Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):

American Indians and the Book of Mormon!

There is a major complication for traditional Book of Mormon geography. The premise of repopulating the vast North and South American continents from two small groups of transoceanic Hebrew immigrants is, to say the least, far-fetched! There are no non-Mormon specialists who support the premise of an ancient Hebrew civilization in the pre-Columbian Americas.

by John D. Keyser

The Mormon Church, known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, claims that The Book of Mormon is divinely inspired and supplemental to the Bible. Is there any truth to this?

First published in 1830, the Book of Mormon reveals three transoceanic migrations to the Americas by people from the Near East -- migrations that are not found in any other history. The first of these peoples (known as "JAREDITES") are reputed to have come to the New World at the time language was confused at the Tower of Babel -- circa 2,000 B.C. according to their dating. It is claimed the Jaredites founded a great civilization that lasted almost 2,000 years.

A second migration to the pre-Columbian Americas, so the story goes, is purported to have taken place in 600 B.C. Led by a prophet named Lehi, this group is described as Hebrew peoples from Jerusalem. Lehi's group is said to have been joined a few years later by a THIRD group under the leadership of Mulek also, apparently, Hebrews from Palestine. The peoples of Lehi and Mulek eventually merged and became known collectively as "NEPHITES." The Nephites, according to the Mormon Church, were the ANCESTORS of the American Indians.

Official Mormon promotional literature describes The Book of Mormon as "the ancient history of this people, telling of their wars, movements, kings, and their religion -- which was the religion of Israel, for these people were Israelites and practiced the law of Moses" (What is the Book of Mormon?). This publication continues: "There are archaeological evidences that have been unearthed in regions of Central and South America. These remnants of the civilizations that once flowered in the Western hemisphere are supporting proofs that the Book of Mormon is true" (page 12).

While official Mormon promotional literature and activities continue to make claims of scientific support from the fields of archaeology and anthropology, there are NO non-Mormon specialists in these fields who support the premise of an ancient Hebrew civilization in the pre-Columbian Americas. Not only that, but many contemporary MORMON scholars no longer support the theory either!

Notes the respected authority on Mesoamerica, Michael Coe, in the "Book of Mormon Archaeology: An Overview," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought: "...as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true, and I would like to state that THERE ARE QUITE A FEW MORMON ARCHAEOLOGISTS WHO JOIN THIS GROUP" (Vol. 2, No. 8. 1973, page 42).

Book of Mormon Geography

The Book of Mormon describes the world of its inhabitants as an HOUR GLASS-SHAPED LAND MASS made up of a "land southward" surrounded by water except for a "narrow neck" of land connecting it to a "land northward" (Alma 22:32). The first step to be taken before archaeology proper can be employed to evaluate the Book of Mormon, is to determine the geographical location of these lands. However, when one fully examines Mormon explanations of Book of Mormon geography, it turns out that there are TWO very different and MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE theories.

The Traditional Theory: The traditional view, which continues to receive the support of Church officials, places Book of Mormon events in the geographical context of the ENTIRE North and South American continents. This view was unquestioned for nearly 100 years. The Mormon historian Dan Vogel has documented that this was the view of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and successive generations of Mormon apostles and presidents.

In the last fifty years, however, many Mormon scholars have come to the conclusion that the traditional view is untenable. They base this on a number of INHERENT IMPROBABILITIES that arise when one attempts to apply Book of Mormon descriptions of TRAVEL TIMES and POPULATION GROWTH to the vast expanse of North and South America. For example, while the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the rival Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were centered around the "narrow neck" of land in Central America, it says that they agreed to meet for the final battle at the "hill Cumorah" (Mormon 6:1-6) which Joseph Smith and Mormon tradition place in western New York state near the Mormon prophets boyhood home. It was at this battle that the Nephites were wiped out; and this incident concludes the Book of Mormon chronology -- circa 421 A.D.

How (and WHY) the Nephites and Lamanites traveled such a vast distance for their final battle eludes logic and is not answered by Mormon material.

This is not the only major complication for traditional Book of Mormon geography. The premise of repopulating the vast North and South American continents from two small groups of transoceanic immigrations is, to say the lest, far-fetched! According to the Mormons, the civilization of the first Near Eastern immigrants to the New World (the "Jaredites" -- circa 2,000 B.C.) was established on a VIRGIN CONTINENT and ended in self-destruction 2,000 years later. Therefore, as the theory goes, the Americas were REPOPULATED by the Nephite and Mulekite groups which arrived in the sixth century B.C. Joseph Smith taught that the American Indians are descendants of the Lamanites -- a division of the Nephites.

Dan Vogel summarizes the extent of the population claims made for the Nephites in the following manner:

"We are told in Helaman 3:8 that the people 'did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.' If this statement refers to the entire North and South American continents, it is an INCREDIBLE ACCOMPLISHMENT in population growth. However, it is not surprising that the Book of Mormon author could easily fill the Americas with Nephites and Lamanites. The Book of Mormon peoples get off to a quick start. In the short space of two generations they are already spoken of in terms of 'multitudes' and 'armies' [Jacob 7:17, 21, 25]. And no matter how many thousands are killed in battle, they keep coming back in still greater numbers" (The New Theory of Book of Mormon Geography: A Preliminary Examination, p. 34).

The Limited Geography Theory: In order to remove these inherent impossibilities and attempt to salvage the historicity of the Book of Mormon, a number of modern Mormon scholars have come up with several variations of a NEW APPROACH to their geography commonly called the "limited geography theory." This view restricts the Book of Mormon setting to a 350-mile-long stretch of Central America, with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec corresponding to the "narrow neck" of the hourglass-shaped land mass mentioned above.

This theory is supported by the influential Brigham Young University anthropologist John L. Sorenson in his book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Deseret Books, 1985). However, it is notable that although this is the most significant contemporary work on Book of Mormon archaeology by a Mormon scholar, ten years after publication it has never been reviewed by a scholarly periodical -- either Mormon or non-Mormon!

Unfortunately, the limited geography theory simply replaces the impossibilities of traditional Book of Mormon geography with a number of basic CONTRADICTIONS of Book of Mormon internal evidence and official Mormon pronouncements and traditions. It does NOT resolve the BASIC INCOMPATIBILITY with the archaeological evidence.

For example, Sorenson locates the hill Cumorah, scene of the final epic clash between the Nephites and the Lamanites, in Central America -- at a site only 90 MILES from the "narrow neck" (the nexus of Nephite civilization). Now while this removes the improbable requirement of the traditional view that has the two armies marching thousands of miles north to present-day New York state to do battle, it clearly conflicts with the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah as "an exceeding great distance" (from the narrow neck) into the "land northward" (Helaman 3:3, 4). If the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Sorenson's "narrow neck" of land) at 130 miles across, is "narrow," how can the 90 miles from the "narrow neck" to Sorenson's Cumorah fit the Book of Mormon description of "an exceeding great distance"?

Vogel points out that based on Sorenson's identifications, it is 155 miles between the Book of Mormon cities of Nephi and Zarahemla (Kaminaljuya, Guatemala and Santa Rosa, Mexico, respectively). However, if 155 miles is considered a SHORT DISTANCE by the Book of Mormon, Sorenson's identifications of the narrow neck and Cumorah -- which are only 90 MILES apart -- do not accord with the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah as "AN EXCEEDING GREAT DISTANCE" into the land northward!

Another MAJOR DISCREPANCY of the limited geography theory is the absence of what the Book of Mormon refers to as the "sea north" and the "sea south." According to the traditional view, these descriptions correspond to the Atlantic Ocean south of Cape Horn, and the Arctic Ocean north of Canada, respectively. In fact, the 1888 edition of the Book of Mormon included a note to this effect at Helamon 3:8.

Not only that, but since advocates of the limited geography theory DO NOT question the tradition that Joseph Smith did in fact retrieve the gold plates of the Book of Mormon from a hill near his PALMYRA, NEW YORK home, the limited geography theory requires TWO Cumorahs -- the one in New York and the one in Mesoamerica. This, of course, means the gold plates (weighing several hundreds of pounds) would have been transferred thousands of miles from the one Cumorah to the other -- a highly unlikely scenario!

There is yet ANOTHER serious problem for the limited geography theory: The 45 degree directional skewing that is necessary in order to fit the various geographical features of the Book of Mormon into the proposed Central American site, and the COMPLETE ABSENCE of a "sea north" and a "sea south". These are BASIC FEATURES of geography in the Book of Mormon.

Two maps from Sorenson's book (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon) illustrate the problem. They clearly show that the so-called "land northward" and the "land southward" are in fact oriented along a NORTHWEST-SOUTHEAST LINE, while the so-called "east sea" and "west sea" are almost DIRECTLY NORTH AND SOUTH, respectively, of the Book of Mormon lands.

Sorenson vainly attempts to explain this directional skewing by claiming that the Hebrew means of directional orientation, if applied to Central America by immigrants arriving from the west, would necessitate the orientation required by his theory! He asserts that the Hebrews gained their directional orientation by placing their backs to the sea (Hebrew: yam, meaning "sea" but also "west"), so that east (gedem: "fore") would then be in front of them, south (yamin: "south" or "right hand") to the right, north (semol: "north" or "left hand") to the left, and west behind them.

Talk about convoluted reasoning! Vogel correctly notes that Sorenson IGNORES Hebrew dependence on the RISING SUN as the primary means of establishing directional orientation. This factor, carried over to Sorenson's proposed Central American site by Hebrew immigrants, would result in the same directional orientation we use today. This leaves Sorenson's theory with a SERIOUS FLAW on the issues of directional orientation and the absence of a "sea north" and "sea south."

As a result of these conflicts with Mormon authorities, Mormon tradition, and Book of Mormon internal evidence, the limited geography theory has been strongly REJECTED and rebuked by the "spiritual authorities" of the Mormon Church. In 1938 Mormon apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., said of the theory:

"This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place...the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, NOTWITHSTANDING THE TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH TO THE CONTRARY FOR UPWARDS OF 100 YEARS" (Church News, 10 September, 1938, pp. 1, 6).

In the 1966 edition of his highly respected work, Mormon Doctrine, apostle Bruce R. McConkie recorded that the location of Cumorah IN NEW YORK STATE is unquestioned because:

"Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and many of the early brethren who were familiar with the circumstances attending the coming forth of the Book of Mormon...have left us pointed testimony..." (2nd edition. Bookcraft, 1966, p. 175).

In 1978 the Church published an official REBUKE of the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory," labeling it "harmful" and a "challenge" to the "words of the prophets concerning the place where the Moroni buried the records [i.e., Cumorah]" (Deseret News, Church News 48, No. 30. 29 July 1978).

It is very obvious that Book of Mormon geography presents Latter-Day Saints with a SERIOUS THEOLOGICAL DILEMMA! On the one hand, the traditional view produces a number of hopeless impossibilities that throw serious doubt on the historicity of the Book of Mormon; on the other hand, the limited geography theory rejects the clear pronouncements regarding the Book of Mormon founder-prophet Joseph Smith and the Church's apostles and presidents down to today -- and conflicts with Book of Mormon internal evidence at a number of basic points.

Major Book of Mormon Anachronisms

A paper delivered by BYU (Brigham Young University) archaeology professor Raymond T. Matheny at the 1984 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, highlights some of the problems in his own Church's explanations of the Book of Mormon. After working the area of Mesoamerican archaeology for some twenty-two years, Professor Matheny comes to the conclusion that scientific evidence DOES NOT support the theory of a Central American setting for the peoples and events recorded in the Book of Mormon.

To back this up Matheny presents TWO basic lines of argument: (1) the Book of Mormon introduces a number of MAJOR CULTURAL ANACHRONISMS into a Central American setting -- in terms of old world cultural achievements and concepts; and (2) defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are left with only esoteric discoveries interpreted APART from generally accepted scientific standards of archaeological methodology.


One of the most significant cultural anachronisms in the Book of Mormon is the depiction of the Nephite civilization as having IRON and other METAL INDUSTRIES. We read of METAL swords and breastplates, gold and silver COINAGE, and even MACHINERY. However, there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE whatsoever pointing to any Mesoamerican civilization attaining such an industry during Book of Mormon times (ending 421 A.D.). Professor Matheny tells us that a ferrous industry is not a simple feat encompassing a few people, but a complex process that requires a distinct social context and leaves almost INDESTRUCTIBLE archaeological evidence.

Professor Matheny goes on to note that while esoteric iron artifacts have been found in a pre-Columbian setting, they must be accounted for by random means (such as meteorites) because of the ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE OF A METALLURGICAL INDUSTRY. "Esoteric finds," states Matheny, "are NOT a basis for scientific conclusions."

Old World Agricultural Products

The Book of Mormon also depicts Nephite culture as including a number of old world agricultural products such as wheat, barley, grapes, olives and flax (linen). This turns out to be another MAJOR ANACHRONISM in terms of the archaeological record of pre-Columbian Central (Meso) American culture. Once again Matheny points out that a complex economic and social environment is needed to produce these products as they are pictured in the Book of Mormon:

There's a whole system of production of wheat and barley...It's a specialized production of food. You have to know something to make flax [the source of linen], and especially in tropical climates. Grapes and olives...all these are cultures that are highly developed and amount to systems, and so the Book of Mormon is saying that these systems existed there.

But, according to Matheny, there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE for these agricultural systems in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. He further notes that a 1983 Science Magazine article on barley found in a pre-Columbian setting is wrongly claimed as support for the Book of Mormon because the barley described was not a domesticated old world barley.

Old World Domestic Animals

A further set of MAJOR ANACHRONISMS in the Book of Mormon concerns its references to a number of old world domesticated animals -- such as cows, sheep, asses, oxen, goats, horses, elephants and pig. These are claimed to be integral parts of Nephite culture. Here again, Professor Matheny points out that these domesticated animals are each specializations that require cultural complexes NOT PRESENT in pre-Columbian Central America:

You don't just have a cow or a goat or a horse as an esoteric pet...There is a system of raising these things, and the picture that is painted for me as I read this, and others too, is that we have [in Book of Mormon portrayals]...domestic animals and so forth in the New World.

Some defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon argue that these names (cow, oxen, etc.) are simply being used as substitutes for native New World animals such as peccaries or tape deer. Is this a valid argument? Not according to Matheny. He shows persuasively that this is definitely NOT LEGITIMATE because the Book of Mormon descriptions occur in specific literary contexts that ASSUME COMPLEX OLD WORLD SYSTEMS for the raising and functioning of the various domestic animals:

"...in Alma there...about the thirteenth chapter [18:10; 20:6, 8]...he's using the stable there preparing the horses for King Lamoni, and also he's preparing the King's chariots because they're going to take a trip from one city to another over the royal highway. And also the horses are pastured, no less. So these are contexts within the Book of Mormon itself. These are not just substitutions, it seems to me, but the authors of the Book of Mormon there are providing the context, they're not trying to describe a tape deer or something else, it seems to me. This is a weak way to try to explain the presence of these names in the Book of Mormon."

There are many other anachronisms in the Book of Mormon cultural descriptions of Mesoamerica, such as a money economy, an understanding of the world as an entire planet and the movement of the planets, the idea of history and the use of a lunar calendar.

Grasping at Straws

It is quite obvious that the efforts of the Mormon Church to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon on the basis of archaeological evidence is in vain! States Professor Matheny: "I have felt that Mormons...have been GRASPING AT STRAWS for a very long time trying to thread together all these little esoteric finds, out of context, and [they] really don't have much meaning when they're isolated."

Matheny, and other archaeologists and historians, are unable to endorse A SINGLE WORK on Book of Mormon archaeology by any of the various Mormon apologists -- amateur or professional! Even the magnum opus of Matheny's colleague John L. Sorenson (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon) cannot be endorsed, and this is THE definitive apologetic work on Book of Mormon archaeology by a QUALIFIED Mormon scholar. In 1987, two years after Sorenson's book was published, Matheny responded to an inquiry about Book of Mormon archaeology by saying --

"I do not support the books written on this subject, including The Messiah in Ancient America [an earlier book by John Sorenson] or any other. I believe the authors are making cases out of too little evidence and do not adequately address the problems that archaeology and the Book of Mormon present...This may sound very negative to you but my intent is [to] let you know that there are very severe problems in this field in trying to make correlations with the [Mormon] scriptures."

The bottom line is, Matheny's overall assessment of the evidence amounts to a BLUNT DENIAL that Mesoamerican archaeology offers any support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon: "I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that IT HAS NO PLACE IN THE NEW WORLD WHATSOEVER."


There is no historical or archaeological evidence to show that groups of Hebrews from Palestine traveled to Central America and became the ancestors of the American Indians. This being the case, WHERE did the American Indians come from? The answer to that is more intriguing and exciting than anything Joseph Smith could dream up in his wildest visions and can be found in another article!


Hope of Israel Ministries -- Proclaiming the Good News of the Soon-Coming Kingdom of YEHOVAH God Here On This Earth!

Hope of Israel Ministries
P.O. Box 853
Azusa, CA 91702, U.S.A.

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