Isolation and Endemism in Baja California:
The fact that the Baja California peninsula stretches for many hundreds of miles after being divided from North and Central America by the Sea of Cortez presents an obvious argument for the geographic isolation it can provide. This isolating potential is demonstrated by the numerous scientific articles regarding the many endemic species of flora and fauna that can be found there.
Endemism is the ecological state of being unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, nation or other defined zone, or habitat type. The extreme opposite of endemism is cosmopolitan distribution.
Does the Book of Mormon Describe Cosmopolitan Cultures, or Are The Cultures Isolated and Endemic to Their Lands?
The Book of Mormon contains clear references to various forms of isolation. Isolation can occur in many ways and many types of isolation are mentioned in and might be inferred from the text. Models of the lands of the Book of Mormon should not be contradicted by these references while correlations between these references and a model can be considered circumstantial evidence substantiating the model.
The Book of Mormon describes isolating geographical barriers such as:
- Narrow areas of land that prevent travel and migration when blocked
- Wildernesses where groups of people can get lost for long periods of time when attempting to travel between the lands separated by the wildernesses
The text also describes populations of people and animals that experience isolation by things relating to the climate and nature such as:
- Famine while traveling in wilderness areas.
- Poisonous serpents hedging up the way and preventing travel between geographical areas for many years.
Another line of indirect evidence is the unlikelihood that all of the various authors of the text of the Book of Mormon would forget to mention interaction with other populations of people. In fact, one of the first things that we learn about the “promised land” where Lehi’s party had landed is a direct reference to the isolation of the land from other nations:
And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
Of course, all of these references have been treated in various ways by authors of various models and their critics. Some may say that Lehi’s statement is not referring to other American populations but instead is a reference to supposedly stronger nations in the old world. Others might argue that interaction with other Native American populations commonly took place but that it simply wasn’t mentioned by the various authors of the book and that the references to physical isolation can be explained by inferring that surrounding populations did not have the knowledge or technology necessary to interact with each other over the distances between their various lands.
In our model we propose that the references to physical, natural, and political isolation do not need to be dismissed by arguments but instead they are natural to and supporting of the model we are proposing. The associations between references to isolation in the text and the lands of the peninsula are straightforward within the model.
Isolation As a Barrier to Cultural Diffusion:
The model suggests that Lehi’s party landed near the southern tip of the peninsula. This cape region enjoys a wonderful climate and in modern times it is a prime tourist destination, but it is also separated from non-peninsular nations by many hundreds of miles of harsh terrain and from the mainland of Central America by the Sea of Cortez. These natural barriers completely prevented diffusion of cultural traits from Olmec, Mayan, Zapotec, Aztec, and other Central American civilizations into prehistoric Baja. By all appearances, the peninsula was always kept from the knowledge of those large, powerful nations, despite it’s physical proximity to them.
Isolation of Populations Within the Peninsula:
The cape region of Baja is bordered “even to the sea, on the east and on the west” (Alma 22:27) and is separated from the rest of the peninsula by a “narrow strip of wilderness (ie: desert)” (Alma 22:27) which runs “from the sea east to the sea west” (Alma 22:27). This desert continues northward uninterrupted “round about on the borders of the seashore” reaching the desert which, in our model, is “on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon” (Alma 22:27) and in our model the river Sidon is found “running from the east towards the west” (Alma 22:27).
Not only do these references fit the physical descriptions in the text, but the areas where they match the model are definitional areas isolating native populations from one another in the historical record at the time of Spanish contact and they match up to boundaries recognized by archaeologists separating prehistoric populations in the peninsula, including prehistoric cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Narrow Neck of Land Separating Zarahemla from the Land Northward:
Our model suggests that after roughly 400 years of isolation in the cape region of Baja, the Nephites traversed the deserts mentioned above and reached the land of Zarahemla near the oasis of San Ignacio and the nearby sierras. This is the widest portion of the Baja peninsula and exhibits distances to the seas that are roughly equivalent as you travel east to west or north to south. When you travel northward from this wide location you reach a narrow neck of land in the peninsula.
From the point where this narrow area of the peninsula starts northward, one of the most foreboding deserts in the Americas can be found. Naming this “small neck of land” (Alma 22:32) “the land Desolation” (Alma 22:32) is very fitting.
Northward of this narrow neck of land is the area which our model proposes were the Jaredite lands. These lands are primarily in Southern California but their fertile areas also share much of the northern parts of the peninsula. In the peninsular areas the description where the land called Desolation “came into the land which had been peopled and had been destroyed” is represented by the fact that the desolate desert extending from the narrow neck comes to an end on the west but extends all the way into Southern California on the eastern side.
One story in the Book of Mormon that describes a scene of geographic isolation is the description of a great drought and poisonous serpents which caused animals to flee before the serpents southward. According to the text, some of the animals “escaped” into the land Southward but other animals and the people that were following them couldn’t follow because the serpents “hedge[d] up the way”. Although the drought in the “north countries” came to an end, the poisonous serpents continued to isolate the people from the animals that had escaped southward for a few generations. Once the serpents were gone, the people found the land southward full of the “beasts of the forest” and preserved the land for a place to hunt.
This story further strengthens the case that the narrow neck of land represents an isolating, geographical barrier that matches the Baja peninsula very well. In addition, Baja is famous for its number and variety of native snake species. In addition to this, the land northward of Baja is an area that is known for having droughts that can last from a few years, to decades, or even a century or more. It is also an area that, until we tamed the Colorado River in the 20th century, included the vast lagoons of the Colorado River Delta where the river emptied into the Sea of Cortez.
While we cannot give a precise account of where the snakes from the story came from, it is not beyond reason to imagine that as a strong drought occurred in Western North America that some snakes would follow a behavioral pattern that snakes in other areas have been observed to do in similar situations, which is that some would mobilize and migrate in search of water. As California and the Colorado River were hit with famine, snakes may have become a big problem. As the vast wetlands of the Colorado River Delta dried up the snakes that used it as a habitat could have also become mobile causing snake populations in the narrow neck of the Baja peninsula to become infested with them, particularly at the few places of water that are necessary stopping points for people traveling that desert.
North American Megafauna Isolated in Book of Mormon Lands:
The animals that survived in the land southward may have been following a pattern that could demonstrate how other animals mentioned in the text survived the well-documented extinction of North American megafauna that occurred thousands of years earlier. The relict populations of horses, camels, elephants and other animals described by the Book of Mormon do not match our current understand of the past in North, Central, or South America even though some new world cultures incorporated those animals in their artwork long after their extinctions. The only places where relict populations of megafauna are known to have survived were islands, isolated from the continent. The Baja peninsula offers an isolated setting that could have insulated relict populations of horses, camels, elephants, and other animals from the Pleistocene extinction of those animals in North America.
Old World Plants Isolated in Book of Mormon Lands:
The number of endemic species of plants that can be found in the Baja peninsula today also demonstrates how old-world seeds might not have migrated out of the Book of Mormon lands before the agrarian societies that utilized them were destroyed in war. If remnant populations of these species did exist in the peninsula into historical times it is unlikely that they could be easily identified since those same species have all been introduced in modern times as well.
Although the case for peninsular isolation of megafauna and old-world plants is speculative, the case for the potential for cultural isolation in the peninsula is strong and matches the exact phraseology used in the Book of Mormon in detail and explains the seemingly isolated existence of the cultures described in the text.