From the East to the West: The Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon

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Abstract: The 1985 publication of John L. Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon presented the best argument for a New World location for the Book of Mormon. For all of its strengths, however, one aspect of the model has remained perplexing. It appeared that in order to accept that correlation one must accept that the Nephites rotated north to what we typically understand as northwest. The internal connections between text and geography were tighter than any previous correlation, and the connections between that particular geography and the history of the peoples who lived in that place during Book of Mormon times was also impressive. There was just that little problem of north not being north. This paper reexamines the Book of Mormon directional terms and interprets them against the cultural system that was prevalent in the area defined by Sorenson’s geographical correlation. The result is a way to understand Book of Mormon directions without requiring any skewing of magnetic north.

In 1985, John L. Sorenson published An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. ((John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985).)) That book was the culmination of decades of work establishing a real world setting that plausibly fit the textual geography in the Book of Mormon. Sorenson’s model places the Book of Mormon in part of the region known as Mesoamerica, extending from perhaps a little [Page 120]south of modern Guatemala to somewhat north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Figure 1: John L. Sorenson's correlation, from An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon

Figure 1: John L. Sorenson’s correlation, from An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon

In addition to his work on the geography, Sorenson expanded his correlation to include the relationship between the available historical and cultural information for that region and the descriptions and events in the Book of Mormon. The correlations were impressive and have led to further productive investigation. ((John L. and Janet F. Hilton, “A Correlation of the Sidon River and the Lands of Manti and Zarahemla with the Southern End of Rio Grijalva (San Miguel),” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 1/1 (1992): 142–62, and Lawrence L. Poulsen, “The River Sidon,”, have increased the detail of the suggested correlation between the Sidon and the Grijalva River. I have used Sorenson’s geographic and general cultural connections as the underlying model for explaining the correspondence of the actions in the Book of Mormon with Mesoamerican culture and history. See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007–08).))

In spite of the many reasons that recommend this model, there is one major problem with the correlation. Deanne [Page 121]G. Matheny, a lawyer with a PhD in anthropology from the University of Utah, explains:

The most fundamental geographical problem associated with Sorenson’s model has to do with issues of directionality. . . . In order for his model to fit the geography of Mesoamerica, one must assume that the Nephites had a system of directions with cardinal directions skewed “45 degrees or more” off of the usually observed cardinals. . . . In other words, the whole directional card must be shifted more than 60 degrees to the west for this model to fit the geography of the chosen area. Otherwise, as Vogel has pointed out, the land north will be on the west, the land south on the east, and so forth. . . . Making this shift in directions creates its own set of problems, however, because in such a Nephite directional system the sun would come up in the south and set in the north. ((Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 277. Perhaps the most important criticism of Sorenson’s model has been the variance from cardinal directions. Doug Christensen, post to Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum Group, Facebook.

Despite the differences, there is almost unanimous agreement among scholars that Sorensen’s so called “Nephite North” which is required in order to make his model work, unnecessarily muddies the picture. . . .Joseph and Blake Allen recently responded to an inquiry about the Sorenson model. Their answer is typical of the current thinking of most LDS scholars: “We don’t feel that there is any strength to the idea of a rotated map. Sorenson pursued the hourglass concept and then superimposed it on a Mesoamerican map, thereby proposing a shift in Nephite directions from the standard cardinal directions, rotating the map and calling the result by the name of “Nephite north.” This theory has received an abundant amount of negative criticism, as there is no evidence from either the Book of Mormon or Maya culture that hints at a directional shift.))

These are serious considerations. How could Nephites possibly think that the sun would come upon in the south and set [Page 122]in the north? They couldn’t. Yet we have a geographic correlation that fits both real world geography and cultural history remarkably well—except when we come to the terms north, south, east, and west. ((The cultural data have been sufficiently impressive that other LDS authors have attempted to retain the basic culture area, but find a way to correlate the geography with the cardinal directions rather than Sorenson’s necessary shift of the Nephite cultural north. See Dee Stoddard, “‘From the East to the West Sea’ An Analysis of John L. Sorenson’s Book of Mormon Directional Statements,” 2009, at I propose that if Mesoamerica is a good fit for the Book of Mormon’s real world geography, then information about Mesoamerica may be used to reexamine and refine the nature of that fit. ((John L. Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 6/1 (1994): 305 notes: “This supposed ‘standard scheme’ [cardinal directions] is actually a mental artifact of Western European culture developed largely since the rise of the compass and of science not many centuries ago.” Sorenson’s defense of his understanding of directions is based on appropriate anthropology. The refinement suggested here is the result of a more specific application of the Mesoamerican data. However, an important point of difference is that Sorenson believes that: “Aside from whatever these translated words for directions denoted in relation to the natural world, their use in the language of the Nephites does not seem to show that they paid prime attention to the sun’s rising or setting.” (p. 308) I will examine the evidence that the Nephite terms are based on a prime attention to the path of the sun.)) In short, an understanding of the Mesoamerican directional system offers an explanation for the way that Book of Mormon directions correspond to that geography, without recourse to an artificial shift in the directions.

The Mesoamerican Directional System

Scholars have found a very similar directional system among the various Mesoamerican cultures. Much of the data come from the Maya cultures because the ability to translate the carved and painted texts provides a unique view of pre-contact culture currently unavailable for any other Mesoamerican people. Nevertheless, what may be more carefully worked out in the Maya data has sufficient corroboration in data from other [Page 123]cultures to depict an essentially pan-Mesoamerican orientation system.

The Mesoamerican system is not a replica of our Western understanding of cardinal directions, even though it is often described using Western directional terms. While both systems are used to describe the real world and share some base characteristics, there is an incomplete overlap in meaning between the two systems. That incomplete overlap in meaning is too often hidden when we use the terms from the Western system of cardinal directions to describe the Mesoamerican system.

To begin with, unlike our four cardinal directions, the Mesoamerican system had five “directions.” Four have similarities to our north, south, east, and west, but the fifth “direction” was the center, which has no Western counterpart. To our Western understanding, the center doesn’t seem like a direction, but it was nevertheless a very important part of the Mesoamerican method of orientation in the world. David Freidel, Professor of Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis and Linda Schele, Professor of Art at the University of Texas, describe this concept for the Maya:

Just as the gods marked the periphery by placing the four sides and corners around the center, the Maya shaman creates a five-part image to sanctify space and open a portal to the Otherworld. Mayanists have adopted the Latin word quincunx for this five-point-plan concept, although the Maya have many ways of expressing it in their own languages. The discerning of the four sides or the four corners and the establishing of their position relative to the center point is what we mean by “centering.” The Yukatek farmers today “center” their fields ritually even before they begin to cut them out of the fallow brushland. They mark off their fields and the units within them with small piles of [Page 124]stones, just as villages mark off their lands from those of neighboring communities with large piles of stones. ((David Freidel, Linda Schele and Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993), 128–29.))

For Westerners, the very idea of a “direction” almost implies movement. Our system tells us where we are headed. The Mesoamerican system helped people define where they were. From small to large or large to small, Mesoamerican peoples centered themselves, their homes, and their cities at the crossroads of the world. Mary Miller, Professor of History of Art at Yale, and Karl Taube, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Riverside, describe the way that the five-part concept influenced multiple levels of the Mesoamerican world:

One of the underlying organizational principles of Mesoamerican religion is replication, in which essential patterns of everyday life and the surrounding world are copied and incorporated as models of religious thought and action. Basic features of the social world are often repeated on an increasingly larger scale to encompass the world and the workings of the universe. For example, in the Maya region, the house with its four walls and corner posts could stand for a maize field, the community, and the structure of the cosmos. Grand and abstract concepts are placed in human terms, and conversely, the ordered structure of the universe serves to sanctify and validate human social conventions. ((Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993, paperback 1997), 30.))

[Page 125]There was no universal center. Each city was its own world—its own center. Each family home replicated the world and placed that family at its center. For Mesoamerican cultures, direction was equally symbolic as descriptive.

Not only does the “center direction” differ from our Western understanding, even the Mesoamerican directions that roughly correspond to our north, south, east, and west were differently conceived. Susan Milbrath, affiliate professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, describes the Mesoamerican mode of orientation using a Maya community as her example: “Analysis of Chamula astronomical concepts indicates that the primary axis is an east-west direction based on the sun’s daily path. . . . Even though they recognize that the zenith position is overhead, the east is visualized as the ‘up’ direction and the west as ‘down.’ ” ((Susan Milbrath, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 17, 19.))  A universal aspect of Mesoamerican directional systems is that they are based on the path of the sun. They encode that path throughout the year, tracing the shifting rising and setting of the sun from solstice to solstice.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Western cardinal directions are conceptually a + (Figure 2), with each direction directly and cleanly associated with the “pure” direction equidistant from all other directions. The Mesoamerican system, on the other hand, is better represented in the form of an ‘x.’ East is not a line toward the sun at the equinox, but the entire wedge created by tracing the passage of the sun along the horizon from solstice to solstice from the center. Archaeologist Prudence M. Rice puts it clearly: “Maya quadripartite organization of horizontal space is not strictly based on the four fixed cardinal directions recognized in the modern world. Instead, the divisions seem to invoke the solstice-equinox positions and movements [Page 126]of the sun as it rises on the eastern horizon and sets on the western.” ((Prudence M. Rice, Maya Political Science. Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 20.)) Although the plausible origin of this conception is the travel of the sun along the horizon, Mesoamerican systems regularized their depictions (and therefore their perceptions) into a quadripartite system surrounding the center (Figure 3). The world was depicted as a square with lines drawn from corner to corner. The Codex Mendoza shows the Aztec capital city at the center of the world. Tenochtitlan, indicated by the eagle on the cactus (the symbol for Tenochtitlan), sits at the center of the crossed lines that extend from each corner of the cosmos to the opposite corner. ((“Codex Mendoza” in Antigüedades de México (Mexico: Secretaria de Hacienda y Crédito Público, 1964), 1:7. This initial page shows Tenochtitlan centered in the cosmos. “Codex Fejervary-Mayer,” in Antigüedades de México (Mexico: Secretaria de Hacienda y Crédito Público, 1964), 4:189. This codex opens with a depiction of a deity at the center of the cosmos, depicting not only the center and the quadripartite directions, but also the world trees anchoring the corners of the cosmos. ))

Figure 3: The figure on the right indicates the solsticial path. This was often conceptually regularized into the pattern on the left.

Figure 3: The figure on the right indicates the solstitial path. This was often conceptually regularized into the pattern on the left.

[Page 127]While the five-part concept defined the understanding of one’s orientation in the cosmos, the actual directional system appears have been built on only a single “direction,” which was the path of the sun throughout the day and throughout the year. Other spatial relationships were made against that defining axis.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, provides some interesting background on this terminological problem. His emphasis was on understanding how the brain encodes meaning rather than anything to do with geography, but the example is informative:

A set of studies by the anthropologist Stephen Levinson and his colleagues aim[ed] to show that a language’s spatial terms determine how its speakers use the three dimensions of space to remember the locations of objects. Levinson’s group examined Tzeltal, a language spoken in the Chiapas region of Mexico. . . Tzeltal has no general words for “left” or “right.” The closest it has are terms for the left or right arm or leg, but the terms are rarely used to refer to the left side of an object, table, or room. Instead the Tzeltal speakers describe spatial arrangements relative to the mountain slope that dominates their villages. The spatial vocabulary of Tzeltal includes words that mean “up-the-slope” (which is roughly southward), “down-the-slope” (roughly northward), and “across-the-slope.” These coordinates are used not just when traipsing up and down the mountain but also when on flat terrain or indoors, and even when describing the arrangements of small objects. According to Levinson, Tzeltal speakers say “The spoon is downslope of the teacup,” not “The spoon is on the right of the teacup.” ((Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2007), 141–42.))

[Page 128]

Figure 4: Tenochtitlan at the Center, from the Codex Mendoza

Figure 4: Tenochtitlan at the Center, from the Codex Mendoza

We should not assume that Tzeltal speakers don’t understand right and left. They certainly do. They simply use different terminology to describe those spatial relationships. What Pinker didn’t know was that the upslope/downslope spatial orientation was repeated in their concept of world directions. Upslope/downslope are not only the terms the Tzeltal use instead [Page 129]of “left /right,” but are also used instead of “south/north.” ((Nicholas A. Hopkins and J. Kathryn Josserand, “Directions and Partitions in Maya World View,” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. 2011,, 13. This paper is an expansion of a paper presented March 24, 2001 in the symposium “Four Corners of the Maya World,” 19th Maya Weekend, University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. The current publication is posthumous for Dr. Josserand. In it, they explain, “Some languages form the words for ‘north’ and ‘south’ on the basis of local geographical conditions.” (p. 13)They do not collect the Tzeltal terms for north and south. They do collect a ‘down-slope’ meaning for ‘north’ and ‘right-handed’ for Nahuatl, see p. 14.))  The Tzeltal conceive of the East/West axis as the critical direction for orientation. Upslope (left and south) and downslope (right and north) are simply the same terms they would use for anything else that is spatially oriented against the main reference (the sun in the case of the directions, or the human body in the case of the location of the spoon in the cup). They are not precisely terms for “north” or “south”, but for spatial orientation against a reference position.

David Stuart of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University analyzed two Maya glyphs and argued for their meaning as “right” and “left” by noting their visual associations with other glyphs typically given as “south” and “north.” He concludes: “As students of Maya cosmology have often noted, the sun’s path defines the principal axis of the universe, with its ‘right’ and ‘left’ determining the perpendicular axis that corresponds to our ‘north’ and ‘south.’ In Chamula and other Maya communities, the celestial ‘sides’ are perceived from the sun’s own perspective.” ((David Stuart, “Glyphs for ‘Right’ and ‘Left’?” January, 2002, 4, available online at

This idea is corroborated by a larger study of direction terms in various Mesoamerican languages. Nicholas A. Hopkins, visiting instructor at the Centro de Estudios Mayas, Universidad Nacional Autónima de México, and J. Kathryn Josserand, Research Associate, Pre-Columbian Art Research [Page 130]Institute, found a general agreement in vocabulary for east and west that was related to the path of the sun. ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 9–11.)) They noted: “Terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’ are much more elusive. First, there are far fewer reports of these terms. Second, there are no consistent patterns in the nomenclature. Many languages have no recorded terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’, even when ‘east’ and ‘west’ are noted.” ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 13.))  They concluded:

The extreme chaos of terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’ reinforces the idea that these “directions” are almost irrelevant. Directional orientation is based on the movements of the sun, east to west, and the other two “directions” are of lesser importance. How then, do we derive the system of four directions that is recorded in village barrios, regional states, and other matters? The solution seems to be, as Karen Bassie has argued, that ‘east’ and ‘west’ are not directions at all, but are broad quadrants of the sky centered on, but not limited to, the cardinal directions ‘east’ and ‘west’. ‘East’ is the entire section of the horizon where the sun rises during the year, from solstice to solstice and back again. This quadrant is represented in site layout by the E-group complexes found at Uaxactun and elsewhere. ‘West’ is the corresponding quadrant where the sun is observed to set. ‘North’ and ‘south’ are simply the quadrants that lie between these two, that lie ‘at the sides of the sky’, ‘to the right hand’ or ‘to the left’. That is, two defined quadrants imply two others, giving a total of four. The “four corners of the Maya world” are simply the limits of the east-west quadrants, and do not imply four cardinal directions. ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 15–16. ))

[Page 131]Hopkins and Josserand report an interesting example of what happened when an informant was asked to give the word for “north.” The Tojolabal speaker (a Mayan language) did not provide a word, but rather a definition: “wa xkilatik ti b’a norte ta wa xkan to b’a surda jk’ab’tik b’a. . wa xmukxi ja k’ak’u’i (We are looking north when we stand with our left hand toward where the sun goes down.)” ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 14, periods as they appear in the original. This is prefaced with the explanation “The Tojolabal entries are clearly not lexical; the compiler of the dictionary, Carlos Lenkersdorf, is concerned with explaining to Tojolabal speakers the meaning of terms in Spanish (and vice versa) rather than simply listing lexical items.” (p. 13–14).))

There was no “north” in the Mesoamerican system—only a spatial relationship to that side of the sun’s path. That is why the vocabulary varies so greatly. It wasn’t that Mesoamericans didn’t know where north was, they conceived it—and described it—entirely differently. It existed only as a quadrant on the right or left of the sun’s path: some Mesoamerican cultures called it “right” and some “left.”

It is both interesting and important to note that Mesoamericans were not the only peoples to use left/right rather than specific names for directions. William J. Hamblin, professor of History at Brigham Young University, notes:

The Hebrews, like most Semitic peoples, oriented themselves by facing east, toward the rising sun. Thus east in Hebrew was simply front (qedem), with south as right (yamîn), north as left (śemôl), and west as rear (achôr) or “sea” (yam). . . .

The Egyptians oriented themselves by facing south, toward the source of the Nile. “One of the terms for ‘south’ [in Egyptian] is also a term for ‘face’; the usual word for ‘north’ is probably related to a word which [Page 132]means the ‘back of the head.’” The word for east is the same as for left, and west is the same word as right. ((William J. Hamblin, “Directions in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Nephite Language,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 183.))

One need not assume any linguistic connection between the Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican languages to account for the similarities. Using the body as the directional model from an accepted focal point is easily seen as independent invention. For both Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican terminology, directional terms were created based upon a particular orientation of the body.

So Where is Mesoamerican North?

Perhaps the most important indication of the difference between our modern Western perception of directions and that of the Mesoamerican cultures is our persistent desire to find north. It likely reflects our reliance on the compass pointing to north, but is buttressed by our familiarity with maps that conventionally place north at the top. Thus we understand where we are on a map when we can find north and place the map into its proper relationship with the land around us.

For the Mesoamericans, the question would be “where is east,” and the answer was determined by the sun. What was in the east could range from solstice to solstice, but it could also be rectified to the central point. Even though what might lie in the east (or on the north) could fall into a quadrant emanating from the center point, it could also be standardized into the average between the two. When Mesoamerican cities were built, there was often an east-west road also often intersected by a perpendicular north-south road. A road may be built only in one place, and the center point of the range of what was east or on the north was used.

[Page 133]This is easily demonstrated in one of the early features of many Mesoamerican cities. It was a complex that has been called an E Group. Francisco Estrada-Belli, Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston University (specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology), describes this type of construction: “E-Groups are generally formed by a western pyramid with radial stairways to the west and an elongated platform with one or three small substructures on the east side of the plaza. Their name is derived from Group E of Uaxactun, which was the first of this type to be recognized. Triadic Groups are normally situated on an elevated platform and are formed by a main pyramidal temple flanked by two smaller ones facing each other.” ((Francisco Estrada-Belli, The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power Before the Classic Period (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 67.)) This platform was used as a marker for the passage of the sun along the horizon. ((Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (London and New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004), 237. However, Estrada-Belli, The First Maya Civilization, 67 notes: “The most common orientation of the Triadic Groups is west-facing, although other cardinal orientations are not uncommon, especially at sites where several Triadic Groups are present.” Estrada-Belli also suggests : “While in the sample of Lowland E-Groups analyzed . . . the equinoctial and solsticial target points were generally found not to be the norm, the targeted positions did mark specific 20–day intervals (or multiples of) in relation to the sun’s passage to the zenith, thus underscoring the paramount importance of this solar phenomenon in providing meaningful time-markers in the calendar.” (p. 78))) Importantly, there is a central pyramid in the group. Thus while Mesoamericans might comprehend a quadrant of the sky as east, they could—and did—use what we would see as cardinal directions to lay out sites according to those center points of the quadrant.

The important concept for understanding directions in the Book of Mormon is that although Mesoamerican cultures could certainly find and use our cardinal points, their descriptions of personal orientation were given against the most obviously available spatial referent, the sun. That means that when [Page 134]describing the orientation of actions in the Book of Mormon, they would be referencing directions according to the location of the sun which traveled along the horizon, rather than the fixed conceptual center point of its travel.

Book of Mormon Directions in Translation

It is worth emphasizing that our Book of Mormon is the result of Joseph Smith’s translation. The nature of that translation has been the subject of discussion among faithful scholars, with opinions ranging from Brigham H. Roberts’s declaration that Joseph “expressed [the translation] in such language as the Prophet could command” ((Brigham H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1909), 2:116, brackets mine.)) to Royal Skousen’s understanding that Joseph Smith precisely read a translation that had already been done and which appeared in some manner when using the interpreters. ((Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, edited by Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997),64–65. A revised version is Royal Skousen, “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7/1 (1998): 24. Skousen’s understanding is best represented by his definition of “tight control” in these documents: “Joseph Smith saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe—the accuracy of the resulting text depending on the carefulness of Joseph and his scribe.”)) My own analysis of the available data is more in line with Roberts. ((Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 183–95, 227–47.))

In the case of Book of Mormon directions, I suggest that Joseph used common vocabulary to express the Book of Mormon system of spatial orientation and that the perception of cardinal directions in the text is the result of the translation rather than [Page 135]the plate text. ((Stoddard, “‘From the East to the West Sea’ An Analysis of John L. Sorenson’s Book of Mormon Directional Statements,” is adamant that Book of Mormon directions conform to something similar to our western cardinal directions:

  1. The directional system of the Nephites has six Nephite cardinal directions: north, northward, south, southward, east, and west.
  2. “Northward” reflects the general direction of northwest rather than northeast. “Northward” could be either a northwest or a northeast direction by its very nature, but northwest is the correct orientation from an Isthmus of Tehuantepec perspective. Or, as Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary says about “northward” as an adjective, as in land northward: “Being towards the north, or nearer to the north than to the east and west points.”
  3. “Southward” reflects the general direction of southeast rather than southwest. “Southward” could be either a southeast or a southwest direction by its very nature, but southeast is the correct orientation from an Isthmus of Tehuantepec perspective. Interestingly, Noah Webster does not show an adjectival definition for “southward” in his 1828 dictionary.
  4. North, south, east, and west are the directions that readers of the twenty-first century are accustomed to based on compass bearings. When these cardinal directions are viewed from the perspective of a horizontally positioned hourglass that is placed over a map of Mesoamerica, they coincide with the same four cardinal directions employed by Book of Mormon readers of the twenty-first century.

The certainty of these declarations comes from dual assumptions. The first is that the translation must necessarily represent the precise plate meaning that is found in the English words. The second is that the application of modern meaning may therefore accurately interpret textual information. Neither of these propositions can be supported by the data that I have reviewed.

Stoddard’s ideas are influenced by Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008), 360–61.)) I also suggest that there are sufficient hints in the text to allow a reconstruction of that plate text system.

Although we certainly find the words north, south, east, and west in the Book of Mormon, there is an important and very specific phrase that I believe replicates the essential Mesoamerican directional system: “From the east to the west.” Against the background of Mesoamerican directions, it is a reasonable initial hypothesis that this phrase represents plate [Page 136]text terms that indicated the path of the sun. This phrase implying solar movement occurs six times. ((Alma 22:27, 29, 32, 33; 50:8; 3 Nephi 20:13. Instances compiled using an electronic search for the terms ‘east’ and ‘west’ and compiling only those with this particular configuration. ))

There is a single occurrence of “from the west to the east” in 3 Nephi 1:17 and three related phrases mentioning a sea:

Helaman 3:8 “from the sea west to the sea east”
Helaman 4:7 “from the west sea, even unto the east”
Helaman 11:20 “from the sea west to the sea east”

Importantly, all but one of these (Helaman 4:7) come in the context of an expression of the “whole earth”:

And they began to know that the Son of God must shortly appear; yea, in fine, all the people upon the face of the whole earth from the west to the east, both in the land north and in the land south, were so exceedingly astonished that they fell to the earth. (3 Nephi 1:17)

And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east. (Helaman 3:8)

And thus it did come to pass that the people of Nephi began to prosper again in the land, and began to build up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east. (Helaman 11:20)

Helaman 4:7 has a different context that appears to describe an intended direction rather than a generalization: “And there they did fortify against the Lamanites, from the west sea, [Page 137]even unto the east; it being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country.” This may be a counter-indication, or it may be a requirement of the more specific starting point of the sea west rather than the indeterminate “unto the east” which does not specify the ending point. ((Another possible counter-indication is 3 Nephi 20:13: “ And then shall the remnants, which shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, be gathered in from the east and from the west, and from the south and from the north; and they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God, who hath redeemed them.” This verse combines the correct order of east to west with “the face of the earth.” However, this is not a “from the east to the west.” There is a difference in the phrase, and I am suggesting that it is the presence of the from-to construction that is important.))

Although the “from-to” construction implies movement, most of the cases of “from the west to the east” do not come in connection with any movement but rather with descriptions of “the face of the whole earth.” With only three examples it is a weak hypothesis, but I suggest that there was a literary reversal used in describing the “whole earth.” I believe that by reversing the known path of the sun, it placed “the face of the whole earth” firmly in the metaphorical rather than the physical realm. ((The phrase “on the east and on the west” occurs in Mosiah 27:6, but this is also in the context of the “face of the earth.” When it occurs in 22:27, it is a description of “all the regions round about.” Helaman 1:31 uses “on the east, nor on the west” as part of a description of Lamanites who were surrounded. The only context that is not clearly related to “all” or being surrounded, is Alma 50:34: “And it came to pass that they did not head them until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.”))

In contrast to the movement implied when using the phrase “from the east to the west,” the common usage for the other two “directions” is “on the north/on the south.” ((Alma 22:29, 33; 46:17; 3 Nephi 6:2.))  There are no instances of “from the north to the south” or “from the south to the north,” except in Helaman 3:8, dealing with the whole earth [Page 138]rather than directions. For example, Alma 46:17: “And it came to pass that when he had poured out his soul to God, he named all the land which was south of the land Desolation, yea, and in fine, all the land, both on the north and on the south—A chosen land, and the land of liberty.” ((The Book of Mormon can also use on the east or on the west as terms of spatial orientation rather than direction:

Therefore when Zerahemnah saw the men of Lehi on the east of the river Sidon, and the armies of Moroni on the west of the river Sidon, that they were encircled about by the Nephites, they were struck with terror. (Alma 43:53).

And now, behold, the Lamanites could not retreat either way, neither on the north, nor on the south, nor on the east, nor on the west, for they were surrounded on every hand by the Nephites. (Helaman 1:31)

)) Hopkins and Josserand report that many of the languages they surveyed use terms such as on the left, or on the right to designate south and north. ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 13–14. )) Where the Mesoamerican cultures used terms such as on the right/on the left or some other spatial indicator (such as the upslope/downslope of the Tzeltal) the Book of Mormon translation supplies the words north/south. Although the specific word comes from Joseph’s western understanding, the words are couched in phrases that replicate the functional relationships of the Mesoamerican system.

The Book of Mormon vocabulary of spatial orientation also replicates the four quarters assigned to east-west and the sides of the sky we know as north and south. In Mosiah 27:6 we find: “And there began to be much peace again in the land; and the people began to be very numerous, and began to scatter abroad upon the face of the earth, yea, on the north and on the south, on the east and on the west, building large cities and villages in all quarters of the land.” ((This is the only verse indicating the four quarters. However, a phrase indicating that something is “in” a quarter occurs more frequently. See Alma 43:26: 52:10; 56:1; 58:30; 58:35; Ether 2:5; 14:15.))  Of course, this is not definitively a translation from the plate text because we also find quarters [Page 139]of the land in the Bible and it is always possible that the term was borrowed from biblical usage. ((Genesis 19:4; Numbers 34:3; Joshua 15:5; 18:14–15; Isaiah 47:15; 56:11; Mark 1:45.)) Nevertheless, it fits with the entire system, even if it cannot be probatory of the source of the concept. ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 16: “This concept of quadrants survives even where the directional terms have been lost. In Tenejapa Tzeltal, directional orientation has shifted to ta alan, ‘downhill’ (north) versus ta ajk’ol ‘uphill’ (south). However, these are conceived of as quadrants, separated and opposed to the other quadrants (east and west), both called ta jejch ‘transverse’, ‘to the side’.”))

This conception of the Nephite usage of directional terms helps explain a passage that would otherwise be difficult. The flight of the Lamanite/Amlicite army is described in Alma 2:35–37:

And it came to pass that when they had all crossed the river Sidon that the Lamanites and the Amlicites began to flee before them, notwithstanding they were so numerous that they could not be numbered.

And they fled before the Nephites towards the wilderness which was west and north, away beyond the borders of the land; and the Nephites did pursue them with their might, and did slay them.

Yea, they were met on every hand, and slain and driven, until they were scattered on the west, and on the north, until they had reached the wilderness, which was called Hermounts; and it was that part of the wilderness which was infested by wild and ravenous beasts.

In this description, a fleeing army heads both west and north. Because we see “northward” with some frequency in the Book of Mormon, it could have been used to indicate travel [Page 140]to the northwest. ((Northward, eastward, and southward are all used as directions of travel. There is no occurrence of travel westward, but there is no reason to assume that it wasn’t a possible lexical item. As directions of travel: northward—Alma 52:23; 56:36; 63:6; southward—Alma 17:1; Ether 15:10: eastward—1 Nephi 17:1; Ether 9:3; 14:26.)) Instead, the text opts for travel both north and west. This is conceptually difficult in the plus style (+) cardinal directions, but quite understandable if the x-style quadrants are meant. In that case, they would simply wander back and forth over the conceptual line dividing the west from the northern quarter. ((Lawrence L. Poulsen, “The War with the Amlicites,” Book of Mormon Geography, accessed April 2011.))

Just as with the description given by the Tojolabal speaker, if one were to stand with their left hand to the sun’s setting during the summer solstice, one would be looking “north,” and that “north” corresponds quite nicely to the north that Sorenson suggested. No skewing of north 60 degrees to the west is required. However, it should be noted that it would be a misrepresentation of Nephite directions to use north to indicate only the direction based upon the summer solstice. For the Nephites, “north” would indicate anything to that side of the sun’s path.

An inherent misperception of any ancient directional system occurs simply by our attempts to represent them on a map. Our maps take a bird’s-eye view, and often literally a satellite’s view of the land we are interested in. Almost any map we use to describe the Book of Mormon geography assumes an understanding of an area of land much larger than the ancients would have comprehended. Their world was limited to what they could see, travel to, or have described to them. ((Alan Jones, a friend recently returned from a mission in the Philippines, described a problem encountered when attempting to explain maps to a Filipino. They had no concept of what it meant and it had to be explained to them that they were seeing as if they were a bird flying above the land. The very concept of our maps was foreign to them.)) No [Page 141]remaining map created by any Mesoamerican people has any of the details of our modern maps. They are spatially inaccurate and locate landmarks without precise distance interrelationships. The maps place the reader at the center and describe the conceptual bounds of the world in distances that might be a day or two of travel. ((Some of this information is presented in Lawrence L. Poulsen, “Book of Mormon Geography,” paper presented August 2008 at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research Conference.–Larry-Poulsen.pdf, 9.))

Combined with the differences in terminology and cultural perceptions, it is little wonder that the Book of Mormon directions appear difficult fit onto a modern map. That inherent difficulty becomes even greater when we insist upon reading literal geographic statements where the text does not intend a literal reading. That is the issue that clouds our understanding of the Nephite seas.

Where are the Nephite Sea East and Sea West? ((Many of the concepts presented in this section were worked out in conversation with Lawrence Poulsen, for whose counsel I am grateful.))

Another possible contraindication for Sorenson’s geographic correlation is the relationship of that geography to surrounding seas. Helaman 3:8 clearly mentions four seas: “And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.” Some Book of Mormon geographers therefore insist on identifying four surrounding bodies of water. ((V. Garth Norman, Book of Mormon Geography—Mesoamerican Historic Geography, third edition (ARCON/Ancient America Foundation, 2008). A graphic of the map is available online at: V. Garth Norman, “The Definitive Mesoamerican Book of Mormon Lands Map.”, accessed November 16, 2012. Interestingly, Norman has the sea north and the sea east as the Gulf of Mexico. See also E. L. Peay, The Lands of Zarahemla: Nephi’s Land of Promise, 2 vols. (Provo, UT: Cedar Fort, 1994), 2:24, has a sea west, east, and south, but no listing for a sea north.)) However, John E. Clark notes of these seas:
[Page 142]

I am convinced that the reference to a north sea and a south sea is devoid of any concrete geographical content. All specific references or allusions to Book of Mormon seas are only to the east and west seas. Any geography that tries to accommodate a north and south sea, I think, is doomed to fail. But we cannot dismiss the reference to these seas out of hand. If they are metaphorical, what was the metaphor?

Figure [5] shows a conceptualization of Nephite lands. The city of Zarahemla and the lands immediately surrounding it were the “center” (Helaman 1:24–27) or “heart” (Alma 60:19; Helaman 1:18) of the land . The surrounding lands, to the various wildernesses, were considered quarters of the land. A Bountiful quarter (Alma 52:10, 13; 53:8; 58:35) and a Manti quarter (43:26; 56:1–2, 9; 58:30) are mentioned. Moroni was another “part” of the land (Alma 59:6). We lack information on the eastern quarter; my designation of “Melek” is merely my best guess.

We have seen that the Nephite lands were surrounded by wilderness on every side. And, conceptually, beyond each wilderness lay a sea to the south, north, west, and east. Thus the land was conceived as surrounded by seas or floating on one large sea. The land was divided into a center and four quarters. Each quarter duplicated the others. The quartering of the land was not the way most of us would do it, by making a cross following the cardinal directions, but was a cross as shown in figure [3]. Such a conception of [Page 143]the world would not be out of place in the Middle East at the time of Lehi; and it is remarkably close to the Mesoamerican view of their world. . . The main point is that the reference to north and south seas fits nicely into the Mesoamerican scene as part of a metaphor for the whole earth and was probably used in a metaphorical sense in the Book of Mormon.

((John E. Clark, “Revisiting ‘A Key for evaluating Nephite Geographies,’” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 41 [13–43]. ))

Figure 5

Figure 5

Clark’s proposal that the north and south seas are metaphorical rather than physical finds an interesting parallel in the metaphorical use of the phrase “the other side of the sea” in various Maya documents. Frauke Sachse of the University of [Page 144]Bonn, and Allen J. Christenson of Brigham Young University, note that it is a metaphor that “remains hitherto largely unrecognized because a presumed literalness has obscured its metaphorical interpretation.” ((Frauke Sachse and Allen J. Christenson, “Tulan and the Other Side of the Sea: Unraveling a Metaphorical Concept from Colonial Guatemalan Highland Sources,” Mesoweb Publications,, 1–2.))  They conclude by noting that “the phrase ‘the other side of the sea’ in the Colonial sources is only a metaphor for a place of origin in the sense of creation and not departure, and thus does not necessarily refer to an actual location that could be found on any map.” ((Sachse and Christenson, “Tulan and the Other Side,”, 25–26.))  It is perhaps not coincidental that the metaphorical meaning that Clark suggests for the sea north and sea south is also associated with a conceptual organization of the world.

As Hopkins and Josserand worked through the vocabulary terms used for east and west, they presented their reconstruction of what the Classic Maya terms might have been. For east and west they reconstruct both the words and the plausible original meanings: “ *’el-ab k’in ‘the front porch of the house of the Sun (where the Sun exists)’, and *’och-ib k’in ‘the door of the house of the Sun (where the Sun enters).’ ” ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 7–8. The * at the beginning of the word indicates that it is a reconstruction of an early form and is not actually found in that form in the later data.))  They argue that these proto-forms may be traced to as early as 2000 BC. ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 8.))

In a world conceptually surrounded by seas, the house of the sun would lie across the sea, or on “the other side of the sea.” Thus Sachse and Christenson explain: “We understand that in the Maya world view all creation involves the underlying concept of birth from a primordial sea in darkness. The world came into being because the earth and the mountains arose from the sea and the sky was lifted up from the water. [Page 145]Creation thus involves ‘dawning.’ ” ((Sachse and Christenson, “Tulan and the Other Side,” 2.))  The “other side of the sea” refers metaphorically to an origin in the conceptual east sea, the place of dawning and creation. Thus there was a very strong cultural preference for having a sea east and the parallel sea west. The question is how that conceptual world might have related to the physical seas that the Book of Mormon text requires.

In contrast with the metaphorical meanings for sea north and sea south, and the metaphorical meaning associated with the east sea, the Book of Mormon text clearly supports the physical presence of a sea east. Sorenson’s correlation has the expected sea east, but applies that designation to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone examining a modern map perceives the Gulf of Mexico to be north of the lands surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. How can this body of water in the north be the sea east? In Sorenson’s correlation, this is part of the skewing of directions. I suggest that no skewing is necessary, only the application of the principles of Mesoamerican directions.

The first important part of the explanation is the Meso­american concept of the center. Any directions given in the Book of Mormon necessarily related to some location that is conceptually the center of the world for those who live there. Directions related to a different center might result in different locations being placed in the direction quadrants. We can see this same principle even in our modern directional system. We may describe Denver as being in the east when we are located in Salt Lake City, but in the west when we are located in St. Louis. What is in the east (or west) depends upon the vantage point from which we view the direction. I propose that the term “sea east” is a description rather than a name, and that two different bodies of water might have been considered the sea east based upon the different center points from which they are described.

[Page 146]The original Nephite center point was not Zarahemla, but rather the City of Nephi. In Sorenson’s correlation, we have the highland valley of Guatemala as a plausible land of Nephi. From that center, the east sea would be right where several Book of Mormon geographers suggest; off the coast of modern Belize. ((The verse used to establish this correlation is Alma 22:27, which provides a description of the lands, but from the center point of a Lamanite king in the land of Nephi. Some of those making this correlation based on that passage are: Joseph L. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, UT: S.A. Publishers, 1989), 195; Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 393; Norman, Book of Mormon Geography—Mesoamerican Historic Geography Lawrence L. Poulsen, “Lawrence Poulsen’s Book of Mormon Geography,” While the verse is found in the book of Alma where the action focuses on Zarahemla as the center of Nephite culture, Alma 22:27 is given as part of the missionary journey to the land of Nephi and describes geography from that vantage point. See also Stephen L. Carr, “A Summary of Several Theories of Book of Mormon Lands in Mesoamerica,” Four of the five maps place the sea east off the coast of Belize.)) From that original center point, the Nephites would then have had the option of calling the Pacific either the sea west or sea south, since it creates the coastline that would be both south and west of the land of Nephi. Because the definition of Mesoamerican direction system had the sun setting in the sea west, it is logical that they would have selected that designation for what we know as the Pacific Ocean. The interesting combination of the sea west being both west and south helps explain Alma 53:22: “And now it came to pass that Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.” The land south of Zarahemla bordered the west sea, not a south sea even though there was a coastline on the south.[Page 147]

Figure 6: Directions Centering on Nephi

Figure 6: Directions Centering on Nephi

While there is a reference to a sea east from the land of Nephi, most references to the sea east come from the time when directions were given in relation to the City of Bountiful, not the City of Nephi or even the City of Zarahemla. ((Nephi as the center: Alma 22:27

Bountiful as the center: Alma 22:32–33; 27:22; 50:34; 52:13; Helaman 4:6–7.

There are two other references I am not listing because the east sea occurs in a context that reads better as a metaphor for ‘the whole world’: Helaman 3:8; 11:20.))

Using Sorenson’s correlation, Bountiful would be located at the northern side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. With that location as the center point, the Gulf of Mexico lies both on the north and on the east. Just as the cultural necessity of the sun rising across a sea east and setting in the sea west allowed the Nephites to define a sea west from the center point of the City of Nephi, that same cultural preference would naturally select sea east as the appropriate designation of that major body of water. No skewing of directions is necessary to see the Gulf of Mexico as the sea east based on the perspective of Bountiful as the center. Regardless of the body of water, the sea east existed as a description that was related to the cosmological understanding of the east as a place of creation and of the rising/birth of the sun. In the Book of Mormon, it is plausible that two different bodies of water served that function and were designated (not named) sea east to conform to the cosmological principle.[Page 148]

Figure 7: Directions Centering on Bountiful

Figure 7: Directions Centering on Bountiful

The Land Northward and Land Southward

There is another feature of the Book of Mormon that may be plausibly related to an underlying Mesoamerican directional system. The vast majority of the times we see either the word northward or southward in the Book of Mormon, they are descriptive of a place, not of movement. They refer to the land northward and the land southward. ((Land northward: Omni 1:22, Alma 22:30–33, 46:22; 50:11, 29, 31, 33–34; 51:30; 52:2, 9; 63:4–5, 7, 9–10; Helaman 3:3, 9–11; 6:6; 7:1–2, 11:20; 3 Nephi 3:24; 4:23; 6:2; 8:12; Mormon 2:29.

Land southward: Alma 22:31,32; Helaman 3:8; 4:8; 5:16; 3 Nephi 3:24; 6:2; 8:11; Mormon 1:6; 2:29; 3:5; 8:2; Ether 9:31–32; 10:19, 21.

Another verse may represent the metaphorical ‘whole world.’ “And thus it did come to pass that the people of Nephi began to prosper again in the land, and began to build up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east.” (Hel. 11:20). In this case, northward and southward are locations, even though not stated as lands. I hypothesize that this constitutes a generic reference rather than a directional one.)) The term northward only appears three times as a description of motion and southward only twice. ((Northward motion: Alma 63:6; Mormon 2:20, Ether 1:42 (in the Old World). Southward motion: Alma 17:1; Ether 15:10.)) Eastward occurs [Page 149]three times, always as an indication of direction of travel, and westward does not occur at all. ((Eastward motion: 1 Nephi 17:1; Ether 9:3, 14:26.))

The phrases ‘land northward/land southward’ can parallel the functions of the ‘north/south’ spatial orientation markers, but they are textually distinct from them. We find in 3 Nephi 6:2 “And it came to pass that they had not eaten up all their provisions; therefore they did take with them all that they had not devoured, of all their grain of every kind, and their gold, and their silver, and all their precious things, and they did return to their own lands and their possessions, both on the north and on the south, both on the land northward and on the land southward.” There is no reason to indicate the spatial orientation twice, and the reference here clearly separates the ‘land’ from the spatial orientation. ((John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 41–42, notes the occurrences of northward/southward, but always considers them as indicators of directions rather than as labels as I am suggesting:

A semantic point from the Book of Mormon is important. The Book of Mormon usually refers to the “land northward” and “land southward,” rarely to the “land north” or “land south.” (The latter terms occur only seven times; –ward terms appear 47 times.) The suffix ward, of course, signifies “tending or leading toward.” Gage correctly thought of Guatemala as “southward” from Mexico City, even though technically it was more nearly east. Similarly, if you board a plane in Los Angeles for Caracas, Venezuela, do you not mentally consider your direction southward? After all, your destination is South America; but actually you’ll end up traveling more east than south. Still, southward is correct.

Sorenson appears to want to use –ward as a specific direction rather than as an indicator of direction of travel, or as a name.))

The two lands conceptually meet along a dividing line: “Thus the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food” (Alma 22:31). When the land northward has a name, it is Desolation. When the land southward has a name, it is Bountiful. They are adjacent lands. Land northward and [Page 150]Desolation are interchangeable labels, as are land southward and Bountiful.

The obvious conceptual inversion of Desolation/Bountiful suggests that there is another aspect of Mesoamerican direction systems in play. Prudence M. Rice indicates that each of the four conceptual directions had other attributes:

Among the lowland Maya, this solar basis for naming directions is evident by incorporating, k’in ‘sun’, into the term. East (lak’in) was associated with sunrise, birth, and the color red (chak), while West (chik’in, ochk’in) was associated with sunset, death, and the color black (ek’). By contrast, xaman (North) was associated with “up” (as in the sun at zenith), the Sun God’s “right” side on his journey, heavens, the number 13, the place of ancestors, and the color white (sak). Nojol (South) was associated with “down” or the sun’s nadir, the sun’s “left,” the Underworld, the number 9, night (“death” of the sun and its Underworld journey back to the east), and the color Yellow (k’an). ((Rice, Maya Political Science, 20.))

Although the association between “north” and “right” is common, it was not universal. David Stuart indicates:

The “south” glyph is widely thought to read nohol, the word for “south” in the Yucatecan language, attested also in Chontal and Cholti. The –lo suffix on a “south” glyph written in Naj Tunich cave offers good support for this reading. . . The root of the term is noh, which has the related meanings of “large, great,” “principal,” or “right-side”. . . .

The NOH reading seems fitting in the context of the “hand” terms on Tikal’s Marcador. The first glyph of the pair would simply read NOH-K’AB, a widespread [Page 151]and familiar term in Mayan languages for “right hand.” ((Stuart, “Glyphs for ‘Right’ and ‘Left’?”, 2. ))

In the case Stuart describes, the orientation that leads to the terms for “north” and “south” is based on facing the sun rather than from the perspective of the sun.

It appears that there were two possible methods of deriving a term for “north” or “south,” both based on the same principle, but from either facing the sun or from the sun’s perspective. In that light Hopkins and Josserand note the data from the later Mexica, who were Nahuatl speakers: “While Classical Nahuatl has a mythological reference to the ‘place of Death’ as the base of ‘north’, one variety of modern Nahuatl makes an association of ‘south’ (for which no term is recorded) as ‘sinister, left-handed’, and regards ‘north’ as positive and right-handed [while calling it ‘down-slope’].” ((Hopkins and Josserand, “Directions and Partitions,” 14.))  As with the data for Mayan languages, the Nahuatl languages also demonstrate a reversal of the “handedness” of north and south.

There are strong indications that there was a similar bad/good perception about left/right (and therefore north/south which shared those terms) among the Classic Maya as there was in the Classical Nahuatl. Objects to the left of the viewer are consistently of lower status than those on the right. ((Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones. Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 29.)) Maya epigraphers Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube note: “Consistently the right hand is ‘straight, correct large’ (no or to in Ch’olti’) or ‘fine, pure’ (batz’i k’ob in Colonial Tzotzil) and wikiaq’ab, ‘decorated, adorned’ in K’iche’, while the left hand is not quite obedient and thus, as in Colonial Yukatek, ‘ill [Page 152]behaved, graceless’ (tz’ik) or ‘clumsy like a cloven hoof’ (tz’itz’), and in K’iche’, moxq’ab, ‘crazy hand’.” ((Houston et al., Memory of Bones, 30.))

In a spatial relation system that uses the right/left hand designation for the terms we call south and north, it is not surprising at all that the Nephites used a word for ‘left hand/north’ that would have a pejorative association. That was mirrored by the favorable association of ‘right hand/south.’ That the land northward was also associated with a “dead” Jaredite culture simply vindicated the pejorative association. This gives us a very simple explanation for why the land northward is Desolation and land southward is Bountiful. The labels replicate the cultural perception of the spatial relationships based upon one facing the rising sun (and indicate that the Nephite preference was to associate left/north similar to the Mayan languages of Yukatek, ((Yukatek is the more modern spelling and Yucatec the more traditional. Both terms appear depending upon the preference of the author. I have left the spelling as in the original citations.)) Chontal, and Cholti).


The most serious contraindication for Sorenson’s correlation between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon has been his apparent shifting of north some 60 degrees to the west. The quality of the correlations with the rest of the geography and cultural data suggest that we look to Mesoamerica to see if the cultural data from the region in which the Book of Mormon took place (according to this correlation) might provide an understanding of what has come to be called “Nephite North” (though it is not a term Sorenson used ((Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!,” 305: “The concept ‘Nephite north’ is not mine, consequently it is not appropriate on a map representing my views.”)) ). The combination of the Mesoamerican center and the perception of the quadrants [Page 153]as wedges emanating for that center explain how the Book of Mormon “north” might include a region that our cultural predisposition for cardinal directions would not recognize. Combined with the shifting center points from which directions or spatial relationships may be discussed, we have a culturally appropriate understanding the underlying plate text directions that yielded the English translations of north, south, east, and west. In addition to explaining the spatial terms, it also provides a cultural underpinning for why the land northward was Desolation and the land southward Bountiful. Sorenson’s geographic correlation not only remains the best supported, but what has been a directional conundrum actually provides further indication that the plate text was written in a region steeped in the Mesoamerican understanding of spatial orientation.

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

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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