Final preview from Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: The flight of the Nephites

09.16.2013 | Matthew Roper

Over the past few weeks Matthew Roper has provided sneak peek excerpts from John L. Sorenson’s new volume, “Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.” (Check out parts 1, 2, and 3.) Sorenson’s magnum opus is now available at Deseret Book. The Institute extends our gratitude and congratulations to Dr. Sorenson for his lifetime of work on our keystone scripture, the Book of Mormon. —BHodges

John L. Sorenson observes that in Mesoamerica, the period from 200 to 400 AD was a period marked by profound social and demographic changes including extensive warfare and dislocation. “That these were not just manifestations of local skirmishes or battles is shown by the effect of war on entire regions,” he asserts. Of particular interest in light of Mormon’s account (Mormon 1-2) is the state of things in the region Sorenson proposes as the land of Zarahemla, the Central Depression of Chiapas in the mid-fourth century AD.

Almost 45 years ago Lowe and Mason reported “a general abandonment of most occupied archaeological sites at the close of . . . period VIII” (Jiquipilas, AD 350). Lowe reported, “This apparent abandonment of [the region, which included Santa Rosa] during the [latter half of the] Early Classic appears to be real rather than illusionary, as the valley has [now] been thoroughly scouted.” La Libertad, on the upper Grijalva, was abandoned at the same time, and so was nearby Chinkultic. Agrinier concluded that at “the end of the first half of the Early Classic” (AD 350), the Central Depression seems to have suffered “social disturbances that resulted in the destruction of temples at El Mirador and the abandonment of . . . ceremonial structures in Chiapa de Corzo and [nearby] Ocozocoautla.” We are left with virtually no evidence of the continuation of the traditional population of the Central Depression after that time. ((John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2013), 674-75.))

Sorenson further notes that at El Mirador in the northwest wing of the Central Depression, around 350 AD,

there was an “intense fire that totally destroyed” the largest sacred building at the site. “It seems that the temple had been thoroughly cleaned of its contents prior to its burning.” That suggests a calculated retreat by the defenders in the face of impending attack. Furthermore, tombs were looted at about the same time. A period of temporary abandonment of Mirador followed; excavation indicated that this lasted just one or two rainy seasons before small numbers of new settlers came in. Mirador was one of only a handful of sites inhabited by the invaders. The resettlement was marked by “shoddier construction” than before, perhaps indicating the presence of a “transitory elite . . . more concerned with quickly [constructed] public buildings rather than with long-range durability.” The pottery of that small successor population showed connections to the Kaminaljuyu area of Guatemala, confirming the assumption that the invaders of the Central Depression had come from highland Guatemala. . . . Around the same time (or soon afterward), on the south side of the actual isthmus the major site of Laguna Zope was abandoned. The culture of that site was related to that of the Jiquipilas period in Chiapas. This evidence seems to show the track of the population that fled from Chiapas moving northward past the isthmus. ((Ibid., 675-76.))

Sorenson also observes:

The abandonment phenomenon was no minor one; the area depopulated was at least 5,000 square miles (12,950 sq km) in extent! No plausible reason for the disappearance of these people is evident other than large-scale war in which invaders slew or expelled most of the old inhabitants. . . . The resources deployed and consumed to sweep the Grijalva basin mostly clean of inhabitants must have required a vast scale of military preparation and action. ((Ibid., 676, 690.))

He suggests that this conflict was connected with the long-term tensions archaeologists think existed across the language and cultural boundary separating Mayan and Mixe-Zoquean languages, which extended from the present Mexico-Guatemala border to the Gulf of Mexico on the coast of Tabasco. The evidence suggests that fourth century armies from the south and east of this boundary pushed out of Guatemala and through the Central Depression, forcing the abandonment of all significant sites there, a picture reminiscent of that described by Mormon during the flight of the Nephites (Mormon 2:1-29).

Ethnicity was patently one of the major factors in the warfare between the “Lamanites” and the “Nephites” reported in the last portion of the Book of Mormon. Mormon’s record makes this so clear that no discussion is necessary to establish the fact. But beyond the basic fact of that ethnic-difference flash point, the correspondence extends to geographical similarities between the centuries-long Lamanite-Nephite rivalry and the scene of the Maya–Mixe-Zoquean clash. Specifically, Mayan-language people, mainly from highland Guatemala, apparently drove out Mixe-Zoquean speakers from Chiapas and adjacent areas of southern Mesoamerica, and that operation coincided in space, time, and nature with what Nephite history represents as “Lamanites” expelling “Nephites” from their homeland in the Sidon/Grijalva River basin. ((Ibid., 689-90.))