A South American Model for the Book of Mormon

A little more than 10 years ago, I was vacationing in Hawaii with a few friends.  While there, we attended a small branch and became good friends with one of the members there.  The member invited us over for family home evening, and introduced me to the idea that the Book of Mormon happened in South America.  I had never heard of this before, and became quite intrigued.

He showed me a video produced by Arthur Kocherhans, who produced several videos supporting this theory.  While the interviews are very canned, they do present some really interesting information.  I guess one of the biggest things to consider is that proponents of the theory claim that much of the South American continent was under water.  They note that the rain forests are below sea level even today, and that the Amazon River was so wide that it covered much of the continent.  They also note that no human ruins have been found in this area.

from the cover of Venice Priddis book

from the cover of Venice Priddis book

There have been several people who have promoted this theory (or variations of it.)  The map to the left comes from Venice Priddis book., The Book and the Map.  I believe the first person to propose such a theory was Birrell in 1948.  Arthur Kocherhans book is Lehi’s Isle of Promise.  I was surprised that George Potter also is a proponent of this theory.  George has done some excellent work and may have located Nephi’s harbor in Khor Rhori, Yemen.  I just got an email newsletter saying George was going to move his studies from the Middle East to South America.  I attended a fireside by George about 2 years ago and was quite impressed with his scholarship.  George maintains a website at the Nephi Project where he details his archaeological research.  You can sign up for a free email newsletter, and he has a few books and videos for purchase.

Pros of the theory:

Proponents of this theory proclaim several reasons why they like this theory.

  1. Joseph Smith is reported to have said that Lehi landed 30 degrees south of the Equator
  2. The climate is more similar to a Mediterranean climate than Mesoamerica.  They note that Nephi claims to have brought seeds that would grow here, but not Meso.
  3. It has a real narrow neck of land, unlike Meso
  4. Potter recently claimed on his website that Hebrew DNA and iron were found here.  However, I believe the Jewish DNA claims could be related to Spanish settlers, not natives.  Also the iron ore was used for body paint, rather than swords.  Still, it is a potentially important find.

Cons of the Theory

  1. Sorenson claims that it unlikely that the land changed dramatically just 2000 years ago.  Perhaps the Amazon River was this wide, but was it this wide just 2000 years ago?
  2. Generally DNA evidence is weak for all American settings for the Book of Mormon
  3. Elephants, silks, and metal swords do not seem to exist here.

I have previously highlighted a Great Lakes Theory, and the Malay Theory.  How do you think it compares?


18 comments on “A South American Model for the Book of Mormon

  1. My first thought was that 2000 years seems like too little time for such a dramatic change to the Amazon lake/river. And yet, I’m reminded by news reports of Africa’s shrinking lakes, where there has been a drastic change within just a few years. Of course, much of this appears to be due to global warming, but there are other factors: naturally-changing weather patterns, farming and irrigation, etc. Lake Victoria has shrunk considerably, but look at the dramatic change
    here in Lake Chad since just the 1960’s.

    So, while I don’t think this is evidence that is necessary relevant to the Amazon, it does show how quickly things can change if certain factors are present.

  2. As with all Book of Mormon geography theories, this one has its strengths and its weaknesses, as you pointed out. I actually met Venice Priddis years ago and discussed her thesis with her and her family members. Her arguement is compelling to a catastrophist, like myself, because, unlike most who are steeped in uniformity, we can easily envision a substantial part of a landmass risiing several feet out of the sea in a single, brief event.

    That said, I must also add that the possibility of such dramatic changes makes any theory of Book of Mormon geography extremenly tenuous. That is, if the “face of the land” can change as suddenly and dramatically as catastrophe theory asserts, then finding a geographic match in the world we know to the map described in the Nephite record is virtually impossible. Hence, we have many theories and many variations on the same.

    So, while I was once very keen on Book of Mormon geography and archeology, I am no longer so involved. I’ve learned that there are much bigger fish to fry in the gospel larder. Still, I suppose that such interest is a measure of one’s progression through the gospel odyssey.

  3. FD, thanks for the link on the Lake Chad–that was fascinating! After seeing your photos, I had to learn more. Wikipedia mentions that the Lake has dried up several times.

    “Lake Chad is believed to be a remnant of a former inland sea which has grown and shrunk with changes in climate over the past 13,000 years. At its largest, around 4000 BC, this lake is estimated to have covered an area of 400,000 km². Lake sediments appear to indicate dry periods, when the lake nearly dried up, around 8500 BC, 5500 BC, 2000 BC, and 100 BC.”

    So, I had to check Wikipedia as well for the Amazon River. It does not seem to imply that the Amazon was so big as to cover the continent as Priddis/Kocherhans suggest. As such, there doesn’t seem to be good evidence in support of this.

    So Anthony, do you like this, or another setting for the BoM?

  4. A common problem with continent-wide theories that rely on the Crucificion catastrophy to alter the basic shape of the landmasses, such as this SA theory does, is that the proponents have no concept of the energies involved. Raising continent sized blocks dozens of feet produces spill over effects all over the planet, which couldn’t possibly be hidden unless the same God who produces the miracle actively engages in a Divine conspiracy to cover it up.

    I suggest that would raise more theological problems than it solves.

    I’d have to regard this particularly theory as less likely than the notion that an alien civilization (with tech roughly comparable to what we imagine in Star Trek) conveniently drops an asteroid smaller than a small mountain into the Cayman Trench somewhere fairly close to where that tectonic plate boundary comes ashore in Central America. I could at least plot a sci fi story about how THAT could produce all of the tsunami, wind, lightning, earthquake, and volcanic effects actually described in the B of M and not leave evidence people would much notice anywhere else than MesoAmerica.

    Of course, what the “Klingons” could do, God certainly could do (and without actively hiding the fact). So, if a properly-sized crater or properly located volcanic “lateral blast” turns up in the deep part of the Cayman Trench, I’ll love it. But until then, external correlations of the Book of Mormon crucificion catastrophe as “proofs” are largely recreational except as side effects of research people do for other reasons. The research will change minds about the divinity of the book only rarely.

    It is more fruitful to consider geographical theories primarily to examine how BELIEVERS might better understand the internal, consistent spiritual meanings the authors were trying to convey — the same way scholars use Old Testament geography and history to interpret what Biblical authors were trying to convey.

  5. Firetag,

    While I think that most people would assume that the land mass would have risen up at the Crucifixion, as you suggest, it is not the only solution. As FD posted, there is a that Lake in Africa, known as an “inland sea” which has dried up 95% since 1960. Now, the land did not rise up since 1960–it seems to be the result of some cyclical pattern, because it has dried up and reappeared at least 4 times over the last 10000 or so years. So, one need not make the assumption that the land rose up.

    However, the real problem to me is that the Amazon River is more of an east-west river, as opposed to a north-south river as Priddis’ map suggests. If you look at the river on Wikipedia (the source for all knowledge) 🙂 you’ll see that the river does not follow that path, nor does it show any signs of drying up that Lake Chad does. Both of these are considerable problems with the theory.

  6. The map shows open connections to the sea both north and south; the one on the south is country-sized. That rules out “drying up”; you either raise the land or lower the ocean (and lowering the ocean requires geophysical changes that also show up all over the planet. Lake Chad is in a closed basin, where “drying up” is decidedly easier to do in response to climatic changes which are known in the record. In fact, over the last interglacial, the Great Lakes size and drainage patterns here in the US have changed almost as dramatically, as has Salt Lake.

    I believe that Scientific American had a feature article a couple of years ago on the geological history of the Amazon basin that shows how radically it has been altered — but, of course, over periods much longer than a few thousand years. I’ll see if I can find a link.

  7. The article I mentioned above turned out to be “The Birth of the Mighty Amazon in the May 2006 Scientific American, but it appears only a stub of the article is available online without purchasing a digital download.

  8. I certainly agree that a South American setting seems quite problematic, since there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence for the Eastern Sea proposed.

  9. Don’t know if you caught the reports of the Honduras earthquake this week in regard to #4 above but this USGS link has some fascinating maps that show the kind of thing that could happen if a great earthquake along the same fault blew out the side of an inactive volcano along the edge of the continental shelf, collapsing it into the trench.

    Although there is evidence of Holocene (post ice age) but otherwise undated volcanism on the small island at the lower left corner of the 3rd map on the report’s map page, there’s no evidence to say that such a collapse occurred 2000 years ago. However, I do find it interesting that Joseph described a crucifixion catastrophy that seems to require a combination of volcanism, earthquake, and tsunami that drowns cities on the EAST coast of Nephite lands, does more damage in the land northward than southward, occurs close enough to shore for pyroclastic flows to be over in about 3 hours, and occurs while winds blow the ash cloud consistently to the west for several days.

    Despite knowing nothing about either plate tectonics or the Maya (and clearing NOT believing in a Central American theory in the 1820s), Joseph puts the Nephites in the geographical position that seems to require such a plate boundary. And the Caribbean Plate is the only plate with a boundary anywhere near the East Coast of either North or South America, and the tropics are where persistent winds blow toward the west.

  10. Firetag, thanks for the links. I’m not sure why your post ended up in my spam filter, but I was able to rescue it.

    Joseph made many statements about geography, and I believe there were some references in Times and Seasons (which Joseph was editor of) claiming some Nephite cities were found in the Yucatan Peninsula, so I don’t think we can rule out Joseph’s beliefs in Central America. (These ruins didn’t date to the Nephite period, however.) It seems pretty clear to me that Joseph believed that the BoM lands covered North and South America.

  11. I certainly agree that is what he thought (the Yucatan ruins were discovered after the BofM was published); my point had more to do with the fact that a document written in the 1820’s (the Book of Mormon) by a Spaulding-type explanation involving the best scientists of the day would have had no motivation to have tsunamis, volcanism, and earthquakes in the same geographic relationship to the Nephites.

    Yet that geographic relationship appears to be possible in either NA or SA only in a location off the East Coast of Central America, where the Mayans have been suggested as the Nephites and Lamanites for entirely independent reasons. To see that this is a non-trivial test of the internal consistency of the Book, note from the USGS general earthquake and volcano hazards sites that its hard to find places on the WEST coast of either NA or SA where the combination of geophysical events associated with the catastrophy are NOT possible.

  12. Firetag–interesting analysis. You obviously are much better well-versed on continental shelves than I have. As you know, I like to look at many theories, and I do not even rule out that we might be on the wrong continent. You’ll have to check my Lemba post.

  13. I tend to believe that the huge changes to the “face of the land” were large enough to effectively obscure any BC-era Nephite geography. Entire cities were sunk in the “sea”, cities were buried under “mountains”, smooth places became rough, etc. Whether or not this involved an event of sufficient size to shift a whole continental shelf is another matter, but nevertheless I don’t think the land would now be recognizable to someone who lived there then. I’m even inclined to think that Nephi and family may have embarked from Asia. I don’t think most of these things will be resolved until we get direct revelation on the subject.

  14. Andrew, while I am sure there was some localized destruction, the BoM claims that many cities were rebuilt, so I think we should still be able to find some things. Even Jericho was wiped out, but archaeologist have discovered it, and claim that an earthquake did level the city walls. Candidates for Sodom and Gomorrah have been found, complete with ash from being burned. So, I think it is still possible to find archaeology, despite destruction.

  15. […] in Mesoamerica now.  Of course, I’ve talked previously about other theories, including South America, New York, and the Malay Theory, but Mesoamerica is by far the leading theory among Book of Mormon […]

  16. […] BOMC’s Great Lakes Theory, Ralph Olsen’s Malay Theory, and Venice Priddis’ South American Setting.  My purpose in reviewing theories is to provide constructive criticism.  Some people have very […]

  17. @Anthony E. Larson

    Could you please lead me to the Priddi’s where abouts.

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