As noted in a previous installment, there are four primary New World Book of Mormon geographic models: a Great Lakes model, a Baja model, a Peruvian model and a Mesoamerican model.
With the exception of the Baja model — which is proposed by an LDS father-and-son team — there are variations of all three other models found in the ongoing debate. All four models have members who are fans as well as members who are critics.
All four models also have attractive features as well as anomalies. It’s important to note that no paradigm — even a scientific paradigm — is completely free of all anomalies. In science, “progressive modifications” allow for alterations within a paradigm so long as the paradigm is not destroyed by the modifications and so long as the preponderance of evidence supports the paradigm.
With the exception of any version of the Great Lakes model, all of the other three models must engage the fact that Joseph Smith retrieved the plates from the “Hill Cumorah” near Palmyra. This anomaly (and other anomalies) will be dealt with in a subsequent issue.
In this issue, I’d like to begin with the Peruvian model. For the limited geographies, the Peruvian model (or some variation) dates back the earliest in LDS thought after the Mesoamerican model. A version of this model (which actually included lands from south of Peru to northern Ecuador) was proposed in 1948 by Verla Birrell ("The Book of Mormon Guide Book"). Another variation was introduced in 1975 by Venice Priddis ("The Book and the Map: New Insights into the Book of Mormon"). The newest incarnation of the model has been proposed by George Potter.
General strengths for this model include a limited geography (more limited in Potter’s variation), lands that match the cardinal directions described in the Book of Mormon (i.e., north, south, etc.), a narrow neck of land and a mostly reasonable internal map.
Specific strengths for the Peruvian model include an ancient iron ore mine (and possible early metallurgy), archaeological remains of ancient civilizations, legends of a white-bearded God (some have also claimed that “white” Indians once lived in Peru) and a purported statement by Joseph Smith that the Lehites landed in Chile (not far south from Peru). If the Lehites landed in Chile, it would seem logical that they settled nearby.
There are, however, problems with the Peruvian model. I’m unconvinced that the Peruvian model includes a River Sidon that matches the requirements of the Book of Mormon text and the primary archaeological evidence for large populations in Peru come from people who are far too late to be connected with Book of Mormon peoples. As Dr. Joseph L. Allen explains:
“I …eliminated Peru as the heartland of the Book of Mormon, since the archaeological evidence is minimal and the linguistics evidence is nil when compared to Mesoamerica. Nor does the archaeological time period correspond substantially with the Book of Mormon. Although Peru was my first love, I came to understand that the ruins of Machu Pichu and other Inca sites are post-Book of Mormon. Peru shows evidence of minor cultures in existence during Book of Mormon time, but certainly not to the extent that the Book of Mormon seems to require and — not to the extent of civilizations already discovered and documented in Mesoamerica.”
The ancient American lore of a “white-bearded God” — while often treasured by many Latter-day Saints — is tenuous evidence at best (as will be discussed in a future installment), and the assumption that there were once “white” ancient Americans rests on a misreading of the Book of Mormon and a misunderstanding of ancient cultures.
Lastly, let’s examine the claim that Joseph Smith purportedly said that the Lehites landed in Chile. The belief is based on a statement in a document dated between 1836 and 1837 and written by Frederick G. Williams (one of Joseph’s scribes). Some have supposed that Joseph was the source for this statement. In 1882 Franklin Richards and James Little published a booklet wherein they reproduced Williams’ note about the Chilean landing under the heading “Lehi’s Travels — Revelation to Joseph the Seer.”
Williams, however, did not attribute the statement to Joseph Smith, and there is no evidence that Joseph received such information by “revelation.” B.H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe, both careful critics, doubted that the statement came from Joseph. It seems that Richards and Little made an unwarranted assumption.
More likely the source for Williams’ statement was actually Orson Pratt. Pratt believed that Lehi had landed in Chile and had been promoting his geography for many years. He never attributed his geographical model to revelation from Joseph Smith, however, and once explained that his model was based on his own analysis of the Book of Mormon text.
In the end I personally find the Peruvian model interesting but unpersuasive when compared to other Book of Mormon geographic models.