Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mesaomerica as Hinterland--censored by the Interpreter

Note: After I read Mark Alan Wright's piece, "Heartland as Hinterland," I submitted an article to the Interpreter that considered the hinterland approach from the opposite direction; i.e., "Mesoamerica as Hinterland: the North American Core and the Mesoamerican Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography." The editors rejected it because they disagreed with my conclusion.

It was probably inevitable; regardless of merit, such a thesis would never make it past the citation cartel of Brant Gardner, Dan Peterson, William J. Hamblin, Louis C. Midgley, Gregory L. Smith, Mark Alan Wright, Matthew Roper, Mike Parker, et al. They seek to maintain the consensus view on Mesoamerica at all costs, and that's their prerogative. It's their journal, after all.

But I think their readers should know that the Interpreter censors views that its editors don't approve of. Unlike them, I trust people to make up their own minds, based on facts, reasoned arguments, and citations to legitimate sources.

For that reason, in addition to my peer reviews, from time to time I will post articles here that offer Interpreter readers a different perspective. I extend an open invitation to Interpreter editors to republish any of these articles in their journal. For pieces I write, I'm willing to make reasonable editorial changes to accommodate their style guidelines and any comments generated by the peer review process.


Mesoamerica as Hinterland: A new look at Book of Mormon geography

ABSTRACT: In his article “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography,” Mark Alan Wright proposed a method to “harmonize the Mesoamerican evidence for the Book of Mormon with Joseph Smith’s statements concerning Nephite and Lamanite material culture in North America.” This article addresses Wright’s point and then applies three filters set forth in John Sorenson’s book, Mormon’s Codex, to two models: Sorenson’s own Mesoamerican model and the American model, a version of which Wright and others have described as the Heartland model. The results suggest Wright’s “hinterland” concept fits better with Mesoamerica as the Hinterland and America as the Core.

For decades, LDS scholars have labored to establish and defend a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon because they believed they were vindicating what Joseph Smith wrote (or approved) in three articles published in the Times and Seasons on 15 September and 1 October 1842. Now, proponents of the Mesoamerican theory have largely abandoned those articles,[1] partly because the articles themselves were erroneous on their face (the sites they linked to the Book of Mormon are not feasible candidates, and the ruins they cited don’t date to Book of Mormon times) and partly because the appeal to authority based on the writings of early LDS leaders doesn’t support a limited Mesoamerican geography. Those writings support a hemispheric geography, stretching from South America north through Mesoamerica and continuing all the way to New York. Few people, scholars or not, believe such a hemispheric model is feasible; instead, it is now viewed as the product of superficial reading of the text and irrational exuberance about proving historicity by any and all evidence of ancient civilizations in the Americas.
Although now discredited, these Times and Seasons articles have influenced generations of Latter-day Saints—members, scholars, and leaders[2]—and have been frequently cited by those who advocate a Mesoamerican setting.
I accept Wright’s premise that a hemispheric model is unrealistic; i.e., despite what some of the early LDS leaders wrote, the Book of Mormon narrative could not have extended from South America through Central America and ended in New York. The text describes a more limited geography than that. But how limited? That’s to be determined.
For the sake of argument, I also accept the premise that the Times and Seasons articles are ancillary, or even irrelevant, to Book of Mormon geography. I examine Mesoamerican geography on the merits. As John Sorenson wrote, “If we are to progress in this task, we must chop away and burn the conceptual underbrush that has afflicted the effort in the past. We must stop asking, as so many do, what have the Brethren said about this in the past?”[3]
Wright’s Hinterland
The framework for this article derives from a 2014 article by Mark Alan Wright. Wright proposes that the “best available evidence for the Book of Mormon continues to support a limited Mesoamerican model,” with North America being the “hinterlands.”[4] The hinterlands approach seeks to account for some of the statements by Joseph Smith and his associates that suggest a North American setting for the Book of Mormon. Wright’s hinterlands argument goes like this. The Book of Mormon text covers less than one percent of Nephite history; the other ninety-nine percent could have included people and places well outside the scope of the text. In addition, Alma 63 describes northward migration of people who are never heard from again. Therefore, Joseph Smith’s references to Nephites in North America involved those migrants, not the actual inhabitants of Zarahemla, Bountiful, etc.
To his credit, Wright announces his bias up front: “My basic thesis is this: The core locations and events detailed in the text of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica.” I empathize with this thesis because I shared that bias for many years. I can make the Mesoamerican argument; indeed, I have made that argument for a long time. However, my research and study has led me to conclude Mesoamerica is a poor fit for the Book of Mormon text when compared to North America.
Wright’s bias is evident throughout his article. He never considers the possibility that the evidence he assesses—some of Joseph Smith’s statements about Nephite civilization in North America—is evidence of the core of Nephite civilization, while the evidence in Mesoamerica—evidence Wright doesn’t present but takes for granted—is evidence of what is described in the text as Lamanite civilization.
Wright cites several specific incidents that I will touch on here.
Unfortunately, Wright errs in his discussion of Zelph when he writes, “One important detail that the History of the Church gets wrong is the statement that Onandagus was known from the Hill Cumorah to the Rocky Mountains. None of the primary sources indicates that Joseph made that claim.” The source he cites says otherwise, as is evident to anyone who reads his source. The actual journal entries, contemporaneous with the event, do make the connection between the Hill Cumorah and the Rocky Mountains. They are available online for anyone to read.[5] It is interesting that when Joseph made the connection between the Rocky Mountains and the Hill Cumorah, it was not known that the ancient Hopewell in fact did trade over that span of geography. Another point about Zelph is that no account says Joseph referred to the “eastern sea.” He referred to the “east sea” in connection with Cumorah. These are both specific Book of Mormon terms. Wright doesn’t address this point; in fact, later he complains that Joseph didn’t refer to specific Book of Mormon sites. So when Joseph refers to specific sites, Wright misleads his readers into thinking the references were not credible, and when Joseph refers to sites in general terms, Wright complains Joseph wasn't specific enough. Anyone can read these original journal accounts of the Zelph incident and see that Joseph identified two specific Book of Mormon sites as being in New York. While it is understandable that Mesoamerican proponents seek to discredit these accounts, they should not do so by misleading their readers about the historical facts.
Letter to Emma
Wright also errs in his discussion of the letter Joseph wrote to Emma, as is evident from the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) he cites. His link to JSP shows Mulholland copied the letter into JS's letterbook; this is not the original letter and Joseph didn't sign this. The original letter is not extant; it may have been written by Joseph himself or by one of his scribes. However, the content—an intimate letter to his wife—shows Joseph was the source of the original letter.
More important is Wright’s substantive analysis of the phrase “plains of the Nephites” that Joseph Smith claimed he crossed during Zion’s camp. Here’s Wright’s explanation:
Likewise, the “plains of the Nephites” are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. To be sure, there are “plains” mentioned between the cities Bountiful and Mulek in Alma 52:20, and we read of the “plains of Nephihah” in Alma 62:18, but the general term “plains of the Nephites” is absent from the Book of Mormon. Because there are multiple plains attested to in the text, the general phrase “plains of the Nephites” is too vague to be of any use in pinpointing it geographically. Even among the Jaredites we read of the “plains of Heshlon” (Ether 13:28) and the “plains of Agosh” (Ether 14:15), but significantly, never just “the plains of the Jaredites.” Plains in the text of the Book of Mormon are always attached to a specific city. Those in Joseph’s letter to Emma are not.[6]
Wright overlooks two obvious points. First, Joseph could have been referring to all of the plains of mentioned in the Book of Mormon. After all, he had traversed Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—a distance of over 650 miles, most of it consisting of plains—by the time he wrote the letter to Emma. Why would he feel compelled to cite specific names from the text, especially when one of the plains Wright himself refers to was not named? Second, Joseph’s mother related how Joseph described the Nephites as if he had lived among them. He could have been aware of additional Nephite plains not specifically named in the Book of Mormon. If so, and if he knew he had just crossed them, one would expect him to describe them as plains, plural, just as he did. In this connection, Wright quotes but avoids addressing the balance of Joseph’s letter, in which Joseph wrote that he spent the time “recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity.” In Wright’s view, Joseph was recounting the history of Mesoamerica, picking up skulls and bones in Ohio as proof of the divine authenticity of a Mesoamerican record.
One last point. According to Wright, “Mesoamerican proponents, on the other hand, have suggested that perhaps Joseph was simply conjecturing or sharing his opinion rather than declaring that this information was received by revelation.” Most readers will observe that Joseph wrote this letter the day after he received the Zelph vision/revelation witnessed by several men who recorded it. That makes it not credible to suggest Joseph was merely conjecturing or otherwise misleading his wife by offering as fact a mere opinion.
The Altar at Adam-ondi-Ahman
Joseph Smith identified “the remains of an old Nephitish Alter” and named it Tower Hill. Wright explains:
What if it was revelation? Does that require that Tower Hill in Missouri was the location of a known Book of Mormon city? No, not at all. Joseph does not link the altar to any named Nephite city; he merely generalized it as Nephitish. According to my hypothesis, this Nephitish altar would have been built by the migrant Nephites of Alma 63 — or, more likely, by their descendants many generations later. Joseph’s statement, then, can be considered revelatory without precluding a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon or requiring a North American one.
This is an irrational argument that relies on an error of false choices. Tower Hill doesn't have to be a named Nephite city to be part of the Zarahemla culture. This site easily fits within the missing 99% of Nephite history without relying on Alma 63. While it could be attributed to an Alma 63 hinterland, it could as easily fit within the narrative, where many unnamed cities are mentioned.
For the American setting, Cumorah is one of two sites named in the Doctrine and Covenants that are the foundation for deriving a geographical setting. Section 128 refers to Cumorah. While some claim Joseph Smith could have been referring to Mesoamerica here, his own history includes a letter written by Oliver Cowdery that describes in detail how the New York Cumorah is the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites. That letter was written with Joseph Smith’s assistance and during his lifetime was published in the Messenger and Advocate, the Gospel Reflector, and the Times and Seasons. (It was also published in a brochure in 1844, but I haven’t been able to determine whether this was before or after the martyrdom.)
Another of the Three Witnesses, David Whitmer, said he first heard the name Cumorah from an angelic messenger who was traveling, on foot, toward the New York Cumorah. This was before the Book of Mormon was published and David didn’t know what the word referred to. The American setting accepts these facts as evidence that the New York Cumorah is the Book of Mormon Cumorah.
Wright doesn’t address these facts. Instead, he cites scriptures to show that Moroni never said where he buried the plates. He cites Moroni 8:3 and claims, “In other words, he is long gone from Cumorah.”
This is not merely "in other words;" it is another meaning. Nowhere does the text state how far Moroni wandered. It defies common sense to think Moroni would travel far from an area with which he was intimately familiar, only to venture out to areas well-settled by the people who wanted to kill him. That would mean danger at every turn, with no familiar places of resort to escape. Nor could the text say where Moroni buried the final records before he buried them. At most, he could have written his intention, a sort of last-minute entry, at the conclusion of his wanderings, just before he placed the records in the ground. And even that would assume he was not interrupted at the last moment. Despite Wright’s lengthy analysis of the text, no burial site is excluded—and certainly Cumorah is not excluded.
The New Jerusalem/”This Land”
The semantic argument about the meaning of “this land” is the topic of a book and a book-length response, which Wright summarizes here: “Statements by contemporaries of Joseph Smith make it clear that they believed that the whole of the Americas was the land of promise.” What Wright doesn’t mention (or possibly realize) is that these statement reflect their erroneous belief in the hemispheric model. At the outset, I concurred with Wright’s rejection of a hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography. Wright doesn’t explain how he rationalizes rejecting that model but retaining the semantic derivative of that model.
Wright the makes this claim: “The assertion that the United States alone is the land of promise is actually a fairly modern construct.” He offers no citation to support this claim. Actually, it was not a “modern construct.” It was part of the literature beginning in the early 1830s, and frequently discussed in the 1840s—as exemplified in the references to the Constitution in D&C 101 and 109. In Joseph's day, there was no question that the Constitution of the U.S. was inspired and the nation was the fulfillment of the promise. The topic is addressed repeatedly in the Wasp and the Times and Seasons. Expanding the concept of the promised land beyond that was a product of the hemispheric model, which Joseph never articulated or endorsed.
The conclusion of Wright’s argument is a bit of a red herring: “The prophecies and promises given in the Book of Mormon to those who inhabit the promised land are extended to all who repent and come unto him, regardless of where they live.” No one I know of disputes this, and Wright offers no citation to anyone who does. But it’s a tautology. Beyond that, this is true throughout the world, so in that sense, everywhere is a promised land for the righteous who live there. Nephi and the other prophets understood that as well, and yet they still identified a particular nation as especially important.
Evidence for Mesoamerican/North American Interaction
According to Wright,
The evidence suggests that Mesoamerican cultural influence spread, primarily northward, beginning long before the Nephites ever set foot in the New World and continuing through the late Postclassic period, meaning that the trails were blazed long before the Book of Mormon era began and continued to be used long after Moroni sealed the record up.
Examining evidence outside the scriptures can be illuminating, but Wright doesn’t address the point that the predominant theory is that the indigenous people came across the Bering Strait and moved southward. There is later evidence of migrations both ways over the years. The evidence Wright marshals actually supports Mesoamerica as the hinterland.
Here’s an example. Wright notes that “In 2003, a study was done that compared the DNA of the Ohio Hopewell with that of 50 indigenous populations from both North and Central America, and it found Central American and even South American markers.” This evidence contradicts the idea that Mesoamerica was the core of Nephite civilization. If it was a small minority of Nephites who went north, then the Central and South American markers would themselves be Nephite!
Wright and many others forget that in 4 Nephi, the distinctions among the people vanished. They became one. True, Mormon notes he was a descendant of Nephi (Mormon 1:5, 8:13), but who wasn’t by then? From 4 Nephi on, the Nephites and Lamanites were not distinguished by heredity but by ideology.
According to Wright, the Lamanites were constantly pressuring the Nephites from the south. This DNA evidence here suggests the Nephites were in the Ohio area and unrelated people were intruding from the south. It is precisely because the Lamanties lived in the hinterlands that don’t know much about their culture. But both “camps” agree that the Lamanites were in the south and the Nephites in the north. Because the Lamanite culture is not addressed in the text (apart from the horrors of the final conflict), and because the Lamanites lived south of the Nephites, and neither the text nor Joseph Smith ever addressed Mesoamerica, then doesn’t it follow that if any group was affiliated with Mesoamerica it would be the Lamanites?
The promise of the Hinterlands approach
Despite these problems applying the hinterlands approach to North America, the hinterlands approach has many promising implications and suggests new avenues for additional research—especially if it is applied in the opposite direction.
This article proposes that the text of the Book of Mormon, considered in light of the historical, geographical, archaeological, and geological evidence, points to Mesoamerica as the hinterlands to the Book of Mormon narrative. Under this approach, the bulk of the narrative, from the land of Nephi to Zarahemla to Cumorah, took place in North America.
This approach has the additional benefit of reconciling everything Joseph Smith said on the topic. It is well known that the Doctrine and Covenants identifies Indian tribes living in Missouri and around the Great Lakes as Lamanites (D&C 28: 8-9, 14; 32:2). Joseph Smith taught Indian tribes living in the Nauvoo area that the Book of Mormon was the history of their fathers. Imagine how surprised they would be to learn that he was referring to Alma 63, which explains the text says nothing about those who went north. 
In Mormon’s Codex,[7] John Sorenson proposed using filters to assess any proposed setting. This article applies the filters Sorenson formulated, along with three additional filters based on the text of the Book of Mormon itself. It thus sets aside the Times and Seasons articles and other extra-textual statements to focus on the merits of Mesoamerican theories based on the text of the Book of Mormon and other scriptures.
Zarahemla as axis mundi
Efforts to locate the setting of the Book of Mormon commonly focus on Zarahemla because that is the most important city in the book. The text contains 139 references to Zarahemla (including the city, the land, the people, and the leader), by far the most of any city, and it is the only Book of Mormon city mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants. The importance of the city is reflected in a passage explaining that at one point in their history, the Lamanites “had come into the center of the land, and had taken the capital city which was the city of Zarahemla.” (Helaman 1:27). Zarahemla is located on the western bank of the River Sidon, a prominent feature of Book of Mormon geography. Finding Zarahemla is key. As Dr. John Lund put it, “Once Zarahemla or the ‘small neck’ of land has been identified, one has found the axis mundi of the lands of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and the children of Lehi.”[8]
Of the dozens of proposed Book of Mormon geographies, only two rely on modern statements about the location of ancient Zarahemla: the 1842 Times and Seasons articles for the Mesoamerican theory[9] and D&C Section 125 for the American theory.[10] (As used in this article, the American theory places the Book of Mormon events within The United States circa 1842, including states and territories, as well as portions of Canada.) Mesoamerica and America, therefore, are the two candidates for “main setting” and “hinterlands.” Although neither of the Zarahemla statements will be considered determinative, or even influential, in assessing the viability of the two alternative models discussed in this article, it is important at the outset to briefly acknowledge some of the issues associated with each setting for Zarahemla.
Beginning in 1841, the Gospel Reflector and the Times and Seasons focused Book of Mormon studies on ruins in Central America. The motivation was likely a combination of three discrete interests. First, Benjamin Winchester in the Gospel Reflector and the anonymous author in the Times and Seasons expressed sincere belief in an inference drawn from the text (p. 49 in the 1830 edition, 1 Nephi 18:23 now) that Lehi landed in or near Panama. Second, both newspapers desired to link the Book of Mormon to a national bestseller, John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Third, the link to Mesoamerica appears to reflect desire to repudiate critics who claimed Joseph Smith had copied the Book of Mormon from Solomon Spaulding or Ethan Smith. (Winchester wrote the first pamphlet against the Spaulding theory.) Recognizing that Zarahemla was the center of the Nephite world, the anonymous Times and Seasons author (Oct 1, 1842) placed it in Guatemala (Quirigua) knowing that all other geographical references would flow from there. Although they have rejected Quirigua per se, Sorenson, Lund, Gardner and other Mesoamerican advocates have placed Zarahemla in various locations within Mesoamerica, rationalizing that the Times and Seasons articles focused on Guatemala but left room for a variety of settings within that general area.[11]
Section 125:3 is a key to locating Zarahemla. “Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it.” Section 125 was the first mention of the name Zarahemla in connection with the Iowa development. Some commentators have argued that this area of Iowa had been called Zarahemla prior to March 1841, the date Joseph received the revelation, but all such references were added retroactively (and after Joseph died) by historians and compilers by way of explanation.[12] With the Iowa Zarahemla as the axis mundi, the American setting has Lehi landing in the Florida panhandle, the Land of Nephi in the mountains of Tennessee, Bountiful in Indiana and Ohio, Zarahemla in Iowa, the Sidon River comprising the river system that includes the Missouri and Ohio Rivers plus the Upper Mississippi, with the West Sea South being the lower Mississippi, the West Sea North being Lake Michigan, the narrow neck being the Niagara Peninsula, and Cumorah in New York, outside of Palmyra—where Joseph Smith found the plates. Essentially, this is the United States from 1838 to 1842, including states and territories.
Sorenson’s Filters and Terms of Reference
Sorenson lists terms of references, or “filters,” that he believes must be applied to any real-world candidate for The Book of Mormon setting. This article examines his three “major filters,”[13] applies them to the text and evidence, and then performs the same assessment using three additional filters. The six filters are:
1. Scope of territory (Sorenson)
2. Destruction in 3 Nephi (Sorenson)
3. Sophisticated society (Sorenson)
4. Law of Moses
5. Promised land
6. Infrastructure (Ores, Towers, Fortresses, Buildings, Roads)

Filter 1—Scope of Territory. “A hemispheric or continental scope is contrary to the text. Mormon’s map cannot possibly be matched by such a large territory as North or South America, let alone by the entire hemisphere. The total extent of lands that Mormon know about, based on his own words, did not exceed about 600 miles (965 km) in length and half that in width.”[14]
This filter makes an important point. One of Sorenson’s most important contributions has been calling attention to the practical, real-world implications of the text. “Important to his legacy is the shrinking of the potential Book of Mormon lands from the entire Western hemisphere to a region roughly comparable to the geographic scope of the history of the Hebrews in the Old World.”[15]
That said, the premise of this filter is flawed: Mormon’s “own words” say nothing about miles or kilometers. The distances Sorenson cites here are purely the product of Sorenson’s assumptions about how far someone could travel in a given manner over a given terrain in a given time frame. For example, he claims the distance between the city of Zarahemla and the city of Nephi was “on the order of 180 miles (290 km)” based on this reasoning:

Accounts of travel by groups between the two cities report (or imply) that a party of ancient travelers (at least one time including women, children, and flocks) required about 22 days to make the trip, much of it evidently through mountainous terrain.[16] (emphasis added)

However, there is no indication in the text that Alma crossed a mountain, let alone mountainous terrain. Mosiah 24:25 speaks of Alma’s group departing a valley and traveling through “wilderness,” not “mountainous terrain.” A valley is a “hollow or low area of land between hills or mountains.” A valley can also be a “low extended plain, usually alluvial, penetrated or washed by a river.”[17]
In fact, the Book of Mormon text contains only 13 references to mountains in the new world, none in connection with Alma’s route. Several references involve the Gadianton robbers who “dwelt upon the mountains” and in the wilderness (Helaman and 3 Nephi), but there is no description of the mountains themselves. (As an aside, dwelling “upon” and sending an army “upon the mountains” suggests a more flat and livable “mountain” than the steep mountains one finds in Mesoamerica. One would dwell “upon” something more like a large hill than “upon” a volcano.[18]) Samuel the Lamanite made a specific prediction: “And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great” (Helaman 14:23). It’s anyone’s guess how high terrain would have to be to qualify as “great,” especially compared with the land’s former valley elevation. However, 3 Nephi only mentions a single “great mountain” with no reference to height (8:10).
The term “mountain” is relative; it refers to a “natural elevation of the earth’s surface having considerable mass, generally steep sides, and a height greater than that of a hill.”[19] There is another scriptural reference to mountains that may offer additional insight. On July 8, 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation at Far West, Missouri, canonized as Section 117. Verse 8 reads, “Is there not room enough on the mountains of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and on the plains of Olaha Shinehah, or the land where Adam dwelt, that you should covet that which is but the drop, and neglect the more weighty matters?” Adam-ondi-Ahman is located in Davies County, Missouri, about 70 miles north of Kansas City. Section 117 refers to “mountains” in this area, suggesting a possible example of how the Book of Mormon uses the term. The Book of Mormon distinguishes between hills and mountains without clearly delineating between the two, raising the inference that the difference is a continuum, a matter of degree or perspective. (E.g., 3 Nephi 4:1). The highest elevation at Adam-ondi-Ahman currently is 124 feet above the river—a site named Spring Hill in Section 116, which suggests ambiguity about the terms “hill” and “mountain” as used in these scriptures.
Nevertheless, Sorenson makes an important point in this filter by asking how far one can travel in the real world under specified conditions. Groups can travel by foot 15 to 20 miles a day; even the Mormon handcart companies traveled this much. The participants on Zion’s Camp walked 20 to 40 miles per day[20]—including through and across valleys. (There are over 500 named valleys or hollows in Indiana and Illinois. Joseph and the others crossed the Illinois River at Valley City, just north of Zelph’s Mound.) At that pace, Alma’s group could have traveled as much as 880 miles—far more than the limits Sorenson imposes on the entire length of territory Mormon was familiar with. Of course, few groups would travel 40 miles a day on foot over any kind of terrain for twenty-two days straight, but the likelihood of a particular distance is a judgment call, not an explicit statement in the text.
It is one thing to recognize the text does not support a 9,000-mile-long hemispheric geography—typified by Orson Pratt’s concept that South America was Lamanite territory, North America was Nephite territory, and Panama was the narrow neck of land between them[21]—and something altogether different to presume that the text supports only a territory 600 miles by 300 miles. Recognizing that such a limitation is set by Sorenson’s assumptions, not the text, the filter is still useful for providing a feasible range of distances in the real world. The limited geography Mesoamerican models such as Sorenson’s easily pass through this filter.
By comparison, the American model contemplates a distance of about 750 miles between Zarahemla and Cumorah. The land of Nephi, including the city Lehi-Nephi, would be about 500 miles southeast from Zarahemla and 700 miles south of Cumorah. These distances are reasonably close to Sorenson’s estimates (although in entirely different configurations), and well short of the continental distances that the filter rejects.
Conclusion: Both models pass filter #1.

Filter 2—Destruction in 3 Nephi. “The configuration of the lands cannot have been modified by catastrophic geological events in the historic past. Ancient geographical features were for practical purposes the same as we see today; for example, references to the narrow neck and narrow pass were the same in Moroni’s day as in the day of General Moroni, several centuries earlier.”[22]
This part of filter #2 is important for making the point that the Moroni who completed the record and hid the plates recognized the same geological features that General Moroni had described centuries earlier. Regarding that point, both the Mesoamerica and American theories pass the filter.
Actually, Filter #2 is illusory; i.e., there is no known place in the Western Hemisphere that has experienced a “major change in the shape or extent of the lands” in the last 2,500 years, so any proposed geography in the Western Hemisphere would pass through this filter. Perhaps the purpose of this filter is to reject any proposed theory that claims Book of Mormon geography is unrecognizable today. If so, then both the Mesoamerican and the American models pass this filter.
To make this filter meaningful, it should be compared with the requirements of the text. The first column below is the entire filter. The second column is the text from 3 Nephi.

Filter #2
3 Nephi 8:11-13
The configuration of the lands cannot have been modified by catastrophic geological events in the historic past.
Ancient geographical features were for practical purposes the same as we see today; for example, references to the narrow neck and narrow pass were the same in Moroni’s day as in the day of General Moroni, several centuries earlier.”
No credible evidence exists from real-world research that justifies believing that major physical events have drastically changed the present boundaries of the seas or other major physiographic features in the Western Hemisphere within the period of human habitation.
In fact, evidence from archaeology contradicts the idea of any major change in the shape or extent of the lands, since archaeological studies in all Western Hemisphere land areas show uninterrupted human occupation over thousands of years.
11 And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward.
12 But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds and the thunderings and the lightnings and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth;
13 And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough.
16 And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.
 17 And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth.
 18 And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land.

The side-by-side comparison shows that here are two key elements integral to the purpose of this filter which are not expressly stated in the filter itself.
First, while there was there was “a great and terrible destruction in the land southward,” “there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward” (emphasis added). No Mesoamerican proponents have explained why there would be a difference between the two areas. Sorenson[23] and others[24] assert the destruction was caused by earthquakes and volcanic activity throughout the area, with no geological basis for distinguishing between north and south. Setting aside the text’s lack of any mention of volcanoes in 1,000 years of history in Mesoamerica—itself a stunning omission given the dominance of volcanoes in that area—there is no geological or historical basis for a difference in destruction between the north and the south in the Mesoamerican model. The terrain and geological formations are continuous. At best, one could argue the text is describing an epicenter—or volcanic eruption—in the north, but if that’s the case, how could there be “great and terrible destruction” in the south? The impact of earthquakes and volcanoes drops quickly with distance, but shaking from earthquakes is stronger in areas that have softer surface layers, such as accumulated sediment. When an earthquake strikes, “as the thickness of sediment increases, so too does the amount of shaking.”[25] Mountain areas experience less shaking than sediment areas; shaking is amplified where sediments are thicker. When the text differentiates between the impact in the northern and southern lands, it implies a difference in the type of terrain and geology between north and south.
In contrast to Mesoamerica, the American setting offers a sharp distinction between the land southward and the land northward. The land southward is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains in present-day Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. The risk of earthquake there is far less than along the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, areas that extend into the land northward and are characterized by thick sediment. Actual historical accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812—the biggest earthquakes in American history—describe conditions much like those described in 3 Nephi. The damage was far worse along the Mississippi River than in the mountains of Tennessee, just as expected from the respective geology. This is also consistent with the distinction made in 3 Nephi 8. In the earthquake of 1895, damage was documented along the Ohio and Upper Mississippi Rivers (part of the River Sidon), while shaking was felt but no damage experienced in eastern Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia.
The evidence indicates that the American model passes through this implied element of filter #2, but Mesoamerica does not.
The second implied element involves the scriptural requirement that “the face of the whole earth became deformed.” Recall that the original filter states, “The configuration of the lands cannot have been modified by catastrophic geological events in the historic past.” This requirement is imposed by the geological record in Mesoamerica, not by the text of the Book of Mormon.
What does the scripture mean? What kind of terrain could be “deformed” while retaining major landmarks and configuration, yet without leaving obvious geological evidence?
As Sorenson notes, there is no evidence of a deformation of “the face of the whole earth” in Mesoamerica. In fact, because of the mountainous and relatively rigid terrain, such a deformation could not have occurred without obvious geological evidence. Mesoamerica simply can’t pass through this implied element of filter #2.
By contrast, land that is relatively flat, or at least not featuring tall mountains, could satisfy the description in the text. A major earthquake can shake a flat area and cause tremendous destruction without leaving the massive landslides and sheared rock face that occurs in mountainous areas and leaves behind telltale signs.
As noted in Wright’s paper, the Book of Mormon refers to plains in several places, including the “plains of Nephihah” (Alma 62:18), the plains between Mulek and Bountiful (Alma 52:20), the “plains of Heshlon” (Ether 13:28) and the “plains of Agosh” (Ether 14:15). Such flat areas would qualify for events—earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods—that deform the face of the whole earth without leaving the type of “major change in the shape or extent of the lands” that Sorenson’s filter guards against. Flat terrain also is far more susceptible to “whirlwinds” and “tempests” as described in 3 Nephi 8; tornadoes are relatively rare in mountainous terrain, but common in open, flat lands. Consequently, this filter both excludes Mesoamerica, and points toward any area characterized by flat open spaces; i.e., plains.
Zarahemla in the American model is located between the plains of Iowa on the west and Illinois on the east, roughly in the center of FEMA’s Wind Zone IV (the strongest rating).[26] It is also on the banks of the Mississippi, a river notorious for changing course and deforming the face of the land. Even in the absence of a cataclysmic earthquake, the changing course of the Mississippi River has been well documented. For example, the first capitol of Illinois, Kaskaskia, located about 250 miles downstream from Zarahemla, was a major French colonial town of 7,000 residents in the 1700s. For a hundred years, it was a commercial and cultural center. In the 1840s, the Mississippi River shifted course and by 1881, the city was cut off from Illinois and destroyed by flooding. Kaskaskia ended up on the west of the river—in Missouri. The city was flooded again in 1993 and the current population is only 14 people.
The Missouri River has also changed the face of the land. In the 1800s, hundreds of steamboats sank along these rivers, most of them buried and long lost.  One, the steamship Arabia, sank in 1856. Salvagers finally located it in 1987—underneath a farm, half a mile away from the river and buried beneath 45 feet of topsoil that had accumulated in 130 years.[27]
The specific language of the text—the “face of the whole earth became deformed”—describes changes to the surface. Somehow earth was “carried up upon the city of Moronihah” to become a “great mountain” (not a “tall mountain”). What besides strong winds could “carry up” earth in this manner? The text describes not volcanoes but fire, earthquakes, tempest, and whirlwinds (tornadoes[28]). Cities sank into the earth and were buried. Such surface changes could include earth and sand being blown in huge quantities from one area to another, rivers changing course, old riverbeds being filled in, etc. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the New Madrid earthquakes “caused the ground to rise and fall… opening deep cracks in the ground. Deep-seated landslides occurred along the steeper bluffs and hillsides; large areas of land were uplifted permanently; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that erupted through fissures or craterlets.”[29]
Given Sorenson’s point that there has been no “major change in the shape or extent of the lands,” and recognizing the topology and geology of Mesoamerica precludes any undetectable change to “the whole face of the land,” Mesoamerica simply cannot pass through this element of filter #2.
By contrast, not only the topology and geology of the American setting, but actual historical experience, closely matches the description of destruction—the deformation of the face of the whole earth—contained in the text.
Conclusion: Both models pass Sorenson’s original illusory filter #2 (as would every other potential location in the Americas), but as to the implied elements of filter #2—the ones required by the text—the American model passes filter #2 and Mesoamerica does not.
Filter 3—Sophisticated society. “Cultural criteria described in the text must be accounted for in any acceptable theory. Most of the lands about which Mormon wrote were described as having characteristics of advanced civilization, such as ‘cities.’ Furthermore, many of the people involved were literate; the existence of ‘many books’ (Helaman 3:15) was a cultural feature of note. Only one area in ancient America had cities and books: Mesoamerica.”[30]
These cultural criteria do not directly lead to the conclusion Sorenson reaches in his last sentence. First, what constitutes a “city” anciently? The Book of Mormon text distinguishes between villages and cities (and, beginning around AD 363, towns), but never mentions what defines a “city.” Is it a function of population, civic infrastructure, architecture, specialization of occupation, or something else?
The 1828 Webster’s dictionary defines “city” as: “In a general sense, a large town; a large number of houses and inhabitants, established in one place. In a more appropriate sense, a corporate town.”[31] The same dictionary defines a “village” as “A small assemblage of houses, less than a town or city, and inhabited chiefly by farmers and other laboring people.”[32] The definition goes on to explain that in England, the lack of a market distinguishes a village from a town. This suggests a plausible meaning of the term “city” as used in The Book of Mormon; i.e., a village is where farmers live, while a city is where not only farmers, but tradespeople, merchants, and government officials live and markets exist. In fact, the only mention of a “market” in The Book of Mormon is in connection with a city: “the highway which led to the chief market, which was in the city of Zarahemla.” (Helaman 7:10)
Perhaps a Book of Mormon city was defined by architecture, such as a city wall or barrier. Or it could be a formal administrative designation—a “corporate town.” This could be analogous to modern usage, whereby a city is technically defined by its formal incorporated area. The largest city in California in terms of territory—California City—encompasses over 200 square miles but actually has a small population (14,000 people).
A city need not have a large population. “Many ancient cities had only modest populations, however (often under 5,000 persons).”[33] When Lehi left Jerusalem, the city had a population of only about 25,000 people.[34]
At any rate, the term “city” does connote an advanced civilization. Other indicia should also be considered, such as evidence of advanced mathematics, knowledge of astronomy, including solar and lunar cycles, and public works large enough to require organization and coordinated effort. The Book of Mormon text includes over 100 references to “build,” “building,” and “buildings.”  Dr. Roger Kennedy, the former director of the Smithsonian's American History Museum, discussed this term.
Build and building are also very old words, often used in this text [his book] as they were when the English language was being invented, to denote earthen structures.
About 1150, when the word build was first employed in English, it referred to the construction of an earthen grave. Three hundred and fifty years later, an early use of the term to build up was the description of the process by which King Priam of Troy constructed a “big town of bare earth.” So when we refer to the earthworks of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys as buildings no one should be surprised. [35]
The Book of Mormon describes “banks of earth” that fits this meaning of the term (Alma 48:8 and 49:22). Moroni cased that his armies “should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities” (Alma 50:1). As Kennedy indicates, not only towns but graves were built up. According to the Book of Mormon text, bones “have been heaped up on the earth” (Alma 2:38) similar to the mounds that Kennedy—and Joseph Smith—described. “Nevertheless, after many days their dead bodies were heaped up upon the face of the earth, and they were covered with a shallow covering” (Alma 16:11). “The bodies of many thousands are moldering in heaps upon the face of the earth,” explains Alma 28:11. Mormon “saw thousands of them hewn down in open rebellion against their God, and heaped up as dung upon the face of the land.” Mormon 2:15. The Jaredites, too, noted mounds: “their bones should become as heaps of earth upon the face of the land.” Ether 11:6.
Applying these criteria, Mesoamerica is hardly the only civilization in ancient America that qualifies as “advanced.” Any inference that the inhabitants of North America were not “advanced” ignores the actual evidence. Kennedy wrote: "In the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, tens of thousands of structures were built between six and sixty-six centuries ago… The antiquities of Mexico or of Egypt are far better known than those of Indiana, Illinois, or Ohio, and not because they are larger or more ambitious intellectually.”[36] The archaeological evidence demonstrates that ancient people living in North America enjoyed advanced and well-organized civilizations with agriculture, commerce, cities, and roads.
Both the Mesoamerican and American settings satisfy the first prong of Filter #3.
The “books” prong of filter #3 is problematic. Sorenson cites Helaman 3:15 for the existence of “many books” which he claims are characteristic of both Mesoamerican and Book of Mormon culture, but the entire verse leads to the opposite conclusion:

15 But behold, there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites.

If, as Sorenson claims, Mesoamerica was the only civilization in America that had “books,” and the books were kept chiefly by the Nephites, how is it that there is not a scintilla of evidence of Nephite books in Mesoamerica? One must invert the meaning of Helaman 3:15 to consider the decidedly non-Nephite books found in Mesoamerica as evidence of Nephite culture and civilization.
For Mesoamerican books to be evidence of Book of Mormon people, verse 15 would have to read that the books and records were kept chiefly by the Lamanites (or another non-Nephite groups).
Worse, to the extent the Nephites had books, they were all destroyed, as explained in Helaman 3:16 (the Nephites were “plundered, and hunted, and driven forth, and slain…even becoming Lamanites”). It was the destruction of the Nephites’ “many books and many records of every kind” that made the “sacred records” so precious. (4 Nephi 1:48-9; Mormon 1:1) The title page of The Book of Mormon emphasizes that the plates Joseph translated were “written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed.”
This fear about Lamanite treatment of the records was not unique to Moroni’s day. Many centuries earlier, Enos had written about this characteristic of Lamanite culture. “For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.” (Enos 1:14).
Ultimately, it was the Lamanites who destroyed the Nephites and their culture, and it was the Lamanites who did not keep books and records. If we accept The Book of Mormon account, we should be looking for an ancient American civilization that did not value books and records.
The Book of Mormon itself gives us an example of the type of ancient civilization we should be looking for. After the Mulekites settled in the promised land:

their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator . . . after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory.[37]

Like the Lamanites, the Mulekites did not value records. Their history was transmitted orally, by memory. The only reason the text mentions an engraved stone—a ubiquitous feature of Mayan culture—was because the people couldn’t read it. (Omni 1:20) An engraved stone was so exceptional that the people of Zarahemla brought it to Mosiah to translate.
Such a culture is directly opposite of the engraved stone lintels, tablets, stairs, statues and stelas archaeologists find throughout Mesoamerica.
Conclusion: Both models pass through the first prong of filter #3. Mesoamerica satisfies the second prong (books) and the American model does not—but that prong contradicts the text.  A filter that reflects the text would require a society without books, in which an engraved stone is unusual and not comprehensible. The American model passes through such a filter and Mesoamerica does not.

Filter 4—Law of Moses. Criteria related to the law of Moses as described in the text must be accounted for in any acceptable theory. “Lehi and his people diligently kept the law of Moses. Nephi affirmed… that they did ‘keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled’ (2 Nephi 25:24)…. The Nephites were to continue to keep the law of Moses until it was fulfilled.”[38]
The Book of Mormon people did not casually observe the Law of Moses. They “were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses.” Alma 30:3. It was obedience to the law of Moses that Korihor criticized:
“Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.” (Alma 30:23)
When groups failed to observe the law of Moses, they “had fallen into great errors.” Alma 31:9.
The law of Moses and its implications for Book of Mormon geography deserve an entire article, but this filter can serve its purpose with just a few of the key points.
One major difference between the Mesoamerican and American settings is visible in architecture. Mayan architecture is typified by large stone temples, made of cut stones and featuring steps by which one ascends to altars or the tops of the temples. By contrast, Hopewell architecture relies on uncut stone and ramps to ascend. Altars and ramps of earth are also common.
According to the law of Moses, observers of the law must use ramps and uncut stones. “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, . . . And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone, for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon” (Exodus 20:24-26). Ramps were also important for leading animals to be sacrificed.
This distinction is apparent in Israel, where archaeologists can use the distinction between ramps and stairs to determine whether an ancient site was built according to the law of Moses. One archaeologist describing the discovery of Joshua’s Altar on Mt. Ebal, Israel, explains it this way:
Hebrew altars can be distinguished from pagan altars in 5 respects: 1. They are made of uncut natural stone. 2. Ramps, never stairs. 3. Hebrew altars are square. 4. Hebrew altars have their sides oriented to the 4 points of the compass (NSEW), as we see in the orientation of the tabernacle.[39]
In Mesoamerican sites, there are no ramps; in the American setting, sites have no steps. In Mesoamerica, stones are carved; in the American setting, they are unhewn. Whoever created the Hopewell structures complied with this aspect of the Law of Moses, intentionally or not. Whoever created the Mesoamerican structures did not comply with the Law of Moses, even in the Nephite time period.
Another aspect of the Law of Moses was determining the time for various religious events. The ancient Hebrews used a lunar calendar. Psalm 81:3-6 notes that the moon determined the time for feasts: “Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day. For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.”
Sorenson notes that “A lunar-based calendar was apparently basic to Nephite/Mulekite calendrical calculations (Omni 1:21). That being the case, a systematic record of moon phenomena would have been an element in their astronomy/calendar knowledge system… The moon-based calendar of the Jews of Jerusalem surely was carried forward by the Lehites and Mulekites when they emigrated from the near East to the New World.”[40] He notes that some scholars believe the Mayans used lunar months at one time, but their primary calendar was solar. In fact, the Mayan lunar series was not incorporated until the 3rd Century AD.[41] The best-known calendar, used by the lowland Maya, used 13 numbered days in connection with 20 named days, producing a 260-day cycle. Another version of Mayan calendars was based on the Haab’, a roughly solar calendar consisting of eighteen 20-day months plus five days at the end of the year. This resembled the Egyptial solar calendar.
Like the Hebrews (and presumably the Nephites), the Hopewell culture also used a lunar calendar to schedule feasts.[42] The largest geometric earthworks complex in the world is near Newark, Ohio, and is around 2,000 years old. The site’s “lunar alignments precisely encode the orb’s very complex cycle, with moonrises and moonsets rotating north and south over an 18.61-year cycle.”[43]
To summarize, Mesoamerican culture was based primarily on a solar calendar, while the ancient American (Hopewell) culture, like the culture of ancient Israel, was based primarily on a lunar calendar.
Plants and Animals
Proof of the existence of species at the time and place mentioned in the Book of Mormon requires first, determining what species were mentioned, and second, where the species were encountered. Consideration of the Law of Moses is important because it filters out species that would not, and could not, be used as part of strict observance of the law. Specific species of plants and animals are essential for observing the law of Moses. Strict obedience to the law of Moses does not allow substitutions; for example, for a peace offering, the law specifies “a bullock, a sheep, or a goat,” (Leviticus 22:27). When he arrived in the land of promise, Nephi indicated that he found the animals they needed to observe the law of Moses. He wrote “we did find upon the land of promise… that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat.” 1 Nephi 18:25.
One unnamed animal pertains directly to the law of Moses. The Book of Mormon has sixty-six references to “flocks.” Mosiah 2:3 explains the significance: “And they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses.” The flocks were so important that when Limhi prepared his people to escape from the Lamanites, he “caused that his people should gather their flocks together…the people of king Limhi did depart by night into the wilderness with their flocks and their herds.” Mosiah 22:10-11. When Alma led his people out of bondage, he “and his people in the night-time gathered their flocks together.” Mosiah 24:18. Presumably the reason they took their flocks when they escaped, despite the evident complications and the pursuit by the Lamanites, was because they needed them for their offerings and sacrifices.
The Hebrew term translated as “flock” ordinarily applies to sheep, but when used as the plural “flocks” it can include other kinds of domesticated animals. “Book of Mormon terminology fails to clarify what species composed Nephite ‘flocks’ and ‘herds,’” according to John Sorenson.[44] However, Alma defines the term flock as meaning sheep. “For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock?” (Alma 5:59) Other uses of the term, such as “flocks of sheep” in 3 Nephi 20:16, could be interpreted as purely metaphorical, but if the people did not have sheep, what sense would the metaphor make? Christ is referred to as the Lamb of God throughout the text, from 1 Nephi through Ether.
Sheep, of course, are one of the animals required under the law of Moses, along with goats, bulls, and oxen. Enos reiterated that the people of Nephi did raise “flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses.” Enos 1:21. Mosiah emphasized that the people grew wheat and barley, both needed for the law of Moses. Mosiah 9:9. None of these species are found in Mesoamerica, which is why Mesoamerican advocates suggest the small Mexican brocket deer might be a goat and the tapir an ass.[45] By contrast, there is evidence of each of these species in the American setting.
Pre-Columbian wheat and barley have both been documented in North America (but not in Mesoamerica). Wade E. Miller and Matthew Roper have noted, “beginning in the 1980s, discoveries of pre-Columbian barley started to be made, substantiating the Book of Mormon claim.”[46] The Fort Ancient State Memorial Museum in Oregonia, Ohio, has this ancient barley on display. Miller and Roper also note that the Vikings claimed to find wheat in North America when they arrived in the year 1000 A.D. Despite this evidence in North America, because they are defending the Mesoamerican setting, Miller and Roper write, “while the Book of Mormon makes reference to wheat (e.g., Mosiah 9:9), it might have been another grain translated as ‘wheat.’”[47] Sorenson explains: “Exactly what species Nephite ‘wheat’ referred to is unclear, but it apparently was not the wheat familiar to us, which was unknown in Mesoamerica; presumably the name was applied to one of the aforementioned grains.”[48] But if the Nephites were using a different grain, how did they comply strictly with the Law of Moses?
Animals that match the terms used in the Book of Mormon apparently existed in North America before Columbus. Nephi claimed he found “the goat and the wild goat.” (1 Nephi 18:25). These species were permitted as food under the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 14:4-5). It’s interesting that Deuteronomy also specifies “the hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer… and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois,” but Nephi listed none of these. Early French explorers noted the presence of “wild goats” along the Mississippi River, in Indiana and Illinois, and in Florida.[49] Miller and Roper suggest the “goat” may have been a species of domesticated deer that resembled a goat. They note that men accompanying De Soto observed “herds of tame deer”[50] in Ocale, a town in northern Florida. Another Spanish historian recorded a similar observation in Apalachicola[51]—right in the area where Lehi landed, according to the American model.
As evidence that ancient people in Ohio had goats, the Mound City Group Visitors Center, a Hopewell Culture National Historic Park near Chillicothe, Ohio, features a copper goat horn that dates to Book of Mormon times.
Sheep and lambs are mentioned 77 times in the Book of Mormon. Many references are figurative, but as Alma 5:59 indicates, the people were familiar with sheep and did tend to them. William Richie, an archaeologist, reported that he found remains of domestic sheep in western New York dating to 100 A.D., about 30 miles east of the Hill Cumorah.[52] At least one Hopewell sculpture of an animal that looks like a sheep has been found.
Enos referred to “all manner of cattle of every kind,” a description similar to that of French explorers who described seeing “wild bulls, wild cows, wild cattle, and vaches sauvages” that are now considered to be terms used “as the designation of both the moose and the elk.”[53] Buffalo, or bison, were often described as cattle. There are several accounts from the 1500s of buffalo-like creatures in Florida, but it is not known what species the explorers were describing.[54]
Evidence of the specific animals required by the Book of Mormon is far more abundant in the American setting than it is in the Mesoamerican setting. Sorenson notes that there is evidence of other Book of Mormon animals from the right time period that fit the American model, such as the horse, mammoth and mastodon remains at St. Petersburg, Florida, that date around 100 B.C.[55]
Regarding Mesoamerica, Sorenson concludes that “there are plausible creatures to match each scriptural term.”[56] He suggests that the deer or tapir may qualify as horse, ox, ass and goat, while the paca or agouti may qualify as sheep, his theory being that Joseph Smith didn’t know a more accurate term to translate the original word on the plates. But “deer” and “pygarg” (the term for antelope) were both terms used in Deuteronomy that presumably could have been used in the translation of the Book of Mormon and would have been better fits to the species in Mesoamerica. It is inconceivable that a paca or agouti, both of which are rodents and therefore unclean under the law of Moses, would have been considered “sheep” by the Nephites and used for their sacrifices.
At any rate, calendars, architecture, plants, and animals all tend to show that this important aspect of Nephite culture was feasible in America, but not in Mesoamerica.
Conclusion: The American model passes filter #4 and Mesoamerica does not (unless one assumes the Book of Mormon was not translated accurately when it came to naming animal and plant species).

Filter 5—Promised Land. The lands and societies must satisfy the attributes given in the text for the land of promise or promised land. Some of the descriptions are subjective, but enough are objective and straightforward enough that we should be able to determine whether a proposed setting meets the requirements set out on the text. Presumably the text includes these attributes so readers would identify the place.
In the abstract, any place where someone lives may be considered a “promised land” to that person. The gospel covenants apply wherever one lives. However, there are many verses in the Book of Mormon that refer to a specific land of promise. These descriptions or attributes of the promised land were recorded by the prophets so future readers could identify it. Only a few can be mentioned here.
2 Nephi 10:10 – But behold, this land, said God, shall be a land of thine inheritance, and the Gentiles shall be blessed upon the land.
2 Nephi 10:11 – And this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land, who shall raise up unto the Gentiles.
2 Nephi 10:12 – And I will fortify this land against all other nations.
3 Nephi 10:22 – this people will I establish in this land, unto the fulfilling of the covenant which I made with your father Jacob; and it shall be a New Jerusalem.
Ether 13:2-3 – it became a choice land above all other lands… it was the place of the New Jerusalem.
D&C 45:66 – it shall be called the New Jerusalem.
D&C 57:2 – [Jackson County, Missouri] is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.
D&C 84:2-3 – the gathering of his saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the city of New Jerusalem. Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri.
The Book of Mormon text refers to the promised land as the place where the Nephites lived and claims that the land will be the site of the New Jerusalem. The D&C cites that language and places it specifically in Missouri. Which model passes through this filter best, the Mesoamerican or the American?
The American model puts Zarahemla less than 200 miles from Independence, Missouri, in Jackson County. Jackson County borders the Missouri River, part of the River Sidon system in the American model. The Kansas City Hopewell culture was the farthest west group of the Hopewell tradition, dating to about the time of Christ. There are around 40 known sites in and around Kansas City where people migrated from the Lower Illinois Valley areas and left pottery, tools and weapons characteristic of the Hopewell.[57]
The Mesoamerican model puts Zarahemla 1,500 air miles from Independence, (about 2,000 miles by land). There are no known connections between the Mayans and the Native Americans in the Kansas City area. While there are some similarities between artifacts found in Ohio and Mesoamerican artifacts, the relationships between the two cultures, if any, are unclear.
Sorenson does not address this filter, apart from general references such as “Nephi’s/Lehi’s Mesoamerican land of promise.”[58] However, some Mesoamerican advocates have proposed that the phrase “this land” as used in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants means anywhere on the American continent, encompassing the totality of North and South America, including Central America.[59] They claim there are only two continents—the “eastern” and “western,” or the “old” and the “new,” essentially equating the phrase “this land” with an entire hemisphere.
Substituting “North and South America” for “this land” in the verses listed above renders them incoherent. For example, “North and South America became a choice land above all other lands.” If there are only two continents, what “other lands” (plural) could this verse refer to? “North and South America was the place of the New Jerusalem.” How useful is it to designate an entire hemisphere as the site of a city?
Furthermore, blurring the distinction between countries—pretending there is no border between Guatemala and Mexico, or between Mexico and the United States—makes the text even more meaningless. How could such a promised land be fortified if there is no border?
Paradoxically, on one hand, Mesoamerican advocates assert that the lands of the Book of Mormon are confined to a “limited geography” of about 600 miles in length and about 300 miles in width. On the other hand, they claim references to “this land” extend from the tip of South America to the Arctic. Simple consistency would confine the scope of “this land” to an area the Nephite prophets would have been familiar with.
In some cases, the phrase unambiguously refers to a specific site, such as D&C 58:57, a revelation given in Zion, Jackson County, Missouri. “And let my servant Sidney Rigdon consecrate and dedicate this land, and the spot for the temple, unto the Lord.” Surely Rigdon was not dedicating the entire hemisphere as the site for the temple. In D&C 59:1, also given in Zion, Jackson County, Missouri, a similar narrow meaning applies: “Behold, blessed, saith the Lord, are they who have come up unto this land with an eye single to my glory, according to my commandments.” Section 101:80 refers to the United States: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.” D&C 57:1 specifically identifies Missouri as “this land” in these words: “Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.”
With those verses in mind, Section 10:49-51 relates the phrase directly to the Book of Mormon: “Now, this is not all—their faith in their prayers was that this gospel should be made known also, if it were possible that other nations should possess this land; And thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life; Yeah, that it might be free unto all of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they may be.” The preposition “it” in the last clause refers back to “this land,” making a close connection between D&C 101:80 and 2 Nephi 10:11-12. “This land” would be “free” unto whoever came to it. And, of course, the gospel was restored—made known—in the American setting, not in Mesoamerica.
At the risk of deviating from the original premise of this article (avoiding extraneous statements about the text of the Book of Mormon), in this case it is impossible to discuss the meaning of “this land” without examining the literature on the topic. For example, for the proposition that Joseph Smith meant the totality of North and South America when he wrote the Wentworth letter, one author cites a long list of examples from Benjamin Winchester, John E. Page, and William Smith, as well as Parley and Orson Pratt.[60] Aside from the problems inherent with these authors,[61] one example from the Wentworth letter shows that Joseph Smith was quite specific about the topic.
Joseph wrote “The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.” Taken by itself, in the context of a letter in which he also referred to the Savior’s appearance “upon this continent,” the phrase “this country” might be ambiguous. But this sentence was not written in a vacuum.
Much of the Wentworth letter, including most of the passage containing this sentence, Joseph copied word for word from Orson Pratt’s 1840 pamphlet, cited above, that was published in the Millennial Star. However, Joseph made specific edits that have great significance. Here is the sentence Pratt wrote:
Orson Pratt 1840: The remaining remnant, having dwindled into an uncivilized state, still continue to inhabit the land, although divided into a "multitude of nations," and are called by Europeans the "American Indians."    
Pratt's version describes the hemispheric model, which Sorenson and others have collapsed into the Mesoamerican model. The key phrases are:
1) "inhabit the land" which (unlike “this land”) can mean anywhere in the hemisphere;
2) "multitude of nations" which can mean the many nations established by the Europeans (including Chile, Peru, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, etc.); and
3) "called by the Europeans the 'American Indians'" which was the term commonly used for all indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, North and South.
Here is how this sentence looked after Joseph Smith’s edit:
Wentworth Letter 1842 (Joseph Smith): The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.
Joseph corrected Pratt's language and narrowed it considerably. According to Joseph, the remnant don’t inhabit “the land” but “this country.” The remnant are not the “American Indians” generically, and they are not divided into a multitude of nations. Instead, the remnant are, simply—and exclusively—the "Indians that now inhabit this country."
It is difficult to imagine how Joseph Smith could have been more clear and specific about this point. He was well known for allowing others to think as they pleased, rarely correcting them (which made his public rebukes of Benjamin Winchester all the more exceptional). Whether he corrected Orson Pratt in private we’ll never know—Pratt had other problems in Nauvoo in 1842—but it is clear that, in the Wentworth letter, Joseph corrected Pratt’s mistaken identification of the remnant of the Book of Mormon people. Joseph left no room for speculation that the Lamanites were any people other than the Indians who inhabited the United States in 1842.
Returning to the scriptural excerpts listed at the start of this filter, concepts of blessedness, liberty and fortification are inherently subjective. Fortunately, we are considering only two alternatives: the Mesoamerican setting (consisting of southern Mexico and Guatemala) on one hand, and the American setting on the other. Blessedness may be intangible, but surely it connotes a measure of education, economic prosperity and societal peace (all of which unquestionably point toward the American setting). Streams of refugees, including parentless children on top of trains, offer a more objective measure of blessedness and liberty. All one has to do is see which way they are traveling. Are U.S. citizens seeking refuge in southern Mexico and Guatemala, or are Mexicans and Guatemalans seeking opportunities in the United States?
The disparity between the Mesoamerican and American settings is not a recent phenomenon or aberration. Poverty in Mexico dates to the earliest colonial period, and was not significantly alleviated even when the government ceded land to the general population after the Mexican Revolution. Poverty in Guatemala is even worse and always has been. 
Which geographical model places Book of Mormon events in a land that has been fortified against all other nations? The United States has invaded both Mexico and Guatemala, not the other way around. The U.S. border, however porous in practical terms, remains fortified. Beyond that, though, what other nation is, and has been, more fortified against “all other nations” than the United States? The United States spends more on defense—fortification—than the rest of the world combined.
There are many more attributes of the promised land, including the history described by Nephi, that could be added to this filter. They all point to the American setting.
Conclusion: The American model passes filter #5 and Mesoamerica does not.

Filter 6— Infrastructure (Ores, Towers, Fortresses, Buildings, Roads). Available resources and infrastructure in a proposed setting must match the requirements in the text. The manner of war, implements of war fortifications, buildings, and roads must be consistent with descriptions in the Book of Mormon.
Shortly after the Nephites separated themselves from the Lamanites (establishing the land of Nephi), Nephi states that he “did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us.” 2 Nephi 5:14. He also writes, “I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.” 2 Nephi 5:15. These ores are all found in Tennessee in the area near Ducktown. The mine there has extracted over 15 million tons of copper ore in modern times. The French Huguenots enjoyed friendly relations with the Mountain Apalachee Indians, who were mining gold, copper and silver near their villages. The gold came from what is now Georgia; the silver from western North Carolina; and the copper from southeast Tennessee. To honor his friendship with these Native Americans, De LaudonniĆ©re named the region, “Les Montes Apalachiens."[62]
The Hopewell towers and fortresses consisted of earth walls “heaped up” and topped with timbers, precisely as described in the Book of Mormon. They were typically circular, again as described in the text. In at least one case, archaeologists in Ohio have shown that an existing settlement was later surrounded with a defensive wall, exactly as General Moroni explained.
Along the Ohio River there are ruins of towers on both sides of the river that date to Book of Mormon times. Hilltop fortresses (places of resort) are common throughout the Midwest, dating to Book of Mormon times. Farmers and archaeologists have found metal breastplates, head plates, and other armor, along with abundant arrow heads and atlatl heads. Every aspect of warfare described in the Book of Mormon matches what is known from the archaeology and topography of the American model.
By contrast, earth berms or walls are relatively unusual in Mesoamerica, which is dominated by massive stone structures. The examples cited by Sorenson consist of moats outside the city wall, a technique never mentioned in the Book of Mormon text.
A related requirement from 3 Nephi 8:13 is this: “And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled.” This distinction between highways and roads also occurs when the manner of construction is alluded to: “there were many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place.” 3 Nephi 6:8.
The term “cast up” is used in three places to describe piling earth. In Ether 10:23, “they did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore.” In Alma 49:2, “they had cast up dirt round about to shield them.” In Alma 52:6, “he was preparing to defend himself against them, by casting up walls round about and preparing places of resort.” This usage suggests the term is synonymous with “piling” up. The only other mention of “cast up” is in connection with the highways. Presumably this means the highways, too, were constructed by “casting up” or piling dirt. In the American setting, ancient highways were, in fact, constructed by piling up dirt along both sides of the passageway. European observers called them walls. The most famous is the Great Hopewell Road that connected Newark and Chillicothe, a distance of sixty miles through Ohio. This fits well with the Book of Mormon description. There were also lesser roads. One of De Soto’s chroniclers described “streets” built by the Indians that “are fifteen or twenty feet in width and are bordered with walls constructed of thick pieces of wood.”
By contrast, in Mesoamerica the common highway is the “sacbe,” a Mayan term for “white road.” The sacbe had “edges made of great limestone blocks. Between the limestone edges, coarse fill was leveled with fine gravel and then paved with plaster.”[63] These highways are elevated but do not feature dirt or earth “cast up” as the Book of Mormon describes.
Conclusion: The American model passes filter #6 and Mesoamerica does not.
This analysis has demonstrated that while there are a few textual filters through which the Mesoamerican model can pass, most of them disqualify Mesoamerica as a candidate for the real-world setting of the Book of Mormon narrative. By contrast, the American model passes easily through all six filters.
Back to Wright’s “hinterlands” approach, the ninety-nine percent of Nephite (and Jaredite) history not accounted for in the text could encompass Mesoamerica. One plausible theory is that the Jaredites who were not killed off in “this north country” (Ether 1:1), meaning the New York area in the American model, expanded into the rest of the hemisphere, including Mesoamerica. The text also mentions Nephites escaping “into the south countries” (Mormon 6:15). Any similarities between the text and various cultural, linguistic, mythological, anthropological and other attributes of Mesoamerica can be accounted for through this application of the hinterlands approach. This explains why Mesoamerican advocates can point to correspondences, but not direct ties, between ancient Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon. This is a promising area of study that will surely produce results in the future.
But for Book of Mormon studies per se—the study of the times, places, and people actually described in the text—the best available evidence places the core narrative of the Book of Mormon squarely in America.


[1] For example, they merit only a late footnote in Sorenson’s book, Mormon’s Codex.
[2] For example, Joseph Fielding Smith included one of them in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and they have been widely cited and quoted in books and articles about Book of Mormon geography, including Mormon’s Codex, cited below, and numerous articles published by FARMS and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies, both affiliated with BYU.
[3] John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (FARMS 1990, 1992) p. 210.
[4] Mark Alan Wright, “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2015): 111-129, available online here:
[5] Donald Q. Cannon detailed the actual journal entries here:
[6] Ibid, p. 118. Wright erroneously claims Joseph’s letter “was actually penned by James Mulholland and then signed by Joseph.” His citation to the Joseph Smith Papers explains that the version of the letter is in Mulholland’s handwriting, but it is found in JS Letterbook 2, which is a book containing copies of Joseph’s correspondence—not the actual correspondence. Mulholland was one of seven scribes who copied material into Letterbook 2. Mulholland was not a participant on Zion’s Camp and could not have written the original letter.
[7] John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT 2013), pp. 20-21.
[8] John L. Lund, Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon (The Communications Company, SLC, UT, 2012), p. 10.
[9] There are many variations of the Mesoamerican theory, but the most prominent is Sorenson’s. Most Mesoamerican settings share the characteristics addressed herein.
[10] The American model consists of the states and territories of the United States as of March, 1842. It includes what Wright calls the “Heartland,” plus the south, eastern seaboard, and northeastern areas of the United States and contiguous areas of Canada. See Jonathan Neville, Moroni’s America (Legends Library, Rochester NY 2015).
[11] E.g., Dr. John L. Lund, “Joseph Smith Identified Zarahemla as Being in Guatemala,” FunForLessTours Newsletter, Oct. 8, 2012,
[12] See Lost City, p. 332
[13] Numbers 1-3 are copied verbatim from Mormon’s Codex, pp. 20-21.
[14] Mormon’s Codex, p. 20.
[15] Brant A. Gardner and Mark Alan Wright, “John L. Sorenson’s Complete Legacy: Reviewing Mormon’s Codex,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 209-221, p. 210.
[16] Mormon’s Codex, p. 18.
[17] “Valley,” Webster’s 1828 dictionary,
[18] Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines the term this way: “A large mass of earth and rock, rising above the common level of the earth or adjacent land, but of no definite altitude. We apply mountain to the largest eminences on the globe; but sometimes the word is used for a large hill...The word is applied to a single elevation, or to an extended range.” See “Mountain,”
[20] Zion’s camp included 200 men, 12 women and 9 children who walked 900 miles from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri. See
[22] Mormon’s Codex, 20-21.
[23] Mormon’s Codex, pp. 638-653.
[24] E.g., Alvin K. Benson, “Geological Upheaval and Darkness in 3 Nephi 8-10,” The Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 9-30, This is My Gospel, Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds, (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Bookcraft, Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah 1993): 59-72.
[25] “Earthquake Shaking-Accounting for ‘Site Effects,’” Southern California Earthquake Center,
[26] Wind Zones in the United States, Federal Emergency Management Agency, available at
[27] The story of the Steamboat Arabia is explained on the web page associated with the museum that contains the artifacts recovered from the ship. 
[28] “TORNADO, n. [from the root of turn; that is, a whirling wind]: A violent gust of wind, or a tempest, distinguished by a whirly motion. Tornadoes of this kind happen after extreme heat, and sometimes in the United States, rend up fences and trees, and in a few instances have overthrown houses and torn them to pieces. Tornadoes are usually accompanied with severe thunder, lightning and torrents of rain; but they are of short duration, and narrow in breadth.” "tornado." Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. 2015. (8 February 2015). The same dictionary defines a “tempest” as “An extensive current of wind, rushing with great velocity and violence; a storm of extreme violence.”
[30] Mormon’s Codex, p. 21.
[31] "city." Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.,city (8 February 2015).
[32]Ibid, “village.”
[33] Michael E. Smith, “Ancient Cities,” The Encyclopedia of Urban Studies (R. Hutchison, ed., Sage, 2009): 24. Available at
[34] John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt, “Culturegram: Jerusalem 600 B.C.,” Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Provo, Utah 2004): 5.
[35] Roger G. Kennedy, Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (The Free Press, New York, 1994), p.vii. (hereafter Hidden Cities)
[36] Hidden Cities, p. 2.
[37] Omni 1:17-18.
[38] John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, editors, King Benjamin’s Speech, (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah 1998), pp. 150-151.
[39] Adam Zertal, Ph.D , Joshua’s Altar on Mt. Ebal, Israel, (accessed 29 April 2015). See another description of the altar at Mt. Ebal here: 
[40] Mormon’s Codex, p. 432-435.
[42] E.g., see Brad Lepper, Hopewell Astronomy, Ohio History Connection Archaeology Blog
[43] Stephanie Woodard, “Ohio’s Magnificent Earthworks, an Ancient Astronomical Wonder,” Indian Country Today, June 16, 2012, accessed April 29, 2015 at
[44] Mormon’s Codex, p. 313.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Wade E.Miller and Matthew Roper, “Animals in the Book of Mormon: Challenges and Perspectives,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, (herein Animals),, note 69, citing Daniel B. Adams, Last ditch archaeology. Science 83/4 (1983), 28-37; N. B. Asch and D. L. Asch, “Archaeobotany.” In C. R. McGimsey and M. D. Conner (eds.) Deer Track: A late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley (Kampsville, Illinoise, Center for American Archaeology, 1985): 79-82. Note that this discovery was made in the Mississippi Valley.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Mormon’s Codex, p. 306.
[49] Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, Volume 4 (Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology 1874) pp. 81, 88 and 133, available online on google books. (herein, Memoirs).
[50] Animals, footnote 97, citing Hernando De Soto, Narratives of the Career of Hernando De Soto (New York: Allerton Book, 1922), 162.
[51] Ibid.
[52] William Richie, The Archaeology of New York (The Natural History Press, Garden City, NY 1965), p. 242.
[53] Memoirs, p. 87.
[54] Memoirs, pp. 99-100.
[55] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996), p. 298.
[56] Ibid, p. 299.
[57] “Kansas City Hopewell,” University of Kansas Museum of Anthropology, (accessed 29 April 2015).
[58] Mormon’s Codex, 226.
[59] E.g., Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15-85, available from the Neal W. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at
[60] Ibid, pp. 37-45.
[61] See The Lost City of Zarahemla.
[63] Mormon’s Codex, p. 357-8.

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