Book of Mormon Geography
Does It Really Matter Where the Book of Mormon Story Took Place?
Until the last few decades, the topic of the geography of the Book of Mormon story has not been much considered or discussed in any valid scientific or scholarly way. Among a minority of church members, there has been some informal interest. Several, for example, have toured "Book of Mormon lands" in Central and South American and wondered about and marveled over Inca, Mayan, or Aztec ruins. Most of us have looked through picture books on these areas and have seen "temples" and "baptismal fonts" and other relics from that ancient setting. Others, however, have been skeptical and even contrary. These have advocated an approach something like: "The Book of Mormon is not a history book, and it doesn't really matter where it occurred. The importance of the book is in its events and stories with their messages and teachings, not in its historicity and geography. In fact, worrying about where its events occurred may even detract from the book's spiritual massage. It is best not even to wonder about location-but rather place it in your mind's eye in a hypothetical setting of your own choosing, and give all of your attention to its message."
Certainly one need not know much about the book's geography in order to receive a spiritual witness of its eternal truths. In this article, however, I will defend the premise that learning as much as we can about the book's geography ultimately strengthens our understanding and even our testimony of the book.
Doctor John L. Sorenson has proffered two reasons or advantages for seeking to learn about the book's geographical setting:
First, the Latter-day Saints themselves could grasp the message of the scriptures with greater power because the events and the people would become more believable. The lives and words of its outstanding characters would have a more vivid impact on our consciousness if these individuals could be brought out of nowhere land and portrayed as flesh and blood like us. Second, the significance of the volume could be communicated more forcefully to others, who at present hold the Book of Mormon at arm's length, judging that it lacks reality and substance" (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, xvii).
As we learn about the book's lands and its peoples, the book comes more squarely into our understanding and frame of reference. We come to see its characters, for example, as more than just hypothetical story-book characters. We are better able to empathize with their trials and shortcomings, and we exult with them in their victories. Being able to place the Book of Mormon events in a real-world setting and environment might then lead to an increased understanding of the sacred text.
Perhaps the best "archaeological" evidence or proof today that the Book of Mormon is true is the way in which the Book of Mormon story fits the proposed site in Mesoamerica. The geographical, historical, and cultural evidences which have come and are still coming out of Mesoamerica make an ever-improving case for Mesoamerica as the site of the Book of Mormon events (Sorenson, John L., Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life. Provo, Utah: FARMS Research Press, 1998; also, Sorenson, John L., An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1985). It is well, however, to keep in mind that one cannot gauge the heavens by earthly standards-no amount of earthly verification can really prove that the Book of Mormon is a true book. The most convincing proof that exists of the truth of the Book of Mormon is the book itself. The honest inquirer can prove for himself the truth of book, though that proof will not come through physical evidences, but through spiritual confirmation.
Did the Book of Mormon's Stage Consist of the Entire Western Hemisphere?
Let us first acknowledge that the Book of Mormon story did take place somewhere. We who believe in the literal authenticity of the book as an ancient record must acknowledge that there were indeed real places where Nephi's and Alma's walked and lived.
Before considering any other issue, it seems fundamental to first establish the size of the land where all of the Book of Mormon events occurred. If, for example, it occupied all of the two American continents, we should certainly know that. If, however, it took place in a more restricted territory, then that fact would seem important to know.
What concept did Joseph Smith and the early saints hold of the extent of Book of Mormon lands?
We face a lack of detail in our historical sources as to what the earliest Latter-day Saints thought about Book of Mormon geography. Even so, there is little question that generally an obvious intuitive interpretation was held by most readers. The "land southward" they considered to be South America, the Isthmus of Panama was "the narrow neck," and North America was thought to be the "land northward." However, there is no evidence that in the early years any detailed thought was given to geography. Actually, the Book of Mormon was little referred to or used among church members in the first decades except as a confirming witness of the Bible. The writings or preachings of some of the best-informed church leaders of that day show that they did not read the text carefully on matters other than doctrine. For instance, no statement shows that anyone read the scripture closely enough to grasp the fact that the plates Mormon gave to Moroni were never buried in the hill of the final Nephite battle.
What concept did Joseph Smith have of Book of Mormon geography? There is little information available to allow us to learn what Joseph Smith had concluded on the matter. Those who were around him and close to him during his life seemed to have somewhat variable opinions. Early on it seemed that the concept that the entire Western Hemisphere comprise the setting for the Book of Mormon was generally accepted. Later, however, there were other statements of more restricted geography. In 1842 a best-selling book by explorer John Lloyd Stephens was read by Joseph Smith and associates in Nauvoo. Their reading prompted an extensive review of the book in the Nauvoo newspaper, the Times and Seasons. No author is listed, but Joseph Smith was editor in chief with John Taylor as managing editor. Stephens's was the first book in English reporting great ruins in Central America. It strongly impressed the newspaper writer (whoever he was), for on September 15 the paper reported, "We have to state about the Nephites that . . . they lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found" (Times and Seasons, 15 September 1842, 914). Stephens's new information obviously was causing the leadership in Nauvoo to think of Nephite geography in a new way. Two weeks later they continued to exult in their study of what was for them "the latest research": "We have [just] found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. . . . The city of Zarahemla . . . stood upon this land," that is, Central America or Guatemala, which "once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south" ("Zarahemla," Times and Seasons, 1 October 1842, 927). Since Zarahemla was located in the land southward, their new insight put the land southward to the north of Panama. The new thinking inferred that South America was of little or no significance for Book of Mormon geography. The further inference is that an area much smaller than the entire hemisphere could satisfactorily serve as the scene of the chief events in the Nephite record.
In the long run, nevertheless, the Stephens-stimulated view of Central America as the Book of Mormon heartland did not prevail among the saints generally. The new implications were apparently overwhelmed by the inertia of the old belief in a whole-hemisphere geography. Orson Pratt, who was separated from the Church during 1842 when the new thought on this topic was stirring, seems to have continued to believe in the original geographical theory (see, for example, JD, 12:340-42; 14:324-30, 333). His views along those lines are reflected in the geographical footnotes that he added to the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. His opinions led several generations of readers of the scripture to assume with him that only the Nephites and Lamanites of Mormon's account occupied the Americas, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, at least during Book of Mormon times. By the beginning of the 20th century, likely not more than a handful of readers of Mormon's book questioned the interpretation that Lehi landed in Chile, that Panama was the narrow neck, and that the final battle of the Nephites took place in New York.
Anecdotal evidence (there are no systematic data) suggests that even now, after church members have been reading the Book of Mormon for a century and three-quarters, a large number of readers continue to assume the whole-hemisphere view of Book of Mormon geography. Moreover, some unbelievers insist in their anti-Book of Mormon propaganda that this view was and is completely orthodox (which makes their criticisms more damaging). But the proportion of saints who still accept that antiquated geography is irrelevant in light of the decisive information in the Book of Mormon. The text itself gives an unmistakable picture of a very restricted territory. And as President Joseph Fielding Smith said, "My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them" (Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3:203-04).
Clues From the Book of Mormon Text Regarding the Nature of the Book of Mormon Lands
The most logical place to look for information regarding Book of Mormon geography is the Book of Mormon text itself. Literally hundreds of passages in the Book of Mormon either tell us directly about or imply spatial relationships and other geographical parameters that characterized the book's setting. Let us consider several facts that are taken from the text of the Book of Mormon that apply to the Book of Mormon lands. Since it is obvious that we are proposing a specific site, it might be interesting for you to follow along on the map to see if this site fits satisfactorily.
As the primary author and editor of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Mormon evidently had his own mental map of the land which made it possible for the total body of geographical information that he employed to be remarkably consistent. This is not surprising, because from his own account we know that he had personally traveled over a great deal of Nephite territory (see Mormon 1:6; Mormon 1:10-6:6).
1. When mapped, the outline of lands familiar to the Book of Mormon peoples appears to have been more or less in the shape of an hourglass but with the nature of the northward and southward extremities being left unclear.
2. The Book of Mormon lands generally were divided into two divisions. There was a "land northward" and a "land southward," and they were divided by a "narrow neck of land."
The Nephites thought of their land as "nearly surrounded by water" and, at least in their early days, as an "isle of the sea" (Alma 22:32; 2 Nephi 10:20). Isle anciently did not necessarily mean an area entirely isolated by water, but rather that the area so labeled could be reached via boat.
The land southward had two main divisions: the "land of Nephi" in the far south and the "land of Zarahemla" to its north. The land of Zarahemla stretched north until it nearly reached the narrow neck of land. The southerly portion of the narrow neck itself was termed the "land Bountiful." Immediately to the north at the narrow neck was "Desolation" or the "land of Desolation" (Mormon 4:2). North of the land of Desolation was the Jaredite's first major settlement, the land of Moron (Ether 7:6). North from Desolation along the eastern coast lay a wet land (Alma 50:29; Ether 15:8-11). Each major land had its own capital city. The city of Nephi (or Lehi-Nephi) was the capital in the land of Nephi, and the city of Zarahemla was the capital of the land of Zarahamla. The land Desolation was the last great battle field of both the Jaredite and the Nephite nations and was strewn with bones and rusting weapons.
3. What the Nephites considered their "east sea" in all likelihood was the Gulf of Mexico.
4. The Nephites' "west sea" was part of the Pacific Ocean. Lehi's party landed on the west sea coast at the extreme south of the territory they knew as "the promised land."
5. The southern portion of the land southward, called the land of Nephi, was mostly elevated and mountainous (it included the headwaters of the principal river, the river Sidon). The territory closer to the isthmus, called the land of Zarahemla, lay at an intermediate elevation. The city of Zarahemla was at an intermediate elevation, "up" from the coast (the eastern lowland coast, Alma 22:31) but "down" from the land of Nephi (Alma 22:31; Helaman 2:17).
6. From the south highlands (the land of Nephi), the river Sidon, the only river identified in the record, flowed northward through a drainage basin that constituted much of the land of Zarahemla. The river Sidon flowed down from the mountains that separated the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla. Its headwaters were located near the city of Manti, a Nephite city located in or near the wilderness in the mountains south of Zarahemla (Alma 16:6). The river then flowed northward and ran "by" the city of Zarahemla which mainly lay on the streams west (Alma 22:27-33; Alma 2:15). The only populated part of the Nephite lands on the east side of the river was the valley of Gideon (Alma 6:7). Since the travelers had to go "up" to Gideon, and since there was a "hill Amnihu" just across the river from the city of Zarahemla with a slope gentle enough to accommodate a large battle, the Sidon basin must have slanted up more sharply on the east side than on the west. The city of Sidom was still farther north and probably on the river (Alma 15:14). The river Sidon could be crossed on foot with a little difficulty at one point and presumably during the drier part of the year (Alma 2:27; Alma 2:33-35; Alma 2:43:40).
7. The west sea coastal zone of the land southward was considered a "narrow strip,"-a coastal strip-apparently with such a small population that it played no significant historical role in Book of Mormon history, but the flatlands adjacent to the east sea coast of the land southward were more extensive.
The lowland west coastal strip ran all the way from the "place of the fathers' first inheritance" to the isthmus or "narrow neck" (Alma 22:27-29). The west wilderness consisted of this coastal strip plus a range of uninhabited mountains paralleling the coastal strip. Groups had to cross "over" the wilderness or mountains either by one pass-near Antiparah on the south- (Alma 55:31-40) or another on the north (Alma 25:2).
8. Just how large was the land of the Book of Mormon story? It seems possible to go to the text of the Book of Mormon and draw some useful information on this point. For example, when the sons of Mosiah departed on their mission from Zarahemla they traveled to the land of Nephi. They "knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi." Consequently, the trip took them forty days (Mosiah 7:4). Another, perhaps more useful, example was that of Alma the convert priest from the court of King Noah. He was converted by the preaching of the prophet Abinadi and departed the city of Nephi to travel to a place called Mormon. This distance was probably not more than about two days travel (Mosiah 18:4-7; Mosiah 18:30- 34; Mosiah 23:1). Here in Mormon, Alma baptized in the "waters of Mormon" which were near the forest of Mormon. When finally forced out of this area they traveled first to the land Helam which was a trip of about eight days. After living in Helam for a time they were again forced out of this area and traveled back to Zarahemla, the trip taking some thirteen days (Mosiah 18:1-7; Mosiah 23:1-3; Mosiah 24:20; Mosiah 24:25). Thus the total time for the group to travel from the city of Nephi to the city of Zarahemla was twenty-two or twenty-three days. It seems reasonable to assume that they averaged, as they traveled, not more than ten or eleven miles per day since they traveled with women, children, and "flocks." Therefore, one might assume that the distance between the city of Nephi and the city of Zarahemla is somewhere near two hundred and fifty miles by land or perhaps as little as one hundred and eighty miles "as the crow flies." By using some similar reasoning and by taking some license, one might estimate that the distance between the city of Zarahemla and the narrow neck of land is another one hundred and eighty miles. Thus the total length of the land southward, where most of the Book of Mormon took place, is more or less three hundred and sixty miles.
One interesting story that gives us considerable information regarding the dimensions of the lands of the Book of Mormon story is that of an exploring party sent out at the time of King Limhi (Mosiah 8:7-8; Mosiah 21:25-28). This exploring party was given the charge of looking for the city of Zarahemla. They sought the help of those in Zarahemla in obtaining their escape from Lamanite captivity in the land of Nephi. Apparently the route of this exploring party bypassed the sought-for Zarahemla completely and took them through the "narrow neck of land" without their realizing it. Instead of arriving in Zarahemla, they came to the land Desolation, the final battle ground of the Jaredites. Here they found ruins and a set of twenty-four gold plates left by the last Jaredite prophet, Ether (Ether 15:33, Mosiah 21:25-27). Sorrowfully, the explorers returned to their home in the land of Nephi to report to King Limhi, mistakenly, that the remains that they found must have been those of Zarahemla destroyed.
Also using some deduction and inference, we might estimate that the hill called "Ramah" (in Jaredite times) or "Cumorah" (in Nephite times) is about one hundred miles north of the narrow neck of land. It is probably another one hundred miles from the hill Cumorah to the Jaredite land of Moron. The narrow neck of land itself is estimated to be between 75 and 125 miles across.
The city of Zarahemla is said in the Book of Mormon text to be in the "heart" or "center" of the land of Zarahemla (Alma 60:1; Alma 60:19; Alma 60:22; Helaman 1:17- 18, 22-32). Yet there is other evidence to suggest that Zarahemla is not far from the southern border of the Nephite land of Zarahemla. It seems likely that it is at least somewhat south of the land's geographic center. North of the city of Zarahemla, between Zarahemla and the land Bountiful, lay "the most capital parts of land" (Helaman 1:27).
9. Topographically the land northward consisted of lowlands (and drainage) toward the east sea, while westward the land was more elevated. An upland western portion is distinguished from a lowland eastern portion (Ether 9:3; Ether 10:32; Ether 11:15; Ether 14:3; Ether 14:6-7; Ether 14:11-12; Ether 14:16-17).
The land of Moron, the Jaredite center in the highlands, was settled by the Jaredites soon after they landed (Ether 6:13; Ether 7:5; Ether 7:16-17; Ether 7:20). It was not very distant from the sea. The land northward is unlikely to have been over two-hundred miles wide.
The Jaredites consistently wrote of their older lands being "up" in relation to the east sea zone, and the political record makes it clear that the two areas-presumably the lowland east and the highland west-were long time rivals (Ether 7:4-6; Ether 7:15-21; Ether 8:2-3; Ether 11:5; Ether 11:18; Ether 13:27-30; Ether 14:3-7; Ether 14:11-16; Ether 14:26).
Near the east sea a relatively small area of hills was located no great distance northward from the narrow pass. The final battleground of the Jaredites (at "the hill Ramah") and of the Nephites (at the same hill, called by them "the hill Cumorah") was in this area.
10. A continuous strip of wilderness separated Nephite Zarahemla from Lamanite territory, the land of Nephi. This strip of wilderness stretched from the sea east to the sea west. On the Lamanite side of this border zone, considerable wilderness space seems to have separated the city of Nephi from this transition strip. A good deal of searching for lost lands, marchings, counter marching of foes, and wilderness travel went on in this extensive space (Mosiah 19:9-11; Mosiah 19:18; Mosiah 19:23; Mosiah 19:28; Mosiah 23:1-4; Mosiah 23:25-31; Mosiah 23:35; Alma 17:8-9; Alma 17:13; Alma 17:23:14, in light of verses 9-11; 24:1).
11. There is a single mention of a land northward beyond the land of Zarahemla. This is an unnamed "land which was between the land of Zarahemla and the land Bountiful" (3 Nephi 3:23).
12. The land of Bountiful itself seems to be quite narrow since Alma 22:31-33 describes it mostly as a zone that ran across the narrow neck of land.
13. The landing site of Lehi and his family or the "place of the fathers' first inheritance" (Alma 22:28) also went by the name of the "land of Ishmael" and was coastal. The city of Nephi, the capital of the land of Nephi, was located in upland territory (2 Nephi 5:7-8, Alma 22:28).
14. A "line" (Alma 22:32), logically a river, separated the land Bountiful from Desolation.
15. The dimensions of the land northward are unclear, but the implication is that the size of that area was of the same order of magnitude as the land southward.
The final Jaredite wars all took place in a land northward within a territory small enough that the prophet Ether could observe most of the action while moving only short distances from his cave base.
16. An interesting story in 3 Nephi chapter 3 tells how the Nephites and righteous Lamanites, threatened by Gadianton robbers, gathered to a common stronghold with a seven-year supply of food to starve the parasitic robbers out of the land. The size of this gathered populous was "thousands and . . . tens of thousands" all assembling from settlements of which Helaman's record a few years earlier said, "they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east" (Helaman 3:8). Yet all of these people are said to have come together to a single area small enough to be besieged (3 Nephi 4:16-18).
17. The Nephite commander Moroni set up a string of garrison cities on the east coast of the land southward against an anticipated Lamanite assault aimed at the land Bountiful and the strategic neck zone. Bountiful was the city farthest north and thus strategically located. From there it was possible to protect the narrow pass which led through the narrow neck of land (see below).
The distance from Bountiful, on the north end of the Nephite-held east coast, to Moroni on the southern extreme cannot be plausibly more than eighty-five miles if one takes into account the stories of the marches and the defenses that were set up at the time of Moroni. Those cities which ranged from west to east across the land of Zarahemla north of the city of Zarahemla were Ammonihah, Aaron, Nephihah, and Moroni. The distance from the west to the east coasts probably did not exceed two-hundred miles.
18. The city of Nephi was evidently located not very far from the coast (2 Nephi 5:6-8; 2 Nephi 5:14; 2 Nephi 5:34).
19. Descriptions of the battles that took place on the east refer to "seashore" and "plains," but never to any hills of consequence, except in a place called Antionum, which was probably some distance inland (Alma 32:4; Alma 51:25-26; Alma 51:32; Alma 52:20; Alma 52:62:18). No mention is made of where the river Sidon emptied into the sea, even though such a river must have had a considerable mouth. Considering the shortness of the Nephite-held sections of the coast, the river likely reached the sea at or beyond the limit of Nephite possessions (to the south), where they would have had no reason to mention it.
20. Melek was adjacent to the west wilderness and was thus at the margin of cultivable land in the basin (Alma 8:3-5). Its location was conveniently accessible from the city of Zarahemla (Alma 8:3, compare Alma 35:13-14; Alma 45:18), but was sheltered from the coast by the band of mountain wilderness on the west. For this reason the Ammonites were place in Melek to protect them from Lamanite reprisals (Alma 35:13). Melek was never attacked by Lamanites, who at least twice slipped passed along the coast to attack Ammonihah farther north. Ammonihah was located just inland from the northern pass through the mountains which ran parallel to the west coast (Alma 25:1-2; Alma 49:1-25).
21. The city Bountiful was near sea level (Alma 51:32) and near the east coast of the isthmus or narrow neck.
22. Hagoth chose the place of the west coast "on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land of Desolation" to build and launch his ships (Alma 63:5-6). This language suggests that the land Bountiful did not extend all the way to the west sea at the isthmus. The land Bountiful, however, must have been relatively low lying most of the way across as implied in Alma 22:29-33.
23. Regarding the hill Ramah/Cumorah, it was high enough and large enough that the handful of Nephite survivors who climbed it hid successfully from their massed enemies who were at his base (Mormon 6:6; Mormon 6:11). The Jaredite hill Comnor and two valleys were near by (Ether 14:26-28), and the hill Shim may have been located in the same region (Ether 9:3; Mormon 4:23). Thus, the final battles were fought in or adjacent to a hilly sector, which was in a larger perspective "in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains" (Mormon 6:4). This wet area must have been the same general area as referred to by Morianton as lands "covered with large bodies of water" that he coveted.
24. Other requirements of the lands of the Book of Mormon include the following. They must be capable of growing "wheat," "barley," and "corn." There could be no snow. The climate throughout the entire territory was relatively warm, at least as far as the text indicates. While we read of extreme heat, there is no hint of cold weather or snow. Endemic fevers existed there (Alma 46:40). Enervating moist heat for at least the east sea borders was prevalent (Alma 51:33; Alma 52:31; Alma 62:35). Droughts were unusual but could be serious. The ancient inhabitants must be a literate people with a long tradition of keeping extensive records and have a population in the millions, including cities of substantial size by at least the fourth century AD.
25. The groups occupying most of this territory at times reached a civilized level of development and at one point constituted a population of more than two million. At their greatest the inhabitants occupied numerous cities with extensive public buildings, kept many written records, fought in large-scale wars, and carried on extensive trade. In short, they were in a civilized condition.
Which Specific Modern-day Site Fits These Numerous Criteria?
That the inhabitants of Book of Mormon lands knew and used formal writing systems and compiled numerous books (see Helaman 3:15) restricts the possible real-world location to Mesoamerica (central and southern Mexico and northern Central America). In Mesoamerica there were thousands of books in use at the time of the Spanish conquest, but nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere is there convincing evidence for genuine writing being used on a consistent basis. In addition to writing, other social and cultural conditions required by the scriptural text to be present in the Nephite homeland area confirm Mesoamerica as the only plausible location of Book of Mormon lands.
In addition to the cultural criteria, only in that area can all of the geographical requirements be met. For example, only in Mesoamerica are there lands of appropriate scale (that is, several hundreds, but not thousands, of miles in extent) that can appropriately be said to be "nearly surrounded by water" (Alma 22:32), as well as an isthmus bounded by Pacific and Atlantic waters.
Ingenious and impassioned arguments have been mustered in support of other theorized areas (from the Great Lakes to Peru or encompassing the entire hemisphere) as the scene for Nephite history. But every proposed geographical setting other than Mesoamerica fails to meet the criteria established by the text of Mormon's account. So while it is theoretically possible that another area of the New World could meet the criteria to be the historical Nephite and Lamanite lands, it has proved impossible to identify any such territory. All proposed locations other than Mesoamerica suffer from fatal flaws.
The Specific Location of Book of Mormon Lands
Next we will turn to the specific locations in Mesoamerica that correspond to the above mentioned criteria. First, the narrow neck of land-this is most likely the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The total width from coast to coast is 120 miles on a straight line. On the Atlantic side of the isthmus, the Coatzacoalcos River forms a distinct line separating gentle elevations rising towards the north from the extensive soggy plains of the south and east. Southeast of this river, across the Mexican state of Tabasco, stretches a poorly drained lowland that is extensively flooded each year. Interestingly, the Toltecs of highland Guatemala called the eastern coastal strip of Tabasco the "border of the sea" (Alma 56:31).
The land of Zarahemla is likely the central depression of Chiapus. Through this valley runs the large river called Rio Grande de Chiapus, the Mezcalapa, or the Grijalva River, depending on who along the river is doing the naming. This central depression is dry and warm. It is protected from moist pacific air by a continuous range of mountains, the Sierra Madre.
The narrow strip of wilderness between the land of Nephi and Guatemala is formed by the mountainous band wilderness separating highland Guatemala from Central Chiapus.
Just exactly what is the narrow passage referred to in Alma 50:34 and Alma 52:9 and Mormon 2:29 and Mormon 3:5? It is apparent from these verses of scripture, that the pass is not the same as the narrow neck of land itself. Rather it is some kind of specific feature of and within the neck itself. It is clear that parties passed near the city of Bountiful to gain access to this pass from the eastern seashore area. Alma 50 tells how Teancum intercepted Morianton's fleeing group just as they both arrived at a very specific point, "the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east." A solution to this question is found by looking carefully at the geographic details of the isthmus of Tehuantepec. An irregular sandstone and gravel formation appears as a ridge averaging 150 to 200 feet above the surrounding country and averaging two miles wide. It runs west from the lower Coatzacoalcos River. It provides the only reliable year-round route from the east coast area "northward" into central Veracruz. A great deal of land on either side of this ridge is flooded periodically, as much as twelve feet in the rainy season. At times during that season the ridge pass would indeed lead "by the sea, on the west and on the east" (Alma 50:34), for the water in the flooded basins would be on both sides of the ridge and would have barred travel as effectively as the sea with which the flood waters were continuous. Even in the dry season, the lower terrain is choked with thorny brush, laced with lagoons, and rendered impractical as a customary route. This formation runs from near Minatitlan, the modern city on the Coatzacoalcos, west about twenty miles to Acayucan. The city of Bountiful should lie near the east (southward) bank of Coatzacoalcos River somewhere in the ten mile stretch from the ford on the river (at which begins the narrow pass) to the Atlantic or gulf coast (Alma 50:32; Alma 50:34; Alma 51:28-30; Alma 53:3-4; 3 Nephi 11:1; 3 Nephi 19:10-12).
Are "North" and "South" in the Book of Mormon Identical With North and South on the Compass?
Directions are obviously a problem as we deal with Central America. For example, as one proceeds from the area of Zarahemla through the narrow neck of land, one actually travels mostly to the west and northwest whereas the book might call that direction "northward." The solution is probably found in the Hebrew convention of naming directions. The Israelites of Palestine derived directions as though standing with their backs to the Mediterranean Sea, facing the desert. "Yam" ("sea") meant "seaward" or "west," for the Mediterranean lay in that direction, while "Qedem" ("fore") stood for "straight ahead" or "east." Then "Yamin" ("right hand") meant "south," while "shemol" ("left hand") denoted "north." In fact, we don't know what Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi did call their directions since the first terms for directions appear only hundreds of years after their first landing (Mosiah 7:5; Mosiah 9:14). By the same convention as used in ancient Palestine, Lehi's party may have referred to directions based on the seashore which runs northwest-southeast. Thus by that convention, their directions would be forty-five or more degrees off the absolute truth. What they would call "Qedem," intending eastward, would actually mean northeast or even almost north and so on. It is interesting that in the Mayan languages of Mesoamerica, "south" meant "on the right hand" and north "on the left," corresponding to the Hebrew convention. Also in the ancient Mayan culture, the gulf of Mexico was the "east sea" while the Pacific Ocean is the "west sea."
Isn't it Clear From our Church History that the Hill Cumorah was in Western New York?
The Book of Mormon makes clear that the demise of both Jaredites and Nephites took place near the narrow neck of land. Thus the scripture itself rules out the idea that the Nephites perished near Palmyra, New York. How did the plates get from Cumorah to upstate New York, then? Mormon reports that he buried all the records in his custody at Hill Cumorah, except for certain key golden plates (Mormon 6:6) from which Joseph Smith later translated. We now know that these are the plates of Mormon and the small plates of Nephi. These, Mormon entrusted to his son Moroni. As late as thirty-five years afterward, Moroni was still adding to those records (Moroni 10:1). Perhaps Moroni carried them to the area of upstate New York during those final lonely decades. In the mid sixteenth century, a shipwrecked English sailor, David Ingram, walked from Tampico, Mexico, through completely strange Indian territory to the St. John River at the present-day border between Maine and Canada. This remarkable journey took eleven months and would have been about the same distance as Moroni's, over essentially the same route. So, Moroni's getting the plates to New York under his own power seems at least feasible. It is also, of course, possible that the Lord simply transported them from where ever Moroni buried them to upstate New York.
Pronouncements of Church Authorities on Book of Mormon Lands
Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical authorities have never claimed that revelation has settled where the lands of the Book of Mormon are located. Even the comments described above in the Times and Seasons in 1842 were put forward as tentative. The editor of that publication wrote, "We are not agoing [sic] to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua [in Guatemala] are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of [the] opinion that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon. . . . It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those of the Book of Mormon" (Times and Seasons, 1 October 1842, 927).
Later statements have made clear that no definitive answer to issues of geography in the Book of Mormon has been pronounced or implied. George Q. Cannon, long time counselor in the First Presidency, one stated: "The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. . . . The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest [a map]" (Editorial, "The Book of Mormon Geography," Juvenile Instructor, 1 January 1890, 18). Church president Joseph F. Smith affirmed President Cannon's reticence. Regarding a proposed map of Book of Mormon sites, he "declined to officially approve of the map, saying that the Lord had not yet revealed it" (Juvenile Instructor, April 1938, 160). John A. Widtsoe, not only an apostle but a Harvard-educated former president of two universities, observed in 1950, "As far as can be learned, the prophet Joseph Smith, translator of the book, did not say where, on the American continent, Book of Mormon activities occurred. Perhaps he did not know" ("Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?" Improvement Era, July 1950, 547).
Should the Book of Mormon be Regarded as a Reliable History Book of the Peoples of This Area of Central America Between BC 600 and AD 421?
The Book of Mormon should not be regarded as a broad cultural history of a people. It is not intended as such. Rather it is a "lineage" history, a rather narrow and specialized history of a relatively small group of people recognizing descent from a common progenitor. Such records were found among some of the Mesoamerican peoples by the Spaniards when they arrived in AD 1519. These books or codices were kept and interpreted by specialist priest-scholars, and they were symbolic of the power of the rulers who publicly dispatched them and had portions of them read to their subjects periodically. They recounted the story of the origin of the peoples and conferred legitimacy and sanctity on the rulers.
The text of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that it is such a lineage history. See for example the following verses: 1 Nephi 1:3, 2 Nephi 5:26; 2 Nephi 5:33; Jacob 1:2-3; Jacob 1:9-22; Jacob 7:26-27; Jarom 1:1; Jarom 1:14-15; Omni 1:3-4; Mosiah 17:2; Mosiah 25:13; Mosiah 28:10-11; Mosiah 28:20; Alma 63:1, Helaman 3:37, 3 Nephi 1:2; 3 Nephi 1:5:20; Mormon 1:1-5; and Mormon 6:6; Mormon 6:8-13. The possession of sacred records was a source of prestige and a demonstration of authority to rule among Lehi's descendants (Omni 1:14; Omni 1:17-19; Enos 1:14; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 1:2; Mosiah 1:6; Mosiah 1:15-16 and Mosiah 10:15-16). The documents were periodically displayed and read to the people as a justification of the rulership of the lineage of Nephi (Mosiah 6:3 was apparently such a public presentation involving the records mentioned in Mosiah 1:16, compare 3 Nephi 23:8). The record of the Jaredites is similar. This is made clear by the genealogy found in Ether 1:6-32. Some of the leaders listed were kings and some others were claimants to the throne, but all of them were the lineage of Jared. Jared's descendants carried the right to rule (Ether 6:22- 25). One interesting point is that even though the brother of Jared held the prophetic office, he disapproved the idea of kingship. Not surprisingly, his descendants are mostly ignored in the record of Ether.
One important factor to keep in mind about this type of lineage history is that those who keep the record are from the powerful and wealthy level of society. Most people in those ancient societies were not literate. Thus we would expect the writers to concern themselves with major matters or priestly matters but not as much with information about common people.
It should be acknowledged that there are many ways in which we might study the Book of Mormon. We may study its geography, its archaeology, or its anthropology. It is most important, however, that we study it doctrinally and spiritually and with faith. Any type of scientific approach has an inherent and fundamental weakness. Science is constantly evolving, and any scientific conclusions today will likely be modified tomorrow. Hugh Nibley wrote:
The words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity (The World and the Prophets, volume 3 in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987], 134).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote:
It is the author's opinion that all of the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, will remain in the realm of faith. Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith. Believers must be patient during such unfolding (Plain and Precious Things [Salt Lake City: Book craft, 1988], 63).