Response to Allens' Article on River Sidon


Jerry Ainsworth
20 January, 2010
In October 2009, I presented a paper at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum’s, (BMAF), annual conference. In that presentation I briefly laid out my views of the basics of Book of Mormon geography, making a case for the Usumacinta River being the River Sidon. To say the over-view was brief would be an understatement.

Since that presentation, a number of writers have challenged my assertion that the Usumacinta River is the River Sidon, spoken of in the Book of Mormon. I have selected one of those challenges, which appears to be representative of all of the criticisms. The article I selected to respond to was one written by Joseph and Blake Allen, although they are not alone in the views they express.


I am going to reproduce the relevant parts of the Allen February, 2009 article and respond to each of their challenges. Rather than giving references for each of my responses, I am going to reproduce all of my relevant notes from the two 2007 Maya conferences that I attended – as these notes will support and give additional insight to the points that I make; and will contradict most of the points made in the Allen article.


Even if the Grijalva River, our proposed river Sidon, did not exist, we see at least two obvious reasons why we have to challenge the Usumacinta/Sidon scenario. We have already discussed the first reason – that is, population centers dating to the Late Pre-Classic period (200 BC to AD 200), of the magnitude and location required by the Book of Mormon, have never been discovered along the Usumacinta River. 

For example, at 83 BC on the banks of the river Sidon, nineteen thousand soldiers were killed in a battle to gain control of the city of Zarahemla (see Alma 2:19). If they had been fighting on both sides of the Usumacinta, they would have been fighting to get control of a city that did not exist at that time.

We are not suggesting an entire absence of settlements along the Usumacinta in the first century BC. Small Pre-Classic settlements existed, as determined by pottery fragments that have been documented at Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, El Cayo, Fideo, Macabilero, El Kinel, La Tecnica, and Zancudero, all of which were located in close proximity to each other. At Zancudero, large defensive walls have been discovered that are apparently patterned after those at Becan and that date to the time period of Becan. Although Zancudero is not located specifically along the Usumacinta River, it is nearby.

However, before we could even consider the Usumacinta as the river running through Zarahemla, we would have to look at two archaeological outcomes connected with the Usumacinta: (1) a wide patter of abandonment of sites occurred in this region about AD 250 and (2) the sites were very sparsely populated.

In connection with our first reason for challenging the Usumacinta/Sidon proposal, we should recall that young Mormon visited Zarahemla at AD 322, seventy-two years after La Tecnica and Zancudero were abandoned. On that occasion, a war broke out in the borders of Zarahemla by the waters of Sidon. Thirty thousand Nephite soldiers were recruited to fight against the Lamanites (Mormon 1:6-11). Therefore, we ask the following question: If no cities existed along the Usumacinta with a continual occupation from 500 BC to AD 322, why did the Nephites need thirty thousand soldiers for this battle? Further, at AD 331 (Mormon 2:9) a battle ensued that entailed forty-four thousand Lamanites and forty-two thousand Nephites. They were fighting somewhere – but they were not fighting in an attempt to capture towns located in the Yaxchilan district of the Usumacinta River because, according to recent archaeological testing, those sites had already been abandoned. END OF ARTICLE


This article expresses views that were held about the Maya 25-30 years ago, but not currently, and it expresses a few segments of the latest research, but not all. I have attended 90 % of all Maya archaeological conferences during the past twenty-five years, and I know that most of these views expressed by the Allens are not currently held or espoused by leading archaeologists of today. In 2007, the Maya conferences at the Universities of Texas and Pennsylvania addressed this very time period, referred to as the Pre-Classic time period of the Maya. I attended these conferences and took extensive notes. At the end of my response, I am going to share those notes, as they relate to the points made in the Allen article. I am just going to quote each archaeologist, as I have recorded their comments in my notes.


When reproducing my notes from these conferences, as they relate to the Allen article, I’ll give the names of the archaeologists, their universities, and their statements as recorded in my notes. It should be noted that I did not electronically record these presentations. I just kept notes as fast as my writing would allow. I cannot therefore say that my notes are exact or precise quotes, but I can assure the reader that they convey the intentions presented at the conferences. It should also be added, that during the 25-30 years I have attended these Maya conferences I have never seen another LDS writer in attendance. I therefore am not surprised when they are unaware of what archaeologists are reporting currently.


1. This article is written in such a way as to draw attention to ancient cities that are close to the Usumacinta River, my candidate for Sidon. There appears to be an assumption that the major cities in the Book of Mormon were located adjacent to the sides of this river. I do not make this assumption. In fact, I know of few (if any) cities the Book of Mormon mentions that are located on the banks of the river Sidon. One could make an assumption that some of the cities mentioned were indeed along the banks, but it would be just that, an assumption. We do know the river Sidon was the highway of the Nephites, but the lands of Zarahemla and Bountiful extended from each side of the River Sidon, to both the West sea and the East sea.   It is misleading to therefore refer to ancient cities along the sides of the Usumacinta, as if they represent the major portion of the lands of the Nephites. 


2. One of the points made in the Allen article was that large ancient sites during the times of the Book of Mormon did not exist in the lands adjacent to the Usumacinta River, and the sites that did exist, were sparsely populated. Their article essentially states that during the time period of Alma 2:19, (87 BC). “they would have been fighting for a city that did not exist” (in this area of Mesoamerica).


Thirty years ago, when I first began studying the Maya, this was one of the reasons the Usumacinta River was not considered as a candidate for Sidon. Few ancient cities had been discovered along this river in 1978, or in the areas east of the Usumacinta River. It therefore made more sense to select the Grijalva River as the river Sidon, where more sites had been discovered. 


Since that time however, many sites have been discovered in the Petén area and the Usumacinta basin – and many are yet to be discovered. The Allen article mentions but a few of these ancient sites, says they were sparsely occupied, or did not exist during the days of Alma. When I first began attending Maya conferences, this was the view expressed. However, more recently, reports by archaeologists state just the opposite. We now know there were thousands of sites in this geographical area, and many of them date back to 1000 BC, 600 BC, and many time periods in between. In the conferences I report on at the end of this response, I give the comments of thirteen leading archaeologists, from the 2007 Maya conferences. Literally all of them support what I just wrote. I invite you to read their comments at the end of this response. There were clearly many large and sophisticated sites in the Usumacinta basin during the time period mentioned by the Allens’ article. Some were abandoned in 250 AD, but not all.


3. In Alma 2:19, nineteen thousand Nephite soldiers were killed “defending the City of Zarahemla.”


The thrust of this comment by the Allens is that if the city of Zarahemla was sparsely occupied (or abandoned), why were nineteen thousand solders required to defend the city? Two things about this view expressed. First the Nephite soldiers were not defending the City of Zarahemla, they defending the Land of Zarahemla, (see Alma 2:15). That is kind of like the difference between defending the boundaries of Washington DC, as opposed to defending the boundaries of the United States.


The second point is that there were many large Maya cities in this area (Usumacinta Basin) during the time period referred to in Alma 2:19. I once again refer the reader to the statements by the thirteen world-class Maya archeologists at the end of this article. None of them state or imply that all cities were abandoned in 250 AD.


4. The Allen article states that many cities in the Usumacinta basin were abandoned in 250 AD, and then implies that these abandonments represent the total (or at least most of) the populations of these ancient cities in the area of the Usumacinta basin. The logic being, “If these cities were abandoned in 250 AD, there would be no cities in this area for Mormon to visit in 322 AD, when his father took him to the land of Zarahemla.”


The Allen article is correct, in that there was an abandonment of some cities in the Usumacinta basin in 250 AD, but not all of them, not even close. As indicated by Charles Golden, Steve Houston, and Marcello Canuto, there were changes which began around 250 AD, culminating in the abandonment of some cities, (see report summaries at the end of this article) those changes continued until 350 AD, at which time there was a major abandonment of many of the remaining cities in the Usumacinta basin and Petén area, which are considered by many to be the lands of Zarahemla. 


It is easy to explain the abandonment that archaeologists refer to as taking place in 350 AD, as this event is referred to in Mormon 2:28-29. Mormon states that in 350 AD, he moved the Nephite nation from the lands of Zarahemla and Bountiful, into the land northward. He does not mention such an abandonment in 250 AD, although it is implicit in the record prior to Mormon receiving the plates, to wit:


In 36 AD, the Nephites and Lamanites were living the law of Consecration, and there were “no rich or poor among them.” (see 4 Nephi 1:2)


In 201 AD, some 165 years later, this time of living in peace began to change, as Mormon states, “…and from that time forth, they did have their goods and their substance no more in common.” (see 4 Nephi 1:25)


In 300 AD, “both the Lamanites and Nephites had become equally wicked, one like unto the other.” (see 4 Nephi 1:45)


During this same year (300 AD), in the land of Zarahemla, “…there were none that were righteous, save it were the [three] disciples of Jesus.” (see 4 Nephi 1:46).


In 305 AD, Amos, the keeper of the records died, and his son Ammaron took the plates, and shortly after that, buried them in the land northward. (see 4 Nephi 1:47-48)


What is clear here, but not stated as such, is that those Nephites who wished to remain righteous had, by necessity, abandoned the land of Zarahemla and moved into the land northward.   Clearly, if there were no righteous people in the lands of Zarahemla, other than the three Nephites, the righteous people had already left. Ammaron was righteous, so he, and/or his family had left Zarahemla, possibly in 250 AD. Mormon’s family was righteous, so they had left and moved into the land northward. The fact that Mormon was born and raised in the land northward is confirmed in Mormon 1:6, and shows that some percentage of the righteous people had left Zarahemla, taking up residence in the land northward.


What is implicit in this scenario, is that there was a period of time in between 200 AD and 300 AD, in which the righteous people in Zarahemla, of necessity, abandoned their cities and moved into the land northward. It is my supposition that this is what the archaeologists are now discovering, when they report finding sites that were abandoned “around” 250 AD.


If I am correct in this interpretation, then we can assume that there were a number of righteous families “around” 250 AD that realized they must leave Zarahemla and go into the land northward, and that is now being manifest in the archaeological data. What that means is that the wicked people remained in the Land of Zarahemla, where they stayed until 350 AD.  Archaeologists are now finding the absolute abandonment in 350 AD, which was ordered by Mormon and is written in his record. Although not stated in the Book of Mormon (only implied), we can assume that the families of Ammaron, Mormon, and assumedly hundreds or thousands of others, had moved into the land northward sometime between 200 AD and 300 AD – around 250 AD.


5. The Allen article states, “We ask the following question: If no cities existed along the Usumacinta with a continual occupation from 500 BC to AD 322, why did the Nephites need thirty thousand soldiers for this battle? Further, at AD 331 (Mormon 2:9), a battle ensued that entailed forty-four thousand Lamanites and forty-two thousand Nephites….”


I have already explained, and given archaeological reports to support the view, that there were many ancient sites in the Usumacinta basin and Petén area of Guatemala, the proposed lands of Bountiful and Zarahemla. During the time period mentioned, (500 BC to 322 AD), there were many cities that were occupied continually. I have walked this area, visited with archaeologists, during their excavations. I have attended the conferences for many years, and as reported in the archaeological reports given following this response, there were hundreds, if not thousands of cities in this area, most of which were not abandoned in 250 AD, or in 350 AD. 


Contrary to popular belief, the Nephites did not occupy these lands exclusively. There were many others that had occupied cities unrelated to the Lamanites or the Nephites, and probably not to the people of Mulek ether. There were thriving large cities here as early as 1200 BC. As stated by Richard Hansen, (and alluded to by others) “When researchers dug down to bedrock at Tikal, Uaxactún, Palenque, and many other Maya sites along the Usumacinta basin, they discovered much earlier occupation (before 1200 BC), and those older sites were occupied by very sophisticated people, not the hunter/gatherer types. These earlier sites were very complex and sophisticated, and extended from LaVenta to the Pacific, to the highlands of Guatemala, as well as to the Mirador basin. The Mirador basin had twenty-two major population sites, all of which date back to at least 1000 BC.”

This describes the land of Zarahemla about as well as it can be done.


Thirty years ago, the views expressed in the Allen article were held about this area, but not currently. Not by archaeologists anyway.



David Stewart, (University of Texas)
1. There is a minimum of thirteen large Maya polities in the Usumacinta basin, all of which date to Pre-Classic times. Five of the most prominent of those polities were Palenque, Calakmul, Rio Beck, Yaxchilan and Tikal. (Note, a polity was a major region with dozens (possibly hundreds) of smaller sites/cities in the larger political area.)
Charles Golden (Brandeis University)

Note: Charles was introduced as being “An archaeologist’s archaeologist,” as he spends an inordinate amount of time researching areas difficult to access.)

1. They are finding many Pre-Classic artifacts at and around Yaxchilan, El Cayo, Piedras Negras and many other sites along the Usumacinta. (The Pre-Classic era dates from 300 BC to around 300 AD)

2. Fedio is a Pre-Classic site
3. La Teneca is a Pre-Classic site

4. Most of these sites in the Usumacinta basin date to around 600 BC. Major changes occurred in these sites around 250 AD to 350 AD. Some of these sites were abandoned in 250 AD and some were abandoned in 350 AD. Some were later rebuilt, but some were not.

5. We are finding a large number of Pre-Classic sites, and these sites had significant changes from around 250 AD – 350 AD. They were abandoned totally around 350 AD and then nothing for a while. There is a silent period before the places were re-occupied, or in some cases, they were not re-occupied.

6. Macabilero was a Pre-Classic site and was occupied to around 250 AD – 350 AD, and then abandoned.

 Steve Houston (Brown University)

1. In the Río Pasión region there are many discoveries that date to the 1st millennium BC.

2. Something in this area happened around 350 AD, as there is a change in the type of stone used for stelas. It’s as if one group abandoned the sites and another occupied it.

3. From around 400 AD to 550 AD there was a powerful relationship between Teotihuacán and Piedras Negras, and other of the many cities in the Usumacinta Basin. Trade was the central part of that relationship, as Teotihuacán was the most powerful trade center of that time, even though the larger population of people was in the Usumacinta Basin.


MY NOTES FROM PRESENTATIONS AT THE 2007 MAYA CONFERENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA. The title for this year’s conference was, “The Dawn of the Maya Nation.”



Norman Hammond (Boston University)


1. The earliest Maya villages appear around 1200 BC

2. Cuello is a middle Pre-Classic site and for some reason was completely covered over with debris after 250 AD.

3. As early as 2500 BC there was domestic living in Belize.

4. There were hunter-gatherers around 3500 BC – right after the ice age.

5. As early as 2500 BC there was domestic living in Belize.

6. Belize began to be settled, by way of slash and burn, around 1200 BC.

7. By 900 BC there were specialized structures, such as steam baths.

8. In 600 BC larger buildings show up, public buildings, with public burials. Such a phase implies surpluses and a sophisticated social structure.

9. Figurines date to 800 BC - 400 BC, which also implies surpluses.

10. In 500 BC Lords emerge, and then they get organized, which leads to the creation of armies.


Julia Guernsey (University of Texas)

1. La Blanca was in full bloom around 900 BC - 600 BC. This is the earliest recording of the quatrefoil.

2. In 800 BC the quatrefoil, similar to the one at LaBlanca appears at Chalcatzingo.

3. The quatrefoil appears at Izapa around 600 BC. It also appears in murals of San Bartolo.

4. Calakmul has artwork in frieze, similar to artwork at Izapa, San Bartolo and Tak’alik ab’aj, dating to around 600 BC.


Franciso EstrADa-Belli (Vanderbuilt University)

1. There was peasant migration into Mirador, Petén, Tikal, etc, from the Gulf, around 1000 BC. Around 600 BC there was migration to these same areas, from the highlands of Guatemala, down the Usumacinta.

2. In 100 AD, Mirador was one of the greatest cities in Mesoamerica, with a population between 100,000 and 200,000 people. 

3. Nakbe begun earlier than Mirador and was thriving around 600 BC – 400 BC.

4. Cival had a major population in 300 BC, but was abandoned after 100 AD. Sometime after 200 AD, there began massive building structures in this city, as was the case with many other cities close by.

5. Hakakab is also a Pre-Classic site.
6. Ka’uk is a Pre-Classic site.

7. The Maya, as we understand their culture, emerged in the lowlands, (the Petén area) around 300 BC – 200 BC. They came from the highlands of Guatemala, down the Usumacinta River.


John Clark (Brigham Young University)

1. The Maya were at El Mirador by 400 BC

2. They were at San Lorenzo around 1200 BC, and at LaVenta at 850 BC.

3. People migrated from San Lorenzo to Carralito around 1200 BC.

4. Cahal Peck was settled around 1100 BC.

5. Ojo de Agua in Chiapas was occupied around 1100 BC – 900 BC.

Eleanor King (Howard University)
1. At Colha, where Eleanor is currently working, the site changed dramatically around 400 BC and once again around 200 AD.
 Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania)
1. Early Maya kingship emerged at Calakmul.
2. Most of our understanding of the Maya comes from our views of their kings and the Classic era, and that can be very misleading. Historically, we concluded that the history of these places began at the time of the kings. We now know this was incorrect, and most of the Maya sites have a rich history, prior to the emergence of kings.
David Grove (University of Florida)

1. Tlatilco thrived from 1200B C to 100 AD. Over 1,000 graves have been discovered. Pottery discovered is the same as that found all over the state of Morelos. This was a very large polity.

2. From 900 BC to 500 BC trade moved from West to South, toward the Usumacinta Basin.



Richard Hansen (Idaho State University)


1. When researchers dug down to bedrock at Tikal, Uaxactún, Palenque, and many other Maya sites along the Usumacinta Basin, they discovered much earlier occupation, (before 1200 BC), and those older sites were occupied by very sophisticated people, not hunter/gatherer types.

2. These earlier sites were very complex and sophisticated, and extended from LaVenta to the Pacific, to the highlands of Guatemala, as well as the Mirador basin.

3. The Mirador basin had twenty-two major population sites, all of which date back to at least 1000 BC.

4. Nakbe dates from 1000 BC to 400 BC. From 800 BC to 600 BC, their walls were crude. Then around 600 BC building blocks became much more sophisticated; they were developed and shaped more uniformly. Also after 600 BC, there is evidence of influence from the highlands of Guatemala, which came from migrations down the Usumacinta River.

5. There are excellent highways throughout this area (sacbés). These super highways were around 30 meters wide, 12 meters deep and that 12 meters were made with rocks and then covered with stucco.

6. The largest pyramid at Nakbe is Danta, which is 72 meters high.

Michal Love (California State University)

1. The earliest sites around Pada de la Amada were around 1500 BC.

2. El Ujuxtle probably began around 500 BC.

3. Mazatlan Childres and Cantona Corralita became cities around 1500 BC – 1200 BC.

4. Around LaBlanca, there were settlements before 900 BC. However, from 900 BC to 600 BC there was a large population boom, hundreds of thousands of people, and the sites had well developed systems of government.

5.  El Fierno was also another large site that developed from 900 BC to 600 BC. After 600 BC there were dramatic changes in everyday living and in buildings. They developed sophisticated public rituals.

Marcello Canuto (Yale University)

1. There are substantial components of the city of Copán, as well as to the sites around Copán,(according to Bill Flash), which date to 1400 BC. The first date for ceramics (Rayo style) is 1400 BC to 1200 BC.

2. A ball court was discovered in El Guayabal, dating to 300 BC.

3. A site named Achates was burned to the ground around 50 AD.

4. At El Paraiso, the same thing happened, as was happening at Copán. They began to adopt the architecture and leadership styles as that of the highland Maya, who had migrated down the Usumacinta, from Kaminaljuyú.

5. One mile from El Paraiso, there is a site named El Cafetal, which was occupied at this same time period. It has completely different art, public buildings, and architecture as that of Copán and El Paraiso. There is nothing at this site even remotely like what was going on at Copán and El Paraiso.

6. In 350 AD, there were significant changes in many of the sites in the Usumacinta basin.


The following conclusions appear justified, based on the data presented by the thirteen world-class archaeologists mentioned in this response:


1. There is no support for the idea that the Maya migrated down the Grijalva River, or any other river, except the Usumacinta. At the 2007 Maya conferences there were simply no data given to support the idea that any culture or group(s) migrated down the Grijalva River, or any other river, other than the Usumacinta.


2. Literally every one of the thirteen archaeologists I referred to, believe that the Maya migrated down the Usumacinta River, to the Basin by the same name, as well as the Petén area of Guatemala. The one possible exception to this would be John Clark of BYU, and he stated that he was not sure.


3. The cities mentioned by Joseph and Blake Allen, along the Usumacinta, (Palenque, Copán, etc,) do not date to Classic times as indicated in their article, but hundreds of years earlier, possibly as early as 1000 BC.


4. There were not just a few cities in this area, as stated in the Allen article, but literally hundreds of cities, thirteen separate polities. I listed over twenty sites that were mentioned by these archaeologists at the 2007 conferences, all dating to Pre-Classic times, and these are just the ones reported on, having recently had archaeological work done in them. Clearly there are many more sites to be discovered and excavated.


5. These cities reported on clearly represent but a small segment of the many ancient sites that exist in this part of Mesoamerica. On a personal note, I have been to many of these sites, spoken to the archaeologists doing the digs, and have asked them, “How many Pre-Classic sites do you suspect there are in the Usumacinta and Petén basins?” Every time I have asked this, I have been told the same, “Literally hundreds, if not thousands, as we have only begun to scratch the surface.”   


6. Some of these early sites were abandoned in 250 AD, and that process appears to have continued until 350 AD, representing two time periods of abandonment. The abandoned sites were then either reoccupied by those coming from the highlands of Guatemala, or just left unoccupied.


7. At 100 AD, there were between 100,000 and 200,000 living at El Mirador, just one ancient city in Mesoamerica.   If there was this large a population in this one city, one must assume that during Alma’s day there were many cities with large populations also. Indeed such has been reported at the conferences. Time and space will not allow me to name them, but the evidence is clear that this area of Mesoamerica was well populated during the days of Alma. This geographical area was home to hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.


It should therefore not be difficult to realize how the Nephites raised an army of over forty thousand soldiers, and why such an army was necessary to defend the large area and population of Zarahemla – an area I consider to be Mesoamerica.

Ainsworth, Jerry L.