Peter Bartley argues that the Mayans and Olmecs did not live in urban centers/cities and were not a war-like people.

Peter Bartley

Peter Bartley, Mormonism: The Prophet, the Book and the Cult (Dublin: Veritas, 1989), 53–55

Peter Bartley
Reading Public

From the Book of Mormon, moreover, we learn that the Nephites were city-dwells: yet it is said of the Maya particularly that they were a civilisation without cities. Dr. Bushnell draws out attention to the impossibility of building cities in the forests where the great Maya centres were located, and adds that elsewhere the work was prevented by the topography.

A further difficulty arises when we consider the frightful wars waged by Book of Mormon peoples, for whom genocide seems to have been a way of life. Although the Maya are believed, on the evidence of wall paintings, to have made occasional raids on other people, possibly to obtain sacrificial victims, they were on the whole a peaceful people. Their ceremonial centres had no fortifications, and were for the most part located in places incapable of defence. Maya art, Bushnell informs us, exhibited a high degree of continuity, based as it was on ‘a stable culture which was undisturbed by wars against people of similar status’. And Michael Coe has contrasted the ‘untroubled serenity and sophistication’ of the art styles of the Classic state with the ‘tough and fearful productions of later times’. The age of strife of unrest among the Maya is associated with post-Classic times and the beginning of a general militaristic era which saw the warlike Toltecs and Chicimecs established in Central Mexico.

Since, as we are assured, the Nephites brought with them to the New World their own full-developed culture, it is at the very least reasonable to expect that some remnants of this culture will have yielded to archaeological investigation. We think of those basic things necessary for the start of a new life in a strange environment—tools, weapons, lamps, pottery, for example—and the more personal and everyday things that any migrants might be expected to take with them, such as combs, jewellery, belt buckles and sandals. We think also of how articles of a practical and/or sentimental value tend to be handed on in families from generation to generation. Yet, amazingly, not a single object manufactured in the Old World has been found in any Maya site.

We have thus considered the Maya in isolation, as representing the highest point of pre-Columbian civilisation. But the Maya, unlike the Nephites of the Book of Mormon, benefited form outside influence. It has been established beyond all doubt that the maya and all other Middle American civilisations rest ultimately on an Olmec base.

The people who are given the name Olmec have been credited with possessing the earliest culture of Middle America, one with a distinctive art style and religion. Olmec pottery, sculptures and objects of art have been found far and wide: Teotihuacán, and the centre which succeeded it in Mexico, Monte Alban, are both said to show Olmec influence, as are other centres, including the Maya. Olmec remains have been dated as belonging to a period as early as 1,200 BC, and since the Nephites did not reach America until 600 BC, their designation as this ‘mother culture’ is clearly not possible. And if Olmec culture was the dominant influence behind all later civilisations, as Michael Coe and others believe, and was itself in full bloom when the Nephites arrived in the land, just where does the imported Nephite culture fit in? The question is of vital concern to Mormons: we leave it to them to suggest an answer.

The Olmecs, then, represented the parent culture of Middle America, if not of the whole contingent, and neither they nor the Maya, who followed and surpassed them can in any way be identified with the Nephites of the Book of Mormon. This raises one final question: could the Olmecs have been Jaredites, the first people accounted for in the Book of Mormon? The answer has to be in the negative, and for reasons very like those which have consigned the Nephites to the realm of fiction. The Jaredites had an urban civilisation: the Olmecs never lived in cities. Much of the greater part of Jaredite civilisation, as described in the book of Ether, is co-terminous with the hunting and early agricultural stage of development in ancient America. Sedentary communities, when they finally became established, were organized around small hamlets of no more than a few families, and this was the arrangement when the Olmecs were building their ceremonial centres. It is estimated that the ceremonial centre of La Venta could have supported a population of no more than 150 people, comprising the ruling class and their attendants, and that these were supported by about 18,000 peasants living in villages scattered over a wide area of the countryside.

Moreover, the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon were warlike, even genocidal. Though there are signs of violence at the Olmec site of La Venta, in the form of defacement of statues, nevertheless the disorder is believed to be associated with the abandonment of that site. The almost endless state of war which prevailed among the Jaredites is not reflected in the archaeology of the Olmecs, whose peaceful arts were diffused over a wide area of Middle America.

Furthermore, the peak of Olmec civilisation was reached at precisely that sage when the Jaredites, exhausted by years of continual warfare, were on the point of extinction. We have it on no less an authority than Joseph Smith himself that the Jaredites were destroyed about the time of the Nephite immigration, that is, about 600 BC. Talmage, on page 284 of his Articles of Faith, gives the date of the extinction of the Jaredites as ‘near 590 BC.’ Radio-carbon dating at the principal Olmec site of La Venta spans the centuries from 800 to 400 BC: after the abandonment of La Venta Olmec culture survived in other areas for several centuries.

Notwithstanding all these considerations, it is the common verdict of scholars, as we have seen, that human progress in the Americas, from the last primitive hunters to the creators of the high civilisations, manifested a continuity of development that was quite independent of Old World stimulus. The conclusion is surely inescapable. Serious, one might say insurmountable, difficulties face anyone attempting to accommodate the people written about in the Book of Mormon within the context of what is known of pre-Columbian civilisations.

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
Copyright © B. H. Roberts Foundation
The B. H. Roberts Foundation is not owned by, operated by, or affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.