"Metals in Mesoamerica: A Misleading Book of Mormon Defense," By George Potter

During the ten years I have written monthly newsletters for the Nephi Project, I have refrained from criticizing other Book of Mormon researchers. Unfortunately, I find it necessary to make an exception. While I believe the author's intentions are good, I find disturbing two recent newsletters by Daniel Johnson from the Book of Mormon Archaeology Foundation (BMAF). Both articles are an obvious attempt by Brother Johnson to explain why he believes the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. However, the evidence he presents does just the opposite. Even more disappointing, when one is careless in their defense of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, non-LDS scholars can point to these works as examples of incompetent Book of Mormon scholarship.

In the first newsletter BMAF: 64 Metals and Gold Plates in Mesoamerica, we read:

"Learn exactly what the Book of Mormon says about the use of metals. See how the necessary ore deposits correspond with proposed Book of Mormon locations. Study the fascinating artifacts of gold, copper, bronze, and iron from known excavations, including Mayan examples of hieroglyphic writing on gold plates!"

The newsletter then directs the reader to Daniel Johnson's presentation slides that he delivered at the foundation's conference last year. You can view these slides at:http://home.comcast.net/~danjohn8/bmaf/.

At first the metal artifacts shown in Johnson's slides from Mesoamerica might seem impressive; however, the slides fail to explain that these artifacts are, without exception, from civilizations that existed long after the plates of the Book of Mormon were buried by Moroni. The only hint that the artifacts are not associated with Book of Mormon people is Slide #31 which notes: "Stela H at Copán, site of the earliest gold artifacts in Mesoamerica, dating to 730 AD."


Suggesting that the metal articles that have been discovered in Mesoamerica-all of which date to post-Book-of-Mormon times-are evidence for the Book of Mormon is nonsense. The Book of Mormon clearly states that the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations had advanced metallurgical technologies (Ether 10:23; Hel. 6:9). As is posted online at BYU's Neal Maxwell Institute (F.A.R.M.S.), "Complex and sophisticated metallurgical technologies in the pre-Columbian New World, however, are presently recognized only in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Chile, where copper was smelted from rare copper arsenides, sulfates, and chlorides."("Copper, Bronze, and Brass," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9 (2001), 1.) Further, archaeologists now believe that Central Americans did not discover how to work metals but that the technology was introduced to them from Peru long after the Book of Mormon period. (see John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 279-280.) 

Apparently I was not the only reader who understood the fallacy of Johnson's presentation. The Book of Mormon Archaeology Foundation's follow-up newsletterBMAF: 66 (Metals and Gold Plates in Mesoamerica controversy) notes that:

"We have received feedback that some have used Brother Johnson's material to bolster their Book of Mormon proposals in Panama and Peru."

In response, the foundation published an "open letter" from Johnson in which he wishes "to clarify the points I [he] was trying to make with my [his] presentation at the BMAF conference last year."

So misleading were Johnson's clarifications that I found myself compelled to respond to his open letter. Daniel's open-letter clarifications are in black font. My responses are in blue.  

"1- Mesoamerica (specifically the Guatemalan highlands) contains all the necessary ores for the metals mentioned in the Book of Mormon." 

Yes, however currently there is no evidence that anyone in Mesoamerica was smelting gold before the 8th century A.D. To imply that 8th-century smelting had something to do with the Book of Mormon Jaredites and Nephites-who both wrote on gold plates-is a historical misrepresentation akin to saying that the Romans invented the airplane or silicon chip. 

"2- Metals were apparently mainly used by the Nephites (as opposed to the Lamanites) and may not have been used as much or as late as we have supposed. The main component of Nephite armor appears to have been thick clothing. This agrees with the archaeological record and Spanish accounts of the Mesoamerican conquest."

The notion that the later Nephites did not work metals is a personal supposition that is not supported by the text of the Book of Mormon. The latter part of his clarification is simply inconsistent with the description of Nephite armor and weapons. Only on one occasion does the Book of Mormon describe the Nephite armor being made of cloth, which is a better description of Inca armor than the linen armor of the Aztecs. The Incas' thick cloth armor was adopted by the Spanish. 

"3- The last mention of Nephite steel is in 400 B.C., and the last mention of iron is in 150 B.C. These metals are never mentioned among or used by the Lamanites. Incidentally, biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between iron and steel. All the Hebrew words in the Bible refer to pure metals, not to their alloys. 

There have been hundreds of Book of Mormon period Mayan excavations, yet none of them have provided evidence of iron, copper, silver or gold usage in Central America! On the other hand, the only known mining of iron in the Americas during Book of Mormon times has been discovered in Nazca, Peru. 

"4- Book of Mormon weapons for most of the record can all be deadly effective without being made of metal, including weapons the Spanish called 'swords.' There are numerous eyewitness accounts of this."

Johnson seems to suggest that the metal weapons described in the Book of Mormon were not actually metal! More than support for the Book of Mormon, this seems to be more of an excuse for why no evidence of Book of Mormon period metal weapons has been excavated north of Panama. 

"5- My main suggestion is that any Nephite metal item can be traced directly back to Nephi and was not shared with other groups. The use of metal tools and items may have been discarded as Nephites moved away from their sources of ore and adapted to more indigenous ways. The only metal items we absolutely know of at the end of Nephite history are the plates and other unique items in Moroni's possession."

Alma wrote in circa 90 B.C. "And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need-an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth" (Alma 1:29). The Nephites were mining silver and gold for at least 500 years and had these metals in abundance. Furthermore, no evidence has been discovered of the Mesoamericans having had "flocks," "herds," "silk," and "cloth" (other than linen). Indeed the only animals domesticated in ancient Mesoamerica were dogs and turkeys. On the other hand, all these items described by Alma existed in the Peruvian Andes during the Book of Mormon period. It should also be noted, that since the Book of Mormon defined the Nephite weapons as being made of metal, it would seem practical that in later periods the authors would not have had to use the precious space on the gold plates to repeatedly tell the reader that they were "still made of iron." It would be more logical that if the Nephites had changed to "wooden" weapons, a later author would note this fact.

p.s. Mormon (3 Ne. 5:10-11) and Moroni (Mormon 2:18; 8:1) wrote on plates. If the Nephites moved away from their source of metal, where did the last Nephite prophets obtain the metal for their plates. 

"6- The practice of writing on metal plates appears to be mainly an Old World practice, one that Nephi brought with him and passed on to specific record keepers. That said, the main feature of my presentation was Mayan gold plates from the cenote at Chichen Itzathat had hieroglyphic writing on them. As far as I know, there is no other artifact of this kind from the Americas that is not extremely controversial (at the very least)." 

The Mayan gold plate is interesting; however, it is of no relevance to the Book of Mormon since it is from a later era and is in a language not related to Hebrew or Egyptian. 

"7- While there are no serious claims linking Olmec, Epi-Olmec, or Mayan glyphs to Hebrew or Reformed Egyptian, Mesoamerica is the only ancient American setting that has extensive written languages. I am not aware of any written language (other than the quipu, which is not really writing) from the Andean region." 

When the Spanish arrived in Peru, they were told by the Incas that their ancestors had once had a written language like the Spanish, but that it was lost. This is consistent with Jacob's prophecy (Jacob 4:1-4).

Daniel concludes:

"If you wish to look for Book of Mormon traces in the Andean region that is fine. The Moche is a fascinating culture with much left to be done archaeologically. The Chachapoya are also another mysterious people that need more research. I currently support a Mesoamerican setting, but I am open to any serious research. To find out more about my travels and studies that have resulted in my papers, presentations and book, An LDS Guide to Mesoamerica, I suggest you check out my blog:http://www.ldsguide.blogspot.com/." 

Good idea. Peru makes a much stronger candidate for the lands of the Book of Mormon. Metallurgy was widely used in the various ancient civilization of Peru dating back to at least 1900 B.C. Well documented evidence supporting Peru is found in my book, Nephi in the Promised Land. The book contains over 800 footnotes from the foremost archaeologists and historians studying the ancient Americas.