and Tikal.  Of these, El Mirador, Tikal, Nakbé, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná are the largest in the Maya world, Such size was manifested not only in the extent of the site, but also in the volume or monumentality, especially in the construction of immense platforms to support large temples. [ Ancient Guatemala]

In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla some giant stone heads and Potbellies or "Fat Boys" (Barrigones) have been found, Dated at 2000 BC (Ian Graham 1979). The so named Monte Alto Culture, that is classified as Pre-Olmec, (Why not Pre-Maya?), letting the door open to the opinion of some experts that the Olmec Culture was born in that area of the Pacific Lowlands, although the size is the only similarity with the posterior dated Olmec heads, it is more accurate to say that the Monte Alto Culture was the first Complex Culture of Mesoamerica and the Predecessors of all the other cultures. In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistaken Olmec style, such as Chocolá in Suchitepéquez, La Corona, in Cotzumalguapa, and Tak'alik' Ab'aj, in Retalhuleu, that is the only ancient City in Mesoamerica with Olmec and Mayan features. [ Ancient Guatemala]

Remains of other early cultures interacting with the Olmec have been found at Takalik Abaj, Izapa, and Teopantecuanitlan, and as far south as in Honduras. Research in the Pacific Lowlands of Chiapas and Guatemala suggest that Izapa and the Monte Alto Culture may have preceded the Olmec. Radiocarbon samples associated with various sculptures found at the Late Preclassic site of Izapa suggest a date of between 1800 and 1500 BC.” [Wickipedia: The Olmecs:America’s First civilization]

It is widely recognized that the Mixtecos and Zapotecos are actually kindred peoples, looking back to a common origin several thousand years ago”…. the Zapotecs appeared to have shared some cultural affinities with the ancient Olmec and the Mayan Indians. (John P. Schmal, 2006 article entitled The Mixtecs and the Zapotecs: two enduring cultures of Oaxaca, located at

As I have indicated in other articles the above information also gives rise to the proposition that some of the 11 other couples arriving with Jared and his brother probably began separating themselves from the unrighteous and onerous Jaredite leadership and found other areas to raise their families. This would have occurred perhaps about 2000 BC give or take a hundred years or so. I believe it probable that some of these families and their descendants assisted in the formation of the pacific coastal cultures; the Mixtec near Puebla; probably the Heartland Olmec, and perhaps the Maya among others. This was accomplished principally by mixing with existing pockets of hunter/gatherers in the various areas which would account for many of the differences, as well as similarities, in the languages and cultural traits in these areas.



After the demise of the Olmec about 300 BC a new language and culture seemed to emerge in the Isthmus area including from about Veracruz on the north to about Tapachula (Izapa) on the south as shown on the maps above.
  Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures had become firmly established. The Tres Zapotes site, on the western edge of the Olmec heartland, continued to be occupied well past 400 BCE, but without the hallmarks of the Olmec culture. This post-Olmec culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, [5] some 330 miles (550 km) to the southeast… (Wikipedia and from page 248 of Richard A. Diehli’s book, The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004)

At Epi-Olmec, it shows that a distinct writing form developed and was used in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from about 100 BC to about AD 500 as shown in Blue on the above maps.
At writing systems it says:
  In the Gulf Coast and highland Chiapas of Mexico, where the Olmecs had lived, another script of the Southeastern group also emerged during the late Preclassic. Called Epi-Olmec (meaning "after Olmec") on geographic and iconographic grounds, this writing system has been known for a long time but only has been studied within the last twenty years or so. The best example is the La Mojarra Stone 1: …

Continuing the quotes from
  One of the most amazing things about Mesoamerican archaeology is that new discoveries are constantly being made. Among one of the most important was the discovery of an inscribed slab found under the waters of the Acula River near the village of La Mojarra in 1986 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Dubbed Stela 1 of La Mojarra, this monument was inscribed with 465 glyphs arranged in 21 columns, and the image of a ruler. The writing on it is nothing like any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, or Aztec, although like the Maya it also used the Long Count.
However, Stela 1 of La Mojarra is not the only example of its writing system. Most of the monuments that bear glyphs in the same (or similar) writing system are also found near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec…
Scholars have given this script many names. Epi-Olmec since it is more common in scientific literature. Some have called this script the "La Mojarra script" after the location where the Stela was found. Another name, also based on a geographical name, is the "Isthmian Script", named after the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. You would find all three names used in publications, and websites. Yet another name is the "Tuxtla Script", named after the Tuxtla Statuette as well as the Tuxtla Mountains near which many of the texts have been found.
[This is the hill Ramah/Cumorah area].
Justeson and Kaufman proposed that the language this script recorded was pre-proto-Zoquean, which belongs to a small language family called Mixe-Zoquean. This family is still spoken today around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Why Mixe-Zoquean? Why not Mayan, or any other family for that matter? Well, it has been theorized that speakers of Mixe-Zoquean languages have stayed near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec since the Pre-Classic, and many modern Mixe-Zoquean languages are still spoken in this area…. It is likely that the Olmecs spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language, because the environmental requirements of these plants match that of Gulf Coast Mexico. Kaufman argued that as the Olmecs transmitted their rituals, words related to these rituals also diffused. And it is also likely the people who subsequently inhabited the same geographical area as the Olmecs were descendants of the Olmecs and spoke a Mixe-Zoquean tongue. And therefore their writing system would therefore record a Mixe-Zoquean language.
Well, this isn't truly an impeccable model. There is still not enough information to argue that there wasn't an influx of people into the Isthmus and thus replacing earlier inhabitants…There is still much to be done to either prove or disprove the Justeson and Kaufman decipherment. However, in the mean time, I will assume that their work is valid and present an overview based on their work. ”.

[In other words there is evidence that there was “an influx of people into the Isthmus”. There is evidence that some of this influx of people into the Isthmus replacing the earlier inhabitants actually came from the Pacific coastal area including Izapa. This is consistent with the area where the majority of the Nephites either lived or traveled through as they migrated from Zarahemla westward to Joshua on the west sea (Izapa area) and then northward up the coast across the “line” between Bountiful and Desolation, which I believe is the narrow neck of land that led by the west sea into the Jaredite land northward (the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), as shown in the map above.] Overview of the Epi-Olmec Script; The Epi-Olmec script turned out to be structurally similar to the Maya.[6] It is logophonetic, ( Epi-Olmec)… Some archeologist think that the Olmec also spoke a Proto-Maya language . ( AuthenticMaya:Maya Culture)

The Jaredites occupied the Jaredite land northward from ca 2200 BC to ca 300 BC, co-terminus with the Olmec. It appears that the Jaredite land northward included all of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the “line” between Desolation and Bountiful located at Horcones which is near Tonala, Mexico, northward to about the Papaloapan Basin. [7] & [8] The Olmec/Jaredite heartland was completely destroyed about 300 BC.
At least by the year 72 BC the Nephite migrations from the land southward to the land northward had begun. By 46 BC the migrations were accelerating. It says in Helaman 3:8:
  “And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north,…

The supposition that the Nephites eventually inhabited most (the whole earth) of the Jaredite land northward seems to be confirmed by the following facts:
  1. Mormon was born there (Mormon 1:6).
2. Ammaron, keeper of the records, also lived in the land northward (Mormon 1:2).
3. Nephi and Lehi both performed missionary work there for 6 years (Hel.6:6 & 7:1).
4. Hill Shim was located there and all the Nephite records were deposited there (Mormon 1:3).
5. Nephite city Jashon/Jordon was located near hill Shim (Moron 2:17).
6. Nephite city Shem was located north from Jashon/Jordon (Mormon 2:17, 20).
7. Many Nephite cities were located within the Isthmus from the “line”, beginning with the city of Desolation, thence northward to Ramah/Cumorah (Mormon 4:22 & 5:4-5). These cities included Teancum, Boaz, Jashon/Jordan, Shem, and Cumorah among many others.
8. There were over 230,000 of the remainder of the Nephite people killed at Cumorah about AD 385 (Mormon 6:11-15).
9. Cumorah had to have been located just southward from Ripliancum (Papaloapan Basin) because Ramah was located just southward of Ripliancum (Ether 15:8).
10. The Nephites occupied the former land of the Jaredites from their south sea to their north sea (Helaman 3:8).
11. The Nephites occupied the Jaredite land northward for more than 450 years from at least 72 BC to about AD 400.
12. Mormon fled Zarahemla and was able to stop the Lamanite advance at Joshua where he accumulated all his people in one body (Mormon 2:7) With his army of 42,000 he repelled the Lamanite army of 44,000. After the many wars and battles followed from Joshua to Desolation, then to Jashon/Jordan, and then to Cumorah wherein innumerable thousands of Nephites were killed. Yet in four years at Cumorah, Mormon was able to accumulate an army of at least 230,000 people. Where did they come from if not from within the northern part of the Isthmus, the same area where the principal part of the Epi-Olmec lived?

I do not believe it just a coincidence that the Nephite occupation of the entire Isthmus occurred at the same time and place as the reoccupation of much of the Isthmus by the “remnant Olmec”. This reoccupation of the entire Isthmus of Tehuantepec from about 100 BC to AD 500, of course included the 150 years of peace following Christ’s resurrection and appearance to the Nephites. This helps to account for the huge numbers of people that were occupying the area about AD 385.  Therefore, it seems to me that the Epi-Olmec or Isthmian culture included the Nephite culture. When the Lamanites/Gadianton Robbers destroyed most of the Nephites in that last major battle at Cumorah they were not satisfied but continued hunting for every person who would not deny the Christ and killed them. This included finally killing Mormon in battle. By AD 401 there was not a Christ-believing person alive except Moroni (Mormon 8:6-9). Yet the fierce battles continued on the face of the land between the “Lamanites/Gadianton robbers and who? Why was this invading force from the land southward still fighting when they had won their objective and destroyed all the Christians?

I submit that they were fighting the non-Christian non-Nephite Epi-Olmec, (considered Lamanite by the Book of Mormon writers), in the area trying to appropriate the Isthmus for themselves. Something must have happened in the Isthmus after AD 400 because by AD 500 the Epi-Olmec culture ceased to exist as an independent culture/language.

I believe that the term “Lamanite” from AD 400 forward, including in the United States, encompassed all cultures that existed in the Americas because, by definition, a Lamanite was anyone not adhering to Christian beliefs and principles as practiced by the Nephites. Therefore, Joseph Smith appropriately referred to the American Indian as “Lamanite”.

Certainly not all the Epi-Olmec/Nephites believed in Christ. Anyone who would not deny Christ was killed. One can reasonably assume that after that final battle, the correct belief in Jesus Christ was destroyed. Thereafter the “Lamanites” (anyone not believing in Christ) attempted to destroy all references and signs of Christ and of the Nephites. This hatred for, and destruction of, anything Christian is certainly one reason why it is so difficult to archeologically find any definitive vestige of the Nephite culture, language, writing or artifacts in Mesoamerica. There is the one possible exception, however, which is the monumental architecture and the arts at Izapa, Mexico, including, but not limited to, the famous Stela V, known by many as the Tree of Life Stone, the details of which have been wonderfully preserved by V. Garth Norman. This does seem to relate to Lehi’s dream mentioned in chapter eight of first Nephi, as beautifully explained by many LDS authors, including the Allens, in Exploring on pages 333-351. There are many wonderful books and articles located at which further corroborate that the events of the Book of Mormon occurred in Mesoamerica.

The many convergences of Book of Mormon locations and statements with geographical, archeological, and anthropological evidence, as shown in this article and others, confirm the “divine authenticity” of the Book of Mormon and its location in Mesoamerica. Joseph Smith also believed that the events of the Book of Mormon occurred in Central America.  In 1842 the Prophet Joseph Smith’s gave his latest statements of his personal beliefs regarding the geography of the Book of Mormon. They are found in Times and Seasons, of which he was editor and manager and for which he had personally assumed complete responsibility. These statements confirm, regardless of any prior statements he may have made, to the contrary notwithstanding, that he believed, in September, 1842 (and never denied prior to his death) that Central America was the location of the events recorded in the Book of Mormon:

September 15 extract at page 915 Joseph Smith states: “…the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found…”

Some of the conclusions and speculations in this article, although interesting and probative, may, nonetheless, be susceptible to debate which I certainly encourage because we are all searching for the actual locations of Book of Mormon places and events. In order to accomplish this objective we must maintain an open, honest and intelligent dialogue based on the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, it must also take into account the known archeological and anthropological evidence in the area. However, there is one final conclusion that is absolute:

The “veracity and divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon” absolutely proves the reality and divinity of Jesus Christ, to which I attest.

End notes

[1] In Exploring, at page 132, the Allens state: “…These discoveries suggest that the time period from the destruction of the Jaredites to Limhi …was a more believable scenario such as Ixtlilxochitl’s destruction [of the Olmec] date of 236 BC—or a little over a hundred years for the decaying of the bones and swords.”…Both archaeological and historical data support 300 BC, plus or minus fifty years, for the destruction of the first civilization.”

[2] Epi-Olmec

[3] One possible exception to this statement is the ancient Pre-Inca “quipu” (script?) which began about 2,600 BC ( Timeline).

[4] Notice that many of these sites are historically called “late Preclassic,” such as El Mirador as cited above, however in reality it had its beginning before 1500 BC. Its apogee was about 300 BC and its initial demise about AD 150). One should not rely on current terminology but look to the actual radio carbon dating of the various sites.

[5] The Nephite/Lamanite people (about 580 BC) settled in the area where the highland Mayan cultures were beginning to develop. From at least before about 90 BC the Nephites had control of all the lands northward from the narrow strip of mountainous wilderness along the west sea (the Pacific coast). This is the area of west sea land Bountiful, at least to the “line” between Bountiful and Desolation (Alma 22:30-34). Therefore, when the Nephites began migrating into the land northward (the Isthmus), at least by about the year 72 BC, they brought with them their culture which would have reflected the culture of the area around Izapa. Undoubtedly they would have mixed with some of the remnant Olmec in the area. It appears that this was at least part of the formation of what Archeologists have described as the Epi-Olmec or Isthmian culture.”

[6] On July 12, 2011, Rolando Amado, president of ARIMA (Archeological Research Institute of Mesoamerica) made an additional comment that I thought worth adding to this article (unedited): “Joe: If you carefully look at the glyphs of all those “different sculptures” (especially at drawings of them) you will notice that they are indeed, very similar to a Maya-style that can also be classified as very early, early, early Preclassic, medium Preclassic, etc, and this fact points also to the conclusion that maybe a common point of origin for written language existed in the Mesoamerican area.”

[7] I believe, along with the Allens and Stoddard, that the Jaredite land northward included the Oaxaca valley area, and that the principal Jaredite land northward extended to about the Papaloapan basin. See bottom of page 345 of Exploring.

[8] See my article entitled Geography of the Jaredites located at


Allen, Joseph Lovell and Blake Joseph. Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon. 2nd ed. Rev. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications. 2011. Print.

Andersen, Joe. “Footprint of Zarahemla: Article two.” Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum. January 10, 2008. Web.  March 1, 2012.
---“Why City Desolation could not have been San Lorenzo or Near the Gulf of August 9, 2010. Web. March 1, 2012.

Hauck, Richard F. Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company. 1988. Print.

“Maya Culture.” Authentic Maya. n.d. Web. February 14, 2012.

Smith, Joseph. The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1981. Print.
--- “Times and Seasons.” 15 September, 1842, Vol. 3, No. 22. Web. March 3, 2012