Nephihah City Limits

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.

And also:

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.

And also:

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.

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17 comments on “Nephihah City Limits

  1. Neal Rappleye says:

    Thanks for refreshing my memory on these issues. You always here critics announcing that a not a single Book of Mormon city has ever been found, but I am left to wonder how they can be so certain when we essentially don’t know what the of any given archaeological site was during Book of Mormon times.

  2. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    I concur with your analysis as to why there is a paucity of Nephite remains in Central America and, if anything, feel that your explanation is too ‘kind’. I see the last days of the Nephite nation as being one of utter and absolute destruction. Not only were the Lamanites intent on “ethnicly cleansing” all Nephites but also eradicating all vestiges of Nephite culture from the land. This practice was certainly nothing new in the Middle East, just look the Babylonians killing all of the sons of Zedekiah in his presence before putting out his eyes and carrying away all of his people into bondage. I can easily see all the Nephite males of any age being killed along with any of their women who resisted enslavement. Those women who submitted, (along with their small female children), became slaves and concubines of the conquerors. Nephite monuments were likely defaced and thrown down, the sites of their towns and cities were renamed and their language, both verbal and written, allowed to die out within a few generations after the captivity. Any metal plates of secular, and perhaps even religious history, were melted down for jewelry for the conquerors. If the fierce and savage warfare (Omni 1:20) of the Mayans and Aztecs are any example, the final days of the Nephites were very much akin to the utter horror of the Holocaust. There is a prophesy in one of the minor prophets of the Book of Mormon, (Jarom 1:10), that states that that would be the ultimate fate of the Nephites if they forsook their God.
    And thus it was

  3. James says:

    Great insight Velikiye. Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to remember that.

  4. Neil says:

    There are differing theories as to the origin of the name of the falls. According to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, “Niagara” is derived from the name given to a branch of the locally residing native Neutral Confederacy, who are described as being called the “Niagagarega” people on several late 17th century French maps of the area.[10] According to George R. Stewart, it comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra”, meaning “point of land cut in two”.[11]

    Henry Schoolcraft reported:

    “Niagara Falls. This name is Mohawk. It means, according to Mrs. Kerr, the neck; the term being first applied to the portage or neck of land, between lakes Erie and Ontario. By referring to Mr. Elliott’s vocabulary, (chapter xi) it will be seen that the human neck, that is, according to the concrete vocabulary, his neck, is onyara. Red Jacket pronounced the word Niagara to me, in the spring of 1820, as if written O-ne-au-ga-rah.”[12]

  5. Neil says:

    The Great Tree of Peace [of the] Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy — Over a thousand years ago, the Peacemaker…Aiionwatha (Hiawatha) brought the Great Law of Peace (Kaianerekowa[6][7]) to the warring Indian nations of what is now New York State. The message of Peace, Power, and the Good Mind resulted in the forming of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy. The league of nations consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga,and Seneca, and later the Tuscarora. These nations were instructed to bury their weapons of war under the Great Tree of Peace, and to unite as one to uphold the Great Law of Peace by joining “arms” so that the Tree of Peace would never fall.”[8]

  6. Neil says:

    The tribe name Oneida is right out of the Book of Mormon

    The great prophet general’ name was Onandagus, who was known from the Eastern Sea all the way to the Rocky Mountains…and lo- we have a tribe called “Onondaga”

  7. James says:

    Neil,

    I’m unaware of any tribe in the Book of Mormon called “Oneida”. I’m also unaware of any prophet-general in the Book of Mormon named Onandagus. Onandagus was the name, according to an unreliable account of Joseph Smith’s words, of a prophet-general who postdated the Book of Mormon account.

    But thanks for your thoughts anyway. I enjoyed them. Although, I admit to being a bit confused about how this all relates to my blog post.

    James

  8. Neil says:

    Why not check the pronounciation guide at the end of the BOM for Oneida- of course our spelling is different…

    How can a statement written in Joseph Smith’s diary be unreliable?
    He said(wrote), that he saw the events concerning Onandagus in a vision, hmmm?

    At the beginning of the article the writer was moaning about the lack of phonetic names from the BOM to be found in Central America.
    I just pointed out a few here in North America- “The narrow neck of land” being one. The name Oneida being another.
    I added the Mohawk legend about “The Peace tree” which tells of them burying their weapons of war in the ground.
    *Onandagus didn’t postdate anything- he died in the last battles, as the Nephites were pushed further and further NorthEast.
    Of course so many people are suckered by the Central America mythos for the BOM- they cant see the diamonds in their own back yard
    What country fulfills the prophecies of the BOM writers concerning a Gentile Nation in the last days??
    Is it Mexico, Guatamala, Honduras?

    We are told by Moroni, that some of the Nephites believers escaped down into the South- but that they too were hunted to extiction by the Lamanites.
    To deny The Christ, was to become a Lamanite!

    Of course, the “where and when” of the BOM is very secondary, compared to the Whisperings of the Spirit, and the Testimony of the Holy Ghost- that the book is sacred scripture, and is true!

  9. James says:

    Thanks Neil. I personally favor a Mesoamerican geography, and so I don’t take evidence from North American archaeology/linguistics too seriously. Thanks for your insights though. Very interesting.

  10. M Pate says:

    Your approach is interesting. The research of Dr Robert A. Pate, (www.MormonTopics.com) uses “toponymy” among other techniques. It is so very interesting to see so many individuals pontificating about “WHY” a particular technique “will not work”, when other uninhibited souls have found ways to use such techniques to great advantage. Part of the problem is that with so many “precise”, “exact”, “this is the way it is” conflicting stakes put into the ground by so many “experts” [who incidentally do not have answers themselves] CORRECT SOLUTIONS ARE PRECLUDED FROM EVEN BEING CONSIDERED.
    Perhaps you would do well to look CAREFULLY at what has been discovered.
    .
    SEE: Publications by Robert A. Pate, PhD, http://www.MormonTopics.com
    .
    BOOK 1) Mapping The Book of Mormon: A Comprehensive Geography of Nephite America (2002)
    (Also See the specific REBUTTAL to Brant A. Gardner and Allen J. Christensen at MormonTopics.com, two of the “experts” for some people)
    .
    BOOK 2) Mormon Names in Maya Stone (2009)
    .
    BOOK 3) Mormon Key to Maya Code (2012)
    .
    BOOK 4) Mormon Footprint in Mesoamerica (2012)
    – – –
    The numerous issues you have cited in your article above ARE VERY REAL.
    BUT THEY ARE NOT INSURMOUNTABLE, as Dr Robert A. Pate has cut through essentially all of them, USING A VARIETY OF TECHNIQUES.
    Recent archaeological research in the mesoamerican area (particularly Guatemala) by two competent focused, dedicated (non-LDS) researchers, Ruud Van Akkeren and Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos has been of great assistance to Dr Robert A. Pate in nailing down with additional specificity – – – the Maya tribal remnants that pertain to remnants of The Book of Mormon peoples. SEE BOOK 3) by Dr Robert A. Pate, ie. Zoramites, Mulekites, Ishmaelites, remnants of the tribes of NEPHI, Sam, Jacob and Joseph, in addition to the Maya tribal remnants of GADIANTON AND KISHKUMEN!
    – – –
    There are a large number of fallacies, assumed by many. A little truth cuts through a lot of unfounded supposition. eg
    TRUTH A) The perceived “discontinuity of Mesoamerican toponyms.” is NOT as dramatic as most suppose.
    TRUTH B) There was “continuity” in essentially all of the core Book of Mormon Lands
    TRUTH C) Maya languages ARE “related” to each other – the question is not IF – it is HOW CLOSELY ARE THEY RELATED? (The answers vary.)
    TRUTH D) Maya languages ARE “related” to other world languages, such as “Hebrew”
    – – – Take a hint: “BELIEVE THE BOOK OF MORMON”
    “And then shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are descendants of the Jews” (2 Nephi 29:4)
    Please NOTE: being “descendants of the Jews”, you can expect that essentially any language they spoke would have some remnant of their Hebrew roots. Mayan IS NOT totally unrelated to Hebrew. Some of the Maya languages will have closer roots to Hebrew than others – – BUT language remnants – – THEY WILL HAVE! (be that closer , or only trace vestigal little pieces)
    – – –
    PATE has identified the THREE RE-NAMING OPTIONS USED BY THE SPANIARDS – – – Walaa ! THAT reduces the guesswork significantly!
    PATE has identified numerous linguistic remnants that so many of the “experts” deny even exist- on BOTH SIDES OF THE OCEANS.
    Keep Reading,
    Thank You!

  11. James says:

    Thanks for your suggestions Dr. Pate. I think it is important to incorporate, or at least consider, research being done by as many researchers as possible. We are all ultimately on the same team in our quest to unlock the Book of Mormon.

    I’d encourage you to write up an essay for submission to a scholarly journal (such as the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies). That way your research will be seen by more people and your ideas can be debated. One recommendation is to not write with ALL CAPS as a means of emphasis. In the internet and print world it translates into shouting, which nobody enjoys. In the Mormon academic world in particular it will only cause folks to lump you stylistically in with the Tanners.

    Perhaps the most curious thing is your penchant for writing in the third person. Don’t do that either in your essay.

    All that being said, I think you should really go for it. Let’s get your ideas out there in a widely read publication so they can be discussed and debated.

  12. M Pate says:

    I am not Robert A. Pate. I am a PhD also. Robert is my brother. MormonTopics.com is his website.

  13. M Pate says:

    You mentioned submitting articles. He tried that with FARMS. The “expert” opinion delivered was severely lacking, or non-existent. See the rebuttal at MormonTopics.com. How good the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies is – – operated by the Maxwell Institute – – – the replacement of F.A.R.M.S. Please spare me. There are some reasonable parties involved, and there are others less so. It is a mixed bag, to say the least.

  14. James says:

    Sorry about that, I didn’t pay close enough attention. I thought you were Robert Pate.

    Well I’m glad your brother is trying to get his research out there. FARMS is a clearing house for publications by the best LDS scholars available in the fields of ancient scripture. They obviously are not infallible, but you aren’t going to find better scholarship anywhere else on these issues.

    I hope you realize that when studying Mesoamerican archaeology and its intersection with the Book of Mormon I am logically going to put more trust in the opinions of those who actually have degrees in relevant fields (unlike your brother who has a degree in mechanical engineering). That isn’t to say that non-professionals cannot do good work and advance the ball. On the contrary, great research and writing is done by hobbyists. However, when hobbyists come up with ideas that the professionals deem wrongheaded or off-course folks are logically going to trust the experts.

  15. M Pate says:

    With all due respect, it appears that you did NOT read the specific rebuttal at MormonTopics.com, as it does address the issue of WHO is credentialed for WHAT, and WHO IS NOT! It still might do you some good to read the rebuttal – – all things considered!

  16. James says:

    Thank you Brother Pate. I’ll be sure to take a look at it. Can you please provide a link to the specific article you’d like me to see?

  17. M Pate says:

    The specific rebuttal is identified below:
    http://www.mormontopics.com/Rebuttal.html <- SPECIFIC rebuttal
    .
    [The general rebuttal is also worth reading, but does not contain the details]
    http://www.mormontopics.com/Rebuttal2.html
    .
    Thank You for your consideration.

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