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Mesoamerican Fortifications and the Book of Mormon


This page is a supplement to my Book of Mormon Evidences page. If you aren't familiar with the Book of Mormon, please see my "Book of Mormon Introduction" page and get your own free copy at Mormon.org.

In this page, I discuss the recent discoveries in Mesoamerica which have caused a complete paradigm shift in the thinking of scholars. For many years, experts believed ancient Central America and southern Mexico (Mesoamerica) to have been a peaceful, tranquil place during the times that the Book of Mormon speaks of frequent, large-scale wars. Now it is known that warfare was relatively common. Further, the discoveries of ancient fortifications that fueled the paradigm shift are remarkably consistent with descriptions of fortifications given in the Book of Mormon. Together, the evidence about ancient warfare and fortifications in Mesoamerica strengthens the case for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text.

2004 Update: Photograph showing earthworks as apparent fortifications in Mesoamerica from the Early Classic period of the Mayans are available at http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial1.html and http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial2.html on the MayaRuins.com site.

Background: Why Mesoamerica?

Many people have asked why "unbiased" archaeologists have not come out in support of the Book of Mormon. Part of the problem is that few have understood what is needed to support or refute the book. Many people have made the assumption that the Book of Mormon claims to offer "the" history of "the" American Indians - as if there were a single culture with a single history. It most clearly does not. But those who assume that the Book of Mormon makes such an outlandish claim will quickly dismiss it because, obviously, there are many distinct population groups with many diverse origins. The problem is that critics aren't criticizing the book itself, but what they THINK the book is. Even some LDS writers have made such erroneous assumptions, resulting in shoddy "evidence" and contradictory conclusions. Comparing ancient artifacts to Book of Mormon scenes is of no value unless the artifacts are from the proper time and place, and unless the comparison is made with careful analysis of the data. Such has not been the case for some past popular works of Book of Mormon enthusiasts. On the other hand, professional archaeologists have frequently been no more rigorous in their work. John Sorensen explains (Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 28):
[T]he few professional archaeologists who have attempted such comparisons have often been mistaken on two counts: (1) they have been naive about the Book of Mormon itself - what it says and what it does not say; and (2) they have not adequately considered the archaeological details from the right time periods and in the most likely areas of ancient America. In fact, it has only been in the past few years that enough research has been done to create a reliable, plausible picture of events and characteristics of the proper times and places.
Examples of such errors can be seen in the widely circulated statements of Michael Coe about the lack of support for the Book of Mormon. Coe's conclusions are based on his initial assumption that the Book of Mormon describes events throughout the entire New World. Any meaningful discussion of Book of Mormon plausibility must begin with a careful understanding of what the text says. As Sorenson and many others have shown in recent years, the Book of Mormon deals with an extremely limited geography, on the order of a few hundred miles in extend, rather than covering all of North and South America. Further, the Book of Mormon is a record maintained by one particular line of people in one small ethnic group, and was intended not to provide a history but rather a religious text to teach people of the Messiah.

Much of the information we have about Book of Mormon geography is obtained in subtle clues and incidental details, rather than in detailed descriptions of where a city or village was. Those details, however, are sufficient to provide a plausible geographical setting for the book of Mormon using detailed maps of terrain. The only plausible area is that of Mesoamerica - southern Mexico and northern central America. This plausible setting also offers no major problems in terms of fitting in with the cultural and climatic milieu of ancient Mesoamerica - which is what Sorenson has shown so well in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. That's not to say that anything is proven, but specific sites can be placed in reasonable relationships to each other and to Mesoamerican terrain. However, with professional archaeologists having long been misinformed about the nature of the Book of Mormon and its geographical scope, it is hardly surprising that professional archaeologists have not found much of value because they haven't know what to look for - and where - in terms of confirming or contradicting the account. That is beginning to change now, perhaps.

Mesoamerica is the only place with a definite ancient tradition of a written language. Over a dozen writing systems are known, some of which remain undeciphered, with evidence of writing going back to over 1000 years before Christ. No other area of North and South America has a tradition of written language, but written language is one of the most prominent features of Book of Mormon peoples. The Mesoamerica area also fits many of the geographical features given in the Book of Mormon, including features (and the absence of such features in some places) like mountains, passes, waters, rivers, basins, in reasonable and plausible relationship to each other. Cultural details, such as patterns of war, the ancient presence of secret societies and trade networks, building materials, etc., are also consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions.

As parallels between ancient Mesoamerican society and the Book of Mormon continue to be noted, some critics have taken the approach that Joseph Smith could have known all about Mesoamerica based on nineteenth century writings. The reality is that even if Joseph could have had access to the finest libraries, which he did not, what little he might have gleaned would not have been very helpful. (See my article, "What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?." For the issue of whether Joseph could have plagiarized available materials to come up with his description of fortifications, see my Mormon Answers page, "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Modern Sources?.")

To examine whether the Book of Mormon is plausible, we must turn our attention to ancient Mesoamerica. Archaeological progress in this area is still in its infancy compared to the extensive work in Israel, for example. Multiple ancient cultures, languages, and writing systems existed, but only a few aspects are understood in any depth.

On this page, we will focus on the issue of warfare in particular, where long-held scholarly opinions and the Book of Mormon have clashed - until recently.

Mesoamerican Fortifications and the Book of Mormon

Insight into the infant nature of archaeological understanding of central America is found in reviewing the issue of warfare. For decades, scholars thought ancient Mesoamerica was a peaceful place, especially in the Classic era of 300 AD to 800 AD, in contrast to the many wars described by the Book of Mormon in its concluding pages, roughly covering 300-400 AD. It wasn't until the 1970s that a paradigm shift began among scholars. Today, scholars recognize that warfare was a common part of life during that era. An important discovery helped bring about the change in understanding. In 1970, researchers from Tulane University discovered a huge defensive fortification at Becan in the Yucatan Peninsula. The center of the site is surrounded by a fortification - a ditch - that is nearly 2 kilometers long and roughly 16 meters wide. (Aerial photos of Becan sites are available at http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial1.html and http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial2.html.) Dirt had been piled to make a ridge on the inner side of the ditch. This fortification dates to 150 AD to 450 AD, which fits into Book of Mormon times. David Webster of Tulane describes how he thinks the fortification worked: "To throw 'uphill' from the outside is almost impossible. Defenders, possibly screened by a palisade, could have rained long-distance missiles on approaching enemies using spearthrowers and slings." (David L. Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Mayan Warfare , Tulane University, Middle American Research Institute, Publication 41, 1976, p. 108, as cited by John L. Sorensen, Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 33.

Compare a Book of Mormon account (Alma 49:18-20) from around 70 B.C. with the description of Dr. Webster above:

18 Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance.

19 And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them.

20 Thus they were prepared, yea, a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security by the place of entrance; and thus were they prepared to defend themselves against the Lamanites.

Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon used such fortifications throughout Nephite lands, as explained in Alma 50:1-4 (ca. 72 to 60 B.C.):
1 And now it came to pass that Moroni did not stop making preparations for war, or to defend his people against the Lamanites; for he caused that his armies should commence in the commencement of the twentieth year of the reign of the judges, that they should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites.

2 And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man, round about the cities.

3 And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high.

4 And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them.

5 And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city.

6 Thus Moroni did prepare strongholds against the coming of their enemies, round about every city in all the land.

A related description is in Alma 533-5:
3 And it came to pass that after the Lamanites had finished burying their dead and also the dead of the Nephites, they were marched back into the land Bountiful; and Teancum, by the orders of Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land, or the city, Bountiful.

4 And he caused that they should build a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch; and they cast up dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers; and thus they did cause the Lamanites to labor until they had encircled the city of Bountiful round about with a strong wall of timbers and earth, to an exceeding height.

5 And this city became an exceeding stronghold ever after; and in this city they did guard the prisoners of the Lamanites; yea, even within a wall which they had caused them to build with their own hands. Now Moroni was compelled to cause the Lamanites to labor, because it was easy to guard them while at their labor; and he desired all his forces when he should make an attack upon the Lamanites.

The breakthrough discoveries of Webster and others at Tulane University were soon followed by related findings which fueled a paradigm shift in our understanding of the prevalence of warfare in ancient Mesoamerica. Other findings have confirmed the use of palisaded fortifications (palisade = fence of "pales" or pointed sticks made as a defensive barrier, according to the American Heritage Dictionary), ditches, and earthen walls. John Sorenson summarizes these Mesoamerican findings as of 1984:
More than one hundred fortified sites are now known. Ray Matheny's work at Edzna revealed a large, moated fortress dating to around the time of Christ [1]. Loma Torremote in the Valley of Mexico was a palisaded hilltop settlement by about 400 B.C. [2] Part of the three kilometers of defensive walls at famous Monte Alban dates before 200 B.C. [3] The core of Los Naranjos in western Honduras was entirely surrounded by a big ditch sometime between 1000 and 500 B.C. [4] Besides the actual sites, graphic art, remains of weapons, and warrior figurines have been found for many periods. So have stone walls. (Compare Alma 48:8) [5] And the public skull-rack (Aztec tzompantli), used at the time of the Conquest by the Aztecs to strike fear into the hearts of potential rebels against their military control, has now been found in Cuicatlan Valley of Oaxaca dating from before the time of Christ. [6]

"Increasingly, it is apparent that war practices in use when the Europeans arrived go back to the very early history of Mesoamerica. Yet as late as ten years ago, most of the published descriptions of early life in the area directly contradicted this view."
(Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 33.)

References cited by Sorenson:
1. Ray T. Matheny, D. L. Gurr, D. W. Forsyth, F. R. Hauck, Investigations at Edzna, Campeche, Mexico, Vol. 1, Part 1: The Hydraulic System (Brigham Young University, New World Archaeological Foundation, Paper 46, 1983), pp. 169-191.
2. "Current Research," American Antiquity, 45 (1980), p. 622.
3. Richard E. Blanton and S. A. Kowalewski, "Monte Alban and after in the Valley of Oaxaca," in J.A. Sabloff, ed., Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 1, Archaeology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 100.
4. Claude F. Baudez and Pierre Becquelin, Etudes Mesoameriques, Vol. 2, Archaeologie de los Naranjos, (Mexico: Mission Archaeologique et Ethnologique Francaise au Mexique, 1973), pp. 3-4.
5. Angel Palerm, "notas sobras las Construcciones Militares u la Guerra en Mesoamerica," Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, (Mexico), 7 (1956), p. 129; and Webster, op. cit., p. 98.
6. Charles S. Spencer and Else M. Redmond, "Formative and Classic Developments in the Cuicatlan Canada: A Preliminary Report," in Robert D. Drennan, ed., Prehistoric Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Area of the Tehuacan Valley: Some Results of the Palo Blanco Project, University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology Technical Reports, no. 11 (Research Reports in Archaeology, Contribution 6), 1979, p. 211.

Further support comes from other recent discoveries about palisade-like structures. Richard Hauck, who is LDS, describes a finding in a Guatemalan valley near Coban which he tentatively correlates to a Book of Mormon location ("Ancient Fortifications and the Land of Manti," This People, Summer 1994, pp. 46-55). He describes how easy it has been for researchers to overlook the remnants of dirt and timber structures, but discusses the trenches, the soil changes, the growth of aligned trees, and other clues that point to their previous existence. The site he discovered, in addition to extensive arrays of palisades, also had an identifiable long and narrow pass, consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions, lined with palisades for a long distance, apparently presenting the only way into the fortified area. Attacking armies entering the pass would be prey to defenders along the palisades. Although the identification of Hauck's site with the land or city of Manti is debatable, there continues to be strong evidence that the military fortifications described in the Book of Mormon are consistent with the most recent discoveries in Mesoamerica - and inconsistent with long-held "expert" opinion prior to the radical paradigm shift that began in the 1970s.

Joseph Smith had no military experience when the Book of Mormon was published (apart from being threatened by mobs and thugs). Certainly forts of timber were built by armies in the early days of the United States, but I am unaware of anything quite like the trench and palisade systems described in the Book of Mormon that Joseph would have known about and could have borrowed from his own experience to fabricate the Book of Mormon. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the war chapters in the Book of Mormon reveals that the battles there are quite foreign to anything a farm boy in New York would have experienced. The accuracy of realistic detail, problems with logistics, rebellion, prisoners of war, morale, spies, etc., reflect authorship by someone intimately familiar with real ancient battle. Accurately describing ancient fortifications in Mesoamerica is just one tiny part of the military mosaic that reflects ancient authorship of the Book of Mormon. And again, recall that the whole idea of significant warfare in ancient Mesoamerica was dismissed by the experts until about 20 years ago. As always, the more we dig into the Book of Mormon, the stronger it becomes. Time continues to erode rather than fortify the many attacks against it.


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Last Updated: June 16, 2004
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