A Frank Overview of the Baja Model

Life has been keeping me busy so it’s been a while since I posted a Baja article, but this week I responded to some questions from a prominent LDS author and I think my response gives a nice overview of several aspects of the current Baja model so I’ll share the letter here as a blog article. Here was my response (with minor edits):

Hi _____,

Thank you for taking time to discuss the model. I try to be pragmatic and straightforward about the strengths and weaknesses of the model. Below is an overly-terse summary of some of those strengths and weaknesses, followed by the detailed explanation that you requested regarding the flow of the River Sidon in the Baja model.

STRENGTHS THAT I SEE IN THE BAJA MODEL:

  • Geography – The geography of the Baja peninsula matches the scriptural references well. The geographical model presented on the website does more than just propose dots on a map for the locations mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it also visually demonstrates how each individual movement of people in the text might have taken place. This doesn’t mean that I’m claiming to know the precise location of every geographical reference or the precise routes taken during each journey. It simply demonstrates that the lands of the Book of Mormon can be modeled in the peninsula without internal or external inconsistencies. Another goal of the visual geographic presentation is to show that the descriptions of people moving from place to place were quite logical considering the terrain, the climate, and other factors. Of course, Mormon’s description from Alma 22 deserves particular attention and those passages fit the model well and tend to describe the lands in the peninsula in significantly complete detail.
  • Climate – Many people think that the climate of the Baja peninsula is a weakness of the model, but usually the reason they think this is because they’re so used to visualizing the rainforests of Central America that are so commonly portrayed as the lands of the Book of Mormon. Understanding a Baja model requires several paradigm shifts when it comes to how we imagine the lifestyles of Book of Mormon peoples. Baja is a land of mountains, of seashores, and of desert wildernesses. It is not a “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”. Such aquatic features are very noteworthy northward of the primary lands of the peninsula, but the life-giving waters of Baja are found at inland oasis’ or in wells dug in the wildernesses by the seashore where the fresh-water water table exists close to the surface. It is a place where Mediterranean crops can flourish in oasis settings, but it is also a place where a lazy hunter-gatherer society can thrive and even out-populate the inland agricultural society by living in seashore wildernesses where raw meat (shellfish) is plentiful and was consumed in truly massive quantities by the peninsula’s prehistoric inhabitants.
  • Destructive Natural Forces – Baja is a place where real-estate is commonly “sunk in the depths of the sea [of Cortez]”, even today. It is a place where “great tempest[s]” (hurricanes) strike. It is a place that is susceptible to massive earthquakes, volcanic activity, and many other destructive natural forces.
  • Isolation – “And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations…” (2 Nephi 1:8). “we are upon an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20). While some authors point to the story of Shared and point out that some other references may indicate that the Nephite & Lamanite cultures might not have lived in isolation, the Baja model does not require us to explain-away the fact that Mormon and Moroni never told us much of anything about interactions with other people in the Americas. Baja is isolated. It is a place that could be found empty by Lehi’s party and where interactions with other societies would be minimal if such contacts occurred at all before they ventured into “the land northward” (North America). It is a place where the Mulekites could also live in isolation for hundreds of years before interacting with the Nephites. It is a place where Pleistocene megafauna like camels and horses may have survived in isolation far longer than other new world animal populations.
  • Spoken Language – This is a complicated topic that I can’t simply sum-up in one paragraph, so for now I’ll just say that I believe that Brian Stubbs’ evidence of Uto-Aztecan possibly being a creolization of Hebrew/Egyptian over a Native American language strata strongly favors a Baja model (although Baja languages were not Uto-Aztecan…like I said, this is a complicated subject that needs more description than I can present in one simple paragraph).
  • etc. (I could go on and on, but I’ll let this suffice for now)

WEAKNESSES THAT I SEE IN THE BAJA MODEL:

  • Written Language – This is a big problem for a Baja model. Although there is ample evidence that a prehistoric mnemonic writing system was in common use in the peninsula at the time of Spanish contact, there is no surviving example of it and the descriptions provided by Jesuit priests do a good job of convincing us that the inhabitants at that time did not meet their definition of “literate”. In addition, even if examples of this writing system do reappear in the archaeological record, I don’t think that “reformed Egyptian” was likely to have been a mnemonic writing system, so its existence doesn’t go a long way in support of the model. On the other hand, there is one viable example of a rock inscription with intriguing characters that may be related to an old-world writing system. It still exists and is preserved well. It was documented as early as 1903 and it is covered by desert varnish much thicker than nearby Spanish inscriptions from the 18th-19th century that are found scratched on adjacent rocks. Unfortunately, the inscription is small and isolated from any known context and to my knowledge it has never been seriously studied.
  • Metallurgy – While it is arguable that too little archaeological research has been conducted in the peninsula to know whether or not its prehistoric inhabitants practiced metallurgy in the distant past, the same cannot be said of southern California and southern Arizona. If the Baja model is correct, I would think that at least some Nephite or Jaredite metallurgy should have turned up in those areas and its absence there does bother me. To my knowledge, only a few copper bells, probably of Central American origin, have turned up there. There is one example that, if the dating is correct, would indicate advanced iron working in the prehistoric peninsula, but even though the confidence range of the carbon dating of the burial in which it was found dates to no later than a few decades before Columbus’ reached the Americas, the nature of the badly-rusted artifact makes me think that it is of Spanish origin, meaning that I think the dating is somehow incorrect. I have scoured a lot of resources looking for evidence of ancient metallurgy in the peninsula and have not found any significant indication of it yet.
  • Archaeology – Archaeology is both a strength and a weakness of the Baja model. Many archaeological findings support many of the things we read about Book of Mormon cultures, but there is still a large archaeological deficit that needs to be filled. This deficit is largely due to the sparse amount of archaeological research that has been conducted in what archaeologists describe as “the forgotten peninsula” (Baja archaeologists use this term to describe the lack of research that has been conducted there). For now, we have a lot of interesting leads to follow but little in the way of empirical evidence that would support the idea that an agricultural society existed in the prehistoric peninsula. On the other hand, there is significant evidence that a portion of the ancient population lived in the wildernesses by the seashores eating nothing but raw meat (shellfish) continually and another portion of the ancient population that lived inland and survived on terrestrial resources with a particular emphasis on grains (utilizing at least 14 different grain species) and roots. The separation between these two cultures is well represented in the archaeological record and is mentioned by several top Baja archaeologists.
  • THE RIVER SIDON:

    In your email you asked about the direction of flow of the River Sidon in particular. I have to admit that if I were to make an internal map of the lands of the Book of Mormon, I would show Sidon flowing northward from Manti towards Zarahemla. That appears to be the most likely scenario given the internal evidence, however we must be careful about making assumptions that aren’t in the text. As I read the relevant passages there are several things that seem clear to me that you will probably agree with regarding the River Sidon and the lands described in relation to it:

    1. The River Sidon flowed by or through the land of Manti.
    2. The River Siden flowed by or through the Land of Zarahemla.
    3. The land of Manti was south of Zarahemla.
    4. Travelers leaving Zarahemla towards Manti traveled up (which I interpret to mean “uphill”, as in altitude) to get there.

    Since we can both probably agree that water flows downhill, the Book of Mormon seems to indicate that the River Sidon flowed northward from Manti to Zarahemla.

    …but…

    The geography of the Baja model demonstrates the following:

    1. The Rio San Ignacio flows by the land the model identifies as the land of Manti.
    2. The Rio San Ignacio flows by the land the model identifies as Zarahemla.
    3. The land the model identifies as the land of Manti is south of the land the model identifies as the land of Zarahemla.
    4. Travelers leaving the land the model identifies as Zarahemla towards the land the model identifies as the land of Manti travel up (meaning “uphill”, as in altitude) to get there.
    5. The Rio San Ignacio generally flows towards the southwest and never flows northward.

    In other words, the Rio San Ignacio matches the criteria that people use when they make the argument for a north-flowing Sidon, but the Rio San Ignacio –does not– flow northward.

    The fact that it does not flow northward seems particularly disconcerting to some people, but it shouldn’t be. The Rio San Ignacio matches all the scriptural references of the River Sidon in the Book of Mormon. The only thing it doesn’t match is what we –infer– beyond what is written in the text. The text does not say that the river flows northward.

    There are very few flows of water in the Baja peninsula that may be called “rivers”, and the Rio San Ignacio is the ONLY one that exists in the lands that the Baja Model identifies as Nephite lands. Additionally, the most fertile oasis in the whole peninsula surrounds the aquifer-fed spring that provides this abundance of water, which leaves few (if any) options besides this oasis that can be considered as possible locations for the city and land of Zarahemla in the Baja model.

    What is very interesting regarding this oasis location for Zarahemla is that there is a “south wilderness” immediately to the south of it and the topography of this part of the “south wilderness” is such that in order to travel into it you find yourself traveling up (meaning “uphill”, as in altitude) from Zarahemla. What is interesting to see in the model is that the Rio San Ignacio –does not– flow past this “uphill” area “upstream” from Zarahemla, it flows past this “uphill” area downstream from Zarahemla. You see, a large part of this “south wilderness” is a very large plateau (this plateau is identified as the land of Manti in the model) , the entirety of which is uphill (as in altitude) from the model’s location for Zarahemla, but a large border of which borders the Rio San Ignacio downstream of Zarahemla as the Rio San Ignacio flows towards the southwest.

    I would argue that even if the Baja model turns out to be entirely wrong, the fact that this topography even exists argues against a north-flowing Sidon being a “fact” that can be relied upon in an internal model, and it demonstrates the potential pitfalls of utilizing internal models to generate external model requirements for the lands of the Book of Mormon. A north-flowing Sidon is simply –not– a requirement of the Book of Mormon.

    …on the other hand…

    I mentioned earlier that there were very few watercourses that qualify as “rivers” in the central peninsula. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that it is not certain that the aquifer-fed springs that feed the modern Rio San Ignacio also existed in the same location 2,000+ years ago. It is not uncommon for the outlet of an aquifer in the peninsula to drastically change location from time-to-time, often in coincidence with tectonic or volcanic activity, both of which happen in the immediate region we are discussing. When you combine these facts with the fact that the primary arroyo of the drainage basin that feeds the Rio San Ignacio reaches far to the south and drains a portion of a large mountain range there, I cannot rule out two alternate scenarios regarding the flow of the River Sidon in the Baja model:

    1. 2,000+ years ago, the aquifer-fed springs may have had an origin in the mountains south of the “south wilderness”.

    2. There is some evidence that Baja experienced a wetter climate (including localized evidence indicating at least double the rainfall and much better soil conditions during Mormon’s lifetime) in comparison to climate today. It is possible that a wetter climate kept the Rio San Ignacio flowing from the mountains south of the “south wilderness” northward past the plateau the model identifies as the land of Manti, then continuing northward until it reached the model’s location for Zarahemla where it would have combined with the modern aquifer-fed springs there and then would have followed the modern course of the Rio San Ignacio that I described above, flowing to the southwest and bordering the plateau of Manti on the south and the land of Zarahemla on the north.

    These two alternate possibilities would not only match the textual requirements for Sidon, they would also match the inference that LDS scholars tend to make regarding the River Sidon flowing northward from Manti to Zarahemla.

    Concerning the Rio San Ignacio and the oasis we identify as Zarahemla, we have a very beautiful account of what it was like at the time of Spanish contact. Jesuit father Maria Piccolo made the first exploration (aside from the native inhabitants of course) to this location and made a great record of his visit. Here are some excerpts which I find helpful when someone wants to understand the fertility of the area and the nature of the River Sidon in a Baja model:

    “As we entered the valley, where the river takes its rise, and the animals saw all that lushy green, they rushed headlong into those extensive reedlands…All the Indians plunged into the lake without knowing what to do…The animals were stuck in the mud too deep for the animals to get out. One of the soldiers, Sebastian Martinez, in order to save the life of the stallion, which had sunk with the chests to the bottom of the lake three times, dove in fully dressed. …My other horse, thrashing about vigorously and valiantly, tired out; and, not finding any way to get out, died before they got around to rescuing it” (Jesuit Relations – Baja California 1716 – 1792; Translated and Edited by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J.; Dawsons Book Shop, Los Angeles: 1984;Report 1: Francisco Maria Piccolo: Piccolo’s Report on his 1716 Northern Expedition)

    Then later in Piccolo’s account: “my two companions…went to see where the stream ends. They advanced eleven leagues down river; and they ascertained that it does not reach the coast but disappears in the valley. If one had seen the lake, he would have concluded that the river would reach the gulf with great force. But such is not the reality. Little by little the river diminishes and disappears at the end of the valley. Over a distance of six leagues, the river forms fourteen wells or lakes. My companions said that the first five lakes contain fresh water, these are succeeded by eight salty lakes. The last, with good fresh water, is about five leagues from shore. The lands, which continue all the way to the beach, are at their best in the valley. The sufficiently wet lands here are attractively covered with green, lush grass. The area would not have to be cleared of weeds, willows or reeds…The valley is very wide and straight. It extends some two leagues…I decided to cross the river on the return trip in order to shorten the route and hence traverse it half a league below where it begins to flow. But since the river was wide and at its deepest the water was knee high for those on foot, my horse…refused to cross…We stayed eleven days at the river. I would have gladly remained there until death, if I had the permission of my superiors.”

    It is also very interesting to note that immediately south of this location for Zarahemla is the “south wilderness”, south of which the various native villagers most commonly identified themselves as “Lamonies”. Piccolo’s account also tells us that the “Laimon” language was the common language of the tribes in the central peninsula: “the Padres quickly learned the native Monqui language, and shortly later the Laimon language, which is more universal and spoken by numerous different tribes.”

    As you can probably tell by now, I can go on and on and on about this stuff, but this email is probably far too long-winded already so I’ll leave it at that for now.

    Again, thank you for the listening ear and for your thoughtful reply.

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