Archaeology and the Book of Mormon: Thoughts on Sorenson's Basic Paradigm

For decades now, John L. Sorenson's model of Book of Mormon geography, seen above, has been the most influential among Mormon scholars of the Nephite record. Sorenson even goes as far as identifying sites like Chiapa de Corzo and Santa Rosa, with Sidom and Zarahemla, respectively. Was Chiapa de Corzo a Nephite city? It's impossible to know one way or the other. For now, I'll say no. As Mark Wright reminds us, there is a whole lot going on Mesoamerica, much of which still remains a mystery.

For the pusposes of this post, the entire history of Chiapa de Corzo, much less the other pre-classic sites in the Central Depression of Chiapas, cannot be given. That being said, it's plausable that the Nephites lived in or around these cities. Why? Because the same basic things are happenening at the same times. In this post, I will show the archeological timeline of Chiapa de Corzo, as shamelessly plaigerized from the NWAF website; then I will show what was happening at around the same time in the Book of Mormon.

Chiapa de Corzo Dates
1200 BC: Chiapa de Corzo is settled by Mixe-zoquean speakers who had strong ancestral ties to Olmec people residing in the Gulf and Pacific Coastal regions of Mesoamerica.

900-800 BC: The small Mixe-zoque village of Chiapa de Corzo established a strong, possibly direct relationship with the Gulf Olmec center of La Venta.

700-500 BC: Chiapa de Corzo became a planned town with formal plazas and carefully arranged public monumental buildings made of clay.The people maintained their Olmec heritage, incorporating the early ceremonial pond into their urban design and depositing a massive offering of ritual axes in front of an astronomical building that included, among other things, vessels of Gulf Olmec origin and/or inspiration. Ties were simultaneously forged with the Maya region, as similarities are observable with Lowland Maya pottery and Highland Maya censer pots. Thus, Chiapa de Corzo and a half dozen other newly formed Central Depression townsites became a genuine link between the late Olmec and early Maya civilizations.

400 BC: Olmec site of La Venta is abandoned.

250 BC: The ceremonial pond was filled in to create a large cemetery, one of three known in Formative Mesoamerica. Stratigraphic evidence suggests that these individuals, who were of various ages and statuses, were buried around the same time. This event symbolized a further departure from the site's Olmec past, the metropolis of La Venta now largely abandoned.

100 BC: Greater social distinctions were manifested in the following Guanacaste phase around 100 BC when stone buildings and tombs appeared at the site. Guanacaste was the first of three clearly discernible Protoclassic epochs at Chiapa de Corzo. These periods were characterized by the dominance of economically and socially privileged leaders, artisans, and ritual specialists who resided within the site center. Chiapa de Corzo's Zoque rulers began to participate in far flung diplomatic and economic networks linking them to privileged individuals across the Maya Lowlands, Maya Highlands, Pacific Coast, and Oaxaca.

300-400 AD: Craft activity diminished and long-distance ties contracted, but powerful lineages seem to have occupied the site as scores of individuals came to be interred in refurbished temple buildings and in large residences.

400 AD: Beyond this date, the site's principal buildings ceased to be maintained. The final "occupational" phases witnessed the occasional burial of important personages in deserted pyramidal mounds. By this time, the ruins had become a place of pilgrimage, perhaps for displaced Zoque peoples now ruled by Chiapanec invaders. The Chiapanec chose to occupy the adjacent floodplain of the Grijalva River where the modern town was constructed and to leave the Zoque ruin on the nearby plateau untouched.

Mulekite-Nephite Dates
600 BC: The arrivals of Lehi and Mulek, Since Coriantmr, stumbled upon by the "people of Zarahemla", hereafter reffered to as Mulekites, the Mulekites must have originally lived near Jaredite territory(Omni 1:14-17). Relative to the later Nephite heartland of Zarahemla, Mulek landed in the land northward(Alma 22:30) but settled in the north(Helaman 6:10). Since the Jaredites lived "northward", the Mulekites landed in Jaredite territory then settled just outside of it, presumably to avoid the volatility of that region. 

400BC: End of the Jaredites.

226 BC: "And it came to pass that the people of Zarahemla, and of Mosiah, did unite together; and Mosiah was appointed to be their king",(Omni 1:19). By now, the Mulekties have settled south of their original coastal settlement and had become a Jareditish people for it isn't until they merge with the Nephites, led by Mosiah I, that Jaredite names suddenly appear in the Nephite record(A Permanent Heritage). They adopt the identity/religion of the Nephites.

91-83 BC: "And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people"(Alma 1:3). "And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel"(Alma 4:6).

327-421 AD: Nephites engage in protracted warfare with the Lamanites, abandon their cities, flee northward and meet their demise(Mormon 1-9).

For both Chiapa de Corzo and Nephite lands, like Zarahemla, you have an older, north-western culture, founding the site, only to distance itself from it's roots for a newer, more southern cultural affinity, an increase in class distinctions and an eventual collapse, all happening at about the same times. It seems as if both archeology and the Book of Mormon are describing the same basic story. Again, this doesn't mean Chiapa de Corzo was Nephite but it's plausible that it was Nephite or at least near Nephites as both groups seem to be reacting to the same socio-political/socio-economic pressures.

What I like about Sorenson's basic geographical paradigm of Olmec Jaredites, Zoquean Nephites and Mayan Lamanites is that it allows archeology to possibly help illucidate some things in the Book of Mormon. For example, the Zoques at Chiapa de Corzo began to trade with lowland Maya groups and to emulate many of their practices to the extent that by 50 BC, Chiapa de Corzo was either ruled by Maya regents or was ruled by subservient Zoquean rulers who were installed by Mayans(Source). 

What I find interesting is that between 52 - 49 BC, in the Book of Mormon, we have the founding of the Gadianton Robbers, followed by the invasion of the Lamanites, led by a Mulekite, with a Jaredite name, Coriantumr. This is also a period in which Lamanites are described as being more righteous than the Nephites and when Lamanites prophets are calling the people to repentance, only to be shot at with arrows(The Book of Helaman). Given the Mulekite's Jareditish roots and their greater numbers in Nephite society, where the Gadianton Robbers part of some nativist rebellion? Was Coriantumr's Lamanite backed invasion part of a larger pattern of Mayan control of the region? These are possible productive convergances that tell me Sorenson's basic geographical paradigm is useful, even if it is too premature to identify specific cities as Nephite or not.