Why can’t we just find an ancient inscription somewhere in the jungle of southern Mexico that says “Nephihah City Limits”? Such a find would indeed be spectacular (and would upheave the religious world), but as Book of Mormon archaeology has matured it has become clear that such a find is not likely to happen, at least not for a long time. This is because of something called toponymy, or, the science of identifying ancient locations. Carl G. Rasmussen, a Biblical geographer, briefly discusses toponymy, the science of correlating ancient place-names with modern locations.
One of the most successful ways of trying to attach the ancient name of a settlement to its correct site on the ground and in turn to its place on a modern map is to see if its name has been preserved through the centuries down to the present time.At first glance this line of investigation (formally known as toponymy) may seem somewhat futile, given the thousands of years that separate us from the time of the Bible. But the well-watered areas of the land of Israel/Palestine have been inhabited by a continuous chain of peoples who have handed down the name of a given place orally from generation to generation. Thus names like Jerusalem, Hebron, Acco, and Tiberias have been preserved for thousands of years. The preservation of ancient place-names has been helped by the fact that through the ages the languages of the indigenous population groups have all been Semitic. Thus, Canaanite was related to Hebrew, Hebrew in turn to Aramaic, and Aramaic to Arabic; we must recognize, of course, that there were also many linguistic difference between these languages. However, in more remote areas, such as Sinai, there seem to have been significant gaps in the chain of indigenous inhabitants, and thus the ancient geographical names have not been well preserved through the centuries.
(Carl G. Rasmussen, “Zondervan Atlas of the Bible,” 2010)
As Rasumussen explains, Biblical geography is possible because toponyms have been preserved through the witnesses of various languages that are are related. But, in places like Sinai toponyms are not well preserved because there is not a continuity of linguistic witnesses, and therefore Sinai geography is much less understood.
Pre-classic Mesoamerican geography (the lands of the Book of Mormon) suffers from a discontinuity of toponyms that the lands of the Bible do not suffer from. There is no continuous chain of genetic linguistic witnesses linking modern Mesoamerican places to ancient places. Also, the nature of pre-Classic Mesoamerican writing is symbolic instead of phonetic which makes it extremely difficult to know how the names of places were pronounced. The situation is further complicated by the fact that hundreds of ancient Mesoamerican languages existed simultaneously, all in a relatively small area, and all being very different from one another. Unlike the Biblical lands in which the languages of the region all belong to the Semitic family of languages, Mesoamerican languages did not neatly fit into related families. Professor William Hamblin of BYU describes the difficulty that Book of Mormon geographers face due to a “discontinuity of Mesoamerican toponyms.”
A serious problem facing Book of Mormon geography is the severe discontinuity of Mesoamerican toponyms between the Pre-Classic (before c. A.D. 300), the Post-Classic (after A.D. 900), and the Colonial Age (after A.D. 1520). For example, what were the original Pre-Classic Mesoamerican names for sites currently bearing Spanish colonial names such as Monte Alban, San Lorenzo, La Venta, or El Mirador? These and many other Mesoamerican sites bear only Spanish names, dating from no earlier than the sixteenth century.
Furthermore, Pre-Classic Mesoamerican inscriptions are relatively rare. Whereas several thousand inscriptions exist from Classic Mesoamerica (A.D. 300–900), Pre-Classic inscriptions (i.e., from Book of Mormon times) are limited to a few dozen. In addition, the earliest “simple phonetic spelling developed c. A.D. 400” in Mesoamerica. This means that all Mesoamerican inscriptions from Book of Mormon times are logograms. All surviving inscriptional toponyms from Book of Mormon times are therefore basically symbolic rather than phonetic, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to know how they were pronounced.
The result is that of the hundreds, if not thousands of Pre-Classic Mesoamerican sites, only a handful can be associated with Pre-Classic Mesoamerican names. Of these, most are identified by symbolic glyph names rather than phonetic names.
(William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 2:1, pps: 161-97, 1993)
Regarding the multiplicity of ancient Mesoamerican languages, Dr. John Sorenson of BYU explains:
The fragmented physical environment discouraged uniformity among the peoples and their cultures. Far more of the territory consisted of hard-to-traverse mountains or jungle than of lands readily usable of settlement and cultivation…Mesoamerica could more appropriately be compared to a scattered archipelago, its smallish “islands” of culture and settlement separated by a difficult “sea” of wilderness.
Around the world, the more broken the terrain, the more fragmented is the distribution of languages. It is impossible to know precisely how many tongues were used in Mesoamerica, but two hundred would not overstate the number. (These were distinct languages, each one unintelligible to speakers of other languages, not merely dialects.)…No evidence hints that there was ever one dominant language or language family throughout Mesoamerica.
(John L. Sorenson, “Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life,” 1998, pp. 10 & 24)
Another important factor is the fact that Spanish conquerors destroyed Mesoamerican records, and so we have lost most of our sources. Biblical and Book of Mormon geography are incongruous because of the nature of toponymic evidence in their respective regions. It is incorrect to complain that the Book of Mormon must be false, and the Bible must be true, on the basis of historical geography. There may come a day when we find a sign that reads “Nephihah City Limits”, but Mesoamerican archaeology has a long way to go before that happens.