Sorenson, Siberian DNA, and Book of Mormon Directions

by: FireTag

November 26, 2011

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.

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48 Responses to Sorenson, Siberian DNA, and Book of Mormon Directions

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 26, 2011 at 6:56 AM

    That was a sharp analysis.

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  2. Ray on November 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Sometimes I over-use the word “fascinating” – but this post is fascinating.

    I can see why it would make many people’s heads explode, but there’s a lot of really meaty stuff on which to chew. I’ll just say for now that, having studied as much history and sociology as I have, this argument makes a lot of sense. Linguistics is much more complex than most people assume – and there are tons of interesting implications if this presentation is correct.

    I especially like the rejection of Biblical time lines with regard to the flood and the Tower of Babel. That alone opens up so many possibilities, and I agree with the problem of accepting the Bible’s version.

    “As far as it is translated correctly” doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be, imo) applied only to the modern translators.

    Finally, it is not unreasonable to believe that the “descendants of Jared” might have included an incredibly large number of people who didn’t remain in the central government location and, therefore, didn’t end up being known as the “people of Jared” – or, iow, part of the “Jaredite kingdom”. If that is the case (if “Jaredites” scattered all over the face of the land [before AND after the final settlement of the “kingdom” in the area near where the Lehite and Mulekite people settled] – subject to the king[s]), then the large majority of the indigenous peoples of the Americas at the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon actually might have come originally from the Asiatic steppes – making the Jaredites, not the Lehites and Mulekites, their primary ancestors.

    Obviously, that would solve the DNA issue almost entirely. It also would explain a lot of other things, imo, particularly (relative to this post) with regard to how they would have envisioned directions and used directional words – and it would be SO ironic (that the early leaders were correct about the native peoples being descended from the Book of Mormon peoples, but that those leaders picked the wrong Book of Mormon peoples as the primary ancestors).

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  3. FireTag on November 26, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    Thanks. I hope this gives food for thought.

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  4. charity on November 26, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    Most interesting and well-done.
    What an influence linguistics play in our careful lineup of historical “fact.”
    Thank you so much.

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  5. Tim on November 26, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    Some thoughts to consider:

    Keep in mind that the Jaredite record was filtered through a Nephite (Moroni) interpretation. So, any Jaredite references to direction may have been converted into Nephite directions. Also keep in mind that whatever the Nephites did write was converted to the English is use during the early 1800’s.

    Nephite directions likely originated from the cultural influences affecting Lehi and his family, which we know (from the Nephite record) were both Hebrew (Semitic) as well as Egyptian in origin. The cardinal directions of Semitic cultures in Lehi’s time were: east=front; west=hinder; south=right-side; north=left-side. The cardinal directions of the Egyptian culture in Lehi’s time was: south=upper; north=lower; west=right-side; east=left-side.

    Lehi’s family, being a group influenced by both Semitic and Egyptian cultures, would likely have not used “right-side” and “left-side” as directions because their different meanings in Semitic and Egyptian would have caused confusion. But, a combination of the two methods may have been adopted, where Semitic:east=front, Semitic:west=hinder, Egyptian:south=upper and Egyptian:north=lower.

    This appears to be consistent with the Nephite record in which reference is made to the back (hinder) pass, through the back wall on the back side of a city (Mosiah 22:6) (implying there was also a front side of the city), as well as references of going up (upper) and down (lower) while traveling between the cities of Nephi and Zarahemla, as well as other instances, such as “up into the south wilderness” (Alma 22:31), etc. (This idea, of course, opposes Sorensen’s declaration that travel up and down only refer to differences in elevation.)

    On the topic of DNA, keep in mind that others accompanied the Jaredites on their journey; these others being the friends of Jared and his brother. Because many of the names in the Jaredite record appear to be Hamitic in origin, these friends of Jared and his brother were likely descendants of Ham, Mongoloid not Negroid, and thus related to Siberian DNA. Therefore, all that is required is that a significant number of the descendants of these friends of Jared and his brother avoided taking part in the final wars of the Jaredites and remained alive and well when the Lehites and Mulekites arrived, and continue to today.

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  6. Dave on November 26, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    My problem with Sorensens directions is that when he uses examples to support his theory he uses examples from outside Mesoamerica. I think it is because if he did then he would have to change his theory.

    My research in the directional systems that were used in Mesoamerica indicates that there were 3 different systems.

    Ithimus- The main direction that is referenced is North and South. main orientation of the ithimus

    Highlands – Focus on East and West.

    Yucatan and lowlands. The use of North, South, East and West A directional system that is consistent the modern directional system.
    On a side note. This system uses the word Xaman for North. The Hebrew word for Desolation.

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  7. FireTag on November 26, 2011 at 4:18 PM


    Your comments are thoughtful, but simply assuming that Nephite cultural influences in the Old World simply took over in the New World does not account for the gap of several centuries in which there are NO directional statements in the BofM, though Mormon has no trouble in writing Old World directions. Note that if you assume that most of the population of the Americas has Mongoloid DNA in order to account for the DNA evidence, then you have to explain how the Egyptian “upper” and “lower” stayed so localized. In other words, I think it more likely that Nephites adopted the older directional scheme of the Americans than the other way around.

    You are correct that in Judea, eastward was “front” WHEN you faced the desert and west was “back” WHEN you faced the desert, but that’s hard to carry over to the New World if you’re not setting up your new civilization in the desert and all of your rivers don’t drain from southern highlands into a northern delta.

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  8. FireTag on November 26, 2011 at 4:42 PM


    Sorenson, of course, does posit that the Nephites were a highland culture, and wrote the records according to the highland bias. He also did most of his work before the Guatemalan government had the funding and military control to open much of the Lowland Maya cultural core (in the Petain) to tourism and greater study. Within twenty years, we may find that the lowlands were more important than the highlands; at least the Guatemalan government seems to be betting its tourism development funding that way.

    One of the reasons I think we ought to also consider an Atlantic crossing for the Nephites is that the importance of the lowlands needs to be more appreciated in BofM geography studies. The Lamanites got a population boost in those first centuries somewhere, and the lowland and highland Mayan cultures are just both similar and dissimilar enough in their formative periods that they might represent the imprint of a intermarriage-to-locals-adverse Nephite group moving inland to the highlands, and a who-cares-about-Jewish-purity Lamanite group moving along the coast of Yucatan until they meet up with locals in Belize.

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  9. Tim on November 26, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    FireTag, some more thoughts to consider in response to your comments in #7:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the gap of several centuries you refer to, in which there are no directional statments in the BofM, occurs in the portion of the record (the small plates of Nephi) which Nephi instructed should be for sacred, not secular, writings. The portion which does have directional statements (the large plates of Nephi, etc.) was abridged by Mormon and Moroni. That may explain why there is a difference.

    As for the Nephite system staying localized… we only have the Nephite record to go by, so we only know what system the Nephites used. When the Nephites went away, so did their system. For all we know those outside the Nephite culture had their own system.
    If I’m not seeing your point, please explain further.

    You use the word “desert” to describe east, and you are right that that does not carry over to the New World. But the rising and setting sun is in common to both the Old and New worlds, and (from my own research) it is the rising sun (not the desert) which Semitic cultures used as a reference in finding east.


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  10. FireTag on November 26, 2011 at 9:28 PM


    I’ll simply have to let you argue with Sorenson on the reference to “desertward” being the basis and “sunrise” being the secondary referent.

    I will point out, however, that Jaredites were NOT a Semitic culture since anything that could be interpreted as a global flood early enough to match the DNA and archeology of the arrival of humans in the Americas — not to mention the global geological evidence — places any Jaredite journey on the order of 10,000 years before there were any peoples recognizable in the Bible.

    I don’t think that a “sacred” versus “secular” explanation for the gap in directional references is satisfactory, because that hardly explains why wanderings are described without directions only during that period. In other words, why would directions in the Old World be sacred, but in the new world be secular, when we know Mesoamerican cities were laid out with profound RELIGIOUS attention to direction by alignment with astronomical occurrences? Why would wandering itself be sacred, but the direction of wandering secular? Isn’t it just simpler to imagine they were wandering because they really were lost and didn’t know what direction was what? (So that when they made contact with the locals, they were quite ready to adopt the locals’ directions.)

    As Dave pointed out in 6, there is a lot of evidence about what other cultures in the Americas used.

    Even in modern systems, unless you live in the tropics, the sun NEVER rises in the direction we call East. Sunrise is inherently a local and seasonal reference point, which is why a society that understands the earth’s magnetic field easily switches to defining north and south and makes east and west perpendicular to them.

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  11. Tim on November 26, 2011 at 10:13 PM

    FireTag: I think you misunderstood my intent regarding “secular” vs “sacred”. The small plates were reserved for sacred writings by Nephi because there wasn’t room on the plates for much history/secular things, including specifics, like directions. It’s not whether directions were sacred or not, maybe there just wasn’t space to write what may have been deemed trivial.

    I agree that the Jaredites were not Semitic. I don’t think I ever implied that they were Semitic, only that their record was translated/re-written by a Nephite.

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  12. FireTag on November 26, 2011 at 11:13 PM


    “The small plates were reserved for sacred writings by Nephi because there wasn’t room on the plates for much history/secular things, including specifics, like directions.”

    But directions in Mesoamerican culture did have RELIGIOUS significance; indeed, it is the relation of directions to astronomical phenomena that governed religious celebrations. That clearly shows up in the subsequent sections of the BofM, where Mormon is also pressed for space, but still is very clear about the calendar and directions, while he says almost nothing about things like commerce or daily life. Now maybe that’s because he’s a military man as well as a prophet, but I think Nephites had a different view of what was secular and what was religious than moderns do. They didn’t deem directions as trivial. It’s why ancient peoples got into astronomical observations to begin with, whether we’re talking Stonehenge, China, Egypt, or Mesoamerica.

    So I guess the real difference between us here is that you think the Nephites maintained a Hebraic directional system for centuries between the landing and the move to Zarahemla, while I think they were unwilling or unable to do so.

    How, in practice, do you postulate that they would know what direction was “east” when you or I even today would have to look up our latitude, add about 21 degrees to it at this time of year in the Northern hemisphere, and then rotate the total number of degrees (latitude + 21) to the NORTH of where the sun rises in the morning to approximate EAST? Telling directions is technologically hard for ancient peoples, especially for nomads. Yet it is essential for peoples supporting themselves by agriculture to be able to know when to have the gods bless their planting and harvesting.

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  13. Mike S on November 27, 2011 at 1:00 AM

    #11 Tim: The small plates were reserved for sacred writings by Nephi because there wasn’t room on the plates for much history/secular things, including specifics, like directions.

    They why did Nephi explain the exact directions they were traveling through the desert before they set off on their sea journey? They were obviously important then.

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  14. Tim on November 27, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    It looks like I’m still failing to communicate my thoughts effectively, so I’ll try again.

    I agree, directions were not trivial to the Nephite cultures as a whole, but Nephi or Mormon, depending on what they were writing and how much space they had available, may have chosen not to include certain facts (such as directions) which they may have deemed trivial at times compared to the rest of what was being written.

    We know that the Nephites were able to maintain the Hebrew and Egyptian writing (though modified by them) for about 1,000 years, so yes, I believe they we able to maintain the Semitic/Egyptian directional system too (or whatever system Lehi & Nephi taught).

    Where is east? How accurate does one need to be to identify east? I imagine that where-the-sun-rises provides the general direction of east for most populated areas of the world. That may have been enough accuracy for many things. Those who needed more accuracy (for calendars, etc.) likely set up a system to track the sun, moon and stars, then shared their findings as needed.

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  15. Ray on November 27, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    FireTag, if I were to re-phrase Tim’s question about the lack of directions in the last part of the small plates of Nephi, I would ask:

    “The people who wrote the last part of the small plates of Nephi appeared to be concerned almost exclusively with ONLY two things: 1) recording a very cursory description of their society’s survival / condition; 2) making sure they fulfilled their duty to keep it safe and pass it on to the next generation. They didn’t appear to care much at all about recording anything of religious significance – even going as far in one case as to state that they knew of no other prophecies or teachings that weren’t in what already had been written. **They were care-takers, not recorders / authors – and certainly not religious historians.**

    Hence, why is it a surprise that there are no directional statements during those hundreds of years – when the people who wrote that part of the plates made it pretty clear they weren’t interested in recording things like directions?”

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  16. Douglas on November 27, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    The problem with attempts to either prove or disprove a BoM setting, or the work itself, by DNA analysis is that there isn’t even agreement as to whether the BoM describe a “Hemispherical” model (simplified: all Native Americans descend from the Lehite/Mulekite migrations CA 600 BC, and filled the entirety of North and South Americas, OR, the “Limited Geography” model (simplified: the entire setting of the BoM was in a relatively small area and the “Lamanites” were effective swallowed up by surrounding societies). Though most present-day LDS scholars think the “latter” (pun intended), the Church hasn’t said diddly about it. Even attempts to compare modern Jews (and where would we find any Ephriamites, BTW?) to what would have likely been a profile of “Jewish” and/or Emphriamite-ish DNA CA 600 BC is extremely problematic. All we can say for certainty is that the BoM should not be considered as a definitive historical work any more than the Bible can be considered to completely describe eastern Mediterranean history from 2000 BC to 100 AD.

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  17. FireTag on November 27, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    Ray and Tim:

    I do understand Tim’s point, I believe. I simply don’t find it an adequate explanation to say they didn’t bother to write things about directions, for the reasons I noted in 10 and 12. Tim thinks they maintained a MidEastern Hebraic directional system, without specifying how. I think they lost track of where they were in their wanderings and adopted the highland system when they settled there. I don’t know of any further evidence to prove it if we are working from different geographic assumptions.


    I explained my reasons for considering issues such as this in the first four paragraphs of the OP. Ultimately, understanding where the BofM is set (or if it has NO physical historical setting) allows me to better understand its scriptural message, just as Biblical scholarship helps me get past cultural blind spots imposed by centuries of theological debates and understand Jesus better.

    You are, of course, correct that we can never prove to people who do not accept it as Scripture that EITHER book has divine sanction just because other people believe it so. (At my age, I can expect to have experimental confirmation or refutation long before science proves things one way or another.) But for those who do accept the BofM as scripture, questions of historicity do influence HOW we understand its message.

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  18. Ray on November 27, 2011 at 10:12 PM

    Thanks, FireTag. I thought you understood it, but your previous answers didn’t make that obvious to me.

    Frankly, I have no clue which of those possibilities is correct, assuming one is. I think they both are logical and reasonable. I personally just try to go by what I read in the actual words themselves, and I lean more toward the idea that the writers during that time didn’t care to include anything directional – maybe because that was a time of relative non-mobility and there really wasn’t anything directionally important to record. They didn’t even record standard “testimonies”, and it appears to me they didn’t think anything in their time needed to be added.

    Having said that, I easily could accept a combination of the two conclusions – and I don’t think there would be any conflict in doing so.

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  19. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    Regarding the sacred vs secular portion of the plates, as it regards the inclusion of directional statements:

    I’m not going to exert the effort for an exhaustive analysis here, but I think Tim is right, but still seems to have missed the mark. If you just read the chapter headings what you will find is that:

    1st Nephi: As we all know this is largely a history section with a comparatively detailed explanation of their travels until the Lehite party arrives and settles in the “Promised Land”. This coincides with Sorensons arguemnt, and we all agree here.

    2nd Nephi: It’s all just preaching until chapter five when we learn that the group splits into two parties with the Nephites separating themselves by several days travel into the wilderness, and then resettling themselves. That is the extent of the travel, so it doesn’t compare to eight years wandering. The rest of this book is just preaching, with little contemporary Nephite history being recorded.

    Jacob: More preaching, with a little contemporary Nephite history that includes very little travel.

    Enos & Jarom: These are a couple of incidental “Toy Story” shorts that seemed to have been included to fill space, but both mention very little travel. They are both a little preachy, but more in the vein of personal witnessing rather than the sermonizing of Nephi and Jacob. Still, each is only one chapter long, so their would be very little room for an explanation of detailed travel.

    Omni: For those of you who saw the Muppets movie over the weekend, this is the point in the story where Moroni decides to cover a lot of ground using a montage. The audio book version ought to consider including an 80’s top 40 backing track for the background part of this section.

    As a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that a section of seriously comprehensive history was coincidentally named after a character whose namesake could have just easily been derived out of a sense of artistic liberty. “Omni” is an inclusive history.

    Even so, this is where we first learn of Zarahemla and get back to a more Nephite contemporary history and a comparatively travel-rich narrative that begins to mention traveling societies and long-distance missionary excursions. Long-distance in a limited geography kind of way, anyhow.

    So, given the above I don’t find it remarkable at all that directional terms are abandoned until the mention of Zarahemla, as it seems the narrative starts with a high amount of travel-history, followed by a high amount of stationary preaching, rejoined by high travel-history right at the point we are introduced to the people of Zarahemla.

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  20. FireTag on November 28, 2011 at 11:22 AM


    Thanks for the comment. I will quibble that directional info stops when they leave land, not when they arrive. Travel info is detailed in the latter part of 1st Nephi, but non-directional since from the Indian Ocean you can reach the New World either by crossing the Pacific or the Atlantic (and the Atlantic is easier). The record itself does not say which route they took; Sorenson inferred that because the earliest Pacific Coastal civilizations were found first.

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  21. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 11:43 AM


    Fair enough – You are correct that travel info stops before they set sail, rather than when they land. I should have been more careful with that. Still, unless I am missing something, they set sail in chapter 18, and arrive in chapter 18. Not a lot of place for direction giving, particularly given that they would have had no landmarks period to work from. From the time the set sail the whole of the narrative seems to be focused on how they got lost because the Liahona stopped working on account of their wickedness. Finally they get it to start working again, and in a few verses travel many more days, then they reach the promised land. In the last three verses we learn that once they reached the promised land they simply went forth into the land, pitched their tents, planted seeds, hunted and raised animals, and began mining for ore (an oddly impractical occupation under their immediate circumstances I would think). Chapters 19 – 22 are devoted to Nephi explaining the plates, and preaching from Isaiah, with no more travel-history. That completes 1st Nephi.

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  22. Remlap on November 28, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Cowboy said “…began mining for ore (an oddly impractical occupation under their immediate circumstances I would think)”. I don’t think that mining for ore would have been impractical. It seems obvious that Nephi had some sort of interest in metal working. He stops his story about killing Laban and retrieving the brass plates to talk about Laban’s sword and of course the whole “where do I go to find ore to make tools?” I think it is reasonable that he would have wanted to fine ore to make more tools and items to help them improve their situation in the new world, build a temple and so forth.

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  23. FireTag on November 28, 2011 at 3:09 PM


    My point about the quibble was simply to note that there is nothing in the record itself to indicate a Pacific crossing instead of an Atlantic Crossing.

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  24. Cowboy on November 28, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    I see – my mistake, and yes I would have to agree with you.

    I think that is sort of my point. I won’t pretend to be any kind of an expert here, but it has always seemed to me that these geography arguments, while interesting, are completely a shot in the dark. While 1st Nephi at least provides a starting point, from there the travels are somewhat obscure. Once they arrive…well…where ever they were supposed to have arrived, we have no real tangible landmarks that associate them with any reasonable known geography. I’m mean, come on, our best descriptor is “narrow neck of land”, for Petes sake! Then let’s talk about the language.

    Words – What can we possibly say we “know” about an alleged civillizations language, when we don’t have that language to study? There aren’t any hebrew or egyptian speaking tribes in the America’s that we know about. We have not discovered any useful writing that can be studied. So, how can we pretend to know what they meant by “north” or “south”, based on customs were not sure about. Lastly we have the translation method. The best defense for anachronisms is that Joseph Smith used words that were common in 19th century english. For example, we argue about the use of “steel” and say “well, that was the best word Joseph Smith could use”, or “the translation was not a word for word process, in fact we can’t even call it a translation in the traditional sense”. Still, when we have a pet theory all of the sudden these objections don’t matter, and all the sudden we think we understand the etymology of an unknown language, and the cultural practices, symbolism of a society whose entire existence cannot even be confirmed.

    I have a good friend who is a behavioral pschologist. He often gives professional workshops for organizations, and has a cliche’ quote that he demonstrates with an object lesson kind of based on the rorshach test. To paraphrase he says, “the great thing about the human mind is that it has an impeccable talent for uncovering hidden patterns in world that lead to great understanding. The trouble is that we also have the tendency to see patterns in the random meaningless coincidences”. I can’t help but feel that without tangible evidence, Book of Mormon geography research is quite guilty of this.

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  25. FireTag on November 28, 2011 at 4:33 PM


    I think this is true about religion in general insofar as any sensing of the spiritual must be moderated through physical mechanisms within our brains. We evolve those mechanisms if they systematically improve our survival chances, like having eyes does. But eyes take eons to evolve, and the first animals to evolve photo-receptors made lots of mistakes. Our “spiritual eyes” are very, very primitive.

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  26. Heber13 on November 30, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    I like Cowboy’s post#24.

    It is hard for me to spend too much time on some of these geography theories, but I will admit, I find them interesting to read and think about some. And this original post was fascinating. The way I see it, the source of information is based on oral histories for hundreds of years, then writing and rewriting in different languages, then hats and peepstones and spiritual revelations involved in documenting the text we have today. Is it even realistic to think details like dimensions and directions (north/south) are ever going to be close to solid enough to even try to map it out on paper?

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  27. Tim on November 30, 2011 at 11:02 PM

    Heber13 wrote: Is it even realistic to think details like dimensions and directions (north/south) are ever going to be close to solid enough to even try to map it out on paper?

    I think another question to consider is, how will we recognize the correct theory if/when it ever does surface?

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  28. Bob on December 1, 2011 at 2:31 AM

    #26 & 27: I had a professor who did this fine of “mapping” for the Smithsonian for over 30 years. If his survey was right, then the map would work. That is, like any model, it could be tested. If he were wrong, his map would lead unpassable points. If he was right, he would start to find living places, fire pits, bones, stone tools, etc.

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  29. FireTag on December 1, 2011 at 1:21 PM


    The kind of field work mapping you speak about is at a little smaller scale than we’re dealing with in this post, but it is the kind of thing that Sorenson (and other BofM-historicity-accepting scholars) have to address. It is, of course, an essential basis for Sorenson’s identification of Zarahemla that is the “zero-zero” for the directional arcs on the map. Similarly, the findings of artifacts in the Highlands told archeologists that those cultures had four directions, but regarded two of them as narrower in angle than the other two in a way that points to the seasonal arc of the sunrise and sunset in the sky.

    While I think, as I said in the OP and re-emphasized in comment 17, that the reason to be concerned about geography is ultimately to provide better understanding to those with testimonies rather than to prove things to those who do not accept the BofM as scripture, I think such understanding only comes if we are as rigorous as possible about letting the science tell us about the possible geography. We falsify geographies, just as we would with any hard science theory, and let the results lead us to scriptural interpretations. Depending on what kinds of scientific evidence one tends to weight most heavily (and my professional bias is to weight geophysics a lot more heavily than historical studies), you end up with a belief framework that determines HOW the scripture speaks to you.

    You can’t do it the other way around — looking for a geography that locks the interpretation of Scripture into a pre-existing belief structure — whether that structure is personal or fully “correlated”.

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  30. FireTag on December 1, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    Tim and Heber13:

    I think your points in 26 and 27 are well taken. Although I think science, over time, has a great ability to tease information out of noise, it would take a long time to get to the point where we could have working confidence that a new study wouldn’t falsify a particular geographic model tomorrow. (The opposite is not true, of course; there are already lots of people who accept the BofM as scripture, but think its origin is entirely 19th Century.)

    But I think the more important point is that as long as we make progress toward understanding the Scripture BETTER — in effect, having it be new, living revelation, within us — and act on that better knowledge, the effort is worthwhile.

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  31. Bob on December 1, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    My archeologist professor spent three years in the field mapping the movments of peoples over a thousand miles down from the Bering Strait route by Asian 10,000 years ago.
    Is that a big enough mapping?

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  32. Tim on December 1, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    #31: (Humor attempt…) Did your archaeology professor also correlated his findings with vague geographical references from an ancient text? If so, maybe we should invite him to try his hand with mapping the BofM. :)

    #28: I think the “living places, fire pits, bones, stone tools, etc.” may have already been found. The difficulty, IMO, are the various interpretations of geographical references in the BofM… such as directions. And, until the TRUE meaning of said references are understood, there will continue to be many theories and differences of opinion… and mapping the BofM to a real-world location will not be possible. Like you said, “If his survey was right, then the map would work”. Well, the ‘survey’ isn’t right yet, so neither are all the attempts at mapping.

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  33. FireTag on December 1, 2011 at 4:35 PM


    It was precisely the kind of tracing your prof did of the Arctic route that I was using in the post

    that I cited above in arguing that Jaredites could consider the sun to rise in the “south” and associate darkness and desolation with “north”. I certainly buy the Bering route, and I think there is even more recent evidence pushing the date back farther, more in line with DNA, and connecting it with possession of boats (like cultural finds of early age on islands off southern California).

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  34. Bob on December 1, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    #32: Tim,
    The mapping was done in the 1930s.
    What you are saying is that mapping can not be done by archaeology without writing(?) This is not true.
    The “mapping” of the BoM can be done through DNA, Kinship, Language, Blood grouping, teeth, traded good, etc.

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  35. Bob on December 1, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    The Eskimo and Navajo have the same name for boat.
    The Bering Strait, during the Ice Age, was hundreds of miles wide and mild. Close to say what Canada is today.

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  36. FireTag on December 1, 2011 at 6:46 PM


    I’m not sure where we differ here. Berengia or along the coast by boat — you end up in the same place. But boats get you down the coast and to California (and far south of there, for that matter) faster, and more current movement in the relevant science is toward boats for that reason.

    The existence of boats is not a problem. People reached Australia ~50K years ago, and that didn’t depend on any land bridge.

    BofM says boats, and a duration of journey that’s quite convenient by drifting through the North Pacific gyre, so that’s why I brought it up.

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  37. Bob on December 1, 2011 at 7:54 PM

    #36: FireTag,
    It is possible to create Models, Theories, and Arguments, that are in support of the BoM. But, at some point, that they will become part of even larger models, theories, and arguments. Then onto Schools of thought, then onto categories, such as archeology or anthropology. In these larger groups of science, these models fail.

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  38. FireTag on December 1, 2011 at 10:23 PM


    Now I THINK I understand where you are coming from. If I’m NOT reading you, please feel free to correct me.

    I spend a great deal of time thinking about how do I reconcile the existence of a personal belief in the reality of the spiritual with my scientific experience that focuses so much on the physical. (This is particularly acute for me because I literally turned at the beginning of high school from planning a career as a writer or journalist to the study of science because I was commanded to do so in what I regarded then, and now, as a divinely-inspired dream.)

    I happen to express the hierarchy you mention in #36 in the context of the Restoration because that’s my heritage, but ultimately I recognize that the hierarchy has to go to an even larger, hopefully all-inclusive, level of thought to model the fundamental relationship between spirit, intelligence, and matter in light of what we know about reality. If it doesn’t, I can simply let science be my touchstone, and ignore my own testimony entirely. I could treat it as simply a “magical worldview” that should be supplanted by science.

    There is nothing unique about Mormonism in that regard. Until we understand the relationship of mind to the physical, let alone the relationship of the spiritual to the mind, ALL testimonies of any religion or philosophy, may be falsified by further evidence.

    We EXPERIENCE mind. We don’t deduce it from first physical principles. It’s emergent. It’s induced, not deduced. And consequently, our EXPERIENCE of the spiritual, which is one step further removed, ultimately has to stand in harmony with what we ultimately develop as our best theory of the mind-physical relationship.

    Perhaps it will one day be that my best theory of mind says my experience of the spiritual should be discarded as a magical worldview. However, if so, I will probably not replace a magical worldview rooted in 19th Century North America with an even more magical worldview rooted in the ancient Greco-Roman world, which is what most Christians were stuck with after the early theologians got through with Jesus teachings.

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  39. The Other Clark on December 2, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Any Book of Mormon geography theory that requires redefining simple words (like compass points) raises serious red flags. Sorensen also likes to redefine animals (horses, elephants, and cattle, for example). To me, his geographic theories so stretch credibility that if they’re accurate, the BoM’s claim to be “the most correct of any book” would have to be disregarded.

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  40. FireTag on December 2, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    The Other Clark:

    “the BoM’s claim to be “the most correct of any book” would have to be disregarded.”

    Well, if that’s where the science leads, so be it. But, in the geophysical sciences, in the 1830’s it wouldn’t have taken much to qualify as most correct. Science has learned A LOT in the past 180 years. :D

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  41. Bob on December 2, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    #38: FireTag:
    I think from two very different “World Views”. Mormonism and Boazian Anthropology. ( Boazian as in following Franz Boaz models).
    No need on this blog to define a Mormonism world view.
    As for Boazian Anthropology, it’s moreless:
    In agreement with Darwinian Theory that the Human body is a mammal, made in the image of earth animals that adaptated to meet their needs.
    Does not believe in “The ghost in the machine” (a Spirit in a body).
    Humans have natural “Mentel Faculties” to develope their Cultures and individual thinking.
    That they can develope different Cultures in adapting to like situations (as in a Free will/or free to thinking, unlike Darwin’s “fixed” Evolutionary model for the body).

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  42. Heber13 on December 2, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    Firetag…great response in #30.

    I’m just not sure scientific discoveries will in and of themselves lead to “better” understanding of scriptures. To me, they are two different fields…science and religion. They have different goals and purposes.

    But, perhaps, the effort around challenging our thinking and digging deeper into things we believe from scriptures is what makes it well worth the effort. Kind of like studying trigonometry in school. It may matter less to know the correct answers, but by struggling to learn how to solve the problems, I am better off for it.

    So, I don’t think it is worthless to theorize, just the point that where I’m at, it seems sometimes there is a lot of debating over minutae that may or may not even apply to anything. But…that is what science does, right? It can be a process that leads to progress.

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  43. Bob on December 2, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    #42″ Heber,
    What is thw “mintae” that science debates a lot over? I thought they were working on getting the iPads ready for Xmas?

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  44. FireTag on December 2, 2011 at 6:40 PM

    I once spent a couple of years out in the woods outside Detroit in a specially constructed low-magnetic field lab watching a torsion pendulum at one end of the lab swing back and forth a few millimeters through a telescope at the other end. This obscure thermo-magnetic torque effect was able to tell us something about the molecular shape of the gases pushing the pendulum around.

    Yep. Scientists have devious ways of making progress through the study of minutea.

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  45. Bob on December 3, 2011 at 1:56 AM

    #44: FireTag:
    Heber and you are right.__I forgot about physicists.
    ( And I misspelled Franz Boas name).

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  46. FireTag on December 3, 2011 at 1:07 PM


    I looked up Franz Boas last night (despite the spelling :D) in wiki and liked a lot of what I read. I particularly liked his advocacy of a NEW evolutionary approach to anthropology that rejected the then-prevailing evolutionary assumption that all cultures were destined to progressively follow the same path from “inferiority” to “superiority” — according to what the current top dog culture defined as superior.

    I think one of the first posts I ever wrote anywhere as a blogger

    addressed a similar topic– how so many of us view scripture through this “we are in position to judge the validity of other peoples’ view of God” lens.

    I think questions about how we are to understand the Book of Mormon remain important PRECISELY because they challenge our modern Western cultural tendency to assume our views of the world are the latest and, therefore, greatest. We NEED alternative views to reveal our own blind spots.

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  47. MUSE on December 7, 2011 at 3:05 PM

    Interesting! I like attempts to meld Science and Religion into some kind of congruence. I’m at a “read and assimilate” stage in all of this so I have no real insights or gifts to offer at this point. But I applaud the thoughtfulness of this post and the subsequent conversation.

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  48. A Solutrean Solution? | Wheat and Tares on March 17, 2012 at 3:35 AM

    […] are boats suitable to cross the vast equatorial Pacific by a Polynesian route. As I also argued here, appreciation of the Arctic origins of Native American culture may help us better understand some […]

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