One of the biggest thorns in the side of the Mesoamerican theory for Book of Mormon geography has been the seeming mismatch of cardinal directions and the layout of Central America. While Book of Mormon lands are said to be in the north and south with seas in all four directions, this is not what we intuitively see in a map of Mesoamerica — which runs somewhat diagonally from northwest to southeast.
Scholars immediately recognized, however, that the problem was likely not a fault of the Mesoamerican model or the Book of Mormon, but rather a problem with how modern people orient directions and then impose that understanding on ancient or foreign cultures.
Systems for labeling directions in ancient times varied by thousands of different schemes and were often arbitrary systems designed by individual groups to deal with their unique geographical and linguistic situations. The Maya, for instance, conceived north as up — as in up toward the sky — which makes translation difficult to a world that sees north at the top of a map. We also have the example of an ancient Mayan maps that oriented east — rather than north — at the top of the map.
As Dr. Lawrence Poulsen points out, in most ancient languages, the word(s) translated in English as “east” nearly always refer to the rising of the sun, while “west” refers to the setting of the sun.
“The concept of direction in ancient cultures was centered on the movement of the sun, in particular its movement relative to the individual's location. This is an (egocentric: person centered) rather than a geocentric (earth centered) view of direction. In other words, it is based on personal orientation rather than on contemporary global map orientation.”
Ancient maps typically depicted this personal view of geography and directions. Generally, they were graphical drawings with lines connecting distinct locations. Little thought was given to scale. Secondly, ancient societies didn't understand many of the directional concepts the same way we do today. When we hear "up" or "down" in regards to directions, for example, we think of "up" and "down" on a map — or "north" and "south." To someone of an ancient culture, however, this would be "up" or "down" a hill or mountain.
While "east" would refer to the direction of sunrise and "west" to sunset, in Mesoamerica "north" would typically refer to the direction to the right of sunrise, while "south" would denote the direction left of sunrise. The right/north left/south is opposite of what we might expect, but the orientation was based on the sun's path from rise to set. In other words if you faced west, north would be to the right of sunrise (behind you).
East and west were delineated by relatively narrow angles — they ranged from the point where the sun rose and set from the Winter Equinox to the Spring Equinox. North and south, however, were all of the vectors to the right and left of sunrise so they consisted of a much wider coverage of directional vectors (shown here).
Modern cultures understand cardinal directions as four quadrants, like a "+" that divides a square into four equal sections of direction. The Mesoamerican conceptual universe, however, was more like a squashed "x" — or an "x" connecting the corners of a rectangle. In the "x," the right "east" and left "west" sections take up a smaller slice of the pie than the wider wedges given to the north and south sections of the "x" division. While a square divided by a "+" yields an equal 25 percent for all four directions, the squashed "x" in a rectangle yields an east and west with 13 percent of the total number of directional vectors for each direction and a north and south with 37 percent each.
Lands which we might locate in the east or west, for instance, would be in the north or south based on ancient Mesoamerican directions. Some ancient inscriptions, for example, refer to the Teotihuacán rulers as “western lords.” Directly west of the inscriptions, however, lay the Pacific Ocean. Teotihuacán was actually to the north northwest.
When we examine Book of Mormon directions, we find a pattern that fits amazingly well with the Mesoamerican understanding of directions. Poulsen points out that there are 378 Book of Mormon references to direction. Nineteen percent of those references denote east or eastward directions, 16 percent west or westward, while 39 percent reference north or northward directions and 27 percent south or southward.
Other than the slight under sampling of south notations (which is likely based on the fact that the south was mostly Lamanite territory and would likely demand fewer references in a book written by Nephites) the percentages match what we should expect to find in a Mesoamerican directional concept.
When we overlay the Mesoamerican directional concept on Central American we find that the upper part of the Isthmus of Tehunatepec really is in the north, while the lower part is really in the south. Plus, we find that there are seas north, east, south and west, and that the Nephites are surrounded by water like “an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20).
Understanding the way that the ancient Mesoamericans understood directions not only strengthens the theory that Book of Mormon events took place in Central America, but it also supports the claim that the Nephite scripture is based on an authentic ancient text.
Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research FAIRLDS.org) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt" (ShakenFaithSyndrome.com) and "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith" (OfFaithandReason.com). Michael's column, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.