Source:Echoes:Ch9:13:New World warfare and fortifications

Warfare and Fortifications in the Book of Mormon culture

Warfare and Fortifications in the Book of Mormon culture

The long descriptions of warfare in the Book of Mormon provide some of the most concrete data in the volume that may be compared with Mesoamerican archaeological remains. At several points in the narratives, statements are made about the aims, paraphernalia, and tactics of battle among the Nephites and Lamanites. These led critics in earlier days to claim that Joseph Smith had made repeated errors. They said that the archaeological and historical record about war, especially as it was fought in ancient Mesoamerica, failed to match statements in the Nephite record.

For many years experts claimed that wars played no major role in Mesoamerica's history.59 They supposed that warfare did not arise there until around AD 1000. Before that, it was said, only docile peasants and peaceful chiefs and priests inhabited Mexico and Central America. If that had been so, this would have been the only civilized area in the world without a long military history and the Nephite record would have indeed been contrary to what archaeologists "knew." But in the last quarter century a tide of new studies has completely reversed the old image of social tranquility. It is now clear that armed conflict was as enduring and damaging in Mesoamerica as in any other part of the ancient world. The Book of Mormon record of frequent wars fits the new scholarly consensus.60

The forms and chronology of fortification mentioned in the scripture also coincide with what is known from Mesoamerica. The earliest Nephite defensive walls surrounded the cities of Nephi (renamed by the Lamanites Lehi-Nephi) and Shilom, in the area first settled by Nephi's faction when they fled from his brothers (see Jarom 1:7; Mosiah 7:10; 9:8). We can suppose that they modeled those walls on those known from Old World Jerusalem, of which Nephi, Sam, and Zoram had firsthand knowledge. Mesoamerican examples are numerous, though probably cruder in finish than Jerusalem's wall.61

At the beginning of the wars started by Amalickiah, about 75 BC, the Nephites adopted a different kind of fortification—something the Lamanites had never seen before (see Alma 49:5, 8), though this does not necessarily mean the Nephites invented it. It consisted of "a ridge of earth" formed by digging a ditch completely around a city (see Alma 50:1) and throwing up the excavated dirt to form the ridge; it was "so high" that the Lamanites could not get their missiles over it (Alma 49:4). Later, at lowland Bountiful where timber was probably more abundant, the Nephites built "a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch," then "cast up [more] dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers," forming together an even more daunting "wall of timbers and earth, to an exceeding height" (Alma 53:4). Attackers thus confronted a continuous steep slope that stretched from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the timber palisade. The defenders "could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach" (Alma 50:5).

On the inside, of course, the timber retaining wall presented a sheer vertical face. Thus at the city of Nephihah, which the Lamanites had captured, Moroni1 and his men at night climbed the outer earthen slope and "came upon the top of the wall" to spy out the sleeping Lamanites (Alma 62:20). Finding the enemy bedded down some distance away, Moroni and his men used "their strong cords and their ladders" to get down from the top of the wall on the inside (see vv. 21–23). Later that sheer inside face led to the death of the Nephite chief judge Pacumeni when an invading Lamanite army under one Coriantumr penetrated the city of Zarahemla; Pacumeni "did flee before Coriantumr, even to the walls of the city," where he could flee no farther, and "Coriantumr did smite him against the wall" (Helaman 1:21).

When members of Cortez's expedition crossed the base of the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1520s, they encountered fortifications very similar to those described in the book of Alma; other historical accounts also tell of fortified sites of the same nature.62 Of greater interest, however, are earlier examples revealed by archaeology. One of the best-excavated so far is at Becan, in the center of the Yucatn Peninsula, where David L. Webster worked in 1970. He dates the erection of these fortifications to about AD 250–300, although the general design was probably much older.63 His description recalls the wording in the book of Alma: "The vertical distance from the top of the embankment to the bottom of the ditch . . . would have averaged something over 11 m. [35 ft.], not counting any . . . wooden palisade. The steep angles of the inner ditch wall and parapet slope could not have been climbed without the aid of ladders; an enemy force caught in the bottom of the ditch would have been at the mercy of the defenders, whose most effective weapons under the circumstances would have been large rocks. . . . To throw 'uphill' from the outside is almost impossible. Defenders, possibly screened by a palisade, could have rained long-distance missiles on approaching enemies using spearthrowers and slings" [compare Alma 49:4]. The attackers' approach would have been spotted by watchmen on tall towers, for which there is evidence (see Alma 50:3–4), although decay and erosion have removed any evidence of the presumed wooden palisade.64

The Book of Mormon mentions another feature of warfare that no one in Joseph Smith's time would have known about. We read a puzzling statement in Alma 49:4 to the effect that Lamanite warriors attempted to "cast . . . their arrows" over the Nephite fortification walls. Surely the Indians of the northeastern United States that Joseph Smith knew about shot their arrows rather than "cast them." A primary war weapon among Mesoamerican peoples was the spear-thrower, or atlatl (the name of the device in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs).65 This implement consisted of a carved stick about eighteen inches long that was grasped at one end in the user's right hand as he extended his throwing arm behind him. The end of a relatively long, heavy arrow was placed with its blunt end against a notch at the far end of the atlatl, while two fingers of the user's hand held the projectile parallel to the throwing stick. When the user cast his arm and the weapon forward, the length of the atlatl served to increase the propelling power of the thrower's arm. That gave the thrower greater leverage to increase the velocity and range of the missile.

In Mesoamerican warfare and hunting both the regular bow and arrow and the atlatl were used. If we suppose that the Lamanites in the day of Moroni1 used atlatls—and this is plausible on the basis of archaeology—the Nephite fortification barrier would indeed pose a problem for attackers if they attempted to "cast" their "arrows" into the stronghold, just as the wording in the account in Alma neatly states.

John Tvedtnes has pointed out that this expression in Alma 49:4 could also stem from use of the Hebrew root yrh, which means "to throw."66 When that word is applied to arrows in Bible usage, the English translation is "to shoot," even though the Hebrew literally reads "to throw" (see, for example, 1 Samuel 20:20, 36–37).

Nothing in books available to Joseph Smith in 1830, be they books about Indians in the New World or about the Hebrew language, could have furnished him with information that would justify the translation "cast . . . their arrows." Nor could he have gleaned from any published source the details of ancient American warfare that fit so well within the Book of Mormon account and yet have only recently come to light.[1]


  1. John W. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.