The Maya "Problem"
by Ted Dee Stoddard
In the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography, the land southward is the territory to the east and southward of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. That’s the territory where around 90 percent of the New World archaeological sites that date to the Late Preclassic and Early Classic Periods, or the time period of the Book of Mormon Nephites and Lamanites, are found. In other words, the major portion of what we read in the Book of Mormon about the Nephites probably took place in this territory, which we could call the “Nephite homeland.”
The territory of the land southward is also the homeland of the great Maya civilization of Mesoamerica. In fact, for all practical purposes, that territory is the only territory where the Maya have lived. Even today, millions of Maya live in that territory.
In other words, from the Book of Mormon perspective, the land southward was inhabited primarily by the cultures known in the Book of Mormon as the Nephites and the Lamanites. And from the perspective of modern archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and geographers, the territory known in the Book of Mormon as the land southward was inhabited primarily by the cultures known in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as the Maya.
That situation sets up a scenario for Book of Mormon scholars that I call the “Maya problem.” That is, Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists cannot get around the fact that the land southward in Book of Mormon times not only was the homeland of the Nephites and Lamanites but also was the homeland of the Maya. The problem for the scholars can be worded as follows: What shall we do with the Maya in the land southward before, during, and after the thousand-year period of the Nephites? Potential related questions are the following:
1. Were the Nephites Maya? Were the Lamanites Maya? Were both the Nephites and the Lamanites Maya? Were neither the Nephites nor the Lamanites Maya?
2. What do we do with the historical data that date the origins of the Maya as early as 1500–1000 BC?
3. Did the Maya originate as a “remnant” of the Olmecs (probably the Jaredites) who lived in the “hinterlands” of the Olmec/Jaredite heartland and who were not destroyed at the last battle at Ramah?
4. Did the Maya originate as another culture that came from the Old World to the New World and that was unknown to the Nephites and therefore unnamed in the Book of Mormon?
Comprehensively answering such questions as those is beyond the scope of this short article. But we might be helped in answering them if the Book of Mormon itself gives us any assistance. I suggest two possibilities: (1) Mosiah 8:12 and (2) Helaman 11.
First, the events of Mosiah 8 took place in the land of Nephi, probably in highland Guatemala. King Limhi tells Ammon about the twenty-four gold plates left by the Jaredites and discovered by the Limhi expedition. Limhi says, “I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language; for, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed” (Mosiah 8:12; emphasis added).
In other words, the Nephites living in the land of Nephi about 121 BC were aware that a “remnant” of the Jaredites had survived the last battle at Ramah. I think this remnant people were part of the Maya culture as we refer to it today. Further, I think this remnant could have resided in the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize or somewhere in the highlands of Guatemala—or perhaps in both territories.
Second, one common way of identifying and labeling the territory of the Maya is via the terms “Lowland Maya” and “Highland Maya.” Simplistically, the territory of the Lowland Maya involved the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize; the territory of the Highland Maya involved mostly the highlands of Guatemala.
Obviously, we should not expect the Book of Mormon to use the terms “Lowland Maya” and “Highland Maya” in referring to the remnant mentioned in Mosiah 8:12. However, we could naturally expect to find equivalent terms from the perspective of the Nephites. I think that such is the case in Helaman 11 as a result of historical events that occurred in 12–11 BC. At this time, Mormon tells us that the people of Nephi “did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east” (Helaman 11:20). Further, “the church did spread throughout the face of all the land; and the more part of the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, did belong to the church” (Helaman 11:21).
In 12 BC, a combination of Nephite dissenters and Lamanites merged and became “robbers of Gadianton.” “They did commit murder and plunder; and then they would retreat back into the mountains and into the wilderness and secret places, hiding themselves that they could not be discovered” (Helaman 11:25; emphasis added).
The destruction by the Gadianton band was so great that the Nephites, who were living in the land of Zarahemla, “sent an army of strong men into the wilderness and upon the mountains to search out this band of robbers, and to destroy them” (Helaman 11:28; emphasis added). The Nephites were not very successful in accomplishing their objective. Then, in 11 BC:
[The Nephites] did go forth again against this band of robbers, and did destroy many; and they were also visited with much destruction. And they were again obliged to return out of the wilderness and out of the mountains unto their own lands, because of the exceeding greatness of the numbers of those robbers who infested the mountains and the wilderness. (Helaman 11:30–31; emphasis added)
Using the jargon of today, I think that Mormon in Helaman 11 is alluding to the territory of the Lowland Maya when he uses the terms “into the wildernesss,” “out of the wilderness,” and “the wilderness.” And I think Mormon is alluding to the territory of the Highland Maya when he uses the terms “into the mountains,” “upon the mountains,” “out of the mountains,” and “the mountains.”
In other words, “wilderness” here means the east wilderness of the land of Zarahemla. I think that territory is the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize. The east wilderness is part of the territory that Captain Moroni was involved with in 72 BC. This lowland jungle area is also the location of large numbers of defensive earthworks that are described by today’s archaeologists with descriptive language that parallels almost precisely that of Alma 49–50. In 72 BC, those defensive earthworks were prepared “in a manner which never had been known among the children of Lehi” (Alma 49:8).
At this point, the “Maya problem” forcefully surfaces. The lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize is unquestionably “Lowland Maya” territory. I think it is also the “wilderness” area of Helaman 11. If so, what are the relationships between the Maya (Lamanites) of the Lowland Maya (wilderness) territory and the Nephites? More specifically, how should we interpret verses 20 and 21 of Helaman 11 from the time period of the first century BC—or, more specifically, 16–15 BC?
And thus it did come to pass that the people of Nephi began to prosper again in the land, and began to build up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east.
And it came to pass that the [year 16 BC] did end in peace. And the [year 15 BC] began in peace; and the church did spread throughout the face of all the land; and the more part of the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, did belong to the church; and they did have exceedingly great peace in the land; and thus ended the [year 15 BC]. (Helaman 11:20–21; emphasis added)
From these verses, we should note that, at this time, “the more part of the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites,” belonged to the church and that “the church did spread throughout the face of all the land.” To me, those words from Mormon sound like a majority of all the people in Maya country (the land southward) belonged to the church. That doesn’t necessarily mean they became Nephites and thereby adopted the social customs and religious practices of the Nephites. As a consequence, I think we have something to learn here about the Lowland Maya territory—the lowland jungle territory of the Peten and Belize.
All the above events occurred in the land southward. For Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists, that territory is unequivocally Maya territory. Here we might naturally again ask three questions posed previously: Were the Nephites Maya? Were the Lamanites Maya? Were both the Nephites and the Lamanites Maya?
If I am right in concluding that we can equate the term “Lowland Maya” with the Book of Mormon term “wilderness” and also equate the term “Highland Maya” with the Book of Mormon term “mountains,” as found in Helaman 11, then I think we can justifiably build a case for answering all three of the above questions in the affirmative. Frankly, that’s the only logical solution to the “Maya problem” once we understand the magnitude and scope of the Maya civilization in the Book of Mormon’s land southward.
Thus, if the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography is valid, we are justified in correlating the Maya of the Lowland Maya and the Highland Maya territories with the Nephite and Lamanite cultures living in the land southward of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, I suggest a correlation between the term “Lowland Maya” in today’s literature about Mesoamerica and at least selected instances of the term “wilderness” in the Book of Mormon, such as the occurrences in Helaman 11. Further, I suggest a similar correlation between the term “Highland Maya” and selected instances of the term “mountains” as used in New World situations in the Book of Mormon.
If those correlations are valid, then the following approach followed by Joseph Allen and Blake Allen might also be valid: “In this second edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, we have elected to label both Nephites and Lamanites as being affiliated with the same culture, that which is referred to today as the Maya. Therefore, for clarification purposes, we will use the terms Nephite Maya and Lamanite Maya in our geographical discussions.”
At this point, I make a plea to all Book of Mormon scholars who believe in the Mesoamerica Model for Book of Mormon geography. Please tackle the “Maya problem” objectively and candidly from the perspective of the land southward as the “homeland” of the Nephites and Lamanites as well as the “homeland” of the Maya. In the process, I extend an invitation to any scholar to convince me that the Maya in the Lowland Maya territory in 16–15 BC should be totally excluded from Mormon’s words in Helaman 11:20–21:
1. “[The people of Nephi] did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east.”
2. “The church did spread throughout the face of all the land; and the more part of the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, did belong to the church.”
Helaman 11 tells me that the Nephites were involved in many respects with the Maya who lived in the lowland jungle territory of the Peten and Belize. Obviously, the extent and nature of that involvement varied from time to time. For example, the Book of Mormon tells us essentially nothing about the Lowland Maya of the Peten and Belize during the two hundred or so years following the visits by Christ among the people of the land southward. We are told, however, that the people were not known during this time as “Nephites” and “Lamanites”: “There were no . . . Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one, the children of God” (4 Nephi 1:17). I see no reason why that scripture does not include the Maya people living in the lowland jungle area of the Peten and Belize. Common sense tells me that intense missionary endeavors must have been undertaken in that territory during the first and second centuries AD.
Regrettably, the Book of Mormon is noticeably silent about interactions between the Maya living in the Lowland Maya territory and the Maya living in other territories of the land southward—especially following the visits of Christ to the land southward. Therefore, from the perspective of the Book of Mormon, what we don’t know about the Maya in the Lowland Maya territory during the first and second centuries AD may be more important than what we do know.
I prefer to believe in and rely on what the Book of Mormon tells me about the first century BC involvement of the Nephites in the Lowland Maya territory rather than attempt to reason that the Maya of this territory would never permit the Nephites to impact the Lowland Maya people, including those living along the entire east seacoast of Belize.
I invite every reader’s input.
Ted Dee Stoddard
From Richard Gordon:
I read your new article with great interest because I have been exposed to all the arguments you suggest but I haven’t reached any conclusions yet. It does seem to me that if the two cultures of Maya and Nephites co-existed during the time period you mention that the Nephite/Lamanites groups must have been well known. Their wars were too great in scale and covered far too much territory to have gone unnoticed by the Maya of that same region, and their impact would certainly have been great on whoever was living in those territories. I have read authors who have stated that the Nephites/Lamanites were only a small body of the great civilizations that surrounded them, but your examples seem to contradict that possibility.
I also agree that the Maya were present before Lehi arrived, and therefore they had to come from somewhere. I read just recently that they are thought to have come from the California area. I think this is in my book on “DNA and the B of M” from the Maxwell Institute that I am currently reading. They said the Maya settled first in the Peten and gradually moved up into the mountains, at about 1,000 BC. I think your suggestion that they are at least in part descendants of the Jaredites/Olmecas is undoubtedly correct. It will be exciting to learn someday how this evolution occurred. I admire your effort to bring clarity. Hopefully some good original research will come out of your invitation.
4:35pm Feb 22
10:16am Feb 22