Archaeology and the Book of Mormon

From Academic Kids

The Book of Mormon describes a heavily populated, literate civilization existing in the Americas from about 2,000 B.C. to 400 AD.

Mormon apologists and skeptics alike have long attempted to demonstrate through archaeology that The Book of Mormon is on the one hand a work of history or on the other a work of fiction. Most Mormons and Mormon apologists, though not all, view the characters of The Book of Mormon as real people who lived in a real place in the Americas, while skeptics view it as a fraud written to capitalize on the myth of the Mound Builders and on spirituality in the early United States. Apologists have suggested some archaeological theories that support the idea of a historical Book of Mormon narrative. Similarly, skeptics have identified numerous archaeological details that support the idea that the Book of Mormon is an entirely fictional narrative. Because it is problematic to prove archaeologically whether the book is historical, the book's historicity is fundamentally a matter of belief for most LDS parties. Both apologists and skeptics as well as other researchers seem to find abundant support for their specific theories, and as with any theory based on belief rather than facts there is more than one side to this issue.

See also: Linguistics and the Book of Mormon, and Reformed Egyptian.


State of archeological research

Only a small percentage of known archeological sites in the Americas have been fairly excavated, particularly in North America. While there is a great deal of archeological data (as well as historic accounts) of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán over which Mexico City has been built, many other ancient cities of the Americas have had little serious excavation done on them. Still, archaeology has provided some data on the lives, customs, technology, etc. of the ancient American peoples.

Both this body of knowledge and interpretations of it regarding The Book of Mormon are changing rapidly. In 1973, a prominent Mesoamerican archaeologist, Michael Coe of Yale University, said "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 historicity of The Book of Mormon], and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group." ("Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View," in Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 8, No 2, (Summer 1973), p. 42. ( But since then, Brigham Young University has sponsored a number of archeological excavations in Mesoamerica, and the state of research has generally progressed to the point that statements such as Coe's have become harder to find.

Much of the literature of the Pre-Columbian Maya was deliberately destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered the region in the 1500s. On this point, Michael Coe noted:

"[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)

As the state of archeological knowledge of the Americas progresses, many interested apologists and skeptics are evaluating each archeological discovery for its probative value regarding the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, comparing the text of the book (animals, objects, place names, directions, etc.) with the archealogical record.

See also:

Mormon apologetics

Probably in recognition of the fundamental problem of apologetics through archaeology, many believing Book of Mormon researchers have in the late twentieth century shifted their focus from "apologetics" to "studies." This has generally resulted in better scholarship among believers as researchers have focused more on real answers than on talking points. Though ironically this shift of focus has provided better material for apologists, for apologetic researchers "archaeology and The Book of Mormon" is no longer driven solely by the apologist/skeptic debate, but also by a serious research interest in the Book of Mormon itself.

The following are some of the specific reasons most Mormon apologists do not place much emphasis on apologetics through archaeology:

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discourages conversion through the intellect in favor of conversion through personal revelation.
  2. Book of Mormon studies are still in their youth, and various interpretations prevail. For example, the Book of Mormon narrative has been placed everywhere from South and Central America to the Finger Lakes region in New York (possibly relating the people in the story to the Mound Builders). Though some consensuses are being formed, using conflicting conclusions for apologetics is problematic.
  3. Both casual apologists and casual critics tend to makes errors of assumption because
    1. Most of the modern archaeological research of the mesoamerican area dates to a time after the Book of Mormon narrative ends and the people purportedly disperse and their language, religion, and culture deteriorate.
    2. Recent interpretations of the text of The Book of Mormon suggest there may have been other people and cultures in the same lands at the same time (though the book concerns itself exclusively with the peoples of the narrative), possibly large populations and many different cultures.
    3. The Book of Mormon narrative leads readers to the conclusion that the Lamanites hunted down and destroyed the surviving Nephites and most evidence of the Nephite civilization and culture.
    4. Much of North American archaeology has been lost or misunderstood because of common misperceptions, stereotypes, and lack of preservation (for example, most are not aware of the existence of structured stone and "cement" cities and pyramids that existed in Eastern North America, but rather identify Native Americans as migratory and as teepee or wigwam dwellers).

Proposed Book of Mormon real world setting

As with Bible studies, considerable effort in Book of Mormon studies has been focused on establishing the credible real world setting for the narrative. From a casual perusal of The Book of Mormon, it is obvious that the narrative begins at Jerusalem and follows a straightforward route along the Gulf of Suez, then across the Arabian Peninsula eastward, then apparently across the Pacific Ocean to America. It is also obvious that Joseph Smith's discovery of the book occurred in New York. Between these two bookends, the setting for the main Book of Mormon narrative (and the sub-narrative of the Jaredites as told in the Book of Ether) is not obvious.

The dominant assumption among Latter Day Saints, as expressed in the modern Introduction to The Book of Mormon, has always been that the narrative's setting encompasses all of America, and that "[The Lamanites] are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" (all indigeneous Americans). The Book of Mormon speaks of a narrow neck of land, and it has been an intuitive assumption for readers that the Isthmus of Panama fits the bill. But careful reading limits the reach of the main Book of Mormon narrative to a span of some 300 miles, demanding the identification of a limited American setting.

Based on extensive textual analysis and current archaeological data, most LDS scholars now agree that the Book of Mormon geography was centered in Mesoamerica around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the area of current day Guatemala and the southern Mexico States of Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and the surrounding area. This is one of the only areas in the Americas that had an ancient system of writing. And this area provides several plausible supporting evidences for the Book of Mormon narrative.

Archaeological problems for the Book of Mormon

Descriptions without support

The Book of Mormon affirms that there were pre-Columbian peoples that were literate, had knowledge of Old World languages, and possessed Old World derived writing systems. (E.g. 1 Nephi 13:23 et. seq.) They smelted metal and made tools and weapons of iron, steel, and brass. (E.g. Ether 7:9, 10:23) They owned domesticated horses and cattle. They possessed chariots. (E.g. Alma 18:9-12) The people covered the "entire land." These archeological implications and scores of others found in the Book of Mormon, if true, predict that certain discoveries will be made in the pre-Columbian archaeological record. But critics assert that some of what is currently known contradicts Book of Mormon claims.


The Book of Mormon states that steel was produced and used in America (mainly steel swords). This applies to the following verses:

2 Nephi 5:14-15

...And 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.

In this case, steel is mentioned in a context for which there is no archaeological evidence. For more information on science and the Book of Mormon see The Skeptics Annotated BOM (

Apologetic proposals

Apologists have in some cases proposed a loose interpretation of terms, such as deer or tapir for horse (evidence supported by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian give evidence of pre-Columbian horses, but at much earlier times.), suggesting that immigrants from the Old World might have applied old names to new concepts. In other cases, apologists have proposed alternate English word meanings, such as domestic herds for cattle, suggesting that the intuitive modern meaning of words may not always be the appropriate Book of Mormon meaning.

Horses and swords are both found in the pre-columbian Americas - see National Geographic article on horses ( and Wikipedia article on swords. Also, historian Thomas E. Sheridan (who is not Mormon), in his book Arizona: A History cites evidence to prove that horses, camels, and relatives to elephants were part of the North American landscape in Pre-Columbian America. However, because the animals referenced are thought to have lived between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago, they typically are not thought to fit the requirements of the Book of Mormon narrative.

Genetic studies

Another controversial issue concerns the genetic claims the Book of Mormon makes about indigenous Americans and current DNA evidence on the ancestry of modern indigenous Americans. Some critics of the Book of Mormon have recently noted that the consensus of virtually every peer-reviewed scholar in the entire discipline of Genetic Anthropology concludes that DNA evidence overwhelmingly contradicts the claims of the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon claims that the people of Jared, consisting of several families from the Tower of Babel, migrated to America from Asia before Abraham's time; that the people of Lehi, consisting of three families (Lehi's, Ishmael's, and Zoram's), migrated to America from Jerusalem around 600 B.C.; and that the people of Mulek (son of Jewish King Zedekiah) migrated to America from Jerusalem perhaps 8 years later.

As with some other potential sources of evidence, data on comparisons of genetic markers in the DNA of different races is in its infancy, although the discipline has developed remarkably swiftly, and the ability to conclude with confidence already surpasses other archeological and linguistic sources for testing anthropological origin. Recent evidence concerning whether some Native Americans are genetically linked to old world races currently indicates that most genetic traits and genes of modern Jews are not found in most Native Americans, although some mitochondrial DNA analysis shows that others are found in both Israel and Native Americans; these, however, are either so general that they suggest an ancestor so far back as to be pre-Asian migration several tens of thousands of years ago, or else so recent as to be almost certainly post-Columbian contact era. Thus, such evidence offers little support for the Mormon apologist claim. Furthermore, for those markers and genetic patterns that show the greatest differentiation between populations, the evidence overwhelmingly rejects any linkage between Israel and pre-columbian Native America.

The most controversial of these studies was published in late 2002 by anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy, who remains a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It should be noted that Murphy did not conduct the genetic research, but rather summarized the already published research results from scores of geneticists that had been published in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, another researcher, Simon Southerton, a senior research scientist with CSIRO in Canberra Australia has written an extensive book on the topic entitled "Losing a lost tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church" in which he demonstrates the consensus of the field, and illustrates how the Mormon apologists have yet to publish or cite any rebutting evidence for their position. Information concerning DNA and the Book of Mormon, including a lack of modern Israelite influence in the Americas can be found here (, and information about MDNA migration may be found here ( Mormon researchers have shown similarities of mitochondrial DNA between Native Americans and Palestinians and Non-Mormon researchers have demonstrated apparent evidence of a "most recent common ancestor" living as recently as less than 1,000 years ago [1] (, [2] (,15331,3885-1-18078,0.html), [3] (, [4] (, [5] (, though these purported results and the Mormons' interpretations have failed to convince the vast majority of the Anthropological Genetics field. While the subject of Amerind origins is currently under extensive discussion within academic circles, the interest is almost exclusively regarding the specific Asiatic sources and timings of migration; there remains little interest however by most experts to rehash the semitic origins hypothesis, which now is almost universally considered a dead-end question (outside of the Mormon community) given the continuing proponderence of genetic evidence. Also see Lamanites, DNA, and Biology.

Studies are ongoing in this area, and conclusions, though tentative, are becoming much more certain with each successive replication. Within academic circles, there is near universal agreement that there is no pattern of migration of mitochondrial DNA corresponding to the migration of peoples as claimed by the Book of Mormon.

Archaeological support for the Book of Mormon

Lehi's Arabian journey

The Book of Mormon describes with telling details a 600 B.C. journey of two families (or three counting the single man Zoram) from Jerusalem along the east side of the Red Sea, then 8 years east across the Arabian Peninsula from 600 B.C. to 592 B.C. Even through most of the twentieth century, no information was available to confirm the narrative of an encampment at a continually running stream (River of Laman) in a valley (of Lemuel) at the "fount of the Red Sea," of a burial at a place "called Nahom," of a "Bountiful" place on the east side of the Arabian Peninsula where multiple narrative details occur, or of any other detail of Lehi's Arabian journey. But in the late twentieth and the early twenty first centuries, a single candidate has emerged for each of these places that apologists find plausible for Lehi's purported journey. Field studies and research on this subject are ongoing.

Based on extensive text analysis and field work in Arabia, George Potter and Richard Wellington believe they have located every important Arabian site mentioned in the narrative of Nephi in the Book of Mormon. "These include, the 'borders near and nearer' the Red Sea, Shazer (where they stopped to hunt), the most fertile parts, the more fertile parts, the trees from which Nephi made his bow, Nahom, Nephi’s eastwardly trail to Bountiful, and Bountiful.

Valley of Lemuel/River of Laman

The River of Laman has been equated with Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, 72 miles by trail from Aqaba. Wadi Tayyib al-Ism was discovered by George Potter and Craig Thorsted of the Nephi Project on 11 May 1995. [6] (


The Book of Mormon says that Ishmael, the patriarch of the family that left with Lehi's, was buried in a place "called Nahom" early on the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful. This Nahom has been equated by Warren Aston with a place called NHM along the described route.

People of Lihy

Bruce A. Santucci claims to have discovered "seven linguistic footprints" of Lehi (Lihy) along the George Potter-Richard Wellington proposed route of Lehi across Arabia.

Around 550 B.C., the Dedanites of northwest Arabia changed their name to Lihyanites. Ceremonial temples in the Jewish style were discovered in Lihyanite territory by apologist George Potter, the second one in 2005 (Potter, George W. LDS Explorers Reach Second Lihy Temple. Unpublished electronic manucript. 2005.). Combined with a revelation by Joseph Smith, Jr. that likens modern missionaries to Nephi journeying "from Jerusalem in the wilderness" (D&C 33:7-8), this is supportive of the idea that the party of Lehi make a significant spiritual impact on the Dedanites between 600 B.C. and 592 B.C. However, insufficient work has been done to date the temples.


George Potter and Richard Wellington believe they have located the land Bountiful (suggested earlier by [Hugh] Nibley as Salalah), and the place Bountiful where the Book of Mormon says Lehi camped and the harbor where it says Nephi built his ship." [7] (

American civilizations

Many Mormon apologists believe that the Olmec civilization matches the appropriate time and place to be identified with the Jaredite civilization in The Book of Mormon, and the Maya civilization has been suggested as the Lamanite culture depicted in the Book of Mormon.

No civilization has been identified with the Nephite culture, and it is postulated by apologists that the Nephite culture was probably characterized by unpretentious Christian discipleship inconsistent with impressive monuments and stone artisanship. As such, Mormon apologists sometimes postulate a Nephite culture existing within the greater Lamanite (usually Maya) culture.

Animals, metallurgy, and other objects

Military fortifying berms are found in the Yucatan Peninsula as described in the Book of Mormon, in the region appropriate to where the wars described could plausibly have occurred.

A pre-Columbian metal smelting site ( was excavated in Mexico in November of 2000 by an archaeological team from MIT. Evidence of copper smelting was found at the site, including copper pieces and slag. Other excavations have shown iron smelting sites, including this one ( in North America.

Quetzalcoatl legends

The ancient Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl, depicted in some versions as "the bearded white god", is interpreted by some Latter-day Saint apologists as an altered depiction of the actual visit of Jesus to the Americas as related in the Book of Mormon. Most students of ancient Mesoamerica do not accept this claim for at least two of the following reasons: Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent deity, is depicted in Mesoamerican art dated several centuries before Jesus. The King Quetzalcoatl who promised to return to Mexico dated almost 1,000 years after the life of Jesus. [8] ( Apologists rebut that the visitation of Jesus was incorporated into some of the various, exisiting legends of Quetzalcoatl.

LDS cultural belief

Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that ancient Israelites traveled to the Americas. Recent cultural movements, statements from Church authorities from as far back as the 1830s, and the Book of Mormon itself, suggest that other groups besides those explicitly mentioned were led from the middle east and other locations worldwide to the Americas. As the introduction states that these Israelite migrators are the "principal" (meaning foremost or most important) ancestors of the American Indians, some church members believe that the three groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon populated in a short time the whole North and South American Continents.

Urban Legend

During the early 1980s, reports circulated in LDS culture that the Book of Mormon was being used by the Smithsonian to guide primary archealogical research. This urban legend was brought to the attention of Smithsonian directors who published a letter stating that it was the belief of the Smithsonian that they did not use the Book of Mormon to guide any research and that "no evidence" was available to validate the historicity of the Book of Mormon. A letter that was sent to one inquiring party may be found here (

See also

External links


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