The following is a theoretical panel discussion wherein information is drawn from statements dating from the publication of the book of Mormon to the present day. Statements are also included from non Latter-day Saints scholars where deemed appropriate. The topic for this panel discussion centers on the place in the new world where Lehi landed after having left Jerusalem about 600 B.C. The moderator is Joseph L. Allen. Bibliographical data is listed by number as they appear in the discussion. This article was originally published in The Book of Mormon Archaeological Digest in 1991.
Joseph L. Allen, Ph.D., Former director of LDS Institutes and CES Instructor; Author, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon.
Michael D. Coe, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Yale University, Author, The Maya and other books on Mesoamerica.
David H. Kelley, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, University of Calgary, Canada, Author, Deciphering the Maya Glyphs.
F. Richard Hauck, Ph.D., Archaeologist, Author, Deciphering the Geography of the book of Mormon.
Betty J. Meggers, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
V. Garth Norman, M.A., M.S., Archaeologist, Author, Izapa Sculpture.
David A. Palmer, Ph.D., Research Chemist, Author, In Search of Cumorah.
Brigham H. Roberts (1857-1933), Mormon Historian, Theologian, and member of the Council of the Seventy.
John L. Sorenson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, BYU, Author, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
John Taylor (1808-1887), Apostle and Third President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
John A. Tvedtnes, Ph.D. candidate, Egyptian and Semitic Lanugaes, Hebrew University. Computer specialist and writer.
Bruce W. Warren, Ph.D., Archaeologist, Author, The Messiah in Ancient America.
Frederick G. Williams (1787-1842), The Prophet Joseph Smith’s family physician, counselor, scribe and friend.
MODERATOR: We welcome our panel of illustrious guests today on the question as to where in the promised land Lehi and his colony landed. The initial statement in the Book of Mormon is found in 1 Nephi 18:28.
“And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land.”
Do any of our panel members have any opening remarks?
JOHN SORENSON: The task of establishing a realistic setting for the Book of Mormon is a big, challenging one. Research by Latter-day Saints and others over the past 40 years has made it possible for us to know a good deal of concrete detail about the Jerusalem from which Lehi led his family; in our mind’s eye we can now follow his party through a line of campsites down the Red Sea side of the Arabian peninsula and across to a specific “bountiful land” on the Hadhramaut coast. But the minute the party climb into Nephi’s ship and launch their journey into the Indian Ocean, we loose that sense of concreteness. Landed in the New World, they are just vaguely “somewhere.”
Until recently, after 150 years since the Nephite record was first published by Joseph Smith, we had neglected to pin down the location of a single city, to identify confidently even one route the people of the volume traversed, or to sketch a believable picture of any segment of the life they lived in their American promised land. In many respects, the Book of Mormon remains a sealed book to us because we have failed to do the work necessary to place it in its setting.1
MODERATOR: Brother Williams, you were a counselor to the Prophet Joseph Smith when the Church had its headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio. You wrote something about the landing site of Lehi.
FREDERICK G. WILLIAMS: The course that Lehi traveled from the city of Jerusalem to the place where he and his family took ship, they traveled nearly a south south East direction until they came to the nineteenth degree of North Lattitude, then nearly east to the Sea of Arabia then sailed in a south east direction and landed on the continent of South America in Chile thirty degrees south Lattitude.2
MODERATOR: Thirty degrees south latitude is about 200 miles north of Santiago, Chile. Brother Williams, this information was written in your handwriting on a piece of paper that was found in the possession of your grandson. Also, it was on the same piece of paper where you recorded, in your handwriting, the revelation of John found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7. The information about Lehi’s landing site was published in 1882 by Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little. Are we to understand that this “landing site” statement was given by Joseph Smith as revelation?
BRIGHAM H. ROBERTS: If no more evidence can be found to establish this passage in Richards and Little’s Compendium as a revelation to Joseph the Seer, than the fact that it is found in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, and on the same sheet of paper with the body of revelation about John, the beloved disciple, the evidence of its being a revelation to Joseph the Seer, rests on a very unsatisfactory basis.3
MODERATOR: The statement by Frederick G. Williams was written about 1833. There is another statement written in 1842 proposing Lehi’s landing site to be the Isthmus of Panama. This statement appeared in the Church’s Periodical, Times and Seasons.
Joseph Smith was the editor and John Taylor was the assistant editor of Times and Seasons. About December 1842, John Taylor became the editor. President Taylor, will you tell us what was written in Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, pp. 921-922, September 15, 1842?
JOHN TAYLOR: [W]e read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother came on this continent from the confusion and scattering at the Tower, and lived here more than a thousand years, and covered the whole continent from sea to sea with towns and cities; and that Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien [Panama].4
V. GARTH NORMAN: The statements by Franklin D. Richards and those appearing in Times and Seasons conflict as to the general area where Lehi landed. It suggests to me that the early brethren were in a continual process of learning and investigation.
This is further verified by a later statement in Times and Seasons wherein it states that “Since our ‘Extract’ was published from Mr. Stephens’ Incidents of Travel, etc., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the book of Mormon.”5
BRUCE W. WARREN: Other statements in Times and Seasons between 1841 and 1845 implicate northern Central America and southern Mexico as containing ruins relevant to the Book of Mormon history.
If that is the case, then there are some problems with the statement about the Isthmus of Panama. The “land of first inheritance” was in the west borders by the seashore and west in the land of Nephi (Alma 22:28).
If the main cities in the land Southward of the Book of Mormon were in southern Mexico and northern Central America, then having the “land of first Inheritance” south of the Isthmus of Darien provides a contradiction to the text of the Book of Mormon.
Archaeologically, we do have two stone monuments that would tend to place the “land of first inheritance” in the area of the Soconusco coast along the border between Chiapas, Mexico, and Guatemala.
These monuments are Stela 5 with a scene of origins as illustrated by the 12 or 13 roots at the base of the “Tree of Life” and Monument No. 21 at Bilbao, Guatemala, with a scene of origins for seven lineages or tribes.
We need to balance and weigh statements from the nineteenth century when little was known of Ancient America’s past with the knowledge available today.
Therefore, I would evaluate the “south of the Isthmus of Darien” statement in light of our current understanding of Book of Mormon geography.6
MODERATOR: Is it possible to extract from the Book of Mormon enough evidence to determine where Lehi landed?
JOSEPH ALLEN: It is possible from information in the Book of Mormon, combined with the geographical and archaeological information available to us now to eliminate certain areas from being the “place of their fathers’ first inheritance.”
Assuming that the statement in Alma 22:28, “the place of their fathers’ first inheritance,” is also the place where Lehi landed, then logically we are forced to eliminate Chile, Peru, and Panama as potential landing sites for Lehi and his colony.
For example, “the place of their fathers’ first inheritance” (1) bordered along the seashore, (2) was west of the city of Nephi, and (3) was yet still in the land of Nephi.
We also know that there was a sea on the east and a sea on the west of the land of Nephi (Alma 22:27). In fine, the lack of archaeological and linguistic evidence directly east of proposed landing sites in Chile, Peru and Panama, accompanied with the absence of a logical east sea, makes these three areas unlikely candidates for the “land of their fathers’ first inheritance.”
JOHN SORENSON: Lehi and his party launched their vessel into the Indian Ocean from the south coast of the Arabian peninsula. The winds no doubt bore them on the same sea lanes that Arab, Chinese and Portuguese ships used later, touching India and ultimately the Malayan peninsula. From that point Nephi’s ship likely threaded through the islands of the western Pacific, then across the open reaches north of the equator to landfall around 14 degrees north latitude. Nephi left us no information in the Book of Mormon about the route, nor did he tell us in modern terms where they landed. But when we analyze Book of Mormon statements about geography and events, the “land of first inheritance” can only lie west (Pacific) coast of Central America (1 Nephi 18:23; Alma 22:28)…
[T]he southernmost portion of Guatemala’s Pacific coast or adjacent El Salvador is most likely where Lehi’s party landed and first settled.7
JOPEPH ALLEN: The archaeological zone in consideration in El Salvador is Acajutla. In Sorenson’s writing he proposed that the area of the archaeological zone of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City is where the city of Nephi was located. Landing in Acajutla, El Salvador would cause the “place of their fathers’ first inheritance” to be southeast instead of west as required by the Book of Mormon text (Alma 22:28). On the basis of direction, it is therefore necessary to eliminate Acajutla also as the “place of their fathers’ first inheritance.”
DAVID PALMER: My own study of directional systems employed during the Nephite time period suggests that use of true north for orientation was rare. Because of the twenty-five millennia precession of the axis of the earth (it wobbles like a top), Polaris was not a pole star in Lehi’s time. Instead, it described a circle of about twenty-four degrees in the night sky. In the absence of a visible pole star, directions would have been difficult to determine from just the sun’s rising and setting, which vary by fifty degrees over the course of a year.
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Serious investigation of Mesoamerican ruins built before the time of Christ suggests that the inhabitants based their directions on the solstice readings, the extremes of the sun’s travel on 21/22 June and 21/22 December. That solstitial direction is sixty-five degrees west of true north and was probably used as “Nephite North.”8
JOSEPH ALLEN: Directionally, that still negates Acajutla, El Salvador as being the land of their first inheritance. When we propose a rotated compass of 65 degrees to the west, Acajutla then becomes directly south of Nephi (Kaminaljuyu) rather than west as required by the Book of Mormon text.
GARTH NORMAN: It disturbs me that we would even consider the possibility that the early Nephites lacked sufficient astronomical evidence to determine the location of true north. Even without the north star, it is a very elementary exercise to determine the true directions as they are today.
The axis of the northern sky has always been constant, whether there was a star or not. For example, the solar cycle at Izapa along with other primitive sites both in Mesoamerica and North America of which I have had the opportunity to study leaves no doubt that the ancients knew the directions as we know them.
You simply count the days from a projected midpoint, and in the course of one year one can determine true east. The midpoint consists of 182 days (365 divided by 2) from the summer solstice to the equinox and 182 days from the equinox to the winter solstice. (See example)9
182 days * 182 days
MODERATOR: Is the “rotated compass” concept consistent with old world philosophy?
JOHN TVEDTNES: Of course not. To propose that the Mid-eastern culture at the time of Lehi operated under a different directional system is as inaccurate as the statement that they rotated the compass 65 degrees because of the absence of the north star.
It has been proposed by some that the Nephites rotated the compass about 65 degrees from north to west, and as a result north is really northwest in the Nephite tradition. Justification for such a proposal is that the Mediterranean Sea was west of Jerusalem and as a result the word “sea” or “yam” in Hebrew is associated with west. Therefore, according to this theory, directions were taken from the Mediterranean Sea, meaning that if your back was to the sea, north would be left and south would be right. The error in this type of thinking is that the primary meaning of the word for west is “sunset”, and “yam” which means sea is only a secondary term for west.
The same thing is true with east. In Hebrew, like English, one refers to the east as the orient, or the direction in which one orients himself, that is to the rising of the sun. While one of the phrases for east in Hebrew is “in front of”, it is again a secondary usage and is not to be considered to be the primary way in which the Hebrews determined direction.
In summary, one orients himself to the east, and it is just coincidental, that to the Israelites, their backs were to the Mediterranean Sea. Orientation in the Hebrew culture, is to the front, or “sunrise”, and not to their backs.10
RICHARD HAUCK: Two quotations (Mosiah 10:13 and Alma 22:28) establish two important factors – (1) the landing place of Lehi’s party is identified by Mormon as the land of the first inheritance of the Nephites-Lamanites, and (2) this “place of their fathers’ first inheritance” actually existed in the west sea locality, west of the “middle” land of Nephi.
Thus, Lehi’s landing place on the west sea was west of the land of Nephi and was known to both the Nephites and Lamanites as the land of their fathers’ first inheritance.11
GARTH NORMAN: Realistically, the Land of first Inheritance must be located within the southern Mesoamerica land of Ancient America’s highest civilization, which does not extend southward beyond El Salvador in the Late Preclassic cultural period from the sixth century B.C.
Two options, then, for First Inheritance considered here are first, the coastal area of Usulután in El Salvador as a Lamanite cultural manifestation, and second, Izapa in the Guatemala-Mexico region.
The archaeological evidence at Izapa qualifies it to be the land of first inheritance.12
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: It appears that for the most part the panel has eliminated Chile, Peru and Panama as being the land of first inheritance on the following grounds: 1) lack of adequate archaeological and linguistic evidence and 2) the geographical picture breaks down with no credible east sea, narrow strip of wilderness, etc.
El Salvador breaks down from a directional perspective both for cardinal compass and the rotated compass directions. Setting directions aside, is there archaeological evidence that would qualify El Salvador as the land of first inheritance?
BRUCE WARREN: First of all, I don’t think you set directions aside. In answer to your question, there is archaeological evidence all along the coast of El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Pacific corridor of southern Mexico.13
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Assuming Lehi landed in Central America near the Mexico-Guatemala border, were there people in the New World when Lehi landed?
BRUCE WARREN: Archaeologically and linguistically, there were many people here around 600 B.C. And they were probably not all Jaredites either.14
JOSEPH ALLEN: Perhaps a better question is, does the Book of Mormon allow for people being in the promised land when Lehi arrived? Under normal circumstances it is genetically impossible for the numbers of people mentioned in the Book of Mormon to stem from two families (Lehi and Ishmael) in such a short period of time. Within 30 years after the arrival of Lehi in the New World, there were major divisions, many wars and contentions, and a substantial amount of building. Furthermore, Jacob’s statement in 545 B.C. suggests that there were a vast number of people living in the New World at the time. “I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites…” (Jacob 1:14).
JOHN SORENSON: Latter-day Saints are not used to the idea that other people than Lehi’s immediate descendants were on the Book of Mormon scene. Abundant evidence from archaeological and linguistic studies assures us that such people were indeed present, so we need to understand how the Book of Mormon account accommodates that fact. We saw earlier the nature of the Book of Mormon as a lineage history of Nephi’s descendants. It does not claim to be, and clearly is not, a history in our modern sense of the term; it never purports to give a systematic picture of “what happened” throughout its geographical area. Native Mesoamerica lineage records of later date did the same thing —interpreting peoples and events from the viewpoint of elite record keepers of each lineage.15
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: It is my understanding that there is an ongoing debate on the question as to whether there is any evidence of migrations from the Old World to Mesoamerica during the time period of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and Nephites. What is the current thinking on this matter?
MODERATOR: We will defer this question to three distinguished scholars who have written on the subject.
MICHAEL COE: The possibility of some trans-Pacific influence on Mesoamerican cultures cannot, however, be so easily dismissed. It’s most consistent proponent has been Professor David Kelley of the University of Calgary…Dr. Joseph Needham reminds us, Chinese astronomers of the Han Dynasty as well as the ancient Maya used exactly the same complex calculations to give warning about the likelihood of lunar and solar eclipses. These data would suggest that there was direct contact across the Pacific...it is possible that Asian intellectuals may have established some sort of contact with their Mesoamerican counterparts by the end of the Preclassic…
Dr. Paul Tolstoy of the University of Montreal has made a meticulous study of the occurrence of the technique and tools utilized in the manufacture of bark paper around the Pacific basin. It is his well-founded conclusion that this technology, known in ancient China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, as well as in Mesoamerica, was diffused from eastern Indonesia to Mesoamerica at a very early date…
This by no means implies that the Maya—or any other Mesoamerican civilization—were merely derivative from Old World prototypes. What it does suggest is that at a few times in their early history, the Maya may have been receptive to some important ideas originating in the Eastern Hemisphere.16
MODERATOR: According to Coe, then, there are evidences of migration or influences from the Old World based on astrology and the manufacturing of bark paper. Dr. David Kelly has studied the Mesoamerican calendar in relationship to the Old world calendars to determine whether or not there are any similarities, that would suggest Old World influence on Mesoamerica.
DAVID KELLEY: [W]e have two kinds of evidence bearing on the origin of the Mesoamerican calendar: some data suggest derivation from India, the other data suggest some not clearly identified North Semites. To choose between them seems to me very difficult. They could be reconciled if there were a Semitic colony in northern India; but I know of no evidence of this.17
MODERATOR: Dr. Kelley has proposed a connection between Hebrew and Maya calendars due to the fact that three of the Maya calendar day names are equal or similar to the Hebrew. Is there evidence of earlier cultures which date to the time of Jaredites migrating from the area of China?
BETTY MEGGERS: Anthropologists generally assume that civilization developed independently in the eastern and western hemispheres. Review of the features that distinguish the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica from preceding village farming groups shows, however, that many are present in the earlier Shang civilization of China. If Olmec civilization originated from a transpacific stimulus, this has important implications both for reconstruction of New World cultural development and for formulation of a valid theory of the evolution of civilization.18
MODERATOR: The quotes from the non Latter-day Saint scholars in this panel are not intended to imply endorsement of the Book of Mormon, nor do they imply that these writers intend for their material to substantiate the historicity of the book of Mormon.
In regards to commentary from Latter-day Saints as taken from their written material and personal conversations, one should not conclude that the order of appearance in the panel is dictated by them. The placement of the quotes is simply to provide a dialogue.
We would like to thank our panel members for their input on the subject of migrations to Mesoamerica and the landing site of Lehi and his colony.
1. Sorenson, John L., An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, Utah; Deseret Book Company and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985, pp. xvi-xvii.
2. Williams, Frederick G. III, Did Lehi Land in Chile? Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988, p. 1.
3. Roberts, B.H., New Witnesses for God, volume 3, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Deseret News, 1909, pp. 501-502.
4. Times and Seasons, volume 3, September 15, 1842, pp. 921-922.
5. Norman, V. Garth, Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
6. Warren, Bruce W., Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
7. Sorenson, John L., An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, Utah; Deseret Book Company and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985, pp. 138-139.
8. Palmer, David A., Brigham Young University Studies, volume 30, number 3, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1990, p. 138.
9. Norman, V. Garth, Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
10. Tvedtnes, John A., Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
11. Hauck, F. Richard, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988, pp. 87-88.
12. Norman, V. Garth, Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
13. Warren, Bruce W., Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
14. Warren, Bruce W., Personal Conversation with Joseph L. Allen, 1991.
15. Sorenson, John L., An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, Utah; Deseret Book Company and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985, pp. 146.
16. Coe, Michael D., The Maya, fourth edition, fully revised, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, pp. 45-46.
17. Kelley, David H., The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, Palo Alto, California: Daily Press, 1969, pg. 168.
18. Meggers, Betty J., “The Transpacific Origin of Mesoamerican Civilization: A Preliminary Review of the Evidence and its Theoretical Implications,” American Anthropologist
, volume 77, number 1, March 1975, p. 1.
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