"Archaeological Evidence for the City of the Gadianton Robbers," by George Potter 


Recent excavations in the Peruvian Altiplano have possibly unveiled information about the Book of Mormon's tale of two cities. One city struggled with bouts of unrighteousness, while the other was a full fledged wicked community. The archaeological discoveries and related interpretation by Charles Stanish and Abigail Levine of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles might have helped us identify one of the bloody battlegrounds mentioned in the Book of Mormon. However, their recent article, a proceeding of the National Academy of Science in June 2011, would have had gone unnoticed by students of the Book of Mormon if I had not earlier identified the ruins of Pukara in the northern Titicaca Basin as a strong candidate for Zarahemla (see my book Nephi in the Promised Land). 

To understand why I find the Stanish and Levine article so interesting, let's follow this line of reasoning:

1.  Recount some of key reasons why the ruins labeled Pukara are probably the City of    Zarahemla.

2.  Review the relationship between Zarahemla and its enemy, the city of Jacobugath     (the city of the Gadianton robbers).

3.  Summarize what the Book of Mormon tells us about Jacobugath.

4.  Compare the archaelogists' discoveries at Taraco to what we know about                     Jacobugath.


1. Some of key reasons why Pukara is probably the City of Zarahemla

Archaeologists do not know the original name of the ruins they now label Pukara. Briefly stated, there are three main reasons why the ruins at Pukara on the northern side of Lake Titicaca are a likely candidate for Zarahemla.

First, there is ample archaeological evidence that Pukara matches what we know about Zarahemla. ARchaelogists have dated  the rise of the ancient city to roughly 200 BC, the same time as the arrival of Mosiah at Zarahemla. The city grew to become the dominant empire in all southern Peru from 150 BC to 400 AD. After the fourth century, the ancient capital city suddenly became uninhabited.

Today, the most striking remains of Pukara are its large tiered walls that form a foundation for its ancient temple. Below the temple walls, Pukara had a huge public gathering area measuring over 300  X 300 meters  (over 3 football fields by 3 football fields). University of California Anthropologist Elizabeth Klarich believes the public gathering area at Pukara is where the leaders of the empire would meet openly with their people in an "inclusive" style of government (rare among ancient civilizations).  Pukara's temple walls and public gathering area match well the imagery of King Benjamin's last speech to his people. Finally, site excavations indicate that the city of Pukara, like Zarahemla, burned and that its great temple was rebuilt between 200 BC and 100 AD.  

Second, in Book of Mormon times, Pukara was the capital of the Quechua-speaking people on the north shore of Lake Titicaca. They were hated by the Aymara-speaking people whose capital was on the southern end of Lake Titicaca. This fits the Book of Mormon description of the Nephites and Lamanites having been divided by a strip of wilderness that stretches between two seas. In my book Nephi in the Promised Land, I provide evidence that the Nephites' sea on the west is the Pacific and the sea on the east is Lake Titicaca.  The Incas refer to the massive lake as Cocha Titicaca meaning "Sea Titicaca."   In antiquity the people on the north side of the lake were ruled from their capital city, which is now the ruins called Pukara. On the southern side of the lake were their bitter enemies, the tribes of the early Tiwanaku civilization (Chiripa). This hints that the Nephites were on the north side of the lake and the Lamanites on the south side. This still reflects the demographics found bordering the lake today. The taller, fairer-skinned Quechua Indians live on the north side of the lake and the Aymara Indians on the south side.

Third, Pukara is south of Cuzco, which is a strong candidate for the City of Nephi.  Mosiah and his party were led "through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla" (Omni 1:13). The word "down" in Semitic languages refers to "south." Quechua follows the same convention, with up meaning "north" and down meaning "south." Zarahemla, being located south of the City of Nephi, is confirmed in the Book of Helaman when Nephi, son of Helaman, goes to the land of Nephi to preach the gospel to the Lamanites (Helaman 5:20) and later returns to Zarahemla "from the land northward" (Helaman 7:1). On Pukara's east runs the river Pukara, forming a protective border for the city, in a like manner to Zarahemla's river Sidon (Alma 2:15). On the west stands a great granite cliff face which fits the Book of Mormons location of Mount Manti (Alma 1:15). Zarahemla was a place of refuge (3 Nephi 3:22,23), a gathering place for the Nephites when their enemies approached. The ruins of Pukara have impressive natural defenses on both its east and west flanks. Indeed, the name Pukara means fortress. Charles Stanish writes of Pukara: "There are also springs within the walls. With all these resources protected with the pukara's walls, the inhabitants of the region could gather there...."(Ancient Titicaca: the evolution of complex society in southern Peru and Bolivia (Charles Stanish), p. 212-213).

2. Review the relationship between Zarahemla and its enemy, the city of Jacobugath.

In recounting the destruction that occurred in the land of promise preceding the Lord's visit to his people, he said that he burned two "great cities," the great city of Zarahemla and the great city of Jacobugath. No other burned cities were described by the Lord as being "great." Jacobugath was a wicked city and the home of the Gadianton robbers.

The Gadianton robbers were a gang of brutal raiders who killed and plundered at will (4 Nephi 4:5). In the years preceding the visitation of Christ, we read in the Book of Mormon: "And it came to pass in the thirteenth year since the birth of Christ there began to be wars and contentions throughout all the land; for the Gadianton robbers had become so numerous, and did slay so many of the people and did lay waste so many cities, and did spread so much death and carnage throughout the land, that it became expedient that all the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, should take up arms against them" (3 Nephi 2:11). Despite their number, the robbers were only able to gain significant influence over the Nephites when the Nephites became wicked themselves (3 Nephi 2:18). Undoubtedly this is because the order of the Gadianton was an ancient and Satanic brotherhood held together by secret oaths and combinations (3 Nephi 2:3; 3:9).

Like the ancient Nabateans in the Old World, who became rich by raiding caravans and then retreating to their mountain hideaway in the hills of Petra, the Gadiantons were "robbers" who became rich and powerful at the expense of the people of the cities they plundered. In the decades before Christ's visitation, the Gadianton robbers grew in numbers and strength. They dwelled in the mountains near Zarahemla from which they raided the Nephite towns and returned to the vast mountain wilderness of the Andes. When the Nephites slid into greater wickedness, they lost control of the great city of Jacobugath to the Gadianton robbers and their antichrist king Jacob (3 Nephi 7:9).

The Lord said of the city of Jacobugath:

"And behold, that great city Jacobugath, which was inhabited by the people of king Jacob, have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness, which was above all the wickedness of the whole earth, because of their secret murders and combinations; for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government of the land; therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up unto me any more against them" (3 Nephi 9:9).

We learn from the Lord that in that day the people of Jacobugath had the singular distinction of being the most wicked people on earth. They were so evil that He had to destroy them by fire.  Before the demise of Jacobugath, they had caused the lost of peace among the Nephites through decades of bloody plundering. It was the Nephite members of the Gadianton robbers exploiting their own Nephite brothers and sisters.

By AD 15 the Gadianton robbers were so strong that they sent an epistle to Lachoneus, the governor of the Nephites, demanding that he surrender to them or be destroyed (3 Nephi 3). Lachoneus refused to surrender. Instead, he prepared for war with the robbers by:

(3:12) Crying to the Lord to strengthen his people against the robbers,

(3:13) Gathering his people and their herds,

(3:14) Building fortifications around them and placing guards, and

(3:15-16) Successfully inspiring his people to repent and call upon God for deliverance.

Lachoneus appointed the great commander Gidgiddoni to head the Nephi armies against the robbers. When the people requested that Gidgiddoni to "go up [north] unto the mountains and into the wilderness" after the robbers, Gidgiddoni said that the Lord forbade him from going into the mountains where the robbers would destroy them. Rather, Gidgiddoni told the people "we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us, if we do this he [the Lord] will deliver them into our hands."(3:21)

North of Pukara [candidate for Zarahemla] is a great mountain wilderness within the Andes mountains. To the south was Jacobugath near the shore of Lake Titicaca. Thus, being prepared in the "center" of the land would have signified Pukara (Zarahemla). Indeed, the Book of Mormon tells us that in 17 AD the Nephites gathered to the land of Zarahemla and the land between Zarahemla and Bountiful (3 Nephi 3:23).

In 18 AD the Gadianton robbers came down from the mountains to battle against the Nephites, and also from their stronghold, and from their secret places (3 Nephi 4:1). The Lord identified the Gadianton "stronghold" as Jacobugath that was to Zarahemla's south, and it is probable that their "secret places" indicated that robbers had infiltrated the Nephites communities and had become insurgents living among the righteous Nephites. Since the Nephites had left their lands desolate and had gathered to Zarahemla, the Gadiantons had no food to sustain them and were forced to stop raiding from the wilderness. If so, the robbers would have had to "come up [from the south probably from their stronghold at Jacobugath] in open battle against the Nephites" (3 Nephi 4:4-5). In the sixth month, the robbers came "up" for battle and "great and terrible was the slaughter thereof, insomuch that there never was known so great a slaughter among all the people of Lehi since he left Jerusalem" (3 Nephi 4:11).

The Nephites defeated the robbers, "insomuch that they [robbers] did fall back from before them" [back to the south from whence they came] (3 Nephi 4:12). The Nephites pursued the Gadiantons "to the border of the wilderness" (3 Nephi 4:13). We read in Alma that the land of Zarahemla bordered "by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east [Lake Titicaca] even to the sea west, and round about the borders of the seashore" [of Lake Titicaca] (Alma 22:27). This leads to the possibility that the Nephites pursued the robbers back south to the shoreline of Lake Titicaca where the city of Jacobugath appears to have been located.

In the decade preceding the Lord's visit many of the cities that had been destroyed during the bloody Gadianton war were rebuilt (3 Nephi 6:7). We can assume that this included the Gadianton stronghold at Jacobugath, because it was referred to as a great city when the Lord appeared to the Nephites in AD 34. Although the Nephites became temporarily righteous after their deliverance by the Lord during the Gadianton war, by AD 29 they are described as being "lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceeding great riches....there were many merchants in the land...people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning....And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch as the church began to be broken up" (3 Nephi 6:10-14).

When Jesus Christ died, Jacobugath and other cities were burned or destroyed by other means because of their wickedness. Since Jacobugath was the most evil of all cities (3 Nephi 9:9), we can assume that the pride, boasting, and distinguishing according to rank and riches were part of the reason Jacobugath was destroyed by fire.

After the Lord's visit to the promised land many of the cities that were burned at his coming were rebuilt (4 Nephi 1:7-8). In this later era the Nephites and Lamanites "had all things common among them; therefore there were no rich and poor"(4 Nephi 1:3). Since there were "no rich," it is likely that there was no industry of luxury goods for at least 200 years after the Lord's visit. 

From time of Christ's visit to 200 AD - "There was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God (4 Nephi1:15-16)

However, by 201 AD the people began to be prideful, "wearing of costly apparel, and manner of fine pearls, and of fine things of the world (4 Nephi 1:24), no more goods and substances in common (vs. 25), and divided into classes and to build up churches unto themselves to get gain (v 26)

3. Summarizing what we know about Jacobugath.

Though we cannot be certain about the events that took place at Jacobugath, the Book of Mormon narrative provides this possible picture of their history:

1.  Jacobugath along with Zarahemla were "great cities" at the time of Christ.

2.  At one time the city was the stronghold of the Gadianton robbers.

3.  The Gadianton robbers were a secret band of thieves who became rich by plundering and murdering their Nephi brothers; thus, there stronghold must have contained the icons of the rich.

4.  Jacobugath had to be south of Zarahemla because the robbers came "up," meaning   to the north, to do battle with Zarahemla.

5.  Jacobugath was in the borders near the shoreline of east sea (Lake Titicaca).

6.  The Nephite army pursued the Gadianton robbers to Jacobugath and killed many of     them; among the dead was their leader Giddianhi.

7.  Jacobugath was among the cities destroyed during the Gadianton War in AD 18.

8.  The stronghold was rebuilt circa AD 29-30.

9.  There was great inequality among the people of Jacobugath, with class distinctions based on wealth.

10.  The Lord destroyed Jacobugath by fire at his coming because of their wickedness

11.  Jacobugath was rebuilt after the Lord's coming, but there were no rich or poor           among them; thus no luxury goods were being produced at the city.


4.  Compare Archaeologists' Discoveries at Taraco to what we know about Jacobugath.

For the purposes of this discussion, assume that the ruins at Pukara are indeed Zarahemla, and that the ruins of ancient Taraco near the northern end of Lake Titicaca are Jacobugath.  Again, no one today knows the original name for Pukara or Taraco.

Why should we assume that Taraco was ancient Jacobugath? First, Taraco was "down" [south] from Pukara on the level plains of the Altiplano.  At the time of Christ, the northern shoreline of Lake Titicaca on the Altiplano had many small villages and one large city, which archaeologists now called Taraco.  At the time of the Gadianton War, Taraco would have had a population of approximately 5,000 people. Since the robbers had left the mountains (3 Nephi 4:1), we can assume that the number of robbers who fled to Jacobugath far exceeded it's residents' population. At the same time, Pukara's population is estimated to have been around 10,000.  Of course, when the Nephites gathered into one body at Zarahemla and had become "so great a number" (3 Nephi 4:4) it is logical that Pukara's population would also have increased many fold.

Let us now review the recent archaeological findings and deductions about Taraco that were presented by Charles Stanish and Abigail Levine of the University of California, Los Angeles as Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the United States of America.

1.  Taraco and Pukara came into existence at approximately the time the Mulekites would have settled in the land (region) of Zarehemla, and the warfare they experienced is consistent with the violent conflicts described in the Book of Mormon.

According to Stanish and Levine:

"The two largest centers were Taraco, located near the northern lake edge, and Pukara, located 50 km to the northwest in the grassland pampas. Our data reveal that a high-status residential section of Taraco was burned in the first century A.D., after which economic activity in the area dramatically declined. Coincident with this massive fire at Taraco, Pukara adopted many of the characteristics of state societies and emerged as an expanding regional polity. We conclude that organized conflict, beginning approximately 500 BCE., is a significant factor in the evolution of the archaic state in the northern Titicaca Basin. [Mulekites]"

"The political landscape changed at approximately 500 BCE. Iconography on carved stone stelae, textiles, and pottery depicts people who seem to be valued for their military prowess. Trophy head motifs, common throughout the central Andes at this time, suddenly appear in the northern Titicaca repertoire of motifs and favored images. Other data also suggest elevated levels of political unrest and warfare. Excavations at a sunken court site in the Pukara Valley yielded trophy heads in association with the Late Qaluyu phase occupation, which dates to ca. 800-200 BCE. Archaeological surveys conducted in the northern Basin have also revealed sites of this era that were situated in defensible locales."


2.  Warfare and Raiding were prevalent among the people of the Pukara and Taraco.

According to Stanish and Levine:

"It is precisely such a cultural landscape that provides the fertile ground for the emergence of first-generation states. In this article we focus on a case of organized raiding and warfare between competing polities in the Titicaca Basin of southern Peru from ca. 500 BCE. to A.D. 400 as a major factor in first-generation state formation."

3.  The northern Lake Titicaca, including the pampa area where Pukara is located, was a fertile land, an area where people could obtain riches:

According to Stanish and Levine:

"The Titicaca landscape provides a rich variety of exploitable ecological niches. Vast grasslands support camelid herds that provide wool and meat, whereas the lake provides abundant fish, reeds, and aquatic birds. Arable plains and hillsides, dotted with natural and artificial qochas (sunken fields) and bofedales (marshes), permit intensive agriculture, including the cultivation of tubers and grains. Quaternary geological formations provide abundant mineral and rock resources, including copper and silver, limestone, sandstone, and fine-grain volcanic. Volcanic glass or obsidian, a high-valued commodity in the ancient economy, was generally imported from the Colca Valley, some 200 km away. In short, the Titicaca region is a rich and diverse environment providing a vast array of resources that would have facilitated the development of complex societies."

4.  Taraco was a great city for its time and produced luxury goods reminiscent of the riches that caused the class distinction and prideful boasting of the Nephites at Jacobugath.

According to Stanish and Levine:

"The site of Taraco, located along the Rámis River approximately 15 km north of the lake, is composed of a series of mounds connected by roads and possible causeways. Systematic survey indicates that the total aggregated site area is quite large, approaching 1 km2. The site is famous for the large number of beautiful stone stelae found in and around the modern town of the same name. We have not directly identified the sunken courts; however, there is evidence of their presence in the form of large sandstone slabs that were likely used in the courts that housed the stelae. A modern town now sits over much of the site, and the present-day church and municipal building lie on a low rise that almost certainly contains the sunken courts-an architectural pattern similar to Pukara."

"Two were on peripheral mounds to the east and north of the main mound. The third, area A, was placed along the Rámis river edge in the highest part of the mound. Systematic surface collections in area A indicated high quantities of finely made pottery and obsidian. Such artifacts are usually indicators of either a high-status location or a workshop where such items were manufactured."

5.  Excavations show that Taraco had been rebuilt, just as the Nephite cities had been rebuilt after the Gadianton War.

According to Stanish and Levine:

"The excavations in area A revealed a stratified sequence of depositional layers including architectural fill episodes, midden accumulations under and on floors, and buildings that were remodeled, disassembled, or destroyed"

6.  Taraco was destroyed by fire around the time of Christ's death.

According to Stanish and Levine:

"The most significant level in the excavations was a substantial burning episode associated with an early Pukara domestic compound. Evidence of this burn event was detected in all areas tested, including each of the excavations units, as well as in a profile cut along the margin of the river. Cleaning of this profile revealed a continuous stratum of ash and architectural debris measuring at least 35 m in length that corresponded to the same layer identified in excavation units. The burn was so intense that it melted the compound's adobe superstructure in some areas. Three thatched roofs, composed of annual grasses and wooden beams, were burned so thoroughly that they carbonized through the clay floors. There is little doubt that this very high-status area of the site was leveled and burned in a single historical event.

"Nine samples of charcoal from the burn event were selected for analysis. The six samples from the annual grasses or reeds-Stipa ichu, Scirpus tatora-used to thatch the roofs are consistent and place the intentional fire in the first century A.D. Not surprisingly, the dates from the large roof beams were much older, ranging from 765 to 90 BCE. These differences in age were almost certainly due to the practice of curating large and valuable wooden beams for use in each rebuilding of a structure. Such behaviors have been well documented in other arid and/or sparsely wooded areas around the world. Beams that are centuries old are still used in houses today in the Titicaca region.

"The data strongly suggest that this site-wide burn event was an episode of deliberate destruction, one that represents evidence for intensive raiding. It is unlikely that residents would suddenly destroy their whole community and destroy their own very valuable and rare beams and posts, even if they were abandoning the settlement. Furthermore, the uninterrupted stratigraphy does not indicate any site abandonment. This site-wide burn is further distinguished from earlier instances of burning at the site because nothing was rebuilt immediately after the compound was destroyed, which would have been expected if the devastating burn was accidental or part of periodic household maintenance, renewal, or ritual practices, such as those documented at the site of Chiripa. Those are not site-wide but restricted and controlled. This conflagration would have been immense and visible from a very long distance in the altiplano landscape."

7.  Consistent with the Gadianton War and 16 years later the burning of Jacobugath at the time of Christ's death, many people were killed at Taraco (Jacobugath) by the armies of Pukara (Zarahemla) before the city burned.

Charles Choi writes: "Their results suggest Pukara waged a violent war against Taraco, possibly killing hundreds with their weapons before burning the state to the ground.

"In the century that Pukara peaked, the site of Taraco was attacked, and [it] ceased to be a political power in the region," researcher Charles Stanish, director of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, told LiveScience. "The inference that Pukara was responsible for the raid is extremely strong."

8.  Consistent with the Nephite economics after Christ's visitation in the promised land, after Taraco burned there were no longer any "rich" and no luxury goods manufactured. However, there was evidence of a healthy agricultural activity.


According to Stanish and Levine:


"After the burning episode, area A was leveled, with nearly a meter of fill indicating a large resident population that no longer built with fine stone or regularly engaged in long-distance trade. The data point to a substantial decrease in access to regional resources for the Taraco peoples after the burn event. The sudden decrease in the regional power of Taraco correlates chronologically with the rise of Pukara as a dominant political force in the first or second century A.D. Radiocarbon dates from a deposit of "pure Pucara style rubbish" excavated by Kidder at the site of Pukara in the 1950s virtually overlap in time with these new data from Taraco. In other words, the Pukara settlement was at its height at the time that Taraco burned.


"There is a greater density of hoe/adze fragments in the postburn context. This indicates that agricultural activities were more common in the postburn phase. This finding does not preclude the notion that farming was an important component of daily practice before the burn event but rather indicates a relative decline in other nonagricultural activities after the burn event.


"There is a substantial decrease in the abundance of finely made, decorated pottery after the burn event from 12% to 2%. This decline in the use of high-value pottery from pre- to postburn is highly significant (χ2 = 32.70, P < 0.0001) and suggests a corresponding drop in, or shift in the nature of, the ritual-political activities taking place at the site.

"Two lines of evidence indicate a dramatic change in the obsidian industry after the burn event. First, there is more obsidian in the preburn contexts, and this is not simply a product of sample size. For flaked tools and debitage, there is a shift in the relative abundance of obsidian vs. nonobsidian (chert, quartz, etc.) artifacts from the preburn occupation to the postburn occupation. In the preburn context, obsidian artifacts make up 82% of the total sample of flaked tools/debitage. However, the postburn sample of similar artifacts was found to contain only 44% obsidian. This steep drop in the abundance of obsidian postburn is highly significant (χ2 = 11.22, P = 0.0008). Second, obsidian artifacts are, on average, significantly larger in the preburn context (P = 0.01168). In fact, the mean weight of preburn obsidian artifacts is nearly double (2.26 g) that of the postburn (1.318 g). Because the production of obsidian tools is a reductive process, the size of the artifacts-particularly of the debitage-may be considered as a proxy for primary access, because waste tends to increase when raw materials are plentiful. As a relative index of access patterns, this shift in mean artifact size indicates that the residents of area A had greater access to this exotic good before the burn. Alternatively, the reduction in mean artifact size could indicate the recycling of old materials by residents because their access to new raw materials had been curtailed."


Stanish's and Levine's interpretations of the ruins at Taraco fit nicely into the Book of Mormon's tale of two cities. Raiding was a part of the economics at the time. However, it would have been Taraco [Jarobugath] raiding Pukara [Zarahemla] not the opposite. Along with Gadianton raids, the people of the altiplano experienced high levels of warfare during Book of Mormon times. Possibly as a result of raiding the Nephites, Taraco [Jacobugath] became rich before it burned. However, Pukara [Zarahemla] with its larger population eventually defeated the armies of Taraco and destroyed the city [Jacobugath].  Tens of thousands were killed, including many hundred robbers at Taraco, among them their leader Giddianhi. Taraco like Jacobugath had been rebuilt after it was destroyed. Based on the excavations at Taraco, Stanish and Levine interpret the artifacts that Pukara's army attacked Taraco and then burned the city. With today's technology, the UCLA archaeologists have no way of determining the accurate time interval between the killings and the subsequent fire that destroyed the city. However, their sequencing of placing the battle before the fire, does fit the events at Jacobugath that occurred approximately sixteen years apart.

The Book of Mormon account indicates that Zarahemla attacked and killed many at Jacobugath during the Gadianton War, that the city was rebuilt, and sixteen years later fire leveled the city. After the fire, Taraco no longer manufactured luxury goods; rather it increased its agricultural activities. Thus, Taraco seems to have become an agrarian society where there were no longer rich among them, yet the city was rebuilt, and there was ample food available to the residents.

At this time, it is impossible to know with certainty if the ruins of Pukara were Zarahemla or that the ruins of Taraco were Jacobugath. However, the archaeological record presents very strong similarities, and I believe there is good reason to pursue studying the possibility that Taraco was at one time the notorious stronghold of the Gadianton robbers.