Book of Mormon Geography


The establishment of the geography of the Book of Mormon in the real world has been a problem.  One challenge is that at first reading it seems as though the cultures, wars and travels of the peoples of the Book of Mormon cover much of North and South America.  This idea is supported by the fact that the Golden Plates were hidden and found in New York at the hill Cummorah where the great final battle of the Book of Mormon supposedly took place.  This placement of the hill and the cultures is generally no longer accepted by LDS scholars.

In a very ambitious work, Exploring The Lands Of The Book Of Mormon, by Dr. Joseph Allen, a convincing discussion places the events of the Book of Mormon in the area around the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America.  This discussion is convincing because the internal geography of the BOM fits fairly nicely on to the topography of Central America.  Rivers, oceans, mountain ranges and wilderness correlate with amazing consistency. 

Some ancient cities do correlate as well.  That is, sometimes when the Book of Mormon refers to a city and its geographical relationship to topographical surroundings, there can be found an archeological site in that location.

However, topography is really all there seems to be.  Of note is the fact that there is no evidence found in any site in Mesoamerica that lends credibility to the Book of Mormon.  The language of the Mayans is fairly well understood and numerous Mayan heiroglyphs have been interpreted with no suggestion of Book of Mormon events, characters, gods, history, or languages. 

Apologists suggest that archeology is an imperfect science and that the fact that evidence has not been found does not mean that it does not exist.  I counter this by suggesting that no scientific endeavor is perfect, but in this case volumes of data have been found and continue to be found and interpreted.  These data are being pieced together by brilliant minds who, to this point, have a very good understanding of what Mayan culture was about.  The detailed picture of Mesoamerican culture that we have bears no resemblance to that painted by the Book of Mormon.  There is no correlation.  It would take more than a few supporting artifacts to change that.

So, I am left to ask apologists the following question.  Is it more likely that the unbiased conclusions of archeologists is inaccurate or that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction?  Scientists have no agenda other than to find the truth about these cultures in the dirt.  Joseph Smith, on the other hand had plentiful motivation to fabricate the story of the Book of Mormon.  Probabilities are not in Joseph Smith’s favor.

The following is a very interesting discussion from

by Michael White

Ancient Scriptures: The Book of Mormon: Geography and Population

So where are the Lamanites? To accommodate the problems with archaeology and DNA, BYU scholars keep postulating an increasingly limited area for the Book of Mormon people, but this does not match what the book itself implies. B.H. Roberts, after thoroughly examining the options for dealing with archaeological difficulties, rejected a limited geography. He cited Helaman 3:8-16, among others, in support of his position:

And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south, to the sea north, and from the sea west to the sea east. And the people who were in the land northward, did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land, that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings. And it came to pass as timber was exceeding scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping. And thus they did enable the people in the land northward, that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement. And it came to pass that there were many of the people of Ammon, who were Lamanites by birth, did also go forth into this land (cited in Roberts 1992, p. 120-121).

Joseph Smith obviously believed that many of the Book of Mormon events took place in North America, since he often told stories about what happened to Lehi's descendants in the area he was living in. During the Zion's Camp march he even identified a human skeleton as that of a Lamanite named Zelph. In The History of the Church, 2:79-80, we read:

During our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up by the ancient inhabitants of this country - Nephites, Lamanites, etc., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river, accompanied by the brethren...

On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three altars having been erected one above the other, according to the ancient order...The brethren... discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death... The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and a chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea, to the Rocky mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or, at least, in part - one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.

(I have read the original diary entries from which the above account was compiled and agree with BYU History Professor Donald Cannon that this passage essentially represents what took place - see Cannon 1995.)

Joseph continued on this theme in a letter to Emma dated June 4, 1834:

The whole of our journey...wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, a proof of its divine authenticity... (Jessee 1984, p. 324).

Joseph Smith did not believe in two Hill Cumorahs, unlike today's BYU scholars, who have to come up with this theory because upstate New York was obviously not the place of such great battles as are described in the Book of Mormon. Informed Mormons tend to be dismissive of Joseph's view that Lamanites occupied the entire hemisphere and fought out their wars in the New York and Ohio area, where post-Book of Mormon era natives known as the 'Mound Builders' left extensive ruins. John Sorenson writes: "...Anything that Church authorities - including Joseph Smith - have said about "Book of Mormon geography" is irrelevant if it conflicts with what is in the Book of Mormon itself" (Sorenson 1994). But before quickly disregarding Joseph's understanding of Book of Mormon locations, we need to note a recollection of Lucy Mack Smith, which is typical of many of Joseph's statements:

Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them (in Vogel 1996, p. 296).

Supposedly this occurred before Joseph had the plates, and thus his only source of information would have been from his own imagination, popular views of Native Americans, or Moroni himself. If it was Moroni who told Joseph about "the ancient inhabitants of this continent," then we cannot easily dismiss Joseph's statements about where the Book of Mormon took place and what animals they had. On the other hand, if Moroni or some other angelic being did not instruct Joseph in these things, then he was making it up or elaborating on things he had heard in the community. In this case, we have evidence that Joseph liked to tell fanciful tales about ancient Americans, which hardly bolsters the case for the book's authenticity. As noted above, Lucy's statement is not an anomaly; Joseph frequently made definitive statements about the ancient inhabitants of North America throughout his life.

One recent apologist strategy is to insist that the term 'Lamanite' is primarily political, social, or religious, and that it is used in this sense in the D&C. This allows apologists to claim that the term can be applied to Native Americans who aren't descendants of the Jerusalem colonists. While the term is political in the book, it is only so among the descendents of Lehi and the Mulekites, who extensively intermingled. It is always genetic in the sense that in the text it never refers to any people who did not descend from Jerusalem immigrants. Looking especially at all of the prophecies regarding the Lamanites in the latter days, I find it hard to believe that the term Lamanite could include just any Native Americans who don't have the gospel. In fact, the term is not even used consistently as a social term in the book - Lamanite does not always refer to those who reject the gospel, and in such cases it is obvious that the term retains a genetic meaning. The promises to the Lamanites in the latter days are because of the Lord's covenants with Lehi and Nephi (and ultimately, Joseph, son of Jacob) - there is no indication in the book that these promises are intended for any non-Israelite inhabitants of the New World.

One issue that remains to be resolved in any theory that Book of Mormon people were a small group, or conquered native people, is the Lamanite curse. The Book of Mormon says Lamanites were cursed with a dark skin, just like the descendents of Cain. For early Mormons (as well as many non-Mormons) the dark skin of contemporary Native Americans was obviously a result of God's curse upon their ancestors. Is this dark skin really the remnant of Laman's curse, as some modern-day prophets have held, such as President Kimball? If so, you would fully expect to find Lamanite DNA in modern Native Americans, since the dark skin would have been passed on genetically. Another possibility is that God didn't just curse the descendants of Laman, Lemuel and the sons of Ishamel, but also that portion of unmentioned native people that became part of the Lamanite nation. This would seem unjust though - I don't see how such people could be cursed for the rebelliousness of Laman and Lemuel. Being cursed for their own rebellion sounds implausible as well, because rebellion would have required some initial rapid conversion soon after Lehi's band arrived in the New World. Had Lehi's group arrived and found a large native population which they quickly converted to the true gospel, then the omission of such an account in the Book of Mormon would be really remarkable. If the skin color of Native Americans was not due to Laman's curse, why would the Lord put a mark on the Lamanites that would make them match existing natives (or were the Lamanites black, or some other color)? And what about the natives that went with Nephi and his people - would God have made them white? When all things are considered together, the ad hoc explanations of limited geography and assimilation of natives are difficult defend.

Furthermore, although in order to explain the poor genetic results you can speculate that Nephite writers were so ethnocentric that they didn't mention the other civilizations that they mixed with, and point out that the Book of Mormon doesn't necessarily say that there were no other non-Semitic people in this hemisphere when Lehi arrived, you still have to deal with a huge coincidence. That is, it is remarkable that the only people described as ancestors of Native Americans in the Book of Mormon happen to match up with some popular theories for early Americans in Joseph Smith's day. The idea that the natives had Israelite ancestry was in vogue with many writers in the early 19th century. Those theories had no solid evidence supporting them (the authors thought they had evidence, such as apparent similarities between native languages and Hebrew, but none of it withstood scrutiny), and this was really sheer speculation on the part of writers like Ethan Smith, author of A View of the Hebrews (see below). The argument against the Book of Mormon really boils down to this: it is a great coincidence that the Book of Mormon discusses only Semitic inhabitants of the Americas, for whom we have absolutely no evidence, and which closely match popular ideas that Joseph Smith would have been familiar with, and never mentions other ancient inhabitants, for which we now have massive amounts of evidence. In other words, it is extremely difficult for me to believe all of the explanations for the lack of DNA and other evidence for Lehi's descendants and at the same time believe that without any real evidence Ethan Smith and others writers in Joseph's day just happened to get the origins of at least some Native Americans right. (For a discussion of 19th century theories of Indian origins, see Vogel 1986)

In light of all this evidence against the Book of Mormon, Yale scholar and renowned Mesoamerica archaeologist Michael Coe said: "The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever turned up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of the early immigrants to our hemisphere" (Coe 1973, 46). Twenty years later Coe again stated: "I have seen no archaeological evidence before or since that date which would convince me that it is anything but a fanciful creation by an unusually gifted individual living in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century" (Larson 1996, 70). Even more remarkable is a statement made by BYU archaeologist Ray Matheny:

"Mormons, in particular, have been grasping at straws for a very long time, trying to thread together all of these little esoteric finds that are out of context. If I were doing it cold, ...I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that it had no place in the New World whatsoever. It just doesn't seem to fit anything that I have been taught in my discipline in anthropology. It seems like these are anachronisms... As an archaeologist, what [can] I say ... that might be positive for the Book of Mormon? Well, really very little." (1984 Sunstone symposium, cited in Sides 1999).

Even the Smithsonian has made a formal statement about the Book of Mormon. Tired of letters from Mormons who had heard rumors about use of the Book of Mormon by Smithsonian scientists, they created a form letter (which was used until the Mormon Congressional delegation got them to change it) that makes the following statements (the complete statement, as well as a response to this document by FARMS apologist John Sorenson can be found at; read both documents and judge for yourself whose position is supported by the facts):

"1. The Smithsonian Institution has never used the Book of Mormon in any way as a scientific guide. The Smithsonian archaeologists see no direct connection between archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book."

"4. One of the main lines of evidence supporting the scientific finding that contacts with Old World civilizations, if indeed they occurred at all, were of very little significance for the development of American Indian civilizations, is the fact that none of the principal Old World domesticated food plants or animals (except the dog) occurred in the New World in pre-Columbian times. American Indians had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1492. (Camels and horses were in the Americas, along with the bison, mammoth, mastodon, but all these animals became extinct around 10,000 B.C. at the time the early big game hunters spread across the Americas.)"

"5. Iron, steel, glass, and silk were not used in the New World before 1492 (except for occasional use of unsmelted meteoric iron). Native copper was worked in various locations in pre-Columbian times, but true metallurgy was limited to southern Mexico and the Andean region, where its occurrence in late prehistoric times involved gold, silver, copper, and their alloys, but not iron."

"8. Reports of findings of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts have frequently appeared in newspapers, magazines and sensational books. None of these claims has stood up to examination by reputable scholars. No inscriptions using Old World forms of writing have been shown to have occurred in any part of the Americas before 1492 except for a few Norse rune stones which have been found in Greenland."

In light of all this, I just don't see any justification for claiming that the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient record of a civilization that actually existed on the American continent. This is one of the foundational claims of Mormonism, and if you can't believe the Book of Mormon is true, it is hard to believe the accompanying claims to divine authority.

Of interest is the fact that the LDS Church has no official position on Book of Mormon geography.  That is to say, the leaders of the Church don’t seem to know where Book of Mormon cities are located.  Either they won’t say or they don’t know.  I suspect the latter.

My Conclusion:  The title of this section is “Book of Mormon Geography”.  The fact is, there is no such thing.  No cities have been identified.  No artifacts have been found.  There is no evidence to suggest that the Book of Mormon took place anywhere in the real world.

For a nice overview of Book of Mormon Geography, see the following links: