Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Narrow Neck of Land and the Fallacy of Mesoamerica’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec - Part I

It is recorded that migrating Toltecs journeyed about six leagues—18 miles—each day amid the topography of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Even if we took someone traveling twice that distance in a day, the journey across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec would cover only about 54 miles. However, the actual distance across this isthmus is about 140 miles (125 miles at its narrowest point, but considered 302 kilometers or 139.536 miles officially), or almost three times what someone could cover.

Note the narrow neck of land between the eastern edge of the Bay of Guayaquil in Ecuador and the Andes Mountains to the east—where the East Sea once flowed)

Using the Toltec journey, they would cover only about 27 miles in a day and a half, which just happens to be the exact distance between the eastern edge of the Gulf of Guayaquil and the Andean mountain chain, where once was located the East Sea. That distance is figured at between 26 and 28 miles.

However, getting back to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the scriptural record states that this distance of a day and a half was for a Nephite. Not a Nephite athlete, not a Nephite warrior, not a Nephite marathon runner—but a common Nephite. Obviously, Mormon in recording this distance (Alma 22:32) saw no reason to expound on it, assuming, no doubt, that the term “for a Nephite” was self-explanatory—that is, for a common person with no special traveling skills, nor using any fast traveling abilities, animals, or equipment.

In his commentary, Mormon, in an effort to explain the topography of the overall Land of Promise in Alma 22, shows that the narrow neck of land separated the Land Northward from the Land Southward, and to describe how really narrow this neck was, he said, “And now it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea” (Alma 22:32). Thus we can easily and without question conclude that the narrow neck of land ran from east to west.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec does not run east and west. It runs from north to south, from Coatzacoalcos (Puerto Mexico) on the north shore to Salina Cruz on the south shore, running between the Bay of Campeche on the north and the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the south, and through a break in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Any movement across this narrowest point starts and ends at sea level, but moves mostly across a rolling, tropical lowland with the greatest height through the Cbivela Pass, a broad plateau-like ridge, at 754 feet. The northern side is swampy and densely covered with jungle (which was a greater obstacle to the railway construction than the grades in crossing the sierra), and the Selva Zoque in the eastern-central area is a large tropical rainforest. The great national highway between these two areas, covering the easiest movement through the Isthmus is 188 miles long.

Thus, looking at a day and a half journey across this Isthmus, one can see with its climb, jungle, rainforest, and swamp, that the travel pace of anyone would be hindered considerably. Hugh Nibley, John L. Sorenson, and other Mesoamerican theorists can talk about someone traveling the 140 miles in a day and a half, but such a journey would be most difficult and take a considerably longer time than a mere day and a half—-probably upwards of a week.

Consequently, anyone trying to use the Isthmus of Tehuantepec has three obstacles to face. 1) It is far too wide for Mormon’s description; 2) it is oriented north and south and not east and west according to Mormon’s description, and 3) it cannot be viewed as a narrow neck based on the land around it without external aides, such as satellite photos, aerial reconnaissance, or some type of long-range vision.

On this latter point, take a look at a 1736 map made by cartographers who had even a better view of the isthmus than any Nephite would have had between 600 B.C. and 421 A.D. At least this map was the result of sailing up and down the coasts and viewing the land changes and shorelines which would not have been known in the same way by the Nephites. Yet, with all this, the map hardly shows any indentation along the Isthmus on either the north or south coasts. This alone should show that no Nephite would have understood there was a narrow neck of land “and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land Northward and the Land Southward” (Alma 22:32).

(See the next post, “Narrow Neck of Land and the Fallacy of Mesoamerica’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec - Part II” for a further understanding of the directions of the narrow neck of land)


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  3. That narrow neck of land causes an awful lot of confusion among LDS scholars, and I think too many Book of Mormon archeologists try to put far too many restrictions on it—restrictions that also happen to all-too-often point the way to their own personal candidates for Book of Mormon landmarks. The Mayans were remarkably proficient in a variety of technical areas such as astrology and mathematics, and while they didn’t begin to measure up to the ancient Romans and Greeks, they did have the concept of zero, a complex writing system and built impressive cities and flat roads, not to mention a thriving system of trade.

    Moroni said that his record was a history of the people living on “this” continent, meaning the North American continent. And Joseph Smith specifically stated during the latter part of his life that Mesoamerica was where the Book of Mormon events took place. Since much of Mesoamerica (including Mexico) is on the North American continent, and since the Nephites undoubtedly knew what an isthmus was and where the isthmus (of Tehuantepec) was located, they might very well think of it as a narrow neck. And contrary to the article above, it did not have to run east to west, as author Del DowDell asserts.

    Reading the text more carefully, we see no direction is stipulated at all: “And now it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea.” (Alma 22:32) Notice the prophet doesn’t say “from the east sea to the west sea,” but “from the east to the west sea.” DowDell apparently thinks this means a straight, horizontal line from one sea to the other, and this is not what the text states. He also strongly asserts the term “for a Nephite” means an ordinary, run of the mill Nephite. But how does he know this? Is this Nephite a male or female? And what age? Is the Nephite carrying anything or is he a military courier? We don’t know. It’s like saying it’s a two-hour trip for an American. What would that mean? To assert that one knows what a writer means when he writes something that’s clearly dubitable flies in the face of what DowDell stated elsewhere: “To find this patriarch’s ‘Land of Promise,’ it is essential that one not begin with a place already in mind....” But isn’t this what he, himself, is doing when he selectively forms his assertions in such a way as to put down the Mesoamerican geographical models to bolster his own?


  4. -Cont'd

    In verse 27, the king sends a proclamation throughout the region “which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west.” But then it’s separated by “a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west.” The region did not run from coast to coast, but to the narrow strip. When the prophet wishes to insert “sea” he does so; but to assume “sea” in verse 32 when it doesn’t state “sea” is to misrepresent the text.

    Thus, the “day and a half” could be a distance from the west sea to someplace in the east, such as a strip of wilderness that was not navigable, but not all the way to the east sea. Perhaps it went east to an established trail of some sort?

    One reason I’m in the Mesoamerican geographical camp is that the evidence that the Olmecs were the Jaredites is overwhelming. Given that, we have to look at their culture and determine its dominance in what is now Mexico. We must take care that we don’t go too far north or south, but remain in the parameters established by what the Book of Mormon writers wrote, what Moroni said when he introduced himself to Joseph Smith and, of course, the comments of Joseph Smith, himself, who had numerous visions of the cultures and cities of the Book of Mormon peoples. Thus, it must be in the North American continent, it cannot be in a cold, frozen environment, it must support enormous populations, be in an area where poisonous snakes can live year-round for eight generations and be of vast strategic value. It also can be gauged northward by the Mayans and southward by the Olmecs.

    This all precludes that South America could be part of the Book of Mormon lands; also, that if Lehi never saw Mesoamerica, he was most likely blind.