Why do most LDS scholars believe that ancient Mesoamerica was the home for most Book of Mormon events?
As Mesoamerican ethnohistory specialist Brant Gardner explains, it’s not a single thing but an accumulation and convergence of many different things that strengthen the case the case for a Mesoamerican geography.
Early scholars and enthusiasts recognized — upon a closer reading of the Book of Mormon text — that 1. the Book of Mormon took place in a limited geographic setting; 2. Book of Mormon lands need not be limited to the United States; and 3. real scholarship should support at least the most basic things found in the Nephite text — populations, kingships, rivers, literacy, etc.
Mesoamerican geography and culture is like a giant puzzle that, once completely assembled, matches amazingly well what we find in the Book of Mormon.
I should also point out, however, that like most puzzles there may be a few missing pieces. These pieces may show up later, or they may never appear. As non-LDS philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out, “Since no paradigm (or model) ever solves all the problems that it defines, and since no two paradigms leave all the same problems unsolved, paradigm debates always involve the question: Which problems are more significant to have solved?” (Thomas S. Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," 110).
It is important to understand that not all scientific and scholarly models come in neat little packages. Most have a number of loose ends which keep scholars busy in pursuit of answers and greater understanding. When it comes to matters of history, anthropology and archaeology, absolute certainty is extremely elusive.
The Mesoamerican model, like all the other models for Book of Mormon geography (and like most non-LDS related models of various historical events), has some gaps and problematic issues. Critics of the church, for example, often complain that there is no archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon. This is untrue and will be discussed in a later installment. They also complain that some of the plants, animals, weapons, etc., mentioned in the Book of Mormon are not found in the pre-Columbian Americas. This will also be dealt with in detail later.
Critics and some members also take issue with the Mesoamerican model based on the following:
1. If Book of Mormon events took place in Mesoamerica, how did the plates end up in New York?
2. How can the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (the narrow area of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean) be a “narrow neck” of land that could be crossed (presumably) by a Nephite in a day and a half (Alma 22:32)?
3. Contrary to the Book of Mormon, which mentions lands north and south of the narrow neck (as well as an east sea and a west sea), Central America runs northwest to southeast while the Gulf of Mexico is north-northeast and the Pacific Ocean is south-southwest.
As noted above, anomalies are not unique to LDS scholarly models and theories. They are found in virtually all areas of science and scholarship. As non-LDS philosophy professor Daniel Little explains, when scientists encounter anomalies to their theories, “they must choose whether to abandon the theory altogether or modify it to make it consistent with the contrary observations. If the theory has a wide range of supporting evidence (aside from the contrary experience), there is a powerful incentive in favor of salvaging the theory” by modifying the original paradigm. These “progressive modifications” are integral to paradigm maintenance and anomaly management in typical science.
The Mesoamerican model has — despite the claims made by critics — a “wide range of supporting evidences.” As my past articles on the various geographic models has demonstrated, many different lands can be made to fit a general model with a land north and south with a narrow neck connecting the two. To correctly match what we find in the Book of Mormon, however, the geography must also contain rivers, mountains, hills and wilderness that not only corresponds with what we find in the Book of Mormon but make sense with how the Book of Mormon people traveled and interacted with their geographic environment.
Cities must be the correct distance and direction from each other to accommodate travel distances, obstacles, and specific events and problems described in the Book of Mormon. Fortifications, volcanoes and ruins must match not only what we find in the Book of Mormon but be located in the right places and dated to the correct time frames.
We must be able to see that the cultures in our models lived like we read in the Book of Mormon; lived during the times we find in the Book of Mormon; and had similar politics, trade, economic and war practices described in the Book of Mormon. The cultures must have had writings, armor and various weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon. All of this is found in the general Mesoamerican antiquity — and only in the Mesoamerican antiquity (all of this will be discussed in greater detail later).
The “wide range of supporting evidences” in favor of the Mesoamerican model justifies our asking the question, “Are there logical answers and historical precedences that help explain the anomalies?”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company