Archaeology and the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon suggests that the original Native Americans descended from a small band of Israelites who migrated in 600 BC (and an earlier group from 2,200 BC) from the Middle East. However, there exists no credible archaeological evidence to support the notion that the Book of Mormon is a record of highly literate ancient American people of Hebrew descent. Most scholars reject the idea of viewing the Book of Mormon as a historical record. Michael Coe, a respected Mesoamerican Archaeologist from Yale, says: “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.” 

Problems begin with the idea that there were no other peoples in the Americas when the Book of Mormon ancestors arrived in 600 BC, a claim refuted by physical evidence and virtually every branch of science. If massive civilizations of highly advanced Nephites and Lamanites existed, why would all of the evidence mysteriously disappear? Though the LDS Church until recently claimed that Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians,” Church leaders today have pivoted away from such claims while reminding members that faith-based testimonies cannot be verified by historical facts. Further, Church leaders discourage attempts to align the Book of Mormon narrative with actual locations. Further, the abundance of anachronisms which appear throughout the text suggest that Joseph Smith was likely relying upon his own limited knowledge of the past when creating the story.

Even faithful Mormon scholars often struggle to reconcile the LDS Church’s claims for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One hundred years ago, B.H. Roberts queried, “Shall we boldly acknowledge the difficulties in the case, confess that the evidences and conclusions of the authorities are against us, but notwithstanding all that, we take our position on The Book of Mormon and place its revealed truths against the declarations of men, however learned, and await the vindication of the revealed truth? Is there any other course than this? And yet the difficulties to this position are very grave. Truly we may ask who will believe our report? [1] 

 

CREDIBLE EXPERTS


Leading experts of the early Americas disavow the historicity of the Book of Mormon narrative. As the modern LDS Church tries to shore up belief in the prophet Joseph Smith and his special powers of translation, it continues to try to argue for something more than a fictional narrative for the Book of Mormon. National Geographic responded that it “does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon.”

The Smithsonian Institute issued a formal statement in May 1980 detailing their complete disavowal of the work as anything but fiction. They “…see no direct connection between archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book... No reputable Egyptologist or other expert on Old World archaeology, and no expert on New World prehistory has discovered or confirmed any relationship between archeological remains in Mexico and archeological remains in Egypt.” Are these sources to be seen as anti-Mormon, or are they simply honest science?

When exploring the extensive archaeological implications presented by the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church often embraces the opinion that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The opposite, that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, is conversely suggested when investigating other troubling Church doctrines. 

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THOMAS STUART FERGUSON


As we begin to explore Mormon archaeology, it seems appropriate to introduce the fascinating history of Thomas Ferguson, an attorney by trade, whose true passion manifest as an amateur archaeologist who dedicated decades of his life to the search for evidence to validate the Book of Mormon as a historical record. He established the New World Archaeological Foundation, where his role as President enabled him to spend months exploring Mexican ruins with J.W. Marriott, a fellow believer who shared his passion for the Book of Mormon. 

Though denied in 1951, Ferguson persisted in soliciting the Church’s support in the search for Mormon history. Responding to another of Ferguson’s letters, dated January 12, 1952, the First Presidency said, “The Brethren feel that it may be that no discovery will be made which shall establish the historical value of the Book of Mormon. They incline to feel that the faith now required to accept the book is a very considerable factor in the faith of the Restored Gospel, belief in which is the result of faith therein.”

It has been suggested that the LDS Church agreed in 1953 to arrange a $15,000 “private donation” so long as no publicity connected the Church to Ferguson’s work. But in 1955, with Marriott’s help in arranging a meeting with President David O. McKay, the LDS Church finally committed $250,000. Ferguson is quoted as saying, “The important thing now is to continue the digging at an accelerated pace in order to find more inscriptions dating to Book-of-Mormon times. Eventually we should find decipherable inscriptions… referring to some unique person, place or event in the Book of Mormon.”

Ferguson’s explorations and writings were most active between 1946-60s, but ceased shortly after the Book of Abraham papyri were found in 1967 and proven not to align with the text from Joseph Smith’s translation. Ferguson obtained photographs of the papyrus fragments and shared them with Professors Lutz and Lesko of the University of California, both of whom confirmed them to be the Book of Breathings, standard pagan funerary text.

While much of what we know today about the Americas was not as clear then, Ferguson had learned enough to conclude that the Church’s truth claims regarding its two most important works of translation could not be sustained by factual evidence on the ground. The disillusioned Ferguson concluded, “The day will probably come, but it is far off, when the leadership of the Church will change the excommunication rules and delete as grounds non-belief in the two books mentioned (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham) and in Joseph Smith as a prophet…but if you wait for that day you will probably have died. It would tend to devastate the Church if a top leader were to announce the facts.” He suggested that Mormonism was the “best available brand of man made religion.” 

But as naturally inquisitive as he was, he couldn’t continue down a path of exploration that was factually baseless. Ferguson wrote in 1976 that “The real implication of the paper is that you can’t set the Book of Mormon geography down anywhere, because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt archeology. I should say, what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”

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Photo of 1830 Anthon Script

REFORMED EGYPTIAN


The Book of Mormon text refers to the language it is written in as “Reformed Egyptian.” But no entity outside of the Mormon Church refers to Reformed Egyptian as a real, written language. Despite the translation of Egyptian and numerous American Indian languages, Reformed Egyptian remains unknown. (Mormon 9:32-34) It is improbable that the Egyptians exerted sufficient influence over the Jews to entice them to adopt their language and literature in 600 BC. It seems more likely that it was Joseph Smith’s enthusiasm for all things Egyptian that led him to add this exciting element to the scripture he invented.

No unequivocally ancient inscriptions have been found in Hebrew or anything remotely Egyptian in the Americas. There is no such language – not in the Old World; certainly not anywhere in the Americas. Philologic studies have divided the Indian languages into five distinct linguistic stocks which show very little relationship to each other. It strongly indicates that the division of the Indians into separate stocks occurred long before their language developed beyond the most primitive articulation. The modern LDS Church suggests that a Reformed Egyptian language might have been lost, but then so must everything else be lost that would have validated the story. 

The Book of Mormon presents astonishing hurdles for pre-Columbian Indians. The record states that Mormon “wrote an epistle unto the King of the Lamanites” before the epic final battle, making it clear that both Nephites and Lamanites possessed the ability to read and record a shared, sophisticated language from Lehi’s landing to 400 AD. Nephite prophets throughout the Book appeal to scriptures had among the people, as if they were widespread and numerous. The narrative suggests “…many books and many records of every kind…handed down from one generation to another…the scriptures are before you…search the scriptures…brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures and cast them into the fire…” If written records in a single language were so prevalent over such a lengthy span, one naturally wonders why not a single example has been found today. On the contrary, abundant evidence continues to emerge of completely different civilizations throughout the Americas. Furthermore, not one single of the 303 proper names found in the Book of Mormon have been discovered on the thousands of deciphered inscriptions in the New World. [2]

The prominent LDS scholar of the early 1900s, B.H. Roberts, studied Native American Languages based on the idea that the Book of Mormon shows peoples able to converse with one another. His findings were not supportive of the text. He noted that it would take much longer than the span of time between the end of the narrative and Joseph Smith’s time to develop the number of diverse dialects that existed among the Native Americans of the time if they arose from a common origin. He also correctly pointed out that there exists no connection between the American languages and any of the Old World. [3]

Only the Maya had a complete written language in Pre-Columbian Americas, and it is not terribly sophisticated. Over twenty Mayan languages have been reliably translated, yet none mention similar history or contain Egyptian writing. The Olmecs had limited language, not nearly as complete, and the geography is totally wrong. Neither has any resemblance to Hebrew or Egyptian. The few attempts to link Jaredite names with Olmec language are deeply flawed. The authentic civilizations of the Americas are well known by now, confirming that Joseph Smith’s assumptions were far off the mark.

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BRASS PLATES


It is perhaps of small note, but the textual story of brass plates taken from Jerusalem to the New World provides another proof against the LDS Church’s truth claims. The Book of Mormon presents a unique claim that plates of brass or any metal were regularly used in the Middle East around 600 BC to record detailed histories. But the only instance of writing on alloy, copper/lead turned out to be hoax – as similar metal plates were not used in the Americas or Jerusalem.

In addition to the notion of plates themselves, Laban’s brass plates would be the only metallic writing of Demotic script in existence, the only collection of the five books of Moses, and the only book version of the five books of Moses at the time. In addition, it was written in Reformed Egyptian, whatever that was, rather than Hebrew – astonishingly unique attributes for one item (see 1 Nephi 5: 11-15). Again, Occam’s Razor argues a different conclusion.

TRANSOCEANIC NAVIGATION


Another piece of the puzzle is the transoceanic navigation that Joseph Smith posits twice in the Book of Mormon. It is precisely the kind of thing one would expect from an unlearned young storyteller who had little grounding in real science. Both the Nephites and the Jaredites are purported to have invented separate methods of crossing the ocean, only to mutually abandon the powerful technology upon reaching their destinations. There exists no evidence of people of the era possessing transoceanic navigation skills of such grand nature, though there is abundant proof that humans migrated between Asia and the Americas by walking over frozen masses near what is currently Alaska.

The Jaredite crossing involved eight submersible barges, built “tight like unto a dish” and loaded with farm animals and copious volumes of supplies. They miraculously bobbed and rolled across the ocean for 344 days, driven by a “furious wind”, conveniently making landfall at the same location.

The Nephites, on the other hand, crossed the ocean in a large sailing ship that Nephi built with materials and tools of the Lord’s instruction. Granting that an almighty God could conceivably instruct his prophet in the construction of such a vessel a thousand years ahead of its time, it seems that Joseph Smith never wondered about the sails. Obtaining sails for a vessel of the scale described is no small feat, as one must locate and shear hundreds of sheep, build a loom, make string and patching, etc. History instructs that a common Viking sail was 100 sq. meters, and every square meter of sail required at least 2 sheep fleeces; so we are talking about 200 sheep just to weave, not including the thread or anything else. A sheep can only be shorn once a year – assuming of course that you have shears. During this purported monumental effort, Lehi’s entire clan numbered 25-30, including children.

The incredible voyage prompts so many other questions. After wandering in the desert for eight years, how would Nephi extract iron from rock, much less build a massive boat, lacking tools? We learn that Nephi went to find the iron to build the tools he did not have; but without tools how would he mine the iron out of the mountain? Further, the effort must have occurred within just a few miles of the boat or Nephi’s small clan would also have been required to build extensive infrastructure to transport tons of rock. How many have attempted to move even one ton of rock, using the finest modern tools? Again, it seems that young Joseph Smith did not think through such details because he spent more of his time thinking about supernatural causes and effects than plausible ones.

Then there is the problem of the rudder of such a sailing ship, which wasn’t invented until the 12th century. Even the mighty seafaring Vikings, Phoenicians and Greeks all bounced along their coasts without the precision of a rudder, raiding and trading among villages for food and supplies. 

And finally, the greatest challenge of transoceanic sailing would not be preserving food, but rather maintaining a massive supply of fresh water for such a large group of people. This was a known problem for early sailing ships, and why they so carefully planned their voyages with stops along the way to resupply. Where did Nephi store a rail car worth of water, unless perhaps he also mastered hundreds of watertight barrels?

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UNINHABITED LANDS


The Book of Mormon postulates that the “Promised Land” of the Americas as uninhabited except for Jaredites, Mulek and Lehi’s clan. The land was “…preserved for a righteous people,” explicitly “kept from the knowledge of ALL other nations.” (Ether 2:7 / 2 Nephi 1:5-9) The Jaredites went “…into that quarter where there never had man been.” The urgent need to bring Ishmael’s daughters further reinforces the understanding that the clan would encounter no others upon reaching their destination. However apologists work to soften this claim, it is difficult to deal with it, given the narrative of the text itself.

Elder Jeffrey Holland reiterated how, “Such a special place needed now to be kept apart from other regions, free from the indiscriminate traveler as well as the soldier of fortune. To guarantee such sanctity the very surface of the earth was rent. In response to God’s decree, the great continents separated and the ocean rushed in to surround them. The promised place was set apart. Without habitation it waited for the fulfillment of God’s special purposes” [4] “Without habitation” is a clear and strong claim. So, were the Lamanites and Nephites the main ancestors of the American Indians or not?

So, it isn’t just in 600 BC that the Americas must be empty of inhabitants, but as far back as the Jaredite narrative, thousands of years earlier. When tasked by the Church to investigate the common complaints against the Book of Mormon, B.H. Roberts similarly interpreted the text, pointing out that it “…assumes throughout that there were no other inhabitants in all that land. There is no mention or assumption of coming in contact with any other people. They are sole possessors of it. …What is required is evidence of an empty America 3,000 BC, into which a colony from the Euphrates valley may establish a race and empire with an iron and steel culture, developed language…and then pass away, become extinct about 600 BC…leaving the American continents again without human inhabitants.” [5]

PRINCIPAL” becomes “AMONG

As we explore the shifting narrative of the modern LDS Church, we observe the various ways in which it pivots away from its most indefensible truth claims to avoid giving up on the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith entirely. Without both, there remains little to separate itself from any other Protestant sect, the very groups from which Joseph Smith was determined to distinguish himself.

The 1842 Wentworth Letter was the first record of the LDS Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites, and the claim appeared in the front of almost every Book of Mormon printed before the year 2000. In 2006, facing increased scrutiny, the Church changed the preface from “they are the PRINCIPAL ancestors of the American Indians” to “AMONG the ancestors.” It left the word principal in the Spanish versions, perhaps so that it could continue to encourage missionary work among those who might still identify as Lamanites.

PLACEMENT IN AMERICA


Despite modern backpedaling, Joseph Smith continued to insist that the Book of Mormon unfolded over both continents of the Americas and contained the history of the American Indians. Church leaders reinforced these claims for more than a century.

  • In the 1842 Wentworth letter, Smith stated that “the history of ancient America is unfolded” in the Book of Mormon. He added that the “Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country.” [6]
  • On June 4, 1834, on his way to Missouri, Smith arrived at the Mississippi River and wrote a letter to Emma identifying the country as “Nephite” territory. “The whole of our journey…wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and bones, as proof of its divine authenticity.” [7]
  • On Sept 25, 1838, while Joseph Smith traveled through Missouri, “told the brethren that that place…was the ancient site of the Book of Mormon city of Manti.” [8]
  • In 1838, Smith named a place near Far West, MO Tower Hill “in consequence of the remains of an old Nephite altar or tower that stood there.” [9]
  • See D&C 3, 10, 19, 28, 30, 32, 49, 54 – each chapter names American Indians as Lamanites.
  • D&C 57’s heading makes it very clear that Joseph thought the people of Missouri were Lamanites
  • As archaeological discoveries expanded throughout Central and South America, Smith expanded his geographic assertions to include those regions, even announcing that Lehi and his family landed at 30 degrees south latitude in Chile. [10]
  • The 1888 large-print Book of Mormon edition, printed in Salt Lake City, provided dates and specific geography references. The “sea south” was the “Atlantic, south of Cape Horn.” The “sea north” was explained to be the “Arctic, north of North America.” The “sea west” was the “Pacific,” and the “sea east” was the “Atlantic.” [11]
  • See Natural Born Seer p. 487-500 for an extensive listing of clearly identified locations across multiple continents.

WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT TO FIND?


From the text itself, the Book of Mormon elaborates on the vast civilization of two separate peoples who dispersed across the land, not a small band of colonists tucked away in some corner of Mesoamerica who might so easily be erased from the archaeological record. The text reads, “they did multiply and spread…to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south, to the sea north, from the sea west to the east sea” (Helaman 3:6-16). The “whole face of the land” does not imply an isolated geography.

The text then instructs that the people grew until they were “as numerous almost as if were the sand of the sea.” (Mormon 1:7) “And the people…did dwell…in houses of cement…all manner of their buildings…did send forth much by way of shipping.” (Helaman 3:9-10 ) “And they build a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land…And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants…all manner of tools to till the earth, to plough” (Ether 10:20-28).

Mormon claims that when he was 11 years old, he “was carried by my father into the land southward, to Zarahemla. “The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea” (Mormon 1:6-7). Apologists may walk back population claims at their convenience, but they simultaneously undermine the validity of the Book of Mormon itself.

Exploring beyond the scale of the land itself, the massive construction projects described throughout the text surely would have endured, just as did the structures of so many lesser advanced early American civilizations. The Nephites are said to have constructed a grand temple after the model of Solomon, simpler but of “exceedingly fine workmanship.” (2 Nephi 5:16 ) Is it not amazing how they accomplished this so soon upon the completion of their transatlantic voyage, with perhaps 50 -100 people, while also establishing everything needed to survive in undiscovered lands? 

By comparison, Solomon’s Temple in the Bible required 180,000 workers over 7 years. No ancient structure has ever been found in the Americas remotely resembling the temples in Jerusalem with which Nephites would have been familiar. B.H. Roberts questioned, “Is it not pertinent to ask, is this statement from a great historical document, by one who knew Solomon’s temple through all his boyhood and young manhood, or is it the reckless statement of an undeveloped mind that knew not what he was saying – which?” [12]

POPULATION CHALLENGES


Another challenge to the likelihood of the historical reality of the Book of Mormon comes from the vastness of the populations presented. The Book of Mormon describes concentrated populations of millions of people, spreading across the entire face of the land. This proposition would require a population growth orders of magnitude greater than anything possible until the agricultural, industrialized era of the 20th century altered the precarious human condition. Historical human population bases are well documented, and consistently small. Sickness and starvation were constant threats, early death the norm; life was “nasty, brutish and short.” The math is further complicated by the millions destroyed in the near constant battles throughout the narrative.

John C. Kunich elaborates on the myriad population growth challenges in Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes. He suggests “an understanding of historical demography may challenge this traditional interpretation.”

Spend just a moment to ponder the routine famines which have occurred around the globe – Africa, China, Russia – not very long ago, even during times of peace and with the benefit of irrigation and industrial machinery. It is simply not possible to feed a concentrated population of millions using hunter-gatherer methods, much less without leaving any trace. It seems that a young, imaginative storyteller is exactly the type of person who would be captivated by epic battles among mysterious peoples, undeterred by the real world challenges of such notions.

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ROMAN EMPIRE COMPARISON


model of ancient Rome

The civilizations introduced in the Book of Mormon were purportedly similar in size to the Roman Empire, which reached its peak around 117 AD. Perhaps young Joseph Smith was thinking of ancient Rome when he conceived of the epic battles between Lamanites and Nephites, without fully comprehending the archaeological implications. Unfortunately for him, you can scarcely overturn a rock in Europe without finding an old coin, metal implements or evidence of roads and structures. Roman remnants linger in the language, DNA, culture, technology, fauna and flora. For example, 177,000 Roman artifacts were found in just 12 miles of highway construction, and Roman coins from 300 AD have been found as far away as Japan in such plentiful quantities that they can be purchased on eBay for $10.

 

So much is known of ancient Rome that intricate scale models have been constructed. Similarly, an abundance of information exists about Greek society and archaeology. This is what ancient Greek helmets from the 5th century BCE look like today in Olympia. Yet in the Americas, not a shred of similar evidence supports the existence of Lamanites. Joseph Smith heard stories of lost civilizations and ancient Indian burial mounds, but was not trained to understand what to make of them and let his imagination run wild.

Greek helmets from the 5th century BCE

Epic Battles

Another comparison to the Book of Mormon can be found in Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world in 300 BC (contemporary with Moroni) with 40-80,000 troops. Countless items validating the existence of Alexander exist because his troops left them scattered in abundance across wide swaths of land. 

Troop movement was not a minor obstacle prior to the 1700s. Provisions were incredibly difficult and camp-followers/camp-wives were large in number, yet such daily realities are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. We have no alternate records, no discussion of troop movements, no details other than stated numbers of deaths; there is no evidence of battle in any location on this scale, nor mounds of skeletons to back it up. Where much evidence should be readily found, none exists.

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GEOGRAPHY / DISTANCES DEFINED


The geography described in the Book of Mormon itself presents numerous significant hurdles. The narrative details how Lehi’s family traveled from Jerusalem to “near the shores of the Red Sea” in just three days, with family and provisions in tow (1 Nephi 2:4-6.) What Joseph Smith could not have known, is that the nearest point from Jerusalem to the Red Sea is 175 miles. How could such an entourage travel so far so rapidly over rough terrain?

The Book of Mormon provides additional definitions of distance, which one might think could enable the location of at least one Lamanite city. Alma, also with women and children in tow, traveled from Nephi to Zarahemla in 21 days, a journey of perhaps 300 miles at best (Mosiah chapters 23-24). There exists a “narrow neck of land” (Alma 22: 31-33; 63:5) which required only a day and a half walk from east to west sea (Helaman 4:7). Triangulation may be assisted by the existence of a Land Northward, Land Southward, Sea West, Sea East, even a fantastical Land of Desolation with many bones.

The official 2008 LDS Study Guide used in youth Seminary classes, contains a map titled “Possible Book of Mormon Sites.” It cautions the reader that, “No effort should be made to identify points on this map with any existing geographical location.” While doubling down on the notion of the Book of Mormon being an actual record, the Church reminds members that any search for actual geography is a faith destroying exercise  – “fruitless, no definitive results…undermines faith.” [13]

LDS MAP OF MORMON SITES

Hemispheric Theory

LDS leaders from Joseph Smith to modern times have made explicit statements identifying all North and South American Indians, as well as Polynesian Islanders, as Lamanites. This hemispheric theory suggests a Book of Mormon encompassing thousands of miles of geography stretching potentially from Canada to South America. Joseph Smith stated that all indigenous peoples of the Americas were literal descendants of the tribes of Israel. For 150 years, Smith’s statements were taught in earnest throughout the Church.

Limited Geography Theory 

MAP OF JOSEPH’S UPBRINGING VS. BOOK OF MORMON LOCATIONS

Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Hugh Nibley and many other LDS leaders are on record as specifically identifying Mayan temples as Lamanite dwellings. Yet the more we learn about Mayans, the less the idea of a Hebrew ancestry or Jewish temples can be mapped onto them. Thus begins the limited geography theory, which attempts to hold onto the literal history of the Book of Mormon.

Mormon apologist Joseph Vincent, editor of California Archaeologist, explained at a 1963 BYU symposium that “all Book of Mormon lands lie within a five or six hundred mile radius…and could not possibly extend from Chile to New York.” But those who espouse limited geography directly contradict numerous clear statements and practices of Mormon prophets. The notion also directly contradicts the Church’s claims of epic battles at Hill Cumorah in New York, as well as Smith’s revelation of a white Lamanite named Zelph.

Even Brigham Young reaffirmed the expansive nature of Book of Mormon geography, when in 1877 he revealed the exact temple location in Manti, Utah: “Here is the spot where the Prophet Moroni stood and dedicated this piece of land for a temple site, and that is the reason why the location is made here, and we can’t move it from this spot.” [14] Joseph Fielding Smith ultimately went so far as to unequivocally reject the limited geography theory. Dan Vogel points out that “Although some have suggested a number of alternative geographies which reduce the size of Nephite lands, none fulfills the orientation requirements for the Book of Mormon’s isthmus without serious manipulation of text and terrain.” [15] Alas, even the limited geography theory does nothing to address the questions about the lack of archaeological remains and the anachronisms displayed throughout the Book of Mormon.

LAMANITES


LDS Church leaders have long tried to leverage various extant American Indian populations and cultures to bolster its truth claims. It has blurred the lines of what constitutes a Lamanite by using the term broadly to refer to all ethnicities with brown skin, such as Latinos and Pacific Islanders, who were all deemed Lamanites in need of enlightenment.

VINYL RECORD FROM BYU CIRCA 1974

Mayan Lamanites

Joseph Smith wrote in 1842, “Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatemala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people – men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormon unfolds their history.” [16]

Decades later, LDS prophet John Taylor similarly tried to leverage an ounce of real archaeology to bolster the claims of the Book of Mormon. He said “The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source, which has sadly disfigured and perverted the original incidents and teachings of the Savior’s life and ministry.” [17] Again, the more we learn about the Mayans, the more ridiculous these claims become.

Unfortunately for LDS truth claims, the Mayans left calendars with various dates etched in stone, enabling us to firmly establish their chronology. Though their society does not fit the Book of Mormon timeline or description, Mormons still enjoy taking “Book of Mormon tours” through various parts of Mexico while imagining that their culture fits into the narrative.

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Polynesian Lamanites

The LDS Church also aggressively proselytized Pacific Islanders, preaching that their heritage is contained in the Book of Mormon. Countless official references spanning generations remain, and the effort proved successful to increase membership in a largely white, American church. Approximately 60% of the Tongan population is accounted for on the rolls of the LDS Church, though inactivity rates remain exceptionally high.

In a talk to Samoans in 1976, President Spencer W. Kimball instructed that Nephite explorer Hagoth is the common ancestor to all of the Polynesians – they are children of Lehi. “I thought to read to you a sacred scripture which pertains especially to you the islanders of the Pacific. It is in the sixty-third chapter of Alma [He then read the account of Hagoth.] And so it seems to me rather clear that your ancestors moved northward and crossed a part of the South Pacific. You did not bring your records with you, but you brought much food and provisions. And so we have a great congregation of people in the South seas who came from the Nephites, and who came from the land southward and went to the land northward, which could have been Hawaii. And then the further settlement could have been a move southward again to all of these islands and even to New Zealand. The Lord knows what he is doing when he sends his people from one place to another. That was the scattering of Israel. Some of them remained in America and went from Alaska to the southern point. And others of you came this direction.” This is but one of many instances where LDS leaders and missionaries used the Book of Mormon narrative to bolster the conversion of darker-skinned peoples.

President Joseph F. Smith declared: “I would like to say to you brethren and sisters from New Zealand, you are some of Hagoth’s people, and there is no perhaps about it!”

DNA and other studies conclusively demonstrate that although Polynesians did come from early seafaring cultures, they originated from the West, not from Peru to the East. Similarities in DNA to American Indians exist only because Polynesians came from a similar group of ancient ancestors in Asia many tens of thousands of years ago. 

Perhaps more than any other culture, the LDS Church’s truth claims are of great significance to Tongans. Their rich tradition and unique history have largely been overshadowed or integrated into white American culture at this point, even while local leaders attempt to reinforce their verifiable heritage. It is particularly problematic considering how few “Lamanites” have ever been allowed into the highest circles of leadership of the LDS Church. It is a form of cultural genocide, whereby their people have been told by white authority figures and conquerors who they are rather than being allowed to maintain their authentic identities.

Learn More: The Most Mormon Country in the World, Salt Lake Tribune

Mound Builders / Olmec / Cliff Dweller Lamanites

The LDS Church is so eager to locate people who fit the Book of Mormon narrative that even the mound builders and Olmecs have been offered as Lamanites, despite the fact that many items of European provenance are found in the mounds, establishing post-Columbian construction. Most who attempt this theory (Olmec) have no idea how poor a fit this group is – no steel swords, no gold workings; they lived in Southern Mexico, played Mayan ball and are believed to have originated around 1400 BC. “A fallacy similar to that regarding the mound builders fastened itself upon the ancient cliff dwellers…” [18] Hugh Nibley wrote, “The Mound builders actually resemble the Book of Mormon people not at all. Who said they did? The Book of Mormon tells of a people ages removed from the Mound-builders and very far away.” [19]

Frequency of Lamanite references in LDS Conference

ANACHRONISMS


At last, we move to perhaps the most obvious of the problems in arguing that The Book of Mormon can be seen as any kind of historical record: the anachronisms. An Anachronisms is an item or idea belonging to a period other than that in which it is referenced. For example, the Jaredites’ concern about glass windows as they constructed their barges is an anachronism, as they could not possibly have known of glass or its propensity to shatter in their day. It appears that Joseph Smith failed to consider when glass was invented. The existence of such anachronisms in the text raises authenticity hurdles and suggests a wholly nineteenth-century provenance of the Book of Mormon.

ZOOLOGICAL ANACHRONISM

Domesticated Animals: In the New World, other than Llamas in Peru, the dog was the only domesticated animal. B.H. Roberts observed that “The Book of Mormon thoroughly commits us to (animals) presence in America….” Jaredites around 2,247 BC find cattle, ox, cows, sheep, swine, goats, horses, asses, elephants. (Ether 9:16-20) Lehi’s colony finds cow, ox, horse, ore, gold, silver, copper around 589 BC (1Nephi 18:25) Apologists like to play the game of matching existing American animals to those in the text, but simply saying animals existed that semi-match the description is not a solution because the core problem is domesticity. Domesticated animals can be driven and maintained in captivity. Proof of domestic animals has not appeared in any form, physical or artistic. This unique claim goes without answer to this day. [20]

Cattle: Cattle are mentioned 6 times, with verbiage suggesting they were domesticated; yet there is no evidence of cattle (domesticated or otherwise) existing on the American continent during Book of Mormon times.  “The Nephites did all return to their own lands…with his family, his flocks and his herds, his horses and his cattle….” (3 Nephi 6:1, also Enos 1:21.) “We had supposed that oxen were the result of a surgical operation on bulls, changing their natures in order to render them docile and useful to man.” [21]

Goats & Sheep: Goats and sheep simply did not exist on the American continent during Book of Mormon times.

Pigs: Hernando De Soto founded the American pork industry when he brought America’s first 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Florida in 1539. Swine are referenced twice in the Book of Mormon, with the suggestion of domestication. Though native javelinas existed, much smaller and somewhat resembling a pig, there is no evidence of them having ever been domesticated. By the time that Joseph Smith was born, pigs from Europe had spread far and wide throughout the Americas so he probably did not realize that they were not native.

Horses / Wheel / Chariot: Perhaps the most fantastic anachronism is the existence of domesticated horses, mentioned 13 times, in association with chariots. Though horses originally existed on the American continent, they were extinct by 7,000 BC, not resurfacing until 15th Century Spanish colonization. Horses are particularly problematic because they would have revolutionized agriculture, transportation, human expansion and technology in countless ways, leaving indelible marks on the Native American society.

Alma 18:9-12 instructs, “Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots…” “And it came to pass that when Ammon had made ready the horses and the chariots for the king and his servants… Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi” (see also: Alma 20:6, 3 Nephi 3:22).

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Elephants: Mentioned in Ether, mastodons and mammoths lived in North America during the Pleistocene era, yet became extinct on this continent towards the end of the last ice age, predating the Book of Mormon by thousands of years. America’s first elephant arrived in 1796 on Captain Jacob Crowninshield’s boat from India. Again, this may well have been something that Joseph Smith simply did not have the background or learning to understand.

TECHNOLOGICAL ANACHRONISMS

Animals are far from the only anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. There are many technological artifacts Joseph Smith claimed existed that did not.

Steel / Iron / Metals: The Book of Mormon introduces us to iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, and silver, which were in “great abundance.” Smelting and casting became known around 800 AD. Copper, even gold, doesn’t appear until 600-800 AD, except in the Andes Mountains far to the south (1 Nephi 18:25, 2 Nephi 5:15). Even the mighty Mayan empire constructed its temples with stone tools, lacking metal. Though mentioned twenty times in the text of the Book of Mormon, there is no archaeological evidence of any hardened metal production in pre-Columbian America, and a tremendous volume of evidence to the contrary.

Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible instructs that “copper” is the true rendering of the word “steel” in the Bible context. Even Alexander the Great, who lived three hundred years after the period in question, employed iron (iron is not steel) for points of his implements, and “complained that his weapons were so easily blunted…”

Nephi’s bow of “fine steel” is a unique and important claim, mentioned very early in the text (1 Nephi 16:18). A bow can not be constructed of iron because a bow must have spring to be usable. Steel bows were first invented in India in 269-237 BCE, 450 years after Nephi. Although the Book of Mormon twice mentions that Nephi created steel out of molten rocks, archaeologists of ancient America affirm that craftsmen smelted gold, copper, and some silver. South American archaeologists do not find evidence for fully developed smelting practices until four hundred years after Nephi’s supposed arrival in the Americas.

Near Eastern scholars identify forged steel as early as the 7th century BCE near Jerusalem and in Egypt. Scholars who defend the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon question how Joseph Smith could have possibly known that forged steel existed near Jerusalem around the time that Lehi and his family fled the region. However, the more pertinent question is why there is not an abundance of steel forging found in pre-Columbian America if it were indeed introduced to the New World by the descendants of Lehi? As with the rudder and transoceanic navigation, steel falls into the category of something a civilization does not forget once embraced.

If smelting steel had been introduced to pre-Colombian America nearly a millennia prior to European colonization, we would have expected to see the adoption and proliferation of steel forging among the cultures the Spanish encountered. Simply put, we would see the absorption of such vital technology, rather than its extinction.

Similarly, we would have expected to find other cultural and technological distinctions of the Nephites (writing, monetary systems, naming conventions, craftsmanship, artwork, religious systems and symbols, etc.) absorbed into the cultures they theoretically diffused into. Such evidence would be plentiful and inarguable, rather than scant and debatable. A more reasonable argument is that Joseph Smith depicted the mythic Nephite society while incorporating nineteenth-century European assumptions about metallurgy and cultural distinctions.

Sword: The sword is mentioned 140 times in the Book of Mormon. Not only are both steel and swords anachronistic to the pre-Columbian American continent, but there were also supposed great battles fought with millions of casualties (greater than the American Civil War), yet not a single artifact has ever been found. Even Mormonism Unvailed in 1834 recognized the steel problem, citing “This is the earliest account of steel to be found in history.” 2 Nephi 5:14-15. suggests they “…did make many swords…” Apologists offer the Macahuitl, a wooden sword with sharpened obsidian inserts, but even that simple device did not appear until much later than Nephi’s time.

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Armor: The Book of Mormon describes Roman-style armor of the New Testament. Despite such armor not existing in America, Church sponsored art has depicted it for generations.

Even more problematic is how armor appears to come and go in the Book of Mormon. In Mosiah 21:7, Nephites had armor, as did Lamanites in Alma 3:5. Yet by Alma 43:21, Moroni re-invents armor against Lamanites that lacked it. Similarly, Nephi’s sole ownership of the steel bow implies that Jerusalem lost this technology for all their later, well documented wars.

Chariot: While mentioned 5 times, often in relation to horses (another anachronism), there is no evidence to support the use of chariots or any wheeled vehicle in pre-Columbian America. Though the concept of a circular wheel wasn’t unknown, a wheeled vehicle, such as a chariot, would require a usable beast of burden, of which there were none. Numerous astonishingly well preserved chariots, many still hitched to their horses, have been uncovered around the world, yet not a single horse or chariot has ever been found in the Americas.

WELL-PRESERVED CHINESE CHARIOTS AND HORSES

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Window: The Jaradite barges, reported to have been constructed around 2,200 BC, explicitly mention not having “windows” for “they will be dashed to pieces.” Given that transparent glass was invented in Germany in the 11th century AD, how would Jaradites possess any notion of windows? The scriptural context – that ye may have light in your vessels” – is clearly referring to the window as a source of light.

Coins: Before the Church changed the chapter heading in 2015, Alma 11 stated “Nephite coinage set forth.” This was replaced with “Nephite monetary system.” Yet the Book of Mormon does not make a passing reference to coins, rather, it details what a “man owed,” “compelled to pay,” “received for his wages,” “pieces of their gold, silver, according to their value.” There are numerous verses clarifying the specific denominations and relative values of the senine, seon, shum, simnah, antion and shubloom. The text very clearly refers to gold and silver coins. Not one single Lamanite coin of any type has ever been found in archaeologist digs of ancient America.

The Week: Referenced as the “seventh day” or the Sabbath day in Mosiah, the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem.

Silk: Silk is mentioned 6 times, yet it is made from the cocoon of an Asian moth and did not exist in Pre-Columbian Americas (Alma 1:29, Alma 4:6, Ether 9:17, 10:24, 1 Nephi  13:7-8).

AGRICULTURAL ANACHRONISMS

Barley / Wheat / Figs: Various grains are mentioned 28 times in the Book of Mormon. Wheat, figs, grapes and barley, even tilling of the ground, are mentioned as primary food sources (Mosiah 7:22, 9:9. 18:18; Alma 11:7, 15; Helaman 11:17; 3 Nephi 14:16). Domesticated barley and wheat were introduced by the Europeans after colonization in the 15th Century; no botanical remains of these old world staples have ever been discovered in the Americas. Pollen from wheat and barley is uniquely identifiable by collecting pollen and lake bed samples, yet both remain non existent. Nor were figs native to the Americas during the time.

The deeper one looks into the anachronisms, the more difficult they appear. Combined with transoceanic vessels, questions of geography, a profound lack of archeological evidence and questions of who the Lamanites even are, it is difficult to view the Book of Mormon as anything other than a product of its time. 

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UNCONTACTED BRAZILIAN TRIBE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, RICARDO STUCKERT

 

[1] Studies of Book of Mormon, 115.
[2] See: Natural Born Seer, 395, 1 Nephi 20-22, 2 Nephi 6-24, Helaman 3:13-16, Alma 13:20, 14:1, 14:8.
[3] See Studies of Book of Mormon91–92.
[4] A Promised Land, Ensign, June 1976.
[5] See Studies of Book of Mormon, 117-119, 142)
[6] History of the Church 4:537.
[7] The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 324.
[8] George Reynolds, Janne Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 2:324.
[9] History of the Church 3:35.
[10] Recorded by Frederick G. Williams, referred to by many others.
[11] Book of Mormon, 1888 Ed., 434.
[12] Studies of Book of Mormon, 261.
[13] Deseret News, July 29, 1978.
[14] The Manti Temple, Ensign, March 1978.
[15] Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, 230.
[16] Times and Seasons, July 15, 1842, Joseph Smith, Editor.
[17] Mediation and Atonement, 194.
[18] Studies of Book of Mormon, 77.
[19] Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, Hugh Nibley.
[20] See Studies of Book of Mormon, 98; also Natural Born Seer, 403.
[21] Mormonism Unvailed