Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Could Panama be the Narrow Neck of Land?

In the last post we covered the numerous scriptures that illustrate the layout and design of the narrow neck of land as described by Mormon in the scriptural record. In the post before that “Evolution of the Land of Promise,” we covered numerous problems with the Mesoamerica model of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec being the narrow neck of land (see also June 2, 2013 post “The Silliness Behind Mesoamerican Thinking-Part V,” and also July 12, 2013 post “The Great Mesoamerican Hoax-Part II—The Small Neck of Land,” as well as the book Lehi Never Saw Mesoamerica and numerous other articles on this website).
Left: Isthmus and Gulf of Darién; Right: Map drawn in Edinburgh in 1699
    The name Darién originates from the language spoken by the indigenous Cueva Indians who were massacred and completely exterminated between 1510 and 1535 by the Spanish conquistadors and colonization. The Tanela River, which flows toward Atrato, was Hispanicized to Darién, and the region and its communities took the same name. Vasco Nunez de Balboa founded a town he called Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién, in 1510, which was the first city founded by conquistadors in mainland America; Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Darién on his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, and the Scottish attempted to colonize the isthmus, creating the Darién Company and settling a town they called New Caledonia, on the Atlantic side along the Gulf of Darién in the far eastern end of present day Panama. The country’s furthest eastern province is still called Darién today. The failure of the Scottish venture became known as the Darién Scheme. In all literature and reports as late as the 19th century, this area is referred to as the Isthmus of Darién overall (now the Isthmus of Panama), and as Darién specifically, though in Spanish colonial times the area of present-day Panama was called the Province of Tierra Firme (Province of Mainland).
    This isthmus connects Central America and South America, and is considered a wild and nearly impenetrable jungle. Through this area Balboa made his tortuous trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513, a trip that took him twenty-nine days though his Indian guides claimed it could be accomplished in six days, and Balboa had 190 men and 1,000 Indians to carry his supplies and provisions. Yet, this isthmus is only about 37 miles across at its narrowest and about 48 miles across where Balboa crossed from Careta to San Miguel (his actual journey however covered 68 overlapping miles). William Robertson in History of America, p 203, tells us that Balboa covered less than two miles per day.
Top: Darien Gap within red circle; Middle: Mountainous rain forest in the west; Bottom: Swamp and marshes in the east within an impenetrable jungle
    However, once it was shown that the isthmus could be crossed, though with great difficulty, this path between the seas quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain's empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, hauled across the isthmus, and loaded aboard ships for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although it was more commonly called Camino de Cruces—the Road of the Crosses—because of the abundance of gravesites along the way.
    The isthmus is 480 miles long, and at its eastern end where it joins South America, it is an area of swamps and jungle so wild and impenetrable that few have ever crossed it. Called the Darién Gap, it has been pointed out in these posts before, that this Gap is the only place from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego that the Pan-American highway was not completed, because of its impassable terrain, dense jungle, impenetrable swamps and tightly-packed forests, and is so inhospitable, that no vehicle has ever made it through this area, and today it is still relatively unknown to anyone other than a few indigenous natives and occasionally Colombian guerillas that retreat into the Gap for protection from government forces.
    As for this 480-mile-long isthmus being the “narrow neck of land” of the Book of Mormon, one should look into the nature of the area. First of all, for it being a day-and-a-half journey across according to Mormon (Alma 22:32), we repeat that it took Balboa almost a month to hack his way across a 48-mile wide route from sea to sea. In fact, J.A. and J.N. Washburn, in An Early Example of the Mesoamerican View of Book of Mormon Geography, in 1939, wrote: Is it not altogether likely that the limited distances of Central America have given us who are unacquainted with the country a wrong idea of the time required to traverse it? Should we be surprised to learn that it is no small matter to cross the Isthmus of Panama? In times past many have found to their dismay that a few miles could easily constitute a journey of no mean proportions.”
    In the 1857 account of the adventuress Mary Seacole’s journeys in many lands, she writes of her early 1800s travel across the Isthmus of Panama: "Insignificant in distance as it was, it was by no means an easy one. It seemed as if nature had determined to throw every conceivable obstacle in the way of those who should seek to join the two great oceans of the world. I have read and heard many accounts of old endeavors to effect this important and gigantic work, and how miserably they failed. It was reserved for the men of our age to accomplish what so many had died in attempting, and iron and steam, twin giants, subdued to man's will, have put a girdle over rocks and rivers, so that travelers can glide as smoothy, if not as inexpensively, over the terrible isthmus of  Darién.” 
    And writing of the early Spanish trying to cross the isthmus, Harold Rugg in A History of American Civilization, p. 47, states: "It is a difficult trip of 45 miles through the tropical forests, those dark forests of high trees festooned so thickly with vines and creepers. Even with the ax the Spaniards could hardly break through." Verneil Simmons wrote that: “the actual isthmus is more than 400 miles long, much of it too swampy to be utilized even today,” and Samuel K. Lothrop, in The Maya and Their Neighbors, p. 418, has added, “An examination of the topography, vegetation and climate of Panama and the adjacent territory reveals a singularly and surprisingly difficult approach to South America today. Dire necessity alone would force primitive people to attempt the passage of such regions.”
In fact, the 1971-72 Trans-Americas expedition “Operation Darien” made an attempt to cross the Darien Gap, and a December 9, 1971, Kansas City Times article "Alaska to Chile—by Land,” said in part: “What makes a relatively simple, if extended, drive into an epic journey is El Tapon (the stopper), a 250-mile stretch of swamp and jungle, ravine and mountain from Canitas in Panama to Rio Leon in Colombia. This is the Darien Gap, part of the Isthmus of Panama…No vehicle has ever crossed this hot and humid land…This second phase of the journey, the real part of the expedition, is scheduled to take 12 weeks. The group is expected to average about two miles a day for most of the trek. Earlier this year a joint air-land reconnaissance trip revealed vertical ravines, streams and swamps mixed with steep ridges. It is estimated that 125 bridges will have to be built.”
    This Gap, called the most impassable jungle in the world, is dominated by a 50-mile-wide marshland to the east, with half of it the crocodile and snake infested great Atrato Swamp, one of the last uncharted regions in the world, and in the west is a mountainous rainforest that reaches from 200 to over 6,000 feet
    This is the area that some Theorists want us to believe was the narrow neck of land through which Nephites moved without difficulty—a fete that took 99 days for the Trans-Americas expedition to accomplish with modern tools, equipment and led by veteran explorer John Blashford-Snell, Britain’s answer to Indiana Jones.
    Mormon tells us that in 55 B.C. “there were many people who went forth into the land northward” (Alma 63:9), and eight years later, “there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land” (Helaman 3:3). Given the descriptions of several people who have made attempts at crossing this 31-mile-wide, 99-mile-long Darién Gap, it would not be possible for this Isthmus of Panama to be the narrow neck of land that Mormon describes.


  1. There is only one thing you are forgetting. What were the conditions of 31 mile area 2,000 years ago. Was it jungle then, we really do not know.

  2. Thank you for your question. I have always taken the view that if there is no geologic, forestation/deforestation, flood, or other religious or science-advanced scenarios of given areas, that they probably remained the same over time. On the other hand, the Darien Gap is presently a swamp--a swamp is an area of land permanently saturated, or filled, with water. Swamps are also always dominated by trees, and named after the type of trees that grow in them. In addition, swamps are transition areas, neither totally land nor totally water. Swamps generally are permanent in nature, that is, they last for thousands of years. While we do not have any record of what existed in the Americas (other than the Book of Mormon) in antiquity, we do have record of swamps in Rome and Mesopotamia that existed for thousands of years. The only reason Rome's swamp land (around the seven hills) no longer exists is because man drained it; the one in Mesopotamia existed from the time of the Jaredites "who crossed many waters" leaving their home, and passed by the sea in the wilderness, all the way up to the time of Saddam Hussein, who drained most of it (it is called the Fertile Crescent because of the richness of this area, and has been called such for at least two thousand years). The swamp we call the Everglades in Florida has been there since they were first recorded in the 1500s, The conditions surrounding swamps that occur along tropical coastlines such as the Darien Gap have never been known to dissipate, solidify, or disappear. In addition, since that entire area was underwater before about 2000 years ago--according to the deep sea research and scientific drilling vessel for oceanography and marine geology studies, the Glomar Challenger drilled on both sides of this Panamanian area and found that it was totally submerged at one time. Consequently, there is far more known to suggest this area was the same 2000 years ago as it is today. We do know that 500 years ago it was the same when the Spanish arrived there and tried to negotiate the area.