As we read the Book of Mormon, we can’t help but try to match it up to cities and lands we know of today. Archaeologists have found plenty of evidence throughout the Americas, but due to scarcity of unique physical details in the text and the possibility of geographical features changing, it is hard to pin one place as unquestionably the site of the Nephites and Lamanites. The best beginning point for finding a matching geographical location seems to be the “small neck of land” mentioned as separating the lands of Desolation to the north and Bountiful to the south. This is the largest and most unique natural feature that is mentioned, and it is mentioned after the geographical changes occuring in 3 Nephi, so it is a good place to start.
Out of the five possible sites that I have seen people talk about, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico seems to be the most likely option. The most common argument against it is that it is more than a “day and a half’s journey” across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. But this argument may be based on a misreading of the Book of Mormon’s description. Does the Book of Mormon really say it is a day and a half’s journey from sea to sea, or is it simply a day and a half’s journey from the lands of the Nephites to the western side of the isthmus?
Isthmus of Panama
The thin point between North and South America would seem to be the “small neck of land.” But the rest of the geography described in the Book of Mormon doesn’t fit at all. This seems unlikely to be the Book of Mormon site.
At first glance, the thin space between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario would seem to be the the answer, considering it is closest to where Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates. But the problem is this thin space is too narrow. It is only 20 miles across and can easily be traveled in a day by foot. If you interpret Alma 22 as not actually saying it was a day and half from sea to sea but rather from the lands inhabited by Nephites to the west sea–it still doesn’t make sense. The scriptures say the lands were nearly completely surrounded by water, and the New York region is only bordered by water on the East Coast. Also, the Niagara Peninsula connects to an westward land, not a northward land. It would be easier to travel around the east side of Lake Ontario if you wanted to go north.
Isthmus of Riva in Nicaragua
Some have proposed the isthmus between Lake Cocibolca and the Pacific ocean in Nicaragua. This is a much more likely setting. It is only 10 miles across, not even close to a day and a half’s journey, but maybe the land Bountiful was a day and a half in the lush land to the south-east. But then we have the same problem as with Lake Ontario: why not just travel around the east side of the lake? Alma says the land was “nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land.” I don’t think the San Juan river running from the lake to the east counts as some kind of impenetrable barrier of water. But still, this theory is possible. Keep in mind, the entire face of the land changed in 3 Nephi, so many of the geographical details may have changed.
Isthmus of Tehuantepec
Most scholars in the church agree on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the setting, due to its proximity to Mayan settlements that match details in the Book of Mormon. Many details match as well.
Migration Southward – The Mulekites first arrived in the land of Desolation north of the small neck of land, and then traveled south through the wilderness to settle the land of Zarahemla. This southern wilderness is presumably higher elevation, as we are told they “came from there up into the south wilderness.” Additionally, this southern wilderness named Bountiful was “filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food.” This matches the migration patterns of animals after the Ice Age through Central America. But we aren’t told why the Mulekites migrated southward. For food as well? Well, later in 700 AD, the conquering Teotihuacans pushed the Mayans south across the Isthmus. This area was known as Chontalpa, “region of foreigners,” “in all probability a reference to precontact settlement by Nahuatl-speakers from central Mexico.” Maybe the Mulekites had been likewise pushed south by a hostile tribe along this same route.
Bountiful – This region’s description certainly matches Bountiful. “Hot, lower, flat, and eternally watered.” This region of western Yucatan was very green a lush, and prone to great flooding at the coast, before modern-day damming regulated the rivers: “Vast inundations often covered lands of the center north and allowed travelers to paddle from the Gonzalez directly eastward into the Grijalva without having to go overland, but modern flood control” stopped it (The River People in Flood Time, Terry Rugeley). The Book of Mormon describes a land of many waters somewhere around Desolation and Cumorah. This is why proponents of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec theory point to the western coast of Yucatan and eastern coast of southern Mexico as the “land of many waters” and Bountiful as the lush land just south of it. The Tanala waterway between Veracruz and Tabasco, splitting right across the small neck of land, was known as “place of heat”, and that would explain how you would transition from a land called Bountiful to a land called Desolation even though there are many waters around. Why was it desolate? It was too hot to live there and the flooding made it unsuitable for agriculture, so the Mulekites moved on south to Zarahemla. But Bountiful was also an important trade route, which I suppose is why the Nephites made so much effort to hold onto it.
Land of Nephi – In Alma 53, Helaman marched with his 2,000 stripling soldiers west by the sea shore while Moroni’s main army was fighting Lamanites at the city of Mulek to the east. Helaman went west by the seashore “to support the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.” This would imply that there were two main routes for the Lamanites to approach Zarahamla from the Land of Nephi: east and far west by the seashore, and this matches this region of Yucatan.
In Mosiah 21, Limhi sent a group north to find Zarahemla, but they did not find it, as Limhi’s people had moved over time westward of the land of Nephi. Instead, they traveled due north “lost in the wilderness” aka. mountains, and discovered the land of Desolation. With the map of Yucatan, we can see how they would make this mistake. Then, when Limhi determined where Zarahemla was, he traveled north “in the wilderness” and then “bent their course towards the land of Zarahemla.” Presumably they bent their course towards the east. This south land of Guatamala matches the Land of Nephi.
Sidon – There are two major rivers here that could match the Book of Mormon river Sidon: Mazcalapa and Usumacinta. It is even possible that due to “redirections” of the river over time that the Mazcalapa and Usumacinta were forks of the same “Sidon” river. The Mazcalapa started out as its own river and then was redirected through a canal into the Grijalva by Spanish settlers after flooding naturally changed it toward that direction, after all. Maybe a similar change had been made earlier? But given what we know for sure, the Usumacinta seems like a more likely Sidon river. Mayans used the Usumacinta as a major trade route and it runs along major cities, which would explain why it was named so often in the Book of Mormon.
Misreading ‘Day And A Half’s Journey’ – Most people who read Alma 22 assume that it was a day and a half’s journey from the east sea to the west sea across the small neck of land. But that’s not what it says. Let’s start where Alma begins his description of the geography:
On the map of the Yucatan, we can see how the Land of Nephi could extend from the east sea to the west sea in Guatamala, and that a narrow strip of mountains divides it from the Yucatan low-land, and that these mountains continue along the western seashore, through the head of the river Sidon and then north up to Zarahemla. Then we read the phrase “running from the east towards the west.” What does this phrase refer to? The strip of wilderness. That is the subject of this sentence. The strip of wilderness that narrowly divides that Lamanites from the Nephites and then runs north is “running from the east towards the west.” We see on the map of the Yucatan that this mountain range runs west and then north-west.
Next in verse 28, we are told the less civilized Lamanites lived in these mountains to the west, “in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore.” So they filled this entire western region from south to north.
In verse 29, we are told they also lived by the eastern seashore, but the Nephites “had taken posession of all the northern parts of the land bordering on the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon, from the east to the west, round about the wilderness side; on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful.” So, the Nephites controlled all the low-land north and west of this mountain range, all the way north to Bountiful, which “bordered upon the land which they called Desolation” to the north.
It doesn’t say it is a day and a half’s journey form the “east sea” to the “west sea.” Doesn’t say that. It says simply “from the east to the west sea.” From the east where? Scholars say it may not be from the east ocean. Well, in verse 27 “running from the east towards the west” referred to the mountain range, right? And then in verse 29 Alma was talking about the lands under Nephite control, which were to the eastward of the lands under Lamanite control, right? So, it sounds like “east” refers to the land east of this wilderness mountain range which were under Nephite control. That’s why he said it was a day and a half’s journey “for a Nephite.” He was talking about how long it would take someone to get from the land under Nephite control to the western sea at the small neck of land. The distance of the narrow pass along this line between Bountiful and Desolation.
There is indeed a pass running through the mountain range at the isthmus of Tehuantepec, where today highway 185 runs downhill north to south, and it is only about 35 miles to get to the seashore–a reasonable distance to travel in a day and a half downhill.
Narrow Pass – Alma 22 talked about a “line” at a “small” neck of land. It was a day and a half journey from the Nephite lands along the “line” at the small neck of land to the west sea. Alma 63, mentions a “narrow neck” at the west sea “which led into the land northward.” This would seem to be this same pass that runs through the mountain range at the isthmus of Tehuantepec to the Pacific Ocean.
Mormon 2 likewise describes it as a “narrow passage which led into the land southward.” The only mention I find of the land itself being narrowed into an isthmus by oceans is Ether 10: “And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.” This city could be modern-day Coatzacoalcos which lies north along the Gulf of Mexico. The Jaradites lived northward in present-day Mexico in this geographical model, perhaps around Mexico City. So from their perspective, the Gulf of Mexico certainly divided the land–modern-day Mexico from Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula. The Jaradites were a much larger population spread out over a larger distance, so it is reasonable for them to consider the isthmus of Tehuantepec a neck of land.
Alma 50 describes this region between Bountiful and Desolation in a way that perfectly matches the isthmus of Tehuantepec:
The Nephite army was traveling northward to catch up to the dissenters, and finally caught them at the narrow pass on the isthmus of Tehuantepec. We can see that this narrow pass indeed begins at the ocean, “yea, by the sea,” “on the west,” and leads into the land northward “by the sea” “on the east.” In other words, the narrow pass led from the west sea (Pacific Ocean) northward to the east sea (Gulf of Mexico).
Mayan place names frequently match up to Book of Mormon descriptions as further evidence for this theory.
Land Bridge To Cuba
Another theory I have seen is that there was a land bridge between the Yucatan to the north and Cuba. This seems like a fair possibility. The ocean between Yucatan and Cuba is quite shallow. If people migrated across a landbridge from Siberia, why couldn’t they migrate across a land bridge from the Yucatan? The only difference is DNA evidence would be much less likely to be found. The ocean from Cuba to Florida appears to be deeper, but I think it is still a possibility that this neck of land extended all the way up Florida.
This theory makes Moroni’s journey to New York easier. It’s more of a straight shot up the east coast. But then, where is Desolation? Cuba? Where is the the wilderness that runs up the west coast to the narrow pass? Is there archaeological evidence of animal migrations and multiple human maigrations? This is a theory that needs development.
Not Enough Geographical Evidence
I find it interesting that geography ends up being the least plentiful source of information in the Book of Mormon as we search for evidence. If Joseph Smith made it up and wanted to convince people that it was a real story about American Indians, wouldn’t he have provided plenty of land descriptions that match real places, and wouldn’t he have provided little archaeological descriptions, as very little was known of North America archaeology at that time? But instead, we get few geographical descriptions and more plentiful physical descriptions that match archaeological evidences. How did that happen?
We have the same problem with archaeology: scarce unique descriptions that help us match up to one civilization and eliminate other civilizations as possibilities. But the problem with geography is much worse. We only have a few vague descriptions of a river, a strip of wilderness, east/west seas, etc. And of course we have the problem of the entire face of the land changing during the catastrophic events in 3 Nephi–perhaps significantly. So when it comes to looking for where these events took place, geography does not seem like a good place to start. I think it makes more sense to instead look for archaeology and then try to correlate geographical information to that.