Understanding Book of Mormon Geography:  Controversy, Evidence, and Two Cumorahs

The Book of Mormon is not intended to be a history book or a guide to geography, science, or any other secular topic. It is a book of scripture aimed at teaching people about Christ and how to find happiness through the Gospel. Nevertheless, it frequently makes reference to events in history and to the physical setting where its stories took place. In fact, there are hundreds of references to physical locations and geographical features which must be considered for those wishing to relate the Book of Mormon to the physical reality of its ancient setting. Anyone looking for evidence related to the Book of Mormon should, naturally, look for it in the regions where it took place–if, in fact, it is an authentic ancient record at all.

One of the first steps for evaluating the Book of Mormon and its evidence in any kind of logical, systematic way must be to understand the internal map inherent to the Book of Mormon, and then to determine if there is any place that could plausibly comply with the general demands of its physical setting. If not, the search for evidence may well be over. But if there is a place that broadly fits the geographical parameters inherent to the text, the search for evidence can properly begin.

While there are numerous theories for Book of Mormon geography that have been proposed by Latter-day Saints, many of these begin with a pet theory in search of evidence, followed by finding some apparent matches between the text and the selected territory. Thus, we have wildly conflicting locations that have been touted such as the Heartland model for the Eastern United States, the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, Florida, the whole western hemisphere, and even Malaysia. However, when serious Book of Mormon students first begin with a detailed consideration of the internal map implicit to the Book of Mormon and then search for a plausible location that fits the Book of Mormon’s map, there has consistently been one general result: Mesoamerica, the region of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and adjacent nations, wherein the “narrow neck of land” in the Book of Mormon corresponds to the isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The remarkable thing about Mesoamerica as the primary New World setting of the Book of Mormon is that it not only fits the details of the Book of Mormon’s implicit geography relatively well, but many other aspects besides the geography itself find support in the Mesoamerican setting. For example:

  • The rise of major cultures in Mesoamerica, particularly the ancient Olmec and the later Mayans and related groups, broadly parallels the Book of Mormon description of the Jaredites and the later Nephites and Lamanites.
  • Mesoamerica is the only place in the New World with a long tradition of keeping written records. It offers the presence of ancient large-scale civilization (cities, temples, priests, kings, written law, markets, judges, prisons, etc.) during Book of Mormon times.
  • Mesoamerica offers evidence of significant volcanic activity corresponding to the events in 3 Nephi when there were three days of darkness that could be felt, highly consistent with a major destructive volcanic event.
  • Numerous other issues in Mesoamerica such as patterns of warfare, political systems, economic systems, climate, and so forth find parallels to information in the Book of Mormon. This has been demonstrated with great success and in much detail in works such as John Sorensen’s Mormon’s Codex.

Thus, there is a growing consensus among LDS scholars that Mesoamerica is the place, and the only plausible place that can be considered for the Book of Mormon setting in the Americas. This consensus requires a “limited geography” in which the distances between the Lamanite regions in the south and the Nephite territories in the north are on the scale of a few hundred miles, not thousands of miles.

Mormons unfamiliar with the geographical issues of the Book of Mormon often immediately respond with an objection regarding the Hill Cumorah. “Wait, the famous Hill Cumorah, the scene of the final battles for the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations, and the place where the gold plates were buried and found, is in the state of New York. That’s thousands of miles from Mesoamerica.” This is a great place to begin examining what the Book of Mormon text actually says, after we observe that Joseph Smith never gave a name to the hill where he found the gold plates. Naming it Cumorah was the work of other members of the Church who assumed that it must be the hill mentioned in the test. But in the text, the Hill Cumorah was a large hill with abundant water, capable of giving military advantage to large armies with hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It was notable enough that it was known to distant armies and stood out as significant in two different eras separated by hundreds of years. The tiny 100-foot tall hill that Latter-day Saints assumed was the Hill Cumorah is barely big enough to hold the cast of the Hill Cumorah pageant. It is hardly distinguishable from the hundreds of other similar hills in that region of New York, and when it became significant to Latter-day Saints, did not even have a name. It was a nameless mound, not an impressive hill known to all around. It lacks the access to water mentioned in the text, water that would also be essential for maintaining a great army there for any period of time.

Further, it was, according to Mormon 6, the place where all the Nephite records were preserved, with the exception of the Book of Mormon’s golden plates, which Nephi removed from the hill and took with him as the Book of Mormon closes. In other words, it contained all the Nephite records except the Book of Mormon. The text does not explain how and where Nephi buries the plates, nor how he got to the place he selected. Did he wander for a few years and then bury it? That’s my guess. Or was it moved there by other means, perhaps after his resurrection? We don’t know. But nothing from the scriptures or any statement from Joseph Smith requires us to accept the tiny New York hill as the original Hill Cumorah. Various LDS scholars and students of the Book of Mormon have found a notable hill in Veracruz state, Mexico, which appears to fulfill the requirements for the Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. Cerro Vigia, a significant hill rising over 1,000 feet from the surrounding terrain. You can see photos of it here. David Palmer in his book, In Search of Cumorah, was one of the first to propose this site, which appears to fit 15 criteria Palmer extracts from the Book of Mormon, as noted in a Wikipedia article on the Hill Cumorah:

1. It was near an eastern seacoast (Ether 9:3).

2. It was near a narrow neck of land (Alma 22:29-32,Mormon 2:29,Mormon 3:5) (Alma 43) (Alma 56) (Alma 50:33-34),(Alma 52:9) (Mormon 3:5-7),(Alma 63:5) (Ether 10:22-28).

3. It was on a coastal plain, and possibly near other mountains and valleys (Ether 14:12-15).

4. It was one day’s journey south (east-south-east in modern coordinates) of a large body of water (Ether 15:8-11).

5. It was in an area of many rivers and waters (Mormon 6:4).

6. It was in the presence of fountains (Mormon 6:4).

7. The abundance of water apparently provided a military advantage (Mormon 6:4).

8. There was an escape route to the land (“country”) southward (Mormon 8:2).

9. The hill was large enough to provide a view of hundreds of thousands of bodies (Mormon 6:11).

10. The hill was apparently a significant landmark (Ether 9:3; Mormon 6:6).

11. The hill was apparently free standing so people could camp around it (Mormon 6:2,Mormon 6:11).

12. The climate was apparently temperate with no cold or snow (No record of cold or snow) (Enos 1:20) (Alma 46:40)

13. The hill was located in a volcanic zone susceptible to earthquakes ( 3 Nephi 8:6-23)

While Cerro Vigia has become a popular candidate for Cumorah, there are some weaknesses in the theory, and some LDS researchers have wondered if a better Mesoamerican candidate might be found. Chris Heimerdinger offers a good discussion of some candidates, and notes that Larry Poulsen’s detailed analysis of the geography Mesoamerica has resulted in what appears to be an even better candidate. According to Heimerdinger,

[I]n order to meet the qualifications of the appropriate hill where the final battle between the Nephites and Lamanites, as well as the final battle between factions of the Jaredites, this hill must be east of another hill called Shim where the Prophet Ammaron temporarily hid up the sacred engravings of the Nephites (see Morm. 1:3) and west of a land called Ablom (in Jaredite times) that was near the seashore (see Ether 9:1-3). It must also be north of the Land of Zarahemla and south or west (southwest?) of the waters of Ripliancum (Eth. 15:7-11). Ripliancum appears to be a Jaredite word meaning “large or to exceed all” (Ether 15:8). Cumorah must also be in a land of many waters and rivers and fountains and in the general area where Mormon grew up as a child.

Poulsen’s preferred candidate is Omitepetl hill in Veracruz. The Nahuatl or Aztec meaning of Omitepetl is “bone hill,” which would be a logical name for a hill where great battles of destruction occurred long ago. Very little archaeological work has been done on it so far, so we must wait to learn if there is evidence for ancient warfare on its slopes. However, there is another major hill nearby in the region of Misantla that can serve as a candidate for the hill Shim in the Book of Mormon. This hill, about 10 miles west of Omitepetl, is named Paxil (pronounced pa-sheel), a word from the Totonac language that means “Maize Hill.” In Mayan, the word shim or ixim (pronounced ee-sheem) means maize (interestingly, two other candidates for Cumorah also have hills nearby called Maize or Corn Hill).

Significantly, Omitepetl was recognized by the Spaniards as an unusual place with many waters (fountains, springs, etc., with an impressive hydrological network), as Heimerdinger notes. It is about 200 miles north of the narrow neck of land. More work is needed to determine if this is a viable candidate. But the important thing is that there are potentially plausible candidates in Mesoamerica for Cumorah and the nearby hill Shim. The identity of Cumorah in Mesoamerica remains unclear, but it is rather clear that the Mesoamerican candidates are much better choices than the New York Cumorah.

While many LDS scholars are converging on the idea of Mesoamerica as the focal point for the Book of Mormon in the New World, there is a notable movement calling for New York and the Eastern United States as the place of the Book of Mormon. This “Heartland Model” for Book of Mormon geography downplays the geographical information in the text. Instead of beginning with an analysis of the map inherent to the text itself, the Heartland Model proponents claim that their model is based on revelation from God and that statements from Joseph Smith and other leaders of the Church can be used to establish the basic setting. Once they have the “correct answer,” they can then propose how certain geographical features in the text can be forced onto their map.

There are many serious problems with this approach. Joseph Smith never claimed to have revealed information about the setting of the Book of Mormon. However, when information about Mesoamerican civilization came to light in the early 1840s, he did say that we would do well to compare Book of Mormon civilization with those in Mesoamerica. Thus severely undercuts the claims of the Heartland Model advocates. See “‘War of Words and Tumult of Opinions’: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography” by Neal Rappleye for The Mormon Interpreter (July 2014), where Rappleye shows that there is compelling evidence that Joseph Smith was responsible for the multiple positive endorsements in the LDS publication Times and Seasons of Mesoamerica as a key place to look for the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon. Rod Meldrum and other proponents of the Heartland Model have tried to argue that Joseph Smith was away in hiding when those statements came out, a claim that has been thoroughly refuted. Further, examination of statements in the Times and Seasons regarding Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon show Joseph’s involvement and implicit approval before, during, and after his tenure as editor. There is no basis to claim that Joseph disagreed with those statements and that he had received revelation for a US-centric geography.

Related resources on Cumorah:

Resources on Book of Mormon geography: