Like many people who consider the Book of Mormon as scripture, I am fascinated by questions about where it has a setting in ancient historical events. I know, of course, that many other people hold it as Scripture, but are content to see it as having no origin prior to a set of 19th Century visionary experiences.
I find the scientific evidence for either a “modern” or an “ancient” origin to be filled with unresolved anomalies. However, I continue to try to place it in a real, ancient geographical context, so that I can understand it better in the same way that knowing about the ancient Mid East allows me to understand the Bible better.
I don’t pretend to have significant knowledge in all of the disciplines that are relevant to the question — no one does — so I don’t try to build my own theories. Mormon Heretic has classified existing theories here and recently posted a link to a marvelous map site called Book of Mormon Online assembled by KC Kern for the various theories here. KC has also recently explored one of these theories in depth in a series at W&T here.
Instead, I prefer to apply myself to improving what a majority of Mormon scholars who believe in Book of Mormon “historicity” today consider the “best candidate” geographic theory — limited geography Mesoamerica — by focusing on particular issues in the theory where my hard science training might help.
Scholarly theories that place the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica define the “small neck of land” that separated the “land northward” from the “land southward” (see, e.g, LDS version Alma 22:27-34 / CofChrist version 13:68-80; LDS version Alma 50:6-16 / CofChrist version 22:6-16) to be some portion of the Isthmus of Tihuantepec. This immediately raises questions about the geographic correlation for modern readers and makes many Mormons look for alternative theories because that isthmus separates what we would consider “east” (Yucatan) from “west” (Central Mexico), not our “north” and “south”.
In his book, An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon, John L. Sorenson spends some time explaining that the directions we use are cultural artifacts that are not universally shared. For example, modern Western nations define east to be the direction of sunrise, and west as the direction of sunset. In fact, though our cultures did that long ago, we actually transitioned to defining north and south once we had compasses and then laid out a global system of four cardinal directions for the entire planet even though the direction of sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year and by how far we are from the earth’s equator.
At the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Sorenson notes, it was common for people in Judea to define east and west by orienting to the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea — the rise and fall of the sun was a convenient reference point because the Med’s coast runs nearly modern north-south, but it was secondary to the fundamental basis of definition. “West” was seaward; “east” was inland or “desertward”.
So Sorenson suggests that the Nephites and Lamanites, landing on a modern westnorthwest-eastsoutheast trending Pacific coast kept their convention, and called Central Mexico “north” of both Yucatan and Guatemala. And, Sorenson also points out, we have even less evidence to suggest how the Jaredites conceived of north and south.
What we know from the internal evidence of the Book of Mormon is that the early Nephites described directions such as east and west perfectly consistently with modern understandings until they pushed off into the Indian Ocean. Then there are no directional statements in the writing for centuries until the Nephites find refuge in the Land of Zarahemla after losing possession of the Land of Nephi – by which time the later writers are using the same orientations that some moderns find problematic.
Sorenson is wedded to the conventional dating of the Jaredite crossing as occurring after 3000 BCE to match the Biblical chronology of the Tower of Babel. In this context, Sorenson can offer no explanation in his theory for why the earlier Jaredites and later Nephites saw directions in the same non-modern framework (i.e., the Isthmus of Tihuantepac separates north from south) while their cultures clearly paid so much attention to directions of sunrise and sunset.
I previously posted an argument that many problems in interpreting the Book of Mormon come from carrying over the Biblical chronology to the Book of Mormon when we have reason to think the Biblical chronology is wrong. Specifically, a great deal of evidence suggests that any “flood” in Genesis occurs thousands of years before any “Tower of Babel”. The former event gets carried down as oral tradition all over the planet because it is associated with a world-wide natural geophysical event: the end of the ice-age. And it then gets incorporated in both the oral tradition of Israel and the Nephites along with the much later “tower” tradition. In short, the ancestors of all Americans can cross the North Pacific from Siberia by boat early enough to match the DNA evidence, and still carry the flood tradition from the drowning of the Persian Gulf.
This interpretation also naturally suggests a new answer for the direction problem. If your ancestral population spent thousands of years in the Arctic, the sun rises in the south, not the east. (In fact, Sorenson uses the example of Arctic peoples to make the point of the cultural dependence of connecting east to sunrise.) Move generation by generation toward the equator, and the direction of the sunrise changes, but not your word for that direction. The word for the land where the sun rises is still descended from the word from “south”, even millenia later among the Olmecs (the last Jaredite dynasties) when its origin is forgotten.
So now look at Sorenson’s explanation for Nephite interpretations of directions in the light of this Jaredite origin. The Nephites have a word for the direction the sun rises that’s derived from “inland”. The people of Zarahemla have a word for the direction of sunrise derived from the concept of “south” that’s been common throughout all of Mesoamerica. Sunrise is a common referent in either language, so the words are considered to mean the same in either language, even though the conceptual sources are radically different. For the Nephites, the “land southward” becomes the direction of sunrise as seen from Zarahemla (as it varies throughout the year). The “land northward” becomes the direction of sunset as seen from Zarahemla. The eastern lands and the East Sea become the territory to your left as you face the sunrise; the West is to your right. The result, using Sorenson’s proposed location for Zarahemla is illustrated by clicking on the thumbnail at the beginning of the post.
And when JS “translates” by the power of God in the 19th Century, those would be the concepts he receives.
This line of thought immediately suggests another: might we also have a clue to the centuries-long gap in any directional information being contained in the Book of Mormon before Zarahemla? After all, Nephi and his successors are unlikely to have stopped writing directional words when they got to the promised land. If Sorenson was correct about the Nephite landing point and conceptual framework, there would have been no great difference in continuing to use the Jewish words for East and West to describe their movements during the subsequent centuries. But Mormon, who faithfully transcribed those directions from the Old World he’d never seen, never wrote anything about travel of his ancestors in the promised land, even though he clearly knew the geography of his homeland well enough to be able to infer those directions.
So try this on: what if the Nephites’ records of their “wanderings” made no sense to the post-Zarahemla prophets because Nephi didn’t land on the Pacific Coast of Central America, but on the Atlantic? If facing sunrise, unlike in the Med, meant facing seaward, not landward? That would flip your whole framework for thinking of directions 180 degrees, with your “north” becoming “south”? Once you did move inland, your whole conceptual framework would become meaningless, and you’d stop using those meaningless directional words. So when you did meet up with the descendents of the people of Mesoamerica, you’d be completely ready to adopt their directional framework and language. The word for the land of sunrise would naturally become the word descended from the ancient word for “south”.
This seems like a radical idea only because the Sorenson model clearly associates the City of Nephi with the few surviving ruins (see picture to right) preserved in modern Gualemala City, just as it places Zarahemla in the Grijalva River Valley in Chiapas. Both places are closer to the Pacific Coast than to the Atlantic Coast. But ask yourself: if you ever get to play God, and you want to get people from Yemen to Guatemala City, do you intend to send your children across thousands of extra miles of Pacific Ocean and through already settled lands along the Pacific Coast of Central America? Or do you intend to send them around Africa, have them follow the equatorial winds and currents across the much smaller Atlantic, and then lead them overland along a couple of hundred miles of relatively unpopulated river valley?
I think I know which way I’d lean.