While a hemispheric model for Book of Mormon geography looks attractive to modern readers familiar with maps of North and South America, when we closely examine the text, it becomes apparent that such a model is untenable. As anthropologist Dr. John Sorenson pointed out years ago, the Nephite scripture consistently points to relatively short distances between Book of Mormon cities.
While the Book of Mormon doesn't actually give us distances, it occasionally tells us how long it took to travel from one city to another. We know from both ancient and modern sources how long it typically took people (if they were traveling as soldiers or as families with provisions) to move through various terrains from one location to another. Plugging this same data into the Book of Mormon allows us to estimate the distance between locations.
When an internal map is constructed on the approximate distance between Book of Mormon cities and their spatial relation to other Book of Mormon cities, we come to the inescapable conclusion that the Book of Mormon events took place in a very limited area — probably no more than a few hundred miles; perhaps the size of Tennessee (although the Nephites and Lamanites may have interacted with people or places that extended beyond their vicinity).
While this may seem smaller than what is typically envisioned, it's consistent with what we also find in the Bible. To repeat some information I presented in a previous installment:
"Most people are surprised to hear that about 95 percent of the Old Testament took place in an area only 150 miles long and less than 75 miles wide. Ancient Jerusalem encompassed a mere 13 acres (E.W. Heaton, 'Every Day Life in the Old Testament,' 56). This is a remarkably small area when we recall that 640 acres are needed to cover a square mile or that the Smith family farm where Joseph had his First Vision covered about 100 acres (Matthew Brown, 'A Pillar of Light,' 25)."
Approaching the geography from limited scale, a number of hobbyists, pundits and scholars have proposed unique or variant models in the attempt to place those events in a real world location. While most limited geographies find a home somewhere in the Americas, there are at least two models that place the Nephites outside of the Americas. One puts the Nephites in Eritrea (Africa), another in the Malay Peninsula (Southeast Asia). Among the American models we can include: Mesoamerica, Peru, Baja, and the Great Lakes region.
On the surface all of these models (with my personal exclusions of the African and Malaysian models) have some attraction. Supporters of these models are typically active LDS and have formulated arguments that appear (at least initially) to support their conclusions. Since there is no official revelation on the topic, members and leaders are to free speculate, analyze and come to their own conclusions on the best probable location for Book of Mormon events.
What type of information can we use to help us determine which model is the most sound? We can examine topography, weather conditions, known ancient cultures, flora and fauna, and any information gathered from archaeological explorations. We can also turn to the comments of Book of Mormon prophets to understand how they understood their promised land — both in the promises made to their people as well as future generations.
One of the things we cannot currently utilize as a supporting evidence for any model is DNA. As noted previously, the best DNA studies are unable to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon or to support one particular geographic model.
Dr. John E. Clark, professional archaeologist and former director of the New World Archaeological Foundation, explains one very important point about the formulation of any Book of Mormon geographic model:
"Most members of the Church, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the Book of Mormon — a question we all can answer without being versed in American archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography; otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion."
The first thing that Clark suggests is to build an "internal" map that fits the text. The internal map can then be used in an attempt to match real world locations in the Americas. In the following articles we'll examine the internal map and some of the competing models.