In The Lion’s Den
Pres. Johnson had taken Chris’ journal home with him. His wife had gone to a Relief Society social, and he was home alone with some spare time. He decided to look at some more of the entries. As he thumbed through them, one caught his eye. Something he remembered only too well.
May 6, 2006
John decided he wanted to share our new findings with his friend Dr. Carl Johnson at Brigham Young University. Johnson is supposed to be an expert on Book of Mormon geography, and has written several books on the subject. He is the director of the Mormon Archaeology Research Foundation at the university. Today John met with him and tried to explain our findings, but he wouldn’t listen. But he did invite John to participate in a forum they are going to have to discuss Johnson’s theory.
Two days later was the follow-up entry.
May 8, 2006
We went down to Brigham Young University today and attended the forum on Dr. Johnson’s Tehuantepec Theory. There were a lot of people in attendance--more than I had expected. I sat out in the audience while John participated in the discussion. I think he demolished the so-called “Learned Doctors”. They didn’t have any satisfactory answers to our findings. A lot of the members of the audience seemed to agree with John.
John’s appointment with Carl Johnson was at 2 pm. He arrived at the offices of the Mormon Archaeology Research Foundation a half hour early and looked around the reception area. There were many pictures of projects that MARF had been involved in, as well as a number of their recent publications. He thumbed thru his notes to make sure they were in order and readily accessible.
He remembered Johnson as a peevish sort, very punctual and task oriented, with a patronizing manner. Johnson came out and greeted him precisely at 2 and invited him in. He had a large corner office overlooking an attractive part of the campus. The view of the beautiful Wasatch Mountains rising abruptly to the east was inspiring.
“It’s good to see you again John. We have certainly been grateful for your past donations. The church only funds part of our program, as you know, so we rely on private donors like you to make up the balance. Have you been traveling lately? The last time I spoke with you, you were planning a trip to Peru.”
“Yes, I spent several weeks down there examining a mining property, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“You mentioned over the phone that you had some questions about the geography of the Book of Mormon. I should be able to help you with that. I have studied the subject for a number of years. What do you want to know?”
“Well I have read your books as well as all of your papers on the subject and am very impressed with many of the insights you have on the culture and history of the Book of Mormon people. However, I have some questions on your specific locations for the geography.”
“All right. That should be easy.”
John proceeded to enumerate the problems he saw with Johnson’s Tehuantepec Theory of Book of Mormon geography and outlined what he had discovered during his recent investigations. Johnson dismissed John’s suggestions and attempted to answer his questions, but to John, the answers were evasive and contrived.
Johnson could see that he was not convincing John--but then had an idea.
“In two days we are having a forum to discuss my theory. There will be a panel discussion with four or five experts discussing all aspects of Book of Mormon geography and comparing my theory with other possible models. One of our panelists can’t attend due to illness and it just occurred to me that you might be a good substitute. You could bring up all your criticisms of my theory and present your ideas. The group should be able to answer your questions. What do you say?”
“Well I think I could do that. It will give me a chance to present some of my findings. But it will be like going into the lion’s den won’t it?”
“Oh not at all. You don’t need to be worried about them. They’ll be easy on you.”
Johnson was happy to get out of the present discussion so easily. What he really had in mind was for John to be overwhelmed by the expertise of the panel members without having to be rough on one of his patrons himself. John spent the next day preparing and gathering all the material he thought he might need.
The day of the meeting arrived. John and Chris arrived early. John wanted to observe and size up the different participants. The meeting was held in the auditorium of the new Hinckley Building on the BYU campus. John hadn’t thought there would be very many people present, but the room was almost full by the time the meeting began.
As the panel members took their places, John was invited to the stand by Dr. Johnson. Chris took a seat at the back of the room.
The moderator was a bear of a man, Dr. Harold Bronson, who was an expert on Mesoamerican archaeology. John liked him immediately. Like many large people, he was naturally kind and gentle with no need to feel threatened or intimidated by others. Bronson brought the meeting to order five minutes late because they had to wait for one of the panel members to make his grand entrance.
“We want to welcome you all here today for our discussion of Book of Mormon geography. Recently there has been a great deal of debate about this topic, and a number of books have been written advocating different theories. Although the church has not taken an official stand on the issue, we feel it is of sufficient importance to consider the various possibilities and explore the alternatives. Is such a study worthwhile? Think what it would be like to study the Bible, and the history of Christ’s ministry on the earth, without knowing where it had taken place. Knowing the physical location adds legitimacy to the written history and renders it more factual. True events always have a location, and knowing the location in turn witnesses to the truth of the event.
“Of course, we do not doubt the veracity of the Book of Mormon. But knowing the exact location of the events related in the book would undoubtedly strengthen its claims. So for this reason we have gathered today to discuss the various theories.”
Dr. Bronson then introduced the panel members. It was obvious from John’s brief introduction that he was not considered an authority on the subject. The meeting opened with Bronson giving a brief explanation of Dr. Johnson’s theory.
“Dr. Johnson’ theory is well known and accepted by most scholars and students of Book of Mormon geography. He has proposed that the lands described in the Book of Mormon are located in Southern Mexico and Guatemala. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico would have been the ‘narrow neck of land’. The lands of Zarahemla and Bountiful would have been in Chiapas, Mexico. The Land of Desolation would have been above, or northward of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Hill Cumorah would have been northward, but near the Isthmus, possibly the mountain that today is called Cerro Vigia near the town of San Andres Tuxtla, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The ‘narrow strip of wilderness’ would have been a strip of mountains and forest running northeastward from the Pacific to the Caribbean, which separates the watersheds flowing northward into Mexico, from those flowing southward into Guatemala. The Land of Nephi would have been near the modern Guatemala City.”
“There are other models of BofM geography, but none of them satisfies all the criteria listed in the scriptures as well as the Johnson theory does. Some believe that the area around Palmyra, New York is the land of the Nephites. This theory fails, in my opinion, because it lacks the proper geography, has the wrong climate, and doesn’t have the archaeology to support it.”
“Then there are those who suggest that the location was in South America. There was a high civilization present there, namely the Chavin and later the Inca. However, South America does not have the appropriate geography, or any evidence of a written language.”
“Finally, there is the entire hemispheric model. When first looking at a map of the western hemisphere, one immediately sees the ‘narrow neck of land’ as the Isthmus of Panama. North America would be the land northward, and South America would be the land southward. But here again this theory has problems. The population was too small. There were not enough combined Nephites, Mulekites and Lamanites to populate all of Mexico, let alone the entire western hemisphere. So we are left with Dr. Johnson’s proposal.”
“Dr. Johnson will now explain why he believes the theory he has proposed is the correct one. Anyone who has any questions or input, feel free to participate.”
Johnson took a full hour explaining that the archaeological evidences in Mesoamerica correlate with the Book of Mormon people. He proposed that the written language of the Maya is evidence of an ancient written language and that it descended from the ancient Nephite script; that the geography of Mesoamerica fits the Book of Mormon description, with Tehuantepec being the ‘narrow neck’, with the rivers, mountains and seas being present in the proper configuration; and that the abundant ruined cities, pyramids and plazas are all the proof anyone should need.
When Johnson finished, Dr. Bronson asked if there were any questions or comments. John immediately took the opportunity to jump in.
“Yes, I have several concerns with the Tehuantepec theory and would like to present them if I might?"
Bronson looked nervously over at Johnson but then acknowledge John with a “Sure, go ahead.”
“Well first we have the problem of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It is oriented in the wrong direction, and it is much too wide. The Book of Mormon specifically states that the narrow neck of land was oriented ‘northward.’ As anyone looking at a map can see the Isthmus of Tehuantepec runs east and west.”
“Regarding the width, we are told in the Book of Mormon that the narrow neck could be crossed in a day, or in another reference, in a day and a half. I assume that this was on foot as no mention is ever made that the people of Mormon’s day had any other means of transportation. Yet the Isthmus of Tehuantepec would take a minimum of five or six days to cross on foot.’
“Just a minute!” interrupted Dr. Johnson. “There are good answers for both of those questions. It doesn’t matter that Tehuantepec is oriented east and west according to our modern customs. The ancient peoples did not have the same directional system that we have. To their way of reckoning, northward would have been any direction from 23 degrees west of north to 23 degrees east of north. That’s how much the sun varies in its relationship to the earth’s orbit, and they determined direction by the sun. Tehuantepec fits into that range. And as far as the width goes, there are Tarahumara Indians who can run that far in a day, so you see those are not problems.”
“I understand that is the standard reply” broke in John. “But why didn’t the Nephites use a standard directional system? Wouldn’t they have used the same directional system as the Jews from whom they came? One can do a word search in the Old Testament and find many references to directions, north, south, east and west. You can compare these references with Biblical maps and they are all standard directions. I submit that when Mormon said north he meant north as we understand it. Besides, if they had a different word for it, why wouldn’t it have been rendered into our directional system when Joseph Smith translated it? Does the Lord want to confuse us? I don’t think so.”
“Now on the width, why would Mormon give us a measurement that wouldn’t mean anything? Wasn’t he trying to explain Nephite geography to us so that we would understand it? Would he have quoted some distance from the ‘Nephite Book of World Records’ just to impress us? I don’t think so. When he tells us a day, he meant a days travel time for a normal Nephite soldier.
“The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is 140 miles across. That is the same distance as the width of the state of Florida. It is the same distance as Salt Lake to Duchene in eastern Utah, half way across the state of Utah. How many of you folks can walk that far in a day? How many of you would consider that distance ‘narrow’?”
“Let’s look at some historical examples. The pioneers normally traveled 15 to 20 miles a day while traveling to the Salt Lake valley. The Mormon Battalion traveled 1900 miles in 5 months, or an average of 13 miles per day. These are measurements that are useful in informing us of travel conditions in those times. It doesn’t do much good to inform us that a satellite can circle the globe in 99 minutes. How will that help future generations understand how we traveled in our day.”
“Let’s consider some examples from the Indians themselves. They should have known how far they could travel in a day. When Columbus asked some of the Panamanian Indians how far it was from Almirante Bay on the Caribbean coast of Panama, where he was anchored, across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean, they told him it was 9 days travel; this for a distance of 65 miles or 7 miles per day. Again when Balboa, the first European to actually cross to the Pacific, asked the natives how long it would take him to cross Panama to the Pacific, a distance of 45 miles, they told him 6 days. (Incidentally it actually took him 28 days.) This is reality. These are practical distances that ancient Indians actually traveled.”
Johnson didn’t respond this time. Bronson took charge again attempting to change the subject.
“Dr. Morris will now explain how the ruins in Mesoamerica relate to Book of Mormon geography, Dr. Morris.”
Morris showed a series of slides on the magnificent ruins found in that area, and explained that the ancient Maya and Olmec were the only high civilizations in North America. They had writing, a calendar system, engineering skills, and were superb artists. Therefore, he concluded, that area had to be the center of the Nephite and Lamanite cultures and therefore Johnson’s theory was correct.
“Could I make an observation?” asked John. Bronson looked around for a raised hand hoping he could call on someone else. John didn’t wait to be acknowledged but jumped in once again.
“Dr. Morris has brought up some good points that need to be addressed. First the Maya and Olmec ruins. In the Zarahemla Quarterly, a discontinued LDS magazine devoted to Book of Mormon geography, the editors observed”
‘The continuing failure of Book of Mormon geographical studies to produce substantive conclusions has resulted from an almost complete misidentification of the archaeological Jaredites. Virtually all students are adrift on a sea of Nephite studies based upon Jaredite archaeological remains. The consequences of this misidentification have been far‑reaching and devastating, for so much effort has been expended in a search for the archaeological Nephite culture, that the identification and study of the archaeological Jaredites have been seriously neglected.’
“I suggest that they were correct. The magnificent ruins we so much admire are really Jaredite structures and when we attempt to link them to the Nephites we only confuse the issue.”
“You are wrong there!” challenged Morris. “Many of those ruins were built after the Nephites were destroyed and long after the time of the Jaredites. How could they be Jaredite ruins?”
“As I am sure you are aware, many scholars have pointed out that at the base and core of the much later Maya buildings are the original underlying Olmec ruins. In other words, the Maya built on top of earlier Olmec structures. If we assume that the Olmec are roughly equivalent to the Jaredites, then Jaredites not Nephites first erected the foundations of all those great buildings and pyramids. In my reading of the Book of Mormon I note that the Nephites almost never built with stone. All those Mesoamerican ruins are stone structures. The Nephites on the other hand always built their homes, public buildings and cities with wood. They were so committed to wooden construction that they would even ship wood long distances by boat to the Land of Desolation where the inhabitants didn’t have wood available for building.”
“You are so far off that you are not even wrong!” scoffed Johnson, forgetting his resolve to be polite to his favored patron.
“Am I?” retorted John. “Let me quote something from one of your own.” He had saved this quote from Dr. Bronson for just such a time.
“It has been my experience that most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon-a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology.”
“So you see even Dr. Bronson supports my point of view. If the geography is wrong, as I pointed out earlier, the archaeology doesn’t matter. All the ruins are irrelevant if the geography doesn’t fit. And I don’t need to be an expert archaeologist to identify the geography, as Dr. Bronson has so aptly pointed out.”
Bronson appeared to be embarrassed and looked down at the table.
John took advantage of the silence.
“Now going back to Dr. Morris’ point about the written language. If we were speaking of an English document, how does comparing it with Chinese script prove it is similar? Have you seen the Anthon Transcript? I am sure you are all familiar with it. The writing on the Anthon Transcript is how the Nephites wrote. That was their ‘Reformed Egyptian’. How does that compare with the Mayan glyphs? Not at all! There is no similarity. You might as well compare Chinese and English. They are as far apart.”
Now that he was on a roll he continued:
“As to the point about the only ‘high civilization’ being in Mesoamerica, let me give you another example. In the small country of Costa Rica there are thousands of ancients archaeological sites dating to the Book of Mormon time period. These sites have everything that the ruins in Mesoamerica have, pottery, gold, jade, statuary—everything that is except pyramids. The ceramics are equal or superior, the gold work is superb (and is possibly the source of much of the gold found in Mesoamerica), there are as many of the Olmec style jade artifacts as in Mesoamerica, and the art work of Costa Rica is three dimensional rather than the two dimensional Mayan artistry. So why isn’t it lauded and promoted like that of ancient Mesoamerican? Because there is no monumental architecture. The ancient natives of Costa Rica, like the ancient Nephites, built with wood, and wood structures do not last. All that is left are large earthen mounds, which were the foundations of their homes and public buildings, the broken ceramics, stone carvings, and gold work. But were they a high or a low civilization?”
“Compare the culture of the Nephite King Mosiah with that of the Jaredite King Riplakish. Mosiah worked with his own hands to support himself. He didn’t impose heavy taxes on the people to build lavish palaces. He didn’t enslave his subjects or force them to participate in massive public works projects. As a result they did not leave monumental edifices to survive until our day. On the other hand, Riplakish built lavish buildings, taxed his people to the limit, compelled them to work on his monumental projects, and imprisoned those that didn’t cooperate. Which one had the ‘higher’ civilization? Obviously from our viewpoint Mosiah did. But which one left the larger footprint? Which one left magnificent ruins to impress the later archaeologists?”
“Another example. Assume that we have no knowledge of Biblical or Egyptian archaeology. In reading the Bible we see that the Hebrews had a high level of civilization. We go over and explore the area and find pyramids and ancient cities on the Nile. We assume that this must be the civilization of the Hebrews. They were great builders. But this assumption would be totally wrong because the Egyptians had a ‘higher’ civilization than the Hebrews and were in a different location.”
“In the same way it is erroneous to assume that just because there are great ruins in Mesoamerica that they are the remains of the Nephites. The Jaredite culture was far greater than the Nephite even though the Nephites gave us the Book of Mormon which was the catalyst for the restoration.”
Someone from the audience asked John where he thought the narrow neck of land was located if it wasn’t Tehuantepec.
“I have studied every possible location in the Americas and the only one that makes any sense is the Isthmus of Rivas.”
“Where is the Isthmus of Rivas?” asked someone from the audience.
“It’s a small isthmus on the western coast of Nicaragua. It is 12 miles wide and can be easily crossed in a day. It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and by Lake Nicaragua on the east. It is oriented NNW so could be described as ‘northward’. Discovering this isthmus is what caused me to investigate Costa Rica as the possible site for Book of Mormon lands.”
Dr. Bronson interrupted.
“We have one more presenter, so we’ll now turn the time over to Dr. Lewis, our resident demographer. He’ll talk about Book of Mormon populations and how they relate to the Johnson theory.”
Dr. Lewis explained that Book of Mormon populations could never have been very large, not large enough to fill North America, and certainly not numerous enough to populate both continents. He estimated that the Nephite population was probably never greater than a million people—probably closer to 300,000. At the final battle there were only 230,000 Nephites. The Lamanites would have been two to three times as numerous. These populations would have been a good fit for Mesoamerica and support Johnson’s theory but not large enough to populate the entire continent.
At the end of Lewis’ presentation, Bronson asked him about populations in Costa Rica.
“John has suggested that Costa Rica could be the ancient home of the Nephites. If I remember right, Costa Rica only had a population of about 20,000 at the time of the Spanish conquest. How could that have possibly been a civilization as great as the Nephite culture?”
Lewis: “Well I’m afraid your information is a little outdated. Recently we have learned that our old ideas about pre-conquest populations were wrong. European illnesses wiped out 90 to 95% of the native populations shortly after the arrival of the Europeans. Many were killed in the wars of the conquest, and many others were exported as slaves. The subsequent censuses were way off. New research indicates that Costa Rica had a pre-conquest population of about 400,000 which could fit in with Book of Mormon populations.”
Bronson was disappointed by the answer and decided that now would be a good time to close; besides they had run overtime.
“Well, we appreciate all your comments and contributions, and thanks to all in the audience for being here. It looks like we Tehuantepistas had better go back and regroup.”
Then turning to John he said
“Almost thou persuadest me to be a Costaricista.”
John picked up on this reference to the Apostle Paul and replied
“I would that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am.”
 It was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward. Alma 22:32.
 Michael Hobby and Troy Smith in Zarahemla Quarterly.
 Hel. 3:8-11
 John Clark in A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies. FARMS.
 Nephite writing copied from Gold Plates and given to Martin Harris who took it to Charles Anton.
 Mos. 29.
 Ether 10:4-8.
 See Ether 1:43.
 Spanish for supporter of the Tehuantepec theory.
 Spanish for supporter of the Costa Rica theory.
 Acts 26:28-29.