Source:Echoes:Ch9:5:Broad outlines of New World history

General cultural history of the New World

General cultural history of the New World

Summarized, the scriptural record portrays the following basic sequence:

First, the long-lasting Jaredite ruling line participated in a cultural tradition that, after a pioneering struggle (see Ether 1–9), came to a level of precocious advancement in arts and technology but not in statecraft or religious organization. The civilization was located primarily in the land northward in the centuries preceding about 500 BC.
Later, Nephites (including "Mulekites") and Lamanites, who constituted adjacent rival but interdependent factions with much in common culturally,16 inhabited the land southward from soon after 600 BC to about AD 400 (colonizing portions of the land northward starting in the first century BC).

Within this twofold pattern the text discusses or alludes to additional subgroups, major events, and societal trends. Especially notable are the overall growth of population and participation in a class-structured civilization that emphasized ritual activities.

The last half century of concentrated historical and archaeological research on ancient Mesoamerican societies has produced a picture that, while far more complex than the abbreviated lineage histories that constitute the Book of Mormon, plausibly accommodates the histories of the Nephite and Lamanite ruling lines. The culture sequence reconstructed by scholars can be summarized as follows:

First, there was an early cultural tradition that is increasingly recognized as deserving to be called a civilization. Its best-known component is sometimes called the Olmec culture. This, however, was only the best-known manifestation of a wider tradition dating from perhaps 1400 BC to about 500 BC,17 when it quite abruptly lost its identity. Its climax was located in Mexico in the vicinity of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Some elements of the tradition that followed derived from the Olmec and related predecessor cultures but had a different ethos and emphasis. It featured elaborate religious monuments, ceremonies, and myths. While this second tradition grew from roots in several regions, a core of its concepts originated in southern Mesoamerica, that is, Guatemala and southernmost Mexico, during the period from about 500 BC to near AD 300. This tradition spread quite widely throughout Mesoamerica in that period and provided primary ideas and energy behind the spectacular cultures of the Classic period (after AD 200), such as the Maya, Zapotec, and Teotihuacán manifestations.18
If we identify Book of Mormon lands with the isthmian part of Mesoamerica (the land southward comprising mainly Guatemala and the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, the narrow neck of land being the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the land northward being that portion of Mexico near the isthmus to the north and west),19 as many now do, then substantial agreement between the scriptural and scholarly pictures of culture history is evident. Moreover, evidence has been brought forward that certain key beliefs, symbols, and other cultural elements that appear in this second Mesoamerican tradition (and are referred to in the Book of Mormon text) relate closely to the ancient Near East.20[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.