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.

2 thoughts on “Echos of a Writing System in Prehistoric Baja California
  1. You’ve got to be kidding me- a website with such a treasure of stuff on the BoM lands, and no comments? !

    I love the BoM, not a member of the LDS church anymore for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who actually reads the greatest of all books, but, I can say that the Book is of immense value and truthfulness. It changed my life and brought me to Jesus. Yes, as a Christian, i hold it up way up higher than the Bible.

    I read Daymon Smiths books on Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. He made a great case for California. I tend to agree.

    I shall mine your website with excitement.

    Thank you and God bless you for looking in the right place – inside the book.

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