A Possible Agricultural Hiatus for the Nephites in Zarahemla

In our search for correlations between the Book of Mormon and our model it is important for us to do our best to identify cultural horizons. The better that we understand the changes to material culture that took place in particular areas and particular times mentioned in the Book of Mormon, the more likely it will be for us to accurately identify correlations between archaeological evidence and Book of Mormon requirements.

Some examples of possible correlations like these include:

  • The Lamanite city of Jerusalem and the Baja archaeological site called El Conchalito

    • Both cities were established on the seashore about 50 years BC.
    • Both cities were sunk into the ocean and waters came up in the stead thereof.
  • The hill called Onidah and the archaeological site known as the Valle de Azufre Obsidian quarry

    • The obsidian site exists on a hill east of Zarahemla just where we expect Onidah to be.
    • The obsidian site exists right by the areas we identify as the borders of the south wilderness, just where we expect it to be
    • The obsidian site is possibly the most utilized source of obsidian for projectile point production in the entire southwest, Matching the description given in the Book of Mormon which calls Onidah “the place of arms”.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is difficult to accurately identify cultural horizons in space and time. Even when we know that a particular cultural transition happened in a certain place, we don’t always know exactly when that transition happened. It is very easy to make incorrect assumptions regarding where and when changes took place. If our assumptions are wrong then we might make incorrect correlations or might overlook correct correlations.

This article is intended to help us get a clearer understanding of one particular cultural horizon. The point is not to make this horizon clearer, it is to point out that it is already unclear. By recognizing this, we can have a better idea of where and when we might look for possible archaeological correlations. The cultural horizon that we are discussing is:

The Timing of the Onset of the Practice of Agriculture in the Land of Zarahemla

Since the Book of Mormon tells us clearly that the Nephites practiced agriculture before they joined the Mulekites in Zarahemla, and since it later talks about them practicing agriculture in Zarahemla, it is easy to assume that they continued their agricultural practices uninterrupted throughout their history in Zarahemla. This may not be true. There is no indication of agriculture being practiced in Zarahemla between the time the Nephites arrived there and roughly 121 BC when Limhi’s party also arrived there. In fact, some verses seem to indicate otherwise, meaning the Nephites may have practiced little or no agriculture in Zarahemla until Limhi’s group, which clearly practiced agriculture, arrived in 121 BC.

Here is what we do know regarding the cultural history and subsistence strategies in and around Zarahemla in the years leading up to 121 BC:

  1. We know that sometime after the year 600 BC, a group we call the Mulekites traveled to and settled in the land of Zarahemla.
  2. We know that around the 2nd century BC the main body of the Nephite culture fled their southern homeland and traveled to Zarahemla where they met the Mulekites and settled down with them in and around that region.
  3. We know that, although the Mulekites accepted Mosiah as their king, the Nephites were statistically the cultural minority when they arrived (See Mosiah 25:3).
  4. We know that somewhere between 121BC and 124BC, Mosiah “did cause” his people to till the earth (See Mosiah 6:7).

This last piece of information is curious. Why would Mosiah have to “cause” his people to till the earth? After all, the Book of Mormon leaves no doubt that the Nephites practiced agriculture in the land of Nephi before they moved to Zarahemla.

That first group of Nephites who arrived in Zarahemla would have been capable agriculturalists…but were the Mulekites agriculturalists before the Nephites arrived? The text is silent on this. We have no reason to believe that the Mulekites practiced agriculture in Zarahemla before the arrival of the Nephites. They could just as easily have been a hunter-gatherer society living off of similar food resources as the Lamanites.

It seems a little strange for Mosiah to suddenly decide out of nowhere to “cause” his people to practice agriculture if they were already continuously practicing it. It is easier to understand that statement when we realize that he “did cause” them to do it right after Limhi’s group arrived in Zarahemla. Limhi’s brought agricultural knowledge with them. This agricultural knowledge may have led Mosiah to “cause” his people to do likewise.

In the end, there is really no evidence at all that the Nephites didn’t just join the Mulekites in whatever subsistence strategies that they were already adept at in and around Zarahemla when they arrived.

Another coincidence that adds some credibility to this idea is the fact that Zeniff’s party was really anxious to move back to the land of Nephi after arriving in Zarahemla. Something about living in Zarahemla alongside the Mulekites didn’t appeal to that first group of Nephite agriculturalists. At great risk, they moved back to the land of Nephi where they practiced agriculture like they had done before.

All of this conjecture certainly doesn’t add up to a solid case one way or the other, but it does tell us that we should not draw any strict conclusions regarding agriculture in Zarahemla before 121 to 124 BC. We may not find any evidence of it previous to that time because agriculture might not have been practiced there before that time.

There might have been an agricultural hiatus among the Nephite society at Zarahemla during the years that Zeniff’s group and their descendants lived in the land of Nephi. After that, Mosiah “did cause” it to be practiced in Zarahemla. In the years that followed, the Book of Mormon describes a significant population expansion among the Nephites. Population expansions like this are common when agriculture is introduced into societies.

Anyways, it’s not a solid case, but it is something to consider.

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