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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Latest From Cumorah's Hill

     As I write any Tennis Shoes book, I try to be aware of the most up-to-date research from scholars as it relates to topics discussed within a given chapter. Volume 12, tentatively titled Thorns of Glory, Pt. 1 (although I may go with Drums of Desolation) has presented opportunities to dredge up some unique information. Since this book may be the last time that I approach the Hill Cumorah in a fictional venue, the fact that such information is available now may be fortuitous.
      My notes to Chapter 15 in Sorcerers and Seers offered a detailed review of some of the problems associated with the 35-(plus)-year-old proposal that the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon is the Hill Vigia in the Tuxtla Mountains of Veracruz, Mexico. This hill was first proposed as the site of the Hill Cumorah back in the 1970s by Dr. John Sorenson Ph.D. Dr. Sorenson's research became the basis for the structure of my second novel Gadiantons and the Silver Sword. No worries. This remains one of my favorite novels that I have written, even if I might have Cumorah in the wrong location. 

Now in retirement and having published his final opus of Book of Mormon research, entitled Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book (available at Deseret Book and Amazon), Dr. Sorenson has achieved something of a "Mensa" status among enthusiasts of Book of Mormon geography and anthropology. Some might consider it disrespectful during his waning years to question a fundamental tenet of Sorenson's research. However, the world continues to turn and the problems in the Vigia/Cumorah scenario remain. (If it's any consolation, problems correlating the Hill Cumorah in New York with the Hill Cumorah where the Nephites' final battle was fought seem much more problematic.) For a review of the problems associated with Vigia/Cumorah the author directs the reader to his "Notes to Chapter 15" in Sorcerers and Seers or to a more detailed exposition on the subject compiled for this blog here

While highlighting problems with the Vigia/Cumorah proposal when contrasted with descriptions in the Book of Mormon, the challenge has been finding an adequate alternative. In Sorcerers and Seers' "Notes to Chapter 15" the work of Dr. Lawrence Poulsen, Ph.D, was highlighted. Dr. Poulsen is a retired professor of biochemistry from the University of Texas who has spent a number of years studying satellite imagery in his quest to find an alternative site that meets the internal Book of Mormon criteria for Ramah/Cumorah. Because satellite imagery has only been readily available to researchers through sites like Google Earth for the past decade or so, this seemed like a new and potentially promising approach for investigation.

For review, in order to meet the qualifications of the appropriate hill where the final battle between the Nephites and Lamanites, as well as the final battle between factions of the Jaredites, this hill must be east of another hill called Shim where the Prophet Ammaron temporarily hid up the sacred engravings of the Nephites (see Morm. 1:3) and west of a land called Ablom (in Jaredite times) that was near the seashore (see Ether 9:1-3). It must also be north of the Land of Zarahemla and south or west (southwest?) of the waters of Ripliancum (Eth. 15:7-11). Ripliancum appears to be a Jaredite word meaning "large or to exceed all" (Ether 15:8). Cumorah must also be in a land of many waters and rivers and fountains and in the general area where Mormon grew up as a child.

In Sorcerers and Seers the Notes to Chapter 15 explored the possibility that the Hill Cumorah might be a hill near Tepetzintla, Veracruz, Mexico, not far south of Tampico on the Gulf coast. This hill today is called Otontepec.

One reason that the Hill Vigia was considered a candidate for Cumorah was because of its proximity to a hill called Cintepec, a word interpreted in the Nahuatl language (Aztec) as Maize Hill. The Mayan word for Maize is shim or ixim, prounounced "eesheem." Cintepec in Mayan has essentially the same meaning as Shim. However, Book of Mormon descriptions in Ether 9:1-3 indicate that the Hill Shim should be west of the Hill Cumorah. Cintepec is east of the Hill Vigia.

Tepetzintla can be demonstrated to have the same ancient meaning for maize hill, and unlike Cintepec, it is located west of the Hill Otontepec, which is the correct direction. Other features of Otentepec were also attractive, particularly a U-shaped bowl or valley facing south that is surrounded on three sides by a ridge. This ridge could have provided Mormon with a potential military advantage.

Notes to Chapter 15 also discussed certain problems with the Hill Otontepec as Ramah/Cumorah because of its long distance from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is generally agreed upon by most scholars as the narrow neck of land mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Other problems were that the Hill Otontepec is a bit high in altitude—some spurs rising above sea level over four thousand feet. Although this may not seem that high, it's position so close to sea level would make it appear as high as many mountains along the Wasatch Front. No standard is given in the Book of Mormon for how a mountain is defined as opposed to a hill, but if any proposal for Cumorah qualified in the former category, it would have been Otontepec. Locally it's known as Sierra de Otontepec or Bird Hunter Mountain. Also, its qualifications as a place of "many waters, rivers, and fountains", which is a critical description for the land of Cumorah provided in Morm. 6:4, is difficult to verify without further investigation, perhaps onsite.

In the interim after Sorcerers and Seers was published Dr. Poulsen doggedly pursued a better alternative for Ramah/Cumorah and happened upon what may be a more logical candidate. He found a hill closer to the narrow neck of land and better suited to other scriptural parameters. This candidate is near the town of Misantla in southern Veracruz, Mexcio.

Misantla is an ancient city dating back to the earliest days of the Spanish conquest. About five

Looking north from Misantla
miles north rises a series of hills, the most central and prominent called Omitepetl. The etymology of Omitepetl is perhaps more interesting than any other hill that has been proposed as Ramah/Cumorah. Whereas El Cerro Vigia means "lookout hill" and Sierra de Otontepec means "bird hunter mountain," the Nahuatl or Aztec meaning of Omitepetl is "bone hill." The correlation is immediately obvious. Since Ramah/ Cumorah is a place where two nations were destroyed, a reputation as a place of scattered bones might persist through the centuries. The background for this name obviously needs further investigation, but it's reasonable to imagine that an area full of millions of festering bodies would have been abandoned for a time. As people eventually returned, encountering the bones of Nephite, Lamanite, and Gadianton soldiers would have been a common occurrence for at least another next generation or until these remains had fully decayed. In such a wet, humid climate there is little reason to believe that bones would have survived to the present day unless they were buried in dry earth or stored in a cave.

Looking south, aerial view of
"Bone Hill" or Omitepetl
Like Otontepec, a line of ridges and hills surrounding Omitepetl creates a bowl that seems ideal for defense works and fortifications. The total area is about nine square miles with a more protected inner valley of about two square miles, which could have supported the Nephite population as it compressed near the start of the battle. Unlike Otontepec, the bowl at Omitepetl is directed eastward rather than southward. The land is reasonably more level in this bowl and shaped a bit like the claw of a crab. There is an impressive vantage point of the region atop a mesa in the central "crook" of that claw. Additionally, Omitepetl and its surrounding spurs never rise to more than about 2000 feet above sea level, which may seem a more reasonable height for "hill." Omitepetl sits near the center of two rugged mountain ranges and serves as a natural route of travel from the highlands of Puebla in Mexico's interior, as suggested by the journey of Omer and his family in the Book of Ether, and also for the movements of the Jaredite armies of Shiz and Coriantumr.

Dr. Poulson says extensive information is available about the Misantla region, although most is still in Spanish, which may explain why it has remained in relative obscurity. Perhaps the most interesting feature of Omitepetl and the surrounding basin is its hydrology. It supplies approximately 80% of all water to the Misantla region.

Shortly after the Spanish conquest the Viceroy of Mexico requested an extensive report about all the locations of Mexico still inhabited by Mesoamerican natives. The report about Misantla, which is still found in the Royal Archives of Spain, was retranslated, updated, and published in 1962.

In Spanish this report states, "Unos de los aspectos mas prominentes de la region de Misantla, es la abundancia de agua, pues es un distrito, humedo por naturaleza, donde jamas han existidos los problemas dificiles de otros lugares.

"En todo su jurisdiccion abunden manantiales, lagunas, y arroyos.Los grandes rios forman una verdadera red hydrographica, y es notable que aun en los cerros, se encuentran pequeños fuentes."

A rough translation is: “One of the aspects most prominent of the region is the abundance of water; yes, it is a district, humid by nature, where never have existed the difficult problems of other places

In the entire jurisdiction, there are abundant springs, lagoons, and streams. The great rivers form a true hydrographic net, and it is notable that even in the hills, little fountains are found.” The surveyor then goes on to describe the sources and effects that this abundance of water has on the area and its inhabitants. (Diego Perez de Arteaga, Relacion de Misantla , 1579, updated trans. by David Ramirez Lavoignet, 1962, pgs. 70-76.)

It may be that no researcher attempting to find a geographical correlation with Mormon 6:4 and its statement about "waters, and rivers, and fountains" can claim to have found a more analogous description. Remember, this source is nearly 500 years old. What was obvious to Mormon was also obvious to surveyors in the 16th century.

Like Vigia and Otontepec, the area of Misantla also has a nearby hill called "maize hill." However, in the case of Misantla, the association with maize may be stronger than either of the other proposals mentioned in this article. Calling a hill "Corn Hill" or "Maize Hill" is almost a throwaway name for local farmers in ancient America and doubtless applies to countless spurs and hummocks where the crop was cultivated. However, there is a hill about ten miles west of Omitepetl whose ancient name is Paxil (pronounced pa-sheel). The translation of this word from the Totonac language is, again, "Maize Hill." An archeological ruin is found at the base of this hill that is also called Paxil.
The word Paxil and its association with maize resonates in the Popal Vuh. The Popal Vuh is considered the oldest sacred record of the Mayans and its religion and mythology. As it reads: These four animals gave tidings of the yellow ears of corn and the white ears of corn, they told them that they should go to Paxil and they showed them the road to Paxil. And thus they found the food, and this was what went into the flesh of created man, the made man; this was his blood; of this the blood of man was made. So the corn entered [into the formation of man] by the work of the Forefathers. (Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley, Popal Vuh, Part III, Chapter 1, 1954.) The locals of Misantla still celebrate this site as the place where corn was first given by the gods to man for him to cultivate.

Mormon did not necessarily consider Shim or Cumorah to be significant landmarks. It may have simply been a coincidence that these hills happened to be located in the region where he was raised as a boy. Remember that Ammaron originally hid up the sacred records in "a hill which shall be called Shim" (Morm. 1:3, emp. added). Later Mormon would recover the records from Shim and hide them again, this time in the Hill Cumorah. It's never explained why Ammaron's original repository was no longer adequate. For some reason Mormon decided that hiding the plates at Cumorah was more expedient.
It's interesting that Ammaron referred to the name of Shim in a future tense, as if this hill was not yet known by this appellation. This may be because, in the days of Ammaron, Shim was generally unfamiliar to most Nephites, but would become familiar decades later as they gathered in the region to make their final stand. A more colorful interpretation is that Ammaron knew that Shim would later be associated with maize and that by calling it "Shim" the prophet was offering Mormon a bit of foreshadowing regarding this future association. The name of Shim is mentioned one other time by Mormon when he recovers the records (Morm. 4:23) and once by Moroni in his abridgement of Ether's record as "the hill of Shim" (Ether 9:3) which Omer passed on his way to Cumorah before he went on to Ablom by the seashore.

It may surprise some to learn that the land of Cumorah is mentioned slightly more often in the Book of Mormon than the hill of Cumorah. It may also be surprising to learn that the name Cumorah is only used in the Book of Mormon in six verses. The name of Ramah is used but once, in Ether 15:11 where it reads: ". . . the army of Coriantumr did pitch their tents by the hill Ramah; and it was that same hill where my father Mormon did hide up the records unto the Lord, which were sacred." In Morm. 6:6 we learn that Mormon hid up all the sacred records ". . . save it be these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni." This appears to mean that all the sacred records were hidden up in Cumorah except the plates which were to become the Book of Mormon. Whether Moroni later hid up the plates of the Book of Mormon in the same hill—and particularly whether this hill is the same hill where Joseph Smith recovered these plates 1400 years later—is a long-running debate between those who support the two-Cumorah theory and those who do not.

Omitepetl and Misantla are approximately 200 miles north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, or the narrow neck of land as proposed by many LDS scholars. Lastly, in order to qualify as Cumorah there must be a "large" body of water to the north or east that was called Ripliancum. Directly north and east of Omitepetl lies the gulf of Mexico (because the coast here is slanted westward). For further details regarding Dr. Poulsen's proposed location for Cumorah and Shim as well as somewhat larger satellite images and more details about Omitepetl and the Misantla region go to: http://www.bmaf.org/node/389.

The reader is reminded that this is a relatively new theory. Whether it stands the test of time and further scrutiny is yet to be determined. An immediate question always asked by amateur scholars (like myself) is whether there are any archeological ruins in the vicinity that date to Book of Mormon times or perhaps whether ancient fortifications or earthworks can be found on or near Omitepetl that might have been constructed by the Nephites.

Merely asking if there are archeological sites in Misantla, or really anywhere in Mesoamerica, is a bit like asking if there are boulders in southern Utah. There is hardly a patch of ground between Mexico City and Costa Rica that lacks in archeological evidence. The ruins of Paxil, of course, are a minor tourist site, but structures excavated thus far date between 400 AD and 1500 AD. It is reported that only 11 of 577 known archeological sites in the area have been excavated. (http://www.arduinna.com.mx/en/arq_ver_en.html)

If this site is Cumorah, what the kinds of ruins we might expect to find? The answer to this is not exactly clear. We presume that we might find defensive earthworks of some kind because Mormon described in detail the earthworks of other Nephite generals in his abridgement, and since he had four long years to prepare for battle against the Lamanites. However, the Book of Mormon does not describe what particular fortifications Mormon might have erected or what materials he used to build them, whether of stone or perishable wood.

As always, it is hoped that proposals of this nature will encourage the next generation of LDS researchers to pursue a more detailed and rigorous survey of such sites. If  other correlative evidence can be found tying this region to the Hill Cumorah, it's probable that Misantla and Omitepetl might tell us more about the Book of Mormon than the Book of Mormon can tell us about them.

Copyright 2013 by Chris Heimerdinger