Source:Echoes:Ch9:2:Population and complextity of precolumbian culture

Population and Complexity of Book of Mormon culture

Population and Complexity of Book of Mormon culture

The book reports a population that reached at least into the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions. At the final battle of the Nephites, some 230,000 on the Nephite side alone are said to have been killed (see Mormon 6:10–15), and the winning side must have suffered casualties of the same order while leaving safe a sizable supporting population. The societies involved were spread over an area of something like 100,000 square miles, about the same order of size as Mesopotamia and larger than the territory encompassed by the Greeks. At one point leaders in the city of Zarahemla were said to live among "thousands" and even "tens of thousands" of people in or near the capital city. Those masses were in large measure specialists, not just farmers, of whom it was charged that they "sit in idleness" (Alma 60:22). Such a socioeconomic structure could only occur in a civilized society.

By the time Mormon was a youth, after AD 300, the Nephites had built or rebuilt so many cities and towns that "the whole land," he reported, "had become covered with buildings" (Mormon 1:7). The crowning class of Nephite urban settlements was the "great city." Five Nephite centers are so named, and other "great and notable cities" also existed, although their names are not recorded in the scriptures (see 3 Nephi 8:14). The absolute size of "great cities" is suggested by mention of the city of Jerusalem in the land of Israel, which was also called a "great city" (1 Nephi 11:13).7 Furthermore, shortly before the time of Christ the area inhabited by the Nephites and Lamanites was characterized as an interrelated trade zone in which "they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell" (Helaman 6:8). "There was all manner of gold . . . and of silver, and of precious ore of every kind" (v. 11). Their craftspeople also "did make all manner of cloth" (v. 13). Many books and records of all kinds were produced (see Helaman 3:15), an additional characteristic of civilized status. Thus the marks of civilization were there, although none were evident among the traditions or the material remains left by the Indians of the northeastern United States, where Joseph Smith dwelled in his formative years.

Not only was the level of civilization depicted in Mormon's volume impressively like that which archaeologists have since found in Central America, but the chronology also agrees generally. The heyday of the Nephites and civilized Lamanites was from the first century BC to the fourth century AD (the earlier Nephites and Lamanites alike were smaller in numbers). According to the Nephite historians, not until around 100 BC did the growth of political, economic, and cultural elements crystallize into extensive and intensive societies.8 Especially in the third and fourth centuries AD, the Nephites and Lamanites built cities and impressive public buildings (see 4 Nephi 1), as well as engaged in extensive trade and large-scale war (see Mormon 1–6).

Archaeological and other historical research carried out over the past half century has demonstrated a striking external correspondence to this picture in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Ruins of even the Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization, from AD 300 to 900, were still unknown when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. Only within recent decades have archaeologists determined that during the centuries even before Cumorah—before the Classic period—civilized people had built and left ruins as impressive as anything ever constructed in this heartland of ancient American civilization.9[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.