Settlement & Subsistence

Despite the paucity of archaeological work that has been done in the Baja Peninsula compared to other areas of North and Central America, its ethnographic record is surprisingly rich.

For a relatively small, isolated, and arid geographical area, sparsely populated by some of the reportedly most marginal peoples in the Americas prior to extinction, and lacking in great part historical continuity, Baja California is extraordinary rich in historical documentation in the form of diaries, descriptive texts, reports, and correspondence -Michael W. Mathes, 1981

Although the various authors of these materials wrote under a wide variety of circumstances and points of view, one theme that they consistently write about and agree upon is the “marginal” nature of the inhabitants of the peninsula during the time of Spanish contact and missionization in the 16th and 17th centuries.  They describe the native populations as being wanderers, without permanent homes, constantly living on the verge of starvation, and having habits that were shockingly “uncivilized” from the viewpoint of the writers.

Among the very many examples of such habits is the well documented “second harvest” of the seeds of the pitahaya fruit.  To be brief, the term “second harvest” refers to the native practice of reusing the pitahaya seeds which could be “harvested” from human excrement.  Since the Book of Mormon describes settlement and subsistence patterns which are a stark contrast to practices described in the early historic sources, how do we account for these differences?

Here’s the short answer:  First, the Book of Mormon fortells that the inhabitants of its lands would be very different from what they were like during Book of Mormon times.  Second, the archaeological work that has been done in the peninsula leads experts to broadly agree that settlement and subsistence patterns in the past were quite different from practices at the time of Spanish contact.

…and now for the more detailed answer backing up that short answer:

Prophecies Related to Lamanite Culture:

We will first consider forward-looking statements in the Book of Mormon which describe the changes that we should expect in the ethnography of the peninsula’s inhabitants between the time the Nephite society comes to an end in the 4th century AD and the time of Spanish contact in the 16th century AD.  Unlike other sources, the Book of Mormon purports to be a book of scripture containing among other things, prophecies concerning the future.  These include statements concerning the “Lamanite” civilization which defeated and took over the lands of the “Nephite” civilization.  In the Book of Mormon, Nephi was shown what the Lamanites would do and become after Book of Mormon times.  Nephi saw that:

They went forth in multitudes upon the face of the land.  And I saw them gathered together in multitudes; and I saw wars and rumors of wars among them; and in wars and rumors of wars I saw many generations pass away.  And the angel said unto me:  Behold these shall dwindle in unbelief.  And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and a loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations – 1 Nephi 12:20-23

To my knowledge, the Book of Mormon does not describe that any improvement would occur in the Lamanite civilization before its description that the Lamanites would be “driven”, “scattered”, “smitten” and “afflicted” in modern times by those who “shall by like a father to them” (1 Nephi 13, 2 Nephi 10:18).

Our model would suggest that the native inhabitants of the peninsula exhibited traits in harmony with these prophecies before and at the time of Spanish contact and colonization by the missionary fathers.

Archaeological Evidence of Prehistoric Settlement and Subsistence Patterns in the Central Peninsula:

As stated earlier, archaeological investigations in the peninsula have produced a broad consensus among experts that prehistoric settlement and subsistence patterns were somewhat different in the past than they were at the time of Spanish contact.  Our model would propose that these generally-accepted archaeological patterns demonstrate at least the fact that the Lamanites and Nephites could have lived as the book describes and that many patterns described in the Book of Mormon are the likely patterns for settlement and subsistence in the prehistoric peninsula.

Much of the text of the Book of Mormon focuses on the Nephites (including the Mulekites) while they were settled in the land of Zarahemla.  The text is particularly rich in geographic and ethnographic detail during the 1st century BC.  During this period Mormon gives us the most complete description of Lamanite and Nephite lands that the book contains.  It describes Zarahemla as being an inland location including a notable river and which was “nearly surrounded” by Lamanites who lived in various wildernesses.

Of particular interest to this discussion will be the wilderness “on the east of the land of Zarahemla” which extends to the seashore and which Mormon mentions out of context with his descriptions of other Lamanite-occupied wildernesses.  He says that there were also Lamanites in the east wilderness “whither the Nephites had driven them”.  Not long after this the text describes that the Nephites drove the Lamanites out of the wilderness east of Zarahemla “into their own lands” and that the Nephites then chose to occupy that wilderness for defensive purposes.

Regarding the Lamanite lands, Mormon describes them as being south of Zarahemla and he describes two different Lamanite cultures existing simultaneously with the “more idle” part of the Lamanites living along the seashores on the east and the west.  The separation of inland and coastal populations in the Lamanite lands but absent from the Nephite lands is significant to our discussion.

The two most comprehensive (Laylander, 2006) archaeological surveys conducted in the Baja peninsula were the PARSSF project which surveyed the desert east of the Sierra de San Francisco and an archaeological reconnaissance conducted by Eric Ritter in the Bahia de la Concepcion region on the eastern coast of the peninsula somewhat south of the PARSSF project region.  Justin Hyland compares and summarizes the findings of these two projects as follows:

In the Bahia de la Concepcion region, Ritter saw evidence for the existence of separate coastal and inland permanent populations…In contrast to this pattern, the PARSSF survey data did not indicate the existence of a separate, permanent coastal population

These findings are consistent with the settlement patterns described in the Book of Mormon.

When we combine this evidence with what we know of subsistence patterns in the same areas the picture becomes even more clear.

Hyland cites further examples of this pattern of cultural separation by comparing subsistence-strategy results from the same surveys.  This also lends support to the Book of Mormon descriptions of Lamanites who subsisted on raw meat on the seashore while the Nephites relied on terrestrial resources for their subsistence.  Comparing Ritter’s fieldwork in the Bahai de la Concepcion region to the PARSSF survey he says:

While the Gulf littoral showed evidence of long-term exploitation of shellfish, nowhere along the 15-kilometer surveyed section of coastline were there any substantial shell midden accumulations.  Instead, the coastline presented a nearly continuous, but relatively sparse, shell and artifact scatter.  If the Gulf coast opposite the Sierra de San Francisco was not the focus of a separate, permanent coastal population, then exploitation of the littoral was carried out as part of the round of a highly mobile but primarily inland-based population.  This is substantiated in the survey data by the inland distribution of shellfish…This pattern contrasts with what Ritter (1979:423) observed in the Bahai de la Concepcion region, where shellfish remains were only occasionally encountered at inland sites.”

-The Prehistory of Baja California, Advances in the Archaeology of the Forgotten Peninsula; Edited by Don Laylander and Jerry D. Moore; University Press of Florida; 2006; p130-132 (Justin R. Hyland chapter “The Central Sierras”).

While the coastline of the wilderness east of the Sierra de San Francisco did not show evidence of a separate coastal population like the lands to the south did, the survey discovered many manos and metates (seed grinding tools) apparently related to this inland-based population:

The high prevalence of Metates across the PARSSF project area was one of the most intriguing observations resulting from the survey program…What was unexpected was that the metates and associated manos were the only cultural materials present at 51 of these locations…These milling stations were common in every survey sector, and in a wide variety of environmental settings…The large number of metates found throughout the PARSSF project area testifies to the importance of milling for aboriginal subsistence…While metates were undoubtedly eyed to grind legume and cactus seeds, the prevalence of metates in areas away from stands of these resources may indicate the intensive exploitation of ephemeral grasses….If a population increase occurred during the first few centuries A.D., this may have caused a diet expansion to include small grass and other annual seeds that generally involve higher collection and processing costs.  This may account for both the large number of stations accross all terrain categories in the PARSSF project area and their occurrence away from leguminous and cactus resources.  The overall impression given by the milling evidence is of the intensive exploitation of all available seed resources, an observation reported in the ethnohistoric records (Aschmann 1959:62).”

-The Prehistory of Baja California, Advances in the Archaeology of the Forgotten Peninsula; Edited by Don Laylander and Jerry D. Moore; University Press of Florida; 2006; p130-132 (Justin R. Hyland chapter “The Central Sierras”).

Another line of  supporting evidence comes from Jerome Hardy King’s “Prehistoric Diet in Central Baja California, Mexico”.  Using stable isotope analysis he found that prehistoric inhabitants of the peninsula could and did choose between coastal marine and inland terrestrial diets.  Since the dates from his Sierra de San Francisco samples were during Jaredite rather than Nephite times, his work is not cannot be tied directly to Mormon’s description, but the subsistence pattern established by his work shows evidence of the choice of available diets in the peninsula.

Finding a diet that accurately reflects the (3,000+ ypb) Sierra de San Francisco collection is rather more difficult.  None of the experimental diets match the observed values exactly.  Of the diets in which plant foods are kept in the proportions indicated by the Aschmann estimate the diet that comes closest to a match has an implausibly high proportion of plant foods and probably inadequate dietary protien as well…However, the best matches with the observed values indicate a higher proportion of plant foods than Aschmann estimates, perhaps between 75% and 90%…The fact that the Sierra de San Francisco values cannot be easily modeled suggests problems with the assumptions used in calculating the diets.  One possibility is that these people made significant use of a dietary resource not represented in the six-end point model…the large isotopic difference between the two human collections suggests great variety in possible adaptations to the central desert environment…However, the fact that either group could concentrate on locally available resources to such a degree is perhaps surprising in the face of historical accounts which stress the marginal nature of the subsistence base…In contrast the coastal population (700 +/- ypb) made heavy use of [marine] resources…Plant foods were generally less important in the diet…Terrestrial animal resources were almost entirely absent from the coastal diet

-Prehistoric Diet in Central Baja California, Mexico; Jerome Hardy King; Master of Arts Thesis; Simon Fraser University; March 1997

This data indicates that many of the terrestrial-based subsistence patterns described for the Nephite culture were used in the area we propose as the Land of Zarahemla.  It also supports the Book of Mormon’s description of two versions of the Lamanite culture to the south with one population living inland and the other living on meat in the borders by the seashore.