Hey guys, so today we’re going to look at one of the most controversial questions regarding the Book of Mormon: Why haven’t archaeologists found anything in the New World that categorically proves that the Book of Mormon is true? It’s a fair question, so let’s talk about it.
Alright, so The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have an official stance on where in the Western Hemisphere the events of the Book of Mormon took place. That said, most Latter-day Saint scholars agree that ancient Mesoamerica fits the bill. The rest of this video will be based on that assumption—sorry to all of the Heartlanders out there.
The geographic descriptions within the Book of Mormon itself are remarkably consistent with each other, but none of the New World names they mentioned then have been tied to any specific archaeological sites today—so we don’t have a reference point to anchor any specific orientation of Book of Mormon geography. Now, that should come as no surprise, because, in the words of archaeologist Mark Wright: “We do not know the ancient names of the vast majority of ancient Mesoamerican cities.” So one thing you’ve got to understand is that when it comes to Book of Mormon archaeology, we’re not even totally sure where to start looking.
You’ve also got to realize that “Less than 1 percent of Mesoamerica has been professionally surveyed.” In 2015, archaeologist William Saturno agreed with that statistic, saying “Of all of the Maya sites that we know to exist we have excavated less than 1 percent of them… The sites themselves that we’ve done excavations at we’ve excavated less than 10 percent of 1 percent …we’re still just scratching the surface.”
On top of that, those estimates were made before all of this great lidar laser tech came out, which has revealed just how blind we’ve been to vast ruins hidden beneath the Mesoamerican jungle canopy. So when you ask yourself why archaeologists haven’t positively identified Book of Mormon “stuff,” remember the words of George Stuart, who was the director of the Center for Maya Research. “Truth is, we don’t know squat.”
It’s also important to remember what kinds of sites, within that 1%, are being explored. “Classic period sites have traditionally been the focus of excavations, while Preclassic/Formative sites have largely been ignored by archaeologists and looters alike since the artifacts tend to be less valuable or exciting.” So not only are sites just not being excavated yet but the ones that are excavated generally only overlap with the last 100-150 years of Nephite history.
And the cherry on top is the fact that by the end of the Book of Mormon, the Nephite civilization had been utterly destroyed by their rivals, the Lamanites. And the Lamanites were left in a constant cycle of civil war. Given the circumstances, I’m not even sure how much would be left to find that would positively identify a site as Nephite or Lamanite.
Some archaeologists, like John Clark, believe that “Book of Mormon cities have been found, they are well known, and their artifacts grace the finest museums. They are merely masked by archaeological labels such as ‘Maya,’ ‘Olmec,’ and so on.” And he’s got a point: If an archaeologist finds an ancient pot, how is he supposed to know if it’s a Nephite pot or a Pre-Classic Mayan pot? Again, we don’t know the ancient names of the vast majority of Mesoamerican sites, and written texts from the New World, in general, are severely lacking—I’m looking at you, tropical climate and Spanish conquistadors.
Without written identifiers that can contextualize sites and artifacts, we’re largely flying blind. We don’t even know what the Aztecs, Maya, and Olmecs anciently called themselves, but it certainly wasn’t what we call them today. Also keep in mind that “…the thousands of separate ancient cities that we label as ‘Maya’ never conceptualized themselves as being part of a single culture… Rather, each polity was a nation unto itself… And the same is true for the dozens of other cultures that dot the Mesoamerican landscape.”
Now, some people wonder: “Well wait a minute. If Lehi and his family originally spoke Hebrew, there’s got to be a scrap of Hebrew chiseled somewhere, right?” Fair question. On top of all of the other factors we’ve considered, many Latter-day Saints believe that Lehi’s party was originally a small fish in a large cultural pond and that their native language would have been overtaken fairly quickly by dominant Mesoamerican languages.
The idea is that as time passed, only a select group continued to be trained in the language of their forefathers, probably largely for recordkeeping purposes. So again, there’s really no way of even telling how much Old World language there would even be left to find, but we’ll see what turns up in coming decades.
Patience while archaeology catches up with scripture is something that all people of faith need to get comfortable with. Old World archaeology doesn’t suffer from all of the same difficulties as New World archaeology, but the fact is, the vast majority of events in the Bible have not yet been archaeologically proven to be true. For example, how much evidence has been found proving that there were thousands of Israelite slaves that eventually left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and wandered in the desert for 40 years? Zero much—that’s how much.
An article from the Jerusalem Post even says, “The Exodus is so fundamental to us and our Jewish sources that it is embarrassing that there is no evidence outside of the Bible to support it.” Of course, just because evidence hasn’t been found does not mean these events never happened. When hard evidence is lacking, Bible scholars instead look for evidence of plausibility. The same principle applies to the Book of Mormon.
In fact, mesoamerican scholar John Sorenson wrote an entire book doing exactly that—so check that out if you want to really dive deep into this subject. We’ve also touched on this idea in this episode about Book of Mormon anachronisms. Also, check out the notes and resources in the YouTube description of this video for more information, and have a great day!
- “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” by Mark Alan Wright (fantastic paper): https://bit.ly/3l6NY64
- Incredible developing research on Semitic and Egyptian elements in Uto-Aztecan languages: https://bit.ly/2GjFhq8
- Quite a scholarly article from William Hamblin on Book of Mormon archaeology and how it compares to Biblical archaeology: https://bit.ly/3liirOH
- Recent Lidar tech discoveries that are revealing how little we know about Mesoamerican lands: https://on.natgeo.com/33qs5Zg
- “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” by John Clark: https://bit.ly/33mupR5
- “Behind the Mask, Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Illusion,” by Brant Gardner: https://bit.ly/30M9wgf
- Jerusalem Post: “The Exodus: Does archaeology have a say?”: https://bit.ly/33muGDE