New Approaches to the Book of Mormon
Brent Lee Metcalfe, editor

Chapter 8.
Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography
Deanne G. Matheny

Travel companies boldly offer tours of “Book of Mormon Lands,” and books abound purporting evidence for Book of Mormon peoples or for the appearance of the resurrected Jesus in the New World. Such are only the latest manifestations of the legitimate interest in, and speculation about, the location of the Book of Mormon civilizations. Like their predecessors, most of the recent volumes represent sincere but flawed attempts to weave together unrelated bits and pieces of information from the New World and the Old, usually unconnected to each other in space or time.

Most books on Book of Mormon geography can be discounted easily; however, two recent works, John L. Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (1985) and F. Richard Hauck’s Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon (1988), deserve careful attention. Both Sorenson and Hauck are anthropologists with experience in Mesoamerican archaeology. They propose limited geographical settings for the Book of Mormon in slightly different but overlapping areas of Mexico and Central America. Several volumes dealing with Book of Mormon archaeology published since those by Sorenson and Hauck either accept the Sorenson model or present a model having some features in common with the Hauck and Sorenson models. Joseph L. Allen’s Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (1989) is one example.

Sorenson notes in his work that it is not his purpose to test the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or to put it “on trial” in “some make-believe scientific dock” (1985, xvii). Neither is such the purpose [p.270] of my essay. Rather I will evaluate in a preliminary way how effectively the Hauck and Sorenson models deal with some of the geographical and archaeological challenges involved with demonstrating a plausible setting for Book of Mormon events. Although only the Sorenson and Hauck models are considered here, the general discussions about such topics as metallurgy, plants, and animals apply to other models set in the same general area.

Many of the opinions expressed in what follows were formed as a result of my own archaeological field experiences in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Campeche and in Guatemala during the past twenty years. I consider issues related to geography only briefly in this paper but examine at some length the comfort of the fit between the Sorenson and Hauck models and the archaeological evidence as it is now understood by most professionals in the field. Still the limited scope of this essay dictates that I focus only on a few significant topics and relevant examples. Many of the points I raise have been discussed by others who have explored the challenges encountered when attempting to locate Book of Mormon events in Mexico and Central America. A good example is Glenna Nielsen’s (1992) analysis of Book of Mormon material culture. I welcome an interchange of ideas with both those who agree and disagree with my opinions concerning the issues in this paper. First we will turn to a brief discussion of geography before moving on to a consideration of the archaeology.


Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Latter-day Saints have speculated about the locations of the events described therein. The broadest suggested settings would include both North and South America but limited geographical settings have been advanced as well. In a recent paper Mormon educator Kenneth W. Godfrey examined statements about geography written during Joseph Smith’s lifetime by various church leaders and others. He noted that it is clear “that the early Church leaders and saints alike believed the Book of Mormon history was broad enough and had lasted long enough to have included the peopling of both North and South America.” Godfrey’s research led him to conclude that “early saints had no concept that Book of Mormon history should be limited to a small area on the American continent” (1989, 14, 15; see also Metcalfe 1989). He further observed that early Latter-day Saints and their contemporaries did not have the same view of the peopling of the Americas as that currently held by anthropologists, a view developed during the past century and a half.

As part of his review of Sorenson’s model, Dan Vogel, a researcher [p.271] in early Mormonism, also considered the views of Joseph Smith and early Mormons about Book of Mormon geography. According to Vogel, “It is absolutely clear that Joseph Smith and the early Mormons associated the Book of Mormon with the Mound Builder myth and that they consistently held the belief that the Book of Mormon contained the history of a people who landed in South America and were destroyed in the Great Lakes region” (1985, 12).

Some argue that a limited geographical setting is acceptable based on statements of early Mormon leaders. The limited geographical models have been advanced in many cases because a close examination of the Book of Mormon suggests that time and distance figures implied between localities are too limited to encompass both North and South America. For the purposes of this paper, I will simply assume that a limited geographical setting might be accommodated considering the history of ideas within the Mormon tradition.

If one accepts the idea of a limited geographical setting, where then should the Book of Mormon scene be located? Complex and impressive civilizations were found both in the Andean area of South America and also in Mexico and adjacent areas of Central America. Most recent Book of Mormon geographies have eliminated South America from consideration.1 Many of those who subscribe to the [p.272] theory of a limited geographical setting for the Book of Mormon focus on the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America, which flourished in an area known to specialists as Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is an area where a distinct pattern of civilization was found at the time of Spanish contact in the sixteenth century.2 At that time Mesoamerica included what is now central and southern Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica (see Map 1). The borders of the area were not static but fluctuated over time in relation to climate and other factors. Although it is a relatively small area of about 392,000 square miles, the geography of Mesoamerica exhibits great diversity. The great mountain ranges found in some regions contrast dramatically with the tropical lowland forests in others. Large river systems and extensive coastal areas provide abundant aquatic resources. Ancient high cultures flourished in both the highland basins and the lowland forests. The great variation in rainfall and altitude throughout Mesoamerica has created a wide variety of ecological conditions supporting a rich diversity of plant and animal life.

Map 1.

Mesoamerica [Map 1.]



Map 2.

Sorenson's GeographySorenson’s Geography


Map 3.

Hauck's GeographyHauck’s Geography

Mesoamerica was defined as a cultural area largely on the basis of historical and ethnographic traits, and the definition was later re-worked to make it more useful for archaeology.3 A few of the specific traits used to define Mesoamerica as a culture area include: ball courts with rings, cacao (chocolate), hieroglyphic writing, codices (books made of paper or deer skin), human sacrifice, stepped pyramids, stucco floors, grinding of corn mixed with ash or lime, a periodic [p.276] market system, use of thirteen as a ritual number, and a year of eighteen months of twenty days each plus five extra days (see Weaver 1981, 9-20). Beyond this “trait list” approach to the definition of Mesoamerica, there was a basic underlying cultural unity which characterized the area. The peoples of Mesoamerica possessed a stone age technology, and metal appears to have arrived late in the sequence of most regions, where it was little used for utilitarian objects. Sophisticated agricultural systems were developed, and the basis of all settled life was the agricultural village. Wheeled toys indicate that the principle of the wheel was known in some areas of Mesoamerica, but no evidence indicates that wheels were employed beyond this limited context. There were few domesticated animals and thus human porters constituted the primary means for transporting goods. Despite its overarching cultural unity, there was a good deal of cultural diversity in Mesoamerica. An example of such diversity was the great number of languages spoken in the area; one source notes the presence of 351 native languages in Mexico and Central America (McQuown 1955).

A number of factors have drawn students of the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica; perhaps the most significant is that some of the ancient civilizations there developed writing systems, a prerequisite for the Book of Mormon. Within Mesoamerica the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico provides a convenient “narrow neck of land.” Thus a number of Book of Mormon geographies, including those of Sorenson and Hauck, make use of what has been called the Limited Tehuantepec theory. In these geographies either the Usumacinta River or the Grijalva River, both of which discharge their waters into the southern Gulf of Mexico, has been selected as the modern equivalent of the River Sidon (see Map 1).4 These are the two most voluminous river systems in Mesoamerica (Tamayo and West 1964, 93-94). The lower sections of the two rivers in the Tabasco lowlands are considered as a single hydrological unit because of then complex interconnected distributaries and swamps.

Sorenson and Hauck each focus on this general area surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec but locate Book of Mormon lands in somewhat different ways. Map 2 illustrates the area chosen by Sorenson. It includes a part of the highlands of Guatemala and a part of the Mexican states of Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Tabasco. In this model the Grijalva River is equated with the River Sidon. Map 3 delineates the area chosen by Hauck. He has selected the upper Usumacinta River rather than the Grijalva as the River Sidon. Parts of both of these areas were inhabited in ancient times by various Mayan speaking [p.277] groups and continue to be inhabited by them today. Other important linguistic groups are found within the areas as well. Obviously there is considerable geographical overlap in the Sorenson and Hauck models.

Sorenson’s Geography
The most fundamental geographical problem associated with Sorenson’s model has to do with issues of directionality. This is revealed clearly in Map 2. In order for his model to fit the geography of Mesoamerica, one must assume that the Nephites had a system of directions with cardinal directions skewed “45 degrees or more” off of the usually observed cardinals (Sorenson 1985, 39). Unfortunately Sorenson never gives an exact figure and provides no map showing Nephite cardinals. Works by David Palmer (1981, 241-50) and Bruce Warren and Thomas Stuart Ferguson (1987, 334-35) do have maps, based on Sorenson’s model, showing true north and “Nephite north” which are more than 60 degrees apart. In other words, the whole directional card must be shifted more than 60 degrees to the west for this model to fit the geography of the chosen area. Otherwise, as Vogel (1985) has pointed out, the land north will be on the west, the land south on the east, and so forth. Also the River Sidon (Grijalva River) would be flowing from east to west through the Land of Zarahemla. Making this shift in directions creates its own set of problems, however, because in such a Nephite directional system the sun would come up in the south and set in the north.

Sorenson advances several arguments to explain why Book of Mormon peoples might adopt such a system. He provides examples from a number of cultures to demonstrate that human societies handle directionality and the labeling of directions in diverse ways. Still the Book of Mormon account offers what appears to be a standard scheme of cardinal directions, presumably a scheme brought from the Near East. Picking up a line of argument advanced by Palmer, Sorenson singles out one Hebrew directional scheme which had east as forward, north as left hand, south as right hand, and west as seaward. According to this argument, when Lehi’s party landed on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica, they were confused by their new surroundings and, relying on this scheme, assumed that west was seaward. Later when they realized this could not be so, they somehow retained this altered system of directionality.

As Mormon writer John A. Tvedtnes has noted, the ancient Israelite directional system discussed by Palmer and Sorenson was one of two systems. In the second and more common Israelite system, the term for east means “dawn” and the term for west means “entering, setting” (1982, 9). Both Israelite directional systems were sun-oriented, specifically oriented toward the rising sun. In the directional system [p.278] mentioned by Palmer and Sorenson, east was “forward” precisely because when facing east one faced the rising sun. The basis of the directional system was the path of the sun not the location of the sea. Sorenson, in his discussion of the temple built by Nephi and his people, points out that it would have been oriented as was the Temple of Solomon so that the rising sun on equinox day (either March 21 or September 21) sent its first rays through the temple doors (Sorenson 1985, 143).5 This equinoctial orientation would seem to indicate that Lehi’s group was well aware of the positions of the standard cardinal directions soon after their arrival.

Surely the Israelites, who had some knowledge of nearby lands, realized that west was not always seaward. Lehi and his party should have been aware of this fact after their own extensive travels. Once they arrived in the promised land, they would have had several directional guides, including the path of the sun from east to west and the constellations. Although the northern constellations and familiar stars would have been lower on the horizon than in Jerusalem, most would have been visible. Some new constellations would have been visible to the travelers. There was no north star available in 600 B.C., but it seems likely that travelers would have been aware of the rotation of the stars around the north celestial pole. This great wheeling motion is visible on all clear nights and is well known to those who live more intimately in tune with the natural environment than do modern urban dwellers. Additionally Lehi’s party had the Liahona, which is called a “compass” a number of times in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 18:12, 21; 2 Ne. 5:12; Alma 37:38, 43-44).6

Palmer (1990) suggests that the lack of a pole star made the determination of directions difficult and that the Mesoamericans based their directions on solstice readings. He further suggests that they used one of the solstice positions of 65 degrees west of north as their equivalent of north. According to Palmer, this orientation is evidenced by the alignment of Preclassic period sites at 65 degrees west of north. But if Nephites drew upon their Near Eastern heritage to orient temple entrances and other architectural features based on solstice and equinox readings, it is difficult to explain why they would choose a solstice setting as north. The equinox and solstice readings were associated with the path of the sun, not cardinal directions.

In a recent work Sorenson, perhaps recognizing the problems still posed by directionality in his model, offers further ethnographic and [p.279] archaeological examples of directional systems in order to demonstrate that the “conceptual frameworks which define directions and the languages of reference for them differ dramatically from culture to culture and throughout history” (1990, 406). These examples do not appear to strengthen his argument. None of those who argue in favor of Sorenson’s model have shown any evidence from the Book of Mormon account suggesting that anything other than a standard traditional interpretation of the direction system is called for. They must argue that the directionality system is not what the plain meaning of the terms would suggest because otherwise the model will not work. This does not seem to be sufficient cause to assume the existence of a different system among the Nephites.

Another approach to the problem of directional systems is to investigate what is known about the directional systems of Mesoamerican peoples, particularly those located within the area chosen by Sorenson. Barbara Tedlock has studied modern directional terminology of the Quiché Maya, who live in the highlands of Guatemala (1992, 2-3). She notes that the Quiché words for east and west make overt reference to the motion of the sun. East is referred to as “at the rising of the sun” and west as “at the setting of the sun.” North and south are given indirect terms referring to the sun’s right and left sides as it travels west. Other Mayan languages have similar terminologies.

Of course this modern terminology might not relate to ancient concepts. Thanks to the decipherment of directional glyphs found in Classic Mayan inscriptions and in Postclassic Maya codices, it is possible to discuss the Classic Mayan directional system. Although some ongoing debate on the topic continues, most epigraphers suggest that the Classic directional system was much like the modern one described by Tedlock. It emphasized the daily route of the sun across the sky and through the underworld (east, zenith, west, nadir) rather than the cardinal directions (Tedlock 1992, 173-78). Early Classic period Tomb 12 in Rio Azul in the northeastern Petén of Guatemala has a directional glyph painted on each of its four walls. The glyph that indicates “sun” or “day” is infixed in the superfix above the directional glyph on the east wall; the glyph for “night” or “darkness” is infixed over the directional glyph on the west wall. The moon glyph is similarly associated with the directional glyph on the north wall, and the Venus glyph is associated with the directional glyph on the south wall. Thus this directional system may have been in existence during the proper time in at least part of the area chosen by both Sorenson and Hauck. The fact that the terms for east and west were sun related in many languages argues strongly against a shift of these same terms to a different orientation.

Certainly the problem of directionality is a critical issue in the Sorenson geography, but there are other problems as well. For example, [p.280] Bruce Warren has rightly pointed out that the Yucatan Peninsula remains a “sore thumb” in the Sorenson and Hauck geographies (1990, 134).7 The constraints of their models force both to ignore this large area for the most part, yet some of the most important developments occurring during the Book of Mormon period took place there. Many examples and analogies have been taken from the Mayan culture of Yucatàn by various authors to support aspects of Sorenson’s model, but the model itself cannot accommodate the area. It is clear from the archaeological record that trade and other forms of contact between various parts of the Mayan area began early and continued throughout the Book of Mormon period. It is difficult to explain why this large and important area containing some of the largest cities ever built in Mesoamerica would escape even the barest mention in the Book of Mormon. This is a significant weakness in both the Hauck and Sorenson models.

Hauck’s Geography
One of the strengths of Hauck’s geography is that it does not require elaborate explanations about a Nephite directional system. Several reviews of Hauck’s volume point out other geographical problems encountered in attempting to apply his model. William Hamblin has discussed Hauck’s use of a “coastal corridor” rather than an isthmus as the narrow neck of land. This view additionally requires two lands of Bountiful, one by the east sea and one by the west sea. Hamblin also criticizes Hauck’s assumption that the terms “northward,” “southward,” and “eastward” were intermediate compass points between the cardinal directions (1989, 73-75).

John E. Clark, a Mesoamericanist, has provided one of the most interesting and careful reviews of the Sorenson and Hauck geographies. Based on his own internal model of Book of Mormon geography which he developed to evaluate real life geographical models, Clark lists ten crucial features of Nephite geography which can be used as criteria for evaluating any proposed real-world geographical correlations such as those proposed by Hauck and Sorenson (1989, 67-69). Clark’s criteria include: the narrow neck of land as an isthmus, significantly more western than eastern coastline, varying sizes of the different wildernesses, Zarahemla and Nephi located in large valleys, size and other characteristics of the Zarahemla Basin, Waters of Mormon as a large highland lake located within a day or two of Nephi, and finally the locations for Zarahemla, Nephi, Bountiful, and Cumorah.

Clark notes that Hauck’s model fails to meet nine of these criteria, and whether it meets the tenth is unknown. In contrast Sorenson’s [p.281] geography passes the test “with flying colors.” However, Clark never addresses the problem of directionality in regard to Sorenson’s model. He in fact avoids the problem by stating that he does not “pretend to know how Nephite ‘north’ relates to the north of today’s compass” (1989, 25). Neither does he address the larger test Book of Mormon geographies must pass: archaeological evidence which allows and confirms the cultural scene drawn by the Book of Mormon.


The human presence in Mesoamerica dates from the time of the early hunters, probably at least 15,000 years ago. Archaeologists have developed a framework of cultural stages to categorize in a broad sense the development of prehispanic groups in the New World. These include the Lithic, Archaic, Preclassic/Formative, Classic, and Post-classic stages. Because these are cultural stages related to specific life-ways, they vary chronologically from area to area. For example, in the Great Basin of the United States, some peoples continued in an Archaic lifeway of hunting and gathering until the arrival of the Europeans. Many regions of Mesoamerica experienced the full range of cultural stages before the arrival of the Spaniards. Book of Mormon events appear to fall principally within the late Archaic, Preclassic/Formative, and early Classic developments in Mesoamerica.

In the New World approximately 10,000 years ago, a new set of environmental circumstances was ushered in by end of the Wisconsin Glacial, the final period of the Pleistocene Epoch. Warming and drying occurred, and many of the lakes and streams which had offered rich resources during the Pleistocene dried up. Large Pleistocene fauna such as the mammoth and mastodon, which human groups had hunted, became scarce and then extinct, a circumstance humans may have contributed to. Although mammoths and other large mammals were found in Mesoamerica, they apparently were not as plentiful there as elsewhere. During the Lithic period ancient Mesoamericans may never have been big-game hunters to the extent groups living on the North American plains were. They seem to have taken advantage of big game when available, but mostly they subsisted on smaller game and the plants they gathered.

During the Archaic period, currently dated between 7000-1500 B.C. in Mesoamerica, humans living in small scattered bands shifted their hunting to numerous smaller species and began a long series of experiments with plants. These eventually led to the development of sedentary non-agricultural communities, in some areas perhaps by 3000 B.C. The earliest pottery known from Mesoamerica dates to about 2400 B.C.

[p.282] The Early Preclassic period (1500—1200 B.C.) is the time of settled agricultural villages, the basis of all Mesoamerican civilizations. Farmers planted corn, beans, squash, and other plants during the preceding Archaic period. In the Middle Preclassic period (1200-400 B.C.), the Olmec civilization, the earliest known in Mesoamerica, flourished and declined on the Gulf Coast. At the same time complex centers developed in Central Mexico and Oaxaca. Building on the base of earlier achievements, civilizations sprang up in Oaxaca, the Maya area, and central Mexico during the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C.-200 C.E.).

During the Classic period, the civilizations of Teotihuacan, the Maya, the Zapotecs, and others produced the richest development of Mesoamerican culture. As Muriel Porter Weaver has aptly expressed it, during the Classic period “regional cultures shared ideas, art styles, and intellectual knowledge to produce a magnificent display of brilliant achievements” (1981, 185). An Early Classic (200-600 C.E.) and Late Classic (600-900 C.E) period are generally recognized within the Classic, although some argue for a tripartite division of Early, Middle, and Late.8 The collapse of Classic period civilizations resulted in a realignment of political power. This was the setting for the Postclassic (900-1519 C.E.) civilizations, including among others the Toltecs, Post-classic Maya, Mixtecs, and Aztecs.

In the following sections, I discuss various topics, comparing cultural information derived from the Book of Mormon with evidence available from Mesoamerican studies. The topics I have selected form a core of cultural problems which, in my opinion, should be addressed by those attempting to correlate the Book of Mormon account with the currently available archaeological record from the areas included in the Limited Tehuantepec models for the Book of Mormon setting. There are a number of important topics, particularly those relating to linguistics and biological anthropology which are not examined in this paper.

Below under each topic considered, I first review it as it occurs in the Book of Mormon and then evaluate the evidence available from Mesoamerican studies. In some cases in order to recognize cultural differences, I separate Book of Mormon references into Jaredite and Nephite/Lamanite categories. [p.283]

Metalworking and Metallurgy

A number of metals and processes associated with producing them are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In discussing metals, it is important to distinguish between metalworking, “the act or process of shaping things out of metal,” and metallurgy, the “science and technology of metals” which may involve such processes as smelting, casting, and alloying. Many groups in both the Old World and the New developed the art of cold-hammering naturally occurring nuggets of copper, gold, and meteoric iron. This art did not require the smelting of ores. The discovery of the properties of metal and their ores in the Old World was likely a gradual one. People first recognized native metals, especially gold, copper, and meteoric iron, then learned that certain ores contained metals, and finally discovered how to smelt the metals (Raymond 1986, 9-10). The references to metals in the Book of Mormon strongly imply an advanced knowledge of metallurgy including the casting and alloying of metals.

Jaredite Metallurgy
Direct references to metals and metallurgy early in the Book of Ether indicate that the Jaredites apparently arrived in the promised land with a knowledge of metallurgy and applied their knowledge in the New World. They worked ores including gold, silver, iron, brass, and copper, and to obtain these ores “they did cast up mighty heaps of earth” (Ether 10:23). These accomplishments suggest that metal ores were available to the Jaredites in some abundance. An early reference to metallurgy in the Jaredite record notes that Shule, the son of King Kib, went to the hill Ephraim and “did molten out of the hill and made swords of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him”; he then armed his followers with these swords (7:9).9 A second reference to metallurgy in Ether notes that Riplakish, a later king, had gold refined in prison (10:7).

A good deal can be inferred from such references. The “heaps of earth” produced in getting ore suggests a mining system for finding and successfully extracting ores. Once the ores were mined they would have required processing to reduce elements which would impede the smelting process. The Book of Ether specifically mentions gold, silver, iron, brass, and copper. Each metal would require special techniques of reduction, the use of fluxes to separate the metal from its matrix, and a specific heat range for smelting. Smelting ores also requires appropriate fuel and the technology to make the fuel perform. [p.284] Such ore and the fuel needs to be transported to an area prepared for processing. Not only mining and smelting technology is required by such references but also the technology for casting the metals into the desired forms. Casting in turn requires tools for working the metal castings, heat treatments to anneal the billeted pieces, special techniques for hardening, and tools for working the billeted pieces into the desired forms.

Such complex technological processes generally leave traces in the archaeological record. Expected traces would include old mine shafts in the mining district containing broken and discarded tools, the remains of smelting operations with considerable slag deposits, and the remains of the objects produced and the tools used to produce them. Even in cases where metals were worked cold rather than smelted, one would expect to find traces of the process or its end result, especially if non-ferrous metals, which tend to be preserved, were involved.

As might be predicted, many sites in the Near East documenting mining and processing metals have been discovered. For example, the Timna Valley in Israel is a well-known copper mining and processing zone with mining activity dating from the Chalcolithic period (currently dated at 5000/4800-4200/4000 B.C. for the Early Chalcolithic and 4200/4000-3200/3000 B.C. for the Middle-Late Chalcolithic according to Ben-Tor 1992, 2) to Mameluke times with some lapses between periods of exploitation (Rothenberg 1972, 229). Ancient mines and processing stations from a number of time periods have been investigated. Recent excavations at the Chalcolithic site of Shiqmim in the northwestern Negev Desert of Israel have revealed the remains of an industrial area for the production of copper objects (Levy 1990, 27). Found there were tools, ornaments, ores, slags, and crucibles. Analysis of the ores shows that they originated over eighty miles from Shiqmim at the Wadi Feinan in Jordan. Several other copper objects of a cult or prestige nature, including a mace head and a scepter, were determined to have been made elsewhere. Thus archaeological research has confirmed the existence of the technology which the Jaredites could have brought to the New World. One would expect to find some such traces of such ancient metallurgy wherever it occurred.

There are a few clues available in the Book of Mormon about the kinds of metal artifacts which the Jaredites produced. Silver and gold are mentioned twice as forms of wealth, but no mention is made about what forms they may have taken (Ether 9:17, 10:12). The most frequently mentioned artifact is the sword. It appears to have been the weapon of choice with at least seventeen references to “sword” or “swords” among the Jaredites (Ether 7:9, 9:27, 13:18, 14:1, 2, 4, 24, 15:2, 20, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30; and Mosiah 8:11). References are to actual weapons. Two references, the first and last [p.285] references to Jaredite swords, are specifically to metal swords. In the first reference, mentioned above, Shule makes steel swords, and in the final reference the people of King Limhi recover Jaredite swords, breastplates and engraved gold plates. It is noted that the swords’ hilts “have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust” (Mosiah 8:11). This suggests that Jaredite swords were made of ferrous metal.

The people of King Limhi also recovered Jaredite breastplates which were large, made “of brass and of copper,” and “perfectly sound” (Mosiah 8:10). Of course brass is an alloyed metal usually made of copper and zinc. Its production implies a sophisticated development of non-ferrous as well as ferrous metallurgy among the Jaredites. In addition, shields and head-plates are mentioned as war gear in the final battles of the Jaredites, although there is no specific indication they were made of metal (Ether 15:15).

The evidence from the Book of Ether indicates that the Jaredites arrived with a sophisticated knowledge of ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy. Based upon the evidence from the Book of Mosiah, they did not abandon it during their history in the new land. The Jaredites are not the only group in the Book of Mormon demonstrating advanced metallurgical expertise. Nephite records offer ample evidence that metallurgy was important and practiced throughout their history as well.

Nephite Metallurgy
There are numerous references to metals and metallurgy in the Nephite account and it is clearly indicated, time after time, that the promised land possessed abundant metallic ores and that the Nephites possessed the skills to recognize and take advantage of them. Just after the arrival of Lehi’s party in the promised land, they found “all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper” (1 Ne. 18:25). In listing the skills he taught his people, Nephi records that he taught them to work in “all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance” (2 Ne. 5:15). It is later reiterated that the promised land “doth abound most plentifully” in gold, silver, and “all manner of precious ores” (Jacob 2:12). The abundance of these resources is spelled out in detail. Both the Nephites and Lamanites became rich and possessed “an exceeding plenty of gold, and of silver, and of all manner of precious metals, both in the land south and in the land north” (Hel. 6:9). The land south was called Lehi, the land north Mulek, and “there was all manner of gold in both these lands, and of silver, and of precious ore of every kind” (v. 11).

Among the Nephites as among the Jaredites, wealth was repeatedly referred to in terms of metals, generally gold and silver (Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 19:15; 22:12; Alma 1:29; 4:6; 17:14; 31:24; Hel. 12:2; 3 Ne. [p.286] 6:2) but also copper, iron, brass, and steel (Jarom 1:8). When Nephites became wealthy, gold and silver were mentioned as a measure of that wealth. When flight was necessary, silver and gold along with flocks and herds were often among the items taken along.

The earliest mentioned example of metallurgy among Lehi’s group occurred when Nephi made a bellows of animal skins to help smelt ore for tools to build the ship taking them to the promised land (1 Ne. 17:8-16). Later after Nephi’s group had separated from the Lamanites, Nephi taught his people to work in iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, silver, and precious ores (2 Ne. 5:15). There were specialists in metallurgy—”curious workmen, who did work all kinds of ore and did refine it” (Hel. 6:11).

Metals are the only materials specifically mentioned in connection with Nephite swords, which appear to be the weapon of choice among the Nephites as they were among the Jaredites. The swords discussed in the Nephite accounts include both actual and metaphorical references to swords. The first sword mentioned in the record is the sword of Laban, with its hilt of “pure gold” and blade of “most precious steel” (1 Ne. 4:9). This sword accompanied Lehi’s party to the promised land, and there Nephi “after the manner of it did make many swords” to be used in defense of his people (2 Ne. 5:14).

The Book of Mormon suggests additional forms given to metals in Nephite society. For example, the people “became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war—yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war” (Jarom 1:8). A monetary system with names and comparative values of different pieces of gold and silver is described (Alma 11). Ornaments of gold and idols of gold and silver also are mentioned (31:28; Hel. 6:31). The brass plates were carried from Jerusalem, and sacred writings among the Nephites were engraved on plates of gold.

The importance of metallurgy suggested by these frequent references to the metals themselves is confirmed by Nephite use of metaphors about metallurgical processes. For example, the word “dross” is employed metaphorically. Dross is the waste product of smelting, the impurities which rise to the surface above the heavier molten metal. When cool, dross is a newly formed rock consisting of oxides, silicas, and other components of the ore in which the metallic mineral occurred. Dross has the usual qualities of a hard rock in that it resists erosion and deterioration unless subject to mechanical and/or chemical breakdown. The context for the word “dross” in two passages in the Book of Mormon record suggests that the speaker and audience [p.287] understood the metallurgical process the metaphor implies (cf. Ps. 119:119; Prov. 25:4; 26:23; Isa. 1:22, 25; Ezek. 22:18-19). “Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness,” the text explains. “Therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart” (Alma 32:3). Later it is explained, “[T]herefore, if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, which the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden under foot of men” (34:29). Such apt metaphors suggest that metallurgical processes were an important and generally understood feature of Nephite life.

Metals and Metallurgy in Mesoamerica
The Book of Mormon indicates that there was an abundance of gold, silver, and precious metals in both the land north and the land south. Such metals should then be discoverable in the areas chosen as Book of Mormon lands by Sorenson and Hauck. Some areas of Latin America are rich in precious minerals and other ores, but the areas chosen by Sorenson as the scene of the Book of Mormon are not among these areas. Mineralogical maps of Mexico show no deposits of gold, silver, copper, or other ores in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco, or Chiapas (see de Miranor and de Gyves 1986, 140; Arbingast 1975, 135). A major source of gold and silver exists in Oaxaca located in the north central portion of the state near its border with Veracruz. A few scattered deposits of copper, silver, gold, and other ores can be found in the highlands of Guatemala, although the most significant are located near the present frontiers with Honduras and El Salvador (Arbingast et al. 1979, 11, 27, 35). If current assessment of these resources reflects what was available in the past, it does not appear to have had the great wealth of metallic ores described by the Book of Mormon.

Scholars generally agree that metallurgy was probably introduced in Mesoamerica near the beginning of the Postclassic period (about 900 C.E.). Metallurgical technology was probably diffused to Mesoamerica from South America, where it had been invented 2,500 years earlier. Thus Sorenson’s date of 3000 B.C. for the Jaredite arrival produces difficulty in accounting for their work in metals and metallurgy. There is no evidence of metal working at this early date in either the specific area chosen by Sorenson or in Mesoamerica generally. As already suggested, the Archaic lifeway seems to have prevailed in Mesoamerica, including what would later be the Olmec area, until about 1500 B.C. Sites from this period which have been tested have not provided evidence for metallurgy. During the following pre-Olmec developments and the Olmec civilization, there is no indication that metallurgy was practiced.

[p.288] What may be the oldest piece of metal from Mesoamerica (from the site of Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico) noted by Sorenson may date as early as about the first century B.C. (1985, 278). However, I know of no confirmation of a date that early. In fact it has been suggested by Emil Haury, one of the project archaeologists although not the one who excavated the piece, that the metal was from an Aztec period reuse of a Preclassic mound (1975, 199). Additionally there is no evidence that the artifact singled out by Sorenson was produced in Mesoamerica. Even if this piece should prove to have been produced in the proper time (Late Preclassic period) and place, we would still be left with 2,900 years of Nephite and Jaredite metallurgy unaccounted for in the archaeological record.

It has been suggested that the Olmecs can be identified with the Jaredites by Sorenson and others. Evidence has not been found that metallurgy was practiced by the Olmec civilization. One might argue that the lack of evidence does not prove the lack of metallurgical activity. Thus the relevant question becomes: What kind of surviving evidence might be expected in the humid tropical climate of the Olmec heartland in what is now the states of Tabasco and Veracruz, Mexico? Somewhere there should be the mining localities and their associated tools, processing localities, and the remains of the metal objects that were produced. Even if we assume that the mining and process localities have remained undetected, what about the metal objects produced by the Jaredites?

In Mesoamerica and other areas, objects considered valuable or precious often were included in burials and caches. Some Olmec burials and caches have been excavated, particularly at the site of La Venta in the state of Tabasco, Mexico. Objects found in these burials and caches include iron-ore mirrors, shell, ceramic vessels and figurines, and items made of jade and serpentine. An important cache was discovered recently in the Olmec heartland at the site of El Manati where there is a spring located a few kilometers south and east of the large Olmec site of San Lorenzo (Ortiz et al. 1988). The cache contained surprisingly well-preserved perishable materials, including wooden sculptures, bundles of rubber, serpentine axes, and ceramic vessels. But there is no evidence of metal artifacts in the burials or caches thus far excavated—or in other archaeological contexts for that matter—for this early time period.10

[p.289] Palmer has suggested that the iron-oxide-ore mirrors utilized by the Olmecs were examples of Olmec period metallurgy (1981, 114). John B. Carlson has explained, however, that these naturally occurring pieces of iron-oxide ore were worked by hand rather than smelted (1981, 118). All three major iron-oxide ores, magnetite, hematite, and ilmenite,11 were used to produce the mirrors. These ores are all found in naturally occurring deposits, some of which were located and exploited by Preclassic/Formative period peoples. Iron ore lumps of suitable size were selected and taken home to be worked by cutting, grinding, and polishing. A Mössbauer spectroscopic analysis indicated that some of those from the Early Formative period found at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo came from Oaxaca (Pires-Ferreira 1976, 324).

A mirror production area discovered in household clusters at the site of San José Mogote in the Oaxaca Valley revealed the various stages of processing from unworked iron ore lumps through finished mirrors. These mirrors are of various geometric shapes, generally thumbnail-sized, with a flat surface, and are highly polished on one or both sides. Larger concave iron-ore mirrors from the Middle Preclassic period are found in Olmec and other sites. Numerous lines of evidence indicate that these were used as pendants by the elite. The techniques used to make these mirrors do not qualify as metallurgical techniques but are those associated with stone tool making. A study by Carlson of the Olmec mirror lapidary technique (his term) is based on experiments he carried out which reproduced the grinding and polishing techniques used to produce the mirrors (1981, 122-23). Sorenson does not suggest that use of the iron ore lumps to make mirrors was metallurgy but offers it as an example of the use of iron minerals (1985, 285). One might question, however, whether any of the Book of Mormon references to iron could fall under this category.12

Sorenson raises some intriguing and legitimate questions about the presence of metal artifacts in contexts earlier than the Postclassic at Mesoamerican sites. Most of these artifacts date to the Classic period, although one example of copper may date as early as the first century B.C. (1985, 278-79; 1976, 1-8). Sorenson suggests that the question about metal in Mesoamerica should shift from “Why was there no metal in early Mesoamerica” to “Why do we recover so little evidence [p.290] of the metallurgical skill that was surely there?” (1985, 279). The question could better be phrased: Where did the metal artifacts found in Classic period contexts in Mesoamerica originate; that is, do they reflect a local metallurgical tradition?

Karen Bruhns has explored the issue of early metals in southern Mesoamerica in a well-researched article and remarks that the Maya had some access to metal objects from the Early Classic period onwards. After a review of the information available about these early metal objects, she concludes that the “only relatively certain statement that can be made is, with the possible exception of the Soconusco disks … all Classic period metal objects found in Mesoamerica are obviously southeastern in manufacture” (1989, 221). This means that these artifacts were made not in the Mayan area or in another region of Mesoamerica but in lower Central America.

If these metal objects were available to the Maya by at least Early Classic times, then the obvious problem becomes explaining why the Maya did not begin producing their own metal artifacts given the availability of gold, silver, and copper in eastern Guatemala, western Honduras, and El Salvador. Bruhns suggests that the southern Mesoamericans lacked adequate pyrotechnology to make the transition to successful metallurgy (1989, 224). Specifically they lacked the technological prowess to attain and maintain the necessary temperatures to smelt metal. The ceramics from the area were fired in poorly controlled open fires, which often resulted in fire-clouding and incompletely oxidized areas. Only by the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods does evidence exist that the Maya had begun producing ceramic vessels in controlled firing situations, including kilns. The adoption of the Central American metallurgical technology occurred in the Mayan area soon after the production of Plumbate pottery began. Plumbate pottery has a vitrified surface and, according to Bruhns, the “temperatures which produce the characteristic vitrification of Tohil Plumbate are precisely those which are appropriate for smelting” (1986, 226).

Recognizing the importance of the topic, Sorenson has again addressed metals and metallurgy in a recently published study aid (1992b). After a brief discussion of the kinds of problems involved with interpretations of statements concerning metals and metallurgy in the Book of Mormon, he provides information that he considers useful in dealing with the problems. His information includes a summary of statements found in the Book of Mormon about metals, ores and metal processing, an annotated bibliography of sources focused upon the Old World metallurgical background of Book of Mormon peoples, an annotated bibliography on pre-Columbian metalworking in the New World with an emphasis on Mesoamerica, an index to the bibliographies, and a table of probable and possible pre-900 C.E. Mesoamerican metal [p.291] specimens. Bruhns’ article is not included in the bibliography and its inclusion in future versions might be a useful addition.

My comments on Sorenson’s metals and metallurgy study aid will focus on the table (Part 4). The table is presented in an easy to use manner with references, dates, number and kinds of specimens, and an “evidence rating.” Sorenson has rated the certainty of the identification, analysis, and dating of the specimens based on the information available, with category “A” reserved for pieces excavated by archaeologists in datable contexts. There are four categories (A through D) with a fifth category (I) reserved for specimens for which information is incomplete but which offer interesting possibilities. The question that has again not been considered is whether the specimens were of local manufacture or represent trade pieces from lower Central America. The majority of the specimens date to Late Classic times falling outside of the Book of Mormon period. The few that are genuinely Early Classic or slightly earlier seem to be trade pieces not produced in the area. We are still left with virtually the entire span of time covered by Book of Mormon events with no metallurgy in the area chosen by Sorenson.

Among the specimens in Sorenson’s “I” category are some copper finger rings from the site of La Libertad in Chiapas, Mexico. Sorenson (1992b, 46, 75) notes that Donald E. Miller (1977, 19) one of the principal investigators at the site, reported two Classic period burials from near the surface of a mound and a Postclassic burial containing the rings from near the surface of another mound top. Sorenson suggests that the presence of the metal alone is not enough to make it Postclassic and states that there is no other evidence at the site for a Postclassic presence. He reassigns it to the Late Classic period at 600-900 C.D.. La Libertad is a particularly interesting site because it not only falls within the area of Sorenson’s model but has been advanced as a candidate for the city of Manti from the Book of Mormon (see Table 2 below). Several seasons of investigations were carried out at La Libertad by the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) in the mid-1970s as a part of an extensive project in the Upper Grijalva Basin. While several preliminary papers have been produced concerning the site and one publication about the lithic artifacts (Clark 1988), information about most of the excavations is currently under preparation for publication. As a part of the NWAF team that mapped and excavated at La Libertad in 1975, I participated in the excavation of a burial near the surface of a low mound which contained a large copper bell as an offering. Miller, who is currently preparing material from La Libertad for publication, provided the following information (Miller 1992). During the 1976 season many more burials were located including Burial 26 which contained the copper finger rings mentioned by Sorenson. There is no reason to suppose that these burials pertain to the Classic [p.292] period. Explorations in the immediate area of La Libertad revealed the presence of a Postclassic site, within a few hundred meters of the ceremonial precinct, with a considerable quantity of pottery fragments on the surface. Other burials located at La Libertad included complex Late Preclassic burials and Late Classic burials, none of which contained any metal artifacts. Upon comparing the grave types, orientation and furniture of those burials assigned to the Classic and Postclassic periods, there are obvious differences. As far as the excavators are concerned, there is no reason to assign the metal specimens from La Libertad to any period earlier than the Postclassic period.

In addition to questioning the completeness of the picture left by archaeological evidence, Sorenson suggests that use of metals among Book of Mormon peoples was primarily ornamental. He argues that after the reference in Jarom 1:8 about gold, silver, iron, copper, brass, and steel for weapons of war, the references to metal are either actually, or in an implied sense, references only to precious metals. In other words he is suggesting that after that time, utilitarian objects were no longer made of metal. This approach downplays the importance of metals and offers alternate interpretations for the various types of tools and weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Others have taken this approach as well. William Hamblin and Brent Merrill (1990) suggest that swords referred to in the Book of Mormon could be wooden sword-like weapons with inset stone blades used by Aztecs, Maya, and others at the time of the Spanish conquest. This weapon, called macuahuitl13 in Nàhuatl, the language of the Aztecs (or Mexica), existed in both two-handed and one-handed varieties. Among Aztecs these weapons were made of hardwood with grooves along both edges. Sharp obsidian or flint blades were glued into the grooves. Often the blades formed an almost continuous cutting edge, but in some cases there were gaps between the blades. The one-handed swords were, according to one investigator, “76 to 102 millimeters (3-4 inches) wide and a little over a meter (3.5 feet) long.” The two-handed ones were about as tall as a man and four inches wide (Hassig 1988, 83, 85). The ends of these weapons were usually flat rather than pointed, although there were several possible sword shapes.14

That the macuahuitl was an effective weapon is attested to by Spanish accounts. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who participated in the conquest of both Mexico and Guatemala, reported the damage [p.293] done by the “fearful broadswords” of the Tlaxcallans and how such a broadsword was used to cut off the head of a mare (1955, 190). A description of the swords used by the Yucatec Maya at the time of the Spanish conquest is found in several of the historical-geographical accounts produced in response to a questionnaire sent out by the Spanish crown in 1577. Question fifteen of the questionnaire in part inquired about how native peoples were previously governed, whom they warred with, and how they fought. One of the weapons mentioned in the response from Motul was described as a two-edged sword made of a black wood called chulul, which was hard like bone (Relaciones 1983, 1:9, 271). The length of the sword is given as five palmas (with one palma corresponding to about 8.25 inches, the sword would be 41.2 inches long) and a width of three dedos (one dedo is a 48th part of a vara which is about 33 inches, making the sword a little more than two inches wide). From the towns of Tiab and Tiek on the Yucatan peninsula, swords made of the same type of wood are described as being four palmas long and three dedos wide (Ibid., 320). Further information from the same towns indicates that daggers were also made of chulul wood.15 Wooden sword-like weapons were not confined to Mesoamerica. The Incas also possessed such a weapon made of hard black chonta palm wood (Kendall 1973, 104).16

There was a sword-like weapon present in Mesoamerica and other areas of the New World at the time of the Spanish conquest but there are problems making it fit into a Limited Tehuantepec Book of Mormon scene. One must be willing to accept that the swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon were not of metal even though the only type of material ever specified for swords is metal. But perhaps ultimately more difficult is the necessity of assuming that swords similar to the wooden swords in use during the Postclassic period also existed during the Middle and Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods. One also must assume that these weapons were present in the proper areas during those time periods. There is very little evidence from the archaeological record to support these latter two assumptions.

One of the problems involved in assessing when the macuahuitl came on the scene in Mesoamerica is the inconsistent way in which the term has been applied by scholars. The term has been applied to the sword-like Aztec weapons and to others similar to them in use at the [p.294] time of the conquest. That these weapons have some points of similarity to Old World metal swords has been noted. But scholars also have applied the term “macuahuitl” to several types of weapons which are more like war clubs with an area of inset flint or obsidian blades near the top (Follett 1932, 386, Fig. 16). In his discussion of Aztec arms and armor, Hassig notes that he can find no depictions of the typical Aztec macuahuitl predating the Postclassic period, although several Early Postclassic depictions from Chichén Itzà and one from the eighth century C.E. in the lowland Mayan site of Bonampak show clubs with blades on sides, which may be earlier variants of the macuahuitl (1988, 85).

After sorting through the difficulty with terminology, it becomes clear that no evidence has been discovered which documents that the broad-sword type of macuahuitl was in use during the period covered by the Book of Mormon. Hamblin and Merrill offer several examples of early depictions of the macuahuitl, but these are the war-club type rather than the broad-sword type (1990, 340, 349n14). Their discussion of the macuahuitl demonstrates the difficulties which can arise when applying this term to Book of Mormon contexts. Their earliest example is a bas-relief sculpture from Loltún Cave in Yucatán, which is dated stylistically to the Late Preclassic/Protoclassic period (150 B.C. to 250 C.E.; Freidel and Andrews 1984, 2). This sculpture, known as “El Guerrero” or the warrior, presents a male figure in a striding posture with face and feet in profile. The right arm is held before the figure with the elbow bent and the fingers clutching an axe-like object while the left arm is extended behind the figure with an “s”-shaped element in the hand. The figure is very richly attired, but the drawing of the figure (see Illustration 1) in Hamblin and Merrill fails to show many of the significant features of the regalia and must have been redrawn from an early source (1990, 339). After a careful study of the figure, Freidel and Andrews have suggested that it represents a Maya ruler who bears several of the icons of kingship seen in later representations of Classic period rulers (1984, 2).

Hamblin and Merrill, as have some others, call the object in the right hand of the figure a macuahuitl. If it is a macuahuitl, it is of the war-club type, rather than the broad-sword type. Its configuration makes it unlikely as an object which could be referred to as a sword. The figure is gripping the object near its mid-point, and the area of inset blades (if that is what is represented) takes up only about the upper one-third of the object. Freidel and Andrews confirm this conclusion, suggesting that the object is an axe containing three hafted blades, and mention several other examples of somewhat similar axes known in Maya iconography. They point out the importance of the axe as a symbol of Maya rulership and its use in the name of the office or title (Ah Batab) held by Maya rulers.

Illustration 1.

Rubbing of a sculpured figure from cave of Loltun, Ucatan, Mexico

Rubbing of a sculptured figure from cave of Loltun, Yucatan, Mexico (in Morley et al. 1983, 82). A simplified line drawing of this figure appears in Hamblin and Merrill 1990, 339. Permission to reproduce the Hamblin and Merrill rendition was declined by Deseret Book.

[p.296] Hamblin and Merrill discuss an additional example of an early macuahuitl from the Maya area falling within Book of Mormon times. This object is depicted on Stela 5 from Uaxactun in the Guatemalan Petén (see Greene et al. 1972, 309). The object is not identical to that from Loltún Cave, but it is also of the club type and is shown gripped at about its mid-point by the individual carrying it.

Although Hamblin and Merrill admit that evidence for the presence of the macuahuitl in Preclassic times is sparse, they cite the presence of the widespread obsidian blade industry as additional proof that “some type of macuahuitl sword was known and used in Book of Mormon times” (1990, 340). This is not a convincing argument since obsidian was the basic household cutlery in many areas of Mesoamerica for several millennia, and obsidian blades had a wide variety of uses beyond the macuahuitl.

A closer look suggests that even the examples singled out by Hamblin and Merrill ultimately demonstrate that the few artifacts which have been categorized as macuahuitls from the Preclassic (here the Terminal Late Preclassic or Protoclassic) and Classic periods were not like swords and were not used in the manner of swords. Follet notes in his study of Mayan weapons that what he classifies as the standard type of Mayan macuahuitl is “more in the nature of a war-club or mace than the true broad-sword type of macuahuitl” (1932, 386). I am not aware of evidence presently available suggesting the existence of the sword type of macuahuitl during the period covered by the Book of Mormon.

Even if the two examples from Loltún and Uaxactun discussed above were acceptable portrayals of early Mesoamerican swords, they would not extend the existence of the swords far enough into the past or into the appropriate area. There would still be a block of over 3,000 years during which there was no recognized acceptable correlate for the sword of the Jaredite era and the early Nephite era.

One might still argue that the club-type macuahuitl functioned as did the swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon. As we have seen in the above examples, however, this short club-like weapon is shown clutched at about its mid-point, indicating that it was not used in the fashion a sword is used. We know that Jaredites and Lehi’s party all knew what a sword was when they arrived in the promised land. The Book of Mormon tells us that one metal sword was always available to the Nephites. The sword of Laban was passed from ruler to ruler as a kind of national icon and legitimizing symbol of rulership. No one who had seen the sword of Laban would be confused about what a metal sword was. And in fact this sword was the prototype for the swords made by Nephi to arm his people against attack by the Lamanites (2 Ne. 5:14).

If thereafter some fundamental change was made in the nature of [p.297] the weapon used by the general populace, we might expect that this would be reflected in the language. For example, when the Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica with their metal swords, the Aztecs developed their own word for the weapon, a term which both recognized its similarities to the macuahuitl but also noted its differences. The word “tepuzmacquahuitl” was formed of the words “tepuztli” meaning iron or copper and “macquahuitl,” the name of the native weapon. If a similar change in weapons had come about among the Nephites, one might expect a similar alteration or addition to the original term such as wooden sword or stone sword. There is never any indication in the Book of Mormon that metal swords are not being referred to, and metal swords are the only type ever specifically mentioned.

An additional point Hamblin and Merrill do not consider is whether the macuahuitl was in use in the proper area of Mesoamerica at any time, including the era of Spanish contact. The weapon is usually known from, and discussed in, the context of its use among groups in Central Mexico, Oaxaca (Spores 1965, 969, 973, 976, 982, 984), and the lowland Mayan area. At the time of Spanish contact, the two-handed type of macuahuitl was noted among Mayan groups in the Highlands of Chiapas, and the Chiapanecs of the Central Depression are said to have had clubs “like macanas” (Diaz del Castillo 1955, 2:145, 135), which is in the area chosen by Sorenson and Hauck.

Concerning swords, in summary, no case has been made that metal swords existed in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest and, at the present time, there is no evidence that the broad-sword type of macuahuitl existed during the proper times and places to fit the Limited Tehuantepec model. The analysis I have conducted concerning swords could be applied to armor and other weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In some cases there is no difficulty in locating the particular item in a Mesoamerican setting at the time of European contact and earlier. For example, shields of various types and materials were found throughout Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest and in areas of South and North America as well. Other items of war gear including head-plates, breast-plates, the cimeter, and the bow and arrow remain to be adequately addressed.


Tents are one of the most frequently mentioned utilitarian and military items in the Book of Mormon. The word “tent” occurs twenty times, the word “tents” forty-four times. Tents are mentioned in relation to both Jaredite and Nephite/Lamanite peoples, who would have been familiar with tents from the Near East. Because these groups originated in the Near East, the most straightforward meaning of the word “tent” [p.298] would appear to be a kind of portable collapsible structure made of some textile (often black goat hair in the Near East) stretched and supported by poles, ropes, and pegs. However, Sorenson makes the point that the word tent (‘hl) in Hebrew could have many different meanings including hut, family, or tribe, and in the language of the Babylonians, a word from the same root meant city or village.

In the Book of Mormon, the word “tent” rarely appears in a metaphorical sense (see 3 Ne. 22:2//Isa. 54:2) but generally refers to an actual shelter or shelters. Sorenson suggests it is unlikely that the military carried collapsible portable tents through the tropical forest of the setting he has chosen. Instead he posits temporary shelters of brush or other readily available material as “tents.” However, several clues in the Book of Mormon itself suggest the more usual meaning of “tent.” For example, Lehi and his party took their tents and departed into the wilderness, and after traveling four days, they pitched their tents again (1 Ne. 16:12-13). At this time they were still in the Near East, but after arriving in the promised land, tents are mentioned as being taken in a number of instances. When the Nephites separated from the Lamanites, Nephi notes that he and his followers “did take” their tents and journeyed in the wilderness for many days, where they pitched their tents (2 Ne. 5:7).

This event occurs near the beginning of the Nephite record, but such references continue. Four hundred years later King Noah sent his army to destroy Alma and the people of the Lord, but having learned of the approach of the army, they “took their tents and their families and departed into the wilderness” (Mosiah 18:34). In another example, Alma had his people pitch their tents in the valley of Gideon after a battle between the Nephites and the Amlicites (Alma 2:20). Alma then sent out spies to discover the plans of the Amlicites. These spies reported that the Amlicites had joined a “numerous host” of Lamanites and were moving toward Zarahemla. In response the Nephites took their tents and departed toward Zarahemla (vv. 21-26). This Nephite army was apparently a large one, and tents were considered valuable enough that they took them along in spite of the fact that the enemy was moving toward a Nephite city. On another occasion Moroni took his army and “marched out with his tents into the wilderness, to cut off the course of Amalickiah in the wilderness” (46:31). It is rather difficult to imagine that this army or any of the groups in the previous examples took brush shelters with them as Sorenson speculates. These examples all suggest portable collapsible structures which could be moved from place to place.

Supporting this view of mobile structures is the fact that references to tents in the Book of Mormon most often involve a group “pitching” its tents. There is a verb in Hebrew which means “to pitch a [p.299] tent” and it refers to a specific kind of activity which would seem to preclude building or assembling a brush shelter.

The rare use of the word “tent” in a metaphorical sense confirms a common meaning of the term. The resurrected Jesus quoting (KJV) Isaiah 54:2 exhorts, “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes” (3 Ne. 22:2). Presumably Christ would be calling up a familiar image for his audience—that of the portable and collapsible tent with its supporting cords and stakes.

The first challenge associated with fitting the description of Nephite tents into a Mesoamerican context concerns the question of what material could have been used for making such tents. Typically a nomad’s tent is made of animal hair or skins, which can be replenished while traveling. A trader’s tent on the other hand is usually made of a material such as cotton which can be repaired during travel. A sustained military force would plan in advance for special needs. The Book of Mormon mentions tents often enough in the context of military activity to suggest a ready source of supply. In fact both military and civilians traveled with tents, suggesting that a tradition of tent-making was integral to economic life.

Archaeological, ethnographic, and linguistic records from Mesoamerica provide no evidence of a tent-making or tent-using tradition and, even more problematic, suggest no available material for making tents. The Book of Mormon frequently refers to sheep, goats, and other domestic animals, which could have supported a tent tradition, but there is no evidence that such animals were present in southern Mesoamerica before Spanish contact. Wild animals in the area which could have supplied either hair or skins for tent making are so small that they are unlikely candidates. Another possibility for tent material is cotton, but there is no evidence that it was ever used for that purpose. It seems unlikely that such a practical tradition as tent-making would die out in Mesoamerica. One would expect to find evidence of such a tradition in iconography or other art forms such as painted scenes on pottery or clay models, and in literary references.

Locating evidence of any kind of portable and collapsible structures for the necessary time period in the area embraced by the Limited Tehuantepec models, or even in Mesoamerica, remains a fundamental problem. The peoples of Mesoamerica dwelt in many kinds of houses at the time of the Spanish conquest and earlier. Beginning at least in the Late Preclassic period, the elite in some areas dwelt in elaborate buildings that are classified as palaces. Commoners throughout the area usually inhabited houses made of perishable materials. Some simple perishable structures were constructed for short-term use. These included field houses to take care of growing crops [p.300] and structures built to utilize seasonal resources. However, none of these were portable structures.

According to accounts written after the conquest, several sorts of portable structures were in use in Aztec (Mexica) military camps near the time of the Spanish conquest. In Cronica Mexicana, a late sixteenth-century account written by Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, a descendant of the rulers of Azcapotzalco, tiendas (often translated as “tents”) are mentioned several times as being used in war camps set up by the Aztecs (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1975).17 At least some of these small structures apparently were assembled from woven grass mats. One particularly large structure called yaotanalalco was the royal warehouse or depository, where arms and foodstuffs were kept. The presence of these structures at the time of Spanish contact is intriguing. However, they were found in central Mexico rather than in the area of the Limited Tehuantepec model. In addition they were known at the time of the conquest, about one thousand years after the end of the Nephite civilization. Again time and place do not coincide.

It is interesting to note that at the time of the Spanish conquest in the Andean region Inca tents were noted by the Spaniards in the large Inca military camp at Cajamarca.18

Based on what the Book of Mormon itself says about tents, the suggestion that the tents it discusses could have been portable woven grass shelters or other temporary shelters assembled from immediately available materials is not convincing. Unless we are willing to believe that an ancient tent-making tradition existed in southern Mesoamerica at the time of the Book of Mormon events of which no trace has been found, it is difficult to place the scene of the Book of Mormon there.


Many economically important plants are mentioned in the Book of Mormon, and some have proven difficult to locate in a Mesoamerican [p.301] setting. Plants are mentioned early in the Jaredite account, for the Jaredites took with them “seeds of every kind” (Ether 2:3). Clues about the practice of agriculture among the Jaredites are revealed in several passages. Soon after landing, they “began to till the earth” (6:13), and later they “did make all manner of tools to till the earth, both to plow and to sow, to reap and to hoe, and also to thrash” (10:25). The processing of grains, suggested here, is confirmed elsewhere. The Jaredites are said to have had “all manner of fruit, and of grain” (9:17), and grain is noted as one means of gaining wealth (10:12). Later specific plants, including corn, barley, neas, sheum, and the olive tree, are mentioned, as are products which imply the existence of specific plants, including “fine linen,” vineyards, and wine presses (1 Ne. 13:7-8; Jacob 5; Mosiah 11:15).

An investigation of which plants were used and domesticated by ancient Mesoamericans can move in several directions, including the study of artistic representations of plants beginning with the Preclassic period, ethnohistorical accounts about plants dating from the Spanish conquest, and the archaeological record in some areas of Mesoamerica beginning with the Archaic period. Archaic period occupations with preserved plant remains have been discovered in caves and rock shelters in areas such as the Tehuacán Valley in central Mexico (MacNeish 1981, 31-47) and the Valley of Oaxaca (Flannery, Marcus, and Kowalewski 1981; Flannery 1986). These sites document at least part of the basic sequence of plant domestication in Mesoamerica, with evidence of such plants as maize, beans, squash, avocado, chili peppers, and the bottle gourd. Fortunately plant remains have been recovered from some sites dating to the proper time periods in the areas chosen by Sorenson and Hauck as possible Book of Mormon lands. For example, Martinez Muriel recovered plant remains in excavations at the site of Don Martin, Chiapas. This site is located near Santa Rosa, which is Sorenson’s candidate for Zarahemla (Martinez Muriel 1978). Don Martin is a small site consisting of five raised mounds (perhaps used for public purposes) and a number of small structures which are probably the remains of houses. The plant remains were recovered from the excavation of several bell-shaped pits dating to the Protoclassic period (200 B.C.-200 C.E.). This period falls into the time frame during which Sorenson postulates the area was part of the land of Zarahemla. The seeds of more than fifty species of plants and other plant parts were among the remains recovered from the pits (Martínez Muriel 1978, 104). Identification of the plants was difficult because most of the remains were carbonized, but twenty-seven plants were identified as to species, ten as to family, and the rest were not identified. Several of those identified were domesticates, including the jack bean (Canavalia), manioc (Manihot), two species of maize (Zea mays), and two species of common [p.302] bean (Phaseolus). Other species that may have been cultivated include amaranth (Amaranthus), chili pepper (Capsicum), goose foot (Chenopodium), sunflower (Helianthus), tobacco (Nicotiana), and Crescentia, Acromia mexicana, and sideroxilon tempisque. Five wild plants were gathered: fig, palm, portulaca, vitis, and annonaceae.

At other archaeological sites in Mesoamerica dating to pre-Columbian times, pollen studies and studies of seeds and other plants have revealed similar plant assemblages. But thus far no Old World plants have been identified by the presence of their pollens or other remains. It is true that in 1982 a native American species of barley was found in an archaeological context dating to about 900 C.E. in Arizona. It is not an Old World import, however, and up to this point no evidence of the native American species has been found in Mesoamerica.


Like domesticated plants, domesticated animals form an important component of civilized life. The Book of Mormon mentions many different kinds of animals, for the most part those which would have been found in an Old World setting. Table 1 lists animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon and their possible Mesoamerican correlates as suggested by Sorenson (1985, 299). Animals such as the dog or honey bee, which present fewer problems for a Mesoamerican setting, are omitted.

Table 1.
Book of Mormon Animals and Their Suggested Correlates19


Cattle, oxen, cows, calf deer, bison, camelidae
sheep, lambs sheep, camelidae, paca, or agouti
goats brocket, deer
swine, sow peccary (wild pig)
horses horse, deer, tapir
asses tapir, camelidae
elephants mammoth, mastodon
curelom sloth, bison, tapir, mammoth, mastodon
cumom sloth, bison, tapir, mammoth, mastodon

Sorenson discusses the terminology used for animals in the Book of Mormon and notes that some labels are unclear. He mentions the frequent references to flocks and herds such as the following: “And they did raise many flocks and herds, yea, many fatlings” (Hel. 6:12). [p.303] He suggests that these flocks and herds could have included deer and pigs (peccary) and various fowls such as turkey, Muscovy duck, Tinamou duck,20 quail, pheasant, partridge, dove, currasow, cotinga, roseate spoonbill, macaw, chachalaca, and parrot (1985, 292-93). He also suggests that the term flocks could apply to hares, rabbits, pacas, agoutis, and even fattened dogs.

However, many of these animals may have been considered unclean for consumption by Nephites, who according to the Book of Mormon kept the Law of Moses (see, e.g., Jacob 4:5, Alma 30:3). We do not know if the Nephites kept the dietary laws but Nephi exhorted them to keep the performances and ordinances of the Law of Moses, inasmuch as it was expedient, until the law was fulfilled (2 Ne. 25:30). It is stated in 4 Ne. 1:12 that they “did not walk any more after the performances and ordinances of the law of Moses.” If they had been keeping the dietary laws, it is unclear whether they abandoned the laws at that point.

If the Nephites kept the dietary laws associated with the Law of Moses, their classification of animals could have been based on those laws. The dietary laws given in the Old Testament state that only animals which have split hooves and chew the cud may be eaten. Prominent among such animals are cattle, sheep, and deer. In the Old Testament, prohibited birds are listed and laws are given concerning fish and other categories of animals. For example, the hare is declared “unclean” because “he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof” (Lev. 11:6). It is further noted: “Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the cloven hoof; as the camel, and the hare, and the coney: for they chew the cud, but divide not the hoof; therefore they are unclean to you” (Deut. 14:7). A further clarification explains: “And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean unto you: whoso toucheth their carcass shall be unclean until the even” (Lev. 11:27).

Such passages indicate that those who kept the Law of Moses and its dietary laws would not have kept flocks of either lagomorphs (hares and rabbits) or rodents (agoutis and pacas) because those animals would have been considered unclean. This also would suggest that the camelidae (llama and alpaca), even if they could be shown to have been present in Mesoamerica at the proper time and place, would not have been considered sheep-like. Their characteristics as measured by the dietary laws would likely have rendered them [p.304] unclean for consumption.

The question of dietary acceptability could be raised concerning other New World animals proposed as Book of Mormon correlates. Sorenson’s suggestion that the reference to horses in 3 Nephi 4:4 indicates that their main use was for food rather than carrying goods should be examined within this context of diet (1985, 296). Logically the dietary laws could have formed the basis for categorizing or naming animals among Nephites. However, the same prohibitions would not have been in force among Jaredites. Jaredites are in fact noted to have had swine, which Nephites would have considered unclean (Ether 9:18).

There are several avenues of inquiry which might be pursued in considering what animals were found in Mesoamerica during prehispanic times: representations of animals in art, animal remains recovered from archaeological sites, and records from the time of the Spanish conquest describing the animals present. Trying to fit the Book of Mormon animals into the Mesoamerican setting creates many of the same kinds of problems encountered dealing with metallurgy, tents, plants, and other cultural categories. In order to make the model work, we must assume one of two things. Perhaps the actual animals named in the Book of Mormon existed in the proper area at the proper time although no evidence has yet been discovered to demonstrate this. Or perhaps many of the animal names found in the Book of Mormon actually refer to different animals present in the proper area of Mesoamerica at the proper time.

Difficulties beset either approach. It is difficult to argue, for example, that animals other than those named are being referred to when specific characteristics of an animal are described. For example, there are two references in Mosiah to people having burdens put upon their backs and being driven like a “dumb ass” (12:5, 21:3). Sorenson has demonstrated from a number of sources that when humans are confronted with animals they have not seen before they often give the animals names based either on their characteristics or on their similarity to previously known animals. When the name is based upon similarities to previously known animals, however, there is usually some qualifying term added in to point out the difference between the two animals. For example, the tapir was called anteburro (“formerly an ass”) by the Spaniards who recognized both its similarities to, and differences from, an animal they were familiar with. What we do not seem to see in the Book of Mormon account is any indication that the animals named were merely similar in some respects to the animals whose names they were given. To more thoroughly explore this topic of animals, it would be necessary to look at the references for each animal mentioned in the Book of Mormon and then look at the evidence [p.305] available for Mesoamerica. For the purposes of this paper, I will single out the horse as a specific example.

References to horses are found throughout much of the chronological scope of the Book of Mormon, and in a number of instances horses are associated with chariots.21 The earliest chronological reference states that Jaredites had “horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms” as well as cattle, oxen, cows, sheep, swine, and goats (Ether 9:18-19). Later the horse also appears on the list of animals which Lehi’s party found in the land of promise when they arrived. The list also includes the horse, cow, ox, ass, goat, and wild goat (1 Ne. 18:25). Elsewhere the book explains that the people of Nephi raised many horses, along with “flocks of herds,” “flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind,” goats, and wild goats (Enos 1:21). Twice King Lamoni’s horses and chariots are prepared for traveling (Alma 18:9-10; 20:6). Horses and chariots also are among the items which Nephites assembled before their battle with the Gadianton robbers (3 Ne. 3:22).22 These references indicate that horses functioned in several areas to pull conveyances of some sort.23

Sorenson offers several possible candidates for the horse. One is the horse itself, but he also suggests the tapir and the deer. The suggestion that the horse was present in Mesoamerica during Book of Mormon times is problematic. The horse was present during the Pleistocene Epoch in the Americas but is considered to have become extinct after the end of the last Ice Age. Sorenson points out that horse bones have been found at several sites on the Yucatán Peninsula (1985, 295-97; 1992, 98-100). A brief publication reports studies of mammal bones excavated in Loltún Cave, one of the sites mentioned by Sorenson (Alvarez and Polaco 1983). The cave contains a number of connected caverns. Test excavations in one of these produced a wealth of osteological material, including a total of 1,824 bones and fragments assignable to 32 genera of mammals. Although no radiocarbon dates were available at the time the report was written, stratigraphic evidence indicates that the horse (Equus), bison (Bison), mammoth (Mammut), and dire wolf (Canis dirus) appeared only in Pleistocene levels and became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. Henry Mercer, who [p.306] journeyed to Yucatán and excavated in a number of cave sites in the Uxmal area, reported finding the remains of horses in three caves—Sayab, Lara, and Chekt-a-leh (1896, 172). He suggested that these were European horses which were cooked and eaten in the caves because their remains were found in the latest layers with some teeth found on the surface at Sayab and Lara. At Chekt-a-leh the remains were in a disturbed rubbish heap, and their relation to any particular stratigraphic layer was uncertain.

The remains of horses also were found during the excavations at the Postclassic Mayan site of Mayapan on the Yucatán peninsula (Ray 1957, 278; Pollock and Ray 1957, 635, 638). Two of the specimens are easily explained as modern because they came from surface lots. According to Ray, fragmentary horse teeth were recovered from Cenote Ch’en Mul near Mayapan, where they were found in the bottom layer “in a sequence of unconsolidated earth almost two meters in thickness” (278). They are considered pre-Columbian. Due to the degree of mineralization which was greater than that of any bone or tooth found near them, they are thought to be of Pleistocene age. Ray suggests that the Maya may have picked up the fossil teeth as curios and transported them to the site. At this point then there is no convincing evidence that the horse survived until the period of the Mesoamerican civilizations.

A final point that might be made concerning the presence of the horse during Preclassic and Classic times in Mesoamerica is that no ancient depictions of the horse have been found there. There are thousands of ancient art works which show native plants and animals of Mesoamerica, but in none thus far discovered are horses shown. Certainly the horse is an impressive animal, and it would be expected that it would be depicted along with the deer, jaguar, peccary, tapir, and other large mammals. Beyond mere artistic depictions, animals were integrated into the iconography and religion of the various groups. The Maya writing system, utilized in at least some parts of the areas chosen by both Hauck and Sorenson, portrayed many animals but the horse is not among them.

Problems also exist with the suggestion that the horses referred to in the Book of Mormon could have been deer or tapirs. It seems unlikely that both Jaredites and Nephites, who were well-acquainted with horses, would have mistaken a deer or a tapir for a horse. Their experience in the Old World should have led them to categorize the small New World deer and the squat stout tapir as animals considerably different from the horse.

There is little evidence suggesting that tapirs ever have been tamed or used as beasts of burden. They are extremely shy, hiding in the forest by day and coming out at night to feed. Although adults [p.307] weigh between 225 and 300 kilograms, they are short animals averaging about one meter in height which, even if domesticated for some purpose, seem unsuitable for riding (Janson 1981, 85). Recently Sorenson (1992a) has published an annotated bibliography concerning animals in the Book of Mormon. He lists several references that claim tapirs can be tamed if captured young. Navarrete (1987, 260), for example, quotes Fr. Agustin de Ceballos’s account of 1610 from Costa Rica that Indians reared tame tapirs in their houses which were sacrificed by prominent members of the group for fiestas. Navarete (240) also references the 1722 account of Fr. Ximénez who related that tapirs were raised for use in fiestas but were fierce and could not be domesticated. Fräidrich (1972, 29) noted that young orphaned tapirs are often found in native villages in South America and that they let children ride on their backs. This same source states that German-Brazilian settlers have occasionally tamed them and on remote farms even used them to pull ploughs. Evidence has not been offered that tapirs were being used for riding or to pull chariots or carts in pre-Columbian times or that they have been used to any extent for either purpose since the arrival of the Europeans.

Sorenson’s evidence that deer could have been used for riding or as beasts of burden is also very thin, consisting of artistic representations on several Mayan archaeological pieces. One of the pieces he mentions is a modeled censer cover of uncertain period from Poptun in the Guatemalan Petén. This piece depicts a male anthropomorphic figure astride a deer, whose antlers are missing and whose tongue appears to protrude (Kidder 1954, 11, Fig. 4c). The anthropomorphic figure clutches the ears of the deer, which is shown in a sitting position with hind limbs splayed unnaturally to each side and front limbs stretched out before it. The feet of the anthropomorphic figure touch the ground. The meaning of this figure is difficult to interpret, but possibly the deer is dead. This is suggested by its unnatural posture and protruding tongue and the fact that the figure, who may be a hunter, holds the head up by its ears.

A second archaeological piece mentioned by Sorenson is a stone monument from a site in Belize dating to about 700 C.E.. This piece shows a woman holding on to the antlers of a deer while astride its neck. A check of the reference reveals that the scene actually occurs on a fragmentary Mayan polychrome ceramic vessel recovered from a cave site (Pendergast 1969), an oversight remedied by Sorenson in his recent bibliography on animals (1992a, 27). There is a number of other figures on the vessel, and the excavator, David Pendergast, suggests that a ceremonial deer hunt is being portrayed. One deer in the scene is apparently dead or dying from still bleeding wounds, and the second has been hit by a spear shown protruding from the right hind leg. The deer [p.308] is being threatened with spears positioned on spear-throwers held by two hunters who face him. The bodies of two other hunters facing the deer from the opposite side are on the missing section of the vase. A woman is shown astride the neck of the still living deer, and she clutches the antlers with her left hand in what Pendergast terms “an anatomically impossible position” (45). Behind the woman a dwarf sits on an object which is impossible to identify because most of that section of the vase is missing. It is suggested that this scene parallels to some extent a scene found in the Dresden Codex and, based on the glyphs found on the vase, that the hunters are Mayan deities rather than mortals.

There are many other depictions of deer on ceramic vessels from the Classic period in the Mayan area. Some of these are realistic renderings while others clearly involve mythological or ritual matters, with deer as participants in a variety of scenes. Another example of an anthropomorph astride a deer is found in a scene on a Late Classic codex style polychrome vase which is one of three vessels with a similar theme. This style, apparently practiced for a fairly short period of time perhaps in a rather limited area of the northern Guatemalan Petén, produced some of the finest ceramic art of the ancient Maya (see Coe 1978; Robicsek and Hales 1981).

The three codex style vessels mentioned have a similar theme which has been called the “Death of the Old God” (Robicsek and Hales 1981, 20-21, 39, 110-111). The central figure on all three vessels is a deity with deer ears which investigators have labeled as the “Old God,” who may be either God L or God N, the principal ruler of the underworld. Robicsek and Hales (111) have suggested that the two deities are actually aspects of a single deity. The Old God is shown lying on a platform, apparently near death or dead, surrounded by male and female attendants, including perhaps his consort. All of the male attendants have deer ears but the females do not. On each vase, a second focus of activity, involving a female anthropomorph or anthropomorphs and deer, takes place beyond the foot of the platform or bier and behind an attendant who kneels there. On two of the three vessels (Vessels 14 and 16 in Robicsek and Hales 1981, 20-21), there is a single deer and a single female anthropomorph.

In both cases the deer is portrayed standing in front of the female anthropomorph with its head turned back over its shoulder looking either toward the female or perhaps toward the scene at the bier. The female anthropomorphs associated with the deer on both of the vessels appear to be wearing dresses made of some transparent material leaving their breasts visible. They are each wearing a necklace and bracelets and one of the females is wearing a hat similar to that worn by the female astride the deer on the vessel from Actun Balaam discussed [p.309] above. Each female stands at about the mid-point of the deer’s body and the one on Vessel 14 has her arms about the deer as she looks toward it. The female associated with the deer on Vessel 16 is looking back toward the scene on the platform and appears to be clutching a stick or spear in her right hand. She may be holding the deer with her left hand. The deer are portrayed with antlers and each has a rope around its neck and a band around the back and abdomen. On the third vessel (Vessel 15 in Robicsek and Hales 1981, 20), which has two female anthropomorphs and two deer, the female nearest the platform on which the Old God rests is shown astride a deer. She is wearing a sheer garment which reveals her large breasts and other body features. She also wears a necklace, ear ornaments, bracelets, and a hat like that worn by the female on Vessel 14. Sitting astride the deer, she glances back over her shoulder at an area above the platform scene and her right arm is extended behind her. The antlered deer with a rope about its neck is rearing up on its hind legs as it faces forward. The other female and deer are just in front of it. This female has jewelry similar to that of the other but wears an elaborate headdress rather than a hat. Her arms are wrapped closely about the neck and over the back of a deer which she appears to be restraining as she glances backward.

There have been some attempts to interpret the scenes found on these vessels but none of those includes the suggestion that the Maya were actually riding deer as a means of transport. The general suggestion is that the scenes represent mythological events involving supernatural beings. Another codex style vessel illustrates (Vessel 140 in Robicsek and Hales 1981, 170) the erotic symbolism involving white-tailed deer among the ancient Maya. On one portion of the vessel an elderly male anthropomorph is shown sitting across from a partially nude young female anthropomorph. He leans on his right hand with the palm resting flat on the ground and reaches forward to the young female’s breast with his left hand. These figures are identified as deities by the accompanying hieroglyphic text. The remainder of the vessel exterior is taken up by a scene showing a kneeling young woman opening her robe to reveal her nude body to an advancing male deer. Originally the deer was identified by name in the accompanying hieroglyphic text but that portion is now eroded. It has been suggested that the deer represents an aspect of the elderly deity.

Neither the depictions on the polychrome ceramic vessels nor that on the modeled censer cover present adequate evidence that deer were being ridden by the Maya. In addition, these examples come from the lowland Mayan area, and evidence has not been presented relating to the area included within Sorenson’s model.

Another point for consideration is that the sub-races of the white-tailed deer found in tropical climates in the Americas are significantly [p.310] smaller than those found in the northern latitudes.24 This deer is one of the largest native mammals in the area chosen by Sorenson, but it is probably not large enough for riding. However, there is evidence that at least the Yucatec Maya tamed and kept deer. Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century Spanish Bishop of Yucatán, wrote that Mayan women suckled deer at their breasts and made them so tame that they never went into the woods (1941, 127). The practice of capturing and keeping deer in corrals or huts near houses continues to the present day in some areas on the YucatAn peninsula (Kintz 1990, 13-14).

The view held by most Mesoamerican scholars about the existence of pre-Columbian animals suitable for riding or as beasts of burden is summed up in a recently published volume about the ancient Maya. In discussing the kind of technology available to the Maya, Schele and Freidel note, “All they accomplished was done by means of stone tools, utilizing human beings as their beasts of burden: No animals large enough to carry cargo lived in Mesoamerica before the coming of the Spanish” (1990, 60).25


Sorenson and Hauck have both suggested correlations between sites described in the Book of Mormon and sites which have been investigated archaeologically. An important line of investigation thus becomes how well the actual Mesoamerican sites and their proposed Book of Mormon correlates match.

Sorenson has examined what is known archaeologically about each of the areas within the scope of his model. Table 2 lists his suggested archaeological correlates for Book of Mormon places. [p.311]

Table 2.
Archaeological Correlations for the Sorenson Model

Archaeological Site/Modern Area Book of Mormon Correlate
San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico Lib
La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico Mulek
Oaxaca Valley, Oaxaca, Mexico Land of Moron
near Minatitian, Veracruz, Mexico City of Desolation
Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico Sidom
Comitan, Chiapas, Mexico Gideon
Guajilar, Chiapas, Mexico Zeerom
Ocozocuautla, Chiapas, Mexico Noah
Mirador, Chiapas, Mexico Ammonihah
San Isidro, Chiapas, Mexico Aaron
Central Depression, Chiapas, Mexico Land of Zarahemla
Santa Rosa, Chiapas, Mexico City of Zarahemla
La Libertad, Chiapas, Mexico Manti
near Motozintla Antiparah
Vera Cruz II Melek
El Chayal, Guatemala Onidah
Chalchitan, Guatemala Helam
Kaminaljúyú, Guatemala City of Nephi
Frutal, Guatemala Shilom
Cerro Vigia, Veracruz, Mexico Cumorah
San Miguel, Tabasco, Mexico Jershon
Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala Jerusalem
San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala Ani-Anti
Valley of Antigua, Guatemala Land of Middoni
Chicomuselo area, Chiapas, Mexico Judea
near Motozintla or Amatenango de la Frontera, Chiapas, Mexico Cumeni
Huehuetenango area, Guatemala Valley of Alma
Rio Blanco Valley or Malacatancito, Guatemala Helam
near Acaycan and Hueyapan Jashon and Shem
near Laguna Mecoacan or Tupilco, Veracruz, Mexico City of Moroni

Within a single paper I cannot discuss all of these areas and sites. Rather I have chosen one site to illustrate the challenges encountered in trying to match Mesoamerican sites with descriptions of settlements in the Book of Mormon. My example is Santa Rosa, in Sorenson’s model the site of Zarahemla.

There are important general points worth noting concerning the above sites, including Santa Rosa. Archaeological investigations at the sites represent only a limited sampling of the material remains, as they [p.312] do at most sites. Only some questions about the sites have been answered or clarified by the fieldwork. Further fieldwork is not possible at a number of sites in Chiapas, including Santa Rosa, because they are now covered by the waters of the Angostura Dam; and the results of much of the final work done in that area remain to be published. Chances for learning more about the site of Kaminaljúyú in the Valley of Guatemala become increasingly slim as the modern capital city continues to engulf it. Additionally, many of the areas surrounding the sites have not yet been adequately surveyed.

Santa Rosa/Zarahemla
Descriptions of Zarahemla in the Book of Mormon can be used to develop a profile which an archaeological site should match in order to be considered a candidate for Zarahemla. According to the Book of Mormon, the city was located on the west bank of the Sidon (Alma 2:15, 25-27). Zarahemla was a walled city. After the Lamanite army under Coriantumr had entered the city, the chief judge Pacumeni fled from Coriantumr “even to the walls of the city,” and Coriantumr killed him by smiting him against the wall (Hel. 1:21). Later when Samuel the Lamanite entered the land of Zarahemla to preach, the people would not allow him to enter the city, so he climbed the wall and preached to them from there (13:2-4). Those among the Nephites who did not believe Samuel as he spoke from the walls cast stones and shot arrows at him, but he was protected from blows by the spirit of the Lord (16:2). At the death of Jesus, Zarahemla and its inhabitants were burned (3 Ne. 8:8; 9:3). Later the city was rebuilt (4 Ne. 1:8).

A number of archaeological investigations have occurred in Santa Rosa in the state of Chiapas, Mexico—the site which Sorenson suggests comes closest to this profile suggested by the Book of Mormon. The first investigations there were carried out by Gareth W. Lowe in 1956 (1959, 49-52). He noted that Santa Rosa appeared to be the largest Preclassic site on the Grijalva River between the site of Chiapa de Corzo and the Guatemalan frontier. More intensive fieldwork was carried out by the New World Archaeological Foundation in 1958 (Delgado 1965). Located on the south side of the Grijalva River at its confluence with the Aguacate River, the site of Santa Rosa is composed of over forty earthen mounds. A cluster of twenty-eight mounds oriented along a general east-west line forms the central group (see Maps 4 and 5). Delgado noted that there is little planning in the architectural layout other than the general east-west orientation. The central portion of the site includes an area about 500 meters north-south by about 800 meters east-west. Mound W is the tallest at the site, reaching a height of 14 meters. Mound S, a platform measuring 74 meters east-west by 80 meters north-south, is the largest.

[p.313] The excavations in Santa Rosa were adequate, although by no means as extensive as those in Chiapa de Corzo and other sites in the region. These excavations consisted of seventeen trenches in mounds and twenty-nine stratigraphic test pits (Brockington 1967, 1). The excavations revealed six periods of prehistoric occupation in Santa Rosa and one brief period of historic occupation (Brockington 1967, 4). Phase 1 is Middle Preclassic (800-600 B.C.) with no known associated architecture; the ceramic distribution suggests that a zone of scattered houses existed along the Rio Aguacate. In Phase 2 (600-500 B.C.), also Middle Preclassic, Brockington postulates from his study of ceramic distribution that there was a clustered village with a moiety or dual division indicated by two separate parallel areas of potsherds (1967, 60). The village was oriented in relation to a ceremonial structure (Mound V).

During Phase 3 (500-50 B.C.) there was further ceremonial construction (Mounds G and W), and the two parallel areas of potsherd concentrations continue although they are longer and wider, indicating that the basic Phase 2 arrangement continued but with a greater population. Phase 4 (50 B.C.-200 C.E.) was a time of cultural florescence at Santa Rosa with considerable construction in the ceremonial center. According to Brockington, the areas of potsherd concentrations seen in the previous two phases survive but have more complex patterns. He sees this as evidence that a basic moiety division continued to exist (1967, 60-61). As further evidence he mentions a layer of gravel atop Mound S at the site center. The gravel on each side of a median line was different and unmixed, suggesting that a separate group made each section.

Phase 5 begins at about 200 C.E. and corresponds to the Early Classic period in the Mayan area. Remains from this period are sparsely represented in Santa Rosa, and little construction can be assigned to this period. The population at the site seems to have declined significantly from Phase 4 times. Ceramic distribution is altered from earlier periods; a concentration now runs through the site center along a northeast-southwest line. This change probably indicates a break with earlier traditions. Brockington suggests that there may have been a hiatus of occupation between Phases 5 and 6. In Phase 6 (800-1000 C.E.) the settlement pattern was similar to that of Phase 5 and the population was close to the smaller population of Phase 5. A long hiatus of occupation at the site followed Phase 6. It lasted until after the Spanish conquest when the site was reoccupied for a short time, probably in the early nineteenth century.26

Plan of Santa Rosa Archaeological Zone (in Brockington 1967, 2).

Map of vicinity of Santa Rosa, showing Phase 1 Settlement pattern (in Brockington 1967, 58).[p.315] Excavations in Santa Rosa revealed nine burials and twelve caches from various phases. Only two burials, both from the Classic period, contained offerings. Animal remains recovered from the excavations include wild pig, ocelot, puma, tapir, white-tail deer, a few small bird bones, and a few mollusks. A large number of potsherds, a few whole ceramic vessels, and a good many anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurine fragments from both Preclassic and Classic contexts were recovered. Other ceramic artifacts from Santa Rosa include musical instruments (ocarina, whistles, flute), ear ornaments, a pectoral (pendant), a cylindrical stamp, several flat stamps, a Late Classic figurine mold, several spindle whorls, and two double rings. The excavations produced some chipped stone artifacts, including a Classic period flint knife and some obsidian blades and flakes. A few ground stone implements were found, including celts, metates, manos, a mortar, a rubbing stone, several polishing stones, a number of gaming pieces, a palette, and a fragmentary saw or musical rasp. Ornaments found in Santa Rosa include a marble ear ornament and beads of jade, other types of stone, and shell. There were also a fragment of a shell mosaic and a shell trumpet. Several carved bone objects were found as were a fragment of a small incised wooden bowl, two small lots of hematite (useful for pigment), and a piece of mica. Metal artifacts were not recovered nor were there any carved monuments or evidences of early writing.27

Sufficient data about the nature of the site and its occupation have been discovered to draw useful conclusions about how closely Santa Rosa matches the profile for Zarahemla suggested by the Book of Mormon. If the cardinal directions are shifted, as Sorenson’s model requires, Santa Rosa is on the proper side of the river (west rather than south) and is the largest site on that side with remains dating to the proper period.

However, Zarahemla’s other known features are difficult to correlate with what is known of Santa Rosa. One problem is Santa Rosa’s lack of any city wall, a prominent feature of Zarahemla. None was detected on the ground when Santa Rosa was mapped, nor can any be seen in aerial photographs. In an article comparing Mesoamerican fortifications with those described in the Book of Mormon, Sorenson argued that walls can be difficult to detect if the materials they were constructed from were carried off by later peoples for use in construction elsewhere (1990, 428). However, discernible walls and fortifications dating to the late Preclassic period have been found at a number [p.316] of sites in the Mayan area, many of which experienced significant rebuilding during the Classic period. Such findings suggest that if defensive walls had existed in Santa Rosa, the cartographers or excavators would have detected their presence.

Sorenson suggests that the walls of Zarahemla were probably made of “heaps of earth” (1990, 436). But in order to accommodate the events which occur in Zarahemla he must postulate a wall which Samuel the Lamanite could scale from the outside but which was vertical on the inside, forcing his pursuers to exit through a gate. Such a city wall would allow those outside the advantage of a position from which to attack the populace but could not be climbed from within.

Sorenson focuses on the division of habitation in Santa Rosa into two zones and the layer of gravel with its two separate divisions under the plaster floor on top of Mound S dating to Phase 4 (50 B.C.E.-C.E. 200). He suggests that the two groups involved could have been the people of Zarahemla and the people of Nephi (1985, 156). This seems unlikely because the dual division of the population is discernable as far back as Phase 2 (600-500 B.C.E.) and is seen to continue through Phase 3 into Phase 4. The pattern of settlement at Santa Rosa was established long before the people of Nephi would have arrived at the site.

Evidence of fire is also a possible means of comparing the sites, since Zarahemla and its inhabitants were burned at the time of Jesus’s death. A few structures tested in Santa Rosa showed some evidence of burning, but not all episodes of burning occurred at the proper time nor is there any evidence of a general episode of burning at the site of the type suggested by the Book of Mormon account.

The relation of Santa Rosa to other sites in the area is another means of comparing Santa Rosa and Zarahemla. Sorenson suggests a correlation between Chiapa de Corzo, another site in the area, and Sidom. Santa Rosa was the largest site on the south side of the Grijalva within its immediate area, but it is much smaller than Chiapa de Corzo. Delgado has noted that “Santa Rosa, in spite of its relative grandeur compared to most early sites on the upper Grijalva, was rather poor when compared with Chiapa de Corzo at the lower end of the Central Depression. The latter was apparently a far richer and better-constructed ceremonial center, probably as a result of its position at a more important cultural crossroads” (1965, 79). Thus for Sorenson’s correlation of sites to work, Zarahemla would need to have been a small, rather isolated regional center while Sidom was the major population and trade center in the area—a major revision of the profile suggested by the Book of Mormon.

It is difficult then to find evidence for the correlation between Santa Rosa and Zarahemla which Sorenson proposes. Although I have [p.317] chosen to discuss only Santa Rosa, there are similar difficulties in making the correlations with other suggested sites.

The major problem with evaluating the plausibility of the correlations which Hauck suggests has to do with the extent of the evidence he has offered. As Hamblin pointed out in a review of Hauck’s model, many of his sites are known only to himself because they were documented as a result of his own explorations (1989, 72). We do not have the maps, plans, and archaeological data from these sites needed in order to evaluate the claims made for them. It is not fair, however, to conclude that “Hauck apparently went driving through Mexico or Guatemala, found some ruins, and has declared them to be from Nephite times” (Hamblin 1989, 72). Hauck is a professional archaeologist whose thesis and dissertation were both written about field projects he carried out in Mesoamerica. He notes that by 1986 he had conducted six Mesoamerican field expeditions in connection with his research (1988, xiii). Still the problem remains. Until the information concerning the sites is available, it is impossible to evaluate how well they fit the descriptions of Book of Mormon sites.

The Jaredites

In my opinion one of the greatest challenges that Sorenson must meet is his placement of Jaredites with their highly advanced culture in Mesoamerica at about 3000 B.C. Jaredites are the earliest group described in the Book of Mormon arriving from the Near East. Jared, his brother, the brothers’ friends, and all of their families were preserved from having their language confounded at the time of the “great tower” (Ether 1:33-37).

The Book of Mormon makes clear that this group was at a complex level of sociopolitical organization and that they brought with them much of their knowledge and skill. Their subsistence was based on farming and herding in the Old World, accomplishments that had millennia of development behind them. The Old World subsistence base of the Jaredites is established early on in the account when they are instructed by the Lord to “Go to gather together thy flocks, both male and female, of every kind; and also of the seed of the earth of every kind … ” (Ether 1:41). Beyond the flocks and seeds, Jared and his company also carried with them fowls, fish, honey bees, and “all manner of that which was upon the face of the land” (2:2-3). When the group came to the great sea that divided the lands, they pitched their tents on the seashore and lived in tents for four years (v. 13). After this interlude, they built under divine guidance barges or vessels for sea travel. Before boarding the vessels, they prepared food for “their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should [p.318] carry with them” (6:4).

After 344 days on the water, they arrived on the shores of the promised land (Ether 6:11). After their arrival, they began to till the earth, reflecting the continuation of their previous lifeway (vv. 12-13). Before the deaths of Jared and his brother, the Jaredites grew in numbers, had a king named Orihah appointed to reign over them, prospered, and became exceedingly rich (vv. 18, 22-28). Jaredites thus were reestablishing, if on a smaller scale, the same level of sociopolitical complexity they were accustomed to in the Old World. Jaredite society was hierarchical rather than egalitarian with an elite ruling class. During the reign of King Kib, the grandson of Jared, the political institution of the Jaredites is specifically called a kingdom.28 Within this context of a kingdom, thrones are specifically mentioned in relation to Jaredite rulers. For example, Jared sat on a throne to give audience and was murdered there by Akish (9:5). Whether the Jaredite kingdom was more similar to a chiefdom or to an incipient state could be debated, but it certainly was a stratified society.

Throughout the Jaredite account in the Book of Ether, many cultural clues are available concerning the lifeway of the Jaredites in the promised land. Jaredite metallurgy and tents have already been discussed. In addition “money” is mentioned as are fruit, grain, silks, fine linen, gold, silver, cattle, oxen, cows, sheep, swine, goats, horses, asses, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms (Ether 9:11, 17-19).

Jaredites have been correlated with Olmecs in most Limited Tehuantepec models. This equation is from the outset problematic since the Olmec civilization as currently understood occupied only a portion of the time block set aside for the Jaredites. Olmec civilization is generally dated between 1200 and 400 B.C., leaving most of the Jaredite period in pre-Olmec times. Thus earlier groups in Mesoamerica also must be considered.

According to Sorenson’s dating, the Jaredites migrated about 3000 B.C., placing their arrival in Mesoamerica in the latter part of the Archaic period. Sorenson states that by about 3000 B.C. corn farmers were living in villages and “displayed skills in pottery manufacture at a number of locations in south-central Mexico” (1985, 110). This seems to be too early for the current dating of the beginning of ceramics in Mesoamerica. This beginning is not dated any earlier than about 2400 B.C. in Puerto Márquez, where a large shell mound site is located on a [p.319] lagoon on the Pacific Coast of Guerro, Mexico, and about 2000 B.C. in the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla, Mexico (Adams 1991, 37, 41).29 Corrections of the C14 dates could push these dates back somewhat but likely not 600 years.

The archaeological manifestations in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec area and Mesoamerica generally in 3000 B.C. consist of a few small horticultural villages and groups of Archaic hunters and gatherers. These are difficult to correlate with the advanced lifeway of the Jaredites outlined in the Book of Mormon.

On the north-central coast of Veracruz, the site of Santa Luisa has yielded abundant remains from the Archaic and Formative periods (Wilkerson 1981). The site is an occupational zone stretching for about a kilometer along a deltaic island in the river mouth. During the Palo Hueco Phase (4000-2400 B.C.) of the Archaic period, a permanent village apparently existed in Santa Luisa, but no ceramics are associated with this village. Subsistence appears to have been based entirely on fishing, hunting, gathering, and collecting shellfish. There is a gap from about 2400 to 1700 B.C. in the occupation of Santa Luisa as it is presently understood. Ceramic technology seems to have been introduced to the area during the hiatus because it is present in the following Early Formative Raudal Phase (1700-1450 B.C.). Maize was not yet included as a major staple. It is only in the following Almeria Phase (1450-1350 B.C.) of the Early Formative period that there are indicators of the presence of maize.

In the Oaxaca Valley, which some models include in the Jaredite lands, the first evidence of houses and pottery found thus far is attributed to the Espiridion complex from the site of San Jose Mogote and dates between 2000 and 1400 B.C. (Flannery et al. 1981, 65). Other areas of central and southern Mesoamerica which have been tested indicate similar patterns. This, of course, does not mean that earlier occurrences of pottery or farming villages could not be found by future investigators in the areas chosen for the Limited Tehuantepec models. But, in general the lifeway of the peoples in those areas during the proper time period does not seem to correlate well with the picture of Jaredite civilization.

It is assumed that most of these Mesoamerican groups were at a [p.320] band or tribal level of social organization which was egalitarian rather than stratified. There is some evidence for the development of chiefdoms in the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico, during the Lacona Phase (about 1650 B.C.) (Clark and Blake 1989). This is still about 1350 years after the suggested arrival of the Jaredites in 3000 B.C. Where are the cities, rulers, thrones, metallurgy, and sophisticated practices of the Jaredites?

Recent archaeological investigations have continued to highiight the sophistication of the Preclassic Mesoamerican developments, including the Olmec civilization. The Olmec civilization came on the scene by 1200 B.C. with all of the longed-for accoutrements of civilization.30 But Olmec civilization still seems very different from the Jaredite civilization described in the Book of Mormon. As discussed above, the metallurgy, plants, and animals ascribed to the Jaredites have not been found in connection with the Olmecs.


This study has attempted to evaluate critically some of the major arguments associated with two models of Book of Mormon geography based on the Limited Tehuantepec concept. Although Sorenson and Hauck suggest some interesting possibilities, both models have geographical difficulties which have not been satisfactorily resolved. With Sorenson’s approach one must accept that the Nephites rotated their system of cardinal directions 60 degrees or more to the west even though they had several means of ascertaining directions once they arrived in the promised land. One must also accept that this orientation was maintained throughout Nephite history. Finding Hauck’s geographical model plausible requires creating two lands of Bountiful and accepting a coastal corridor as the narrow neck of land.

If somehow one decides that these geographical problems can be ignored or solved at a future time, a review of the archaeological evidence associated with any Limited Tehuantepec model reveals additional problems that remain to be solved. In this essay I have considered in a brief way the topics of metallurgy, tents, plants, animals, and sites. I have not ventured into other important areas such as biological anthropology, linguistics, and ancient writing systems. There are significant challenges in those areas which remain to be addressed. For example, at least five writing systems were developed in [p.321] ancient Mesoamerica, but no one has convincingly demonstrated a link between any of them and any Near Eastern derived system or to anything resembling the Anthon transcript.

To be fair, Sorenson informs his readers throughout his study that he is making suggestions about possible correlations in each area considered. But after an entire book of such suggestions, it is possible to come away with the impression that the correlations have been made successfully. Sorenson suggests that his model is plausible, that “the setting described could reasonably have been” as he represents it. He states that he does not insist that “specific Book of Mormon people must be identified with particular sites, structures or artifacts”; however, “at some points the fit between scriptural specification and external fact” seem to Sorenson to “have passed beyond mere plausibility to the level of probability.” He comments, “As the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it” (1985, xx, 188).

At this point, it is time to ask whether either the Hauck or Sorenson model has achieved this degree of probability. This is a question that each must answer in her or his own way. For me these models require too many changes and arbitrary interpretations, too many deviations from the plain meaning of the words in the text of the Book of Mormon, for either of them to achieve even a partial fit with the geographical and archaeological evidence. There are too many areas where one must either assume that evidence exists but has not yet been found or that something other than the words actually used were intended. Using this sort of approach, the Book of Mormon scene could be superimposed on just about any area of Mesoamerica or the Andean region and even some areas of the present United States. One would only need assume that the plates, which are no longer available, were the only surviving examples of the writing.31 Too much side-stepping of this sort can lead to the absurd.

These remarks should not give the impression that correlations of the sort Sorenson and Hauck have attempted are easily made. There are numerous examples from the Near East of the problems involved in correlating ancient accounts, including the Bible, with the interpretations of archaeological findings. Approaches to such problems in that area include not only a careful evaluation of the archaeology but of the text as well. Although archaeology is not an exact science, it continues to develop and refine its questions. As investigations continue in an area such as Mesoamerica, certain patterns concerning the life-ways of the people during various time periods are revealed. The life-ways currently outlined by archaeologists for peoples in the areas of [p.322] Mesoamerica chosen by the various Limited Tehuantepec models cannot be said to match well with those presented for the Book of Mormon peoples. Both Jaredites and Nephites/Lamanites are depicted as following an Old World lifeway brought with them from the Near East, which included specific plants, animals, and technologies.

Sorenson has called up numerous examples of findings from throughout Mesoamerica and beyond to show that the record is not settled on such problems as the presence of horses, sheep, barley, and the early practice of metallurgy. However, most of the references Sorenson cites are problematic in some way or another. His method is a bits-and-pieces approach involving a large area and all time periods rather than the specific area and time he has selected, failing to take into account the specific cultural processes and developments in that area. Seeking to support Sorenson’s model, researchers have offered numerous examples of cultural practices and items found at sites located in what is now the Department of Petén, Guatemala, or the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, which includes the modern day states of Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. These are the areas where many of Maya civilization’s greatest achievements occurred. Yet neither Sorenson’s nor Hauck’s model is able to successfully incorporate these areas.

Does the shoe fit for the current Limited Tehuantepec theory models? Rather than a comfortable “Cinderella” fit, it is more like a “step-sister” mismatch, requiring considerable remodeling of shoe and foot.


1. As an aside, it may be useful to explore briefly the basis on which the Andean area has been discounted as a location for Book of Mormon events. Warren (1990, 127-136) states that the “Andean area lacks the surrounding seas, writing systems (dating to the Book of Mormon period), and appropriate topographical patterns and has no surviving written traditions.” Further he notes that Andean civilization began with a maritime rather than an agricultural economy. Irrigation agriculture as a subsistence base appeared later. Warren’s final point is that the languages of the Mesoamerican and Andean areas are not related to each other.

Although some of these points are important considerations, many are not by any means settled among scholars. For example, the hypothesis advanced by Moseley (1975) that civilization on the west coast of South America rose from a maritime base has been roundly criticized. Analyses of midden deposits, coprolites, and bone chemistry have shown that coastal inhabitants were eating a mixed diet of wild and cultivated plants as well as the main staples of marine fish, mammals, and invertebrates in the third millennium B.C. (Feldman 1987, 9). As to writing, in spite of some tantalizing possibilities, there is no generally accepted evidence that any ancient writing system developed in South America. However, there are numerous references to ancient South American writing systems comprising or influenced by Old World writing systems and those which are claimed to be completely indigenous. These references come from all over South America and relate to many time periods and cultures. Some have been carefully investigated and are clearly not authentic. In other cases there has been little investigation or there is a difference of scholarly opinion either concerning authenticity or what may be said to comprise writing. Many of the references to ancient South American writing can be found in a recent bibliography compiled by Sorenson and Raish (1990) relating to pre-Columbian contact with the Americas. Gene Savoy, a well-known Andean explorer and discoverer of ancient sites, including Vilcabamba (the final redoubt of the Incas), recently reported evidence of pre-Columbian writing near the site of Gran Vilaya in a remote area of northern Peru. The scientific community awaits further information to evaluate that claim.

At first glance Warren’s mention of the lack of surrounding seas in the Andean area might seem fatal to any Book of Mormon setting in the Andean area. There may be other facts that play on this issue, however. For example, when one considers the term “sea,” what might it include? Assuming that the original word was “yam,” a Hebrew word commonly used for “sea,” we find that it may also mean a large lake or other body of water (the Sea of Galilee, for example). On Warren’s final point it is difficult to understand why the lack of connections between Mesoamerican and South American languages might be counted against South America. All that I am suggesting here is that the Limited Tehuantepec setting is not necessarily as inevitable as some might suggest. In dealing with some factors (particularly metallurgy), an Andean setting is an easier fit with the time frame and the cultural descriptions from the Book of Mormon. There are, however, numerous challenges to grapple with in the Andean setting.

2. Paul Kirchhoff (1943) proposed Mesoamerica as a distinct culture area based on a distributional study of culture traits as they were found at the time of the Spanish conquest (1521 C.E.).

3. Gordon Ekholm, Gordon R. Willey, and Rene Millon were instrumental in reworking the concept for use by archaeologists. See Adams 1991, 19.

4. Also called the Mezcalapa and the Rio Grande de Chiapas.

5. Sorenson has mistakenly called these solstice days rather than equinox days.

6. Hugh Nibley has suggested that the Liahona rather than being a compass may have been an object related to ancient arrow-divination (1988, 251-63).

7. An apt analogy considering its shape.

8. Traditionally the date for the beginning of the Early Classic has been 300 C.E., but recent work in Mesoamerica has demonstrated that an earlier date is more appropriate for many areas. A date of 200 C.E. has been suggested for the beginnings of Classic Mayan civilization (Schele and Freidel, 1990). See Weaver 1981, 186, for a suggested tripartite division of the Classic period.

9. This is the only reference to steel among Jaredites, but steel is elsewhere associated with Nephites as well.

10. Gold in particular would not be corroded. Although looting of sites has occurred throughout history, it seems unlikely that all tombs or other areas thus far excavated either were looted in earlier times or that all metals were taken away when the final inhabitants left.

11. As defined by Lapedes 1974: magnetite, “an opaque iron-black and streak-black isometric mineral and member of spinel structure type, usually occurring in octahedrals or granular to massive form” (966); hematite, “an iron mineral crystallizing in the rhombohedral system; the most important ore of iron” (738); ilmenite, “an iron-black, opaque, rhombohedral mineral that is the principal ore of Titanium” (797).

12. References to iron in the Book of Mormon include: 1 Ne. 8:19, 20, 24, 30; 11:25; 13:5; 20:4; 2 Ne. 5:15; 20:34; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3, 8; 3 Ne. 20:19; Ether 10:23.

13. Alternative spellings of this word are macquahuitl and maquahuitl. The Spaniards also used the Taino term macana for this weapon, which was probably easier for them to pronounce. See Hassig [1988], 83.

14. Hassig mentions rectangular, ovoid, and pointed shaped macuahuitls (1988, 83).

15. Some of the wood daggers had a stone point.

16. The Inca variety measured about 1.2 m long and 10 cm wide. According to Kendell (1973, 104), “The macana is a stick made of chonta palm wood about one braza long, four fingers wide, thin, and with two sharp edges; it ends in a rounded hilt and a pommel like a sword.” See Cobo 1990, 218.

17. Azcapotzalco was a city located east of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The Aztecs were vassals of Azcapotzalco earlier in their history. But about 1428 with the aid of Texcoco and at least one other ally, they managed to conquer their former masters.

18. Juan Ruiz de Arce, one of the Spanish soldiers who accompanied Pizarro, wrote an account of his experiences during the 1540s. When the Spaniards arrived at the edge of the Valley of Cajamarca, where the Inca Atahualpa was camped with a portion of his army, Ruiz de Arce recorded that “The Indians’ camp looked like a very beautiful city. … So many tents were visible that we were truly filled with great apprehension. We never thought that Indians could maintain such a proud estate nor have so many tents in such good order” (Hemming 1970, 32, 549n32). In another early source, it is noted that among the Incas there were storehouses in the provinces which always contained ample supplies of food, clothing, tents, and weapons to provide for the garrisons in fortresses and on the borders of the land (Cobo 1990, 215).

19. A substantial part of this table is adapted from a similar one in Sorenson (1985, 299).

20. The Tinamou, of which there are currently four species in Chiapas and Guatemala, is not a duck. It belongs to the family Tinamidae and order Tinamiformes (Alvarez del Toro 1971, 9-11; Smithe 1966, 1-4, plate 1).

21. In the Book of Mormon we find the word “horse” once, the word “horses” twelve times, the word “chariots” seven times (Hilton and Jenkins n.d.).

22. Nephites protected their horses, cattle, and flocks along with their provisions so that the robbers could not obtain them (3 Ne. 4:4).

23. Also found in 3 Nephi is Jesus’ warning to the Gentiles that unless they repent, he will cut off their horses out of the midst of them and he will destroy their chariots (3 Ne. 21:14).

24. There are no less than thirty subspecies of white-tailed deer in North and Central America and eight in South America. Variations in coloring, antler formation, weight, height, and length are significant (Halls 1984, 15-16).

25. Similar to the questions about the transfer of plants and animals between the Old and New Worlds are questions about the transfer of human populations. Sorenson provides an important service to his LDS readers in his section on biological anthropology by pointing out the Asiatic origin of the bulk of New World populations. His model is weak, however, because of his inability to present evidence for any ancient Near Eastern population in the area he has chosen for the Book of Mormon setting. He mentions an analysis of Mesoamerican crania from dated sites carried out by a Polish anthropologist, Andrzej Wiercinski, who found evidence of north and central Asian physical types as well as Chinese and Caucasoid features. This study can hardly be considered mainstream biological anthropology, because most features of cranial morphology are considered to be very responsive to environmental change and would not long remain unchanged. Studies of dental morphology are considered to hold more promise for population studies, and several have been carried out on skeletal populations from Mesoamerican sites. DNA studies offer new avenues for understanding the biology of pre-Columbian peoples (Cann et al. 1987; Pääbo et al. 1989).

26. Brockington suggests that this period dates to 1800-50 C.E. (1967, 50).

27. Delgado does mention the presence of two stones that may have been plain monuments (1965, 36).

28. When Kib was held in captivity by his son Corihor, another son by the name of Shule made steel swords to be used in battle against his brother “by which means he obtained the kingdom and restored it to his father.” Shule’s father bestowed the kingdom upon him, and Shule “spread his kingdom upon all the face of the land” (Ether 7:9-11).

29. The settlement in Puerto Márquez seems to have been a semi-permanent village. Additionally, the earliest known examples of New World pottery have been excavated by an American and Brazilian team from a shell midden near Santarém in the Brazilian Amazon. A thermoluminescence date on the pottery and calibrated accelerator radio carbon dates on charcoal, shell, and pottery are from approximately 5000-6000 B.C.—dating at least 1,000 years earlier than the earliest pottery previously known which was found in northern South America (see Roosevelt et al. 1991).

30. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), headquartered at Brigham Young University, recently has noted the evidence of large Olmec settlements as a supporting factor in placing Jaredite cities in that area (FARMS Update, Mar. 1991.)

31. Some support for such an argument could be drawn from Jacob 4:2.


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