Wednesday, October 24, 2018

How Could the Continent of South America Have Been an Island During Nephite Times? – Part I

Recently we received another critique of some of our articles regarding the size of South America and how it does not match the much smaller description of the Land of Promise in the Book of Mormon. Since this was just one of many such comments over the years from those who simply cannot get their minds around a South American setting for the Book of Mormon, we decided to answer it in the form of this blog article.
Map of South America today, showing the location of Lehi’s landing and some Nephite settlements upon the Andean Shelf; Note the small area of the lands that are outlined in the Book of Mormon Land of Promise
There are really two parts to this particular question, and that is 1) How could South American have been an island; and 2) If it was, how could it have been one in Nephite times.
   Both are good questions, but unlike most critiques of the issue, these are not an end-all to the discussion for there are answers to those questions based on the geological record and the geologic time scale, as well as social knowledge of ancient and current societies living in western South America.
    While we have written about both these points in the past, it seems never too often to correct people’s lack of knowledge about the two main underlying factors regarding the Land of Promise being in South America. One, of course, is that the continental size of South America is 6.89 million square miles—far, far too large for the setting of the Jaredite promised land and Lehi’s land of promise. Unless something was different at the time of Lehi’s landing, of which we have a record in the Book of Mormon that offers some idea of size, which certainly does not equate to an area anywhere near 6.89 million square miles (North America, is 9.54 million square miles). So, obviously, we need additional information than just the general terms that Lehi sailed to and landed upon the Land of Promise. In fact, most importantly, almost all geographers designate South America as a subcontinent of the Americas even today, which goes along with the initial understanding that the Americas was on continent—an attitude and belief that existed during and long after Joseph Smith’s time.
    As for the historical understanding of South America and current scientific description, we should note that “South America is a continent in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas, such as India is a subcontinent of Asia, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This is how the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas consider North and South America—as one continent with South America being a subcontinent extension.”
The subcontinent of India is isolated from Asia by tall mountains

In fact, the term subcontinent was first used in 1845 to refer to the North and South Americas, before they were regarded as separate continents, which did not take place until the mid-1900s. As for the subcontinent of India, it was first given that appellation since the early 1900s by the British Empire because it was especially convenient for referring to the region comprising both British India and the princely states under British Paramountcy; also because physiographically, it is a peninsular region nearly isolated by the Himalayas in the north, the Arakanese in the east, and the Hindu Kush in the west—considered to be the boundary connecting the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. This is about the same isolation the Andean shelf strip of western South America has because of the height and near-impassible crossing of the Andes before the advent of aviation.
    This subcontinent of South America is divided into four regions: 1) Brazil and the Amazon, which comprises almost half of the entire continent’s land mass and population 2) The Southern Cone; 3) The Guiana region; and 4) Andean States, which occupy the Andean Shelf.
The Eastern Pacific Mid-Oceanic Ridge is not far from the subduction zone that runs along the west coast of South America. The ocean floor spreading eastward is subducted and destroyed relatively soon after formation. In addition, the East Pacific Rise is spreading faster than the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

This continental shelf, sometimes known as the Peruvian-Chilean continental shelf, and in regard to the rising of the Andes Mountains, is sometimes called the Andean Shelf—it  extends the entire length of South America, and is punctuated by the deep Peru-Chile trench where the Cocos, Nazca, and Antarctic plates are converging with and sinking beneath the South American plate. This type of plate boundary is called a subduction zone, and this one is intersected at 46°S by the Chile Rise, a spreading center where the Nazca and Antarctic plates separate and new oceanic crust forms.  According to geologists, this Andean-Chilean Pacific Coastal Shelf and upper slope was visible above the surface when much of the rest of South America, specifically the Brazilian Amazon Basin, and the Southern Core were submerged.
    Because of this recent activity as compared to other areas of the globe, the Chilean margin offers an inspiring natural laboratory for investigating the complex interactions among the solid earth, the deep ocean, and the biosphere. At the Chilean triple junction, where the South Chile rise (a ridge crest) is being forced under the methane-rich South American continent, an international team of scientists will be exploring for tectonically controlled hydrothermal vents, for seep sites of massive methane release, and for novel “hybrid” systems that may yield hot seeps or cool vents.
    The point is, this area is considered young in geologic terms where this ongoing subduction, along the Peru–Chile Trench, of the Nazca Plate under the South American Plate, which was largely responsible for the Andean orogeny, is seen as a vital laboratory today. Using recently published geophysical, seismological, sedimentological and bio-geochemical data, along with additionally, unpublished data such as reflection seismic profiles, swath bathymetry and observations on biota that allow further insights into the evolution of this continental platform are integrated into this current study.
    In might be of interest to know that “Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed.” It is also interesting to know that new research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and colleagues have now shed light on the mystery” (“Taking the Pulse of Mountain Formation in the Andes,” Phys.Org, Science X Network, University of Rochester, April 21, 2014).
Evidence suggests that the Altiplano rose in pulses—speedy for geologic phenomena—through the dripping of dense rock called eclogite from the lower crust, buoying the land above

In fact, rather than mountains taking eons of time to rise through a steady expansion of cold and dense rocks dropping into the asthenosphere from the lithosphere as previously believed by geologists, Garzione’s research and tests have shown that this happens in spurts. As relatively cold and dense rocks push from the lithosphere into the deeper asthenosphere, a “blob” of the high-density rocks form, which acts as an anchor to the lithosphere and crust above. Finally, the “blob” detaches and drips or drops into the deep Earth, causing the overlying lithosphere to “bounce upward,” rising suddenly, pushing the above land upward, elevating the hill or mountain above.
    Thus, mountains do not rise evenly over eons of time, but shoot upward in infrequent spurts. Consequently, As recent studies have shown, the Andes Mountains are far younger than geologists had previously thought, and in geologic times, sprang upward quite quickly in these “growth spurts,” based on Carmala Garzione, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, studies she and her team performed, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (“Andes Mountains formed by ‘Growth Spurts’,” Newscenter, University Communications, Rochester, NY, April 21, 2014).
(See the next post, “How Could the Continent of South America Have Been an Island During Nephite Times? – Part II,” for a continuation of the mountain building in South America, and results of new scientific studies and findings, as well as the continuation of the two questions raised by a reader)


  1. If one accepts the possibility that the Book of Mormon statements that the Nephites actually were on an “Isle of the sea” are not explained away, then what area in the Americas is the most likely candidate for such an island?

    The great lakes area? No. Not unless one re-defines the word river to also mean sea. Somewhere in Mesoamerica? No again. But maybe a bit more likely.

    The area that is most likely to have been an “Isle of the sea” before the time of Christ is the Andes, with little honest competition.

    1. "...but we have been led to a better land, for the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an ISLE OF THE SEA." --2 Nephi 10:20 (Jacob speaking)

      "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

      "And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea SOUTH to the sea NORTH , from the sea WEST to the sea EAST." --Hel 3:8