I wrote this over a year ago, but this seems as good a place to post it:
Recently, I read John Clark’s “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief” (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005. P. 38–49) at the suggestion of Daniel Peterson. Clark presents what he sees as 12 points of convergence between Mesoamerican archaeology and Book of Mormon descriptions. As I went through the list, it struck me that many of the parallels were present also in mound builder mythology, and I thought maybe I’d see if there were such alternative parallels for all the points he raises.
1. Metal Records in Stone Boxes
The first archaeological claims related to the Book of Mormon concern the purported facts of 22 September 1827: the actuality of metal plates preserved in a stone box. This used to be considered a monstrous tale, but concealing metal records in stone boxes is now a documented Old World practice. Stone offering boxes have also been discovered in Mesoamerica, but so far the golden plates are still at large—as we would expect them to be.
According to Dan Vogel, the existence of such items was a common belief among the proponents of mound builder mythology:
Joseph Smith was certainly not the first to claim the discovery of a stone box, metal plates, or an Indian book. It was known that the Indians sometimes buried their dead in stone boxes similar to the one described by Joseph Smith. In 1820, for example, the Archaeologia Americana reported that human bones had been discovered in some mounds “enclosed in rude stone coffins.” A similar stone box, described by John Haywood of Tennessee, was made by placing “four stones standing upright, and so placed in relation to each other, as to form a square or box, which enclosed a skeleton.” Stone boxes of various sizes and shapes had reportedly been found in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, New York, and other places.
According to various accounts, some of the North American mounds also contained metal plates. Plates constructed by the Indians were usually made of hammered copper or silver and were sometimes etched. Plates made of other metals were most likely of European manufacture. In 1775 Indian trader James Adair described two brass plates and five copper plates found with the Tuccabatches Indians of North America. According to Adair, an Indian informant said “he was told by his forefathers that those plates were given to them by the man we call God; that there had been many more of other shapes, . . . some had writing upon them which were buried with particular men.” The Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris stated in 1805 that “plates of copper have been found in some of the mounds, but they appear to be parts of armour.” Orsamus Turner reported that in 1809 a New York farmer ploughed up an “Ancient Record, or Tablet.” This plate, according to Turner, was made of copper and “had engraved upon one side of it . . . what would appear to have been some record, or as we may well imagine some brief code of laws.”45 The Philadelphia Port Folio reported in 1816 that “thin plates of copper rolled up” were discovered in one mound. In 1823 John Haywood described “human bones of large size” and “two or three plates of brass, with characters inscribed resembling letters” found in one West Virginia mound. In 1883 John Rogan of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology excavated a mound near Peoria, Illinois, and discovered ten stone boxes, several containing a single skeleton and “a thin copper plate ornamented with stamped figures.” Thus the connection of metal plates with stone boxes may have been a natural one.
2. Ancient Writing
Clark tells us that people in Joseph’s day did not believe that ancient Americans could write:
Another fact obvious that September morning was that ancient peoples of the Americas knew how to write, a ludicrous claim for anyone to make in 1827.
From the Geneva, New York, Gazette, Feb. 17, 1819, we read
Several ancient pieces of aboriginal writing have lately reached New-York from Mexico. They are such as have been described and figured by many of the authors that have treated of the men who were the rulers of that important region of North America at the time of its invasion by the Spaniards — being partly imitative, by pictures, and partly significant, by hieroglyphics.
Again, here’s Vogel:
Perhaps such discoveries of metal plates encouraged the persistent legend of a lost Indian book. The legend, as related by Congregational minister Ethan Smith of Poultney, Vermont, held that the Indians once had “a book which they had for a long time preserved. But having lost the knowledge of reading it, they concluded it would be of no further use to them; and they buried it with an Indian chief.” The legend further stated that the Indians “once, away in another country, had the old divine speech, the book of God; they shall at some time have it again, and shall then be happy.”
Solomon Spalding (sometimes spelled Spaulding) of Ohio, at one time a Congregational minister, took advantage of the lore of his generation to spin a fanciful romance of ancient America. The romance, written sometime before Spalding’s death in 1816 but not published until the late 1800s, pretended to be a translation of an ancient record. In his introduction, Spalding wrote that he found the ancient record in “a small mound of Earth” near the west bank of the Conneaut River in Ohio. On top of the mound was “a flat Stone,” which he raised up with a lever. This stone turned out to be a cover to “an artificial cave,” about eight feet deep and lined with stones. After descending into the pit, he discovered “an earthan [sic] Box with a cover.” Removing its lid, he found that the box contained “twenty eight sheets of parchment . . . written in an eligant [sic] hand with Roman Letters & in the Latin Language . . . [containing] a history of the authors [sic] life & that part of America which extends along the great Lakes & the waters of the Missisippy.” Spalding told the story of Roman sailors driven off course by a storm to North America about the time of Constantine. They found the land inhabited by two groups of natives.
Given the currency of such stories, Joseph Smith’s own claim that he found a stone box, metal plates, and an Indian record in the hill near his father’s farm certainly would have seemed credible to his money-digging friends as well as to others of his contemporaries.
3. The Arts of War
Clark tells us that Book of Mormon ideas of ancient American warfare show that he got details right that he could not have known by himself:
The information on warfare in the Book of Mormon is particularly rich and provides ample opportunity to check Joseph Smith’s luck in getting the details right. The warfare described in the book differs from what Joseph could have known or imagined. In the book, one reads of fortified cities with trenches, walls, and palisades. Mesoamerican cities dating to Nephite times have been found with all these features.
Again, the mound builder myths mention these very characteristics. Here’s a description from 1803 by Rev. Dr. Thaddeus Harris of Massachusetts of such fortifications:
The situation of these works is on an elevated plain, above the present bank of the Muskingum, on the east side, and about half a mile from its junction with the Ohio. They consist of walls and mounds of earth, in direct lines, and in square and circular forms.
The largest square fort, by some called the town, contains forty acres, encompassed by a wall of earth, from six to ten feet high, and from twenty-five to thirty-six in breadth at the base. On each side are three openings, at equal distances, resembling twelve gateways. The entrances at the middle, are the largest particularly on the side next to the Muskingum. From this outlet is a covert way, formed of two parallel walls of earth, two hundred and thirty-one feet distant from each other, measuring from center to center. The walls at the most elevated part, on the inside, are twenty-one feet in height, and forty-two in breadth at the base, but on the outside average only five feet in height. This forms a passage of about three hundred and sixty feet in the length, leading by a gradual descent to the low grounds, where at the time of its construction, it probably reached the river. Its walls commence at sixty feet from the ramparts of the fort, and increase in elevation as the way descends towards the river; and the bottom is crowned in the center, in the manner of a well founded turnpike road.
Within the walls of the fort, at the northwest corner, is an oblong elevated square, one hundred and eighty-eight feet long, one hundred and thirty-two broad, and nine feet high; level on the summit, and nearly perpendicular at the sides. At the center of each the sides, the earth is projected, forming gradual ascents to the top, equally regular, and about six feet in width. Near the south wall is another elevated square, one hundred and fifty feet by one hundred and twenty, and eight feet high, similar to the other, excepting that instead of an ascent to go up on the side next to the wall, there is a hollow way ten feet wide, leading twenty feet towards the center, and then rising with a gradual slope to the top. At the southeast corner, is a third elevated square, one hundred and eight, by fifty-four feet, with ascents at the ends, but not so high nor perfect as the two others. A little to the southwest of the center of the fort is a circular mound, about thirty feet in diameter and five feet high, near which are four small excavations at equal distances, and opposite each other. At the southwest corner of the fort is a semicircular parapet, crowned with a mound, which guards the opening in the wall. Towards the southeast is a smaller fort, containing twenty acres, with a gateway in the center of each side and at each corner. These gateways are defended by circular mounds.
On the outside of the smaller fort is a mound, in form of a sugar loaf, of a magnitude and height which strikes the beholder with astonishment. Its base is a regular circle, one hundred and fifteen feet in diameter; its perpendicular altitude is thirty feet. It is surrounded by a ditch four feet deep and fifteen feet wide, and defended by a parapet four feet high, though which is a gateway towards the fort, twenty feet in width. There are other walls, mounds, and excavations, less conspicuous and entire.”
Clark states that Joseph’s description of weaponry is also unusual:
The Book of Mormon mentions bows and arrows, swords, slings, scimitars, clubs, spears, shields, breastplates, helmets, and cotton armor—all items documented for Mesoamerica.
Once more, we find similar descriptions in the mound builder myths. From Vogel again:
Occasionally claims surfaced that intact metal objects had been found in the North American mounds, and mound builders were sometimes credited with objects of obvious European manufacture. The Port Folio reported in 1819 that one Tennessee mound contained “an iron sword, resembling the sabre of the Persians or Seythians.” John Haywood claimed that in addition to clay objects “iron and steel utensils and ornaments have also been found.” The Ohio mound builders, he wrote, “had swords of iron and steel, and steel bows, . . . tools also of iron and steel, and chisels with which they neatly sculptured stone, and made engravings upon it.” In 1820 Atwater reported in the Archaeologia Americana that the mound builders “had some very well manufactured swords and knives of iron, possibly of steel.” He also claimed that in Virginia “there was found about half a steel bow, which, when entire, would measure five or six feet.” Thaddeus Harris indicated that “plates of copper have been found in some mounds, but they appear to be parts of armour.” And Ethan Smith recorded that silver, copper, and iron had been found in the North American mounds.
Clark ignores the mention of steel swords and instead posits the Nephite use of the macahuitl:
Aztec swords were of wood, sometimes edged with stone knives. There are indications of wooden swords in the Book of Mormon—how else could swords become stained with blood? Wooden swords edged with sharp stones could sever heads and limbs and were lethal.
The presence of wooden swords here is speculative, based, it seems, on the description of blood-stained Nephite swords. Yet such a description appears elsewhere in 19th-century literature, including Dickens’ Great Expectations (“blood-stain’d sword in thunder down”), which itself is a quotation from William Collins’ 1746 poem, “Ode on the Passions.” The same image also appears in 1867′s “The Sword of Robert Lee,” by Father A.J. Ryan. In essence, Clark seems to infer the presence of wooden swords from the use of a literary device.
The practice of taking detached arms as battle trophies, as in the story of Ammon, is also documented for Mesoamerica.
This one is interesting, although it’s an inexact match. Ammon, it must be observed, did not sever the arms in hopes of using them as battle trophies; rather, the text tells us that he severed the arms as the Lamanite sheep rustlers lifted their arms to smite him. The arms were gathered up by his astonished co-shepherds as evidence that this was some sort of superhuman individual. So, yes, there’s a parallel, but it’s decidedly weaker than Clark’s assertion.
Another precise correspondence is the practice of fleeing to the summits of pyramids as places of last defense and, consequently, of eventual surrender. Conquered cities were depicted in Mesoamerica by symbols for broken towers or burning pyramids. Mormon records this practice.
This statement puzzles me, as the first two citations for “towers as the last refuge in battle” (Alma 50:4; 51:20) have nothing to do with towers being the last refuge in battle but simply mention that towers were constructed on the fortifications and that after their surrender the dissenters were compelled to raise the title of liberty “upon their towers.” The third citation (Moroni 9:7) says that “the Lamanites have many prisoners, which they took from the tower of Sherrizah; and there were men, women, and children.” This is closer, but still makes no mention of the tower as a stronghold of last resort.
Other practices of his day were human sacrifice and cannibalism, vile behaviors well attested for Mesoamerica (see Mormon 4:14; Moroni 9:8, 10).
Human sacrifice and cannibalism were widely attributed to Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries; In James Adair’s The History of the American Indians from 1775, we read, “The Spanish writers acknowledge that the Mexicans brought their human sacrifices from the opposite sea; and did not offer up any of their own people: so that this was but the same as our North American Indians still practice, when they devote their captives to death.”
The final battle at Cumorah involved staggering numbers of troops, including Nephite battle units of 10,000. Aztec documents describe armies of over 200,000 warriors divided into major divisions of 8,000 warriors plus 4,000 retainers each. One battle involved 700,000 warriors on one side. The Aztec ciphers appear to be propagandistic exaggeration; I do not know whether this applies to Book of Mormon numbers or not.
I’m not really sure of Clark’s point here, but given the numbers of burial mounds discovered, it would not have surprised anyone to suggest that so many people had died in battle.
In summary, the practices and instruments of war described in the Book of Mormon display multiple and precise correspondences with Mesoamerican practices, and in ways unimaginable to 19th-century Yankees.
As I’ve shown, the practices and instruments of war described are not only not “unimaginable” but they correspond rather well to what 19th-century Americans would expect.
4. Cities, Temples, Towers, and Palaces
Mesoamerica is a land of decomposing cities. Their pyramids (towers), temples, and palaces are all items mentioned in the Book of Mormon but foreign to the gossip along the Erie Canal in Joseph Smith’s day. Cities show up in all the right places and date to time periods compatible with Book of Mormon chronology.
Yet Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews cites Alexander von Humboldt in discussing the existence of these items that Clark calls “foreign” to Joseph Smith’s day:
“So great a number of indigenous inhabitants (he [von Humboldt] adds) undoubtedly proves the antiquity of the cultivation of this country. … From the 7th to the 13th century, population seems in general to have continually flowed towards the south. From the regions situated south of the Rio Gila, issued forth those warlike nations, who successively inundated the country of Anahuac.–The hieroglyphical tables of the Aztees have transmitted to us the memory of the principal epochs of the great migrations among the Americans.” This traveller [von Humboldt] goes on to speak of those Indian migrations from the north, as bearing a resemblance to the inundations of the barbarous hordes of Goths and Vandals from the north of Europe, and overwhelming the Roman empire, in the fifth century. He adds; “The people, however, who traversed Mexico, left behind them traces of cultivation and civilization. The Taultees appeared first in the year 648; the Chichimecks in 1170; the Nahualtees in 1178; the Acolhues and Aztees, in 1196. The Taultees introduced the cultivation of maize and cotton; they built cities, made roads, and constructed those great pyramids, which are yet admired, and of which the faces are very accurately laid out. They knew the use of hieroglyphical paintings; they could found metals, and cut the hardest stones. And they had a solar year more perfect than that of the Greeks and Romans. The form of their government indicated that they were descendants of a people who had experienced great vicissitudes in their social state. But where (he adds) is the source of that cultivation? Where is the country from which the Taultees and Mexicans issued?”
No wonder these questions should arise in the highly philosophical mind of this arch investigator. Had he known the present theory of their having descended from ancient Israel; it seems as though his difficulties might at once have obtained relief. These accounts appear most strikingly to favour our hypothesis. Here we account for all the degrees of civilization and improvements existing in past ages among the natives of those regions. How perfectly consentaneous are these facts stated, with the scheme presented in the preceding pages, that Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long laboured to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions! Their hieroglyphical records, paintings and knowledge of the solar year, (let it be repeated and remembered) agree to nothing that could have descended from the barbarous hordes of the north-east of Europe, and north of Asia; but they well agree with the ancient improvements and state of Israel.
Oddly enough, Jeff Lindsay asserts that the Book of Mormon’s not mentioning pyramids argues against any borrowing from Humboldt/Ethan Smith.
5. Cement Houses and Cities
One of the more unusual and specific claims in the Book of Mormon is that houses and cities of cement were built by 49 BC in the Land Northward, a claim considered ridiculous in 1830. As it turns out, this claim receives remarkable confirmation at Teotihuacan, the largest pre-Columbian city ever built in the Americas. Teotihuacan is still covered with ancient cement that has lasted over 1,500 years.
Again, we see in View of the Hebrews another citation to Humboldt noting the similarity of construction of the temples at Teotihuacan to ancient Egyptian methods: “This construction recalls to mind that of one of the Egyptian pyramids of Sackhara, which has six stories, is a mass of pebbles and yellow mortar, covered on the outside with rough stones.”
6. Kings and Their Monuments
All Book of Mormon peoples had kings who ruled cities and territories. American prejudices against native tribes in Joseph’s day had no room for kings or their tyrannies.
Again from View of the Hebrews:
They had an established religion among them in many particulars rational and consistent; as likewise regular orders of priesthood. They had a temple dedicated to the Great Spirit, in which they preserved the eternal fire. Their civil polity partook of the refinement of a people apparently in some degree learned and scientific. They had kings, or chiefs,–a kind of subordinate nobility,–and the usual distinctions created by rank were well understood and preserved among them.
Thus we see that the Lamanite regional kings and sub-kings (think Lamoni and his father) fit right in with the notions of Joseph Smith’s day about mound builder political structure.
The last Jaredite king, Coriantumr, carved his history on a stone about 400 BC, an event in line with Mesoamerican practices at that time. A particular gem in the book is that King Benjamin “labored” with his “own hands” (Mosiah 2:14), an outrageous thing for Joseph Smith to have claimed for a king. It was not until the 1960s that anthropology caught up to the idea of working kings and validated it among world cultures.
The idea of a working king is a novel one, though it doesn’t entirely contradict what people knew about Indian chiefs in the early 19th century. The sachem, or regional chiefs, were well-known to people of Joseph Smith’s day, and we are told in early literature that they were chosen by their tribes for their wisdom and good sense: One author wrote in 1727, “Each nation is an absolute Republick by its self, govern’d in all Publick Affairs of War and Peace by the Sachems (Chiefs) … whose Authority and power is gain’d by and consists wholly in the Opinion the rest of the Nation have of their Wisdom and Integrity.”
More specifically, we consider Riplakish, the 10th Jaredite king, an oppressive tyrant who forced slaves to construct buildings and produce fancy goods. Among the items he commissioned about 1200 BC was “an exceedingly beautiful throne” (Ether 10:6). The earliest civilization in Mesoamerica is known for its elaborate stone thrones. How did Joseph Smith get this detail right?
I’m still trying to figure out how to answer this obvious question: how did Joseph guess that kings sit on thrones?
7. Metaphors and the Mesoamerican World
Not all evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon concerns material goods. A striking correspondence is a drawing from the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving pre-Columbian Maya books. It shows a sacrificial victim with a tree growing from his heart, a literal portrayal of the metaphor preached in Alma, chapter 32. Other Mesoamerican images depict the tree of life. The Book of Mormon’s metaphors make sense in the Mesoamerican world. We are just beginning to study these metaphors, so check the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies for future developments.
I think if anyone wants to see it, the image Clark refers to is found here. At any rate, Joseph Campbell describes the image as follows: “While rising from the victim’s opened belly is the Tree of the Middle Place, which in the Beginning sprang from the body of the sacrificed cosmic goddess… Hers was the primal sacrifice, of which every other is a likeness, and was of world creation; this is of world renewal at the end of the age.” Maybe it’s just me, but saying that a depiction showing renewal from human sacrifice is a “literal portrayal of the metaphor preached in Alma” is a bit of a stretch.
8. Timekeeping and Prophesying
A correspondence that has always impressed me involves prophecies in 400-year blocks. The Maya were obsessed with time, and they carved precise dates on their stone monuments that began with the count of 400 years, an interval called a baktun. Each baktun was made up of 20 katuns, an extremely important 20-year interval. If you permit me some liberties with the text, Samuel the Lamanite warned the Nephites that one baktun “shall not pass away before . . . they [would] be smitten” (Helaman 13:9). Nephi and Alma uttered the same baktun prophecy, and Moroni recorded its fulfillment. Moroni bids us farewell just after the first katun of this final baktun, or 420 years since the “sign was given of the coming of Christ” (Moroni 10:1). What are the chances of Joseph Smith guessing correctly the vigesimal system of timekeeping and prophesying among the Maya and their neighbors over 50 years before scholars stumbled onto it?
This one is quite thin. Using this logic, the Nephites kept time in blocks of 600 years, since that is the time predicted for the arrival of the Savior. Or maybe that’s just a baktun and a half. Yes, I’d say Clark is taking some liberties here.
9. Old World Geography
As is clear from the Cluff expedition, if the geography is not right, one can waste years searching for Zarahemla and never reach it. Book of Mormon geography presents a serious challenge because the only city location known with certitude is Old World Jerusalem, and this does not help us with locations in the promised land. However, geographical correspondences are marvelous for the Old World portion of the narrative. As S. Kent Brown and others have shown, the geography of the Arabian Peninsula described in 1 Nephi is precise down to its place-names. The remarkable geographic fit includes numerous details unknown in Joseph Smith’s day.
As I’ve said before, the NHM hit is interesting and the closest thing we have to any external evidence for the Book of Mormon, though the place name “Nehem” was known on maps of Joseph’s day.
10. New World Geography
For the New World, dealing with geography is a two-step exercise. First an internal geography must be deduced from clues in the book, and this deduction must then become the standard for engaging the second step, matching the internal geography with a real-world setting. John Sorenson has done the best work on this matter. The Book of Mormon account is remarkably consistent throughout. Nephite lands included a narrow neck between two seas and lands northward and southward of this neck. The Land Southward could be traversed on foot, with children and animals in tow, in about 30 days, so it could not have been much longer than 300 miles. The 3,000 miles required for the two-hemisphere geography is off by one order of magnitude. Nephite lands were small and did not include all of the Americas or all of their peoples. The principal corollary of a limited geography is that Book of Mormon peoples were not alone on the continent. Therefore, to check for correspondences, one must find the right place and peoples. It is worth noticing that anti-Mormons lament the demise of the traditional continental correlation because it was so easy to ridicule. The limited, scriptural geography is giving them fits.
So he dismisses the hemispheric model, which I would expect. It doesn’t make sense, no matter how much the prophets have taught it.
Sorenson argues that Book of Mormon lands and peoples were in Central America and southern Mexico, an area known as Mesoamerica. We notice that the configuration of lands, seas, mountains, and other natural features in Mesoamerica are a tight fit with the internal requirements of the text. It is important to stress that finding any sector in the Americas that fits Book of Mormon specifications requires dealing with hundreds of mutually dependent variables. So rather than counting a credible geography as one correspondence, it actually counts for several hundred. The probability of guessing reams of details all correctly is zero. Joseph Smith did not know about Central America before reading Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, and he apparently did not know where Book of Mormon lands were, so a Book of Mormon geography correlation becomes compelling evidence that he did not write the book.
I’m sorry, but I don’t see this. It’s as if he’s arguing that since Sorenson found a location that more or less fits geographically, it’s evidence for the Book of Mormon. As far as I’ve seen over the last 20 years or so, the “reams of details” guessed correctly are no more impressive than the claims Clark makes above.
11. Cycles of Civilization in Mesoamerica
I mentioned that the Book of Mormon’s claim of civilized peoples was verified in Joseph’s lifetime. This claim is actually twofold because the book describes an earlier Jaredite civilization that overlapped a few centuries with Lehite civilization. The dates for the Nephite half of Lehite civilization are clearly bracketed in the account to 587 years before Christ to 386 years after. But those for the earlier civilization remain cloudy, beginning sometime after the Tower of Babel and ending before King Mosiah fled to Zarahemla. Jaredites were probably tilling American soil in the Land Northward at least by 2200 BC, and they may have endured their own wickedness until 400 BC.
The two-civilizations requirement used to be a problem for the Book of Mormon, but it no longer is now that modern archaeology is catching up. I emphasize that I am interpreting “civilization” in the strict sense as meaning “city life.” In checking correlations between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology, I focus on the rise and decline of cities. The earliest known Olmec city was up and running by 1300 BC, and it was preceded by a large community dating back to 1700 BC. Most Olmec cities were abandoned about 400 BC, probably under duress. In eastern Mesoamerica, Olmec civilization was replaced by the lowland Maya, who began building cities in the jungles of Guatemala about 500 to 400 BC. As with Olmec civilization, Maya civilization experienced peaks and troughs of development, with a mini-collapse about AD 200. In short, the correspondences between the Book of Mormon and cycles of Mesoamerican civilization are striking.
However, the “two-civilizations requirement” is not a problem in mound builder lore, as most proponents believed that the mound builders predated the Indian. Even in 1919 such myths continued:
Before the white man, the Indian; before the Indian who the archaeology of any County forms one of its most interesting chapters. Who the ancient dwellers were, what they did,
what lives they led, are all questions of conjecture now. Their history appears only in their silent monuments, as silent at the race, the fact of whose existence they perpetuate.
The relics they left are the only key that we possess of their lives, and these give a history whose antiquity seems almost Adamic. The principal remains left consist of earthworks,
mounds and parapets, filled with the rude implements of the people who built them, and with the bones of these lost portions of humanity. From their proclivities to build these earthworks,
these people are known as “Mound Builders,” the only name that now fits their peculiar style of life.
But let’s look at the strength of Clark’s timeline: The Olmec timeline roughly works, but the Maya does not, as the “mini-collapse” in 200 occurs just before the Mayan classic period (250-900), which does not at all match the Nephite decline and destruction in roughly AD 420.
12. Mesoamerican Demographic History
Reconstructing ancient demography requires detailed information on site sizes, locations, dates, and frequencies. It will take another 50 years of active research to compile enough information to reconstruct Mesoamerica’s complete demographic history. The Nephite and Lamanite stories are too complicated to review here; I will just consider the Jaredite period. To begin, the earliest developments of Jaredites and Olmecs are hazy, but from about 1500 BC onward their histories are remarkably parallel. The alternations between city building and population declines, described for the Jaredites, correspond quite well with lowland Olmec developments. Olmec cities were abandoned by 400 BC, and the culture disappeared—just as the Book of Mormon describes for the Jaredites (see Ether 13–15). This is a phenomenal correlation. Much more research in southern Mexico is needed to check the lands that Sorenson identifies as Nephite. The little I know of the region looks promising for future confirmations.
Without examples of what he’s talking about, it’s hard to say whether the Jaredite rise and fall cycle matches the Olmec.
Before leaving this issue, it is important to make one observation on a global question that troubles some Latter-day Saints. Could millions of people have lived in the area proposed as Book of Mormon lands? Yes, and they did. Mesoamerica is the only area in the Americas that sustained the high population densities mentioned in the Book of Mormon, and for the times specified.
He’s right here, and this I believe is the reason the apologists favor Mesoamerica: it’s the only place in the Americas that is even remotely plausible as a Book of Mormon setting. And ultimately, providing plausibility seems to be Clark’s purpose here. But, as I have shown, it’s at least as plausible that Joseph Smith incorporated local mythology into the Book of Mormon. Given two plausible explanations, I leave it to the reader to decide which one makes the most sense.