Identifying the Book of Mormon’s Narrow Pass
Identifying the Book of Mormon’s Narrow Pass
Copyright © 2015 by Jerry L. Ainsworth
Editor’s note: Much has been written about the Book of Mormon’s narrow pass, but most of what has been written is based on “armchair reasoning”—the authors have not personally “walked on the ground” of territory that is being proposed as the narrow pass. Such is not the case in this article. Dr. Jerry Ainsworth and his colleague, Esteban Mejia, set out intentionally to explore territory within the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to determine precisely where not only the narrow pass but also the narrow passage were and are located. Thus, Dr. Ainsworth pursued his “on-the-ground” explorations of his first hypothesis that the “narrow neck of land” and the “small neck of land” are synonymous terms and his second hypothesis that the “narrow pass” and the “narrow passage” are two different but clearly related geographic features within the narrow neck of land.
The narrow pass of the Book of Mormon seems to be a geographic landmark almost equivalent to the narrow strip of wilderness in scope and historical perspective and significance. If the narrow pass and narrow passage can be identified via on-the-ground investigations, a giant step forward will have been taken in support of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps Dr. Ainsworth’s report of his on-the-ground exploration of features of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec will induce other researchers to get out of their armchairs and walk on the ground of the isthmus to confirm or disconfirm Dr. Ainsworth’s thinking.
This article is the outgrowth of an evolving process that began March 24, 2003, while I was driving to Palenque, Mexico, with Esteban Mejia. I knew this trip would require us to drive through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which many people (myself included) accept as the narrow neck of land of the Book of Mormon.
In my book, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, I indicated that the narrow pass began in the eastern section of the narrow neck, ending at the Pacific Ocean. A few other writers have taken the position that the narrow pass ran into the Gulf of Mexico and that people accessed the land northward via the northern part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In my earlier studies of this geographical issue, I had considered the same possibility. However, once I visited this land adjacent to the gulf, I realized that the land was much too swampy to allow for passage into the land northward via the gulf side of the isthmus.
After counting these rivers in the northern part of the isthmus, I then wondered out loud how many rivers there were on the Pacific (southern) side of the isthmus. While I contemplated this question, it dawned on me that if dozens of rivers ran north to the gulf and a similar number ran south to the Pacific Ocean, there must be a space close to the center of the isthmus where there were no rivers—a continental divide. I concluded that if this were the case, then possibly that narrow section of land where there were no rivers might possibly be the narrow pass—a section of land where people could walk from the land southward to the land northward without having to cross a river—or at least fewer rivers.
I took this theory home with me and studied my many maps of Mexico to determine if such a theory was supported by my relief maps of that area. I found nothing on these maps that clearly supported such a view, although I did identify a few locations that could possibly meet the criteria of this narrow-pass theory.
I even located a number of cities in this area with the term “pass” in their names, but I did not find an obvious pass. I then knew that to resolve this issue, I would have to travel to the narrow neck and personally look at these possible locations. The rest of this article is a discussion of what Esteban Mejia and I discovered during that visit to the isthmus in September of 2003.
Before presenting that experience, I wish to define a number of terms and present the scriptures that refer to the narrow pass and other boundaries related to this investigation.
Pass, n. A narrow passage, entrance or avenue; a narrow or difficult place of entrance and exit; as a pass between mountains.
Passage, n. Road; way; avenue; a place where men or things may pass or be conveyed.
Desolate, adj. Destitute or deprived of inhabitants; desert; uninhabited; denoting either stripped of inhabitants, or never having been inhabited; as a desolate isle; a desolate wilderness.
Desolation, n. A place deprived of inhabitants, or otherwise wasted, ravaged and ruined.
And it came to pass that they [Moroni’s army] did not head them [the followers of Morianton] until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea by the sea, on the west and on the east. (Alma 50:34)
And he [Moroni] also sent orders unto him [Teancum] that he should fortify the land Bountiful, and secure the narrow pass which led into the land northward, lest the Lamanites should obtain that point and should have power to harass them on every side. (Alma 52:9)
And it came to pass that I [Mormon] did cause my people that they should gather themselves together at the land Desolation, to a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward. (Mormon 3:5)
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 the Lamanites all the land southward. (Mormon 2:29)
And it [Bountiful] bordered upon the land they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing. (Alma 22:30)And it came to pass that they [Moroni’s army] did not head them [Morianton’s followers] until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east. (Alma 50:34)
And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward. (Alma 63:5)And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land. And they did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers. Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land. And now no part of the land was desolate, save it were for timber; but because of the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land it was called desolate. (Helaman 3:3–6)
And the land which was appointed was the land of Zarahemla, and the land which was between the land Zarahemla and the land Bountiful, yea, to the line which was between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation. (3 Nephi 3:23)And it came to pass that I [Mormon] did cause my people that they should gather themselves together at the land Desolation, to a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward. (Mormon 3:5)
And now it came to pass that in the three hundred and sixty and third year the Nephites did go up with their armies to battle against the Lamanites, out of the land Desolation. (Mormon 4:1)And it came to pass that the armies of the Nephites were driven back again to the land of Desolation. And while they were yet weary, a fresh army of the Lamanites did come upon them; and they had a sore battle, insomuch that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and did slay many of the Nephites, and did take many prisoners. (Mormon 4:2)
And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come down against the city Desolation; and there was an exceedingly sore battle fought in the land Desolation, in the which they did beat the Nephites. (Mormon 4:19)
And there [the land of Bountiful] they did fortify against the Lamanites, from the west sea, even unto the east; it being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country. (Helaman 4:7)
And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea. (Alma 22:32)And the land which was appointed was the land of Zarahemla, and the land which was between the land Zarahemla and the land Bountiful, yea, to the line which was between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation. (3 Nephi 3:23)
Following are conclusions that can be drawn from the preceding definitions and scriptures:
There is both a pass as well as a passage through which people had to travel, indeed something like a gateway, from the land northward to the land southward, or vice versa.
This pass and passage separated the land southward and land northward as divided by Mormon in AD 350. Apparently, the pass and the passage were two separate places. In that respect, Mormon was very precise in what he wrote.
The land Desolation was a segment of land that was unfit for and devoid of habitation—a wasteland.
The land Desolation bordered the land Bountiful on the east, whereas Desolation’s west border extended from the western side of the isthmus into the land northward so far that it came to the location of the final battle of the Jaredites. That is the same location where the forty-three soldiers of King Limhi discovered the remaining bones of that battle as well as the twenty-four plates of Ether. (Depending on where an analyst considers the land of Cumorah to be, the land of Desolation extends that far northward.)
The border that separated the land Desolation from the land Bountiful began at the west sea (Pacific Ocean), went north, and then turned east, but the border did not reach the east sea.
A Nephite required a day and a half to walk the complete border that separated the two lands of Bountiful and Desolation.
This boundary that separated Desolation and Bountiful is referred to as “a line.”
The portion of this border/line separating Bountiful and Desolation, which required fortification to keep Lamanites from entering the land Desolation, took a day for a Nephite to walk. Presumably one-third of the border, a half day’s walk, did not require fortification.
Scriptures about Cities Associated with the Land Desolation
And it came to pass that I [Mormon] did cause my people that they should gather themselves together at the land Desolation, to a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward.
And there we did place our armies, that we might stop the armies of the Lamanites, that they might not get possession of any of our lands; therefore we did fortify against them with all our force.
And it came to pass that in the three hundred and sixty and first year the Lamanites did come down to the city of Desolation to battle against us; and it came to pass that in that year we did beat them, insomuch that they did return to their own lands again.
And in the three hundred and sixty and second year they did come down again to battle. And we did beat them again, and did slay a great number of them, and their dead were cast into the sea. (Mormon 3:5–8)
And it came to pass that the armies of the Nephites were driven back again to the land of Desolation. And while they were yet weary, a fresh army of the Lamanites did come upon them; and they had a sore battle, insomuch that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and did take many prisoners. And the remainder did flee and join the inhabitants of the city Teancum. Now the city Teancum lay in the borders by the seashore; and it was also near the city Desolation. (Mormon 4:2–3)
And it came to pass that the Lamanites did make preparations to come against the city Teancum. And it came to pass in the three hundred and sixty and fourth year the Lamanites did come against the city of Teancum, that they might take possession of the city Teancum also. And . . . [the Nephites] took possession again of the city Desolation. (Mormon 4:6–8)
And it came to pass that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and this because their number did exceed the number of the Nephites. And they did also march forward against the city Teancum, and did drive the inhabitants forth out of her, and did take many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods. (Mormon 4:13–14)
And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come down against the city Desolation; and there was an exceedingly sore battle fought in the land Desolation, in the which they did beat the Nephites. (Mormon 4:19)
Conclusions about Cities near the Narrow Pass
Mormon mentions two cities in, or close to, the land of Desolation—the city Desolation and the city Teancum.
Neither of these city names appears until after AD 350 when the lands were divided between the Nephites and Lamanites at the narrow pass. The cities are mentioned by name only after the Nephites possessed that land.
The city Desolation was in the western border of the land Desolation in the land northward. The city Desolation was in the land given to the Nephites after the division of land in AD 350.
The city Desolation was very well fortified.
The city Desolation was located in the lowlands, as the Lamanites always went down to it.
The city Teancum was close to the city Desolation, while being in the land Desolation proper.
The city Teancum was close to, or on, the seashore (Pacific Ocean). Later in this article, I will develop the idea that this location may be the meaning of the name Teancum.
Numerous and significant battles took place in and around the two cities of Teancum and Desolation. Lamanites killed in these battles were cast into the sea, so these cities were close to the ocean.
Apparently, of the two cities the Lamanites were trying to control (the cities of Desolation and Teancum), the city Desolation was the more important. I assume the reason for this strategy was that the city Desolation was more strategically located than Teancum.
Journey to the Isthmus
Given our conclusions as set forth above, Esteban Mejia and I drove to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where we explored locations during the first week of September 2003. Specifically, we intended to determine the location of the narrow pass, the narrow passage, the cities Desolation and Teancum, and the boundaries of the lands Desolation and Bountiful.
It may be helpful to mention how we proceeded to locate the specific sites we were searching for—the narrow pass, the borders of Desolation, and the cities of Desolation and Teancum.
We used four sources of information for this investigation—the Book of Mormon itself, relief maps of Mexico along with historical and archaeological maps and descriptions of the territory, interviews with people of the isthmus, and personal, on-the-ground investigations. We specifically spoke with archaeologists who were working at sites in this area as well as with many “old-timers”—those who could tell us why they built a road or train track in a certain location (that is, did the builders follow an ancient route or pass?).
It should also be of interest to mention that Esteban and I have discovered that current borders of states, countries, and so forth frequently conform to, or approximate, ancient political borders. For example, the northern border of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, probably conforms to or approximates the northern border of the land Bountiful in the Book of Mormon. This rationale may also be true for the western border of the state of Chiapas.
Our first day of driving took us from Puebla, Mexico, to the small town of Matias Romero, Oaxaca, where we spent the night. Before going to bed, we spoke with the owner of the hotel (Hotel Real Istmo) and asked him if he knew anything about the areas we were interested in. He mentioned that Mexico was building a new road in the southern part of the isthmus, and while doing so, the construction workers had run into some ancient ruins that required a diversion of the road. He suggested that we visit the Casa de Cultura in Ixtepec for that information.
The following day we drove to Ixtepec (forty meters above sea level), and while searching for the Casa de Cultura, we discovered a place where workers were putting together broken pottery from the ancient site the new road had encountered. While speaking with the people working on this pottery, we were introduced to the archaeologist in charge, Gloria Bifano. She provided us with additional information about other ancient sites in this area.
She indicated that in the early 1930s, a number of sites in the isthmus had been discovered and explored—but never excavated. When sites are excavated and left unattended, they degrade rather rapidly—much more so than if they are left covered by growth. Because the isthmus is not a tourist area, there was little incentive to excavate these sites. However, we were told that the record of these early excavations was housed in the Casa de Cultura if we wished to read them.
Gloria mentioned two sites in particular. One was a site close to the city of Juchitan (eighteen meters above sea level), which was named El Basurero because it was discovered close to the city garbage dump. Archaeologists have since provided the name of Lagua Zope for this site.
The Hike to Guingola
The second site was at the foothills of the Sierra de Mixes, which is about eight miles west of the city of Tehuantepec. The name of this site is Guingola, which means “split rock.” The site, which has the traditional pre–Columbian public buildings and pyramids, is located halfway up a very steep hill. Treacherous cliffs and ravines flank it, and the rest of the city boundaries has a large stone fortification that protects it.
Guingola is located at the entrance of the highway into the highlands of Mexico (the land northward). It is strategically located to protect/control access to this major thoroughfare. Very little of this site has been excavated, although the large public buildings are visible.
In Book of Mormon language, this city is located in the borders of the land Desolation and is a perfect candidate for the city of Desolation.
When we drove to this site, we had breakfast with a family that lives at the base of the hill upon which the site is located. The father of this family acts as an unofficial guide to the few who visit the site. Because Esteban is a licensed guide in Mexico, they developed an immediate friendship, and he shared many things with Esteban and me.
We then ran into the National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist who is working at the site, and he shared with us what he knew about the area. He indicated it was a Preclassic site (around 300 BC) that was inhabited throughout Classic and Preclassic times.
This site was still inhabited when the Aztecs were conquering the pre–Columbian cultures of southern Mexico. The Aztecs laid siege to the site of Guingola for sixty days but were unable to conquer it. They therefore abandoned their assault of Guingola. This battle marked the southernmost part of their conquest, which kept the Aztecs from conquering the Maya of the Peten area and the highlands of Guatemala.
When visiting the Casa de Cultura, we were told of the two typed papers that contained the history of the early exploration of these sites. We therefore had them make photocopies of these papers for us.2
Guingola is located about eight miles northwest of the city of Tehuantepec. We were also told of a Preclassic ruin site close to the city of Juchitan, which is about twenty-five miles northeast of Guingola. Whereas Tehuantepec is about fifty meters above sea level, Juchitan is only eighteen meters above sea level. During the short time we were in this area, we were led to believe that the ruin site close to Juchitan would have been on the coast during Book of Mormon times.
These two ruin sites appear to meet the criteria to be considered the cities of Desolation and Teancum. Guingola (our candidate for Desolation) is located at the location that would be considered the borders of Desolation and the land northward. The ruin site close to Juchitan meets most of the criteria for the city of Teancum. Of these two sites, Guingola is much more strategically located than the other and is very well fortified.
As indicated in my book, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, I believe the term ancum is Jaredite for “ocean.”3 In the Zapoteca Mayan language, Te or Ta indicate the end of something. Teancum could, therefore, mean the city that was located at the end of the ocean (on the coast of the Pacific Ocean).4
While driving back to Ixtepec, we were surprised to find that the major highway had been blocked and therefore closed down by demonstrators. Trucks were backed up for miles, and when we asked how long such a protest could last, we were told “possibly days.” It was just our luck to run into a small revolution during our search. We were, however, successful in finding an old dirt road that bypassed the closed highway.
Riding a Locomotive through the Chivela Pass
The following day, we visited the train station in Ixtepec, as we were told that the train tracks had been laid through a small pass that ran through the small mountain range bisecting the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, making passage of the area difficult.
This small mountain range is called Sierra Atravesada. The term Atravesada comes from the Spanish word Atravesar, which means to be in the way or to block a way or a path. This range of mountains runs east to west and traverses the narrow neck. To travel from the Book of Mormon land southward to the land northward, Book of Mormon travelers had to pass through, or go over, this mountain range. Therefore, the obvious thing to look for was a pass through this mountain range, which was the purpose of our questions to many people we spoke with. The Sierra Atravesada averages 250 meters in height, and the highest point is 650 meters.
It became obvious to us that there are currently only two passes through this mountain range. One was the route the highway followed, which had some steep climbs and descents to it. The other was the pass the train track followed. This track was laid via a very narrow and meandering pass through the Sierra Atravesata.
We then tried very hard to rent a plane to fly us over this area. To do so, however, required our having to fly to the area from many miles away. The plane would have had to land at a militarily controlled airport and would have cost thousands of dollars. We gave up on that idea and decided to see if we could persuade those who ran the train to take us instead.
We therefore spoke to the man in charge of the train station in the city of Ixtepec. The trains are not passenger trains but are cargo units only. Ixtepec was one of the switching stations. Esteban, in his magical way, convinced the jefe of the trains to allow me to ride on the front of the locomotive, taking pictures of the narrow pass as the train went through it, a distance of about twelve miles (twenty-one kilometers).
I therefore took my two cameras, climbed on the front of the locomotive, and was able to have a clear view of the narrow pass as the train snaked through it. It had many twists and turns but did indeed pass through the lowest areas of the Sierra Atravesada. The train track itself was halfway up the sides of the small pass, as there was a small stream at the very bottom of the pass. There was so much growth in the bottom of the pass that it was difficult to actually see if there was an ancient path there.
At some point, I wish to return and walk those twelve miles to see if there are remnants of an ancient path. As things stand right now, this is the best candidate I know of for the narrow pass mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
The pass actually begins at a small town named Mena and ends twenty-one kilometers later at a place called Chivela. At this small town, the engineer stopped the train and dropped me off—in someone’s back yard, I might add. I stayed there until Esteban picked me up, as he had driven the distance on the highway and then cut over to the little town where I was dropped off.
The pass was very different from what I had always envisioned, but it did meet the criterion of being a narrow pass that leads from the land southward into the land northward. The pass is rather shaped like an “S”; and, as odd as it may sound, to go through this pass into the land southward, travelers must travel north for some distance. To take the pass into the land northward, travelers must travel south.
The Wider Corridor beyond the Pass
Once travelers are through this narrow pass, there is a wider corridor—a narrow passage—that continues to run north for another fifteen to twenty miles. It is not necessary to stay in that corridor, as travelers can turn east as soon as they come out of the narrow pass and then travel into the land Bountiful. However, Mormon mentions that the narrow passage served as the boundary for Mormon’s division of the land with the Lamanites in AD 350.
At the time Mormon wrote this, I assume that the narrow pass went from the Pacific Ocean to the other side of the Sierra Atravesada mountain range. At the end of that pass, a narrow passage (bounded by low hills) then continued through the marshland toward, possibly to, the Gulf of Mexico. These two passages, going from ocean to ocean, provided a clear boundary between the lands of the Nephites and Lamanites, as agreed to in AD 350.
Assuming we have located the narrow pass and narrow passage, the distance for this demarcation of the lands southward and northward was about thirty to thirty-five miles. This was more than likely also the width of the narrow neck (at its most narrow place) during Book of Mormon days—especially because travelers could walk the line that divides Bountiful and Desolation in a day and a half, a distance of about thirty-five to forty miles (see Alma 22:32).
Two Possibilities for the Narrow Pass
Assuming I am correct about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec being the narrow neck, two possibilities have been put forth related to the narrow pass in this narrow neck.
Some argue that the whole area of the Sierra Atravesada, a small mountain range that bisects the narrow neck, is the narrow pass mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This designation would mean that the narrow pass would actually be the total area between the mountain range east of the isthmus and the mountain range west of the isthmus. Given this interpretation, the pass would be around sixty miles wide, and a person could pass through it at almost any location along that sixty–mile width. Such a view would mean that the term “narrow pass” would be a relative term, meaning narrow in relation to the other parts of the Nephite/Lamanite territories. This argument essentially says that the narrow neck is the narrow pass.
I do not believe this is the case because . . .
The narrow pass, combined with the narrow passage, constituted the boundary that separated the Nephite and Lamanite territories in the treaty of AD 350 (see Mormon 2:29). Given that, it is difficult to believe that the dividing boundary was sixty miles wide.
The ocean, during Book of Mormon times, came inland so as to reach the foothills of the Sierra Atravesata. In such a case, crossing the mountain range at the wrong location placed travelers at the foothills of the mountains, descending directly into the ocean. This scenario made it next to impossible for travelers to then travel westward along the ocean/mountain interface to the route that leads into the highlands of Mexico, the land northward.
The Line That Separates Desolation and Bountiful
Mormon refers to the boundary that separates the lands Desolation and Bountiful as a “line.” As hard as I have tried, I cannot locate any geographical demarcation of this area (river, mountain range, etc.) that constitutes a “line.” There may be one, but I cannot locate any candidates on a map of Mexico.
However, the boundary that currently separates the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas does run in a rather straight line, from south to north, and then turns east, just as the Bountiful/Desolation line mentioned in the Book of Mormon does. I do not know why the boundary that separates these two states takes this linear route, but given no acceptable alternative, I am prepared to accept this line as the ancient line that separated Bountiful and Desolation.
Assuming the ocean extended from the current coast inland, so as to reach the mountain ranges as I believe, the distance of this line, from the ocean to the east swamp, is about the distance a Nephite could walk in a day and a half (around thirty-five to forty miles).
Therefore, again, I believe the “line” that separated the lands Bountiful and Desolation is essentially the same line that separates the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca today.
After writing the above observations, I studied the matter for weeks, finally referring to archaeological maps that mark the easternmost boundary of the Maya nation. Every map I consulted drew the same boundary as mentioned above, an artificial line that traverses mountains, being the same location as the boundary that separates the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And finally I figured out that this line, the boundary between these two states, appears to make no sense at all at first glance.
As shown in my book, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni,5 the Lamanites (highland Maya) were ceded the tops of the mountains for their nation, where they built their major cities. The Nephites (lowland Maya) were ceded the lowlands. The lands between these geographical opposites were, by agreement, not developed, either by the Nephites or the Lamanites. These mountain slopes were viewed as wilderness and were occupied by the Gadianton robbers (see 3 Nephi 1:27).
This “treaty” is implicit in the Book of Mormon but never stated as such. However, the same distinction appears to have existed between the highland Maya (Lamanites) and the lowland Maya (Nephites). In both cases, the westernmost boundary of these two nations appears to have been at the same location. The question is why at that location?
The answer to this question lies in the conundrum these two enemies faced. The narrow neck, the land Desolation, had a modest amount of both of the characteristics dividing the nations. The narrow neck was composed of a mountain range as well as a significant portion of lowlands. The mountain range, Sierra Atravesata, already mentioned, was a very low mountain range that ran transverse to the mountain ranges that surrounded the central basin of Mexico.
If the Lamanites were to be granted the tops of all the mountains and if the narrow neck were part of this treaty, then they would have controlled the mountainous part of the narrow neck, which would grant them control of the exit/entrance of the land southward. Under these circumstances, the Lamanites would occupy and control three of the Nephite boundaries, the fourth boundary being the ocean.
Given those choices, the Nephites must have arranged to have the Lamanite/Nephite territories end where these lands buttressed the Sierra Atravesada. Under these conditions, the line that separates Bountiful from Desolation would be an artificial line that separates one mountain range, Atravesata, from the mountain ranges where the Lamanites were deeded the top portion.
Apparently, this Book of Mormon line/boundary continued after the demise of the Nephite nation in AD 385 and was still in use during the Classic Period of the Maya nation. This same boundary appears to have been adopted as the separation of the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas of Mexico.
Boundary of the West Side of the Land Desolation
The western side of the land Desolation is never mentioned in the Book or Mormon, as it does not relate to lands occupied by the Nephites. The only references in the Book of Mormon indicate that fortified cities were close to, or at, this western boundary and that the land Desolation extended into the land northward far enough to reach the boundaries of the land where the final Jaredite battle took place, the land called Cumorah by Mormon (see Alma 22:30).
Realizing how far this land/hill Cumorah was from the land Desolation itself, I was always confused by this particular facet of Desolation. I simply could not appreciate how Desolation could extend that far into the land northward, even given the concept of “desolate” implying the absence of trees (see Helaman 3:5).
As mentioned in The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni,6 the northern part of the isthmus, as well as its extension eastward and westward, was known as Tlapalco—an ancient Nahuatl term meaning flooded, wet, or wasteland—an area that was uninhabitable.
The northern part of the isthmus, anciently known as Tlapalco, is now primarily the state of Veracruz and some of Tabasco. That area extends all the way to the mountain range that hosts the city of Jalapa. Some of this area is still so marshy that it is to some degree uninhabitable. With each passing year, more of this land is rescued from its marshy state and is turned into productive farmland by Mexico. However, it is still marginally marshland.
On one occasion, Esteban’s daughter Ixchel was traveling by bus from Puebla to Cancun and, as such, had to pass through this very swampy area, traveling on well-paved and built-up highways. It had rained for three days prior to her bus trip, and when the bus reached the city of Palenque, the bus had to stop and wait for two days, allowing the rainwater to recede from these wetlands.
People who lived in this northern part of the isthmus had moved their belongings to the dry parts of the highway, where they lived until the waters withdrew. Although this land is becoming increasingly dried out and habitable, it is still marginal for human habitation. This state of Veracruz was the northwestern part of the land Desolation, and it extended as far north as Jalapa. As with the state, the land Desolation extended to the borders of the land of Cumorah.
The last boundary of the land Desolation is the southwest border. I believe the only way that border can be determined is by discovering the city of Desolation, which was in the boundaries of the land Desolation. If the ruin site of Guingola is indeed the city of Desolation, then the southwestern border must have extended very close to this ancient ruin site.
Having the southwestern boundary at this location is defensible, as the steep mountain range that is part of the Mexico highlands begins at this location. Also, this is where the ancient “highway” began that followed the river Tehuantepec into the land northward. The southwestern segment of the land Desolation would have extended to the major mountain range in this area of the isthmus, the real entrance into the land northward.
1. See Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828).
3. See Jerry L. Ainsworth, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni (n.p.: PeaceMakers Publishing, 2000), 262.
6. See Ainsworth, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, 67.