A preview from Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: Pre-Columbian figurines from highland Guatemala

08.19.2013 | Matthew Roper

This September, Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship will publish John L. Sorenson’s book, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book. Sorenson’s magnum opus is the culmination of a lifetime of research on the Book of Mormon as a translation of an ancient Mesoamerican text.1 In this and several future posts, I’ll highlight a few excerpts from this important work to whet the appetite.

Human figurines found in pre-Columbian archaeological sites are an often unappreciated but valuable source of cultural information about the societies of ancient peoples.2 These artifacts can help to distinguish chronological sequences in the archaeological record, show evidence of cultural contact, and provide ethnographic information on clothing, social-status markers, and ritual. They can give indications of “how people might seek to define a part of their ethnic identity.”3 Sorenson argued in 1985 that highland Guatemala was the most likely location of the land of Nephi. Now, twenty-eight years after his original assertion, Sorenson expands upon this earlier research to provide an intriguing interpretation of figurines representative of Guatemala’s early culture.4

Sorenson writes:

At Kaminaljuyu, the political center in the Valley of Guatemala, figurines characteristic of Las Charcas and the succeeding Providencia period are quite naturalistic, showing some men but mostly seated women, often pregnant or holding an infant. It is interesting that the representation of skin color on these figurines falls into two categories. One skin color was a reddish brown, and the second color was created from a light-colored clay (or else the body was covered with a white slip, a wash of clay solution over the object). To an observer’s eye, the figurines represent the skin of the living models as either a whitish or reddish-brown shade. It is not implausible that the reddish-brown and whitish skin colors of the figures represent “two racially distinct groups of people,” as Proskouriakoff phrased it when she contrasted physical types on La Venta Stela 3. The Las Charcas figurines seem to suggest that two distinct ethnic groups coexisted in the sixth-century-BC Valley of Guatemala.

Equally striking is a “big break” in the figurine sequence that distinguishes the Las Charcas-Providencia (before 200 BC) types from those that follow in the Verbena-Arenal periods. Figurines from the latter periods are uniformly reddish-brown. In other words, no post-Providencia (200 BC) figurines are represented with whitish skin. The complete absence of light-hued figures of this latter time period suggests that the presence of two shades in the earlier centuries was not a matter of technological happenstance but rather that the two skin tones were actually mirrors of the population being represented. We can conjecture plausibly that the light-skinned persons disappeared from the population in the Valley of Guatemala at the end of the Providencia period, around 200 BC.

Sorenson and many other students of the Book of Mormon assume that both the Nephites and the Lamanites incorporated indigenous Mesoamerican peoples into their own societies. If this assumption is correct, it may shed light on Book of Mormon references to skin color differences (2 Nephi 5:21; 25:33). The negative attitudes based on these differences, which are condemned by Book of Mormon prophets, seem more understandable (Jacob 2:9).

He continues:

As far as the Nephites were concerned, the population of the “Land of Nephi” between 580 and about 200 BC, according to the Book of Mormon text and its implications, would have consisted of “fair” Nephites of Israelite descent, native Las Charcas inhabitants (presumably of slightly darker color) who had been incorporated into the polity ruled by the Nephite elite, and nearby “Lamanites” of “dark” visage who lived in the hotter coastal and foothill (piedmont) zones. The skin shades of surviving native peoples in Mesoamerica, in fact, range from dark brown to virtual white. These shades cover nearly the same range as were found anciently around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Near East.

When the Nephites under Mosiah1 fled from the land of Nephi down to Zarahemla (Omni 1:12-13), fair skinned models were presumably no longer present in the highlands for the artists who made clay images. Thus figurines became exclusively “dark.” The timing of Mosiah1’s departure (in the range estimated between 250 and 200 BC), when he led away the last remnant of the relatively fair population, coincides broadly with the archaeological shift from the Providencia to the Verbena period—that is, it coincides with the change in figurine surface colors.5

Of course, the question of whether these figurines actually represent a cultural marker for the early Nephites or are simply an unrelated manifestation of pre-Columbian culture may never be clearly determined. Scholars should always be careful not to claim more than is warranted by the evidence at hand. But Sorenson’s work provides interesting considerations for discussion. The sort of careful and measured interpretations available in Mormon’s Codex should be of interest to many readers of the Book of Mormon.



1. John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013).

2. Erica Begun, “The Many Faces of Figurines: Figurines as Markers of Ethnicity in Michoacan,” Ancient Mesoamerica 19 (2008): 311-18; Terry Stocker, ed., The New World Figurine Project, vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1991); Terry Stocker and Cynthia L. Otis Charlton, eds., The New World Figurine Project, vol. 2 (Provo, UT: Research Press, 2001). The last two volumes, published under the FARMS Research Press imprint, are widely considered to be important contributions in this area of study.

3. Begun, 317.

4. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985).

5. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 550-52.