*EDIT*: Diane Wirth responded to this post below in the first comment. I’ve edited the title of this post and I’m reposting this so those who are interested will know about it. Be sure to check it out!
Diane Wirth in her Decoding Ancient America discusses an ancient Mesoamerican myth which describes the origin of 7 tribes that came forth out of 7 caves. These caves are said to represent “ships.” This ancient Mesoamerican myth has been frequently touted by LDS authors as evidence for the Book of Mormon. The parallel is said to be the 7 tribes mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which came forth from Nephi’s ship:
13 Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.
and 800 years later…
8 And it came to pass in this year there began to be a war between the Nephites, who consisted of the Nephites and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Zoramites; and this war was between the Nephites, and the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites.
In both accounts there are 7 major tribes whom the people identified themselves with. The details of the accounts surely do not match in every respect, but there does seem to be broad agreeements. Is there something to this? Is the timing of this myth right? Is it real evidence, or more wishful thinking on the part of a LDS researcher?
According to LDS Mesoamerican scholar Brant Gardner, the answer is no. This myth does not serve as evidence for the Book of Mormon. Gardner explains:
This one is a big stretch. In the first place, why 7? The Book of Mormon recognizes that there were tribes, but really doesn’t emphasize anything but the two great divisions. Why would the recollection of the individual tribes be important to the Nephites, or the Nephite tribes to the Lamanites (who are crediting with destroying the Nephites–not a high recommendation for a fond remembrance).
Next, the particular myth is Aztec and pretty clearly related to their homeland, in the American Southwest. The picture Wirth uses shows saguaro cacti, which are only located in the Sonoran desert and Arizona.
Lastly, it is caves, not ships. I cannot find any reference in Spanish or Aztec literature that mentions ships with this tale. The only place I see it is in people quoting Hunter and Ferguson and their translation of an introduction to Sahagun. That statement isn’t in Sahagun’s introduction.
Native Americans in the American southwest have an origin tale that has them coming from the earth. Teotihuacan has a seven-lobed cave under it. I think that this particular myth combines a Southwestern origin myth with Mesoamerican content (Mesoamerican origin myths do not have people coming up from under ground). No ships are involved.
Let’s be clear on what the trajectory has to be for this to work:
1) The Nephite recognition of 7 tribes must survive the destruction of the Nephites, enter into Nephite lore and then survive over 700 years and a minimum of two linguistic groups (where nothing else survived save the number 7).
2) Somehow, a connection must be made between caves and ships. This never happens in the native lore and I cannot find it in Spanish documents. The only place there is a connection is in a questionable translation in Hunter and Ferguson which is replicated by other LDS authors without examination of the underlying text. I have looked for it, and cannot find it in Sahagun where they say it exists. Based on my understanding of the literature, there was never a connection between the caves and the ships outside of LDS literature.
3) Somehow, the 7 tribes from Nephite lore have to make their legendary way to the Southwestern US where they influence the creation myth of the Aztecs (which is similar to other Southwestern peoples, but differs from Mesoamerican creation myths) in such a way that the main idea of arriving from under the earth is altered only by the addition of a particular number of tribes. This means that the idea of 7 tribes had to move through an unrelated creation myth before finding the Aztecs a very long way away in both distance and time.
I can’t see any of those happening in any feasible way. It is a big stretch because any single one of the connections defies the known ways information travels. To meet all three is beyond a stretch.
This post is adapted from a discussion on the topic at MADB that can be found here.