Analyzing “The Place Where the Sea Divides the Land”
and the “Great City” of the Jaredites
Copyright © 2011 by
Ted Dee Stoddard (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lawrence L. Poulsen (email@example.com)
In preparing his account about the “ancient inhabitants” of the “north country,” where he was probably living at the time, Moroni gives us the following intriguing geographic information associated with the Jaredites: “And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20). For some reason, he did not give us the name of this “great city,” and although it was built during the reign of King Lib, we have no justification for calling this city the “city of Lib” or “Lib,” as some Book of Mormon scholars have done. Yes, about 82 BC, Alma tells us, “Now it was the custom of the people of Nephi to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them” (Alma 8:7). However, we have no substantive evidence that the Jaredites followed that practice.
Therefore, we will not refer to the “great city” of Ether 10:20 as the “city of Lib” or as “Lib.” Rather, we will refer to it as “a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land,” precisely as Moroni did—or “great city” as a shorter version. From the vernacular of the twenty-first century, we will also refer to the “great city” by what we think is its modern name, as explained below.
Ether 10:20 contains three geographic pointers to which Moroni seems to expect us to relate: (1) “a great city,” (2) “the narrow neck of land,” and (3) “the place where the sea divides the land.” Verses 19 and 21 also bring into the picture the geographic pointers of the land southward and the land northward, but Book of Mormon readers often do not seem to understand the relevance of those verses in connection with the content of verse 20:
For purposes of the discussion that follows, the following eleven items help clarify the information Moroni gives us in those three verses:
1. An evident issue associated with Ether 10:20 arises in connection with the meaning of “the land.” We propose that we must examine verses 19 and 21 for assistance in determining what Moroni means by “the land” in his words, “the place where the sea divides the land.” In doing so, we propose that “the land” Moroni is talking about here is the land northward and the land southward. “The place where the sea divides the land,” therefore, is the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward. Whatever “the place” is from a geographic perspective, it must be capable of functioning as the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward.
2. During the wicked reign of Heth ten generations before Lib, the people experienced “a great dearth . . . for there was no rain upon the face of the earth.” As a consequence of the famine, poisonous serpents “came forth . . . upon the face of the land,” and the people’s flocks fled before the serpents “towards the land southward,” with the result that some of the flocks “fled into the land southward.” The people followed “the course of the beasts” and ate the “carcasses of them which fell by the way.” However, “the Lord did cause the serpents that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass, that whoso should attempt to pass might fall by the poisonous serpents.” As a result, the Jaredites evidently did not go into the land southward at this geographic location for several generations. Finally, the people “humbled themselves sufficiently” that the Lord sent rain to ease the famine (see Ether 9:26–35).
Subsequently, as explained in Ether 10:19, eight generations after Heth, during the reign of Lib, the poisonous serpents that previously had kept the Jaredites out of the land southward, at “the place where the sea divides the land,” were destroyed. At this point in time, that outcome permitted the Jaredites to go into the land southward to hunt the “animals of the forest” for food.
We propose that a distinctive geographic feature located in close proximity to the land southward functioned as a unique habitat for the poisonous serpents with the result that the Jaredites could not use this route into the land southward for the generations between Heth and Lib. Later in this article, we refer to this route into the land southward as the “Coatzacoalcos Route.” And we refer to the other commonly used route into the land southward as the “Isthmus Route,” which went south via the ancient trail that ran north and south through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
3. During the reign of King Lib, the Jaredites built a “great city by the narrow neck of land.” This certainly was not the first city the Jaredites built, as Moroni tells us they previously had built “many mighty cities” during the reign of Coriantum, which was ten generations prior to King Lib (Ether 9:23). Further, Heth “did build up many cities,” which occurred eight generations prior to King Lib (Ether 10:4). Finally, Morianton “built up many cities” five generations prior to King Lib (Ether 10:12). However, the “great city” the Jaredites built during the reign of King Lib was apparently the first one built in territory adjacent to the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward. Put another way, the “great city” was probably the first city built by the Jaredites in association with the narrow neck of land. Later in this article, as a reflection of the language used in today’s Olmec archaeological reports, we refer to this territory as part of the “heartland” of the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica—a logical candidate for the Jaredite civilization of the Book of Mormon.
4. During and following the reign of King Lib, the Jaredites preserved the land southward for a wilderness in which they could hunt wild game for food (see Ether 10:21). Book of Mormon scholars often tend to associate that wilderness with the wilderness “which was west and north, away beyond the borders of the land [of Zarahemla]” (Alma 2:36). That wilderness was known to the Nephites as Hermounts (Alma 2:37). Part of that wilderness during the first century BC, according to Mormon, “was infested by wild and ravenous beasts” (Alma 2:37).
We propose that today that wilderness area is known as the wilderness of Tehuantepec. More specifically, Tehuantepec consists of the wilderness of Uxpanapa on the north and the wilderness of Chimalapa on the south. Until the construction of the dams along the Grijalva River when the government moved a few people into very small sections of this territory, it had never been inhabited by humans throughout the history of the New World. Today, we can still say that this wilderness territory is, essentially, uninhabited except by animals of the forest.
We propose that at least some of the territory of the wilderness area “preserved” by the Jaredites under King Lib can today be referred to as “the wilderness of Hermounts.” We propose further that entry into this wilderness area from the land northward routinely occurred via the Coatzacoalcos Route rather than via the Isthmus Route.
5. When definitions for preserve in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, American Dictionary of the English Language, are applied to the verses of Ether 10:19–21, they have the meaning of “keeping from” or “saving from” some attendant outcome.1 In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, preserve, when applied to the Ether 10 verses, means “to reserve for special use.”2 In those respects, the scripture says nothing about the Jaredites’ using the “great city” and its environs for the purpose of keeping enemies out of the land northward. However, the wilderness of the land southward, which at the time of the “great city” apparently began at a point adjacent to or relatively near the boundary line between the land northward and land southward, was preserved for hunting purposes. Again, we propose that the Jaredites accessed the wilderness of the land southward via the Coatzacoalcos Route rather than by the Isthmus Route.
6. The time period of Ether 10:19–21 is undoubtedly several hundred years after the Jaredites arrived in the New World—or sixteen generations after Jared. At this point, the Jaredites clearly exhibited cultural outcomes that enable us to label them a “high civilization” (see Ether 10:22–27). In fact, at this point in time, their civilization may have fulfilled the words of the Lord as spoken centuries previously: “There shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:43). We propose that the “great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land” is a high-civilization reflection of the Jaredites’ expansion and eventual move into the land-southward territory that is east of “the place where the sea divides the land.”
7. Book of Mormon scholars who attempt to determine the date of King Lib’s reign typically use the thirty generations of Ether 1 for assistance with their dating calculations. Typically, two of three potential variables are reflected in those calculations, depending on whether researchers work from the time of Jared at the beginning of the Jaredite civilization or from the time of Ether at the end of the Jaredite civilization. The three variables are (1) the beginning date for the first generation (Jared) = proximity of the date to the Tower of Babel; (2) the average length of time for each generation; and (3) the ending date for the last generation (Ether) = proximity of the date to the last battle at Ramah.
Neither world scholars nor Book of Mormon scholars can pinpoint with any degree of authoritative accuracy the date for the Tower of Babel. In a similar vein, Book of Mormon scholars are unable to agree on the date of the last Jaredite battle at Ramah. Also, Book of Mormon scholars can use an average generation length of perhaps twenty to eighty years—according to their preferences. Therefore, we maintain that Book of Mormon scholars, by manipulating the variables as they see fit, can “predict” the date for the reign of King Lib within any time period from about 2000 BC to 800 BC. In other words, we maintain that when scholars use the Book of Mormon as an exclusive guide in determining the date for the reign of King Lib, the results are very likely inaccurate and therefore invalid. We consequently ask the following question: Can radiocarbon-dating techniques of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries help us in determining the date for the reign of King Lib under the assumption that the Olmecs of Mesoamerica are the same people as the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon?
8. Via radiocarbon dating, we know that the Olmec civilization, whose “heartland” is along the Gulf of Mexico coast in the Mexico states of Veracruz and Tabasco, dovetails very closely in time in numerous respects with the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon—closely enough that we can, with great confidence, propose that the Olmecs and the Jaredites are the same people. We will, therefore, routinely refer to the two civilizations as the Olmec/Jaredite civilization. Obviously, our intent is to seek assistance from archaeological findings about the Olmecs in helping us interpret the meaning and consequences of Ether 10:19–21.
9. Most Book of Mormon scholars maintain that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the geographic feature that divided the land northward from the land southward. In that respect, we make no distinction between the “narrow neck which led into the land northward” (Alma 63:5) and the “isthmus, such as that in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, “a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas,”3 aptly describe the role of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in connection with the Book of Mormon’s land northward and land southward. Further, as explained below, we propose that the words in Ether 10:20, "the small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward” (Alma 22:32). From our perspective, “narrow neck” and “small neck” are synonymous terms. We further maintain that dictionary definitions for isthmus, such as that in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, “a narrow strip of land, the place where the sea divides the land,” give us direction in understanding the precise boundary line between the land northward and land southward. We will use the name “Isthmus Route” in labeling the route ancient travelers used when traveling along the ancient trail through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to go from the land northward to the land southward or vice versa.
10. Near the east-west center of the Olmec/Jaredite heartland territory is the relatively flat, low-elevation northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The southern half consists of mountainous territory through which an ancient north-south trail enabled travelers to move between the land northward and the land southward—the route we label as the “Isthmus Route.” From our perspective, the combined northern and southern territories of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec comprise the logical candidate for the “narrow neck of land” of Ether 10:20.
11. To understand the task that Olmec/Jaredite travelers faced in moving between the land northward and the land southward, or vice versa, we must understand the Mesoamerican territory associated with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. As we have already suggested, in Book of Mormon times—at least during the time of the Jaredites, two routes were available for travelers to use between the land northward and land southward:
First, in going from the land southward to the land northward, ancient travelers typically found themselves at the southern base of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. At that point, they proceeded due north, traveling initially along a trail that ran between the mountains of Oaxaca on the west and the mountains of Chiapas on the east. At one point, travelers felt like they could almost reach out and touch the mountains on the west and on the east, as the distance between the two mountain ranges is only about five miles—reflecting the concept of a “mountain pass.” The mountainous country of the trail continues until nearly the halfway point through the isthmus. Near that point, travelers crossed a tributary of the Coatzacoalcos River, and soon the country opens up into relatively flat country on the west and riverine country associated with the Coatzacoalcos River on the east. Travelers could then readily continue north or eventually go west or northwest as trails opened up in those directions. Going east was much more difficult than going west, as the eastern terrain associated with the Coatzacoalcos River basin made travel difficult from that point to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, especially during the windy season and the rainy season, as explained below. Travelers merely reversed the process in going from the land northward to the land southward. Before the advent of modern highways, this route was the one used most extensively by most travelers. We refer to this route as the Isthmus Route between the land northward and the land southward.
Second, ancient travelers could move between the land northward and the land southward at points along the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. However, as explained later, such travel was extremely difficult because of the riverine system of the Coatzacoalcos River basin. In fact, as we read in the Book of Mormon, this route was probably seldom used by the Jaredites until the reign of King Lib when the poisonous serpents were eradicated. Crossing the Coatzacoalcos typically required the use of canoes that faced extreme obstacles when the Coatzacoalcos was impacted with conditions associated with the windy season and the rainy season—about nine months out of the year. We will refer to this route as the Coatzacoalcos Route between the land northward and the land southward.
A third route took travelers from the base of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the Oaxaca mountains and thence to the valley of Oaxaca. This route, however, was far more difficult to use than the Isthmus Route and was probably seldom used during the time of the Jaredites. And a fourth route arose after the time of the Jaredites—the sea route pursued by Hagoth (see Alma 63:5–8). This route probably involved a departure from the Pacific coast area of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and then travel along the Pacific coast to a point somewhere around Acapulco. At that point, travelers could travel inward to a prescribed destination in the land northward, perhaps the Valley of Mexico.”4
As of about the middle of the twentieth century, the archaeological records of the New World initially confirmed that the “mother culture” of the entire New World is the civilization called the “Olmecs,”5 who lived primarily “on the north side of the Isthmus [of Tehuantepec] amid the tropical rain forests, swamps, and savannahs in the hot, humid, southern Gulf [of Mexico] lowlands of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco.”6 That territory of Mesoamerica is referred to by Olmec scholars as the “heartland” of the Olmec civilization, and other territories of Mesoamerica that were exploited by the Olmecs functioned in the role of “exploited hinterlands."7
Along with most other Book of Mormon scholars, we propose that the Olmecs of Mesoamerica are the same civilization as the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon. Literally dozens and dozens of correlations between the archaeological Olmecs and the Book of Mormon Jaredites are possible. We draw attention to only a few of those correlations in this article.
As the second decade of the twenty-first century gets underway, the archaeological reports of the Olmecs continue to give us an improved perspective about the influence of the Olmecs throughout Mesoamerica—including the “heartland” territory of the Olmecs and their “exploited hinterlands.” Interestingly, archaeologists date what might be called the “demise” of the heartland Olmec civilization around 400 BC, a date that corresponds very closely with the date of the last Jaredite battle at Ramah. Since the publication of the first edition of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Book of Mormon readers have tended to feel that the last battle annihilated all Jaredites except Coriantumr, the only survivor of the battle, and Ether, who lived after the battle to record the final events of the Jaredites.
We propose that the last battle at Ramah did indeed bring about a mortal blow to the Olmec/Jaredite civilization in the “heartland” territory to the west and east of the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. However, the archaeological record of the Olmecs now confirms that Olmec cultures existed in “exploited hinterlands” both before and after the battle at Ramah. For example, Olmec cultures have now been documented in such Mesoamerica territories as Izapa along the Pacific coast near the border of Mexico and Guatemala; in the Mexico states of Guerrero and Oaxaca; in the Mexico Valley; in the central depression of Chiapas, Mexico; in the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize; in the highlands of Guatemala; and in the Motagua valley of Guatemala where the Olmecs mined jadeite for precious-stone purposes. In fact, according to Michael Coe, “There is now little doubt that all later civilizations in Mesoamerica, whether Mexican or Maya, ultimately rest on an Olmec base.”8
We propose that if the Olmecs are indeed the Book of Mormon Jaredites and if the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the Book of Mormon’s narrow neck of land, we have a good chance of identifying the geographic features that are alluded in the Ether 10:20 references to “a great city” and “the place where the sea divides the land.”
Reputable information associated with what is now known as the Olmec civilization did not surface prominently until near the latter half of the twentieth century. Since that time, archaeological undertakings confirm that the Olmecs—that is, the Jaredites—built four major “cities” in the territory called the “heartland” of the Olmec civilization: Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, and La Venta. These four sites “form a rough semicircle running from west to east from the Papaloapan to the Tonala drainage, and hundreds of smaller sites dot the coastal plain and mountain slopes between them.”9 Because we believe that the Olmecs and the Jaredites are the same people, we propose that one of these four Olmec/Jaredite cities probably is the “great city” of the Jaredites as mentioned in Ether 10:20.
Of the four, the oldest and the closest one to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land is San Lorenzo, which clearly is associated with the narrow neck of land 10 and which dates as its date of origination somewhere between 1800 BC and 1200 BC,11 a very logical, although somewhat imprecise, time period, from our perspective, for the “great city” of Ether 10:20.12
At this point, we can pursue either of two approaches in attempting to identify Moroni’s geographic pointers of “a great city by the narrow neck of land” and “the place where the sea divides the land.” That is, we propose that we can (1) identify the most logical candidate for the “great city” and then attempt to find “the place where the sea divides the land” in relation to that city or (2) identify the most logical geographic feature for “the place where the sea divides the land” and then attempt to identify the most logical candidate for the “great city.”
Our preferred approach is to begin by testing a hypothesis about “the place where the sea divides the land.” If that hypothesis is tenable, we can then hypothesize about the “great city by the narrow neck of land.”
The Coatzacoalcos River Basin: “The Place Where the Sea Divides the Land”
We hypothesize that “the place where the sea divides the land” is the Coatzacoalcos River basin on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
As noted earlier, we propose that if we do not take verse 20 of Ether 10 out of context but rather associate it with verses 19 and 21, we will see that “the land” Moroni is talking about is the land southward and the land northward. “The place where the sea divides the land,” therefore, is the boundary line between the land southward and the land northward. But where, specifically, can we find that “place”?
At this point, an analysis of the word divide in relation to Ether 10:20 helps shed additional light on what Moroni is telling us. In Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, we are told that “divide,” as a transitive verb, means “To part or separate an entire thing; to part a thing into two or more pieces. To cause to be separate; to keep apart by a partition or by an imaginary line or limit.”13
In other words, “divide” has multiple meanings; and one of those meanings deals with boundary lines. When humans in antiquity divided geographic territory for some reason, they typically established the boundary lines in connection with relevant geographic features, such as a river or a mountain range.
For example, Mormon tells us about boundary lines during the first century BC in relation to Book of Mormon geographic territory as follows: ““And it came to pass that the king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided” (Alma 22:27; emphasis added).
In this instance, a “narrow strip of wilderness” separated the land of Nephi from the land of Zarahemla—or functioned as the boundary line between them. In a similar respect, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as the narrow neck of land, divided or separated the land southward from the land northward and therefore functioned as a boundary line between the land southward and the land northward. Because of Ether 10:20, we maintain that Moroni expected us to relate to the isthmus as the narrow neck of land and, in the process, readily identify the location of “the place where the sea divides the land.” What happens when we attempt to accede to Moroni’s expectations?
Some scholars advocate that the Gulf of Mexico fulfills the requirements for “the place where the sea divides the land” because the gulf divides the Yucatan from Mexico.14 However, as noted, when we take into account all the content of Ether 10:19–21, we propose that we must be looking for a geographic feature that divides the land southward from the land northward. Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico does not divide the land southward from the land northward.
Other scholars maintain that “the place where the sea divides the land” involves the “lagoons and estuaries formed by the Pacific Ocean that separate the mainland of the Pacific coastal corridor from a long and narrow land tied to the mainland in a few places. This is the area where the Pacific Ocean divides the mainland from itself. ”15 We discount this proposal because this geographic feature does not divide the land southward from the land northward. In addition, however, the Pacific coast territory is not in the heartland of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization, which we maintain is the territory alluded to by Moroni in Ether 10:19–21 and which is the territory where we should naturally expect the Jaredites to build a “great city.” Therefore, any Olmec/Jaredite cities or geographic features located on the south side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land are in the “hinterland” areas of Olmec territory—as a reflection of the jargon used by Olmec scholars.
Let’s assume we are either looking at a map of the Olmec/Jaredite heartland associated with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land or standing on the ground at a geographic point in the Olmec/Jaredite heartland by or in the isthmus/narrow neck of land. What geographic feature stands out in that position of the heartland on the northern half of the isthmus?
The only geographic feature that stands out is the Coatzacoalcos River and its riverine basin. And when we understand the nature of the Coatzacoalcos River basin, we will understand how the Coatzacoalcos, both physically and geographically, truly divides the land southward from the land northward in the northern half of the isthmus/narrow neck of land and thereby functions as the border line between the land northward and the land southward.
In that respect, at one point in the nineteenth century, the United States seriously explored the possibility of constructing a canal, with locks, to join the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean. One appealing feature of the proposal was the availability of the Coatzacoalcos River as a navigable waterway for many miles inward from the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the engineering study for this proposed canal, the “Atlantic plains” of the Coatzacoalcos River extend from the Gulf of Mexico to the base of the Cordilleras and comprise a “breadth of country of about fifty miles” and a distance of about seventy miles. Thus, the Coatzacoalcos is not merely a river but also involves an extensive riverine basin. The engineering study about the potential canal contains the following information:
This portion of the Isthmus consists of several rich and extensive alluvial basins, which are traversed by . . . many rivers, of which the Coatzacoalcos, which drains the northern slope of the Cordilleras, is the principal, and occupies the central portion of the Isthmus.
This water flows through a non-mountainous district of alluvial soil, and drains miles of flat, low, marshy country for a distance of nearly 70 miles before it reaches the Gulf.
The country along the Coatzacoalcos . . . is an extensive plain, covered with thick forests and dense wild grasses, intersected by numerous tributaries of the river, and for the greater part of the year is nothing more than a vast marsh.
The Coatzacoalcos . . . is subject to annual overflow, by which these extensive alluvial fields and woodlands are completely inundated, and remain, after the subsidence of the waters, a month or more. . . .
The northerly winds prevail from December to the end of March, and frequently last for several days, bellowing with great violence, and changing the temperature . . . from 80 degrees to 68 or 70 degrees within a few hours. . . .
The rainy season begins in July and ends in November, although there is more or less rain throughout the greater portion of the year. It is during this season that the annual inundation takes place, and for a month or more the country is flooded so that it is possible to pass in boats from one river to another. . . .
At this point, we invite you to look at any map, ancient or modern, that shows the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (in the heartland of Olmec/Jaredite territory) to observe how the Coatzacoalcos River and its associated basin territory as described above—fifty miles wide and seventy miles long—indeed “divides” the land on the east and west of the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—especially during the windy season and the rainy season, which together involve about nine months of the year. In the process, we invite you to place yourself “on the ground” between 1800 and 1200 BC to anticipate the difficulties you would have of moving from the west to the east—or from the land northward to the land southward or vice versa—especially at certain times of the year. Truly, the land is divided by the Coatzacoalcos River basin. When applied to the land northward and the land southward, “divided” here is synonymous with “forms a boundary line” that separates the land northward from the land southward.
A natural issue to raise here is to point out that Ether 10:19–21 refers to “the place where the sea divides the land” as the dividing line between the land northward and the land southward—not “the place where the river divides the land.” Understanding the riverine water conditions of the Coatzacoalcos River basin during most of the year helps us understand what Moroni is telling us.
That is, as Richard Diehl points out in speaking of the Coatzacoalcos territory, “The river’s width varies tremendously over the course of the annual rainy season/dry season cycle.” Further, “Most precipitation falls between May and November, the traditional wet months of Mesoamerica’s lowlands, but nortes, storms that blow in from the Gulf during the ‘dry season,’ are so common that March and April are the only truly dry months of the year.”17
Thus, the potential “dividing-the-land” role of the Coatzacoalcos territory as “the place where the sea divides the land” is reflected in Diehl’s further description of the Coatzacoalcos basin territory:
The Coatzacoalcos and Tonala basins are complex mosaics of large streams, tributaries, natural levees, swamps, upland ridges, and plateaus. Today, as in the past, seasonal changes in river levels dominate life in the region. Summer rains swell their currents until they spill over their banks and inundate the surrounding countryside. By September the cattle pastures of May are vast lakes better suited to fishing than ranching. By November, the rivers return to their established courses as the floodwaters recede. Water levels continue to drop until the next rainy season, when the cycle begins once again.
Rivers, streams, and lagoons influence every aspect of life in the region. Until highways and bridges were constructed in the 1980s, riverboats and dugout canoes were the main means of transport in much of the region. . . .
[The Olmecs’] tropical lowlands are a very dynamic environment, constantly changing in response to natural and human induced causes. Deeply buried salt domes thrust the earth’s surface upward, rising sea levels flood coastal margins, rivers change their courses, and humans clear the jungle for farmland. These processes affect modern inhabitants as much as they affected their Olmec predecessors.18
Today, via modern roads and bridges, travelers can readily cross some of the Coatzacoalcos territory, mostly on the northerly side of the isthmus. Try to imagine, however, the problems faced by Olmec/Jaredite travelers as they encountered the mighty Coatzacoalcos and its attendant water-dominated riverine basin environment and then faced the task of crossing either from east to west or from west to east, especially during some months of the year. And when the winds and hurricanes and tides at the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos are considered in conjunction with the massive amounts of water from the rainy season, ancient Olmecs/Jaredites could easily have thought of the Coatzacoalcos basin as a “sea.” But ancient Book of Mormon Nephites would have had no issue with the outcome that the geographic feature reflected in the Coatzacoalcos River basin divided the land northward from the land southward and thus functioned as the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land.
When we understand the geologic and geographic circumstances associated with the Coatzacoalcos River basin, we will appreciate the fact that the Coatzacoalcos is more than a mere river. That is, the entire Coatzacoalcos riverine basin very aptly can be looked at as a geographic feature that “divided the land” on the west and the east of the northern section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and thus formed the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward in the northern half of the isthmus/narrow neck of land. And if we were to draw a map of the territory to reflect the Coatzacoalcos basin during much of the rainy season, the basin on that map would look like an inland sea. Christopher Pool’s description of the lower Coatzacoalcos River basin drives home that point:
The earliest major center of Olmec culture, San Lorenzo, lies at the upper end of the lower Coatzacoalcos River basin, about 60 km south of the river’s mouth. A short distance upstream from San Lorenzo, a geological fault at Pena Blanca separates dissected upland hills and mesas from the deltaic lowlands to the north. The change in river gradient here causes the river to slow, dropping its load of mud and sand and splitting into distributary channels that reunite farther downriver. Sandy sediments build up into natural levees along the river banks, whereas fine-grained muds deposited away from the channel compact and subside, producing low, seasonally flooded marshes and permanent swamps. The meandering river channels migrate laterally as they cut away at the outer side of the bends and deposit sand bars on the inner side. The traces of this action can be seen in the meander scars of the lowlands, sloughs separated by slightly higher ribbons of ancient levees. As the river cuts away the banks, the bends slowly approach one another, and eventually the river breaks through, forming oxbow lakes. On occasion the river will cut a new channel, abandoning the old course. The abandoned course slowly fills with sediments, creating long, sinuous sloughs, or esteros, which wander across the flood plain. Over the course of time, the lateral erosion of the river has isolated low islands and flat-topped mesas composed of ancient Tertiary and Pleistocene sediments. These plateaus and the salt domes emerging from the swamps provided important areas of high land for settlements, including San Lorenzo itself.
The rhythm of the river dominates life along the Coatzacoalcos. During the rainy season, from June to October, the river overflows its banks and floods the low plains, or potreros. As the waters rise, the levees become a string of low islands before they disappear below the flood. In normal years, the floods rise to the level of the 24 m contour, about 6.4 m above the river’s dry season level, and the potreros remain flooded until November. At these times, humans and land animals retreat to higher land, and boats provide the main means of transportation. Exceptional floods, occurring about once in 50 years, create a vast sheet of water broken only by the mesas and salt domes. These greater floods define the edge of the high flood plain, a narrow band of flat land between the low floodplains and the uplands.19
Ann Cyphers and Fernando Botas explain that the Coatzacoalcos River flows to the north except when it floods and the tidal flood impacts the river: “Today a web of seasonal streams and lagoons, or estuaries, crisscross the southern floodplain. . . . During the rainy season this drainage . . . exhibits a northward current . . . except when the mighty Coatzacoalcos River floods and the tidal flood enters the system forcing the current to flow with a southward direction.”20
Thus, when we understand the flooding and the tremendous volume of water that occur in the Coatzacoalcos River basin during much of the year, we can see why Moroni spoke of this geographic feature as “the place where the sea divides the land.”
At this point, we should perhaps pause and ask ourselves why Moroni inserted the content of Ether 10:20 into his abridgment of the Book of Ether. Why did he feel the need to add his clarification comments about the Jaredites’ decision to build a great city by the narrow neck? In fact, “the narrow neck of land” and “the place where the sea divides the land” are Nephite rather than Jaredite geographic pointers—but there they are in the middle of the Jaredite record. In addition, from the Nephite perspective, Moroni clearly understood the nature of “the place where the sea divides the land” because that specific geographic feature was the dividing line between the two territories that the Nephites referred to as the “land southward” and the “land northward.” In essence, Moroni seems to be merging historical facts of the Nephites with those of the Jaredites.
In analyzing Moroni’s motivation here, we can perhaps help clarify what is going on by bringing Mormon into the discussion. Mormon says:
And the three hundred and forty and ninth year had passed away. And in the three hundred and fiftieth year we made a treaty with the Lamanites and the robbers of Gadianton, in which we did get the lands of our inheritance divided.
And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. And we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward. (Mormon 2:28–29)
Mormon was probably very perceptive in accepting the land-division agreement offered by the Lamanites. If the Book of Mormon bottom-of-the-page dates for Mormon 2 are correct, the Nephites had been battling the Lamanites for twenty years near or throughout much of the same territory that Moroni alludes to in Ether 10:19–21. He therefore was undoubtedly keenly aware of the obstacles faced by the Lamanites for most of the year if they were to attempt to enter the land northward by using the Coatzacoalcos Route between the land southward and the land northward. That dividing line by itself offered a significant degree of protection from invasion by the Lamanites for several months out of the year. That meant that the Nephites could put most of their defensive military efforts into fortifying the Isthmus Route rather than the Coatzacoalcos Route.
If our proposal for “the place where the sea divides the land” on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land is indeed valid, we see options for the “great city” that is “by the narrow neck of land.”
That is, if the Coatzacoalcos River basin is the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward, we should then expect to find the remains of the “great city” mentioned in Ether 10:20—“by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land”—somewhere nearby. We hypothesize, therefore, that the “great city” mentioned by Moroni is San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan.21
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, so named by Matthew Stirling, involves a cluster of three settlements on an island in the swamps and marshes west of and near the Coatzacoalcos River and south of the Chiquito River, which is a branch of the Coatzacoalcos. In fact, San Lorenzo was probably located where it is because of the Coatzacoalcos. As Pool says, “San Lorenzo proper occupies the slopes and summit of a plateau that rises 50 meters above the floodplain of the Coatzacoalcos River. . . . At the top of the plateau, massive thrones, colossal heads, and smaller sculptures of humans, felines, birds, and supernatural monsters, most carved from imported basalt, proclaimed the power of its rulers and its sacred source. Long lines of U-shaped drain stones directed water to the edges of the plateau, reflecting the rulers’ control over this precious resource. The elites of San Lorenzo lived in large structures raised on low clay platforms amid the monuments that legitimized their authority.”22 Ten of the colossal Olmec heads were discovered at San Lorenzo.
The status, role, and importance of San Lorenzo in the Olmec civilization support Moroni’s wording of “a great city”—evidently the first one built in the “heartland” of the Olmec civilization. According to Richard Diehl, San Lorenzo was the “primary hearth” of the new civilization known to today’s archaeologists as the Olmecs. In fact, “San Lorenzo emerged as Mesoamerica’s first city, and perhaps the oldest urban center anywhere in the Americas.”23 By 1200 BC, San Lorenzo was “the primary hearth” of the Olmec civilization.24 By 900 BC, it covered over twelve hundred acres, had several thousand permanent residents, and exhibited the full range of urban characteristics: “political and religious power, social ranking, planned public architecture, highly skilled craftspeople, control of interregional trade networks, and complex intellectual achievemenys.25
Those comments about San Lorenzo help point out the distinctions between San Lorenzo and La Venta, another “heartland” Olmec/Jaredite city that was built on the east side of the Coatzacoalcos River a few hundred years after San Lorenzo was built. According to Michael Coe, “A long series of radiocarbon dates from the important Olmec site of La Venta spans the centuries from 1200 to 400 BC, placing the major development of this center entirely within the Middle Preclassic.”26 Thus, although La Venta was an important Olmec/Jaredite city in the “heartland,” it was not the first heartland city. It was evidently built during the process of Olmec/Jaredite expansion into the eastern territory of the “heartland” and hence into the land southward.
Richard Diehl makes the following additional comments about San Lorenzo:
San Lorenzo occupies a long ridge that rises above the surrounding riverine lowlands 37.5 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Today the Chiquito branch of the Coatzacoalcos river flows east of the ridge, but 3,000 years ago a riverine network surrounded the ridge on all sides, creating a giant island at the head of the lower Coatzacoalcos basin. San Lorenzo occupied the ridge at the center of the island while subordinate secondary centers at El Remolino and Loma del Zapotes controlled the river junctures at its northern and southern edges. Location was as critical to success in Early Formative times as it is today and the San Lorenzo ridge was one of the best pieces of real estate in the Olmec world. High enough to remain dry during even the worst floods, yet close to fertile river levee farmlands and aquatic resources, it was also easily defended. Freshwater springs at the summit yielded the best drinking water in the region while asphalt, hematite, sandstone, limestone, and other prized natural resources occurred nearby. Finally, control of the river junctures at the base of the island gave San Lorenzo’s rulers control over every important fluvial and terrestrial transportation route in the Coatzacoalcos drainage. Little wonder then that the site emerged as the first Olmec political and economic power.27
Again, such descriptive language from the perspective of the Olmec civilization goes a long way in defending Moroni’s use of “great city” in describing what we propose is the Jaredites’ “great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.”
Archaeologists agree that these sculptures served as “rulership monuments,” the heads as portraits of living or recently deceased rulers, and the thrones as their royal seats. Thus the identification of individual sets of heads and thrones along the north-south axis of the plateau is highly significant. The most likely explanation is that they formed a ritual processional way created to honor the living ruler and his real or fictitious ancestors. This gigantic display of dynastic history would have served to justify the power of the rulers and probably functioned until the San Lorenzo polity collapsed. If this interpretation is correct, the entire plateau surface was given over to royal ritual and state affairs. It is important to note that San Lorenzo did not employ the later Mesoamerican architectural arrangement of mounds and courtyards forming plaza groups. Early Formative public architecture here and elsewhere in Mesoamerica emphasized large flat platforms rather than high mounds. In fact, the entire San Lorenzo plateau was the largest platform of all.28
That language parallels the kingship dynasties of the Jaredites throughout the book of Ether.
The Ether 10:20 wording that the Jaredites “built a great city” is epitomized in the construction of the platforms. As Diehl points out, 2.36 million cubic feet of construction fill was deposited one basket load at a time for just one of the platforms—an enormous undertaking that is compounded dramatically when we view the causeways and other platforms of San Lorenzo.29
In summary, San Lorenzo definitely reflects the epitome of a “great city” of the Olmecs/Jaredites in Mesoamerica—the first such city built by the Olmecs/Jaredites in the heartland of the Olmec civilization. We naturally want to give it a Jaredite name, but the Book of Mormon is silent on this issue.
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan and the Coatzacoalcos River basin might be as close as we can come to pinpointing an actual city site and associated geographic features as identified in the Book of Mormon. We invite Book of Mormon readers and scholars to examine our contention that San Lorenzo is, indeed, the “great city” built by the Olmecs/Jaredites near “the narrow neck of land” in the “heartland” of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization and that the Coatzacoalcos River, along with its associated riverine basin territory, is “the place where the sea divides the land”—or the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land.
The language of Ether 10:19–21 certainly matches the realities of the geography of the Olmec heartland territory in which “the narrow neck of land” is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the “great city” is San Lorenzo, and “the place where the sea divides the land” is the Coatzacoalcos River basin. In turn, we propose that the Coatzacoalcos River and its riverine basin functioned for the Nephites as the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land. The river and its basin functioned for the Jaredites as the “jumping-off place” prior to their entering the massive hunting preserve in the land southward—territory that butted up against the wilderness of Hermounts to the east and south.
From our perspective, following are the implications of those statements as a reflection of all the content of Ether 10:19–21:
1. The “narrow neck of land” for the Nephites was the entire Isthmus of Tehuantepec. When Book of Mormon travelers moved through the isthmus/narrow neck of land from south to north or north to south—our Isthmus Route—they were hemmed in on the south by the mountains of Oaxaca on the west and the mountains of Chiapas on the east for about half the distance through the isthmus. About halfway through the isthmus/narrow neck of land, the geography of the isthmus/narrow neck of land on the north then opens up with a noticeable absence of mountains. While Book of Mormon travelers were in the southern portion of the isthmus/narrow neck of land, the boundary line between the land southward and the land northward was the isthmus itself—or the ancient trail that travelers used to travel on foot through the isthmus. That trail today has, essentially, been replaced by a modern road through the isthmus/narrow neck of land.
2. For the Nephites, the boundary line between the land southward and land northward in the northern half of the isthmus/narrow neck of land was the Coatzacoalcos River basin—“the place where the sea divides the land.”
3. Because of the flooding for about nine months of the year in the Coatzacoalcos River basin, travel by ancient travelers between the land northward and land southward via the Coatzacoalcos Route across the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land during much of the year was very difficult and required the use of canoes or boats for that purpose.
4. In the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the boundary line for the land southward began on the “east side” of the Coatzacoalcos River. As of about 1800–1200 BC, therefore, the “hunting grounds” of the Olmecs/Jaredites began on the east bank of the Coatzacoalcos. That is, according to Ether 10:21, the territory east of the Coatzacoalcos was “preserved” as a “wilderness to get game.” Therefore, at this point in time, the Olmecs/Jaredites did not have to go into the heart of the Hermounts wilderness for hunting purposes.
5. As of about 1800–1200 BC, most of the people of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization lived in the land northward, which was west of the Coatzacoalcos. That is, “the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants” (Ether 10:21). That fact does not preclude the migration of Olmecs/Jaredites to the east of the Coatzacoalcos, where they eventually built another great city known today as La Venta, which eventually superseded San Lorenzo in importance, perhaps because of the shifting river conditions of the Coatzacoalcos basin associated with San Lorenzo.
6. Based on the Olmec archaeological record, the “heartland” of the Olmec/Jaredite civilization was located along the crescent-shaped territory of the Gulf of Mexico associated with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec/narrow neck of land in the Mexico states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Ancient Olmec/Jaredite travelers probably moved into the land southward mostly via the Isthmus Route rather than the Coatzacoalcos Route and then established Olmec/Jaredite centers in the “exploited hinterlands” throughout much of the land southward. Thus, in “marrying” the archaeological record of the Olmecs with the Book of Mormon record of the Jaredites, readers of the Book of Mormon should expect to see Jaredite influences throughout much of Mesoamerica, including among the land-southward Maya civilization that the Nephites/Lamanites either influenced or dominated.
7. For much of the year for the Nephites and Lamanites, the most expeditious travel route from the land of Nephi or the land of Zarahemla, both located in the land southward, to the land northward, or vice versa, was the Isthmus Route along the Pacific coast, then north through the narrow neck of land, and then into the land northward on the northern half of the isthmus/narrow neck of land. That land route avoided the water-plagued travel problems encountered by travelers who needed to use the Coatzacoalcos Route by crossing the Coatzacoalcos River basin during many months of the year as they moved between the land southward and the land northward.
8. A few hundred years after the “great city” of San Lorenzo and Ether 10:20, the Olmecs/Jaredites built the city of La Venta east of the Coatzacoalcos River—or in the land southward but not in the “hinterlands.” Hunting game undoubtedly continued in the land southward on the east side of the Coatzacoalcos, but eventually most of the large game probably settled into the wilderness of Hermounts that was southeast of La Venta in the Tehuantepec wilderness areas of Uxpanapa and Chimalapa.
9. Understanding the role of the Coatzacoalcos River and its riverine basin as the boundary line between the land northward and the land southward on the northern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec helps us understand why the Nephites were willing to give up the entire land southward to the Lamanites as a result of the AD 350 division-of-lands agreement. The central issue involved protection from the Lamanites. That is, the Lamanites would not—or could not—enter the land northward for several months of the year via “the place where the sea divides the land”—the Coatzacoalcos Route. Therefore, for most of a year’s time, the Nephites did not need to worry about invasion from the Lamanites via Coatzacoalcos but rather could expend most of their defensive efforts in defending the Isthmus Route from the south to the north via the narrow neck of land.30
10. Book of Mormon readers who accept the Mesoamerica model for Book of Mormon geography typically believe that the Limhi expedition, which set out from the land of Nephi in search of the city of Zarahemla, ended up at the hill Ramah where they discovered the twenty-four golden plates of the Jaredites. Prior to the last battle at Ramah, however, the Jaredites apparently engaged in massive warfare among themselves throughout Jaredite lands—probably including territory affiliated with the Olmec/Jaredite city of La Venta to the east of the Coatzacoalcos River. Therefore, the Limhi expedition could have discovered the Jaredite records on the east of the Coatzacoalcos as a result of warfare near La Venta—without ever crossing the Coatzacoalcos and ending up at the hill Ramah west of the Coatzacoalcos.
. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, facsimile ed. (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. “preserve.”
. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2004), s.v. “preserve.”
. See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008), 208.
. In an email dated March 22, 2011, George D. Potter, author of Nephi in the Promised Land: More Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2009), stated the following:
“It . . . seems misleading to suggest that the Olmec civilization was the mother civilization of the New World, when for the last two decades, the prevailing position among archaeologists is that the series of civilizations that existed along the shoreline of what is today Peru not only started much earlier than the Olmec civilization, but were far more sophisticated in many regards. While you have the right to state your position, I believe your readers would value knowing that most scholars believe that the Olmec civilization was not the mother civilization of the New World. Of course, as new evidence is discovered, the argument could swing back [to] Mesoamerica as being the mother civilization of the Americas. But for now, let’s state the evidence in a balanced and transparent manner.”
We point out the following information in response to Potter’s comments:
When we read the scholarly literature about the Olmecs, the writers routinely state that the Olmecs are the “mother culture of Mesoamerica.” We contend that such statements typically use “Mesoamerica” rather than “New World” or “the Americas” because the reports tend to deal only with the geographic territory of Mesoamerica as opposed to the entire New World.
We are not the originators of the thinking that the Olmecs are the mother culture of the entire New World. A couple of instances confirm that fact.
First, on February 19, 2011, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco held a symposium entitled Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. The symposium was held to initiate the display of extensive Olmec artifacts in the de Young Museum from February 19 to May 8, 2011. The display, as expressed in the symposium program, featured over a hundred artifacts “drawn primarily from Mexican national collections with additional loans from over 25 museums, including colossal heads, a large-scale throne, and monumental stelae in addition to precious small-scale vessels, figures, adornments, and masks. Olmec brings together for the first time new finds and monuments that have never been seen by American audiences and reveals new scholarship on Olmec culture and artifacts.”
In a publicity flyer for the February 19, 2011, Olmec symposium in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the following wording is used: “America’s oldest civilization and Mesoamerica’s ‘mother culture,’ the Olmec are famous for their colossal heads.” And in the beautiful, expansive book that deals with the Olmec exhibit at the de Young Museum, the following wording appears: “Olmec civilization, which flourished in the tropical forests and waterways of south central Mexico, is considered by many to be the oldest civilization in the Americas” (Kathleen Berrin and Virginia M. Fields, eds., Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico [New Haven, CT: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2010], 88). “America’s oldest civilization” and “the oldest civilization in the Americas” are key phrases in helping us understand the role of the Olmecs as the mother culture of the entire New World.
Second, Richard Diehl titles his authoritative book about the Olmecs as follows: The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004). He lists the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica and the Chavin culture in Peru as two of the six “pristine civilizations” in the entire history of the world, and he gives his criteria for a “civilization”—criteria that are met by both the Olmec and the Chavin cultures. However, the very title of his book leaves little doubt about the “first” civilization of the Americas. That is, “first” must, indeed, be interpreted as first. Thus, if the Olmecs are the “first” civilization of the Americas, then they clearly are the “mother culture of the Americas.”
Therefore, via easy interpolation, we require little or no effort to think of “America’s oldest civilization,” “first civilization in the Americas,” and “America’s first civilization”—all three describing the Olmecs—as the “mother culture of the Americas.” Many reputable scholars with greater credibility than we have feel the same way.
Beyond those thoughts, however, the multitudinous correlations between the Olmecs and the Jaredites—especially from dating, historical, archaeological, and geographical perspectives—cannot be ignored as we attempt to identify lands of the Jaredites—and hence lands of the Book of Mormon. We like the following statement: “Show us where the Jaredites lived, and we’ll have no difficulty in showing you where the Book of Mormon Nephites and Lamanites lived.”
We continue to feel that proponents of Baja, Panama, the eastern United States, and Peru as the New World location of the lands of the Book of Mormon have blatantly overlooked the Olmecs/Jaredites in their attempts to build and justify their Book of Mormon geographies.
. Christopher A. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 4.
. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, 4.
. Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 62.
. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, 4.
. We thank Joe V. Andersen for his thorough review of this article in its initial draft stage. In a March 15, 2011, email, he raised legitimate issues, one of which deals with our proposed identification of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan as the “great city” of Ether 10:20. He maintains that San Lorenzo cannot be the “great city” because the “great city,” according to the language used by Moroni, must be located “by the narrow neck of land.” From his perspective, San Lorenzo is notlocated “by” the narrow neck of land (the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) but rather “in”the narrow neck of land.
We acknowledge the potential legitimacy of Andersen’s thinking. At the same time, we maintain that all other evidences from the Book of Mormon and from Olmec archaeology support San Lorenzo as the most logical candidate for the “great city” of Ether 10:20. Readers will, of course, have to form their own opinions about the validity of the distinctions between the prepositions “by” and “in” in this instance.
. The dating of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan by archaeologists seems to reflect similar outcomes to the dating of the “great city” of Ether 10:20 by Book of Mormon scholars. That is, archaeologists vary widely in choosing an origination date for San Lorenzo. We subscribe to the archaeological thinking of Michael Coe, who says, “The site of San Lorenzo [falls] within the Early Preclassic (1800–1200 BC). . . . San Lorenzo had first been settled about 1700 BC . . . but by 1500 BC had become thoroughly Olmec” (Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 4th ed. [New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994], 62, 66). Other scholars choose dates as late as 1000 BC for the origination of San Lorenzo. In a similar vein, Book of Mormon scholars vary widely in the dates they select for the reign of King Lib when the “great city” of Ether 10:20 was constructed.
As a reflection of archaeologists’ scholarly thinking about San Lorenzo’s origination date as of the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Ann Cyphers says: “Sometime around 1800 BC, the first settlers arrived at San Lorenzo. . . . Between 1800 and 1400 BC, they moved 2.2 million tons . . . of earth as part of the initial step in their plan to erect the first capital of the Olmec world. . . . San Lorenzo achieved its maximum splendor between 1400 and 1000 BC” (Ann Cyphers, “San Lorenzo,” in Berrin and Fields, Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico, 37).
For reasons explained in a subsequent endnote, we do not advocate a dogmatic date for the origination of San Lorenzo. For the present, we feel that the best we can say about San Lorenzo’s origination date is that it was built initially somewhere between 1800 and 1200 BC. Those who favor La Venta as the “great city” should keep in mind Michael Coe’s statement: “A long series of radiocarbon dates from the important Olmec site of La Venta spans the centuries from 1200 to 400 BC, placing the major development of this center entirely within the Middle Preclassic” (Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 62).
. In his March 15, 2011, email, Joe V. Andersen, in discussing dates for the Jaredites and especially for Lib and the “great city,” states, “There were at least 21 generations between Jared and Lib.” The phrase “at least” makes that a true statement, but it also is a misleading statement. Our analysis of Ether 1 suggests that thirty generations occurred between Jared and Lib, as shown in the table below.
Scripture from Ether 1
Generation and Number
6 And on this wise do I give the account. He that wrote this record was Ether, and he was a descendant of Coriantor.
7 Coriantor was the son of Moron.
8 And Moron was the son of Ethem.
9 And Ethem was the son of Ahah.
10 And Ahah was the son of Seth.
11 And Seth was the son of Shiblon.
12 And Shiblon was the son of Com.
13 And Com was the son of Coriantum.
14 And Coriantum was the son of Amnigaddah.
15 And Amnigaddah was the son of Aaron.
16 And Aaron was a descendant of Heth, who was the son of Hearthom.
17 And Hearthom was the son of Lib.
18 And Lib was the son of Kish.
19 And Kish was the son of Corom.
20 And Corom was the son of Levi.
21 And Levi was the son of Kim.
22 And Kim was the son of Morianton.
23 And Morianton was a descendant of Riplakish.
24 And Riplakish was the son of Shez.
25 And Shez was the son of Heth.
26 And Heth was the son of Com.
27 And Com was the son of Coriantum.
28 And Coriantum was the son of Emer.
29 And Emer was the son of Omer.
30 And Omer was the son of Shule.
31 And Shule was the son of Kib.
32 And Kib was the son of Orihah, who was the son of Jared;
33 Which Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth; and according to the word of the Lord the people were scattered.
After 600 BC and before 130 BC
In proximity to the date for the Tower of Babel
In attempting to determine the date for Lib and the “great city,” we can use these generations in the process if we can correctly predict the following variables: (1) the beginning date for the first generation (Jared) = proximity of the date for the Tower of Babel, (2) the average length of time for each generation, and (3) the ending date for the last generation (Ether) = proximity of the date for the last battle at Ramah. In these analyses, we can either begin with Jared and work forward to Lib or begin with Ether and work backward to Lib.
Book of Mormon scholars reflect widely varying opinions for those three variables, and they probably will never reach unanimity for any of them. In fact, by manipulating the variables, we can arrive at almost any date that coincides with our personal opinions for the origination date of the “great city.” Thus, we will probably never be able to identify correctly the date for the “great city” built by Lib by using the Book of Mormon as the exclusive guide for that purpose.
Using forty-year generations and a date of around 300 BC for the last battle at Ramah, Joe V. Andersen calculated a date of 900 to 800 BC as the origination date for the “great city” of Ether 10:20. (Joe V. Andersen, “Why City ‘Lib’ Was Not Located at La Venta or Anywhere on the Gulf Coast of Mexico,” www.bmaf.org/node/369 [accessed February 12, 2011]) From our perspective, that dating is purely speculative and ignores two fundamental aspects of potential dating procedures for the “great city” of Ether 10:20: (1) Olmec archaeological data are ignored by Andersen, which seems akin to working under the assumption that the Olmec civilization is not the Jaredite civilization, and (2) significantly greater generation time periods than Andersen’s forty years seem reasonable, as evidenced by such wording as the following in connection with the Jaredite rulers: Orihah’s days “were exceedingly many,” and he “begat Kib in his old age” (Ether 7:1–2); “Kib begat Shule in his old age” (Ether 7:7); “Shule begat sons and daughters in his old age” (Ether 7:27); “in his old age,” Omer “begat Emer” (Ether 9:14); “under the reign of Emer” “in the space of sixty and two years,” the people became exceedingly strong (Ether 9:16); “in his old age,” Coriantum “begat sons and daughters,” including Com, who “reigned in his stead” for forty-nine years (Ether 9:24–25); “Shez did live to an exsceedingly old age; and he begat Riplakish” (Ether 10:4); “Morianton did live to an exceedingly great age, and then he begat Kim” (Ether 10:13); “Levi “did live to a good old age” (Ether 10:16); “after he had seen many days,” Corom “did pass away” (Ether 10:17); “Lib did live many years” (Ether 10:29); and Com “lived to a good old age” (Ether 11:4).
Our natural inclination at this point is to use Olmec archaeological data to help us arrive at a reasonable date for the “great city.” We invite you to consult the article to understand how we merge twentieth and twenty-first century Olmec archaeological data and Book of Mormon information to help us understand the dating implications of Ether 10:19–21.
. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “divide.”
. See Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.
. See Andersen, “Why City ‘Lib’ Was Not Located at La Venta or Anywhere on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.”
. Tobert W. Oufeldt, Reports of Exploration and Surveys, to Ascertain the Practicality of a Ship-Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, by Way of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Senate Ex. Doc No. 6, 42nd Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 143, http://books.google.com/ebooks/reader?id=PzROVvqtd9gC&printsec=frontcove... =reader (accessed February 11, 2011).
. Richard A. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 20.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 20–21.
. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, 78–80; emphasis added.
. Ann Cyphers Guillien and Fernando Botas, “An Olmec Feline Sculpture from El Azuzul, Southern Veracruz,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 138, no. 2 (1994): 273.
. We thank Kirk Magleby for his review of this article in its draft version and for his suggestion that we credit Garth Norman for originally proposing San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan as the site of the “great city” of Ether 10:20.
We have never maintained that we are the originators of the proposals for San Lorenzo being the “great city” and for the Coatzacoalcos River basin being “the place where the sea divides the land.” In response to Magleby’s suggestion, we give the following summary about a few Book of Mormon scholars’ connections with San Lorenzo and the Coatzacoalcos River.
According to Garth Norman, in the 1950s, M. Wells Jakeman proposed San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan as the location of the “great city” built by King Lib (Garth Norman, “The City of Lib: Key to Book of Mormon Geography,” September 2005 Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum conference, Salt Lake City, http://www.bmaf.org/node/128?q=node/81 [accessed March 29, 2011]).
Years later, Norman proposed that San Lorenzo might be the “great city” of Ether 10:20. At the same time, he also proposed that the Coatzacoalcos might be “the place where the sea divides the land”: “Others as well as I have speculated on the possible identity of San Lorenzo with the Jaredite city of Lib, on the basis of its geographical location and early date. I now find definite indications from archaeological data that San Lorenzo very well could be the city of Lib. . . . Could this distinctive place ‘where the sea divides the land’ refer to the location of San Lorenzo, where the Rio Coatzacoalcos divides the land, forming an island? This great navigable river appears as though the sea cuts into the land and could have been equated with the sea in its lower course, especially during the rainy season when vast areas adjacent to the river lowlands are inundated. Also, in the Book of Mormon the plural for ‘water’ was used in reference to large bodies of water, including the sea and large rivers, so that if the original text stated that ‘the waters divided the land,’ it could have been translated ‘sea,’ even if it had reference to a river” (V. Garth Norman, “San Lorenzo as the Jaredite City of Lib,” Revision of a paper entitled “Book of Mormon Archaeology, Alive and Well,” presented at the Twenty-Fourth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures, Brigham Young University, October 26, 1974, http://www.ancientamerica.org/library/media/HTML/3yw5nrh2/06.%20SAN%20LORENZO%20AS%20THE%20JAREDITE%20CITY%20OF%20LIB.htm?n=0 [accessed March 15, 2011]).
However, Norman subsequently changed his mind and then proposed La Venta as the “great city” built by Lib: “The city of Lib was at the frontier going into the forest, where he became a great hunter. So they evidently had a game industry going on with hunting in the forest. La Venta, I propose to you, is the best candidate for the city of Lib, based upon that bit of evidence. The other clue we have for locating Lib is where Moroni was translating he inserted a statement that the city of Lib was built near the place where the sea divides the land. So Moroni evidently knew where this city of Lib was. And the geographical features show that is on or near the Narrow Neck of land where the sea divides the land. This leaves us with somewhat of a mystery because of the production of silt over the centuries, we don’t have a distinct place where the sea divides the land.”
Norman then explains that he proposed La Venta because of Phillip Drucker’s archaeological explorations there in the 1950s. Norman notes that, according to Drucker, the territory associated with La Venta “was formerly open sea, a great bay that gradually silted in.” Norman then says, “It hit me like a bolt of lightning that I had known, of course, that La Venta was on an island in a swamp area, but I didn’t realize that this was an island in an inland sea back in Olmec times. So here is a city that dates to the time of King Lib on the Narrow Neck of Land that was built near a place where the sea, literally, divides the land. With that bit of insight, I decided it was time to take another hard look. If La Venta is the city of Lib, we should be able to find more concrete evidences to identify it with Lib” (Norman, “The City of Lib: Key to Book of Mormon Geography”).
John L. Sorenson proposed San Lorenzo as the “great city” and the Coatzacoalcos River as “the place where the sea divides the land” in his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon: “The Jaredites were essentially confined to the land northward until the time of King Lib (Ether 10:21), about 1500 BC. The Book of Mormon reports that at that time Lib built a great city at the narrow neck of land, suggesting increased penetration into the land southward. The impressive ‘city’ represented by the archaeological site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, located on the river line between lands northward and southward, was built at about this time” (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], 117).
Joseph Allen and Blake Allen seem to be torn between San Lorenzo and La Venta as the “great city” but tend to prefer La Venta: “Both San Lorenzo and La Venta were in existence around 1200 BC, the time period when the city of Lib was built—as best as we can deduce from the book of Ether. However, the site of La Venta near Coatzacoalcos may be an even better candidate for the city of Lib” (Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 462).
. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, 98, 100.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 29.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 28.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 29.
. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 62.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 29.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 35.
. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, 36.
. In his March 15, 2011, email, Joe V. Andersen makes the following statement: “[The Book of Mormon] states that the Great City was built new in an area close to the land southward in order to preserve the land southward from use by enemies or competing Jaredite people.” Our reading of the Book of Mormon does not support that statement. From our perspective, the “great city” was, indeed, “built new in an area close to the land southward.” However, as far as we can determine, Moroni does not tell us why the “great city” was built. If the “great city” is San Lorenzo on the west of the Coatzacoalcos River, we merely know from Ether 10:21 that the Jaredites preserved “the land southward for a wilderness, to get game.” That preservation, however, has nothing to do with security purposes in connection with “enemies or competing Jaredite people.”