Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Outlines Compared
by Raymond C. Treat
We are going to compare the major points in the outline of Mesoamerican culture history with the major points in the outline of Book of Mormon culture history (see illustration below).
We will see the remarkable fit between these two distinct culture patterns which will cause us to conclude that the matchup of these two long histories goes far beyond the realm of chance. This correlation is indeed a powerful testimony that the Book of Mormon had its roots in the people whose story it tells.
Although there was some printed material available prior to 1830 about the archaeology of southern Mexico and Guatemala, none of the information about Mesoamerican culture history in Figure 1 was known in 1830.
It should be made clear that archaeological evidence is of necessity fragmentary evidence. An archaeological site devoid of written records will retain only an estimated two percent of the total life of the people who once lived there. This means that most archaeological evidence is subject to more than one interpretation. This is less true of a culture history outline, however, since more data is gathered to construct it than any other single type of archaeological evidence.
The archaeological evidence given here is greatly simplified. However, it is a fair representation of the available archaeological record.
Jaredites Arrive-First Pottery Appears
Based on Old World evidence, the Jaredites arrived in the New World sometime between 2500 and 2200 B.C. as an already civilized people (see Simmons 1986:24-26). We know that they were settled village farmers with flocks and herds and brought the knowledge of pottery making with them from the Old World.
Looking to the first appearance of pottery in Mesoamerica we find a type of pottery called Pox identified at Puerto Marquez on the Pacific coast near Acapulco. This pottery has been dated about 2300 B.C. (Brush 1965). Very similar pottery has also been found in the Tehuacan Valley southeast of Mexico City and given a similar date (MacNeish et. al. 1970:21-25). Thus, from the present evidence, we can safely say that pottery began to appear in Mesoamerica sometime between 2500 and 2200 B.C.
Chapter one of the book of Ether gives the Jaredite genealogy. In the middle of this genealogy there are four successive righteous men in the king line-Levi, Corom, Kish and Lib. An analysis of the genealogy indicates that we are probably dealing with the 1400-200 B.C. time period. The poisonous serpents are finally destroyed during the days of Lib, and the vast southern area is now opened for hunting and trade. Moroni enumerates the signs of their material prosperity and closes by saying, "And never could be a people more blessed than were they, and more prospered by the hand of the Lord" (Ether 4:78). We can only conclude that this is the cultural highpoint of the Jaredite history.
This period of time represented by the four kings ending with Lib is the longest time of righteousness in the Jaredite record. From this point on, a series of unrighteous leaders begin a spiritual decline which is ultimately reflected in the destruction of the Jaredite nation. This destruction must have occurred around 200 B.C. This date is supported by two factors-the genealogy of the kings in the land of Zarahernla and the condition of the breastplates, swords and bones found by the search party of King Limhi just before 121 B.C.
Recognition of 0lmec
Olmec is the name given to the major archaeological culture in existence during the time of the Jaredite highpoint. Michael Coe's work at the site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz from 1966 to 1968 pushed back the recognized date of full-blown Olmec culture to 1200/1150 B.C. (Coe 1970; Adams 1991:50). Coe indicates that the Olmec culture had its beginnings much earlier than 1200 B.C. There is evidence at San Lorenzo of the beginning of the Olmec culture pattern as early as 1400 B.C. This picture correlates well with the Jaredite story which indicates a high spiritual level for four generations which would have resulted in a spiritual flowering of material culture at the same period as San Lorenzo. Thus we see the highpoints of the two patterns match (Figure 1).
What does archaeology tell us about this culture known as Olmec? Their genius is most evident in their distinctive art style. They produced art on both a monumental scale in basalt and on a small scale in finely polished and carved articles of jade and serpentine. The so-called colossal heads of basalt are huge heads with thick lips, close-fitting helmets and no bodies. They are complete monuments in themselves. The tallest heads measure nine feet in height and weigh up to 20 tons.
Jade figurines are the hallmark of the Olmec. The jade used was very often of high quality and bluish green to bluish gray in color. They also produced clay figurines, both hollow and solid.
The dominant motif of their art is a were-jaguar, a creature depicted as a combination of human and jaguar. The human element is frequently represented as an infant and combines the chubby face, short wide nose and thicker lips of a young child with the snarling mouth of a jaguar. Sometimes an indentation or cleft is shown on the top of the bald head, which is often elongated. The significance of the Olmec motifs, particularly the were-jaguar, is a matter of unresolved debate.
Typical Olmec pottery includes bowls which are heavily carved or excised in broad gouges. A common design is known as the paw-wing or scroll-wing motif. Hematite red is a favorite color. This distinctive pottery was widely traded.
During their period of florescence beginning around 1200 B.C. the Olmec dominated a large portion of Mesoamerica. However, new pottery types typical of settlements elsewhere replaced the old around 550 B.C. New wares and figurines are indications of the decline and replacement of a culture.
The Jaredite decline really may be said to have begun soon after the reign of righteous King Lib but accelerated more rapidly the last 400 years of Jaredite history. Again we find similar patterns reflected in Olmec archaeology and Jaredite history. Like the Jaredites, there is evidence that the Olmec began their steady decline around 600 B.C. and were no longer recognizable as a nation by 200 B.C.
Nephite Culture Begins
Turning to the Nephite record, we remember that Lehi's group arrived in the New World around 588 B.C. Shortly after, they divided into two cultures, Nephite and Lamanite. The Mulekites arrived about this time also, forming a third culture. We know from the record that there was no interaction between the Nephites and Mulekites for almost 400 years.
More information is given in the Book of Mormon about the years from 200 B.C. to the beginning of the "Golden Age" (A.D. 36) than about any other period. It was a very complex period during which the Lamanites ultimately became more righteous than the Nephites. The period ended with the great upheaval which destroyed all but the more righteous part of the people.
Regional Cultures Begin
In Mesoamerica, beginning around 600 B.C., there were a series of regional cultures which maintained their own distinctiveness instead of a pattern of dominance by a single culture as in Olmec times (Adams 1991:89). This pattern of regionalism is in harmony with the Book of Mormon picture at this time which indicates there are at least three separate and distinct cultures: Nephites, Lamanites and Mulekites.
One of these regional cultures was centered in the Maya lowlands area. Archaeologists see evidence of a population explosion in the Maya lowlands beginning around 550 B.C. (Adams 1991:126). This period, called the Mamom phase, is characterized as a simple village culture with monochrome (one-color) pottery, figurines and the beginning of formal architecture. Figures are presumed to have had religious significance. The arrival of the Mulekites in the New World fits in very well with this picture of the Mamom culture.
The Mulekite arrival and subsequent growth would explain why there was a population explosion in the Maya lowlands and also why formal stone architecture-a culture trait previously lacking in the area-was introduced.
Mamom developed into what is called the Chicanel culture. Chicanel is characterized by a lack of figurines (Weaver 1981:141) and by innovations in architecture. A variety of structures were suddenly erected. These included rich tombs, temple-pyramids, great plazas, terraces and corbeled vaults. The contrast with the preceding Mamom period is enormous.
Since figurines are usually associated with idols or pagan beliefs, the sudden lack of them is an indication of a major change in religion. This is implied in the Book of Mormon account when the people of Mosiah came down and joined the Mulekites about 200 B.C. and Mosiah was chosen king. Because the Mulekites learned the language of Mosiah and accepted him as their king, it is logical to assume that they also accepted Mosiah's religion. This would account for the removal of the figurines during the Chicanel period.
We know that the Nephites were great builders wherever they lived. The sudden burst in quality and quantity of architecture around this time of 200 B.C. is additional verification of the Nephite presence in the Maya lowlands. The contrast between the Mamom and Chicanel phases is a clear reflection of the pattern described by the Book of Mormon.
Golden Age-Division of People-Nephite Nation Ends
About a year after the upheaval, which occured at the time of the crucifixion, Jesus Christ appeared to the multitude in land Bountiful. The inspiring account of his ministry to the people of Nephi marks the highpoint of the Book of Mormon story. His
ministry resulted in the Golden Age, which lasted until the division of the people in A.D. 231. At that time there was a resumption of the old pattern of warfare between the Nephites and the Lamanites. Because of their willful rebellion, the Nephite nation was finally destroyed by the Lamanites in A.D. 384-385.
Moroni gave a final glimpse of the culture pattern of the remaining Lamanites:
And ... the Lamanites are at war one with another;
And the whole face of this land is one continual round of
murder and bloodshed;
And no one knoweth the end of the war.
Classic Maya Begins
The beginning of the Classic Maya has traditionally been defined by the appearance of three major traits: polychrome pottery, the corbeled arch and hieroglyphs. These were all thought to have appeared at the same time as the earliest known glyph dates of A.D. 292 (rounded off to A.D. 300). Recent evidence now allows Maya archaeologists to say that polychrome pottery and the corbeled arch began as early as A.D. 100. Therefore, we can say that the Classic Maya period really begins at A.D. 100 and not at A.D. 300 as previously thought.
What are some of the distinguishing characteristics of these Early Classic Maya? The archaeological remains are quite fragmentary for this period but a general picture emerges. Their cities seem to have been built according to a basic plan. The buildings were located around courts and plazas, which included sculptured monolithic monuments and stelae and altars.
The true genesis for all the later Maya achievements for which they are so well-known seems to have come from the time of unification experienced in the Golden Age.
The glyph dates around A.D. 300 actually mark the end of the Golden Age and the beginning of warfare. It is now known that many of the glyphs on stelae give historical information about individual rulers (Schele and Miller 1986:323). This is what we would expect after the division in A.D. 231 when men would aspire to become rulers and to erect monuments to their own glory. There was no need for such monuments during the unification of the Golden Age.
There is reason to believe that the greatness of the Classic Maya as seen in the architectural achievements after A.D. 231 is not because the people were better than those who lived during the Golden Age but because unrighteous rulers were taking advantage of the unification, and progress of the Golden Age and using it to their own glorification. Remember, there is always a time lag between spiritual highpoints and their material manifestations.
We have seen the arrival of the Jaredites and the beginning of pottery both established between 2500-2200 B.C. The succession of four righteous kings and the recognition of Olmec come together at nearly the same time, 1400-1200 B.C. The Jaredite decline and the decline of the 0lmec civilization both occur from 600-200 B.C. The arrival of the Nephites and the Mulekites which resulted in at least three new regional cultures-Nephite, Lamanite and Mulekite and a pattern of regional cultures with new traits are both seen in the 6th century B.C. The appearance of Jesus Christ, ushering in an outstanding period of happiness and prosperity known as the Golden Age and the rise of Maya civilization known throughout the world for its unique accomplishments, both occur in the first two centuries A.D. The division of the people, the downfall of the Nephite nation, the beginning of Maya hieroglyphs and the resumption of warfare are all dated in the third and fourth centuries A.D.
The Book of Mormon outline, first published in 1830, has not changed. The Mesoamerican outline has been gradually filled in with most of the information coming after 1950. The major points of both outlines can now be said to be in essential agreement.
The Outlines Fit
As stated in the introduction, such a close correlation of the major events of two culture histories over a period of some 2800 years goes beyond the realm of chance and constitutes a very powerful testimony that the Book of Mormon culture history is authentic.
There is enough information now available that we can surely say the outlines do indeed fit. As more information becomes available through Mesoamerican archaeology we can expect that the authenticity of the Book of Mormon outline will become more and more evident.
We have seen from the Book of Mormon how the Olmec and the Maya attained high spiritual levels and how they willfully rejected this enlightenment and fell as nations. There is a parallel in this pattern for us today.
The message from the dust comes to us in two ways: from archaeology and from the ancient record itself. Jesus Christ has given us the mission to take the sacred record to Lehi's remnant that they might know the true and living Christ. We read from Section 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
... for this very purpose are these plates preserved which
contain these records,
This article taken from Recent Book of Mormon Developments vol. 2 p.121-124