Language and Religion Related to the Kumeyaay of Southern California and Northern Baja California

It has been a year since I added content to this site, not because I’ve lost interest or become dissuaded from the possibility that events described in The Book of Mormon occurred in Baja California and the North American Southwest, but because last year I was diagnosed with a large tumor that my doctors initially thought was cancerous. After many tests and after my doctors changed their diagnosis several times, the tumor thankfully turned out to be benign. Surgery was performed and at this point I am completely recovered. Many thanks to everyone who offered thoughts, prayers, and other support last year.

A lot has happened and I have many things that I want to write about. Many of the topics that I want to write about are inter-related to each other, but are lengthy discussions. Although this article is going to be quite long, I am really just skimming the surface of some of these subjects in order to get to the meat of other subjects. In this article I will:

    1. Mention that strong evidence exists that Hebrew and Egyptian vocabulary and grammar are found abundantly in the Uto-Aztecan language family, which is geographical proximal to the lands in our model.
    2. Briefly describe that further investigations into these language relationships show some indications that Cochimi-Yuman speakers from the Baja California peninsula might have been the source of the Semitic and Egyptian in Proto-Uto-Aztecan.
    3. Show that speakers of several different languages in the Cochimi-Yuman language family used dialect variations of a term that references people who travel to or live in Imperial Valley California and the Colorado River Delta. That term appears to be “Cumorah”.
    4. Show that these “Cumorah” people have preserved religious traditions that have remarkable parallels with accounts from the Book of Mormon.


1. Strong Evidence of Hebrew and Egyptian Influence in Proto-Uto-Aztecan:

Even though I haven’t posted a new article in quite a while, I have been immersed in Brian Stubbs’ linguistic proposal, which presents tremendously persuasive evidence that speakers of Egyptian and Semitic heavily influenced one of the largest language families in the Americas, and particularly in the North American Southwest.

While Brian’s proposal is, in my opinion, the most scientifically-verifiable evidence of the historicity of The Book of Mormon that has ever been presented, Brian believes that the old-world language influence found in Uto-Aztecan is a result of language mixing and not necessarily the result of direct descent from old-world languages. This means that the parent language of Uto-Aztecan languages (Proto-Uto-Aztecan) was the result of Semitic/Egyptian speakers (i.e. descendants of Lehi) influencing some already-existing Native American dialect, probably in the areas proximal to the Colorado River delta. This fits very well with the idea that the Book of Mormon occurred largely in Baja California like our model suggests, with diffusion of Semitic/Egyptian language traits into the North American Southwest during the Nephites migrations into the “land northward” roughly 2,000 years ago.

Brian’s work is truly remarkable and I will be writing many articles describing the strength of the evidence he presents, but it is not the focus of this article.


2. The Possible Role of Cochimi-Yuman In Relation to this evidence of Hebrew and Egyptian Influences in Proto-Uto-Aztecan

What is particularly interesting in relation to Brian’s proposal is that the geographic territory occupied by speakers of another language family, the Cochimi-Yuman language family, seems to spill out of the Baja peninsula and overlap the territory that is most commonly regarded as the Proto-Uto-Aztecan homeland: the Colorado River Delta and adjacent lands.

Uto-Aztecan Languages in the North American Southwest:

Cochimi-Yuman Languages:

If it turns out that Cochimi-Yuman speakers were the source of the old world language influence that Brian has detected in Proto-Uto-Aztecan, it will add tremendous evidence to the idea that the Book of Mormon occurred largely in Baja California and that the Colorado River Delta and the North American Southwest are the “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” and “the land northward” described in the Book of Mormon.

After spending the last few years reading books on comparative linguistics and immersing myself in Brian’s Uto-Aztecan proposal, I am now investigating the possibility that Cochimi-Yuman languages carried Egyptian and Semitic vocabulary and grammar into Proto-Uto-Aztecan. So far, these investigations have been very fruitful and what has been discovered at this point might indicate a strong Semitic/Egyptian influence in Cochimi-Yuman and also show that the sound changes between Semitic/Egyptian and Cochimi-Yuman appear to be intermediate to the sound changes that Brian demonstrates between Semitic/Egyptian and Proto-Uto-Aztecan.

If (and only if) these initial results can be verified and demonstrated within the methodologies used by historical linguists, it will not only show the similarities between these various languages and language families, it will also show the direction of the language influence. What I mean is that I hope to find (and believe I am finding) evidence showing that the Cochimi-Yuman language family derived from Semitic/Egyptian speakers (i.e. Lehi’s descendants) and that one or more Cochimi-Yuman dialects were subsequently the source of the Semitic/Egyptian influence that Brian Stubbs has already documented in Proto-Uto-Aztecan.

Like I mentioned earlier, this would explain the geography of Cochimi-Yuman languages in relation to the geography of Uto-Aztecan languages and it would show Cochimi-Yuman as the Egyptian/Semitic source of the language mixing that became Proto-Uto-Aztecan. Much more needs to be done before ideas like these can be proposed as verifiable linguistic theories. I’d love to present what I’ve found so far, but I hesitate to do so before I complete more work and organize it into a formal language proposal.


3. A Possible Common Cochimi-Yuman term:  “Cumorah”

Here I will attempt to show that many Cochimi-Yuman languages used the word “Cumorah” to refer to people living in the lands our model shows as “Cumorah”. This is not an attempt to demonstrate the language relationships described above. The main reason I’m presenting these “Cumorah” terms here is to begin to demonstrate that the Kumeyaay Indians of Southern California and Northern Baja California seem to exhibit many interesting parallels with the cultures described in The Book of Mormon.

The way I’ve heard “Cumorah” pronunced all my life is /kʌmorʌ/.

The Indians inhabiting the area from San Diego on the west to Yuma on the east often traveled to Imperial Valley California and the Colorado River Delta during their seasonal rounds (his is the geographical area that our model shows as “Cumorah” from The Book of Mormon).  When traveling through and inhabiting these particular areas, these Indians referred to themselves as /kamia/, which is virtually identical to /kʌmorʌ/, except the sound /or/ in /kʌmorʌ/ changed to /i/ in /kamia/.

It turns out that one of the sound correspondences that Brian Stubbs proposes between Semitic/Egyptian and Proto-Uto-Aztecan is that:

Kw-Semitic non-initial -r- > -y-/-i- and tends to raise & front
the preceding vowel (V > i)

In other words, when the letter /r/ occurred somewhere other than the beginning or end of a word, it changed to /i/ or /y/.

Below are other Yuman language family dialect versions referring to the /kamia/ people in areas proximal to the Colorado River Delta and Imperial Valley California.  When you replace /i/ or /y/ in these forms with /r/ you will see that many Yuman family languages used the term ‘Cumorah’ to reference people living in our model’s location for Cumorah.

 Yuman             /quemeyá/
 Quechan           /comoyá(tz)/
 Chemehuevi        /comáíyȧh/
 Mojave            /Kamya/
 Cocopa            /kmya/
 Southern Diegueño /kamia/
 Southern Diegueño /kamiai/
 Southern Diegueño /kamiyahi/
 Maricopa          /kumȧθá/ (Maricopa /θ/ corresponds to /y/ in Yuman languages)

There has been a lot of confusion regarding the etymology of the name /kamia/ (see and, but the thing that is generally consistent in the documented reflexes of /kamia/ is that that the term refers to certain groups living in the area we show as Cumorah in our model.

Another name that is currently applied to a different tribe in Imperial Valley California and the northern portions of the Colorado River Delta is “Cahuilla”, spelled phonetically as /kʌwilʌ/. A lot of literature has mistakenly identified this tribal name as being a loanword from Spanish, but in 1977 William Bright published a paper titled “The Origin of the Word ‘Cahuilla'”, in which he shows quite clearly that ‘Cahuilla’ is not a Spanish loanword. It turns out that “Cahuilla” is a native word used by the Cochimi Indians of the Baja California peninsula to refer to the Indians to their north in the areas of Colorado River Delta. (see

When we compare the northern Cochimi word /kʌwilʌ/ with the word /kʌmorʌ/, we see some differences. For instance, we see /w/ where /m/ should be. Not only is this an unsurprising sound change (since you get /w/ by simply failing to completely close your lips when pronouncing /m/), but modern linguists have demonstrated that one of the two known Cochimi dialects used /w/ where the other dialect used /m/ (see Mixco, 1978). In other words, this sound correspondence is already accepted by linguists familiar with Cochimi-Yuman languages.

This means that the only unexpected differences between /kʌwilʌ/ and /kʌmorʌ/ is the change from /or/ to /il/. The consonants /r/ and /l/ are both categorized as ‘liquids’ and sound changes between /r/ and /l/ are particularly common in the languages of the world, although the burden is on us to demonstrate that this change is regular between Semitic/Egyptian and Cochimi. The only remaining difference between /kʌwilʌ/ and /kʌmorʌ/ is the change from /o/ to /i/, which is explained by the sound correspondence “-r- > -y-/-i-” mentioned above. All this seems to indicate that the dialect of Cochimi-Yuman spoken by the inhabitants of the northern portions of the Central Desert of Baja also referred to the inhabitants of the Colorado River Delta as “Cumorah”.


4. These “Cumorah” Tribes Have Preserved Religious Traditions that are Remarkably Consistent with Details Found in The Book of Mormon.

I found a fantastic published account that describes religious traditions associated with a mountain east of San Diego. The account is only a few pages long and speaks for itself, so instead of quoting extensively from it, I ask that you click on the following link and read the complete account:

Now that I’m aware of this account, I intend to revise our Baja model so that identifies this hill as the hill “Shim” from the Book of Mormon, not just because of the religious traditions associated with it, but also because its position fits the story of Omer recorded in the book of Ether tremendously well. If this is indeed the hill Shim mentioned in the Book of Mormon then having such a specific location for it also means we can refine our model’s locations for other cities and lands of the Jaredites (although it will take a while to update all our website’s materials with these changes, so please be patient when you see materials on our site that show Jaredite locations that don’t match this hill).

The Kumeyaay (Diegueño) call the mountain “Kuuchamaa” because they identify it as the place where the spirit of a great prophet (perhaps Christ) named “Kuuchamaa” resides. Many Native American tribes identify sacred mountains, but this particular account is very detailed and interesting as it relates to our model.

As you read the account, please note the parallels with Judeo/Christian traditions and parallels with accounts in The Book of Mormon, such as:

  • God is named Maayhaay (possibly related to the Hebrew term “Mashiah” (Messiah)).
  • God’s attributes and his desires related to people’s behavior toward him and towards one another.
  • The three Nephites, who watch over people during daylight on this continent and the Apostle John who performs similar work when it is nighttime in the Americas. These four “were to watch over all and aid him in teaching and maintaining peace and helpful behavior…[and] they were to remain on earth after Kuuchamaa’s death in order to watch over all and to report to his spirit”
  • The mountain serves many purposes that are similar to temples.
  • The religion related to the mountain was practiced both before and after Kuuchamaa’s mortal existence.
  • The pattern of God speaking through prophets.
  • Revelation received through fasting.
  • Revelation received through dreams.

I particularly like the statement by the modern tribal elders: “God did not send prophets just to Israel, but to all people to teach them how to behave…[and] that Kuuchamaa was as much his prophet to the Kumeyaay as were those in the Bible”

Please read the account itself, because my bullet-points here really don’t do justice to the details provided in the full account.

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.


  • 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)


  • 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.

    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.


    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.

DNA and the Book of Mormon – New Evidence Shows That We Should Not Be Too Hasty

For many years now, people have claimed that the Book of Mormon cannot be true because published genetic studies based on mitochondrial and Y-chromosome research seem to contradict migration accounts found in the Book of Mormon.

To be fair, scientists have put a lot of effort into studying human migration patterns using uni-parental (mtDNA, Y-chromosome) DNA, and they have published a very large amount of detailed information to support their consensus that Native Americans are descended exclusively from far-eastern ancestry and that they have been genetically isolated from old-world populations for many thousands of years.

On the other hand, LDS scholars have argued for many years that uni-parental DNA studies lack the appropriate resolution to rule-out the migration history and genetic descent described in the Book of Mormon, but detractors have been quick to say that these LDS scholars are incorrect and are simply unwilling to accept scientifically-proven facts.

These arguments against the Book of Mormon are based upon one critical thing: That the scientific community has the right tools and has done enough research to reasonably believe that all Native Americans are descended exclusively from far-eastern populations, to the exclusion of all other populations.

New Studies Paint A Different Picture of Native American Ancestry

Two prominent and completely separate scientific studies that were published during the last two weeks prove that Native Americans have genetic ancestry that has never shown up in the uni-parental studies that scientists have been relying on in order to understand the migration history of the Americas.

One study is being published by the Journal Nature (found here) and the other is being published by Science Magazine (found here). Both studies show that Austro-Melanesians contributed significantly to Native American ancestry.

This is a major shift in the debate surrounding the peopling of the Americas.

While these studies do not correlate Native American ancestry to migrations from the middle-east like the Book of Mormon describes, they do prove one important thing related to Book of Mormon studies: That previous mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA studies have painted a very limited picture of Native American ancestry and that scientists have been hasty to conclude that these studies had detected the substantial ancestral populations of Native Americans.

For more than two decades scientists have been coming to this false conclusion. It turns out that it simply isn’t true. Substantial genetic contributions came from places these previous studies had ruled out.

Again, these new studies do nothing to prove that Native American DNA came from the middle-east. For students of the Book of Mormon, the lesson to take away from this is what many LDS scholars have been saying all along: While genetic studies can shed light on many things, they are very limited in their ability to disprove the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Roads and Highways in Baja California

One of the first things that people notice when they start investigating the archaeology of the central Baja California peninsula is the extensive network of trails that lead from city to city and from place to place.

The Book of Mormon tells us that a network of “roads” and “highways” existed during Nephite times:

And there were many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place. -3 Nephi 6:8

We even have one reference to a specific highway near the city of Zarahemla:

the garden of Nephi, which was by the highway which led to the chief market, which was in the city of Zarahemla -Helaman 7:10

Then, during the destructions that occurred at the death of Christ, the roads were damaged:

And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough. -3 Nephi 8:13

The Book of Mormon does not tell us specifically that the roads and highways were rebuilt after those destructions, but it does tell us that Zarahemla and many other cities were rebuilt. It seems reasonable to assume that the roads were probably rebuilt as well.

Baja California is a place where many roads have been built for many different purposes at many different times. The road network is amazing and includes everything from ancient trails to modern highways. A lot of the ancient road network centers around the oasis of San Ignacio. This is the area we identify as Zarahemla and the river Sidon.

On the following Google Earth image, I traced several roads and paths to give a sampling of the complexity of the network of old-looking roads surrounding our location for Zarahemla:


Are these the “highways” and “roads” mentioned in the Book of Mormon?

In order to identify roads that may date to Book of Mormon times, we need to be able to distinguish them from roads constructed later in time, including roads built by prehistoric native cultures in the years after the Book of Mormon, roads built under the direction of the Jesuits who missionized the peninsula, roads built in historic times by other sources (rancho’s, mining operations, governments, off-road races, etc.), and old-looking paths cleared for telegraph and other utility lines.

^This is no simple task^

We will present the following in this article:

1. Evidence that a large network of well-traveled, ancient roads existed at the time of historic contact.

2. Evidence that these ancient roads have been used, maintained, rebuilt, redrawn, and added to by prehistoric and historic construction activities.

3. Some methods that can be used to identify roads that might date to Book of Mormon times.

There are several good primary sources describing the existence of a prehistoric road network in the Baja peninsula. The explorers and missionaries that wrote these accounts were familiar with other native cultures in the Americas so it stands to reason that normal native paths and trails would not merit the very special attention that they give to the subject in their letters and journals.

One of the earliest descriptions of a peninsular road comes from Vizcaino’s 1602-1603 exploration of the peninsula’s Pacific coast. After sailing near Cedros Island, he tell us:

we returned to the mainland coast, and following it we encountered several good embayments, and the lands inward gave evidences of being fertile, and that the entire area is heavily populated with Indians because all the trails that go inland are heavily traveled and broad (ref)

It is interesting to hear Vizcaino infer that “the entire area is heavily populated” based on the appearance of the roads. The reason that it is interesting is because the area he is describing is a remote desert wilderness that does not otherwise appear to have been heavily populated at the time of his visit. Since it is likely that he was incorrect about the area being “heavily populated” in the early 1600’s when he visited, why would Vizcaino encounter so many, broad, well-traveled roads?

Vizcaino’s description does not prove that an ancient, heavily populated culture built the trails, but it is consistent with that scenario so we will consider it in relation to other early accounts of a road network in Baja.

Over 100 years later, a Jesuit Father named Maria Piccolo was the first person to travel to and make historic contact with the natives in and around the area we identify as Zarahemla and the river Sidon. His description of the area is a tremendously informative primary account and is truly one of the best first-hand accounts that exists describing the native culture in the central peninsula.

Piccolo made several specific references to the road network in his account. He starts his commentary with a few notes about the trails he was to follow on his way from Mulege and San Ignacio:

these northerners have not ceased inviting me to visit their lands along the river…They pointed out that the trail is good and their settlements not far away….What had delayed me was the lack of animals to travel over such long, unexplored, and difficult trails. (Jesuit Relations – Baja California 1716 – 1792; p79)

While he clearly wasn’t looking forward to the journey, he noted that the natives pointed out that the trail is good, although he calls them “difficult” as he seeks sympathy in his letter for not making the journey earlier. Along the journey, he gives us the impression that the trail was not in pristine condition:

Midway we reached the settlement of Santa Lucia. All of its people came down to repair the trail and meet us…They removed the branches, stones and thorns blocking our path so that we could advance more easily

Clearly a trail that was esteemed by the Indians existed, but it had fallen into disrepair. Upon arriving at the Rio San Ignacio, Piccolo describes the general area as a center of commerce and ritual activity. There are many wonderful references to the native culture in this part of his account, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on his references to roads.

His descriptions are interspersed with some rather opinionated commentary about the religion practiced by the natives:

we were stopping at the very spot where these wretched Indians were wont to meet for their diabolic and deceitful races, wizardry, and all their evil actions…in the hills crossed by the trails (called Hidalgur in their language) of their infernal priests, people from everywhere came

He mentions “the trails of their infernal priests”, which they called “Hidalgur”. It can be very tempting to misinterpret Piccolo’s comments to mean that people from everywhere came by way of these trails, which would mean that the trails led from all the various settlements to the Rio San Ignacio area, but a careful reading of his comments shows instead that in this instance he is talking about a very specific type of road called “Hidalgur”.

An Hidalgur was a road that is not built as a pathway connecting lands or settlements to each other. It was built for the ceremonies of their “wizards” (as Piccolo calls them) and each of these roads terminated at it’s own respective well-constructed ceremonial building.

This point becomes clear a little later in his account:

As to the superstitions of their shamans…I noticed…some recently cleaned trails, broad and long. At the end of them, there is a hut or round house, well constructed. As I had seen several along the route we took, I asked what the structures were and what ceremonies they performed along those trails and in those houses. They answered that they held their feasts of the deer skins there. These feasts, called “cabet” in their language, consist of calling together various settlements at a definite time every year when they bring all the skins of the deer killed during the current year. They spread out the skins like carpets on these broad and long trails. And as they are stretched out, the principal chieftains keep entering the house. They take their seats and start smoking. The shaman takes his place at the door and extols the virtues of the successful deer hunters. In the meantime the Indians race like crazy over the skins. Along these trails the women keep up their dancing and chanting. As the preacher is exhausted by now from his speaking, the racers cease, and the chieftains come out to distribute the skins among the women as clothing for the year.

By this we can identify one type of road that existed in prehistoric times that probably does not correlate to the description of roads and highways in the Book of Mormon.

This is important to understand because it means that even if we can identify one or more roads as being prehistoric, we must also distinguish between it being a road used for ritual or a road used for travel like the Book of Mormon describes. We can do this by taking note of whether the road in question seems to connect two disparate settlements or whether it seems to unexpectedly terminate in an uphill area. If it unexpectedly terminates in an uphill area, we should suspect that it is a shaman’s road. On the other hand, if a road connects two habitation sites or disparate lands, it is very unlikely that it is a shaman’s road.

These shaman roads are not the only prehistoric roads that we need to be aware of. Clavijero mentions a different ritual that was practiced by the prehistoric inhabitants of the peninsula and which involved roads. This ritual has a lot of similarities to the Book of Mormon’s account of the appearance of Christ among the Nephites:

the Cochimís periodically celebrated a visit from a deity, referred as “the Man come from Heaven”, with a day of feasting and dancing. In preparation for the visit, shamans required penitents “to open some new road in the mountains so that the spiritual visitor [impersonated by a Cochimí youth] could descend with more ease and to erect on it at certain distances some heaps of stones on which he might rest” (Clavigero 1971 [1789]; p110-115)

Modern scholars have identified roads that might have been built for this ritual (See: p246 and p11)

This means that, although the ritual surrounding this “diety” or “Man come from Heaven” seems to be significant for our model, we must also recognize the fact that, like the “Hidalgur” roads, this ritual also involved the construction of roads that are not the roads or highways mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon roads went “from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place”. If an ancient road seems to only run from an uphill location to a downhill location, we must suspect it of being a road connected to prehistoric ritual activity.

Fortunately, Piccolo tells us about more than just ritualistic roads:

It is incredible how many trails cross this region and the area of the Rio de San Vicente Ferrer. While I was in San José de Comondú, the captains of Santa Agueda and Santa Lucia brought in August the fiscal José and Joaquin, captain of San Marcos, and three others with their canes, to this river by one trail and returned by another. The Soldiers Altamirano and Villalobos went at the end of September by way of another trail, which they said was the best, and they returned by still another; that is via Caguirama, where we are tapping the stream to secure water for the town of San Marcos.

That quote by Piccolo is a very important contribution to our knowledge of the prehistoric road system. As you will see presented below, the Jesuits themselves were avid road builders and they were also apt to exagerate their own trials and accomplishments in their letters and correspondence. As a result, the impressive road network around San Ignacio is often mistakenly attributed almost entirely to them.

If it hadn’t been for Piccolo’s early description of the road network, we might have been left in the dark about the fact that this extensive and often redundant system of roads predated Jesuit road-building activities.

Remember, Piccolo was the first person in historic times to reach the area we identify as the River Sidon and Zarahemla and he describes an “incredible” number of trails in that and other regions and he provides specific examples in support of this point. It is clear that the native network of trails was quite extensive and was not limited to roads built for ritualistic purposes.

Now that we’ve established the fact that an extensive road network existed in prehistoric times, we can start to compare our expectations from the Book of Mormon with what we know about the peninsular roads. We can start by asking ourselves What Book of Mormon roads and highways looked like.

For more than a century, LDS scholars have been misidentifying the lands of the Book of Mormon. This is true regardless of whether or not our model is correct. The very fact that different scholars associate different areas and architecture to the same scriptural passages means that some or all of those scholars are misidentifying sites. We should recognize that it is natural for us to want to believe that impressive prehistoric construction was related to Book of Mormon cultures, but we should also recognize that this mindset has led to the LDS scholarly community’s less-than-stellar history of making incorrect claims regarding the geography of the Book of Mormon.

In relation to our model, we do not claim that every foot trail in Baja is an old Nephite highway. It’s OK if we find out that the Nephites didn’t build all of the broad, straight trails in the central peninsula. It’s true that identifiable ancient roads centering around Zarahemla in our model lends significant support to our research, but these roads came into existence through a complex history. If we attempt to ignore or simplify that history by making unfounded claims about specific roads or trails, it will unnecessarily undermine our model and research.

It is vitally important to recognize that the extensive ancient trail system centered around the area we identify as Zarahemla was not simply abandoned and left for us to find in our day. These roads continued to be used by the inhabitants of the peninsula for many centuries after the Nephite culture came to an end at Cumorah. This road network has been repaired and expanded by the Indians, the Jesuits, by later settlers, by mining and other commercial activities, and by modern off-road racing. These early roads and trails continue to be modified and expanded to this day.

One of the most important of these modification activities that we need to recognize are the activities of the Jesuits because they did make extensive modifications and expansions to the road network and those changes are now hundreds of years old and can easily be mistaken for prehistoric roads.

Although some Jesuit accounts make it clear that the trail network existed before their arrival, other Jesuit authors make it clear that they oversaw a tremendous amount of road-building during mission times. This is supported by many personal letters and official documents and histories produced by the Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuit roads are famous for being obsessively level and straight. Although modern scholars recognize that these historic roads were often built over ancient trails, little or no work has been completed to distinguish prehistoric from historic road construction. The result is that the Jesuits probably tend to get more credit than they deserve for the impressive road network. Notice the lack of recognition of the pre-existing road network in Venegas’ account of Jesuit road-building activities and how it contrasts to Piccolo’s account:

But it was not so easy to overcome the difficulty which the fathers encountered in opening trails to traverse the country. Nevertheless, the first enterprise at all the foundations was to open a road to Loreto, and after that to clear many other trails, making it possible to go to all the rancherias of each mission. But when there are so many of these, and when they are scattered so widely over the country, it will readily be understood what enormous labor the fathers had to expend in accomplishing a task so difficult and arduous…First of all, they had a main highway camino real built through the center of the mission district extending through its entire area and running lengthwise from south to north. All the rancherias belonging to the mission worked together in building this road, for it was of common advantage to them all. Then each rancheria assumed the responsibility for building a special road leading from its settlement and joining the camino real which was, so to speak, the main trunk-line in which all the separate roads from the rancherias terminated…they had to spend many days in moving about, circling hills and climbing peaks, in order from the summits to spy out the stopping places which were least inaccessible. Moreover, many tools were needed for distribution among the Indians-pickaxes, crowbars, hoes, sledge hammers, shovels, ordinary hammers, levers, ropes, and other tools of this sort. There was least work to be done in the stony areas on the hills and slopes. Yet even here the labors were very great. For the road had to be made wide enough for the passage of animals and pack-trains. The work crews spent many days in removing the loose stones from which they formed low walls or borders along both sides. Nor did they stop until they struck bedrock; thus in some places they dug to the depth of a vara and in others went even deeper, so that some of the roads were shaped like ditches or the canyons of streams. Then came the harder work—the smoothing, insofar as that was possible, with sledge hammers, pickaxes, and crowbars of the outcroppings and jutting points of solid rock which barred the passage of travelers. When their tools did not avail they had recourse to fire in order to split the rocks and break them up; then they used levers and ropes in order to remove them and set them rolling into the barrancas and over the precipices. But the work was most painful and the difficulty greatest when they had to pass over the hills and mountains. This happened very often, since there would be no other place where they could build the road. Here they had to follow routes on steep slopes which fell away into barrancas. In such places they had to contend with the solidity of the mountains and the hardness of the rocks while they labored to break off outcroppings and sharp points and to clear away the stones great and small which lay in the way. In many narrow passes between the hills, where the powers of man were insufficient to break a trail, they were obliged to set thick stakes along the sides and to fill the intervening space with branches and the trunks of trees, putting earth on top, forming bridges, as it were, which would make it possible to pass from one side to the other in these ravines…Also there must be considered the multitude of roads built at each mission, from each rancheria to the head mission-not to mention others built in various localities for the purpose of crossing the country from coast to coast. (In the year 1717 these were already twelve in number…). In all it will be found that the Father Visitor Joseph de Echeverríall did not exaggerate when in his letter of February 10, 1730, written to the Marques de Villapuente,12 he said, “on the building of roads—roads that were really passable—more work had been done in California in those thirty-four years than had been done in New Spain in the two centuries since its conquest was begun. (ref)

Fortunately, other early written accounts by Jesuit missionaries sometimes tell us that they did not build all of the roads. The following was written right as the mission of San Borja was founded. Not only does father Linck describe the “narrower” neck of land at this locality, he also tells us that prior to the establishment of the mission, there was a straight, level road leading from there to the bay:

From San Borja to Los Angeles (meaning the bay of Los Angeles, not the modern city in California) is slightly less than half a day’s travel. As has already been stated, the gulf is really much closer than that, inasmuch as the route to the bay is very circuitous. The road leading there is straight, level, and without any mountains whatever. In view of what I have just said, it is obvious that the peninsula at this latitude is very much narrower than shown on maps. (Linck, 1762)

While there is no doubt that the Jesuits did a very large amount of road-building, a lot of it would be described better as “road repair, leveling, and straightening”.

This is both helpful and hurtful when it comes to identifying the older roads. It is hurtful because subsequent construction over existing roads makes it very difficult to identify the ancient road network. It is helpful because these Jesuit roads were purposefully built as straight as they could be. This means that newer road segments bypassed older road segments, somewhat freezing these bypassed road segments in time because subsequent road building and traffic has followed the newer road segments:


Another avenue of investigation that may turn out to be significant would be to look for tracks from the chariots mentioned in the Book of Mormon. While this line of investigation may be a long-shot, considering the dynamic natural forces that are constantly affecting the peninsula, Homer Ashmann made the interesting observation that there were no roads for wheeled vehicles on the west side of the peninsula during Jesuit times.

If we can find road segments that were bypassed by Jesuit roads on the western side of the peninsula and which also show signs of wheeled vehicular traffic, it would be a strong correlation to the Book of Mormon accounts of chariots because the Jesuits did not use wheeled vehicles in that area and subsequent wheeled vehicles are not likely to have used the bypassed road segments.

To summarize, there are several things to consider when trying to determine if a trail might be from Book of Mormon times:

1. Roads that start at lower elevations and terminate at nearby higher elevations should be eyed with scrutiny because, although they may show great antiquity, they might have been constructed after Book of Mormon times for ceremonial purposes.

2. If a straight Jesuit road shows parallel road segments that are not as straight, it is likely that the parallel segment predates Jesuit times and may be a segment from the ancient trail system.

Considering the various factors that we have discussed in this article, how many of the roads around San Ignacio are still potential candidates as Book of Mormon roads and highways? I can’t answer that question precisely, but there are a very large number of sites that show potential. The road network is a very promising avenue of research, but requires serious study before we can make specific claims about correlations to Nephite roads and highways.

Status of Our Research and Model

Just a few short years ago, our model of the lands of the Book of Mormon in Baja California and the North American Southwest didn’t even exist. A few years previous to that, no Baja models existed at all. This means that in just the last several years, the Baja model arrived on the scene and we are already claiming that it should be considered as a viable model of the lands of the Book of Mormon.

In some ways, it would seem like our timing couldn’t be worse. After several decades of LDS scholarly entrenchment in Meso-American settings for the Book of Mormon, the proponents of Meso-American models have found themselves in a debate with scholars promoting another geographical setting known as the “Heartland” model.

Although aware of this debate, it didn’t really hit home to me how contentious things had become until I had my Baja model ready to publish and asked a friend of mine, who is a published proponent of the general Meso-American setting, if he would mind reviewing it for me before I posted my work online. My friend’s reply was terse and surprised me. He said something to the effect of “We already have our hands too full with the heartland people!”.

His response made me think that he was engaged in a debate that was as much about “who” was right than it was about “what” was right.

I found this to be a little sad. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time researching the lands of the Book of Mormon. I have found the exercise to be intellectually challenging and spiritually rewarding. I don’t know how my friend feels as he continues to pursue his Book of Mormon studies, but I hope that he and others can make sure to address their differences in a civil manner rather than worrying about “who” is right or wrong.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer my views about “what” seems correct and “what” seems wrong or unsubstantiated as it relates to the Book of Mormon lands in Baja California and the North American Southwest.

You’ll see in other articles that we like to dig into details and provide references to make the best case we can for the various subjects related to our model. In this article, I’m going to take a different approach.

In order to provide an easy-to-understand view of the state of our research, I’m going to share more opinions than usual. My hope is that by doing this it will help people gain an overall grasp of what does and what doesn’t yet seem to fit a Baja model.

I’ll start by describing “what” things in our model seem to match the Book of Mormon text. I’m starting with the things that match before I describe our model’s problems for two reasons:

  1. It’s a lot more fun to talk about the strengths of our model 🙂
  2. Understanding the strenghts of the model tends to help people understand why we’re not giving up based on the weaknesses presented afterward

The Strenghts of our Model

Geography!, Geography!, Geography!

The truth is, the geography matches the text wonderfully. The fit is natural, and when considered in relation to the stories being told, it is not difficult to see why the various authors in the Book of Mormon described their lands in the ways that they did.

Yes, I know, there are academics with credentials who say the geography is wrong…but they’re just under-informed. Don’t be too hard on them. If they ever take time to seriously consider our model, they will have difficulty making arguments against its geography.

The geographical correlations between our model lands and the geography described in the Book of Mormon is by far the biggest strength of the model. The strength of the geographic argument gives us hope that we might find solutions to serious weaknesses that still exist in the model which we will present below.


Our website presents some good climate information and focuses on the fact that the climate was likely to have been wetter in Book of Mormon times, but the real strength of the climate argument is presented well on the other Baja model’s website ( Take time to read their climate information. It makes a lot of sense.
Horses, Camels, Elephants, etc.

The fact of the matter is that the Book of Mormon mentions animals that scientists tell us went extinct many millennia before Book of Mormon times. Among LDS scholars, there are various explanations for this anachronism, but none is better than what Baja offers: Baja is a place where species live and develop in isolation. Outside events, like mass-extinction events caused by hunting or climate or whatever, don’t necessarily affect populations in the peninsula. It is a place where it makes sense that otherwise-extinct animals like the horses, camels, and elephants (that used to roam the Americas) could have survived without showing up significantly in the scientific studies that are cited as evidence of extinction.

The scientific community is already aware that mammoth’s lived on isolated islands long after their supposed extinction. Scientists don’t have heartburn over this. Likewise, finding evidence of horses in Baja 2,000 years ago wouldn’t send scientists to the drawing-board regarding the extinction events that they’ve documented. Such a discovery would match what scientists already know: Populations of otherwise-extinct Pleistocene megafauna survived extinction longer in isolated environments.

This argument is not just a theoretical one, both past and current archaeologists in Baja report tool markings on horse, camel, and mammoth fossils found in the peninsula. Most of these finds have not been dated yet, so we don’t yet have reason to believe that they date to Book of Mormon times, but we are hopeful.

Large Redwood Trees for Hagoth’s Ships

That’s right, we’re claiming that Baja not only was, but still IS a place where you can find large redwood trees for ship-building right where our model says that Hagoth built his ships (It’s fun when we’re studying our model and suddenly things turn up right when and where the Book of Mormon says they’re supposed to).

It’s true that there are no redwood forests in Baja right now, and it’s also true that we can’t yet prove that redwood trees grew there during Hagoth’s lifetime…but…the California Current regularly deposits huge redwood trees on the Baja coastline, and it delivers them very specifically to the only spot in Baja that can possibly be a match to where the text says that Hagoth built his ships.

It is Unquestionable that there were large redwood trees at the exact place and time for Hagoth’s ships in our model.

This doesn’t mean that we have given up on the idea that redwood forests could have been growing there too. There are good reasons to think they were, but we like the fact that Hagoth’s ships could be built in that location regardless of whether or not forests existed right there during Book of Mormon times.

Forces of Nature
In Baja, sections of the coast slip into the sea just like the Book of Mormon describes. It is tectonically active, it is volcanically active, it experiences strong winds and even frequent hurricanes, etc., etc.. Simply put, it experiences all the forces of nature that are mentioned in the text and doesn’t experience forces like snow that are strikingly absent from the text. Even more simply put: It’s good loincloth country for the Lamanites, just like it should be under normal circumstances, but it also experiences the specific extreme forces that the text requires.
Cultural Subsistence Patterns

Modern archaeologists have documented two different peninsular cultures that match up well with what we know about divisions within the Lamanite culture. It turns out that in the prehistoric peninsula, many of its inhabitants lived a lifestyle that early writers described as “lazy”. They could and did live along the seashore eating almost nothing but raw meat (from the sea) continually. The other population lived inland and lived almost exclusively on seeds and other terrestrial resources. This inland versus seashore contrast is a strong parallel to what we know about divisions within the Lamanite culture.

It also turns out that archaeologists are puzzled about why they find so many tools related to terrestrial resources in the area we associate with the “east wilderness” in the Book of Mormon. Archaeologists thought they would discover that prehistoric peoples in that area counted on marine resources, but instead they have found the area literally littered with seed-processing tools and relatively few indications of a marine diet compared to similar wilderness/coastal areas in the peninsula. Although this confuses archaeologists, it parallel’s our model well.

Archaeology is generally not considered a strength of our model, but there are some exceptions. A sunken prehistoric settlement exists right were our model says the Lamanite city of Jerusalem sunk. Onidah, “The place of arms”, seems to match up to the most exploited obsidian quarry in the Southwest (far more exploited than currently makes sense to archaeologists). Bows, arrows, scimitars, and other weapons and armor are well-documented. The list goes on, but we’ll save space for now and leave it at that.
Large-Scale warfare
Anthropologists tell us that the Yuman Indians who occupied the northern peninsula and the Colorado River and its delta are closely related to peninsular tribes. Yuman warfare is famous for its scale and complexity. Allies would come from near and far in organized armies to fight pitched battles. Documented Yuman warfare parallels Book of Mormon warfare in many important respects.
Where the Sea Divides the Land
Simply put, the sea (of Cortez) divides “the land” (meaning practically the whole land described in the Book of Mormon) in a way that no other model even comes close to approximating.
I could go on and on…
…but I’m already straying from my goal of keeping this article high-level, so I’ll stop listing the strengths and move onto the weaknesses of our model.

Weaknesses of Our Model

Two High-Level Written Languages

If there’s one thing that gives me heartburn about my own Baja model it’s the fact that we can’t document two high-level written languages like the text describes.

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on trying, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have any indications that written languages may have existed. What it means is that if writing systems like the Book of Mormon describes actually existed in the prehistoric peninsula, strong evidence of them has not yet been found.

We hope that future discoveries or research will turn up evidence of prehistoric written languages, but until then all we have are interesting speculations to share.

This is a substantial weakness of our model

This is a weakness of our model, but it doesn’t keep me up much at night. I think that the idea of a wetter prehistoric climate (an idea with some substance behind it) can explain most of the population-size weaknesses of the model. Although population sizes are a weakness of the model, they are not nearly as bad as most people think because the largest population figures (which are associated with the destructions of the Jaredites and Nephites at Cumorah/Ramah) do not draw strongly from the Baja peninsula. They come from populations in the greater Southwest in our model. The numbers still seem off when compared to the millions of Jaredites, but only depending on the distances people were willing to travel to fight.
Large Cities
Although a peninsular setting for the Book of Mormon as opposed to a Meso-American setting for the Book of Mormon changes one’s views of what Nephite architecture was constructed of and looked like, we cannot yet point to evidence of prehistoric settlement patterns in large, centralized cities. We hope that ongoing research and/or future discoveries turn up evidence of population centers in the prehistoric peninsula that match Book of Mormon requirements.
We’ve got some tidbits and theories, but no solid evidence of advanced metallurgy in the lands of our model.
Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
Like Metallurgy, we have tidbits and theories, but no solid evidence of agriculture or animal husbandry like the Book of Mormon seems to describe.
I could go on…
…like the model’s strengths, the list of weaknesses also goes on and on.

As you can see, the Baja model is a mixed-bag. The more you study it the more you’ll realize that in many ways the model is much more complete and compelling that most LDS scholars currently realize. On the other hand, an honest look at all the current evidence still leaves serious questions about the model’s viability.

In the end, do I think it the Book of Mormon took place largely in Baja?


…But I’m keeping an open mind.

Cerro Prieto: The Hill Cumorah?

Cerro Prieto is a small hill southwest of Mexicali, Mexico near the place where the Baja California peninsula joins itself to the rest of the North American continent.

Courtesy bionero

Image Courtesy bionero

This little hill is identified as the Hill Cumorah in our model of the lands of the Book of Mormon.

The purpose of this article is to give Cerro Prieto a proper introduction so that those who study our model can start to understand the characteristics of the hill and its surroundings as well as its prominence in the area.

It is not uncommon to see Cerro Prieto spelled Cerra Prieto or Cerro Prieta in various publications. Translated to English, the name means “Brown Hill” which is an appropriate description of the hill’s dark appearance that contrasts sharply with the surrounding lighter-colored terrain.

The hill is actually a volcano. The western portions of the hill are a volcanic dome while the eastern portion is a volcanic cone whose bottom is filled with wind-blown sediment. Sources of information often disagree with each other regarding whether the volcano itself is considered dormant or active, but there is no disagreement about the fact that it is still surrounded by strong geothermal activity.

As far as we are aware, no scientific dating has been performed or published to help us narrow down the age of the formation of the volcano, but rough published estimates indicate that the lava dome and cone probably formed between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Locals from Mexicali and the surrounding areas like to make day-trips and overnight camping trips to the hill. One of the most popular activities during these trips is to write messages using dark rocks on the light-colored interior sand:

While these artistic expressions are best viewed from the rim of the volcanic cone, they can also be easily discerned using Google Earth or similar high-resolution satellite imagery. Here are some links to view it on some online maps:

The modern hill hosts a road on the eastern slope of its cone. This road leads up to several large radio towers that utilize the high-ground of Cerro Prieto to transmit and receive signals. Mining roads are visible on the northern face of the hill.

While these modern features and amusements are fun, the geologic and geographic characteristics of the hill and its surroundings are absolutely fascinating. The most difficult part of describing Cerro Prieto is deciding what to talk about first, because this little volcano stands as a landmark where many different and interesting features converge. We will start by describing what can be found in each direction around the hill:

  • To the southeast:
    • Cerro Prieto itself sits inside an area of active and ongoing geothermal activity. Mud Volcanoes and steam geysers regularly appear in the area immediately around the hill on all sides, but this geothermal activity is especially active to the southeast of the hill. You will notice in the satellite images that there is a large blue-colored lake to the southeast called Volcano Lake. A closer examination of this lake will reveal large steam plumes rising from many geothermal wells. Volcano Lake is so active with geothermal activity that it has become the second-best producing geothermal power plant in the world.

      The combination of the geothermal plant and the fact that the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta have significantly reduced the geothermal activity compared to what we read about it in descriptions from the 19th and 20th centuries and from descriptions found in the oral traditions of the nearby Native American tribes. Stories of geysers reaching 1000+ feet high were reliably recorded in 19th century US military records. In addition, there are many descriptions of plumes of fire that could be seen at night as underground gasses would escape and ignite.

    • Continuing southeast beyond Volcano Lake you will find the delta of the Colorado River, which is now a desolate wasteland due to modern dam building along the river, but which used to be a lush green area teaming with freshwater fish (including some that were quite enormous), and tall Cottonwood trees.
  • To the west:
    • Bordering Cerro Prieto to the west is another smaller area of geothermal activity, but just beyond this you will find large swaths of alluvial sand which are eroding down from the nearby Cocopa mountain range. This mountain range and the salt flats to its west, in conjunction with the Colorado River delta, the Salton Trough, and other nearby desert features, work together to form imposing geographic barriers to east-west travel in the region. These features largely (though not completely) isolated Southern California and Baja California from the rest of the southwest in prehistoric and early historic times.
  • To the north:
    • Cerro Prieto marks the southern boundary of the Salton Trough, an area that is below sea-level and which sometimes filled with water, becoming Lake Cahuilla in prehistoric and even during historic times. This would happen when when sediment buildup (or mistakes in canal construction in the early 20th century) caused the Colorado River to flow northward into the trough instead of southward into the delta. This means that if you travel North from Cerro Prieto today you will find yourself inside the Salton Trough in Mexicali, Mexico and Imperial Valley California, but if you made the same trip in the past (even as recently as the early 20th century) you would find yourself either in an enormous freshwater lake, or in a desiccated lake-bed, or in an area transitioning between these two states.
  • To the east:
    • Directly to the east of Cerro Prieto is a feature that is very intriguing when it is considered in conjunction with the story of Omer in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon describes Omer fleeing the imminent overthrow of his kingdom and traveling to a place called Ablom, which is “by the seashore”.

      Interestingly the hill Cumorah is mentioned as a waypoint along Omer’s journey. We are told that Omer traveled past the Hill Shim then “down by the place where the Nephites were destroyed (Cumorah) and thence east to Ablom”.

      Cerro Prieto is the landmark that marks the western boundary of the line of high-ground that separates the Colorado River Delta from the Salton Trough (ancient Lake Cahuilla). This high-ground runs from Cerro Prieto on the west to Pilot Knob in Arizona on the east. Underground between these two hills is a volcanic dike which is instrumental in maintaining the division between the delta and the Salton Trough. Because of its position as the gateway to this high-ground, Cerro Prieto would be a natural waypoint to mention in relation to Omer’s journey. This path is the natural course of travel across the delta and was home to the first wagon trails, the first railroad tracks, and the first automobile roads between Arizona and California.

  • To the northwest:
    • Whether or not a traveler was making a journey during a high-stand of Lake Cahuilla, the most common road traveled to or from Southern California involved Cerro Prieto as a waypoint. From Cerro Prieto you can travel east across the delta as described above, but completing the journey to or from the west (Southern California) meant following a trail that started at Cerro Prieto and led northwest, skirting the foot of the Cocopa Mountains until it reached Signal Mountain (the Hill Shim in our model). From there the trail turns directly west towards the fertile lands of Southern California.

Our list of Cerro Prieto factoids doesn’t end here. Here are some other things of interest regarding this remarkable little volcano:

  • Because of its unobstructed view, Cerro Prieto is a popular place to photograph and observe the broad landscapes it overlooks. If Cerro Prieto is in fact the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it comes as no surprise that this is the place where Mormon, along with a few other survivors, surveyed the destruction of his armies after the Nephites’ were ultimately defeated by the Lamanites.
  • Although I have no data to back up this argument, I offer it as my opinion that if Cerro Prieto was the focal point of the destruction of the Nephite and the Jaredite nations, that archaeological evidence associated with those battles would be very hard to find after fifteen centuries of the Colorado River, the corrosive mud volcanoes, and the alluvial sands from the Cocopa mountains obscuring artifacts left behind.
  • As mentioned above, sediment buildup would periodically cause the Colorado River to flow north, away from its delta, and fill the Salton Trough, forming Lake Cahuilla. It is interesting to note that once the lake was filled, the overflow back into the delta would spill over right next to Cerro Prieto. Even during times when the Colorado River was not flowing into the Salton Trough, its course would often take it right past the base of Cerro Prieto.

    Imagine for a moment what it would be like to be a member of Limhi’s search party, described in the Book of Mormon, who became lost but eventually found their way back and described “having traveled in a land among many waters” to the north (Mosiah 8:8). If our model correctly identifies the Baja peninsula as the lands of the Book of Mormon, imagine the contrasting beauty of the area around Cerro Prieto compared to the wildernesses and oasis’ that peninsular Nephites would have considered to be normal. The fact that Cerro Prieto exists in “a land of many waters” would be perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic for Limhi’s search party to report.

    Mormon himself was generous in his description of water features associated with the hill Cumorah, telling us that “it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”. Could there be a better description of the Colorado River, its beautiful green delta, and the geysers and other geothermal features surrounding Cerro Prieto?

    While these associations with Book of Mormon passages are not the only possible way to interpret the text, the relevant descriptions seem both logical and poetic when considered in relation to Cerro Prieto and its surrounding water features.

  • It worth mentioning that modern studies indicate that Lake Cahuilla did not experience any detectable high-stand between the years from 0 AD to 700 AD. Just to clarify: Our model of the Lands of the Book of Mormon do not rely on the existence of Lake Cahuilla during the time period when the Nephites would have occupied this “land northward”, so our model fits nicely with the data produced by these modern studies of Lake Cahuilla, but it is worth mentioning that the studies leave open the possibility that the lake might have been partially filled (rather than at a high-stand) during that time period.

    While Lake Cahuilla was probably not at a high-stand during Mormon’s lifetime, there is a strong possibility that it existed during the final centuries BC which coincides with the time when the Book of Mormon mentions the “waters of Ripliancum” in association with Cumorah and the final struggle of the Jaredite nation.

    Lake Cahuilla might also have been at a high-stand when Limhi’s party stumbled across “a land of many waters”, although the Colorado River and its delta near Cerro Prieto also fit this description well even if Lake Cahuilla was empty when they arrived.

  • There is a LOT of ongoing tectonic activity around Cerro Prieto. In fact, its earthquake activity is so high that the website uses Cerro Prieto as its example on its homepage when describing the definition of the term “Earthquake Swarms”:

    “Earthquake Swarms: Earthquake swarms are sequences of nearby earthquakes striking in a short period of time. They are differentiated from earthquakes succeeded by a series of aftershocks by the observation that no single earthquake in the sequence is obviously the mainshock.

    One example is along the Cerro Prieto fault near Mexicali, BC in Mexico where over 500 quakes and aftershocks hit in February, 2008…

    These tremors are not particularly surprising when we consider the location of Cerro Prieto in relation to the fault systems in Southern California and Northern Baja California and considering the ongoing geothermal activity surrounding the hill.

  • We should remember that two completely separate civilizations chose to make their final military stand around the same location: The Hill Cumorah.

    Cerro Prieto is strategically positioned at the bottleneck separating Southern California and the Baja Peninsula from other fertile lands in the Southwest. A large population of people could hope to protect themselves from an opposing nation by defending this particular position.

    The Book of Mormon clearly describes the fact that the Nephites were able to hem in their enemies in the south by defending a “narrow neck” of land. This prevented their enemies from invading the “land northward” for many years, but eventually those defenses failed:

    And it came to pass that they came against us again, and we did maintain the city. And there were also other cities which were maintained by the Nephites, which strongholds did cut them off that they could not get into the country which lay before us, to destroy the inhabitants of our land…And it came to pass that…the Lamanites did come again against us to battle, and…they did tread the people of the Nephites under their feet…and those whose flight was swifter than the Lamanites’ did escape, and those whose flight did not exceed the Lamanites’ were swept down and destroyed. (Mormon 5:4-7)

    The defenses protecting the land northward failed, but Mormon described a new strategy:

    we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites.(Mormon 6:4)

    Cerro Prieto aligns well with the military objective described by Mormon. It is a place where they might “hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites”.

  • A person can travel south from Cerro Prieto to flee an army that is attacking from the south. It seems strange that the Book of Mormon describes Nephites fleeing into the “south countries” to escape the Lamanites. After all, the Lamanite have consistently been attacking from the south. Cerro Prieto is uniquely positioned at a location where Nephites could have fled south (into mainland Mexico) to escape an army attacking from the south (from the Baja Peninsula).

As you can see, Cerro Prieto is fascinating to learn and speculate about and provides numerous detailed correlations with descriptions of the Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. To conclude, let’s take a moment and briefly summarize these correlations in a shorter list:

  • Cerro Prieto exists in a land of many “waters, rivers and fountains”, especially in contrast to the Baja Peninsula.
  • Cerro Prieto is a natural waypoint for Moroni to mention in relation to Omer’s Journey to Ablom.
  • Cerro Prieto exists near an intermittent, but HUGE lake that is worthy to be called “Ripliancum, which, by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all” (Ether 15:8)
  • Cerro Prieto is a VERY strategic military position.
  • Not only is Cerro Prieto a stategic military position, it happens to be located just north of a narrow neck of land. Once the “narrow neck” military stragety failed, it makes sense that this location would logically be the next place to regroup and defend.
  • Cerro Prieto offers a vantage point that Mormon could have used to survey the destruction of his armies.
  • You can flee south from Cerro Prieto (into mainland Mexico) to escape an army that has taken the lands to the south (in the Baja Peninsula) and which has been consistently driving you north.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing of all is that the hill itself is so noteworthy. Very few geographic features are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon’s “Land Northward”, and yet Cumorah shows up prominently in three completely different Book of Mormon stories. While there are other possible explainations for this prominence, it makes sense that if Cerro Prieto is actually the Hill Cumorah, that it continues to stand out prominently in modern times just like it did in ancient times.

While nothing presented in this article conclusively identifies Cerro Prieto as the Book of Mormon’s Hill Cumorah, I hope this introduction to the hill and its features has been helpful in relating our reasons for identifying it as Cumorah in our model.

Echos of a Writing System in Prehistoric Baja California

The Book of Mormon describes three separate migrations of literate people from the old world to the Americas, but it is commonly held that the Baja California natives had no concept of reading or writing. This article investigates this subject from several angles.

First, let’s consider what the Book of Mormon says about the literary traditions of its cultures:

  • The Jaredites – The Jaredites had a written language which Moroni described as being very expressive (Ether 12:24). There is no indication that the written or spoken language of the Jaredites survived the destruction of their culture.
  • Lehi’s Party – Lehi’s party divided into two groups with separate histories:
    • The Nephites – The Nephites had brass plates containing a record with similarities to the Old Testament. The brass plates were written in a form of Egyptian (Mosiah 1:4), a language that Nephi could understand (1 Nephi 1:2) and which he taught to his descendants.

      Nephi was also taught in “the learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2) from his father, which presumably included the Hebrew language which was also known among Nephi’s descendants (Mormon 9:33), although Nephi intentionally avoided teaching his people “many things concerning the manner of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:2).

    • The Lamanites – Laman and Lemuel would have received a similar education as Nephi, but it appears that this knowledge was not past on to their descendants, but more than 450 years later it was taught to them again and they practiced written correspondence (Mosiah 24:6).

      There are numerous references to Lamanites seeking to destroy the records of the Nephites (Enos 1:14, Mormon 2:17).

      It is noteworthy that one of these references occurs in association with the time period when they actually did destroy the Nephite culture at Cumorah (Mormon 6:6). Although this does not necessarily indicate a hostility towards written records or writing systems in general, there is no indication that the Lamanites would have preserved a writing system after Book of Mormon times.

  • The Mulekites – The Book of Mormon does give us an example of a culture losing its ability to read and write. Mulek was the son of King Zedekiah and, although it is not specifically mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it is reasonable to assume that he (and probably others in his party) could read and write. As we mentioned above, by the time that the Nephites joined the Mulekites, the Mulekites were no longer literate and their spoken language had drifted substantially. The Book of Mormon attributes the loss of the ability to read or speak their ancestors’ languages as being a consequence of them not possessing written records (Omni 1:17).

Considering these various descriptions of written records and languages in the Book of Mormon, what archaeological evidence of writing systems should we expect to find in Baja California today?

There are many factors that need to converge in order for a writing system to be recognized in the archaeological record. For instance:

  • A written language must have existed in the first place.
  • Literate people must have written something in that language in a way that it would be preserved for many centuries, such as rock carvings, engravings on metal plates, or through mediums such as paints, etc. that end up getting preserved well enough.
  • The preserved writing must by found and be made available to qualified scholars.
  • These scholars must be able to recognize it as being a written language (as opposed to other forms of expression such as rock art).

Since archaeologists appear to agree that there is no archaeological evidence of a writing system in prehistoric Baja California, one or more of the things listed above has not happened. Let’s consider each one in particular:

A written language must have existed in the first place.
If there never was a writing system in the peninsula, it would certainly explain why one has never been recognized there. Since we are modeling the lands of the Book of Mormon, we certainly hope that this is not the reason.
Examples of writing must be preserved for many centuries
The next reason that no evidence of a writing system has been recognized could be because literate people never wrote their language in a way that it would be preserved. The Book of Mormon tells us that although many written records were kept (Helaman 3:15), Book of Mormon authors only thought that the inscriptions that were carved into metal plates would persist (Jacob 4:2).

Although this statement about the need to preserve records on metallic plates does not specifically tell us the nature of their other writing surfaces, it does tell us that they considered those other surfaces to be perishable. The fact that rock carvings are not mentioned as a means of long-term persistence is curious, because carved stelea and other rock panels are perhaps the most important sources of evidence of prehistoric writing systems that archaeologists have available to them for a large number of ancient languages.

We should as ourselves why Book of Mormon authors didn’t mention rock carvings as a potential way to preserve their writings. We can only guess at the answer to that question, but a good guess would be that they knew that the Lamanites would destroy their writings. In such a context it makes sense that Book of Mormon authors would not rely on large stelea or rock panels to preserve their writings.

There is only one Book of Mormon account that specifically talks about engravings carved on a stone surface. The story of Coriantumr, which could have been written by Coriantumr himself (a Jaredite) or by an early Mulekite, was engraved on a large, yet portable stone (Omni 1:20).

Considering these expectations, and the fact that the Lamanites worked to destroy any Nephite records that they could find, it is quite possible that a prehistoric written language might not be evident to archaeologists.

Archaeological examples must first be discovered
Another reason that no evidence of a writing system been found might not be because the evidence doesn’t exist, it could be because it simply hasn’t been found and presented to scholars yet. Baja California has been dubbed “The Forgotten Peninsula” by profesional archaeologists because of the lack of archaeological research that the peninsula tends to receive from the professional community. There is clearly much more that will be learned from future archaeological work there. We do hope researchers will eventually find evidence of ancient writing systems in the peninsula. Until then, we should remember the old phrase: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
Archaeological examples of ancient writing must be recognizable as such
Finally, it is possible that scholars have evidence of a written language in hand, but have not been able to identify it as such. This is a real possibility when it comes to Baja archaeology. For instance, the following engravings are attested early in the historical record, but still defy an explanation:

Portion of a petroglyph panel at San Fernando Velicatá, as photographed by North (1908b:125) (top), as drawn by North (1908a:246) (center), and as drawn by Enger- rand (1912b:202) (bottom).

Portion of a petroglyph panel at San Fernando Velicatá, as photographed by North (1908b:125) (top), as drawn by North (1908a:246) (center), and as drawn by Enger- rand (1912b:202) (bottom).

Regarding these carvings, Arthur North stated:

until some method of deciphering these petroglyphs is discovered, all that can be predicated of the earliest Californians is that they were sufficiently advanced in civilization to clothe themselves and to employ an alphabet.

Although modern scholars do not offer any alternative explanation to the possibility that this panel could be an example of “an alphabet”, they do take time to call North’s statement names like “unsuitable”, “brief”, “anecdotal”, “whimsical” and “just incorrect”. (ref).

Doubts about the authenticity of archaeological discoveries is another reason that scholars might be willing to overlook examples of ancient writing systems. The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone inscriptions in Arizona are a good example of this. Scholars are right to reject such curiosities unless their authenticity can be established.

This does not mean that written panels like the Decalogue Stone are actually fraudulent, it only means that they must be considered fraudulent until someone provides better evidence of their authenticity. In the case of the Decalogue Stone, this evidence might come from further investigation into the newly-discovered Hebrew writings that have been reported nearby that do not appear to have been cleaned of desert varnish the way the Decalogue stone was cleaned in the 1950’s.

Other than archaeological discoveries, what evidence of writing systems might we expect early observers to recognize among the native Baja Californians at the time of historic contact?

When it comes to the question of literacy after the destruction of the Nephites at Cumorah, a strict interpretation of the Book of Mormon text would not indicate that a writing system would continue to be employed by the descendants of any of the Book of Mormon groups. On the other hand, a less stringent interpretation might allow for continued literacy since the Lamanites clearly had learned to correspond with each other during Nephite times(Mosiah 24:6).

This gives us hope that we might find evidence of a literary tradition by studying the early accounts of European interaction with natives of Baja California. Unfortunately, the most prominent early writers were very shocked by the appearance and traditions of the Indians who, in the minds of early Jesuits, lived up to the description “dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations” (1 Nephi 12:23). These early writers were fond of mocking the culture and intelligence of the natives. There is one humorous story in particular that is often repeated that seems to prove not just the absence of a writing system, but an absence of the concept of writing altogether:

Shortly after the Jesuits began to establish their missions in California one missionary sent two loaves of bread by an Indian neophyte to another missionary with a letter, in which he told him about this gift. The neophyte tasted the bread on the way; and, finding it good, he ate it all. When he reached the missionary to whom he was sent he handed him the letter; and when the bread was demanded from him he denied having received it, as he could not guess who could have told that to the missionary. He was advised that the letter had told it to him. Notwithstanding this, he insisted in the negative, and so was dismissed. In a short time he was sent again to the same missionary with another gift, also accompanied by a letter. On the way he yielded to the very same temptation. But just as he had been betrayed the first time by the letter, he hid it under a stone while he devoured all that he was taking to the missionary. After he had handed him the letter, and had been newly convicted of theft, he replied with this strange simplicity: “I confess to you Father, that the first letter told you the truth, because it really saw me eat the bread; but this other one is a liar in affirming what it certainly has not seen.” (Clavigero, 1937, p92)

This is a fun story to read, but it sure seems to put a damper on our hopes that the natives were preserving a writing system before they were incorporated into the system of Jesuit missions. …But once you understand the nature of the peninsular writing system, you will find that there is actually evidence of it in this very story.

In the discussion that follows, we will not only show that there was a writing system being employed and formal training in that writing system and other religious matters being conducted by the natives of the peninsula, but we will even show how the story we just read actually sheds light on the nature of that writing system.

To understand why early writers denied the existence of a writing system in the peninsula, it is important to understand some things about the writers, their time periods, and their reasons for writing. For instance, some of the harshest language by any Jesuit towards the native Californians comes from Johann Jacob Baegert. Baegert’s extensive, first-hand ethnographic descriptions are a fantastic source for us to learn from, but he makes no pretenses about how he feels about the intelligence of the natives and the quality of their education and lives:

As a general rule, it may be said that the California Indians are stupid, awkward, rude, unclean, insolent, ungrateful, mendacious, thievish, abominably lazy, great talkers to their end, and naive and childlike so far as intelligence and actions are concerned. They are an unreflecting people, without worries, unconcerned, a people who possess no self-control but follow, like animals in every respect, their natural instincts.

For the sake of our conversation about why early Jesuits denied the existence of a writing system, it is important to understand that most of the most acclaimed writings were written with the intent to show the great hardships that the Jesuit enterprise had to endure and the great work that they wrought in the peninsula and how mistreated they were by the crown when they were expelled. In most mission accounts the biases of the authors are very strong.

In many instances the authors were so preoccupied with their own concerns that they improperly characterized the culture of the Indians. Their European world-view was considered “civilized” while the Indians culture was consistently labeled “barbaric”. It was not natural for them to think of a writing system from a different point of view, nor did it serve their purposes to recognize anything other than the “barbarity” of native cultures in their letters and books.

Stories like the one about the Indian boy who thought that the paper was able to see him eat the bread emphasize what the Jesuits saw as the “stupidity” of the natives. These types of stories prop-up the idea that the Jesuits were civilizing the barbarians, so it is natural for them to observe and share such stories. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably see things through a similar world-view when we first read that story ourselves, but let’s take a moment now and read it from a different perspective.

Instead of looking at what the Indian boy didn’t know, let’s look at what he did believe. He believed that the paper that accompanied the bread, a paper which was covered with written characters, could actually talk. From his perspective, that paper had tattled on him.

When we ask ourselves why he thought that a piece of paper could talk, the simplest answer seems like a complete answer: “The missionary told him that the paper said it”. But when we learn a little more about native customs and education, we find out that his belief about talking paper probably predated his experience delivering the letter.

There is a particular type of artifact that is often described in early descriptions of the natives and their cultures, and some examples of this artifact have been found in archaeological contexts. Early writers called this type of object a “Tabla”, because it is a flat tablet made of wood. Although modern scholars often refer to “Tablas” as an artifact found throughout the peninsula, it has been well-known for many years that there was significant variation in the form and function of the Tablas and that this variation corresponded to different geographical areas and peninsular cultures (Aschmann, Central Desert, p138).

In the northern parts of the peninsula, Tablas have been recovered that were painted in a similar way to rock art in the area. These northern Tablas had a handle at one end and were used in funerary and other ceremonies. Other Tablas in the northern areas of the central desert were strongly associated with idols carried by the natives.

In the southern areas of the peninsula, Tablas have been found that were irregularly shaped and did not have handles like the northern Tablas, but had a variety holes in them and strangely-contoured edges.

Another type of Tabla shows up in many ethnographic descriptions associated with the central portions of the peninsula, which our model associates with many of the traditional Nephite lands. Although there are no known examples of this type of Tabla, the references to their existence and purpose are numerous, beginning with a description of their manufacture, the education associated with them, the story of their purpose, and their relation to religious traditions. Speaking of “Guamas”, the magical or religious leaders of the natives, we read:

These Guamas, or charlatans, were selected from those children who seemed to them most astute and fit for this office. After taking them to the most secret places in the woods they trained them in their mysteries, and especially to make on certain little boards some strange figures which they pretended were copies of those which (as they said) the visiting Spirit had left them on departing. These little boards were their books in which they professed to read the nature of illnesses, the remedies suitable for them, the future changes of the atmosphere, and even the destiny of men. They were so careful about the secret of such instructions, and they commended it so earnestly to their pupils that the missionaries could not find out about it until some years had passed (Clavigero 1937, p112-113).

I want to emphasize the following points from that description:

  • In an educational setting, children were trained in religious traditions.
  • They were taught how to make “little boards”.
  • They were taught to inscribe the boards with very specific “strange figures”.
  • The “strange figures” were originally given to them by “the visiting Spirit” and had been passed down by transcribing them from generation to generation.
  • Once completed, the boards served the natives like books serve us.
  • The boards were used to prophesy future events.
  • They were taught to keep the education system a secret.

At this point we need to ask ourselves three important questions:

  1. Why didn’t the missionaries recognize tablas as a written language?
  2. If these tablas were, in fact, a writing system, why didn’t the boy in the story recognize the writing system of the Missionaries?
  3. If a writing system already existed in the peninsula, why would the boy ascribe supernatural powers to the missionary’s letter, believing that it could see him and then tell the missionary what it saw?

I believe that the answer the first question is that the missionaries didn’t recognize it as a written language because it wasn’t a written “language”, although it might have originated as a written language in Book of Mormon times.

Homer Aschmann, one of the most prominent anthropologists to write concerning the central deserts of the peninsula, reviews other references to tablas and helps us understand how they were used:

in the vicinity of La Purisima Cadegomo, and again at the northern edge of the Central Desert or beyond it, these tablets served in different ways. They were peculiarly the property of the shamans, and bore designs or markings carved or painted on their surfaces. Father Hostell (Stocklein, letter 763), who served at Mission Dolores del Sur, states that the designs on the tablets had a mnemonic function, enabling the shamans to reproduce long rituals, and bore a name, Tiyeicha, which is translated as “It can speak.” Sales (I:70-71), reporting from the other end of the peninsula, also notes that the thousand signs said to be on one tablet had a mnemonic function. The tablet was used particularly in mourning ceremonies, and possessed one peculiar feature, a hole in the middle through which the shaman repeatedly thrust his tongue during recitals. This behavior may be readily interpreted as suggesting that the tablet was doing the speaking. (Aschmann, Central Desrert, p115-116)

Aschmann also notes that:

The head shaman, often with assistants, dressed in a hair cape and other ornaments and danced before the whole gathering. Using an inscribed tablet he spoke at length, either eulogizing the dead or boasting of his own relation to supernatural powers. Though the parallel is not mentioned by the missionaries, it is not difficult to see in this performance the equivalent of preaching and encouragement to adhere to the value system of the society.” (Aschmann, Central Desrert, p128)

When all the evidence is considered, it is doubtful that Tablas were inscribed with a written “language”. Instead, the tablas were used in a mnemonic role. In other words, the inscriptions were meant to remind the Shaman of historical events, and to help the Shaman predict future events.

From this we can answer the second and third questions that we posed above. In fact, we can see that the answers actually lie in the story about the boy. Just as the missionaries looked at the inscriptions on the tablas and saw thousands of “strange” or “ridiculous” figures and associated them with a poor concept of a “book”, the boy would also have seen the missionary’s letter as being inscribed with “strange figures” and would have associated it with a tabla. While the missionaries were probably quite unimpressed with the literacy of the boy, the boy was probably quite impressed with the powerful shamanistic abilities of the missionaries and their Tabla, the paper.

It seems clear that the Tablas were a far cry from the Hebrew or Reformed Egyptian writing languages described in the Book of Mormon, but there are indications that the writing system that they represented might have shared an origin in the most prominent story in the Book of Mormon, the visit of Jesus Christ in the Americas.

The inhabitants of these same areas of the peninsula also had another tradition called “The Man Come From Heaven“, which we recently wrote about in another article. This “Man Come From Heaven” was said to have visited the people in ancient times and his coming was celebrated and reenacted every year at their largest celebration.

The association of “The Man Come From Heaven” and the “visiting Spirit” is easy to make and is in harmony with other of their religious accounts. These other religious accounts show remarkable similarities with the description of Jesus Christ and his visit to the Americas as described in the Book of Mormon. For Instance:

They believe, says a missionary, that there is in heaven a lord, whose name in their language signifies he who lives” … “besides [the lord in heaven and his son] they say there is another, whose name is, he who makes lords; though they give the name of lord to all the three; yet when asked how many lords there are, they answer one, who made the heaven, the earth, the animals, the trees and fruits, also man and woman.


without a mother [the lord in heaven] had a son, to whom they give two names: one of which imports perfection or end of clay; the other signifies the swift.

This “visiting Spirit” is who the natives credit with giving them the inscriptions that they continued to copy from one generation to the next on wooden tablets. If the Book of Mormon did actually take place in the Baja California peninsula, it is clear that the Lamanites lost the ability to read the inscriptions of their ancestors, but it appears that they might have continued to transcribe them and associate them with religious, supernatural, and prophetic power.

It is very possible that someday one of the Tablas from the central peninsula will be found with the inscriptions described by the Jesuits. While more than a thousand years of transcription devoid of literacy probably caused the inscriptions to change dramatically, who knows what we might be able to learn from them about the mnemonic writing system employed by the native inhabitants of the Baja California peninsula.

The Discovery of an Ancient Aqueduct and the Deterioration of Ancient Architecture in Baja California

An aqueduct, probably of 18th century Jesuit design, was uncovered by Hurricane Odile near Santa Gertrudis in Baja California

An aqueduct, probably of 18th century Jesuit design, was uncovered by Hurricane Odile near Santa Gertrudis in Baja California

In September, 2014, Hurricane Odile made landfall and swept up the Baja California peninsula.  Odile was one of several strong storms to hit the peninsula during the El Ninó that occurred in 2014.

Although the Book of Mormon makes no mention of aqueducts or irrigation, there are various forms of architecture described in the text.  One question that we recently addressed in another article is why we haven’t found architecture like we see in Book of Mormon paintings in the Baja California Peninsula.

While the answer to that question involves inaccurate expectations, another factor is the potential for Book of Mormon architecture to be lost to erosion in the mountains and deserts of the peninsula.

Hurricane Odile left a trail of destruction in the peninsula.  Roads were destroyed, sections of land washed into the sea, and a lot of erosion occurred in arroyos where flooding occurred.

One of the results of this erosion was the discovery of an previously unknown aqueduct near the ancient Jesuit mission of Santa Gertrudis in the central peninsula.  The location and style of the aqueduct indicate that it was likely built by the Jesuits in the 18th century to support the agricultural lands that they developed to sustain the mission.

While the aqueduct itself is probably not related to architecture described in the Book of Mormon, it does represent an example of significant architecture being hidden by erosional processes in a relatively short period of time.  In fact, the missions themselves can be used as a proxy, showing us the speed at which Nephite cities could have deteriorated in the peninsula in the 15+ centuries since the Book of Mormon was written.

There were many missions built in the peninsula during the 17th and 18th century.  Many were later abandoned, but a few of the missions have remained in service.  Of those that remained in service, all but one required demolition and rebuilding due to deterioration.  Only at the mission of San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó can you find the original mission chapel.  It shows us the beauty and grandeur that were typical of the original mission structures:

Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó

Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó

The interior of the original Jesuit chapel built as part of the Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó.

The interior of the original Jesuit chapel built as part of the Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó.

The missions themselves consisted of many more structures than just their beautiful chapels.  They required quarters for the Padres themselves, housing for soldiers, and structures for the hundreds or thousands of natives housed together for months or years at a time as they prepared for baptism and participated (willingly or not) in mission culture.  The missions also included agricultural fields and grazing lands for large herds of animals as well as defensive structures and storage buildings.

One of many examples that can be used to show how quickly these structures tend to deteriorate in the peninsula is the mission of San Fernando de Velicatá.  In 1775 the mission itself was a large compound with well-built structures housing more than 1,400 people, but the following photo shows what the mission had been reduced to just 151 years later:

The Franciscan mission of San Fernando de Velicatá photographed in 1926

The Franciscan mission of San Fernando de Velicatá photographed in 1926

Here is another photo of the same structure.  The angle of the photo shows the corner that is on the left in the previous photo.

velicata_2002This shows us that in just a little over 200 years, a large city that once housed 1,400 people has almost completely disappeared back into the landscape it was built upon.

As mentioned above, there are many missions that were build in this same general period of time but were later abandoned and have turned into similar ruins in the 200-300 years that followed:

Photo by Edward Vernon.

Abandoned mission of San Bruno. Photo by Edward Vernon.

This photo, taken in 2001, shows scattered foundation stones, the only remains of the mission of San Juan Bautista de Ligui.  Photo by David Kier.

This photo, taken in 2001, shows scattered foundation stones, the only remains of the mission of San Juan Bautista de Ligui. Photo by David Kier.


The ruins of the original mission of Comondu Viejo.  The mission was later moved to the current location, now called San Jose de Comondu. Photo by Howard Gulick.

The ruins of the original mission of Comondu Viejo. The mission was later moved to the current location, now called San Jose de Comondu.

The remains of the first site of the Purisima Viejo mission.

The remains of the first site of the Purisima Viejo mission.

The remains of the final site of the Purisima Viejo mission.

The remains of the final site of the Purisima Viejo mission.

Only some foundation walls remain at the site of the mission of Guadalupe De Huasinapi.  Photo by Kevin Clough.

Only some foundation walls remain at the site of the mission of Guadalupe De Huasinapi. Photo by Kevin Clough.

The remains of the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Apate mission.

The remains of the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Apate mission.

The ruins of the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Chilla mission.

The ruins of the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Chilla mission.

The ruins of the mission of Santiago el Apostol Aiñini.

The ruins of the mission of Santiago el Apostol Aiñini.

The adobe ruins of the mission of San Francisco Borja de Adac.

The adobe ruins of the mission of San Francisco Borja de Adac.

These ruins are the original site of the San Borja mission, initially called Calamajue.

These ruins are the original site of the San Borja mission, initially called Calamajue.

The adobe walls continue to deteriorate at the mission of Santa Maria de los Angeles.

The adobe walls continue to deteriorate at the mission of Santa Maria de los Angeles.


The ruins of the Nuestra Señora del Rosario Viñadaco mission. Photo by David Kier.

The deteriorating walls of the second site of the Rosario mission.

The deteriorating walls of the second site of the Rosario mission.

There are many more examples like these.  It is clear that settlements with large architecture and populations in the thousands in the peninsula deteriorate to the point that they are no longer obvious features, if they are detectable at all.  Considering that these examples have only experienced a couple of centuries of neglect, we can start to imagine what might have happened to Nephite buildings in the 15 centuries since Mormon and Moroni completed the text.

The Man Come From Heaven

In the Book of Mormon we read of the coming of Christ among the Nephites:

and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them…And it came to pass that he stretched forth his hand and spake unto the people, saying Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world…And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him. -3 Nephi 11:8-17 (link)

Clavigero tells us about a tradition that the early Jesuits described among the natives in the central desert of the peninsula:

“Those Cochimies who live beyond 30°, made mention of a man who came from Heaven in ancient times to benefit men. And for this reason, they call him Tamá ambei ucambi tevivichi, that is, “The Man come from Heaven.”…they celebrate a holiday named after “the Man come from Heaven”…When the day designated for the feast arrived, they selected a youth to represent the person of that deity…The disguised youth, when it was at length time to let himself be seen, appeared on the summit of the hill, and from there descended, running very swiftly to the bower, in which he was received by all with much rejoicing” -Clavigero 1789, Translated in 1937 by Sara E. Lake & A. A. Gray; p110-111 (link)