There are 27 thoughts on “From the East to the West: The Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon”.

  1. Yes Jacob said they lived on an island. He was one of the first off the boat, and probably hadn’t got much further than the land of the 1st inheritance and the city and land of Nephi. However, if you read further in the Book of Mormon, you will see a clarification verse, in the great geography chapter of the Book of Mormon, Alma 22. This is where Mormon, the most traveled of all Nephites possibly, with the hindsight of 1000 years of history of his people, describes the basic layout of Book of Mormon Lands.

    Alma 22:32
    And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were NEARLY SURROUNDED BY WATER, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward. (Sorry for the all caps, no option to use bold, highlight, or Italics).

    From this verse we see Mormon providing some critical details that they were “nearly surrounded by water”, not completely like an island. There was a narrow neck going off of their land mass to a land that was in a northward direction.

    This is a good example where someone takes one verse from the Book of Mormon, and goes with it, without regard to other verses that fill in more details and give clarification. I have often seen others do the same thing with this great geography chapter of the Book of Mormon, Alma 22. It gives a general geographic picture. But there are still later verses in the Book of Mormon that will clarify even further. Frequently those verses and descriptions are left out.

    More importantly, people can interpret and twist more vague verses to fit their model in “wa-la” fashion. The proper approach should be to find ancient archaeological cultures that are the best candidates for Book of Mormon peoples and see how the geography would fit within the context of those specific territories. I.e. “if the Book of Mormon happened in the Maya area, then the narrow neck would fit this particular geographic feature, which is a “narrow neck” of land for the Maya”. Or “if the Book of Mormon happened among the Andean peoples around Lake Titcaca and northward through Cuzco,etc. then the Narrow Neck would fit that particular geographic feature for that area.”

    In this way more vague verses can be applied to specific areas. Each candidate area should be examined for a “general fit”, with details being filled in by that area. Going purely off of Geography is problematic. The archaeology and geography should be examined together for good fits.

    This brings up an issue, the problem of the “internal map” approach. This is where geography verses are examined and a map is made purely off of those descriptions. But vague verses can go one direction, or the other, depending on the author’s preference. The internal map concept lends to “cheating” in my opinion: too many “aha” or “wa-la” moments when the author already knows his interpretation of how a vague verse should fall, will fit in certain areas of the world that he already knows. Preconceived notions are at play here.

    In my opinion a better approach is to closely examine viable archaeological candidates, and then see how closely the geography fits.

    So far, Mesoamerica fits more like a glove than other areas, both archaeologically and geographically. The Yucatan, Guatemala, and Chiapas Mexico are “nearly surrounded by water”, exactly as the verse above describes. Rise and Fall of civilizations at the right centuries, movements of people, city building, cement roads, temple building, warfare and defensive, moated, fortified cities, and perhaps most critical of all, writing, all occur at the correct time periods, along with hundreds of other “traits” that can be identified in the Book of Mormon. You are hard pressed to find any other candidate area with as many matches, both geographically and archaeologically. South America has some possibilities, but is more problematic with geography (you have to sink Brazil), and distances, and not as many hits on the archaeology list (although metalurgy is stronger in that area).

    Unless the Lord made all evidence sink into the earth and the molecules separate of the artifacts left behind by Book of Mormon peoples, erasing all footprints (see D&C 88:78-79 for contra), we should be able to identify the best candidates.

    I think that “islands” like Australia etc. aren’t going to rise to the top any time soon as candidates.

  2. There is one critical verse that almost all researchers of the Book of Mormon geography either miss, or just plain ignore. The verse makes it clear that the Nephite people lived on an Island.

    20 And now, my beloved brethren, seeing that our merciful God has given us so great knowledge concerning these things, let us remember him, and lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off; nevertheless, we have been driven out of the land of our inheritance; but we have been led to a better land, for the Lord has made the sea our path, and WE ARE UPON AN ISLE OF THE SEA. (2 Nephi 10)

    Obviously trying to fit the promised land into Mesoamerica falls apart if you believe the actual words in the Book of Mormon.

    Any thorough research of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that they not only lived on an island, but the island was not all that big. So with this in mind, research will show that the promised land is definitely NOT the size of North or South America.

    This is probably the most plausible map of the Promised Land, based on Book of Mormon verses.

  3. Hi Brant,

    I enjoyed learning about the Mesoamerican directional system. I’ve been wondering why Moroni insisted on September 22nd as the day Joseph received the plates. I’ve read that the Israelite harvest festival season and Rosh Hashanah may be an explanation.

    Just curious as to your thoughts… do you think there could also be a connection between “Moroni Day”, the Fall Equinox, and the significance of “east” in the Mesoamerican directional system?…. perhaps using the sun as a symbol for Christ? It’s interesting that the vast majority of Angel Moroni’s standing atop temples face east as a symbol of Christ’s second coming.

  4. Me again. I wonder if you are both right. Prof. Sorenson’s map seems to “work” in relation to people moving around geographically, yet there is that pesky problem of where “north” is. Your “X” pattern would go a long ways toward correcting the compass, but would put his “north” at the left side of the “northward” arc. Not so much a matter of correcting his map as correcting his concept of directions. Fascinating.

  5. (plz xcuse my use of abridged english txtng, its jus fasta)

    my comment most likely wont b posted since it opposes the author
    xcept maybe it will as its respectful
    1st i’ll contend as 2y the BofM setting cant b mesoamerica, backed with scripture
    2nd i’ll offer a widely held theory of where the promised land was/is

    theres no way of gettin around this scripture..
    alma 22: 32
    “And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea..”
    the shortest distance of the proposed narrow neck of mesoamerica is pert near 125miles of wut wouldve been dense jungle
    which wouldve taken a good week 4a person on foot, 2 cover
    this fact alone takes central america outta the equation

    u cant skirt around these scriptures either..
    mosiah 12: 6
    “And it shall come to pass that I will send forth hail among them, and it shall smite them; and they shall also be smitten with the east wind; and insects shall pester their land also, and devour their grain.”
    yeah, no..according 2 the national weather service, it cant hail past latitudes below mid texas
    so y would abinahdai foretell of hail 2a ppl who wouldnt hav any idea of wut hail was? seeing as they were in mesoamerica
    1nephi 11:8
    “And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow”
    again, y would nephi use sno as a descriptor, 2 future generations, who would hav no knowledge of sno (if they resided in central america)

    finally 1nephi 13: 12-19
    “12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.

    13 And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.

    14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.

    15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.

    16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.

    17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.

    18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.

    19 And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.”

    now this gentile who discovered the promise land wasnt christopher colombus cuz afta all he landed in cuba n on his last voyage, went only as far as venezuela where he nevva made contact with indigenous ppl so he certainly didnt go un2 any lamanites
    nor was it john cabbot who landed in canada but also didnt make contact with any ppl
    the person who fits the bill, also shares the surname of our restoration prophet, 1 captain john smith
    not only was he from england (mother gentile) but his writings convinced the pilgrims 2 come 2 the promise land
    he also lived among the native americans (lamanites) 4a spell
    the descendants of these pilgrims, which r mentioned in the above verses, smote n scattered the lamanites b4 them
    the gentiles who came outta captivity n battled with the mother gentile was the revolutionary war
    this is united states history not centeral america history
    in conclusion the promise lands began on the eastern seaboard of north america not mesoamerica

    oh ya..the hill cumorah in the promise land, where moroni buried not only the golden plates but a gynormous depository of records, is in ny state
    its improabable that moroni would make several trips that were pert near 6,000miles 1 way, 2 fill a depository in the side of hill cummorah with metal plated records

    ive decided not 2 share my theory of where i believe the BofM lands were til these comments r posted tho
    on a side note, ive much respect 4 the xhaustive research n time youve devoted 2 the scriptures

    • Lance:

      As you are developing your opinions, I would recommend that you read the arguments that have been presented. You will find that your questions about how specific verses relate to the Book of Mormon have been considered very carefully. Of course everyone must form their own opinions based on the evidence, but it really should be carefully considered opinions. As a quick example, you note that Moroni buried the plates in Cumorah. Perhaps you missed the scripture that indicates that all of the plates except those Moroni had were buried in Cumorah. When using scripture to make your arguments, you should make sure that you are actually using the scriptures rather than simply repeating what others have suggested that they say.

      Good luck in your studies.

  6. If I may timidly throw my senine into the discussion:
    I did extensive wargaming of B of M wars, moving armies around using Prof Sorenson’s map. It seems to work very well. The Gadianton War, in 3 Nephi, was said to be on a north-south line. If we tilt the map 90 degrees to northwest to southeast, it makes perfect sense geographically, and seems to place the Gadiantons in the Lacandon Wilderness. In terms of lines of communication and defensive networks, his map also seems to work very well, also in regards to Lamanite strategic goals and military movements. I don’t know squat about Mesoamerican languages or culture, but I know what I see when I move armies around on the map.

    • Thank you very much for that comment. That is an important perspective that requires the expertise of someone who understands such things. I certainly do not. I think that such information simply continues to add to the set of data that are converging on a very plausible location for the Book of Mormon.

      If you have written anything up on this. I would love to know.

      • I’m finishing a manuscript I hope to get published. I need to wargame in more detail using your map, I could well be mistaken. However, using his map, Alma 50 has the Nephites occupying a stretch of the Gulf of Mexico. This puts them astride the lucrative trade routes between Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. A Lamanite attack, to reopen the trade route, (instead of attacking Zarahemla,) therefore makes perfect sense strategically. However, I could be wrong, and will do more study on the matter.

        • Interesting. I have recently written up an idea that the increase in warfare near the end of the Nephite nation was due to their perceived expansion and therefore threat to trade routes. Only something that has such lasting importance would be worth the political and economic cost of such massive battles for extinction. So–I agree with you. It was probably also relevant in earlier periods.

          • I’ve hesitated to speak up because I know how intense these discussions can get, with academic reputations at stake. However, in for a dime, in for a dollar, I’m here now under my actual name. If you can get me a PDF of your map, I’ll wargame it and let you know how well it works. A real test of a idea is how well it works under conditions the proponent did not anticipate.

            • John:
              Good to have you here under your name. I have both of your online books and enjoy them (and have referenced them in one I am working on). The only maps I have are those that Sorenson uses, so you have seen whatever I have. I think you have some excellent contributions to make.

  7. What’s truly amazing for me is how so many (if not all) of these so-called “problems” concerning the Book of Mormon lands are immediately fixed when you take the setting of the Book of Mormon out of Central America and place it in the Lord’s “promised land”—the same land where the Gentiles would raise up a “mighty nation” and where the New Jerusalem is to be built: The United States of America.

    There are two words that need to be defined here:

    EISEGESIS: “Personal interpretation of a text (especially of the scriptures) using your own ideas.”
    EXEGESIS: “Critical explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture.”

    Call me old-fashioned, but I would definitely fall into the “exegesis” category. I interpret scripture critically and literally. When the Book of Mormon says “north,” I interpret that as meaning “north.” When the Book of Mormon says “horses,” “flocks and herds,” “elephants,” “point of his sword,” etc., I interpret that as meaning “horses,” “flocks and herds,” “elephants,” “point of his sword,” and so on and so forth.

    What the record says, I believe. Period.

    Ask yourself: Does God know where the Book of Mormon took place? Does God know where the “remnant of the House of Israel” currently is? Does God know the difference between north and northwest? Does God know the difference between a horse and pig, or a lamb and a rat? Does God know the difference between a sword and a club? I trust that He does. Moreover, I trust God knew exactly what He was talking about when His power came upon the Prophet Joseph Smith during the translation of that sacred record.

    When working with those of the “eisegesis” mindset, those who would apply their own ideas and fallible theories to the scriptures, I remember the words of the great reformer, Martin Luther, who said: “…grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go.”

    It is my testimony that the Book of Mormon took place exactly where the record—through its prophecies and promises concerning the land and the latter-day Gentiles that would inhabit the land—testifies it took place, which can only be the land that is now the United States of America.
    [Note: a listing of promises has been removed to shorten the post. They did not add to the argument presented]

    • Jake:

      We are clearly of different opinions. I think many of those will be worked out as we seriously approach the Book of Mormon. You suggest: “What’s truly amazing for me is how so many (if not all) of these so-called “problems” concerning the Book of Mormon lands are immediately fixed when you take the setting of the Book of Mormon out of Central America and place it in the Lord’s “promised land.” Unfortunately, very few “problems” are resolved by this suggestion, and other very important ones are raised. Since this article is discussing the way the directional terms are used, discussing the specific geography was beyond the intent. Obviously, however, I accept a Mesoamerican location. I accept it based on it being the best fit between geography and text. One of the very few “problems” was that it doesn’t appear that north was used the same way that we use it. The article discussed not only the reasoning behind seeing the terms as a translation, but providing internal textual evidence supporting that thesis.

      It is good to have definitions of exegesis and eisegesis, but I would suggest that your faith-based declaration of the location of the Book of Mormon is also based on eisegesis. You are bringing outside understanding to the text and requiring that the text be interpreted according to assumptions that are built on things that are not in the text.

      What I would hope is that those of us sincerely interested in the Book of Mormon can advance our understanding without supposing that we must assail anyone else’s faith in the
      Book of Mormon. I can respect your testimony and accept it as your belief. I don’t accept it as binding on my, and add my own testimony about the book. Geography is geography and is amenable to scholarly analysis. I would hope that we can do that work without suggesting that those who disagree with us are somehow less faithful.

  8. I could have hoped that all the folks eager to tell the Nephite authors what they “really” meant in describing directions would have consulted the extensive material I placed over 20 years ago in Appendix C. The Problem of Directions in The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (FARMS, 1992), 399-415. Find there extensive documentation of the fact that, as Brent also shows, numerous ethnographers and archaeologists have long assured us that Mesoamericans did not refer to “the cardinal directions.” Furthermore I have never used the expression “Nephite north,” nor have I supposed that the Nephites “skewed” direction terminology. I recognized the significance of “quarters” of the land and published on that concept in “The Settlements of Book of Mormon Peoples,” in my Nephite Culture and Society: Collected Papers (Salt Lake City: New Sage Books, 1997), pp. 136-137. Admittedly these sources have not been widely circulated, but the normal task of a scholar is to search out all the relevant sources on a given subject before taking the trouble to make further (sometimes unnecessary) statements. Progress, but slowly, I guess.

  9. Brant,
    As usual you’ve done a wonderful job in fitting Sorenson’s geography theory to the Book of Mormon with your lengthy enumerated scholarly outline. If not for your wonderful scholarly works, one would have never known the Nephites were such dullards and a stupid and a silly people who couldn’t tell east and west as they’re known today in the Latter-Days. Imagine that silly prophet Alma writing that “all the planets move in their regular form” while not knowing North and South as they’re known today.
    Yes, it’s truly miraculous the knowledge that has been poured out of your mind in defense of a Mesoamerica setting for the Book of Mormon over anything else, including common sense.

    Best Wishes,
    Stephen Reed

    • Stephen:

      It appears that you are anxious to repeat some stock accusations without actually reading the paper on which you are commenting. A closer reading would tell you that there is a lot of evidence how both ancient and modern Mesoamerican cultures viewed directions. It is a different system than what we use. There are also interesting hints in the way Joseph translated the text that follow those conventions even though our modern words for north and south are used in the translation.

      Your suggestion that both modern and ancient Mesoamericans were dullards because they used a different directional system from the one you understand appears ungracious at best.

  10. After talking to Brant, we agree that the following concern should be addressed. In order for this correlation to be valid we must ask the following question. Did Mormon consider directions from the point of view of the people he was writing about? From the text it is obvious that he was not in either Zarahemla or Bountiful while doing his abridgement of the records, he was somewhere near the Hill Shim as far as we can tell. In the text of Mormon’s map in Alma 22, if we equate the narrow strip of wilderness with the Cuchumatan mountains and the Motogua river, then Mormon must have been using a directional view based on the location of the subjects he was describing. If he did so for this location, it is logical that he did so for both Zarahemla, Bountiful and possibly the land of the Jaredites. In my opinion, Mormon was smart enough to consider this problem and solved it by placing himself in each location as he wrote. If this is true, Gardner’s correlation fits and resolves the ambiguities introduced by assuming a fixed directionality, a modern concept, for the entire Book of Mormon as many Book of Mormon Geographers tend to do.

    Larry Poulsen

  11. Dear Brant and those interested in this topic,

    I greatly appreciate your scholarship here and want to weigh in on this topic of Mesoamerican directional conceptions. You have brought up some really interesting points from Mesoamerica, most interesting to me the equinox path creating a wedge shaped region to the east and west, and quartering the land, along with “up” and “down” associations with directions which I have also thought about in my studies.

    That being said, I respectfully disagree with you on your interpretation of the Mesoamerican directional system and a few other key foundational points in this argument that “Mesoamericans did not have the notion of four cardinal directions as we do”. Concurring with me on this point are Mayanists/archaeologists Dr. Stan Guenter, Dr. Tomas Barrientos of Guatemala, and Alfonso Morales, Palenque archaeologist.

    Issue #1: Ancient City Planning
    The first problem I see with this lies within the very fabric of Mesamerican civilizations; their cities. All the way back to Olmec times and before, many ancient settlements and cities were laid out on North/South, East/West alignments. Very common are alignments on magnetic north, which would be expected with the knowledge of loadstone compasses by early Mesoamericans. Great Classic centers like Tikal, Calakmul, and so many others, exhibit very precise N/S and E/W alignments especially in more prominent groups/constructions. I spoke on this topic with my friend Dr. Stanley Guenter. Stan is best known as one of the world’s top Maya glyph translators of the up and coming generation of scholars, but I have found that his broader knowledge of Mesoamerican and other ancient civilizations across the world is unparalleled. He mentioned to me that many ancient cities/settlements/constructions in Mesoamerica were aligned on magnetic north, and many others were tilted slightly to one side for unknown reasons, so, tied to North/south east/west in original plan but then purposely tilted off that axis, perhaps pointing to some other feature of significance (as in the mighty city Teotihuacan, laid out on N/S E/W grid, and then purposely tilted just east of magnetic north). However, this tilt is so small that and often regular, that it is clear the starting point of the city architects was north/south east/west (as shown below in E-groups in the El Mirador Basin).

    I list here a just a few easily recognized examples from published maps of archaeological sites (this can be tricky, because some maps are oriented to true north and others to magnetic north. I even reviewed one site whose early maps were put on a grid aligned to magnetic north and whose later maps were put on a grid to true north).

    Tikal: Lost World Pre-Classic E Group, precisely aligned on N/S E/W directions, as well as twin groups Q, R, P, and O. The North acropolis and the great plaza, as well as temples 1 and 2, also aligned on the cardinal directions.

    Calakmul: Central Plaza, E Group, and the massive triad Structure 2, as well as structure 1, aligned on magnetic north.

    Palenque’s great palace’s eastern edge on a precise N/S alignment, along with the temple of the inscriptions on an E/W alignment, with temple facing north.

    Giant capitals and large regional capitals are not the only places where this occurs. In Belize, Guijarral’s center is dead on N/S E/W. Dos Hombres’s largest group is precisely on N/S and E/W, with a smaller group connected by a causeway offset and tilted, following natural terrain. Not only is Chan Chich’s center and other main groups on N/S E/W, but the large causeways at the site are E/W, running out of the heart of the city. These are just a few of hundreds of examples.

    It should be noted that in the Maya Classic period certainly not all cities are aligned on N/S E/W grids. Some of the cities follow natural terrain, especially those on rivers like Piedras Negras (which is aligned Northwest/Southeast) and Yaxchilan which follows the bend in the river. But, even Copan, which follows it’s river a bit especially on the east court side, has its great plaza’s west side precisely on a N/S line.
    Outside of the Maya area the Zapotecs at their great capital Monte Alban laid out their redoubt mounted jewel on a fairly precisely modified North/South long alignment.
    Likewise the beautiful postclassic Mitla in Oaxaca was constructed on its longer arrangement on N/S.

    These examples of intimate architectural engineering and city planning on N/S E/W grids from mostly Classic and Post-Classic examples do not however find their origins in the Classic period. Even before the time of Christ, upon close inspection of the largest Mesoamerican city ever built, the massive Pre-Classic EL Mirador, almost all major constructions seem to be aligned on magnetic north:
    -In the old sector, Tigre and Temple 34 are N/S E/W roughly aligned on magnetic north
    -The El Leon E Group: the West pyramid is precisely aligned on N/S E/W, the eastern long mound is tilted maybe 4 degrees east of magnetic north
    -Tres Micos (formerly labelled Tres Hermanos), Grupo Cutz, and Grupo Cigarras, also massive constructions, appear precisely aligned on N/S E/W where N is magnetic north.
    -On the giant Tecolote triad (formerly called Monos), the east edge of the basal platform is precisely on N/S alignment, with the western side of the basal platform over 10 degrees east of north, but this follows natural terrain drop off
    -The Great acropolis is composed of many smaller buildings with some medium sized constructions roughly aligned N/S E/W. The basal platform that they sit upon is more precisely aligned E/W with N/S sides. The Villacorte Causeway that spans the south side of the acropolis looks to be more precisely east/west.
    -Smaller buildings grouped around and on these major pyramids and basal platforms are more roughly aligned to N/S E/W, or not aligned at all. But the All major buildings are aligned with the exception of the three cascabel pyramids, which are off alignment (Richard Hanson told me these may represent the three stars in Orion’s belt, and for this reason do not fit the alignment scheme of the city).
    -In the younger western sector of the city, the massive east group with the Danta pyramid (perhaps the bulkiest pyramid on earth), the Danta triad itself is roughly aligned N/S, E/W, I say roughly because it has rounded sides. But the massive basal platform it sits on, at the frontal approach, is precisely aligned on N/S E/W alignments (again, where N is magnetic north). The Danta and its basal platform sits on an even larger basal platform that is under the entire east group. This massive platform roughly flows east/west, but is not precisely aligned, its walls appearing to follow some natural topography. The E group pyramid on this platform is precisely on N/S E/W alignment, with the Pava triad here aligned tilted to the east of North about just past 10 degrees, similar to the long mound in the Leon E group.

    Smaller groups around the Danta, like Venado and Puma, are not aligned to magnetic north, but these groups are a huge scale down in size from all of the construction mentioned above.
    Of the largest 12 or 13 groups at El Mirador, all are aligned to magnetic north with the exception of Cascabel, tilted like Orion’s belt.

    At El Mirador’s next door neighbor, Nakbe, The largest group at the site, another giant basal platform with massive triad pyramid on top is precisely aligned on N/S E/W alignments. Of interest: the 2nd largest group at Nakbe is an E group, and like the El Leon E group at El Mirador, it looks to be about 4 degrees or so east of North in alignment, showing again some significant and purposeful (but at this time unknown) tilt off of E/W N/S.

    But it does not begin with El Mirador and Nakbe among the Pre-Classic Maya. We see this as well woven into the fabric of the Olmec civilization. San Lorenzo, perhaps Mesoamerica’s first city, has N/S E/W undeniable and intentional alignments. Richard Diehl notes that a visitor who would have seen San Lorenzo at its height would have “entered a vast open plaza paved with red sand and yellow gravel floor dotted with clusters of stone sculptures, many protected by “ramada” – style thatched roofs or shelters of perishable materials extending along a north-south axis. At least 10 Colossal Heads and several thrones from various lines that extend roughly north-south across the plateau surface.” (bold emphasis mine, The Olmecs, America’s First Civilization, p. 35). The height of San Lorenzo was 1100-900 B.C.

    The best example however from the Olmecs comes from La Venta, where a massive city for its time was constructed very precisely on a N/S axis.

    The civilization that flourished along the banks of the Grijalva River, the Mixe Zoquens, were not much different from their Mesoamerican neighbors. Many of their cities likewise exhibited north/south, east/west planning.

    So it seems a massive stretch for me that ancient Mesoamericans were not acutely aware of 4 cardinal directions. After they or their ancestors discovered east and west from the pathway of the sun, they quickly and concretely conceived of north and south, the opposing axis to the east/west line. Millions of cubic tons of construction materials were lined up on either rough or much more precise east/west and north south lines at hundreds of ancient cities in Meso. So I can hardly believe that the many thousands or hundreds of thousands of people involved in building those constructions were oblivious to 4 very distinct directions they were aligning things to. They had to be painfully aware, literally in pain, from all the material they hauled and carefully aligned on N/S and E/W alignments.

    Issue #2: The Maya had glyphs for the 4 cardinal directions AS WELL AS 4 additional intercardinal directions (The following information was given to me by Stan Guenter)

    At the ancient Maya city Rio Azul, a tomb was found, Tomb 12, precisely aligned on North/South, East/West alignment. It has a north wall, a south wall, an east wall, and a west wall. On these four walls are the corresponding glyphs for north, south, east, and west. In the masters thesis of Mary Jane Acuna, student of David Stuart at U Texas Austin, an extensive paper was written this subject (link provided here)

    Mary Jane Acuna states that this tomb is “concerned with directionality”. Paraphrased from pages 32-36:


    Tomb 12:

    Tomb 12 is located beneath Structure A-4 and also corresponds to the same time period as Tomb 7 (Orrego 2000: 71). Its long axis is oriented east-west and is also a bedrock-cavity type of tomb (Fig. 42) (Adams and Robichaux 1992: 415). Looters discovered it while they were excavating the trench that led them to Tomb 6. Both tombs, 6 and 12, are along the same east-west line under Structure A-4 in alignment with Sanctuary 2 (see Appendix B and Fig. 25)
    . . .Walls and floor, including the interior of the basins, as well as the vault were finely plastered.
    . . . This tomb is renowned for having glyphs representing the cardinal directions painted on each corresponding wall.
    . . . The directional glyphs were painted centrally in each panel in sets of two in a single column. Secondary glyphs were painted in each corner of the tomb (Fig. 43).”

    Directional Glyphs:

    The main sign in the top compound of each set on all four walls is identical except for the first sign of the affixes. The variation is associated to each direction, which is named in the bottom glyph of each wall (Fig. 44). Thus, the reading on each wall is as follows:

    East: K’IN-TZIKIN?-AJAW EL-K’IN-la
    South: EK’-TZIKIN?-AJAW NOHOL?-la
    North: UH?-TZIKIN?-AJAW NAAH-la

    As we can see, each direction appears associated to a specific “lord” or patron represented by stars and metaphors accompanied by the title ajaw. East, where the sun rises, is using the Sun Lord and its opposite, west, where the sun sets uses the symbol for darkness, Dark Lord. Venus Lord is used for the south and Moon Goddess(?) for north.

    These two points, north and south, have been interpreted to mark the moments between sunrise and sunset, that is, the heavens and the underworld (Ashmore and Sabloff 2002: 203; Tedlock 1992: 19), or as zenith and nadir defined by the sun’s highest and lowest points in its journey (Bricker 1983; Paxton 2001: 24). Stuart (1987: 162-163) suggested the idea of these glyphs being nominal in character after comparing the k’in affix on the east glyph to an example on Stela 16 at Caracol, Belize, where the context supported this reading.

    Secondary Glyphs:

    These are four smaller glyphs that were painted in each corner over the red band (Fig. 45). Although there does not seem to be a concrete interpretation of these glyphs, they contain recognizable phonetic symbols and logograms. It also remains unclear whether they are to be read sequentially or if they are stand-alone signs. In the northeast corner is a compound that is composed by the main sign NAHB, “pool, large body of standing water”, with a NAL, “place”, affix and preceded by the coefficient 6, WAK. This would therefore be read WAK NAHB-NAL or “six water place” (Fig. 45a). Although the exact meaning of this compound remains somewhat elusive I suggest it might be a place name associated directly with midpoints between the Maya cardinal directions as it is placed in such position on the tomb walls. I believe another example of this glyph appears in Tomb 2, different in presentation, but also on the northeast section of the north wall (see Fig. 36). Returning to Tomb 12’s secondary glyphs, in the southeast corner is a glyph with the main sign CHAN, “sky”, and its phonetic complement –na. ?-CHAN-na is probably naming a place in the sky world, or the heavens (Fig. 45b).

    The glyph in the southwest corner, opposite the compound in the northeast corner, also has the coefficient six. The main sign has the phonetic complement –wa and the affix NAL, indicating it is also a cosmological place name. So far, the reading for this compound is WAK ?-wa-NAL (Fig. 45c). Finally, on the northwest corner and the last of the secondary glyphs is another undeciphered compound. A proposed reading for this is YAX ?-le-NAL, suggesting a place name involving the color green or “unripe” (Fig. 45d). Significantly, “le” can be either phonetic or a logogram and in this particular case given its position in the compound it might be a logogram, LE. At Balamku (see below), “le” signs establish the visual connection with water imagery, where they are used to represent the watery environment. These secondary glyphs seem to be nominal in character, possibly of mythological places somehow associated with the four directions or their patron deities. However, because they are placed in the corners, in between each cardinal direction I would suggest they are naming midpoints in the greater scheme of the Universe as understood by the ancient Maya. If the association of “le” to water is correct, I find it interesting that the opposite corners, northeast and southwest, are related to sky and water, the latter being directly connected to the underworld.”

    From the Rio Azul example, I feel there is absolutely no doubt that the Maya not only had a concrete conception of the four cardinal directions north, south, east, and west, but they expressed them in glyphs. If you can imagine the ancient Maya rulers of El Mirador, Tikal, Calakmul, or even smaller cities overseeing massive city building project, constructing a new pyramid our group of buildings for example, on north/south east/west alignments, they would have logically needed words for these “sides” of the buildings and the precise directions they were being aligned to. These rulers and their royal appointed architects and engineers, with armies of supervisors, sub supervisors, team captains, and construction teams, simply could not have been unaware of what they were doing. Not only among the maya, but all the way back to the Olmec and before, like the north/south construction of the unbelievable massive Sterling acropolis at La Venta, and the north/south modified ridge top at San Lorenzo, where according to Diehl states “Coe and I believe that the 67,000 cu. m (2.36 million cu. ft) of this soil was construction fill deposited one basket-load at a time.” (The Olmecs, America’s First Civilization, p. 36), there is no possible way the peoples who expended so much tremendous effort into building these places on these alignments, didn’t have words describing with precision what they were doing.

    But I feel Rio Azul shows that not only did the Mayans (and probably other Mesoamericans) have a concrete conception of the 4 cardinal directions, they actually had the intercardinal directions, expressed in glyphs, forming a system with 8 directions.

    This however does not nullify conceptions of center in Mesoamerican thought. Nor does it exclude the possibility of quartering of the land with wedge shaped quadrants with equinox defined bottom and top points. Two systems, used for different purposes, clearly existed. This was not uncommon for the Maya. They had multiple calendars for example, a solar year, a shorter calendar that runs about 9 months (the time frame for the gestation of a human fetus), a lunar calendar, and poorly understood calendars, like the 9 Lords of the Night calendar. These calendars likewise were used for different purposes.

    Conclusion: It has become popular, even among scholars, to show how “different” Mesoamericans were from us and our “Western” culture. An example of this is the idea that in the Maya ball game, the winners were sacrificed, not the losers. I have heard that the origin of this idea comes from a tour guide at Chichen Itza that was bored and cooked up this idea to get a reaction out tourists (Alfonso Morales, personal communication). Some scholars heard about the idea, not knowing its origin, and ran with it. Dr. Stan Guenter told me that “I think a lot of people consider themselves cool for “knowing” that the Maya did things differently. This explains why so many people have said that the Maya killed the winners of the ball game. It makes no sense, and because of that, not in spite of it, a lot of people believe it. But I don’t think the Maya or any other ancient or modern people were that terribly different than us, in a way that is entirely irrational. The evidence, as spotty as it is, is that the Maya killed the losers of the ballgame, not the winners.”

    The Maya not having a sense of 4 cardinal directions, both I, Stan Guenter, and one of Guatemala’s top archaeologists, Dr. Tomas Barrientos, feel is similar to the ball game issue. Stan states that “I find these arguments about Maya directions to be somewhat similar. Yes, the Maya privileged east and west, but I see no evidence for a lack of appreciation of north and south in the Classic period. I think north and south were defined once east and west were recognized, but there’s no evidence they were considered something other than directions. I don’t even think the center is really all that different from ourselves. The Maya have a color for the center but I see no glyph for such a center position analogous to east or west, north or south. Center is simply wherever you are, and then the rest of the directions proceed from that position.” Dr. Barrientos states that “I would say that even when the east-west axis was more important to any other, we cannot say that there was no notion of north. Of course there are many alignments to the magnetic north, and just the fact that they assigned a glyph and color seems enough to think that they had a 4 cardinal concept. Going more detailed, the new findings at Takalik Abaj show that north was related to star alignments, whether the Big Dipper or Draco.”

    We can go overboard when we try to presume that peoples like the ancient Mesoamericans did not think like us “Westerners”, especially, as Dr. Guenter notes, when it is “entirely irrational”. He used that phrase specifically in reference to the notion that the Maya and their predecessors in Mesoamerica didn’t have 4 cardinal directions. Its irrational that they didn’t. Once they discovered east and west, they would have quickly identified north and south. As their civilizations became much more highly developed and human movement became much greater than 1-2 day journey from one’s birth village, some very concrete mental systems of directions and locating topography and cities with extreme precision would have unavoidably developed. I don’t feel that comparisons of the highly developed civilizations in question with colonial or modern Maya rural villagers are appropriate. Among those whose lives were embed in the backdrop of big civilizations, movements would have required it, necessitated it, such as military campaigns covering vast areas with extremely strategic positioning of armies (Calakmul to Palenque for example, or Teotihuacan to Tikal, Rio Azul, and beyond to Belize), or royal visits to far away capitals and neighboring civilizations, long-distance trade (which may have been also used for spying out the strengths of one’s neighbors and reporting those strengths with detailed descriptions, like the pochteca did for the Aztecs), strategic marriage alliances where one’s own daughters are now living in far away capitals (perhaps as far as Tikal to Teotihuacan for example), not to mention scholarly exchange among engineers, architects, artisans, scribes, priests, mural painters, ceramicists, lithics specialists–the list goes on. It is simply inconceivable to me that these highly advanced civilizations didn’t have a very precise and intimate knowledge of not only the geography of their own lands, but neighboring civilizations. With the way the human brain works, they would have created mental topo maps on all of this stuff. Did they created highly detailed maps on bark paper to aid? I don’t know, none have been found. But we likely have less than 1/1000 of 1 percent of what was on bark paper in the Classic and Pre-Classic periods. Book of Mormon authors rather than loosely or confusedly describing geographical positions, describe geography with extreme detail and consistency, with very little if any contradiction in directional terms, showing likewise a detailed knowledge of vast regions of lands controlled by complex civilizations.

    John Sorenson in his tremendous work laid the foundation for Book of Mormon studies of this nature, and he should forever be given the respect of being the father of Book of Mormon geography/cultural/archaeological scholarship. But like the field of Mesoamerican studies in general, the wealth of information that has come out and continues to come out every year should rightfully modify our approaches, when needed and warranted. We may never have the whole picture, but we can closer approximate the truth through scholarship, so long as our original assumptions and methods are not faulty. Mesoamerican studies from the 50s and 60s (which Sorenson’s initial interest in the Grijalva came from) lept light years ahead by the 70s and 80s. Likewise, our knowledge of Mesoamerica today is nothing like it was in the 80s. If we use outdated methodology and old assumptions, our studies will inevitably veer off course. Like following a map to a specific destination, if we take a wrong compass reading, although being off at first is minimal, over time the angle widens and in the end we are far far off course from our desired destination. I feel this entire directions argument is a prime example of this.

    Why was this confusing directions argument created? Sorenson found an excellent candidate for the Zarahemala Nephites on the banks of the Grijalva river in Chiapas Mexico. He likewise found an excellent candidate for the city of Nephi in southern Guatemala. The problem is that the Book of Mormon describes Nephi as being south of Zarahemala. Sorenson’s candidate for Nephi is southeast of his candidate for Zarahemla. Thus the necessity for the rotation of our 4 cardinal directions in order to understand his Book of Mormon positions. An extremely elaborate argument followed, and is being perpetuated today.

    The Book of Mormon clearly describes 4 cardinal directions. These are not vague and inconsistent. When one travels north of Zarahemla, he always ends up at Bountiful. When one travels south from Zarahemla, he always ends up at Nephi, with numerous references positioning these lands in this manner. When one travels “northward” from Zarahemla, he always ends up in the Land Northward, at places like Desolation. Joseph Smith’s translation does not place Melek west of Zarahemla in one instance, and then east of Zarahemla in another. Like the Maya, it appears that Book of Mormon peoples had 4 concrete cardinal directions, and explicit and detailed knowledge of those directions, by necessity in their movements, migrations, wars, missionary routes, trade, correspondence, etc. Also like the Maya, the Nephites appeared to have 4 more directions, totalling 8, the intercardinals. Rio Azul gives us 8 glyphs for these directions, 4 cardinal and 4 intercardinal, and what do you know, they are correctly oriented! The Book of Mormon gives not as much reference to intercardinals as cardinals, but enough to amply establish they were aware of them in the “-ward” terms or combos of 2 cardinals like “south and east”.

    We have great diversity in our cultures across the earth, today, and also in many ways we are drastically different from cultures far removed in time and space. But also in many ways, humans are similar no matter where they are located in space or time. We are of the same species, have similar intelligence capabilities; two humans 5000 years apart may behave, believe, and conceive in many of the same ways. Although cultural factors can greatly influence world views and perceptions, in regards to certain thing that are simply rational or irrational we are often quite similar. I believe directions are one of these among more highly developed civilizations where people move over larger distances. In the words of Dr. Guenter: “If you go to India or Cambodia you will find they had the same interest in not only the four directions but also the intercardinal directions. We humans really aren’t that terribly different from each other.”

    It is my hope that those who pursue Book of Mormon scholarship will carefully consider that Mesoamericans likely had the same 4 cardinal directions that Western civ, many Middle Eastern civs, Indian, and Southeast Asian Civ’s, and others had. If Mesoamericans did, as many Mesoamerican scholars believe and I feel I have demonstrated above, this will become essential in any meaningful pursuit of searching for candidates. Brant, if you prefer the Mixe Zoquean’s on the Grijalva, one of the strongest candidates in all the Americas for Nephite locations, then I would look for the best candidate for the great capital Zarahemla, and then look to the cardinal direction north for Bountiful and the cardinal direction south for great capital Nephi, and northwest for the great capital Desolation. Upon these 4 great capitals everyting else hinges. The Nephites had 4 words in their language, whatever that language became, for 4 cardinal directions. Joseph Smith saw the reformed Egyptian glyph for each of those 4 directions on numerous occasions in the translation process. He then translated those glyphs into their English equivalents. It follows then that if the Nephites consistently described 4 directions and also lived in Mesoamerica, and had a similar directional system to other Mesoamerican directional systems, and the Mesoamericans had concretely established 4 cardinal directions, that Joseph Smith would have correctly translated precise counterparts of those directions in our English language: north, south, east, and west,

    Thanks again for a great article exploring this issue. Shelby Saberon

    • Part of the problem we have in discussing directions is that we charge our vocabulary about directions with so many assumptions. The very fact that we see them as “cardinal” implies that they have some reality that requires that everyone understand them in the same way. Perhaps the best example I can give to reconcile the layout of sites with the concepts of directions from language and texts is from words about color. There is a very wide range of color that is labeled red (with males having a wider definition than many females, who divide the spectrum more quickly). Different cultures have different cut off points of where they call something red or green or blue (or some cultures have only one word for green and blue). In spite of that, all cultures appear to agree on “true red.” At the heart of the color spectrum are the most intense examples. Nevertheless, the label applies to a wider range.

      In the case of directions, the Mesoamerican system of directions includes in the term they use for east and west a range along the horizon. However, if one must orient a city, there is no way that the full range can be expressed. Therefore, the most representative “east” is used (which corresponds to what we call east as well). Thus there has been a long standing confusion over the directions. Mesoamericans use directions that look like our east and west (and north and south as the perfect centerpoint of the quadrants to the side). There is overlap. That they use a centered direction for orientation does not mean that that term covers only that portion. The linguistics clearly show that it does not. When they use four glyphs, that is hardly surprising, because there are four quadrants. The linguistics behind the glyphs show that there is more going on than what we assume from those times when their representations align with our cultural assumptions. Like colors, we can agree on the “pure” form. Nevertheless, the system they use to describe direction does not replicate our cardinal system.

      As for the Nephites having four words, I honestly have no idea what the terms were in Nephite. I have only Joseph’s English translation and I understand why he would use the terms he was familiar with. Nevertheless, as I indicated in the paper, there are some fascinating hints that remain in his translation that suggest that in places where Joseph wasn’t simply placing the English directional term in the translation, there is an underlying system that sees directions as from the east to the west, and “on the north” and “on the south.” Those terms follow the concepts of Mesoamerican languages and hint that Nephite might have adopted those concepts in their language.

      • Thanks, Brant, for this explanation, especially to use of the color example, which is about as clear as one can make it of what your/my argument is in re. “cardinal directions” in the light of cultural assumptions. John

  12. Brant

    You have done a great job of bringing a lot of information on directionality into focus with a reasonable correlation with Book of Mormon geography. Thanks for the great effort and time you have spent by making this available.


  13. Give it a rest and get thee down to Cajamarca, Peru (Zarahemla) and notice how the Marana River just over the hill flows by then precipitously flushes (all those dead bodies) down as it makes the turn into the Amazon Basin. Ahem. Then note the two paths Northward, one in the highlands of Colombia and one along the Western seashore that both end up where there are MANY WATERS. And besides Joseph Smith said Lehi landed 30 degrees South latitude in Chile. The Book of Mormon text does not allow for a hike all the way up to Maya Land.

    And the oldest ruins in the Americas are also in Peru where the Jaredites had their first major cities. The Amazon Basin was filled as proven by the aluvian van or under water delta out in the Atlantic so until the underwater river collapsed and made for today’s Amazon which SHOULD have the world’s greatest delta, if it was always as it is now, makes for the Sea East and the Patagonia Uplift (Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Venice Pridise, The Book and the Map, if you please) makes for the Sea South. Amen.

  14. Hi Grant,

    Great article, I really enjoyed it. I have often been intrigued whenever I have come across Book of Mormon references to that “quarter” of the land and have long felt that this was key to understanding directional conceptions by Book of Mormon peoples. Your article explained this extremely well. I have long believed that the Nephites had 8 directions, and in a conversation with John Clark he also expressed this sentiment as a possibility. The land was quartered, and then each quarter was dissected again. This would account for the four principal directional terms north, south, east, and west, as well as the “-ward” designations.

    One particularly interesting point I gained from your article was the Tzeltal “down slope” correlation with north and “up slope” correlation with south. The Book of Mormon to me clearly places Nephi south of Zarahemla, and this is always consistently “up slope”. Conversely, whenever Book of Mormon peoples travel from Nephi to Zarahemla, they always go “down” or down slope. Joseph Smith never messes up these prepositions.

    I also enjoyed your point about directions being relative to the specific location in question. West of Zarahemla led to a different location that west of Bountiful, and possibly different west seas therefore. The four great capitals in the Book of Mormon, Nephi, Z, Bountiful, and Desolation as center points and central places to me are critical. Clark mentioned once that we don’t need to find every village, hamlet, and burg, just the great capitals, we can then tether everything else to them. Our search for the great capitals should be first, but if ever they are identified, then using a mesoamerican conception of directions would be the next key to finding the regional capitals villages, hamlets and burgs. Zarahemla seems to me to be surrounded by 6 regional capitals, which adds to the 8 directions idea, with Zarahemla at the center and the regional capitals surrounding it (the 2 missing of the 8 directions may have had uninhabited mountains in those directions). Thanks again for a great article

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