"The Last Hours of Life at Zarahemla," by George Potter


In my book Nephi in the Promised Land, I provide compelling evidence that the ruins of Pukara, Peru are the site of the Book of Mormon city Zarahemla. Pukara is located in the foothills between the Peruvian Altiplano and the Andes, and is one of the places we will visit on our June tour of Peru.  If Pukara was Zarahemla, then the archaeological record of the ancient city should provide clues to help us understand the nature of Zarahemla's final demise, and perhaps even how those living in the city might have experienced their final hours.


The ceramic evidence found in the ruins of Pukara indicate that the city with its temples and great walls was abandoned circa 380 AD:

The chronological sequence of ceramic styles of the northern basin would be as follows...Initial Pukara (500-200 BC) Middle Pukara (200 BC-100 AD) and finally Pukara Late (100-380 A.D.).[i] [Italics added]


Figure 1 Matt Potter standing on temple walls of Pukara.

Besides determining that Pukara was abandoned circa 380 A.D., archaelogists have found evidences that the city was evacuated in a manner consistent with that of Nephite cities at that time.  Ernest David Adams Oshige writes, "Site abandonment and collapse of Pukara, "Epach V is called the 
Decadent Pukara occupation and abandonment site, a process that apparently took place
peacefully and quickly.[i]" [Italics added]

So what possible insights does this evidence give us about the last hours of those who lived in  Zarahemla? Here are my thoughts:

The final period of Pukara 100-380 A.D. was referred to as the "Decadent Pukara" because of the fine pottery and other fine artifacts discovered at the ruins. This is consistent with the condition of the Nephites before the wars broke out in the fourth century:

And now I, Mormon, would that ye should know that the people had multiplied, insomuch that they were spread upon all the face of the land, and that they had become exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ. And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and the fine things of the world. (4 Nephi 1:23:24).

Mormon's father brought him to Zarahemla from the land Northward when he was eleven years old (Mormon 1:6). Since Mormon did not mention other members of his family joining them, it is reasonable to believe that Mormon's father was a military leader and was summoned to Zarahemla with only is oldest son to prepare the Nephites at Zarahemla for an imminent war. Indeed, within months of his father's arrival in Zarahemla the war had commenced.

"And it came to pass that I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla" (Mormon 1:6). "And it came to pass in this year there began to be a war between the Nephites, who consisted of the Nephites and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Zoramites; and this war was between the Nephites, and the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites"  (Mormon 1:7). 

I speculate that Mormon's father (also named Mormon) was a royal prince, chief general and foremost defender of the Nephites. We know that Mormon took care to mention on the golden plates that he, and therefore his father, were pure descendants of Nephi (Mormon 1:5, 3 Nephi 5:20). Declaring their direct decent from Nephi possibly denotes that Mormon's father was a prince in charge of the Nephite military and perhaps even the crown prince. If so, it was his responsibility to mentor his son so that one day he could assume his father's responsibilities-thus explaining why his father carried his eleven-year-old son  into a land preparing for war.

We know that the decades-long war that eventually ended the Nephite civilization started in the borders (meaning "mountains") of Zarahemla by the waters of the Sidon river (Mormon 1:10). A range of the Andes Mountains runs north and west of Pukara and along the Pucara river.

The Book of Mormon implies that the Nephites must have prepared well for the war, which resulted in a series of victorious battles over their enemy. 

And it came to pass that the Nephites had gathered together a great number of men, even to exceed the number of thirty thousand. And it came to pass that they did have in this same year a number of battles, in which the Nephites did beat the Lamanites and did slay many of them (Mormon 1:11).

In defeat, the Lamanites retreated, and peace prevailed for four years in Zarahemla (Mormon1:12). However, during this short interlude of peace, the Nephites grew in wickedness. As a result, the Lord took away his beloved disciples, and miracles and healings ceased. It would appear that even if the authority of the priesthood was not taken away, the power of the priesthood was (Mormon 1:13). The revelations and the Holy Ghost were also removed (Mormon 1:14). Indeed, so evil were the Nephites, including those at Zarahemla, that Mormon was visited by the Lord and told that he was forbidden to preach the gospel to the people (Mormon 1:15-16).

After four years, war broke out again, and this time Mormon, only fifteen years old, is made the leader of the Nephite armies (presumably still headquartered at Zarahemla). If Mormon's father was the previous leader of the armies, then he either refused to lead the wicked Nephites (like Mormon did three decades later), or perhaps he had been killed or injured in a previous battle. Being the son of the commander, mentored by his father in warfare, and having inherited his father's royal responsibilities,  Mormon was selected to lead the army even though he was only fifteen years old (Mormon 2:1).

By 326 A.D., Mormon was in full charge of the army, but within a year he needed to retreat from the land of Zarahemla to the land northward where the wars continued (Mormon 2:3). Eventually the Nephite armies were given the land northward, including the narrow passage (Mormon 2:29). For the next thirty-six years, Mormon fought the Lamanites in battle after battle. Finally in his early fifties the great general refused to lead the unrepentant Nephites (Mormon 3:10-11). Mormon 6:12)

Although the war continued in the lands near the west sea (Mormon 4:1-3,19), Mormon spent 17 years away from the battle field. Since there is no record of a battle having taken place in Zarahemla, I tend to believe that Mormon had returned to the fortress city of Zarahemla, which was located far to the southeast. Apparently, during these years, the Nephites still had a chance to repent and establish a state of co-existence with the Lamanites.

However, sometime around 379 A.D. events turned very bleak for the Nephites (Mormon 5:5).  Mormon, battled scared and now in his mid-sixties, again took command of Nephite army (Mormon 5:1). He noted that during this time, "the Nephites did again flee from before them [the Lamanites], taking all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages. And now I, Mormon, seeing that the Lamanites were about to overthrow the land, therefore I did go to the hill Shim, and did take up all the records which Ammaron had hid up unto the Lord" (Mormon 4:22-23)." 

Thus we read that the Nephites left their towns and fled before the Lamanites. Mormon's record gives us the name of many of the cities that were destroyed by the Lamanites; however, Zarahemla was not one of them. We do not know the year when the Lamanite army approached the city of Zarahemla; however we can read:

And it came to pass that in the three hundred and eightieth year the Lamanites did come again against us to battle, and we did stand against them boldly, but it was all in vain, for so great were their numbers that they did tread the people of the Nephites under their feet. And it came to pass that we did again take flight, 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 5:6,7).

Returning to the archaeological record of Pukara, Peru we understand that:

  • Pukara was a decadent city during its final two centuries.
  • Pukara was abandoned circa 380 A.D.
  • Pukara was abandoned quickly and without a battle.

So here's how I envision the possible last hours of life at Zarahemla:  Mormon and his father had successfully defended the citizens of Zarahemla on several occasions, yet they would not repent. Around 379 A.D., the people realized that they were about to be destroyed and begged the old general to defend them once more. When Mormon agreed to take command of the army, they were relieved. However, theirs was a false hope, and Mormon knew it. He wrote, "They gave me command again of their armies, for they looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions. But behold, I was without hope..." (Mormon 5:1,2).

As the Lamanites approached the city of Zarahemla, Mormon engaged the much larger Lamanite army before it could reach the walls of the city. Knowing the situation was hopeless, Mormon's maneuver was probably designed to give the people of Zarahemla time to gather provisions and abandon the city. However, most of the people lingered in the once invincible city. As news reached the citizens of Zarahemla that the Nephite army had to retreat before the Lamanites, they must have dropped whatever they were doing and fled the city to try to find refuge in the nearby mountains. Those that could outrun the Lamanites hid in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, while those that could not died at the hands of the Lamanites. The great city of Zarahemla has remained in peaceful silence ever since.  Yet, what happened to its unrepentant citizens was far from serene. Mormon, who for decades had witnessed the horrible slaughter of war, wrote: "And now behold, I, Mormon, do not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes" (Mormon 5:8).

[i] Ernest David Adams Oshige,  "Earliest Sequence in the Site of Pukara, North Lake Basin Titicaca, (Lima: Pontifical Universidad Catolica del Peru, 2000),http://ebookbrowse.com/oshige-2010-pdf-d71084989.

[ii] Ibid.