[The following post is easily the longest post I have ever made. But don't be discouraged—it may also be the most important. It began as a footnote to one of the chapters of my current Tennis Shoes book, but it seems to have grown into something else, something more. I don't think I've ever written anything quite so iconoclastic or controversial—at least insofar as established paradigms are concerned. Either this article will incite the ire of many of my friends and colleagues in Book of Mormon research, or it will be the first time that I have ever genuinely contributed to the literature of Book of Mormon scholarship. Or both! Or hey, it might just be completely ignored. In light of the possible ramifications, I might just as happily accept the last alternative. Those genuinely interested in this subject might reread this article in a couple weeks as feedback and additional insights may inspire changes and improvements.]
The debate among Latter-day Saints regarding the locations of the ancient cities and events of the Book of Mormon—in particular the debate regarding the location of the ancient battleground known as the Hill Cumorah—sometimes seems more curious as a matter of human psychology than a matter of archeology. Of course this statement excludes non- and anti-Mormons who have decided that such a search is folly in the first place. It speaks strictly of the internal debate among faithful Church members—those who proclaim a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, and the book's origins. Many of these faithful saints will abjectly confess that issues of geography are of minor consequence beside the larger question of the book's truthfulness, and then, practically in the next sentence, engage in zealous rhetoric regarding a personal conviction as to whether the Hill Cumorah is in New York or Mesoamerica. The phenomenon might be humorous if feelings involved weren't so passionate and visceral. The debate is sometimes generational, pitting "old school", lifelong, culturally-entrenched saints against younger or more formally-educated saints who may feel more comfortable applying a stricter scientific litmus to propositions once regarded as matters of faith.
Deferring such a debate to the internet is generally futile and tends to illustrate the weaknesses of open discussion forums and websites like Wikipedia.org, especially with regard to any subject that has some level of controversy. Either it becomes a virtual-reality "slapping contest" where advocates of opposing opinions battle it out by erasing and altering each other's posts. Or it becomes an arbitration by inexperienced and over-taxed editors and admins who, in the interest of "fairness" and "objectivity", give equal time to crackpots whose theories are often supported by footnotes from self-published, obscure, and/or disreputable sources.
However, it remains a fact that until the 1920s or 30s most Latter-day Saints had never contemplated the idea that the Hill Cumorah, as described by Mormon and Moroni, was anywhere but western New York. After all, the glacial drumlin in the vicinity of Palmyra has been called the Hill Cumorah by Latter-day Saints for almost 200 years. Some wonder: What more does a faithful Church member need to know? Any other suggestion as to the hill's location is perceived (understandably) as "messy," complicating what some view as a succinct and logical dénouement to the story of the Book of Mormon's origin.
Even today, some eighty years after alternative perspectives began to appear, proponents of the Great Lakes/New York viewpoint remain convinced that any other view besides the traditional 19th century model can be dangerous, heretical, secularist, and sometimes even anti-American.
The anti-Americanism is the most curious, and comes from the basic notion that the United States, as the world's first modern democracy, most suitably, and perhaps exclusively, fits the description of a Promised Land or "land of liberty" as denoted in 2 Nephi 1:7, 10:11, Mosiah 29:32, Ether 2:9-12, and Alma 46:17. In their view, placing significant Book of Mormon events "south of the border" disrespects our Constitution, its inspired Founders, and American nationalism—a concept to which other republics of North and Central America just might take serious objection and offense, even if their democracies, by certain standards, are not yet as successful as the United States. Hey, I'm about as conservative and flag-waving as a person can get. I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads "I was anti-Obama before it was cool!" and I deeply cherish my freedom to display such a thing! I love this country and thank the Lord for my blessings of living here and pray daily for its success. But even I find disturbing from a fellow saint any kind of overzealous nationalism that might place other freedom-loving peoples on a different level or tier.
Look at it from Mormon's point of view! Compared to the Middle Ages, and especially to the time-period of Mormon or Ether, these Ancient American visions of today's New World would have revealed an incomparable bastain of religious and social freedom--from Argentina to Alaska, Brazil to Cabo San Lucas (with the possible exceptions of Cuba and the current state of Venezeula). The point is that even if America rightly deserves the honors and prestige of being the FIRST to receive our inspired constitution, that constitution has become a model across the globe for many republics, especially in the Americas, and Mormon assuredly viewed the remarkable circumstances of our current situation without borders.
In the modern age New York/Great Lakes proponents have attracted few, if any, supporters with PhDs or backgrounds in the disciplines of archaeology or related fields of study. Most of these proponents rely upon obscure (and often 2nd or 3rd-hand) quotes from early Church figures, outdated science, and/or pseudo-science to support their geographical models. Frequently they assert that those who believe alternate theories willfully reject "authoritative" statements from Church leaders in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. A lengthy history and discussion of such statements is presented by Matthew Roper in an article for FARMS (now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute). For the honest investigator, Roper's presentation is worthy of close review. It can be found online at: Link
The skinny of it is, the Lord does not appear to have revealed the location of any ancient Book of Mormon city or event to a single (authorized) human being! And honestly, I think Latter-day Saints have been enormously blessed because of it. Oh, we're still terribly curious. We very much want to know the location of Zarahemla, Cumorah, and Sidon. The search itself--and the associated pondering, praying, exploring, puzzling and dicovering--has proven an extraordinary gift to many Church members. If the Lord had handed us this info on a silver platter (by revealing it to the only soul (truly) authorized to receive it--a Church President), I would have personally missed out on the meticulous, often tedious, and always miraculous opportunity of searching this magnificent and complex scriptural volume. I feel that God knows exactly what He is doing by keeping mum on this issue. And we should thank Him for remaining so. However, His resolute mum-ness does not mean that the puzzle cannot be solved through reason, intelligence, and serendipitous enlightenment. And so we persist...
Almost since the inception of the Restored Gospel the importance of other regions of the New World in regard to Book of Mormon events has been proposed by Church leaders, including Joseph Smith (Times and Seasons, 1842; 3:92 7). Serious inconsistencies associated with physical descriptions found in the scriptural text when compared to the landscape of the eastern United States and New York (especially the final battleground of the Nephites and Jaredites) have been noted by scholars and Church leaders for numerous decades (see B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses, 2:200, 3:502-3, Janne M. Sjödahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, 1927). But until the 1970s no Latter-day Saint had ever proposed a viable Mesoamerican alternative.
However, in the '70s an alternative and viable location for the last battles was finally suggested by John L. Sorenson, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Brigham Young University. This location, subsequently publicized in 1985 in his seminal volume An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, is a hill near the western end of the Tuxtla Mountain Range in southern Veracruz, Mexico called El Cerro Vigia, or "Lookout Hill." Few locations in the annals of Book of Mormon geography have received more notoriety than Dr. Sorenson's proposal of the Hill Vigia as the central location for the final battles of the Nephite and Jaredite nations. The proposal has been adopted and applauded by the majority of Book of Mormon researchers for the past thirty-five years, including David A. Palmer (whose book In Search of Cumorah predates Sorenson's book by four years, though he freely admits that Sorenson's model was his inspiration), V. Garth Norman, Joseph L. Allen, Richard B. Hauck, Bruce W. Warren, and a score of other university-trained scholars and thoughtful, disciplined Book of Mormon enthusiasts.
However, a few LDS researchers in the past couple years have pointed out significant problems with Sorenson's El Cerro Vigia proposition. Having personally visited this hill on three occasions, I confess that some of these reservations have also occurred to me. But before examining these issues I believe it's important to establish what I consider an appropriate frame of mind. I have often found it a fascinating—and disheartening—reality to observe how so many of the most brilliant researchers in the area of Book of Mormon scholarship are also the least teachable when it comes to adopting new perspectives. This, I am told, is the case in virtually all sciences and academic disciplines, not just an isolated niche like Book of Mormon geography. I've heard younger scientists proclaim that in certain fields of study it actually becomes necessary for the older generation of scholars to "die off" before new ideas are considered and advanced. This seems to be a tragic and all-too-common failing of humanity and has been acknowledged as a genuine flaw in the scientific community by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is still required reading for up-and-coming scholars at many universities.
Dr. Kuhn's contention that the progress of science can be a slow and painful process applies quite accurately to the current state of Book of Mormon geography. Long ago I acknowledged that any hope for the current generation of LDS scholars to come to a consensus regarding their perspectives on Book of Mormon cities and lands is utterly naive. I have observed numerous PhD-level researchers, many with decades of field experience, become utterly intractable when faced with adjusting personal theories which may have taken a lifetime of blood and sweat to formulate. These LDS scientists cling to their ideas and maps the way Gollum clings to the "One Ring of Power," sometimes hoarding private research for fear that it might be pinched or looted by another scholar before it can be organized into a proper presentation. To say the least, serious disagreements still exist about Book of Mormon geography, even among those who acknowledge that by far the most viable scenario for Mormon's record is the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory," which places most locations and events within several hundred miles on either side of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
The reality is that the current generation of scholars only agree on about six essential points: 1. That the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the narrow neck of land. 2. That the land of Nephi is generally the highlands of Guatemala. 3. That the land of Zarahemla is generally the Chiapas Basin and/or the lowlands of the Usamacinta River. (this area of "consensus" is admittedly fudged a bit since, for many scholars, this is an either/or proposition which actually covers a great deal of real estate. But even the fact that it's "either/or" is, I believe, a notable agreement) 4. That the narrow strip of wilderness from the Sea West to the Sea East (Alma 22:37) comprises the Sierra Cuchumatanes which extend from the Pacific Ocean near the Guatemala/Mexico border to the Bay of Honduras on the Atlantic side. 5. That the Land of Desolation comprises the northern parts of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including portions of the Mexican states of Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, and possibly Oaxaca. 6. That the archeological dates and sites corresponding to the rise and fall of Olmec culture in Mexico closely parallels the dates and sites of the rise and fall of the Jaredites.
Beyond these areas of consensus, the opinions of the most distinguished LDS researchers are literally all over the map. But wait a second . . . Stop the presses! When you think about it, these areas of consensus are actually quite extraordinary! In fact, they may even be unprecedented in the history of Book of Mormon research. Perhaps Book of Mormon geography has made serious forward strides after all!
Until a year ago I might have included the Hill Cumorah and Sorenson's proposal of El Cerro Vigia in the category of general consensus. Now I'm afraid I would have to remove it. Keep in mind that I do so at no small sacrifice to my own body of work. Several of my novels have plotlines dependent upon the Hill Vigia scenario, especially Gadiantons and the Silver Sword. However, I would hope the highest criteria of human intelligence is the ability to maintain an open mind despite whatever personal sacrifices and stings of pride must be endured in the cause of advancing knowledge. I would like to remain in that category of "open-mindedness" despite the possible impact to my life's work.
Having said this, let me reiterate that I have not entirely abandoned the Hill Vigia as a viable candidate for Cumorah. It may be that holes can be found in the logic that I am about to present, pulling us right back to Sorenson's 35-year-old proposal. Frankly, it would be much more convenient for me personally if Sorenson was right. But I believe that in light of certain weaknesses in this theory that we should be willing to reexamine all the evidence in hopes of achieving greater understanding and ultimately adding to the compendium of Book of Mormon knowledge.
In order to illustrate some of the problems with the Hill Vigia as a candidate for the Hill Cumorah we must return to the text of the Book of Mormon and reexamine verses in Ether as well as the nine chapters that Mormon attributes to his own memory of things "both seen and heard" (Mormon 1:1).
One of the better verses that helps us understand Cumorah in relation to other prominent landmarks is Ether 9, verse 3:
"And the Lord warned Omer in a dream that he should depart out of the land; wherefore Omer departed out of the land with his family, and traveled many days, and came over and passed by the hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward, and came to a place which was called Ablom, by the seashore, and there he pitched his tent..." (Ether 9:3, emph. added).
The seat of Omer's kingdom was the Land of Morōn and the city of Morōn (I generally add the phonetic long "ō" when I write Morōn as an aid so that it is properly pronounced, assuming the name is the root of the name Moroni, although this "aid" is not in the text of the scriptures). In summary, Omer presumably traveled many days from the land or city of Morōn, passed by the Hill Shim, passed by the Hill Cumorah, and then went eastward to a place called Ablom on the coast. It could be that Omer traveled eastward for the entirety of his journey, or that he turned "eastward" at Cumorah to reach the seashore. In any case, it's clear that his itinerary first brought him to Shim, then to Cumorah, then to the ocean. Thus we are presented with our first problem regarding the Vigia/Cumorah proposal.
The scriptures consistently identify two prominent hills whenever discussing repositories for plates or last battles—Shim and Cumorah. A candidate for the Hill Shim was presented almost simultaneously with the proposal for the Hill Cumorah. In fact, in the literature of Sorenson, Palmer, Allen, Hauck, and others the candidates are generally mentioned side by side. The Hill Shim, it is suggested, is a hill on the shores of Lake Catemaco in the Tuxtla Mountains called Cintepec. Cintepec is about 35 miles east-southeast from Vigia. Sorenson and others have outlined a convincing argument that the word "Cintepec" in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language means "Corn Hill" and that this corresponds to the Yucatec Maya word "Shim" or Ixim which also means corn. In other words, as a new culture dominated the Tuxtla Mountains, the name of this hill remained the same, only transposed to a different language.
Linguistics and pronunciations are often complex, so it's difficult to verify the accuracy of such a transposition, but in any case the evidence is probably insufficient if this is the only criteria for concluding that Cintepec is the Hill Shim.
The problems for this theory may not relate to linguistics. They may relate to direction. As I have already stated, Cintepec is principally east of Vigia. This would mean, according to Sorenson's proposal, that King Omer, in his journey to the seashore, first traveled east (or north) to the Hill Shim, then turned west to reach Cumorah, then turned eastward again to reach the ocean. The unnatural and illogical sequence of such a journey is illustrated (albeit unintentionally) in Joseph Allen's 2nd Edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, pg. 436. Dr. Allen, who has presented much insightful Book of Mormon research over the years, appears to push the probability envelope in this instance. His proposal for Ablom is not really "eastward" of Vigia/Cumorah at all. If anything, it's north.
Dr. Sorenson has long proposed the idea that the Nephites may have altered cardinal directions according to the orientations of their Israelite homeland (allowing for the possibility that northward sometimes means eastward). However, Allen has long disputed that directional shift, so it's uncertain why he apparently adopted it here to explain the journey of King Omer. Dr. Allen, because of his longtime tour business to Central America, understands the highways and travel routes in this part of the world perhaps better than any other LDS scholar, so it's possible that his scenario was designed with established routes of travel in mind. But if the course of the journey suggested by Allen, Sorenson, and others is accurate, the question remains why King Omer, if his ultimate destination was Ablom by the seashore, would feel he had to travel to the Hill Shim, then go west to the Hill Vigia, and then turn eastward again (northward?) to reach the ocean. Such a journey, without a corroborating explanation, doesn't appear to make sense.
This issue makes even less sense when we consider that the Hill Vigia has at its southwest base a significant archeological site known as Tres Zapotes, which dates to Olmec/Jaredite times. If King Omer was on the run and attempting to hide from his homicidal son, Prince Jared, is it likely that he would willingly pass through a heavily populated district? Is it likely that Ether (or Moroni) would have failed to mention such a city? Also, would his retreat to Ablom have been sufficiently far away from known population centers to successfully "hide" this Jaredite king (whose head likely had a price)? Admittedly, various scenarios can be speculated to resolve some concerns (such as the notion that the city at Tres Zapotes was not really part of Omer's kingdom), but so far no explanations have been explored or suggested. Tres Zapotes remained occupied for 2000 years prior to about 900 AD (Pool, Christopher A. (2007). Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, pg 250). The deafening silence of the text regarding this "city" (no city is ever mentioned in association with the Land or Hill Cumorah) brings up other questions, such as who might have lived here when the armies of Coriantumr and Shur marched in to wipe each other out? No significant population change for Tres Zapotes is discussed in archaeological literature from 500-300 BC. Also, no significant changes are noted for the time period around 486 AD. If two major battles decimating millions of people took place at or near this location, archaeology has not yet revealed evidence of it. Field studies, especially from the strata of Mormon's time period, should reveal earthworks, ditches, walls, and other defensive structures. Mormon was so enamoured and descriptive of such earthworks when he discussed other Nephite generals that it seems unfathomable that he did not build such defenses for his own forces. After all, he had four years before the final battle to do so. But as of yet, no such defenses (such as those found at other Mesoamerican sites, like Becán and Dzibanché in the Yucatan) have been reported. However, we must allow for the possibility that such detailed surveys have not yet been concluded. In reality, we've barely scratched the surface on so many archaeological sites that such an argument may be patently unfair. It might be better to say that no "obvious" defensive earthworks have been detected.
The issue of other prominent landmarks that exist in this region of the Tuxtla Mountains may also cast doubt upon the hills Vigia and Cintepec being Cumorah and Shim. In the Book of Mormon the Hill Cumorah is often mentioned in direct correlation with the Land of Cumorah (see Mormon 6:4). This gives the impression that the hill itself is a free-standing landmark with relatively little competition (for dominance) from other landmarks in the immediate vicinity. Such a condition does not readily describe the area around El Cerro Vigia.
In 2001 I visited Vigia with Ryan Williams, a longtime tour director for Dr. Allen in Central America. Our bus had traveled from Veracruz along the coast and across the Papaloapan water basin (proposed by Sorenson, Allen, and others as the waters of Ripliancum (Ether 15:8)) until we reached the town of Santiago Tuxtla, nestled in the foothills just east of Vigia. During one moment, as Ryan and I looked out across the landscape in all directions, I recall that we simultaneously voiced the same basic question: "Why this hill and not the hill in that direction or the one in that direction?" The point was that despite the Hill Vigia being the westernmost nub of the Tuxtla Mountains, it really did not seem distinguishable from other visible hills in the area—some of which are actually larger than Vigia.
This naturally leads to another question: Even if Vigia is the Hill Cumorah, then what is the Land of Cumorah? It seems strained to identify this hill as also being associated with a "land." It just stands too close to other landmarks, many that are arguably more prominent. One possible explanation would be that the Land of Cumorah encompasses the hilly plains directly south of the hill, placing the Hill Cumorah at the northern end of the Land of Cumorah. But still, the essential awkwardness of the association does not entirely disappear.
This kind of ambiguity was even more pronounced when we were shown the Hill Cintepec during a land excursion and subsequent boat ride across Lake Catemaco. The shores of this lake, as well as the entire landscape of the region, are so pocked and knotted with mountains and hills that it was hard to envision why Mormon, Ether, or any other ancient historian would have viewed Cintepec or Vigia with any particular prominence. Granted, Cintepec is a basaltic outcrop and was a quarry for some of the massive basalt heads found at nearby Olmec archelogical sites. But this archaeological discovery seems unrelated to the claim that Shim is also a record repository. To my knowledge, no one has ever reported that Cintepec has caves of any significance. I could be wrong here, and I would happily stand corrected. But no one has ever written of Cintepec's caves. Yes, Vigia has caves--lots of caves--but not Cintepec. Every presumption from Ammaron and Mormon is that the Hill Shim contains a record respository large enough to house (and protect) Mormon's massive collection of historical writings (later physically moved to Cumorah), and obviously secluded enough to remain hidden from those working the local basalt quarry or from any other intruders. Cintepec just does not seem to satisfy these requirements. My suspcian is that Dr. Sorenson heard about the hill because of the basalt quarry surveyed by the noted archaeologists of his day (like Michael Coe and Matthew Sterling), discovered the correlation with the name "Corn Hill", and never investigated the matter much beyond that. If this is untrue or inaccurate, I would welcome enlightenment.
But back to the dominance/prominence issue...Keep in mind, this area is the Tuxtla Mountain Range. This range includes at least two active volcanoes—one of which (San Martín Tuxtla) last erupted in 1793 and reaches an altitude almost three times that of Vigia. Also, it encompasses hundreds of extinct volcanic cones, of which Vigia is one. Allowing for the fact that I am not a geographer, cartographer, or even a frequent visitor to the area, distinguishing these hills as notable landmarks when compared to neighboring hills I believe demands additional evidence or explanation.
To view a wonderful slideshow that better illustrates the complexity of the topography of the Tuxtla Mountains (and frankly, the awesome beauty of the region) go to the following link and scroll down a bit: Link
If Sorenson and others have pegged these two hills correctly, the question must also be asked why Moroni, in citing the details of Ether's tale of King Omer, would only mention three singular landmarks—1. Shim, 2. "the place where the Nephites were destroyed," and 3. Ablom by the seashore. Even allowing for the fact that Shim and Cumorah are important in Jaredite and Nephite history, why deliberately ignore so many other striking and notable landmarks that would have stood in Omer's path on the way to the ocean?
I confess to being no expert in ancient military tactics, but one also has to wonder why, if Vigia is Cumorah, would Mormon have believed that at that location "we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites" (Mormon 6:4). Tactically, one wonders why Mormon wouldn't simply lead his nation of as many as 750,000 people (230,000 warriors, plus non-combatants, women, and children) further north and deeper into the wilderness of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas. Arable land and feeding such a vast population is certainly an issue, but this whole region has no shortage of fertile ground. In addition, many parts of the Tuxtla Mountains are remote and rugged. It entails one of the most lush, jungle-covered wilderness areas of Central America. In the face of extinction, heading into that rugged wilderness should have been a very attractive alternative to a large number of vigorous and healthy Nephites. Recall that Gadianton robbers who took up residence in similar mountainous terrain requried more than a generation to destroy. Nephites taking refuge in such a region would have been equally difficult to flush out and exterminate. And yet Mormon reports that deserters (clearly distinguished from turncoats or dissenters) at the last battle fled southward, not northward (see Mormon 6:15, Mormon 8:2). Considering the relative safety of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, such a strategy of escaping to the south countries seems impractical and illogical.
In recounting the events of the tragic civil war that ultimately destroyed the Jaredite nation, Ether cites numerous landmarks that are not named in any other verses of the Book of Mormon. It can be assumed that all of these landmarks are either within a few hundred miles of, or possibly enroute to, the Hill Ramah/Cumorah where Generals Coriantumr and Shiz fought to the bitter end. Such landmarks (in chronological order of their appearance in Chaps 13, 14, and 15 of Ether) include:
Valley of Gilgal
Plains of Heslon
Wilderness of Akish
Land of Morōn
"Borders upon the seashore"
Plains of Agosh
Land of Corihor
Valley of Corihor
Valley of Shurr
Waters of Ripliancum
Place called Ogath
Of the names and places on this list, only the Hill Ramah is identified by its Nephite counterpart, Cumorah. We can safely presume, I think, that the other landmarks have all been identified by their Jaredite names, not their Nephite names. So either Mormon did not feel the need to provide correlating Nephite names for these locations or he did not know their Nephite counterparts. But there is also a third possibility: Except for Ramah/Cumorah, many of these lands had very little direct association with places where other significant events of the Book of Mormon took place, especially events witnessed by Mormon and Moroni. It's interesting to note that as Mormon describes his own clashes with Lamanites and the armies of the Gadianton robbers, he only names cities, lands, and two hills (Shim and Cumorah). Unlike Ether, he does not describe or name specific plains, valleys, wildernesses, or waters.
Mormon often generalizes by speaking of the land northward or the land southward. He frequently mentions the land and city of Desolation and certain cities within (or very near) that land. But at the end of his personal history Mormon describes what amounts to a Nephite rout by the armies of the Lamanites, and probably also armies of the Gadianton robbers (see Moroni 2:7-8), through numerous unnamed cities and villages. But except for Ramah/Cumorah, he does not equate any location with the places or landmarks mentioned by Ether. The impression is that the Nephite army and Coriantumr's army may have been driven to the same region by different paths—two distinct courses that did not bypass mutually identifiable locations. This argument is further augmented by the fact that when Nephite and Jaredite paths did cross, Mormon and Moroni (Ether's editor) seem inclined to inform us so. So it's possible that, whereas the Nephites were driven north to Ramah/Cumorah, the Jaredites may have been driven south or east.
Few scholars of the Book of Mormon have made a serious effort to match any particular geography with the orderly succession of place names and descriptions presented in the 13th, 14th, and 15th chapters of the Book of Ether. This is undoubtedly because very few helpful details are provided. But it may also be that no scholars have made progress here for the last 35 years because they have been satisfied with Sorenson's proposal of Cumorah and Shim in the Tuxtla Mountains. In order to make better progress matching the geography and place names of Ether it may be necessary to look elsewhere for Ramah/Cumorah.
I'm perfectly aware that rejecting El Cerro Vigia as Cumorah represents a new paradigm for Book of Mormon scholarship, and that new paradigms are often met with considerable resistance. But if Vigia is not Cumorah and Cintepec is not Shim, where else should LDS scholars begin to look?
The most fertile possibilities for such a search are likely in the lands north of the Tuxtla Mountains, and potentially north of the city of Veracruz, upward through the fertile hills and coastal plains of Mexico's "bread basket," and perhaps as far north as the port of Tampico. As with all of Mexico, this area is rich in archaeological sites, many which date to the time period of the Jaredites, and others which date to the time period of the Nephites. Recently the site of Tamtoc in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi revealed one of the northernmost connections to the Olmec (Jaredite?) culture that has ever been found (see Link).
For too long this region of Mexico may have been ignored by LDS researchers, possibly because it is generally considered northward of the Nephite/Lamanite heartlands. But it may be that this land encompasses at least one major Nephite/Lamanite stomping ground—the battlefield where Mormon made his final stand about nine years after his people began to be "swept off by [the Lamanites] even as a dew before the sun" (Mormon 4:18).
The rout described by Mormon begins in AD 375 at the land of Desolation in "a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward (Mormon 3:5). If, as has been proposed, this "narrow pass" is located near or within the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, then it seems safe to presume that the Nephites' desperate retreat began here and ended somewhere much farther north, in an area which Mormon identifies as his childhood home. The first time the Nephites fight at a location which may actually be north of the land of Desolation is at a city called Boaz around AD 375-376 (Mormon 4:20). Afterwards the Nephites fled from before the Lamanites "taking all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages" (Mormon 4:22).
It's worth reminding the reader that during this time period Mormon did not lead his people in battle. He had actually abandoned the front lines of conflict in order to return to his homeland to retrieve from Shim all the records entrusted to him by Ammaron. Shortly thereafter, however, he "repented" of his oath not to lead his wicked countrymen and helped them stage another brave defense (also presumably north of the land of Desolation) at a city called Jordan (Mormon 5:1-3).
Mormon 5:4 mentions that there were "also other cities" held by the Nephites, and that these "strongholds" prevented the Lamanites from completely destroying the inhabitants of the land. This statement begs a geographical question: What tract of land would have included key strongholds of such tactical significance that, had they been infiltrated by the Lamanite armies, would have destroyed the Nephites five years earlier than when they were ultimately destroyed?
Despite Mormon's scant details regarding Nephite losses after AD 379, it becomes clear in Mormon 5:5-7 that the city of Jordon, along with these other key strongholds, were completely overrun, and that a multitude of Nephite settlements and villages were burned. Moreover, Mormon reports that only those who could flee more swiftly than the Lamanites managed to escape with their lives. In any case, by now both soldiers and refugees are moving very swiftly and likely covering a great deal of ground.
Sorenson defines his "narrow pass" as near the modern city of Minatitlan in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Sorenson, pg. 347). This site is approximately 90 miles from El Cerro Vigia. Allen proposes the city of Desolation, where the Nephites were defeated in AD 375, as at or near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, 60 miles from El Cerro Vigia (Allen, 2nd Ed. pgs. 464-465). Assuming that either of these locations is accurate, common sense seems to suggest that Mormon's vivid description of the Nephite rout places El Cerro Vigia too close to the narrow pass or the city of Desolation. In this instance the Limited Tehuantepec Theory seems a bit too limited.
One of the traditional rationales for proposing El Cerro Vigia as the site of the last battlegrounds is because this area is physically isolated or cut-off by a series of rivers, lakes, and marshes known as the Papaloapan water basin. The assumption has been that this swampy district along the Veracruz coast was impassable in ancient times to a large army. Therefore Lamanite chieftains would have been more than happy to allow their enemies four years to gather at Vigia knowing that they'd have no route of escape. By itself this concept seems to contradict Mormon's sincere belief that gathering to Cumorah would give his people a distinct military advantage—a genuine fighting chance (see Mormon 6:4). Would an army commander of Mormon's stature and abilities really allow his army to be "boxed in" by inescapable terrain?
However, the overall idea that the Papaloapan basin is an impenetrable swamp has possibly been exaggerated over the years by various LDS scholars. Commonly, publications on Book of Mormon geography will present maps and illustrations that inflate the nature of this watery barrier. Few have more respect than me for the invaluable contributions to Book of Mormon research offered by Dr. Joseph Allen. Nevertheless, his 2nd Edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon is particularly guilty of perpetuating this misconception. A map of the Papaloapan water basin can be found on page 400, but then on page 463 he uses the same map to represent numerous Olmec archeological sites. Many of these Olmec ruins are located directly in and around these exact same rivers, lakes, and swamps! This area is not impassable. In fact, it can sometimes be quite hospitable. Using the mileage guide on these maps one might presume that the delta of the Papaloapan and San Juan rivers is fifteen miles wide! Having actually been to this region I can attest that it is not. Despite numerous rivers, lakes, and marshes, this region is by no means impenetrable, especially during the dry season. Ancient and well-established trade routes neatly circumvent the marshier sections (much of which are seasonal), and the rivers themselves are no more numerous or foreboding than other areas of the Tehuantepec Isthmus or the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tobasco. Mormon certainly dealt with rivers and other watery obstacles for most of his military career. Undoubtedly he used similar methods for traversing them as other great generals throughout ancient history.
Many scholars, including Palmer, Sorenson, Allen, and others have equated the Papaloapan water basin with the "waters of Ripliancum" mentioned in Ether 15:8. Moroni, in his abridgment of Ether, interprets Ripliancum to mean "large, or to exceed all." Because Ether does not say ocean or sea in this reference scholars have speculated that Ripliancum was a large and possibly "ill-defined" body of water, perhaps akin to a marshland like the Florida Everglades. This is not outside the realm of possibility. However, keep in mind that Ether did not use common Nephite terminology like West Sea, East Sea, South Sea, etc., in defining oceans or gulfs (another reason to assume that the Jaredite heartland was quite different from the Nephite/Lamanite heartlands). The waters of Ripliancum are mentioned after Ether reports a succession of military confrontations in various lands, valleys, and hills (see the ordered list earlier in this article). Therefore, these waters meaning "large, or the exceed all" might more reasonably designate an ocean. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico.
One of my objects in writing the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series, and celebrating the Book of Mormon in other ways, has always been to inspire a new generation of young and disciplined LDS researchers to take up the torch of those brilliant Book of Mormon scholars who have come before. Thus, we must expect that all proposals and scenarios of the previous generation will be meticulously re-examined. It is my belief that this is a very healthy thing.
So the question remains: Have any scholars offered other viable candidates for Ramah/Cumorah besides El Cerro Vigia? The answer to that is a qualified yes. I use the term "qualified" because such proposals and speculations are in a developmental stage. Much work is still to be done. But the basic list of qualifications for Cumorah presented in 1981 by David A. Palmer still applies. Any candidate must pass this test of scrutiny, even if some qualifications are "tweaked" based on refined and improved understandings (see Palmer, pg. 53).
With this in mind, a possible alternative to El Cerro Vigia has been suggested by Dr. Lawrence Poulson, an LDS researcher living in Austin, Texas. Poulson is a scientist with a PhD in biochemistry. This is not exactly a degree in archaeology, nevertheless he very much understands the disciplines of proper scientific analysis. A longtime enthusiast of Book of Mormon geography, Dr. Poulson has spent a good portion of his last nine years of retirement from the University of Texas pursuing ancient American studies.
As a possible candidate for the Hill Cumorah, Dr. Poulson has proposed a large hill about 300 miles north of Allen's proposed location for the city of Desolation (San Lorenzo). This hill, which is still within the state of Veracruz, is known as Otontepec. One of the features which makes it an intriguing candidate is a city situated near its southern flank called Tepetzintla. This word may have the exact same meaning in the Nahuatl language as Cintepec. In other words, it means "Corn Hill"—the same as the Yucatec Maya word "Shim." (see a general definition and description of Tepetzintla here: Link)
Coincidentally, this town also sits in close proximity to a smaller hill that Dr. Poulson has proposed as the Hill Shim.
Otontepec itself is more "free-standing" than El Cerro Vigia, situated in the middle of Veracruz's northern plains, about twenty-eight miles east of the Gulf of Mexico. I've noted several internet references which suggest that locals commonly denote it in a plural form--"Hills of Otontepec". Despite having the appearance of a single mountainous unit, there are numerous peaks with altitudes ranging from 2000 to 4000 feet. The landmass itself encompasses about five square miles. Several sizable rivers have their headwaters on its slopes and surveys from the State of Veracruz report that it provides the water supply for dozens of villages and communities in the region. As with most sites in Mexico, the area is rich in archaeological sites, with unexcavated mounds and pyramids nearby.
Another interesting feature of this hill is a C-shaped bowl or valley facing south surrounded on three sides by a high ridge. This bowl appears to have certain military advantages that El Cerro Vigia does not, especially if the objective is to defend a population of women and children. I also like Otontepec as a candidate because it seems a much stronger match to the description mentioned in Ether 9:3. Take another look at the wording of this verse: "...[Omer]traveled many days, and came over and passed by the Hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward..." Moroni (editing Ether) doesn't bother mentioning Cumorah here by name--just reminds the reader that this was the place where the Nephites were destroyed. This gives the impression that Shim and Cumorah may be side by side, or at least much closer in proximity than Vigia and Cintepec. Moroni's description reinforces the idea that Shim and the "place where the Nephites were destroyed" are sufficiently close to each other that mentioning Cumorah in this reference must have seemed redundant.
However, this argument has one twist or tangle, and that tangle is offered by Ammaron himself. He identifies the land where the Hill Shim is located as being called the "land Antum." This name seems very Jaredite (Cori-antum-r). He also, when identifying Shim, seems to indicate that this particular hill was known even to the ancient Jaredites as Shim. Read Mormon 1:3 where Ammaron tells Mormon "..when ye are of that age go to the land Antum, unto a hill which shall be called Shim..."
"Shall be called"? That's rather unusual phrasing, almost as if the hill, and possibly the "land Antum" were ancient names that didn't have much distinction among the Nephties when Mormon was a child, but that this "Jaredite" hill will be known later as Shim because the name will be re-popularized by Mormon himself. There's seems to be a mingling of Jaredite and Nephite nomenclature here that makes the issue confusing. A wonderful solution would be that Nephites called it the "land of Cumorah" and the Jaredites (or other locals of the area) called it the "land of Antum", but archaeologically this does not (yet) have correlating support. However, additional information regarding the possible racial and/or religious complexity of "Mormon's homeland" is discussed in another article from Ainsworth and Miner found here:Link
To understand all that I have described, one has to actually see the location. So for various views and additional information regarding Otontepec and Tepezintla, please visit the following web pages and websites:
This link will take you to a page of Dr. Poulsen's website: Link (In this image keep in mind that the white line represents five miles.)
This is a second page on Dr. Poulsen's website with a different satellite view: Link
This last website is a promotional website for tourism written in Spanish, but the images are compelling. Besides the main image of the hill, scroll down for additional images of waterfalls, etc.: Link
Again, it must be stressed that this candidate for Cumorah is very preliminary. Immediate causes for skepticism are that, by any modern standard, Otontepec ought to be called a mountain and not a hill. In fact, modern maps call it Sierra de Otontepec, ("sierra" being the Spanish word for mountain, whereas "cerro" is hill). However, this is despite the alleged local custom of calling it a hill (or hills). Maybe interviews with the locals, especially the Huastec (Teenek) natives, would better reveal its traditional designation, (not to mention a possible wealth of other unique information.)
Obviously this region is much more suited to being identified as a "land" as well as a "hill" when compared to other Cumorah candidates. Yet it remains to be investigated if Otontepec can qualify as a "land of many waters, rivers, and fountains" (Mormon 6:4). Mormon was quite explicit in this description and such a feature cannot be overlooked. However, I was never quite clear why Vigia had earned this particular distinction over other areas of Veracruz and Tehuantepec. Mormon's description might make more sense if it means that Cumorah has considerably more abundant water supplies by comparison to other areas in the region. In that regard Otontepec may already qualify (see pictures on the last listed website), but further investigation is still warranted. Personally, I'd like to find a Cumorah about a hundred miles closer to the narrow neck than Otontepec, but I confess that this may be because I've been indoctrinated for so long by the limited geography of current Book of Mormon thinking that it's difficult for me to reset my brain.
Certainly we've only scratched the surface of what needs to be done archeologically and anthropologically if further investigation of Dr. Poulson's candidate for Cumorah proves promising. But that task, or the task of finding an entirely different location, or even the task of buffering and strengthening the current candidate of El Cerro Vigia must be left in the hands of those far more qualified than myself.
So here's the challenge to the current generation of LDS researchers: GO THERE! We readily confess that no field survey has ever been conducted in this region with the object of correlating it to Book of Mormon geography. Neither myself, nor Dr. Poulson, nor any other LDS researcher (as far as I am aware) has ever visited this area with such an objective in mind. (From what I'm told, there really aren't any hotels! One might have to stay in a resort closer to the ocean.) This candidate was discovered principally because of the time and energy that Dr. Poulsen has devoted to the technology of satellite imagery. This technology was unavailable to Book of Mormon researchers only a few years ago. Now it has become (admittedly) Dr. Poulsen's obsession. Still, it remains to be seen whether Otontepec can qualify as a "land of many waters, rivers, and fountains." Perhaps more importantly, it remains to be verified if there are defensive earthworks or ruins that date to the time period of Mormon or Ether. This is fresh, fertile territory for research! The prospects should ignite the imaginations of any disciplined LDS scholar. If nothing else, go there and prove the location wrong. Eliminate Otontepec as a candidate so that we can move on, or move back to former candidates, as the case may demand.
The goal, as always, is an open-minded search for truth. And by the way, this does not mean a search for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. That objective remains a spiritual one, and completely independent of any archaeological or geographical criteria. My personal belief is that even if Latter-days Saints were to find an ancient road sign that read "Zarahemla", it would do little to alter the cause of the Adversary in trying to undermine the work of the Lord. Additionally, it would do nothing to alter the responsibility of each individual to gain the kind of spiritual witness outlined in Moroni 10:3-5.
But for those whose testimonies are sufficiently established, I would extend a hearty invitation to continue the quest of Book of Mormon research. Personally, the search for Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites has been one of the most exciting pursuits that I've undertaken as a Latter-day Saint. It's proven a sincerely rewarding way of celebrating the spirit and heritage of the ancient record, as well as honoring the memory of those magnificent peoples who once lived in this hemisphere and devotedly worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ.
(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger