Question: How can one properly view events in Ether scientifically?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: How can one properly view events in Ether scientifically?

Many critics[1] have claimed that there are scientific problems with the stories recorded in Ether. This article examines each one of them and gives a logical way to reconcile them scientifically. Most of the supposed “problems” are only based off of hyperliteralistic readings of the scriptures and are thus easily addressed as we look at how the ancient writers intended to write the scriptures (2 Nephi 31:3; D&C 1:24) and use science as an additional backdrop to identify how that influences the stories we read (D&C 88: 77-79).

Tower of Babel (Ether 1:3-5, 33-37)

One of the first mentioned by critics usually is the Tower of Babel—mentioning how there were obviously more than one language present on the earth in 2200 B.C. This has been addressed elsewhere on the wiki.

Coriantumr’s Age

One critic writes:

"The timing doesn’t work. Coriantumr was found and lived with the People of Zarahemla, who came over at 587 BC. The average generation length is in the upper 20 years, with some nations reaching 30. Let’s go with 30 as it’s more favorable to the LDS side. That gives us a maximum timeline of (28 * 30 + 100) = 940 years. The Tower of Babel was said to have fallen in 2200 BC. This puts the final battle where Coriantumr kills Shiz at 1260 BC, and it bumps Coriantumr’s life span to an unrealistic ~800+ years. The other option is to say that the generation gap was far higher than normal (~58 years); however, such a late start for children would severely decrease birth rates and put the 4 million+ population into question.

Jerry Grover’s assessment of Jaredite chronology is much more instructive and the assumptions are much more grounded in archaeology and history

Jerry Grover: A More Exact Jaredite Chronology

Having established a basic chronology above, we can further refine it by estimating the lengths of the reigns of the various Jaredite kings, based on the information given about them in the Book of Ether. The resulting chronology can then be confirmed and further developed by comparing it with major developments in Olmec settlement, as detailed by the archaeological record.

In the Book of Ether, the passing of kingship from father to son appears to follow the pattern of the last-born son receiving the kingship. This pattern began with the first generation, when Jared1 and his brother approached old age; none of the sons of the brother of Jared would accept the role, which was also rejected by all of Jared’s sons, except the youngest, Orihah (Ether 6:14, 21–27). Further in the record of Ether, there were six older sons who rebelled against their predecessors (Ether 7:4, 14–16; 8:2–3; 10:3, 13–14; 11:4) and 10 sons, who were born in the king’s “old age,” who replaced their fathers (Ether 7:3, 7, 10, 26; 8:1; 9:14, 23–25; 10:4, 13-16; 11:4).

Another factor affecting the ages of the youngest sons in relation to the father is polygyny (one man with multiple wives). Jared1 had 12 children, and his brother had 22 children (Ether 6:20). Orihah had 31 children, 23 of whom were sons (Ether 7:2). Many kings are said to have had “many sons and daughters” (Ether 7:12, 14; 9:21; 10:17). King Riplakish had “many wives and concubines” (Ether 10:5), and Jaredite men in general had “wives and children” (Ether 14:2).

Given this information, it is possible to at least estimate the chronology of the two separate Jaredite time periods, with a few assumptions. In order to attempt an estimate, the following assumptions will be made:

1.A descendant king takes the throne at an average age of 15 (if he were much younger than that, he may not have been capable of retaining the throne, given the Jaredite propensity for violent usurpation by older brothers).
2.The death ages of the kings are assumed as follows unless otherwise indicated in the text:

a) Unless otherwise indicated, the age of death is 70.

b) When the terms “good old age” or “old age” are used, the age of death is 80.

c) When the term “exceedingly old” is used, the age of death is 90.

d) If an individual was held entirely in captivity (which could cause a shortened lifespan based on poor treatment) or there was reference to a shorter life, then a “reign” of 35 years is assumed. An exception was made for Coriantor, since a variety of events occurred while he was in captivity.
3. On average there are no time elapses between the death of the old king and the ascendancy of the new king.
4. Where any age or reign is listed in the text, the years are adjusted to the 260-day calendar.
5. For Seth, since the text indicates his days were short, it is assumed he died at 55.
6. Jared1 and the brother of Jared were assumed to be 45 years old when they departed; the actual departure date is approximately 2650 BC
These initial date assumptions are not out of line with known ages of Maya kings:

Elites tended to have longer life spans because they had access to better quality food and they didn't wear their lives out with physically taxing work the way non-elites did. We only have data for both the birth dates and death dates of 17 Classic period Maya rulers, and their average age at death is 64.7 years. Some of the longest lived Maya kings were Itzamnaaj B'alam II of Yaxchilan was between 94.8 and 98.5 years old when he died, Calakmul's king Yukno'om the Great lived to be 85, Chan Imix K'awiil of Copan was about 83 when he died, a ruler of El Cayo named Chak Lakamtuun lived to 82, K'inich Janaab' Pakal from Palenque was 80, Aj Wosal of Naranjo was at least 78, and K'an Joy Chitam (also from Palenque) lived until he was 74. (Wright 2016)


One permutation of these assumptions is that, often, the “kings” listed were in captivity, so it would not be necessary for their offspring to be of sufficient age to defend the throne. This would provide for a longer term for that particular king. That may be offset by the death of a king earlier than the estimate.With the parameters establishing that the Jaredites departed prior to 2500 BC, and the radiometric dating of the Heth and Shiblom volcanic events and other corollary evidence and events discussed elsewhere, it is possible to establish a reasonable Jaredite chronology. Given these parameters, table 3 identifies the Jaredite calendar timeline, showing the years passed to the end of a particular king’s reign.

Gardner (2015) has argued for a shorter timeframe for the Jaredites—a total of 900 years, with an average reign of 30 years—based on the length of reigns of some known Maya kings, with no gap years between Riplakish and Morionton. Sorenson has indicated a span of 2,000 to 2,300 years (Sorenson 2013). Sorenson did not provide the methodology behind his most recent estimation, so comparisons of his method in that work is not possible. In a previous work, he did identify a Jaredite chronology starting in 3100 BC and extending to 570 BC (Sorenson 1969). In that 1969 work, he included a gap period of 100 years and, of necessity, gave many kings lifespans well beyond 100 years. Palmer (1982) also proposes a Jaredite chronology, extending from 2700 BC to 600 BC, assuming reigns of 70 years and a gap period of 130 years. It is important to note that the chronology in table 3 is a calculated framework based on known volcanic events as well as a known departure date range.

Discussion of Mesoamerican Archaeological Correlation with the Calculated Jaredite Chronology

The First Jaredite Chronological Period

The first Jaredite chronological period in the New World is 2600–2023 BC. Based on the description given for the founding Jaredite group, consisting of 24 individuals (Ether 6:16), it is not likely that there would be any archaeological evidence found for this initial group. If one assumes a standard annual population growth rate for ancient peoples of 1.25 percent per year, within 200 years, a population of 287 people would be expected. After 200 years (2400 BC), there is mention of a couple of “lands,” one city, and an “army” raised by an individual dissident exile (Ether 8:6). The word “army” is not mentioned again in the Book of Ether until the time of Morionton(Ether 10:9), which was in 1420 BC.

While one should not read too much into this terminology in relation to size (an early city may just be an agricultural village or hamlet, and an army could be only 100 people or so), it does seem very probable that the Jaredite group at this point was involving other native populations, since an “army” was raised by an exiled dissident.

According to our timeline, in 2401–2336 BC, the Jaredite population was reduced through warfare to 30 persons,plus Omer and his family with whom he escaped, so perhaps 50 to 60 people were left. Shortly thereafter, from 2336–2281 BC, the “house of Emer” prospered agriculturally and utilized some domesticated or semi-domesticated animals. From 2281–2195 BC, “many mighty cities” were built as the people began to spread over “all the face of the land.” Again, using average population growth rates, over roughly 120 years, a population that started with 60 people would be expected to grow to 266 people. As indicated previously, the reference made to population growth and population centers indicates there was an increase in the local indigenous population, over which the Jaredites maybe exerted some political influence. Again, these areas were likely agriculturally based hamlets or villages.

In 2160–2130 BC, there was a severe famine in which the “inhabitants were destroyed exceedingly fast” (Ether 9:30). No mention is made of the surviving population after the famine, however, and from 2130–2055 BC, many cities were built up “on the face of the land,” and people “began to spread all over the face of the land.” The fairly short period of recovery time in which cities were built indicates again that the size of a city from the perspective of the Jaredite record-keeper was quite different from modern perceptions or even later Jaredite perspectives. The text itself is indicative of limited population centers.

From 2055–2023 BC, during Riplakish’s reign, he built an “exceedingly beautiful throne,” levied taxes, and built many tax prisons (Ether 10). The people rebelled and waged war, and Riplakish was killed and his descendants driven “out of the land.” Though there was some higher level of cultural sophistication in the beginning, it appears that the ensuing war was still a tribal family affair. To this point in the Book of Ether, the only lands mentioned were Nehor and Moron, so it can be assumed that the geographic area was still quite limited, probably encompassing or in close proximity to the area of the Tuxtla Mountains.

In Mesoamerican archaeology this period falls into the Archaic Period (ca. 3500–2000 BC). During the Archaic Period agriculture was developed in the region and permanent villages were established. Late in this era, use of pottery and loom weaving became common and class divisions began to appear. Many of the basic technologies of Mesoamerica such as stone-grinding, drilling, pottery making, etc., were established during this period.

In the area of the Olmec, excavations at San Andres (near later La Venta) indicate domestication of manioc in 4600 BC, and in 2500 BC, people were practicing a mixed economy of foraging and farming, with the domestication of maize, sunflowers, and cotton; they presumably used canoes, weapons, digging sticks, net baskets, and ritual objects fashioned from wood or other objects (Diehl 2004, 24). Although this archaeological period is largely ignored, in the Tuxtlas, pollen of plants indicative of agriculture has been dated to 2880 BC. The Mesoamerican archaeological record is generally consistent with the limited description found in the Book of Ether.

Gap Period

The gap in the Jaredite record occurs in the time period encompassing 2023–1420 BC. All that is known about this period is that no primary king was in power (at least none is mentioned) and that at the end of the period there existed “many cities.” The Olmec archaeological record indicates, depending on the archaeologist consulted, that the Olmec culture started between 1450 BC and no later than 1250 BC.

In the Coatzacoalcos River basin, 105 sites have been identified with Ojochi and Bajío ceramic phases (ca. 1750-1450 BC). The earliest occupation identified at San Lorenzo was 1800 BC (Cyphers et al. 2014, 73). More than threequarters of these sites are clustered within 90 kilometers of San Lorenzo (Pool 2007, 125).

The Second Chronological Period

1420–1065 BC

In the Jaredite chronology, the period of 1420–1065 BC starts with Morionton and an army of outcasts giving battle “unto the people.” Morionton gained power over many cities, and then, over the space of many years, gained power over all the land and made himself king (Ether 10:9). During this period many cities were built, and the people became rich in buildings and other worldly goods, and the people “did prosper in the land” (Ether 10:16). During this period there continued familial vying for political control by force.

The archaeological evidence in the Olmec heartland for this period mirrors the Book of Mormon description. San Lorenzo grew from 1400 BC until its demise in 1000 BC (Cheetham and Blomster 2017, 16), as did the regional settlements, with the total area of permanent settlement increasing 10 fold (Pool 2007, 126). At Laguna de los Cerros and the Upper San Juan Basin, prior to 1400 BC, settlement was sparse. Laguna de los Cerros was founded sometime between 1400 BC and 1200 BC. Settlement densities increased drastically after 1400 BC, reaching 35 settlements by 1200 BC and 153 settlements by 1000 BC (Pool 2007, 128). Some local settlements also existed in the La Venta area as well.

1065–750 BC

In the Jaredite chronology, the period of 1065–750 BC starts with Lib1 building a “great city” near the narrow neck where the sea divides the land. By some mechanism, poisonous serpents that had infested the area for a thousand years were killed, opening up a hunting area in the adjacent land southward. Initially the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants. There were a variety of products manufactured including “all manner of fine work,” “all manner of cloth,” agricultural tools, and “all manner of work of exceedingly curious workmanship.” During the latter part of this period there was conflict, war, robbers, and changes in kingship.

The archaeological evidence in the Olmec heartland for this period mirrors the Book of Mormon description. The fluorescence of the city of La Venta is dated from 1000 BC to 400 BC (Pool 2007, 158). The city of Tres Zapotes was founded sometime in the centuries before 1000 BC and emerged as a regional center early in the Middle Formative Period, perhaps 900–800 BC, roughly coinciding with the decline of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. San Lorenzo experienced its serious demise around 1000 BC, as did the San Juan River Basin, where Laguna de los Cerros was located, which continued through the end of the Middle Formative Period (1000–400 BC). All that remained of San Lorenzo was a medium-sized village, and the regional population fell by nearly 92%. In the adjacent San Juan River Basin, the number of identified inhabited sites fell by 63% (Pool 2007, 152). Military conflict is one of the suspected causes of the decline of San Lorenzo (Diehl 2004).

750–400 BC

In the Jaredite chronology, for the period of 750-400 BC, the first decades included an “exceedingly great war,” followed by pestilence, famine, and a “great destruction.” The next three centuries included ongoing political and military conflict within and between kingdoms, which resulted in the final great civil war, which led to the destruction of the Jaredite nation. A king named Moron arose during the middle of this period, whose name perhaps makes reference to the early land of Moron.

The archaeological evidence in the Olmec heartland for this period mirrors the Book of Mormon description. San Lorenzo continued its demise, as did the San Juan River Basin. During the middle of the period, the population migrated to the outskirts of Tres Zapotes and La Venta. At the end of the period, La Venta (along with San Lorenzo and the rest of the Olmec heartland area) was also essentially abandoned. Tres Zapotes is not abandoned in 400 BC, but over the next few centuries, cultural changes result in the Olmec remnant Epi-Olmec culture.

The calculated Jaredite chronology outlined in table 3 corresponds well with the Olmec archaeological chronology[2]

Food and Water for Those on Board including Animals

One author wrote:

"Lacking basic necessities. How much water would you need for 24+ people to survive 344 days on the ocean? According to the MayoClinic, each person needs 2.2-3.0 liters of water per day. Minimum. That's 756.8 liters per person per year, or 16649.6 liters for the entire trip for 24+. That's just for the sedentary adult. Now add the flocks and herds that they're also bringing. There's at least three sheep per flock. Multiple flocks, so even if we only add 6 sheep to the mix, that's another 12-24 liters per day or an additional 4128 liters of water per 3 sheep. If the herds are made of cattle, then you're now adding 40-70 liters per head per day. That comes to 13,760 - 24,080 liters per head. Now also ask how you're going to store these 40,729.6+ liters of water (40.7 meters, 1445 ft)? You're in a ship that can flip over any moment. You can't use pottery, barrels, or bowls. Any leaks would mean death. Animal skins would introduce bacteria. It's just not going to happen. And that's just water. Livestock, sanitation, scurvy/health, and food for everyone is another matter entirely. It's also worth mentioning that the WHO confirms these numbers will go up by 3-10x with even moderate activity or pregnancy/lactation. Higher salt intake (as it's the only means of preserving food at this time) would also increase water needs.

Propadeutically we should establish that the ocean crossing took the Jaredites 344 days and the text gives us good indication that they stopped along the way. In Ether 6:8 it states that “The wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters”. That phrase can be interpreted to mean that they were continuously upon the water, but the interpretation with more explanatory power would be that they stopped occasionally since they made the journey in 344 days and the average is no more than two-four months for a crossing (more information below). The next question we would need to answer is which ocean the Jaredites used to arrive in the New World---the pacific or Atlantic. There are good arguments for both sides.

Atlantic Ocean

If the Jaredites used the Atlantic Ocean, there are a few (though admittedly not many) places to stop for provision. If leaving from Northwest Africa or Southwest Europe (depending on which side of the Mediterrenean the Jaredites chose to come from or which direction they sailed through if going through the Med after leaving the Old World), the Jaredites would stop anywhere among the scattered Islands off the coast and then have to make on big push to the promised land. They could have plausibly stopped to reprovision, jettison animals and other unnecessary supplies. If we take the statements that the Lord blew towards to promised land directly, then they could have perhaps made stops in Cuba before making it to Mesoamerica (all assuming that Mesoamerica consists of the lands of the Book of Mormon).

The journey would have been much shorter if they didn’t stop for provisions. The journey from China to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec would have been 120 days if made continuously[3]

Pacific Crossing

While crossing the Pacific, it is possible that the Jaredites used “coasting” as a way of staying near land fall so that they could make any restock needed. It is now[4] known that ancient transoceanic crossers made just such a journey[5]. There are also several islands in the Pacific Ocean that could have been made for such a journey. The journey, if made continuously, would only be about 2-4 months. Thor Heyerdahl made the trip on raft from Morocco to the Caribbean in two months[6]

Either way, we have ability to resupply and make adjustments to travels as necessary, we have plausible indications in the text that this was so, and we have plausible routes for them to follow. We have at least a good chance that they did not bring livestock with them all the way to the new world as there is no mention of them upon arrival. We have no indication that women and men conceived while aboard so points about lactation are moot. The only activity reported among the Jaredites is "[singing] praises unto the Lord" and "not [ceasing to praise the Lord". This is light activity. Along with potable water brought from home and collected from stops a long the way, fresh water rain collection is available through vents built into the structures. See here under "Joseph Smith and Jaredite Ships" for more information regarding likely structure of vents.

Sheep, Bees, and Barges

Sheep

is often claimed that sheep were anachronistic to the Americas prior to the 1400s. We have addressed this here. Regarding the flocks carried on board, the text does not mention that the flocks arrived to the New World with them. In fact, it only claims that the Jaredites arrived and began to till the earth (Ether 6:13). Reference to Grover's chronology and the specific mentions of flocks in Ether may also be enlightening here.

Bees

It is claimed that bees are anachronistic to the Americas. This is addressed here. It has been further claimed that bees could not be transported to the Americas since moveable hives were not around. It is possible to take a hive and move it with a woven basket. Bees can also be temporarily disabled using smoke. But the text gives us no indication that they took their bees across the ocean. It also doesn’t tell us if they jettisoned the bees in their journey and/or if they gleaned whatever resources they could from the bees and then jettisoned them.

Barges

One critic claims:

These ships didn’t exist. It would be about 1500 years until sea faring barges showed up in history. It was also 3500 years earlier than the first known submarine. It’s also the only wooden boat in history that is made with several water tight and usable doors, water tight corks in the top and bottom, and doubles as a submarine. That’s not even mentioning how it can be propelled by a wind that never stops; seeing as it has no sails, but would have significant drag from the weight and shape.
  1. The comparison to a "submarine" is a straw man. The claim is not that the boats travel underwater. Instead, they are sufficiently water tight that they are buoyant--if they have a wave crash over them, they bob back up to the surface ("like a fowl upon the waters" as it puts it--we can think of a duck or the like floating along. You can submerge them, but they pop right back up.)
  2. The wind doesn't need sails to push the boat--if the wind is blowing, that creates waves, which moves the ship. If one has ever seen a floating piece of wood in a lake, and thrown stones near it to drive it in a give direction, the idea is the same--waves transfer energy. (Note that the text has this as something of a miracle--they "commending themselves unto the Lord their God" (Ether 6:5)). They seem well aware that this is a risky undertaking. The next verse describes exactly how the travel works—yet the critic doesn't mention it, or is unaware of it: "And it came to pass that the Lord God caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land; and thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind" (6:6). We also have a travel time of 344 days which gives us a lot of time to travel to the New World. Remember, one can travel to the New World in 2-4 months. This took nearly 12.
  3. The earliest sea-faring boats date to about 65,000 years ago permitting the colonization of Australia, for example. Whether one chooses to label these as "barges" or not, they are sea-faring ships. So that part isn't anachronistic at all.

Once you have ships that are seaworthy in some sense, is it really that much of a stretch to enclose the boat? They're not building the things out of metal or anything that will sink if the design isn't just right. They're made out of wood. Once you have even a very primitive sea-going craft, enclosing it overhead is a relatively trivial exercise, and adding more wood to a wooden boat is not going to make it more likely to sink.

How about making it "water-tight"? By 3100 BC Egyptians were making "sewn boats"[7]. The use of pitch as an adhesive is attested to by 40,000 years ago[8] "Since the Neolithic, bitumen served to waterproof containers (baskets, earthenware jars, storage pits), wooden posts, palace grounds (e.g. in Mari and Haradum), reserves of lustral waters, bathrooms, palm roofs, etc. Mats, sarcophagi, coffins and jars, used for funeral practices, were often covered and sealed with bitumen. Reed and wood boats were also caulked with bitumen." Pitch can be extracted from wood by dry distillation[9] or from natural seepage. By the 5th millennium BC, bitumen was used to waterproof a crop storage basket.[10] So at least by 5000 BC, people had figured out that coating boats with bitumen (pitch) made them more waterproof. Let's give ancient people some credit--they weren't idiots, and if you're using this kind of tech for a basket, then it's hardly unlikely that someone is going to think to apply it to boats. And in fact, this is what happened: "The earliest reed boat discovered to date was coated with bitumen, at the site of H3 at As-Sabiyah in Kuwait, dated about 5000 BC; its bitumen was found to have come from the Ubaid site of Mesopotamia."[11] "Known as the Ubaids, the settlers of the marshy lands lived in houses made of marsh reeds, which they would bundle together with bulrush fiber. Before bitumen, the Ubaids only coated their walls with mud, leaving them vulnerable to frequent flooding and other elements. Once they discovered bitumen deposits and observed the substance’s behavior as an adhesive and sealant, however, they ditched mud and began coating their homes with bitumen.... The Ubaids didn’t stop with their homes. They also used bitumen to seal their paddle boats, also made of marsh reeds. The Ubaids became the first seafarers to be documented in history, thanks to waterproofed boats allowing them to venture further out to sea. "[12]

By the 3rd millennium BC, it was used to line a great bath. The Sumerians also used it for ship caulking. There are words for it in Sumerian, Sanskrit, and Assyrian. Note that Noah's ark is said to use "pitch" to seal it (Genesis 6:14).

It’s unlikely that we would be able to locate such barges. Most boats, by nature, are going to be in the water. That increases the risk of breakdown over time. (And arguably if they have sunk, it may be that their waterproofing qualities have degenerated over time.)

It’s also uncertain why a "waterproof door" is a major problem. If you can make the bottom of a boat waterproof (after all, the bottom is not one solid piece of wood--it is wood joined together and made waterproof) why can't you do the same thing in the wall or roof of a ship?

Preserving Food

It is claimed that preserving food would not have been available since “water tight dishes would not be needed as claimed”. It is never claimed that such things were “needed” — only that they were used. Such claims are meaningless without any indication from the Book of Mormon.

Transporting fish is not as anachronistic as once thought.We now have evidence from around 2000 years ago that it was possible.[13] The cited article provides evidence that is later than the Jaredites, but the evidence depends upon discovery, and we have one example--from which an industry may be extrapolated.

The Final Battle

One critic writes:

Warfare is wrong. Native Americans around this time did not have steel swords. Millions of dead natives would have left a trace. And according to historians, hand to hand engagements did not last that long. We’re talking about a maximum of hours, not several days. Routing, sieges, and hunting down enemies would extend it, but that is not the story being told here.

The population sizes that fought in the battle

Some have claimed that the population sizes for the final battle in the Book of Mormon are too large from what we know from archaeology and other science. We shouldn’t consider the number of “two millions” (Ether 15:2) to be literal. This should be taken as a metaphorical accounting of the dead. There would simply be no way to count all of the dead.[14]

What about the critic's assertion that such massive numbers would leave a trace?

John Sorenson:

Problems for Archaeology: Evidence for Warfare

How does one go about locating and excavating a battlefield? This rhetorical question points to many of the reasons why military conflict among the Maya went so long undetected by archaeologists. For example, David Webster, the leader in Mesoamerican war studies, observed, “If we had to rely only on archaeological materials, we would dismiss as inconsequential one of the most important components [i.e., warfare] in the structure and evolution of . . . society.”[15] One reason is that “weaponry is seldom recovered from archaeological contexts [although it] is frequently depicted in art.”[16] Yet artistic representations can be hard to turn into history. Rands’s dissertation in 1952 showed substantial artistic evidence of armed conflict during the Mesoamerican Classic period,[17] but hardly anyone picked up on it for another 25 years, when the excavation of the fortification at Becán was reported. Chase and Chase agree that “warfare is extremely difficult to see in the archaeological record.”[18] This is true not just for Mesoamerica but for anyplace in the world.[19]

A fundamental problem in interpreting the historical significance of warfare from the few remains revealed by archaeology was underlined by Stocker on the basis of Aztec history:

Were it not for the written record, conquest as the major variable in the expansion of the Aztec state would never have been known. Aztec history spanned some 200 years, and [we know from their documents] they conquered 250 major centers. These centers had their own tributaries; therefore, they in essence conquered approximately 1000 to 2500 centers.[They] placed governors and some of their own population at only eight of these conquered centers. There is no evidence of an Aztec conquest at centers without governors, nor is there any evidence of Aztec presence at . . . tributaries of the sites at which governors were placed.[20]

If the same situation was the case in earlier centuries, then we must suppose that the archaeological evidence that has come forward in recent years in Mesoamerica must be seen as merely preliminary. Webster must be right in emphasizing the scale of the intellectual shift that has been required in coming to see a major role for warfare in Mesoamerican culture history. Fortifications are the most obvious material evidence for armed conflict. The first serious study of Mesoamerican fortifications was published in 1948 (in English in 1951) by archaeologist Pedro Armillas (a mentor of mine),[21] but his work depended strictly on documentary sources on the Aztecs.[22] The study was largely ignored by Mesoamericanist colleagues, just as Rands’s work was ignored by Mayanists. The conventional wisdom blinded experts to the significance of conflict in the cultures of the area. Decades later its importance became obvious as Webster and others “documented warfare over much of the [Maya geographical] range” by locating “destruction levels, mass burials, and fortifications from Middle and Late Preclassic times.”[23]However, Webster warned, “no conclusions about war can be drawn on the basis of the lack of fortifications. . . . [Their] absence may be more apparent than real. Very flimsy defenses were highly effective given [limited] Maya military capabilities, and few traces of such constructions might survive or be initially recognized.”[24]

The failure of once-impressive walls to survive visibly is easy to document. An extreme example is a case recorded by the Spanish conquistadors. They reported the presence of a six-mile-long wall across a valley on the main route between the Valley of Mexico and neighboring Tlaxcala; the wall was 20 feet thick and nine feet high, with a wooden breastwork atop it.[25] Yet no trace of it has been reported by archaeologists. Furthermore, in colonial days the Spaniards forced the Indians of the Valley of Mexico to erect a great stone wall enclosing a huge area to contain the Europeans’ cattle. More than two million natives labored for four months on the vast project, yet today no trace of it has been identified.[26] In Yucatan shortly before the Europeans arrived, “the temples and houses of the lords [of Mayapan] were said [in tradition] to have been surrounded by a wall, of which no trace could be found” by excavators.[27] Much less could we expect to find more ancient defensive structures that had been deteriorating for longer periods. At Kaminaljuyu, after generations of archaeological research by many parties, only in the early 1990s did Japanese archaeologists find a 164-foot (50 m) segment of what they termed the “great wall”[28]that dates back perhaps to the first civilized period there (ca. the sixth century bc, making it the earliest discovered fortification wall in Mesoamerica). It had been built of piled-up soil 25 feet (7.6 m) high. Finding a short section of that 2,500-year-old construction within the Guatemala City urban area was strictly a matter of luck; most of the original must have been destroyed long ago. Obviously the feature would have been functionally meaningless unless it had been completed around at least the heart of the city (as was the case later at Cholula and other Mesoamerican cities).[29] Since the site of Kaminaljuyu is here considered to be the city of Nephi, and Nephi had a wall around it (Jacob 7:25; Mosiah 7:10; 9:8) at about that time, discovery of the Guatemalan wall by these researchers provides a striking correspondence. (Presumably, the wall around the city of Nephi would have been modeled in concept on the one that surrounded Jerusalem; compare 1 Nephi 4 and 2 Nephi 5:16.)

A supplementary correspondence involving the wall is that it needed consistent repair in order to retain its protective power. The wall found by the Japanese archaeologists was simply of piled-up earth, probably coated with a layer of clay. It would have been subject to erosion by the regular rains and thus required systematic maintenance. When the Zeniffites returned to the city of Nephi and reoccupied it, only a few years after Mosiah1’s people had abandoned the site, they immediately began to “repair the walls of the city” (Mosiah 9:8) to restore their previous function.

Archaeologists have been dealt a bad hand by history and the erosive forces of nature; nevertheless, through a combination of documentary history, art, and archaeology it has become possible to draw a partial picture of war in the Mesoamerican past. But so much depends on the mindset of the archaeologists who interpret the evidence that the picture may long remain incomplete and confusing. (Cowgill contrasts his conservative interpretation of the effects of war among the Maya with the views of military-minded Webster, even though they both dealt with the same set of facts.)[30][31]

The criticism conflates Ether 7 with the mention of millions in Ether 14-15. There are numerous differences and a rather great time span between those chapters, so its lazy reading at best, and deliberately misreading at worst to assume there were millions of steel swords. Even one of the most studied battles at Hastings yields little direct evidence, and historians still debate its exact location. Scholars recently[32] "found" a lost army and so forth.

Steel in this story isn't very problematic. We need to remember that this is Joseph's translation of Moroni's abridgment of Mosiah's translation of the Jaredite record. Mosiah may have translated the metal as steel since "in Mosiah's society a king was expected to have a steel sword as his royal weapon"[33] Mosiah had inherited a sword, Laban's, "a steel weapon that was passed down as one of the insignia of royalty" [34]. Nevertheless the Jaredites may have had magnetite, hematite, or other iron that they hardened into steel. More information here.

This article examines other ancient texts and proposes a few scenarios that may apply to Jaredite battle as well.

Shiz Raising Up on His Hands

Fighting for Many Days

This criticism conflates the skirmish warfare of most Northern American tribes with far less social and political organization with the far more advanced cultures from central America that had rather sophisticated cultures. San Lorenzo and La Venta (assuming a Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon) both had large populations and decent territorial control at a time when Rome was a still a collection of huts on a few hills, and this was centuries before the final battles of the Jaredites.

The criticism seems to lack a good grasp of battle, including how they are defined and their length measured. The criticism assumes that battles just can't last very long, but a very short amount of research found many multi day battles. There are various reasons for this including partial sieges, stand offs between armies vying for position, pre and during battle maneuver, and chasing down defeated armies.

The criticism is aimed at the Jaredite account for having battles that lasted all day for multiple days, but there are plenty of ancient accounts that record similar or multi-day battles. The Battle of Fei River and Hulao Pass both had significant stand offs. This is where the armies skirmished a bit, but they both held defensive positions and were trying to see how they could break the opponents’ position. In the case of Fei River Fu Rong moved his soldiers which precipitated confusion, panic and retreat. The opposing soldiers read the signs in the ground and then pursued them and killed 70-80% of the army (which goes to large numbers of casualties as well.)

The Battle of Red Cliffs also featured a long pursuit through marshes and difficult terrain which might be considered a multi-day battle.

The Battle of Hulao pass Li Shimin (ruling name Tang Taizong), made the opposing army hold their position for hours which made them avoid lunch and get stiff, both literally and in their tactical responses. He sent a cavalry force to see how the enemy reacted. When they were slow in responding and reacted fearfully Li Shimin sent a full attack. The pre battle maneuver, stand-off, then resulting attack and chasing down the fleeing army and regrouping remnants took more than one day.

In the Sicilian Expedition the Athenian army tried to besiege Syracuse. But the Spartans landed an army in reinforcements and they fought a series of engagements and built counter reinforcements. This shows how classifying battles and determining their length can get confusing (especially when people deliberately apply a narrow definition to prove something doesn't fit with "science"). But they fought a bunch of mini battles, including one at night where one side painted themselves white to better facilitate command and control, and the cumulative total was a spring and summer of near constant fighting. One could almost say that they would "fight all day and conquer not." (Ether 15:15)

In the Battle of Gergovia Caesar fought Vercingetorix. The latter had a commanding defensive position so the former had to rely on a combination of maneuver, siege, fighting, and desperate battle to finally break the Gallic army. Again, its tough to time the individual actions as each element of the campaign (active battle, siege, maneuver, marching), blended into each other.

The more complex the battles are, the more they can raise armies and sustain them in the field, which means they can fight multiple campaigns and many battles. There were some tribes such as the Cree who for much of their history were hunter gatherers that fought very few of what we would call battles, most were skirmishes with a few soldiers. But others like the Aztecs raised large armies, sent them on long campaigns, and had battle after battle on those campaigns.

The Jaredites had a sophisticated society (as may be seen by places like La Venta and San Lorenzo in Mesoamerica but that is only authorial bias) with large populations that could raise and support large armies. Those armies could then fight a series of engagements: some combinations of pre-battle maneuver (Ether 15:8), stand offs (even exchanging messages Ether 15:18), chasing down fleeing armies (Ether 15:10), and then finally it seems they were two punch drunk fighters with nothing left in their armies to maneuver or negotiate and they just came to a place, likely with ritual importance (15:11) and strategic value. In fact, their four year standoff while they gathered strength reminds one of the build up to the Battle of Hulao. They didn't have the logistical strength to go any further, so they fought the pivotal battle (that with the army marching, then standoff, and then battle, then mopping up it all likely took longer than one day) all happened at one place.

Conclusion

In all, we should not forget that the accounts are covering hundreds of years of history and aren’t necessarily meant for super accurate history. We also don’t know every detail of how the Lord provided for the Jaredites in their initial journey to the New World and their extended history leading up to the Nephite arrival.

Notes

  1. This article is written in response to a list of supposed problems created by reddit user u/curious_mormon. The list has been used by other critics in order to bring up problems in the narrative of the Jaredites
  2. Jerry Grover, "The Swords of Shule" (Provo, UT: Challex Scientific Publishing, 2018) 61-6
  3. Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007) 6:229. Gardner cites Joseph L. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, UT: SA Publishers, 1989), 260.
  4. This line written 29 March 2019
  5. See Jason Daley, “First Humans Entered the Americas Along the Coast, Not Through the Ice” <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/humans-colonized-americas-along-coast-not-through-ice-180960103/#b4swDByY8eP6m68e.99> (accessed 29 March 2019); Cecily Hilleary, “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory” <https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-for-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html> (accessed 29 March 2019)
  6. Gardner , Second Witness 229 citing Allen, Lands of the Book of Mormon
  7. Wikipedia, “Shipbuilding – Pre-history <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipbuilding#Pre-history> (accessed 3 April 2019)
  8. Connan, J., “Use and Trade of Bitumen in Antiquity and Prehistory: Molecular Archaeology Reveals Secrets of Past Civilizations.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, vol. 354, no. 1379, 1999, pp. 33–50., doi:10.1098/rstb.1999.0358.
  9. Wikipedia, “Dry distillation” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_distillation> (accessed 3 April 2019)
  10. Wikipedia, “Shipbuilding – Pre-history”
  11. K. Kris Hirst, “The Archaeology and History [of] Bitumen” <https://www.thoughtco.com/bitumen-history-of-black-goo-170085> (accessed 3 April 2019)
  12. All Mesopotamia, “Mesopotamia’s gooey symbol of progress” <https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/tag/bitumen/> (accessed 3 April 2019)
  13. Charles Q. Quoi, "Ancient Roman Shipwreck May Have Held Giant Fish Tank" <https://www.livescience.com/14406-fish-tank-ancient-roman-shipwreck.html.> (accessed 3 April 2019)
  14. Gardner, Second Witness, 6:320
  15. David Webster, “Warfare and Status Rivalry: Lowland Maya and Polynesian Comparisons,” in Archaic States, ed. Gary M. Feinman and Joyce Marcus (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1998), 350–51.
  16. David Webster, “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War,” Journal of World Prehistory 14/1 (2000): 101-2
  17. Robert L. Rands, “Some Evidences of Warfare in Classic Maya Art” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1952).
  18. Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, “Texts and Contexts in Maya Warfare: A Brief Consideration of Epigraphy and Archaeology at Caracol, Belize,” in Brown and Stanton, Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare, 171–88.
  19. William Rathje, “Dr. Garbage” to archaeologists, has an authoritative word to say about the difficulties of battlefield archaeology: “At any battle site, archaeologists are enthralled by the specter of finding spear points and pieces of chain mail at the positions predicted by history or legend. Perhaps the most disappointed were the British archaeologists who excavated the reputed site of the Battle of Hastings, where William the Conqueror’s Normans decimated King Harold’s Anglo-Saxons, on the battle’s 900th anniversary in 1966. [All] the historical treasure trove they recovered consisted of a few human and horse teeth that survived the scavengers and the forces of nature. . . . After the deciding clash [at the Battle of Culloden] between the Scottish Clans and British troops on April 16, 1746, virtually all the dead were picked clean of weapons, armor, valuables, and clothing, down to the last memento, by the ubiquitous camp followers, both professional scavengers and ladies of the night. Then the bodies were neatly stacked in large piles and set ablaze.” William L. Rathje, “The World’s Oldest Profession,” MSW Management (The Journal for Municipal Solid Waste Professionals) (2002); at http://www.mswmanagement.com/MSW/Articles/The_Worlds_Oldest_Profession_3982.aspx.
  20. Terry Stocker, “Conquest, Tribute and the Rise of the State,” in Studies in the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions: The V. Gordon Childe Colloquium, Mexico, 1986, ed. Linda Manzanilla, BAR International Series 349 (Oxford: BAR, 1987), 367.
  21. Pedro Armillas, “Fortalezas mexicanas,” Cuadernos americanos 41/5 (1948): 143–63. For an English version, see Armillas, “Mesoamerican Fortifications,” Antiquity 25 (1951): 77–86.
  22. Angel Palerm, “Notas sobre las construcciones militares y la guerra en Mesoamerica,” Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 8 (1954): 123–34.
  23. David Webster, “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War,” Journal of World Prehistory 14/1 (2000): 69
  24. Webster, “Not So Peaceful Civilization,” 74; emphasis added.
  25. Hubert H. Bancroft, Native Races of the Pacific States (1875; repr., San Francisco: Bancroft, 1883), 2:416–17.
  26. Henry F. Dobyns, “Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate,” Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 406.
  27. Harry E. D. Pollock et al., Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico, Publication 619 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1962), 264.
  28. Kuniaki Ohi et al., “Los resultados de las investigaciones arqueológicas en Kaminaljuyu,” in X Simposio de investigaciones arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1996, ed. Juan P. Laporte and Héctor L. Escobedo (Guatemala: Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, 1997), 93–94.
  29. Joseph B. Mountjoy and David Peterson, Man and Land at Prehispanic Cholula, Anthropology Publication 4 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1973), 3.
  30. George L. Cowgill, “Teotihuacan, Internal Militaristic Competition, and the Fall of the Classic Maya,” in Maya Archaeology and Ethnohistory, ed. Norman Hammond and Gordon R. Willey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), 62.
  31. John Sorenson, "Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book" (Provo and Salt Lake City: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2013) Ch 18, "Warfare" under Problems for Archaeology: Evidence for Warfare
  32. written 3 April 2019
  33. William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, "Swords in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, edited by Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 347
  34. Ibid.