Warfare Arenas and Their Implications for Book of Mormon Geography

Warfare Arenas and Their Implications for

Book of Mormon Geography


Copyright © 2015 by David Gray

Queensland, Australia



Warfare arenas have been defined by Haas1 as how far an ancient army could travel away from its primary centre. Hassigused the idea developed by Haas and applied it to the Aztecs. He found that the Aztecs could travel only about 60 kilometres from a primary centre, which was a journey of about three days to a battle site.

The Aztecs used one porter for two soldiers. The porter could carry enough food to last the solders for a total of eight days—three days to the battle, one day for the battle, and three days back to the primary centre.

Arlen and Diane Chase think that Hassig’s research could be applied to the Maya. They compiled a table listing all epigraphic references to warfare events from the Early Classic to the Postclassic. They found the 60 km figure to have significant implications for the size of Maya cities and the area they controlled.3

Houston4 concurs with the Chases that there was a consistent distance of about 60 kms between primary centres in the Maya lowlands. There are primary centres and border centres. The ideal distance between primary centres was about 120 km. Border centres are areas that are represented in the epigraphic record as consistently changing allegiances based on the strength of the bordering polity.

Several implications result in regards to Book of Mormon geography based on the 60-km rule. Throughout most of the history of the Book of Mormon, the two primary centres are the city of Nephi and the city of Zarahemla. One of the crucial episodes in determining just how close the two cities were to each other happens in the beginning of Helaman. When Coriantumr came down and attacked Zarahemla, Moronihah had stationed his armies in the borders of the land. He felt that the Lamanites dared not come into the centre of the land.

If Hassig’s idea is correct for the time of the Nephites, then the reason why Moronihah thought that the Lamanites wouldn’t attack Zarahemla was that they didn’t have enough supplies to conduct an attack and return home. Instead of returning home, Coriantumr had a plan to resupply with some friendlies in the land northward; thus, we can deduce that only eight days’ travel time occurred between Nephi and the land northward. In accord with the Chases’ research, the city of Zarahemla needs to be within military striking distance of the land of Nephi. The scriptures seem to indicate that Zarahemla was just beyond striking range but still close enough that it was a tempting target—possibly four days from the borders of the land of Nephi to Zarahemla.

Ammonihah is another case that seems to indicate that the 60-km rule was in play in the Book of Mormon. It was a city that was raided frequently by the Lamanites. Being a border centre, it was only nominally in the Zarahemla polity, as evidenced by the city leaders’ treatment of Alma. When the city was raided and prisoners were taken, it took the Nephites days to get there. Ammonihah, to fit with the 60-km rule, needs to have been no more than four days from the city of Nephi.

The 60-km rule is also helpful in determining the possible location of the land of Mormon, which is described as being in the borders of the land. In Mesoamerica, border regions were continually shifting alliances to align with whatever primary centre would best serve their interests—for example, Yaxchilan and Naranjo supported Tikal or Calakmul based on which one was more powerful at the time. Mormon would need to be about 60 kms east of Nephi based on the following scripture:

And among the Lamanites who were slain were almost all the seed of Amulon and his brethren, who were the priests of Noah, and they were slain by the hands of the Nephites; And the remainder, having fled into the east wilderness, and having usurped the power and authority over the Lamanites, caused that many of the Lamanites should perish by fire because of their belief— (Alma 25:4–5)

The 60-km rule also helps us to understand the Gadianton wars in the beginning of 3 Nephi. The Nephites had retreated to a place of refuge. They had stockpiled supplies of food. Because of the depiction of the Gadiantons scrounging for food, they were farther away from their base in the mountains than they could be supplied. They took up farming to try and get food, but the Nephites picked them off when they did so.

That they needed to rely on scavenging indicates that their mountain base was more than 60 kms from the Nephite place of refuge. I propose that it was 100 kms or five days. If the mountain base had been nearby, they might have been able to risk going without supplies for a day to get back. At a greater distance, the risk of going back is too great, so it’s better for them to scavenge and then try farming than to go back.

There are many other examples in the Book of Mormon where events that happen make more sense in light of the 60-km rule. The final two events I will discuss are the destruction when Christ appeared and the extinction of the Nephites at Cumorah.

Christ’s appearance to the Nephites is the seminal event in the Book of Mormon. There were three hours of destruction and three days of darkness. The three days equate to the 60-km rule. It’s not as clear-cut here as in other examples, as the record of events could have been written a long time after the event, thus giving Nephi the opportunity to gather information from wider afield than just the three days. The three-day rule does tie in if the ruler sent out messengers immediately to determine how far out the darkness went. As mentioned earlier, three days to the polity boundary and then three days back verify the 60-km rule, as that would be all the food the messenger could carry.

Finally, the story of the extinction of the Nephites at Cumorah allows the 60-km rule to be relevant in many of its details. In AD 379, Mormon saw that they would be overrun by the Lamanites and the Gadiantons. He entered into an agreement with the king of the Lamanites that allowed Mormon to gather the Nephites at Cumorah.

The last city the Nephites held before fleeing to Cumorah was Jordan. The trip to Cumorah from Jordan was to be a one-way trip, so it could have been as much as seven days (140 kms) from Jordan, according to the 60-km rule.

Archaeologists have found that the general amount of land needed to support a family in a lowland setting is three hectares. The optimal size for the family in this setting is four to six children and two adults. I use the higher figure of six children, assuming that the Nephites were having lots of children because their survival was threatened. Although I am of the belief that the numbers Mormon gives us are a total population count, others theorize that it is just a count of the warriors. The total is 240,000 people dead. The 60-km rule supports either possibility, as shown below:

 240, 000 men, women, and children

= 240, 000 people.

240, 000 soldiers, each in a family of 8

= 1, 920, 000 people.

= 30,000 families of 8

= 240, 000 families

Each needing 3 ha. for self-support

= 90, 000 ha. (900 km2) of usable land

Each needing 3 ha. for self-support

= 720, 000 ha. (7, 200 km2) of usable land

900 km2 fits within a circle of radius 20 km.

7, 200 km2 fits within a circle of radius 50 km.

As mentioned, that was just the land needed for supplies. If the people hadn’t crowded together and/or if there were natural features that eliminated some land from production for defensive purposes, then it seems reasonable that the maximum size of the land could fit easily within the 60-km rule.

The Lamanites who exterminated the Nephites would also need supplies to support themselves. Based on the 60-km rule, their main cities needed to have been within four days of the land of Cumorah if they were to have adequate supplies and be able to return home without starving. They came, set up camp, attacked the next day, returned to their camps, and then left.

In general throughout Nephite history, the Lamanites outnumbered the Nephites by around two to one. Using this as a ballpark figure, I estimate that there could have been 500,000 Lamanites at the battle. All needed to be individually supplied from whatever base they came from. Although only supposition, my conclusion is that it is likely the Lamanite attackers were made up only of warriors.

All this has a bearing on where the lands and cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon can be placed in relation to each other. It’s no use saying this city attacked that city if logistically it would be impractical or impossible for the attackers to do so given the constraint placed upon the attack in a Mesoamerican setting.



1. See Jonathan Haas, “Warfare and the Evolution of Tribal Conflict in the Prehistoric Southwest,” Jonathan Haas, ed., Anthropology of War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2. See Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

3. See Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, “Late Classic Maya Political Structure, Polity Size and Warfare Arenas,” University of Central Florida Press, http://www.caracol.org/include/files/chase/ACDC1998.pdf (accessed August 11, 2015).

4. See Stephen D. Houston, Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas, Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).


Gray, David