The Environment of the Lehites in the New World Land of Promise

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The Environment of the Lehites in the New World Land of Promise

Copyright © 2015 by Warren Bennett 

Have you wondered what kind of environment the families of Lehi and Ishmael encountered when they first arrived in the land of promise? In this article, I will try to imagine the kind of environment they might have found in the New World based on the descriptions that Nephi and others wrote.

The Lehites traveled eight years across a wilderness after leaving Jerusalem and finally found a lush, fruitful place in the Old World they called Bountiful, which gave them a place in which to build their ship. They did not have to struggle for food while having to construct a seagoing ship. Would it be any different when they arrived on the coast of a new land after a long sea journey? Wouldn’t God also provide a bountiful place for them to live while they began the task of rebuilding their lives on the New World continent? The Book of Mormon contains scriptures that shed some light on their experiences in the New World if we look at them carefully in light of recent archaeological discoveries.

Nephi tells us the following about the New World land of promise:

And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forest of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass, and the horse, and the goat, and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, whichever were for the use of man. (1 Nephi 5:216 RLDS; 1 Nephi 18:25 LDS)

All these animals undoubtedly flourished for good reasons, and one reason must have been related to the cultivation methods that had been in use in their tropical Mesoamerican climate for a very long time. Left alone, a tropical climate is soon overgrown with trees and vines, making travel and farming very difficult. Any Maya ruin in Central America that is discovered by modern archaeologists or explorers is always covered with thick forests and jungle. Unfortunately, Nephi does not give us a complete description of the land.

Nephi called the New World the “promised land” for a good reason. He was not given to exaggeration. It was very likely filled with useful animals and with open forests and fields suitable for planting seeds. Archaeologist Dr. Anabel Ford has revealed that such an environment has been in use by the Maya for centuries. She has spent many years of fieldwork at a place called El Pilar in Belize on the border with Guatemala.

Dr. Ford is recognized for her discovery of the ancient Maya city center of El Pilar, on the border between Belize and Guatemala, which she has transformed into a living museum and laboratory. A recent article that briefly explains Dr. Ford’s work throws more light on this ancient environment:

The Maya practised sustainable agriculture that supported dense populations well beyond the Classic period.


For years, archaeologist Anabel Ford has been arguing the case that the ancient Maya knew well how to manage their tropical forest environment to their advantage, eventually sustaining large populations even beyond the time when many archaeologists suggest the Maya declined and abandoned their iconic Classic period pyramidal and temple constructions and monumental inscriptions during the 8th and 9th centuries CE. She challenges the popular theories long held by many scholars that the Maya declined because of overpopulation and deforestation from increased agricultural production, perhaps aggravated by draught and climate change.

“In the past there was no extensive deforestation,” states Ford.

At the base of her reasoning stands years of research related to the ancient practice of the Maya in cultivating “forest gardens,” a method of sustainable agro-forestry that employs an agricultural methodology called the Milpa Cycle—the creation of a poly-cultivated, tree-dominated, biodiverse landscape by dispersed smallholder farmers, employing natural cycles and maximizing the utility of the native flora and fauna. Having its roots even before the rise of the Preclassic Maya, it worked by sequencing an area from a closed canopy forest to an open field. When cleared, it was dominated by annual crops that transformed into a managed orchard garden, and then back to a closed canopy forest in a continuous circuit. “Contrary to European agricultural systems developed around the same period, these fields were never abandoned, even when they were forested,” says Ford. “Thus, it was a rotation of annuals with succeeding stages of forest perennials during which all phases received careful human management.” . . .

“Ecological, agricultural, and botanical research on the Maya forest demonstrates that it is in fact a variegated garden dominated by plants of economic value, and thus highly dependent on human interaction,” says Ford. Thus, “the co-creation of the Maya and their forest environment was based on a strategy of resource management that resulted in a landscape called the Maya “forest garden.1

El Pilar has become an innovative archaeological site practicing “archaeology under the canopy”—using the landscape as a tool of conservation. Monuments are covered with sweet moss and draped with tall Ramon trees, making El Pilar a striking and unique Maya experience. El Pilar is a new model of how the ancient Maya once lived for centuries.2

Dr. Ford has a grant from the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust. She works side by side with scientists, expert Maya farmers, and government managers who have oversight of archaeological discoveries and uses. Their works substantiate what Nephi wrote about in finding a blessed land when he and his group arrived after their long ocean journey.

According to Dr. Ford, these were carefully developed landscapes of forests and fields that have been in use for millennia. Her work reveals a different picture of the ancient peoples and their environment than is usually thought. Dr. Ford uses a team of scientists from several disciplines to expand on her own studies of the Maya, which she has been involved in for over twenty years. She doesn’t believe that the classic idea of the Maya collapse of their civilization was caused by


overpopulation and deforestation as most archaeologists today believe. Dr. Ford states that the Maya maintained a deep understanding of their environment. “The Maya’s acquired understanding of their surrounding terrain allowed them to develop a symbiotic forest system rich in biodiversity and productivity.”3

If these forests have been cultivated for millennia as Dr. Ford proposes and if they were there when the Lehites arrived, then Nephi’s description of what they found makes sense. It wasn’t a land covered with forests and jungle; rather, the Lehites found a centuries-long cultivated landscape of both fields and forests supporting a diverse selection of animals, plants, and trees.

A view of an open forest in Copal, Belize, that would have been cultivated into a garden by the ancient Maya—or possibly by Lehi and his descendants. Photo by MacDuff Everton.4


A Maya forest garden after it has been planted and cultivated.5


According to the study by Dr. Ford, today’s Maya farmers, following long-held traditions, would cut down most, but not all, the trees on a piece of land. This practice permitted them to plant vegetable crops among the trees, such as beans and other grains, for about two years. Then, they let the land lie fallow for about eight years to renew itself. They did this because beneath the topsoil is a layer of limestone that limits long-term tilling and planting. Nutrients in the soil would soon be depleted if crops were grown longer than a couple of years because of the thin layer of topsoil.

The Maya modified the landscape to meet their food needs called the Milpa Method, a tree- dominated, biodiverse landscape. Dr. Ford and her team found the land could be cultivated and renewed for generations without depleting the topsoil and could easily support a very large population. The trees were not all cut down, but a canopy of evenly spaced trees was allowed to grow, especially around population centers and monuments, providing much-needed shade from the tropical sun. This is not the forest we usually imagine when we hear the word “forest.” It was a place where crops could easily be grown among the trees as well as in open fields in the short term. According to Dr. Anabel’s team, it was like walking continually through a lovely garden, under the shade of tall trees, especially desirable in congested city centers. Visitors to Maya ruins today typically find that all the surrounding trees have been cut down for tourists to see the monuments. However, that is not how the sites would have appeared in ancient times. There would have been plenty of shade from trees that were allowed to grow in and around the palaces and towers to provide relief from the abundance of sunshine.6

Nephi seems to rejoice at their success:

And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds, yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance.” (1 Nephi 5:214–215 RLDS; 1 Nephi 18:24 LDS)

Nephi’s account contains no mention of their having to clear the land. They simply began tilling the earth and planting their seeds, which flourished in the sunny, tropical climate of Mesoamerica.

And the Lord was with us; and we did prosper exceedingly: for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance. (2 Nephi 4:15 RLDS; 2 Nephi 5:11 LDS)

And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land. (Mosiah 6:12 RLDS; Mosiah 9:9 LDS)

Nowhere does Nephi mention the difficult task of having to clear the land of trees or jungle before tilling.

According to Dr. Ford, the Maya plant small crops close to their cities and villages for easy access and because such crops need constant care. They plant fruit-bearing trees much farther


away because trees don’t need the daily care that vegetable and grain crops do. She has a wonderful website with photos and graphics describing how the ancient Maya cared for their land for hundreds of years.7

Another reference in Mosiah seems to support the idea that there were both open forests and fields in the land: “And now Limhi discovered them from his tower; even all their preparations for war did he discover; therefore he gathered his people together, and laid wait for them in the fields, and in the forests” (Mosiah 9:115 RLDS; Mosiah 20:8 LDS).

Thus, King Limhi mentions that his people were able to see enemy activity from his tower. The tower must have been located in proximity to their city so that such events as preparation for war could easily be seen. An open forest would make such a view possible for his people to see the movements of those preparing for warfare against King Limhi and his people.

Another story reveals how the people prospered very well and grew in large numbers:

Now, it was the cunning and the craftiness of King Laman, to bring my people into bondage, that he yielded up the land, that we might possess it.

Therefore, it came to pass that after we had dwelt in the land for the space of twelve years, that King Laman began to grow uneasy, lest by any means my people should wax strong in the land, and that they could not overpower them and bring them into bondage.

Now, they were a lazy, and an idolatrous people; therefore, they were desirous to bring us into bondage, that they might glut themselves with the labors of our hands; yea, that they might feast themselves upon the flocks of our fields. (Mosiah 6:13–15 RLDS; Mosiah 90:10–12 LDS)

No cutting down trees, tilling, and daily hoeing for the Lamanites!

King Zeniff and his people made an agreement with the king of the Lamanites to live on the land of their ancestors. Zeniff’s people prospered for twelve years and began to grow so numerous that the Lamanite king feared they might become too large a population for him to control. This shows us how very productive the land could be using good cultivation methods. It could easily support a growing population. After fifteen years, a war with the Lamanites ensued in which Zeniff’s army overwhelmingly defeated the Lamanites. After the victory, they continued to prosper on the land for another twenty-two years. The king reported killing 3,043 Lamanites in battle, while losing very few of their own. The people of Zeniff must have grown to a large, healthy population in those fifteen years to defeat so many Lamanites in battle. Ancient Maya methods of farming under study at El Pilar support the idea that the land of the ancient Maya could easily sustain a growing, large population.

The El Pilar archaeological site under the care of Dr. Ford and her team “is a model of synergy between nature and culture and is where Ford’s focus on cultural ecology—the multifaceted relationships of humans and their environment—is being applied.”8 Their team is reproducing an


environment once enjoyed by ancient peoples. It is not a new, modern, ecological method of planting and harvesting in today’s society.

I believe that Dr. Ford has given us a unique new model of the environment in Central America that could easily apply to Lehi’s people and their descendants and that has been ongoing for centuries and was very likely in place when Lehi’s group landed. This explanation could account for the ease in which the Lehites traveled to escape from Laman and Lemuel and quickly began to raise flocks: “And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind” (2 Nephi 4:16 RLDS; 2 Nephi 5:11 LDS).

Flocks need pasture and open fields to graze. Was such a landscape already in place? The Lehites settled the land and very likely began to successfully grow a variety of food because the land had been under some form of cultivation and care by experienced native farmers for a long time.


2. “Anabel Ford,” (accessed August 25, 2015). 3. “The Maya,” (accessed August 25, 2015).

4. Anabel Ford, “Legacy of the Ancient Maya: The Maya Forest Garden,” Popular Archaeology, January 2011, (accessed August 25, 2015).

5. See “The Forest as a Garden,” (accessed August 25, 2015).

6. See “Classic Ancient Maya ‘Collapse” Not Caused by Overpopulation and Deforestation, Say Researchers, Popular Archaeology, Summer 2015, maya-collapse-not-caused-by-overpopulation-and-deforestation-say-researchers (accessed August 25, 2015).

7. See the links at
8. “Anabel Ford,” (accessed August 25, 2015).


1. “Classic Ancient Maya ‘Collapse’ Not Caused by Overpopulation and Deforestation, Say Researchers,” overpopulation-and-deforestation-say-researchers/ (accessed August 25, 2015).


Bennett, Warren