Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #18:
Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon:
What Could Joseph Smith Have Gleaned?

Overview

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), one of the world's greatest travelers and explorers, generated a vast amount of scientific and anthropological information about the Americas, particularly South America and Mexico. Originally written in French or German, several of his works were translated into English and published before the publication of the Book of Mormon. Though his rather tedious writings had relatively little impact on popular knowledge of the Americas in his day, critics often cite von Humboldt as a source of information that Joseph could have used to generate important concepts in the Book of Mormon. However, a simple review of the works of von Humboldt should convince anybody that he was not a source for the Book of Mormon. The precious few references he makes to ancient civilizations provides nothing more than a few mere hints scattered over many hundreds of pages. And if Joseph had tried to borrow from von Humboldt, Joseph missed numerous rich sources of information that could have been used to lend apparent credibility to the text. Further, von Humboldt even contradicts major premises of the Book of Mormon, clearly stating that the Indians were of Asiatic origin, not Hebraic origin. While von Humboldt is cited by Ethan Smith, who tries to force von Humboldt's evidence into his belief that the Indians came from the 10 lost tribes, even Ethan Smith's interpretation of von Humboldt is also not to be found in the Book of Mormon. There is little merit to the oft-repeated suggestion that basic information about ancient civilizations in the Book of Mormon could have come from von Humboldt. (Also see my page on pre-1830 sources for information about the plates, particularly noting the information toward the end about the impact of John Lloyd Stephens and the information sources that led him to explore Mesoamerica.)

Ethan Smith and von Humboldt made references to the existence of ancient civilizations that built cities, roads, and temples, and used hieroglyphics to record information. Thus, it would have been possible for a studious Joseph Smith to have known of those very general facts--but very few Americans knew this, and a popular understanding of the existence of ancient advanced civilizations in the Americas would remain largely unknown in the popular mind until the publication of later works, after the Book of Mormon was published.

If Joseph Smith had turned to Ethan Smith or von Humboldt for guidance, he would have found large amounts of information that could have been worked into the text to make it consistent with the latest scholarship of his day. He could have followed Ethan Smith by having the lost ten tribes come to the Americas by the Bering Strait. He could have followed von Humboldt by having Asiatic peoples migrate to the Americas from the Bering Strait. He could have included any one of dozens of supposed proofs of Hebrew origins from Ethan Smith, or included any of the hundreds of scientific details provided by von Humboldt. He could have followed Ethan Smith in linking Quetzalcoatl to Moses, or he could have followed von Humboldt in describing him as the Mexican Buddha, a political leader who arose hundreds of years after Christ. All of these leads are ignored or contradicted by the Book of Mormon. If Joseph needed information to plagiarize, he simply failed to get any help from these sources.

Introduction

Many Book of Mormon critics have suggested that Joseph Smith might have gleaned useful information about the ancient Americas from the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, the famous European explorer and scientist described his journeyings through the Americas at great length.

Sandra Tanner, for example, cites von Humboldt as a potential source of information (see "Where Did Joseph Smith Get His Ideas for the Book of Mormon?" at http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/bomindianorigins.htm) as follows:

Humboldt, Alexander, three different books on American Indian; one 4 vol. set was titled Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. Baltimore, 1813.

Describes Mexican fortifications and temples, use of metals.

She also points to citations of von Humboldt in Ethan Smith's work, View of the Hebrews; or the Tribes of Israel in America (Poultney, VT, 1823 and 1825):
Ethan Smith's is by far the most important and interesting work dealing with the origin of the American Indians and the mound builders. Suggests that the first settlers of the New World were the lost ten tribes of Israel. Includes extracts from von Humboldt's description of Mexican antiquities, Atwater's description of the mounds, and evidence from Adair and Boudinot to connect Indians with the lost ten tribes. He also mentions the Indian legend of the lost book of God, which would one day be returned.
While there is no evidence that Joseph had any exposure to Ethan Smith's work, and no credible hint that anything from Ethan Smith influenced the Book of Mormon (see my page, "The Book of Mormon: Stolen from Modern Writings?," where I also address the works of James Adair), Ethan Smith's work remains the anti-Mormons' lead candidate ("by far the most important") for a supposed source for the Book of Mormon, and von Humboldt is one of the major sources for Ethan Smith.

Von Humboldt is particularly important because he is one of the few sources theoretically available to Joseph Smith (via English translations or via Ethan Smith) that dealt with Mesoamerica, the region that is now widely viewed as the only plausible candidate for the location of Book of Mormon civilizations. Von Humboldt did not describe the Indians of upstate New York, or the mound builders of the Mississippi, but went to Mexico ("New Spain") and South America, describing peoples and places that would have been entirely foreign to Joseph Smith.

Latter-day Saints have pointed out how the civilizations in the Book of Mormon have little to do with the Indians that Joseph Smith might have known about in his part of the world, and are much more at home with what we know about Mesoamerica (e.g., building of major cities and temples, the existence of written languages, volcanic activity near the time of Christ, large markets, a stratified society with merchants, lawyers, priests, nobility, etc.--see my Book of Mormon Evidences page). And we have pointed out that based on popular knowledge of Mesoamerica in Joseph's day, he probably could have known almost nothing of the region. However, the critics note that books discussing aspects of the Americas, including ancient Mexico, had been printed before 1830--books like View of the Hebrews and some of von Humboldt's works. Couldn't he have gotten useful information from them?

So how much could Joseph have known? For general information, see "What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?" More specifically, let us see what Joseph could have written about Mesoamerica if he had access to the works of von Humboldt, either the original massive volumes or the portions that were discussed by Ethan Smith.

Mesoamerica, the Book of Mormon, and von Humboldt:
Alleged Parallels

If the poorly educated farmboy, Joseph Smith, had amassed a vast frontier library containing the works of von Humboldt and many other alleged sources of the Book of Mormon--a fantasy that some critics almost seem to presume as fact--then surely his burgeoning staff of researchers would have been delighted to sift through von Humboldt and find many interesting tidbits to add scientific plausibility to the Book of Mormon. Von Humboldt was focused on the scientific aspects of the Americas, measuring almost everything, and reporting at great length the intricate details of the plants, animals, terrain, and climate he encountered. If Joseph was studiously plagiarizing the best available sources, surely the critics could point to specific items from von Humboldt that are found in the Book of Mormon. But the parallels don't show up.

Further below, I will explore specific citations from von Humboldt that pertain to ancient America and the origins of the Indians to examine what Joseph could have gleaned. But first, let's see what alleged parallels the critics can offer.

The Tanners point to von Humboldt's reference to metals. Yes, certainly, he discusses gold and silver and mining operations, and yes, gold and silver (and other metals) are mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but there is nothing to point to von Humboldt as some kind of source for this information--the numerous details von Humboldt provides are not in the Book of Mormon. Temples are mentioned, but nothing to guide a fabricator of the Book of Mormon. The Tanners also point to von Humboldt's mention of ancient cities and monuments, but it is terribly difficult to see anything specific that could be relevant to the Book of Mormon.

However, one anti-Mormon text goes so far as to declare that von Humboldt described "the same basic plot" as the Book of Mormon (the reference was www.mac-2001.com/philo/crit/MORMON.TXT -- this page appears to have died shortly after I first called attention to the following quote, but you can see an archived version at www.archive.org):

In A VIEW OF THE HEBREWS, the author quoted the German explorer Baron von Humboldt, who held: "Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long laboured to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them" (p 184). (Note, this is the same basic plot as exists in the BOOK OF MORMON.)
There you have it: von Humboldt, via Ethan Smith, provides "the basic plot" of the Book of Mormon: a civilization that fell and become savage hunters. What more do you need to see that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized?

Strangely but typically, the anti-Mormon author seems not to have read the Book of Mormon, or at least not to have read it carefully. Savage behavior and hunting was present from the beginning of the Book of Mormon, exemplified by Laman and Lemuel and their followers, with the formal elements of advanced civilization rising later among the Nephites and eventually among both groups. The eventual fall of the Nephites is not portrayed as a loss of the trappings of civilization in the Americas, but a loss of a minority group. As the Book of Mormon closes, the remaining Lamanite groups, though engaged in wars and idolatry, were still part of advanced civilizations with the gifts of writing, political organization, broad commerce, building of cities, religious rituals, and so forth. The Book of Mormon does not describe the rise of nomadic hunters in North America.

But not only has the author failed to study the Book of Mormon, he also deftly demonstrates his ignorance of both View of the Hebrews and the works of von Humboldt. Regarding the passage I quoted above, von Humboldt never made any such statement. In fact, von Humboldt openly criticized those who pointed to parallels with the Old World as evidence for a Hebrew origin of the American Indians; instead, he felt the evidence most strongly pointed to Asiatic origins. The quotation above regarding Israel bringing "a considerable degree of civilization" to this continent comes from Ethan Smith, who is trying to use von Humboldt's observations to buttress Smith's arguments for Hebraic origins. Had the anti-Mormon author actually read Ethan Smith or von Humboldt, a different conclusion would have been reached. This is the problem with many anti-Mormon writers who simply regurgitate tired old arguments without checking the sources.

To better understand if Ethan Smith's reference to von Humboldt really helps explain anything about Book of Mormon origins, here is the context of the passage from Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews, the second edition, 1825, pp. 139-140, with the previously cited passage highlighted:

"So great a number of indigenous inhabitants (he [von Humboldt] adds) undoubtedly proves the antiquity of the cultivation of this country. ... From the 7th to the 13th century, population seems in general to have continually flowed towards the south. From the regions situated south of the Rio Gila, issued forth those warlike nations, who successively inundated the country of Anahuac.--The hieroglyphical tables of the Aztees have transmitted to us the memory of the principal epochs of the great migrations among the Americans." This traveller [von Humboldt] goes on to speak of those Indian migrations from the north, as bearing a resemblance to the inundations of the barbarous hordes of Goths and Vandals from the north of Europe, and overwhelming the Roman empire, in the fifth century. He adds; "The people, however, who traversed Mexico, left behind them traces of cultivation and civilization. The Taultees appeared first in the year 648; the Chichimecks in 1170; the Nahualtees in 1178; the Acolhues and Aztees, in 1196. The Taultees introduced the cultivation of maize and cotton; they built cities, made roads, and constructed those great pyramids, which are yet admired, and of which the faces are very accurately laid out. They knew the use of hieroglyphical paintings; they could found metals, and cut the hardest stones. And they had a solar year more perfect than that of the Greeks and Romans. The form of their government indicated that they were descendants of a people who had experienced great vicissitudes in their social state. But where (he adds) is the source of that cultivation? Where is the country from which the Taultees and Mexicans issued?"

No wonder these questions should arise in the highly philosophical mind of this arch investigator. Had he known the present theory of their having descended from ancient Israel; it seems as though his difficulties might at once have obtained relief. These accounts appear most strikingly to favour our hypothesis. Here we account for all the degrees of civilization and improvements existing in past ages among the natives of those regions. How perfectly consentaneous are these facts stated, with the scheme presented in the preceding pages, that Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long laboured to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions! Their hieroglyphical records, paintings and knowledge of the solar year, (let it be repeated and remembered) agree to nothing that could have descended from the barbarous hordes of the north-east of Europe, and north of Asia; but they well agree with the ancient improvements and state of Israel.

The highlighted words are those of Ethan Smith, and he is offering a viewpoint that is at odds with von Humboldt.

The passage from Ethan Smith contains some of the most fertile information about ancient Mesoamerica in all of the writings of von Humboldt. How useful might it have been to someone trying to craft the Book of Mormon on their own? Ethan Smith, citing von Humboldt, does refer to ancient cities and roads and pyramids. Pyramids are not indicated in the Book of Mormon, but cities and roads are. (Why not mention pyramids to add authenticity, if Joseph were plagiarizing from Ethan Smith or von Humboldt?) There is reference to hieroglyphics for keeping records. And one group wiped out another group. These general outlines provide a tiny glimpse into Mesoamerica, but do little to explain the Book of Mormon.

Importantly, the ancient Mesoamerican peoples of whom von Humboldt writes came from the north, not by boat from Israel, and entered Mexico beginning several centuries after the Book of Mormon ends. Ethan Smith notes this on page 159 of View of the Hebrews:

And their coming from the north-west to Mexico, indicates to what region, and in what direction, they came; over Beering's straits into America, and southward through the continent. This accords with the testimonies of Robinson, Humbolt, and all the most intelligible writers of Indian tradition. All bring them from the north-west coasts of America. (emphasis mine)
If Joseph were plagiarizing from Ethan Smith, von Humboldt, or others in tune with the latest knowledge of his day, Joseph would surely have stuck with the respectable Bering strait theory. But Joseph shows no demonstrable influence from such sources.

If Ethan Smith is not a source of the Book of Mormon, as I show elsewhere, von Humboldt does not present a more plausible candidate.

Another anti-Mormon page (http://www.antimormon.8m.com/esmithintro.html) lists Ethan Smith's citations of von Humboldt's 1811 New Spain (translated by John Black) as a potential source for key concepts. Here is how the parallels are presented:

 

BOOK OF MORMON
1830

 

VIEW OF THE HEBREWS
1823 and 1825

. . .. . .
     (3) Revealed Existence of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith September 22, 1823

    Gold plates of Book of Mormon given into custody of Joseph Smith for, translation. September 22. 1827.

     Book of Mormon published the latter part of March, 1830. "To the convincing of the Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.'' (Title page.)

     (3) View of the Hebrews published (First Edition), 1823.

    Second Edition published 1925 [sic - 1825 is meant]; considerably enlarged by quotations from Baron Humboldt's New Spain (Black's translation) American Edition. 1811. Copious quotations on ruined cities of America, temples, and the story of Quetzalcoatl-reminiscent of Moses "as a type of the Christ."

We will deal later with Von Humboldt's allegedly "copious" (actually very terse, sparse, and hard to find!) descriptions of ruined cities and temples. For now, let us consider the allegation that von Humboldt discussed Quetzalcoatl as a type of Christ. Might Joseph have been guided by von Humboldt's treatment of Quetzalcoatl when he concocted the story of Christ's visit to America? There is nothing in von Humboldt to lead to such a hypothesis. In Chapter 23 of Volume 2 of the Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, translated and edited by Thomasina Ross (London: George Bell & Sons, 1907), von Humboldt explains what he knows of Quetzalcoatl:

This mysterious personage is the Mexican Buddha; he appeared in the time of the Toltecs, founded the first religious associations, and established a government similar to that of Meroe and of Japan.
The time of the Toltecs, according to von Humboldt, is after the sixth century, too late to be mistaken for a visit from Christ. If Joseph wanted anything in Mexico to fit the Book of Mormon, he needed to pick a much later time frame, if von Humboldt were to have any influence. He also missed the opportunity to add an "authentic detail" from the same Chapter regarding the worship of stones by the natives, especially green stones associated with Quetzalcoatl.

If Joseph had obtained information about Quetzalcoatl from Ethan Smith, on the other hand, he would identify him with Moses and with body piercing. There is no hint that Quetzalcoatl was Christ or that Christ visited the Americas. Here is the relevant passage from Ethan Smith (pp. 156-159):

On the pyramid of Cholula was an altar dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, or the serpent of green feathers; as the name imports. Of their tradition relative to this Quetzalcoatl, the writer says; "this is the most mysterious being of the whole Mexican mythology." An account is then given of this person, sufficiently indeed intermixed with fables; as is usual in the pagan mythologies of events even founded on revelation. Passing over various of the immaterial fictions, I will sketch the leading points of the picture.

The character to whom their most noted altar was dedicated, whose name imported a serpent of green feathers; was at the same time (in their own description) "a white and bearded man." "He was high priest of Tula, legislator, chief of a religious sect who inflicted on themselves the most cruel penance."

"He introduced the custom of piercing the lips and ears; and lacerating the rest of the body with prickles and thorns." "He appeased by his penance divine wrath." "A great famine prevailed in the province of Culan."

"The saint (this legislator) had chosen his place of retirement on the volcano Catcitepetl, or speaking mountain, where he walked barefoot on agave leaves armed with prickles."

"The reign of Quetzalcotl was a golden age of the people of Anahuac. The earth brought forth without culture the most fruitful harvests. But this reign was not of long duration."

"The Great Spirit offered Quetzalcotl beverage, which in rendering him immortal, inspired him with a taste for travelling, and with an irresistible desire of visiting a distant country called Tlapallan."

In passing "towards the plains of Cholula and thence to the eastern coasts of Mexico while making his way from the north-west to the south-east, "he yielded to the entreaties of the inhabitants, who offered him the reins of government." He dwelt twenty years among them, taught them to cast metals, ordered fasts, and regulated the intercalations of the Taltic year."

"He preached peace to men, and would permit no other offerings to the Divinity than the first fruits of the harvests."

"He disappeared, after he had declared to the Cholulans that he would return and govern them again, and renew their happiness."

The writer of the Archaeology says; "It was the posterity of this saint whom the unhappy Montezuma (the most noted and venerable Mexican chief when the Spaniards first arrived at Mexico) thought he recognized in the soldiers of Cortez, the Spanish general. 'We know by our books,' (said Montezuma, in his first interview with that Spanish general,) 'that myself and those who inhabit this country, are not natives, but strangers, who came from a great distance. We know also, that the chief who led our ancestors hither, returned for a certain time to his primitive country. We have always believed that his descendants would one day come to take possession of this country. Since you arrive from that region where the sun rises; and as you assure me you have long known us; I cannot doubt but that the king who sent you is our natural master." (p. 263.) It has generally been the fact, that events in pagan mythology, which are founded on ancient revelation, have yet been confused, and blended with much fable. Much of the mythology of the heathen is thought to be of this character. Some of the events can easily be traced to ancient revelation; while others are so fabulous, that to reduce them to such an origin is more difficult. While considerable fable is involved in this historic tradition of the Cholulans; it appears to offer a singular facility to trace it to the inspired records of Israel.

Though their ancient "legislator" is called by a name importing the serpent of green feathers; yet he was an ancient man, a white man and bearded; called by Montezuma, a saint who led them to this country, and taught them many things. Who could this be but Moses, the ancient legislator in Israel? The Indians in other regions have brought down a tradition, that their former ancestors, away in a distant region from which they came, were white. And the Cholulans, it seems, teach that they wore their beards; which was the fact; in opposition to the Indians, who pluck them out with their tweezers. How exactly does Moses answer to this their ancient legislator, and chief of their religious community, as may appear.

As Moses inducted into office Aaron, the high priest; so this office, in their mythology, is blended in him. I will remark upon these points in their order. This religious community, under their "legislator and chief," inflicting on themselves cruel penance, may be but a traditional notion of the strictness of the Mosaic laws and religion.

The name of the serpent of the green plumage being given to this legislator, leads the mind to Moses' brazen serpent in the wilderness; and now in Indian tradition, adorned with their most noted amulet, and article of "medicine," the green plumage. This has ever been the most precious article known in their holy ark, and their "medicine bag," through various tribes. Hence it is their most natural emblem of the healing power annexed to the ancient brazen serpent made by Moses; and thus annexed to the name given to him.

This legislator and chief's introducing the custom of "piercing the ears;"-reminds of the noted law of Moses, of boring the ear of the servant who was unwilling to leave his master.

This teaching to lacerate the body with prickles and thorns, is a striking Hebrew figure of the many self-denying services demanded in the Mosaic rituals.

His appeasing divine wrath, may have a striking allusion to the system of the Mosaic sacrifices, including also the mediation of Moses as a type of Christ, and God's turning away his fierce wrath from Israel at his intercession, as was repeatedly the case.

The great famine in Culan naturally reminds of the great famine in Canaan and its adjacent nations; which famine brought Israel into Egypt.

This legislator's retiring to the place of a volcano, and a speaking mountain, most naturally leads the mind to Moses retiring, in the land of Midian, to the backside of the wilderness, to the mount of God, where God spake to him in the burning bush, and in after days made the mountain appear like a tremendous volcano indeed, as well as like a speaking mountain;--when from the midst of the terrible fire, and sound of the trumpet, God commanded his people in the giving of the law.

This legislator's walking barefoot; naturally alludes to Moses' "putting his shoes from his feet," at the divine direction, before the burning bush.

The golden age, with spontaneous harvests, naturally suggests the seven years of plenty in Egypt; and may include also (and especially) the happy period during the theocracy in Israel; and the vast fruitfulness of the land which flowed with milk and honey, while the people of Israel walked with God.

His preaching peace to men, and "offering to the Divinity the first fruits of the harvests," alludes to the preaching of the gospel under the Old Testament; and to the signal institution of the offerings of the first ripe fruits; a rite which the various tribes of Indians have most scrupulously maintained; as has been made to appear.

His yielding to the entreaties of the people who offered him the reins of government, and his teaching them useful things, may be a general traditional view of Moses' government of Israel, and the benefits resulting from it. They would naturally ascribe whatever knowledge of the useful arts, and of astronomy, they had, to this their noted chieftain.

The close of this golden age strikingly exhibits the expulsion of Israel from that happy land.

The giving of the beverage; which rendered immortal, is an impressive representation of the immortality of the human soul, as taught in ancient revelation.

And the producing of an ardent desire for transmigration to a distant region of the world, is a most natural tradition of the fact, that Israel were disposed to emigrate (and did indeed emigrate) from the station in Media where they were first lodged when carried from Canaan, to some remote and unknown part of the world, where they were outcast and lost from the knowledge of civilized man; as has been the fact.

Digging Deeper into von Humboldt

To understand what Joseph could have gleaned from von Humboldt about the ancient inhabitants of the American continents, I have pored through his works. He rarely provides any discussion of ancient times, and offers very little information about the remnants of the ancient civilizations that once ruled the land. He does describe some of the surviving monuments, especially the great pyramids of Mesoamerica, but even his observations did little to overcome the popular misunderstanding about the lack of civilization in the ancient Americas. The significance of the ruins of the Mayans and Aztecs was not truly impressed upon the public mind until after the Book of Mormon published. But let's look at the relevant passages I have found, typically widely scattered among pages of dull description of plants, terrain, animals, and the society found in von Humboldt's day.

My sources for this work include:

Regarding ancient peoples and other issues relevant to the Book of Mormon, below I present the passages I have found beyond the ones previously discussed. None of these suggest that Joseph was guided by von Humboldt. Very typical of Humboldt's sparing treatment of the ancient inhabitants of the continent is the following passage from Political Essay, Chapter IV, "The Indians," pp. 48-49:

To get an accurate idea of the indigenous inhabitants of New Spain, it is not enough to paint them in their actual state of degradation and misery; we must go back to a remote period when, governed by its own laws, the nation could display is proper energy; and we must consult the hieroglyphic paintings, buildings of hewn stone, and works of sculpture still in preservation which, though they attest the infancy of the arts, bear a striking analogy to several monuments of the most civilized people. The nature of this work does not permit us to enter into such details, however interesting they may be, both for the history and the psychological study of our species. We shall merely point out here a few of the most prominent features of the immense picture of American indigenous population.
Here we have a mention of hieroglyphic paintings and buildings of stone, which, while consistent with the Book of Mormon, provide only minute glimpses into the ancient Americas. Von Humboldt notes that the details of the ancient people and their monuments are outside the scope of his work, which certainly accords with the light and passing treatment he gives them, being much more interested in the plants, animals, and current population.

Another relevant passage comes a few pages earlier (pp. 46-47) in the same source:

From the regions situated to the north of the Gila River issued forth those warlike nations who successively inundated the country of Anahuac. We are ignorant whether that was their primitive country or whether they originally came from Asia or the north-west coast of America. The hieroglyphic tables of the Aztecs have transmitted to us the memory of the principal epoch of the great migrations among the Americans. The migration bears some analogy to that which in the fifth century plunged Europe in a state of barbarism of which we yet feel the fatal effects in many of our social institutions. However, the people who traversed Mexico left behind them traces of cultivation and civilization. The Toltecs appeared first in 648, the Chichimecs in 1170, the Nahua in 1178, the Aztecs in 1196. The Toltecs introduced the cultivation of maize and cotton; they built cities, made roads, and constructed those great pyramids which are yet admired, and of which the faces are very accurately laid out. They knew the use of hieroglyphic paintings; they could found metals and cut the hardest stones; and they had a solar year more perfect than that of the Greeks and Romans. The form of their government indicated that they were the descendants of a people who had experienced great vicissitudes in their social state. But where is the source of that cultivation? Where is the country from which the Toltecs and Mexicans issued?

This is not the place to discuss the great problems of the Asiatic origin of the Toltecs or Aztecs. The general question of the first origin of the inhabitants of a continent is beyond the limits prescribed to history, and is not perhaps even a philosophical question. There undoubtedly existed other people in Mexico at the time when the Toltecs arrived there in the course of their migration, and therefore to assert that the Toltecs are an Asiatic race is not maintaining that all the Americans came originally from Tibet or oriental Siberia.

Again, we find information about the ancient inhabitants to be left open to speculation, though based on the remains he says that people in the seventh century A.D. and later built cities, roads, and pyramids. The existence of ancient cities and roads is consistent with the Book of Mormon, though pyramids are not mentioned and the dates given by von Humboldt do not pertain to Book of Mormon peoples. The Nephites kept track of dates, but the Book of Mormon does not indicate that there was unusual accuracy in calendar keeping. We have already noted that metal working and the use of hieroglyphic symbols is a feature of Mesoamerica consistent with the Book of Mormon.

Ethan Smith found such things as pyramids to be impressive evidence of Hebraic origins. While in Mexico and South America, von Humboldt heard speculation that Native American languages had ties to Hebrew. However, he criticized this theory and again pointed to Asiatic origins as being more plausible. Here is an excerpt from Personal Narrative of Travels, trans. by Thomasina Ross, Vol. 1, Chapter 9 (footnotes are indicated with asterisks and embedded in the text):

When we reflect on the peculiar structure of the American languages, we imagine we discover the source of the opinion generally entertained from the most remote time in the Missions, that these languages have an analogy with the Hebrew and the Biscayan. At the convent of Caripe as well as at the Orinoco, in Peru as well as in Mexico, I heard this opinion expressed, particularly by monks who had some vague notions of the Semitic languages. Did motives supposed to be favourable to religion, give rise to this extraordinary theory? In the north of America, among the Choctaws and the Chickasaws, travellers somewhat credulous have heard the strains of the Hallelujah* of the Hebrews (* L'Escarbot, Charlevoix, and even Adair (Hist. of the American Indians 1775).); as, according to the Pundits, the three sacred words of the mysteries of the Eleusis* (konx om pax) resound still in the Indies. (* Asiat. Res. volume 5, Ouvaroff on the Eleusinian Mysteries 1816.) I do not mean to suggest, that the nations of Latin Europe may have called whatever has a foreign physiognomy Hebrew or Biscayan, as for a long time all those monuments were called Egyptian, which were not in the Grecian or Roman style. I am rather disposed to think that the grammatical system of the American idioms has confirmed the missionaries of the sixteenth century in their ideas respecting the Asiatic origin of the nations of the New World. The tedious compilation of Father Garcia, Tratado del Origen de los Indios,* (* Treatise on the Origin of the Indians.) is a proof of this. The position of the possessive and personal pronouns at the end of the noun and the verb, as well as the numerous tenses of the latter, characterize the Hebrew and the other Semitic languages. Some of the missionaries were struck at finding the same peculiarities in the American tongues: they did not reflect, that the analogy of a few scattered features does not prove languages to belong to the same stock. [emphasis mine]
While Ethan Smith thought the Aztec calendar was also evidence of Hebraic roots, von Humboldt felt this was again due to contact with Asiatic nations, as we read in Political Essay, Chapter IV, "The Indians," pp. 54-55:
I do not mean to discuss here what the Mexicans were before the Spanish conquest; this interesting subject has been already entered upon in the commencement of this chapter. When we consider that they had an almost exact knowledge of the duration of the year, that they intercalated at the end of the great cycle of 104 years with more accuracy than the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, we are tempted to believe that this progress is not the effect of intellectual development of the Americans themselves, that they were indebted for it to their communication with some very cultivated nations of central Asia. The Toltecs appeared in New Spain in the seventh and the Aztecs in the twelfth century; and immediately drew up the geographical maps of the country traversed by them, constructed cities, highways, dikes, canals, and immense pyramids very accurately designed. Their feudal system, their civil and military hierarchy, were already so complicated that we must suppose a long succession of political events before the establishment of the singular concatenation of authorities of the nobility and clergy, and before a small portion of the people, themselves the slaves of the Mexican sultan, could have subjugated the great mass of the nation. We have examples of theocratical forms of government in South America in which despotism was concealed under the appearance of a gentle and patriarchal government. But in Mexico small colonies, wearied of tyranny, gave themselves republican constitutions. Now it is only after long popular struggles that these free constitutions can be formed. The existence of republics does not indicate a very recent civilization. How is it possible to doubt that a part of the Mexican nation had arrived at a certain degree of cultivation, when we reflect on the care with which their hieroglyphical books were composed, and when we recollect that a citizen of Tlaxcala, in the midst of the tumults of war, took advantage of the facility offered him by our Roman alphabet to write in his own language five large volumes on the history of a country of which he deplored the subjection?
The above passage also again mentions cities, highways and "hieroglyphical books," which are Book of Mormon elements, but also mentioned elements that are not present such as dikes, canals, and pyramids.

Another one of von Humboldt's few references to ancient peoples comes shortly after the previous quote (Political Essay, p. 56), and is particularly interesting because it mentions religious belief:

The change from old to new rites was the effect of constraint and not persuasion, and was produced by political events alone. In the new continent as well as in the old, half-civilized nations were accustomed to receive from the hands of the conqueror new laws and new divinities; the vanquished Indian gods appeared to them to yield to the gods of strangers. In such a complicated mythology as that of the Mexicans, it was easy to find an affinity between their divinities and the divinities of the east. The ritual books composed by the Indians at the beginning of the conquest, of which I possess several fragments, evidently show that at that period Christianity was confounded with the Mexican mythology; the Holy Ghost is identified with the sacred eagle of the Aztecs. The missionaries not only tolerated, they even favored to a certain extent this amalgamation of ideas by means of which the Christian worship was more easily introduced among the natives. They even persuaded them that the gospel had, in very remote times, been already preached in America; and they investigated its traces in the Aztec ritual with ardor.
This does raise the issue of Christianity among the ancient ancestors of the Aztecs, but von Humboldt indicates that Spanish missionaries were fabricating that notion to further their cause. It also mentions "ritual books," but these are said to be composed at the beginning of the conquest. It also provides the important clue that the eagle was a sacred symbol to the ancient Aztecs, and that missionaries tried to equate it with the Holy Ghost. Would not a Book of Mormon fabricator looking for facts to strengthen the plausibility of his fraudulent text wish to mention eagles as an important symbol to the ancient peoples in the book? But there is no mention of the eagle in the Book of Mormon.

In the original 1811 printings of the Political Essay, I found some additional material that I did not find in the abridged version. For example, there are also brief references to large statues and idols, statues covered with hieroglyphics, sacrificial stones, and the calendar stone in Political Essay, original printing, vol. 2, pp. 16-17. Then on page 18, von Humboldt again suggests a link to Asia:

Teocalli . . . the pyramidal form of this Mexican edifice, and its great analogy to the most ancient monuments of Asia, ought to interest us more than its mass and size.
The same source, page 19, speaks of "hieroglyphical manuscripts of the ancient Mexicans" and refers to a painting about a king killed on top of a truncated pyramid and thrown down the stairs that led to the "stone of the sacrificers," providing a hint about human sacrifice.

A reference to a great market is on page 19, and again, page 20 speaks of "the enormous magnitude of the market-place of Tlatelolco."

The same source (Political Essay, original printing, vol. 2) refers to Cortez on pages 314-315, who "told Emperor Charles V of the commodities sold in the great market of Tlaletolco--'There is sold,' says he, 'honey of bees and wax, honey from the stalks of maize, and honey from a shrub called maguey by the people. The natives make sugar of these plants, and this sugar they also sell." (So much for the allegation that honey in the Book of Mormon is an anachronism.)

"Ritual books composed by Indians in hieroglyphics" are mentioned in Political Essay, original printing, vol. 1, p. 124.

If Joseph were borrowing from von Humboldt, he might note that von Humboldt speaks of the "want of grains other than maize" (Political Essay, original printing, vol. 1, p. 102) rather than mention other grains such as barley.

Another reference to Asiatic origins is on page 101 of (Political Essay, original printing, vol. 1, when von Humboldt indicates that several authors "and more recent writers have made it appear extremely probably that old relations existed between Asia and America."

I found several other possible parallels in Vol. 2 of Personal Narrative, transl. Thomasina Ross. The existence of native legends about a great flood are mentioned on page 473, and "fair-complexioned tribes" not derived from modern Europeans are mentioned on pages 464-465. The "Great Spirit" is mentioned on page 474, along with Montezuma's mistaking of Cortez as Quetzalcoatl, returning from another shore. But von Humboldt offers no suggestion that Quetzalcoatl was Christ. Von Humboldt also mentions gardens (Political Essay, pp. 107-108), though it is not clear that these were had among the more ancient inhabitants, of whom almost nothing is ever said.

More significant than the few rare and scattered glimpses of the ancient Americas one can glean from von Humboldt are the numerous descriptions he provides of the peoples, their culture, and their environment. Hundreds of pages of details are provided that could have been a gold mine for a fabricator wishing to describe life in Mexico or South America, but von Humboldt's treasure trove was not raided by Joseph Smith.

Among the many interesting tidbits that a would-be fabricator could derive from the Political Essay are interesting descriptions of bananas, the vanilla bean (see pp. 123-127), tobacco, avocados, turkeys, macaws, peccaries, manioc, monkeys, mosquitos, the important agave plant (pp. 111-116), and so forth.

Further, von Humboldt teaches many things about the natives of Mexico and South America that seem to contradict the Book of Mormon. The Bering Strait theory of both Ethan Smith and von Humboldt has already been mentioned. For another example, the Book of Mormon has a famous story about Lamanite women going off to sing and dance (Mosiah 20), and has another story in which the evil daughter of a king named Jared danced before Akish to win him. But female dancing contradicts von Humboldt, who says that (political Essay, p. 58):

The women take no share in the dancing, but they remain present to offer fermented draughts to the dancers, prepared by their own hands.
By the way, elsewhere von Humboldt also discusses at length the alcoholic beverages made by the natives of Mexico from the agave plant (Political Essay, pp. 111-116), which supports the often criticized mention of alcoholic beverages in the Book of Mormon. The liquor of the agave is even called a type of wine (a "vinous beverage, which resembles cider," p. 113). It appears that such beverages were an established part of Mexican culture when the Spaniards arrived. But again, there is no hint that this minor element was somehow derived from von Humboldt.

Also of interest is Ethan Smith's insistence, supposedly based on von Humboldt, that Native Americas did not practice idolatry. This may have been consistent with Joseph's observations of Native Americans as well. But the Book of Mormon indicates that idolatry was present among ancient Book of Mormon peoples, and this practice was also abundantly manifest among the Aztecs and others. On this matter, as with many others, the Book of Mormon departs from what Joseph could have known, but agrees with what is now known about ancient Mesoamerica.

Ethan Smith also mentions Humbolt in one additional context, grouped with another source (View of the Hebrews, pp. 129-130):

But that the people who first migrated to this western world did possess some knowledge of the mechanic arts, (as much doubtless, as was possessed by Israel when they disappeared in the east) appears from incontestible facts, which are furnished in Baron Humbolt, and in the American Archaeology, such as the finding of brick, earthen ware, sculptures, some implements of iron, as well as other metals, and other tokens of considerable improvement; which furnish an argument in favour of the Indians having descended from the ten tribes. For the ancient Scythians, and people of the north east of Asia, had no such degree of civilization at the time the Indians must have reached this land. Hence they could not have been from them.
Here we find reference to iron, which is also mentioned a few times in the Book of Mormon.

Among his introductory comments, von Humboldt also stated (Personal Narrative of Travels, Vol. 1):

This work is intended to represent a few of the grand scenes which nature presents in the lofty chain of the Andes, and at the same time to throw some light on the ancient civilization of the Americans, through the study of their monuments of architecture, their hieroglyphics, their religious rites, and their astrological reveries. I have given in this work a description of the teocalli, or Mexican pyramids, and have compared their structure with that of the temple of Belus. I have described the arabesques which cover the ruins of Mitla, the idols in basalt ornamented with the calantica of the heads of Isis; and also a considerable number of symbolical paintings, representing the serpent-woman (the Mexican Eve), the deluge of Coxcox, and the first migrations of the natives of the Aztec race. I have endeavoured to prove the striking analogies existing between the calendar of the Toltecs and the catasterisms of their zodiac, and the division of time of the people of Tartary and Thibet, as well as the Mexican traditions on the four regenerations of the globe, the pralayas of the Hindoos, and the four ages of Hesiod. In this work I have also included (in addition to the hieroglyphical paintings I brought to Europe), fragments of all the Aztec manuscripts, collected in Rome, Veletri, Vienna, and Dresden, and one of which reminds us, by its lineary symbols, of the kouas of the Chinese. Together with the rude monuments of the aborigines of America, this volume contains picturesque views of the mountainous countries which those people inhabited; for example, the cataract of Tequendama, Chimborazo, the volcano of Jorullo and Cayambe, the pyramidal summit of which, covered with eternal ice, is situated directly under the equinoctial line.
Again, this would have directed a plagiarizer to emphasis Asiatic ties.

Citing von Humboldt, Ethan Smith again points to allegedly striking parallels linking the Indians to Moses--parallels which a fabricator might well have exploited to strengthen the case for authenticity (pp. 136-137):

Our author [von Humboldt] proceeds to describe the pyramids of New Spain,-those signal Indian antiquities. The pyramid of Cholula is 177 feet in height. Its base is 1416 feet. It has four great stages, or stories. It lies exactly with the meridian, north and south; the width nearly equal to the length; (439 metres; a metre being nearly 3 1-4 feet.) This stupendous pile is composed, he tells us, "of alternate strata of brick and clay." Various other similar pyramids this author notes and describes in those regions, as being of the same construction. And of their construction he says; "They suffice to prove the great analogy between these brick monuments--and the temple of Belus at Babylon, and the pyramids of Menschich Dashour, near Sackhara in Egypt." On the pyramids of Cholula is a church surrounded with cypress. This pyramid M. Humbolt informs is "ten feet higher than the Mycerinus, or the third of the great Egyptian pyramids of the group of Ghize." The length of the base (he informs) is greater by almost half than that of the great pyramid Cheops; and exceeds that of all the pyramids known on the old continent. And he adds, "If it be allowed to compare with the great Egyptian monuments, it appears to have been constructed on an analogous plan."

I ask, can such pyramids be ascribed to ancient barbarous Scythians? Israel knew the pyramids of Egypt. It is with great probability supposed, that during their servitude there, they aided in building those stupendous monuments. They thus served a long apprenticeship to the art of making brick, and pyramids. Did the ancient Scythians ever serve such an apprenticeship? If the advocates for a Scythian descent of the Indians could present the fact, that the whole Scythian nation, had, in former times, served an apprenticeship of a number of centuries in making just such brick pyramids as are found in America; how much would they make of this solitary argument to show, that the authors of those American pyramids must surely have been of Scythian descent? And I confess there would be, in my opinion, ten times as much argument in it, in favour of their position, as I have ever perceived in any other arguments adduced. Various authors unite, as will appear, in stating the great similarity between those Mexican pyramids, and those of Egypt. And our noted author M. Humbolt exclaims; "We are astonished to see, in regions the most remote, men following the same model in their edifices." This is here claimed as a great argument in favour of the Israelitish extraction of those Indians. Other arguments this author unintentionally furnishes. He says; "We have examples of theocratic forms of government in South America. For such were those of Zac, of Bogota, and of the Incas of Peru,--two extensive empires, in which despotism was concealed under the appearance of a gentle and patriarchal government.--The empire of the Zac (he adds in a note) which comprehends the kingdom of New Grenada, was founded (i.e. in their tradition) by a mysterious personage called Idacanzas, or Bochira;--who, according to the tradition of the Mozcas, lived in the temple of the sun, at Sogamozo, rising of 2000 years." Here tradition had given this people an ancient mysterious founder. His present votaries were the Mozcas. He lived at Sogamozo, inhabiting a temple. The government of this people, it seems, is the theocratico patriarchal. Whom does all this most resemble? Israel; or the ancient barbarous Scythians? It would seem the warmest advocates for a Scythian descent, would not be fond of answering this question. But admitting that this theocratic, patriarchal government must well accord with Israelitish tradition; and it seems not unnatural to say, their ancient mysterious lawgiver was Moses, from whom the devoted Mozcas may have derived their name; and also the name of his supposed residence, Sogamozo. It is natural to view this as a tradition (something confused by rolling millenaries) of the lawgiver Moses ministering at the tabernacle in the wilderness, 2000 years (more of less) before some noted era of this tradition. Suppose Sogamozo to have been from Sagan-Moses. Sagan, Adair assures us, was a noted Indian name of the waiter or deputy of the Indian high priest. And it was the very name of the deputy of the ancient high priest in Israel; as the noted Calmet informs. Against the word Sagan, Calmet says; "The Jews thus call the deputy of the high priest, who supplied his office, and who performed the function of it in the absence of the high priest." Calmet adds; "The Jews think that the office of Sagan was very ancient. They hold that Moses was Sagan to Aaron. I do not find the word Sagan, he says, in this sense in the scriptures; but it is frequent in the Rabbins." Here then, the old rabbinical traditions say, that Moses was Sagan to Aaron in the wilderness. How natural then that the same tradition should descend to the American Mozcas, (if they be of Israel) that Sogamozo (Sagan Moses, mistaking the place of his residence for his name,) was their ancient legislator! We shall by and by find in another authority, a similar tradition with this, and bearing its part of a strange combination of just such evidence as must eventually present the long lost Israel of the world.

If one is to learn anything from Ethan Smith's treatment of von Humboldt, it is that pyramids in the Americas serve as striking evidence of Hebrew origins, and that the Indians also retained traditions and even names pointing to the supremacy of Moses in their history. If the Book of Mormon were plagiarized and influenced from Ethan Smith, why not include names like Sagan or Sogamozo as Nephite names? Who would miss the opportunity to mention pyramids? Why would all the numerous details supposedly suggestive of Hebraic origins be left out? Why not deal with lost tribes coming over the Bering strait instead of one little band of people in a lone boat? And if Joseph were plagiarizing directly from von Humboldt, without Ethan Smith as a middleman, why not include pyramids or any clues from the copious discussions of natural details in South America and Mexico?

If Joseph has access to anything by von Humboldt (directly or through Ethan Smith), it is remarkable how many valuable clues were simply missed. He could have offered descriptions of terrain, volcanoes, dozens of fruits and vegetables and other plants, unusual practices and customs, and so forth. Not a trace of derivation is evident. It's like noting that the idea of painting images of people was already around for centuries, so the Mona Lisa must be a forgery.

The critics have never shown that Joseph or anyone close to him had access to von Humboldt's writings. It was not available in nearby libraries. Of it's availability, Henry Stebbins of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a footnote added to a Feb. 1894 lecture in Independence, Missouri (available online at http://sidneyrigdon.com/1901Stb1.htm), said:

Some years after giving these lectures I learned that a brief synopsis of Humboldt's works was translated into English and published in London by a lady named Helen Maria Williams, and in seeking among encyclopedias and antiquarian books for proofs I found mention of it on page 265 of Priest's work, 1835 edition, which mention I had not seen before, not having read the book beyond the deluge traditions. But no date was given of its issue, and all search for it proved unavailing. And among all the authors only one or two even mentioned her work. At most it only proved that it was published by or before 1835 (or 1833), while the Book of Mormon was copyrighted in 1829. However, in 1898 Elder Heman C. Smith found a copy of her work in England and brought it to Lamoni, for the Church Library. The date of its publication is not given on its title-page; but on page 33 is given date of 1813 in Paris, which probably means something relating to its issuing in French, for the English issue was from London, whatever may have been the year. After a personal search of twenty-five years in city book-stores for antique works, this is the first copy I have seen. Other elders in the church have likewise searched, but have given no account of this work, which shows how very little it could have been known in America during these seventy years. There is no probability that it was known to Joseph Smith, or to other supposed authors of the Book of Mormon.

Conclusion

If Joseph had fabricated the Book of Mormon, it is possible that he could have understood that ancient Mexico had cities, roads, temples, a knowledge of metal, and written language in hieroglyphic form. These things were part of ancient Mesoamerica and are present in the Book of Mormon record. Though this knowledge was not well known even among educated adults of his day, it was available in writings from von Humboldt and others, though there is no evidence that Joseph had any form of access to such books. These few elements account for only a minute fraction of the elements in the Book of Mormon and hardly enable any text of Joseph Smith's day to somehow be a source for the complex and impressive record that we have in the Book of Mormon.

If Joseph were fabricating the Book of Mormon, why would he choose a very foreign Mesoamerican setting, when he could have written about the Indians of North America with whom he could have been much more familiar and about whom much more information was in print? Indeed, Latter-day Saints did not come to recognize that the Book of Mormon took place on a very limited Mesoamerican geography until late in this century, and many still cling to the popular nineteenth-century view that Book of Mormon lands covered North and South America. What we now know about Mesoamerica still provides numerous points of agreement with the geography, climate, cultures and peoples described in the Book of Mormon, in ways that far exceed what Joseph could have known. (See, for example, John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1985).) From his own statements and those of others close to him, it is clear that they did not fully appreciate where the setting of the Book of Mormon was as it was translated and published. The connection to Mesoamerica came later. The hypothesis that Joseph selected Mesoamerican elements from Ethan Smith or von Humboldt or Clavigero or others to assist in writing the Book of Mormon has the power to explain almost nothing about the origins of the text.

The fact that a tiny handful of elements in von Humboldt or Ethan Smith are found in the Book of Mormon does not fit a theory of plagiarism, in my opinion, and can be more plausibly explained by the fact that these elements were had among ancient Book of Mormon peoples and were included in writings from those peoples that Joseph translated.


Book of Mormon Evidences

What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?

Mesoamerican Traditions of Darkness and Seismic Events when Christ Died

One Day in the Life of Joseph Smith, Translator Extraordinaire of the Book of Mormon--my satirical script for a skit dealing with allegations that Joseph Smith plagiarized from numerous sources in preparing the Book of Mormon. Released Jan. 16, 2004.

The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research - one of the best pro-LDS sites on the Web.

SHIELDS, another important site dealing with LDS intellectual issues, including good answers to some common anti-Mormon questions.

Reformed Egyptian - an excellent article by Bill Hamblin. It is on the Maxwell Institute Web site, which has a great deal of valuable content, including much on Book of Mormon geography and Mesoamerica.


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Created: Feb. 8, 2004. Updated: Aug. 16, 2009.
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