A Critique of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Theory
by Vincent Coon

    Connecting lands of the Book of Mormon, the "narrow pass" was situated by "the sea, on the west and on the east". The 130 mile wide isthmus of Central America is situated between a north sea and a south sea. As one would expect, the ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America discerned directions by the heavens.

    "Therefore Moroni sent an army, with their camp, to head the people of Morianton, to stop their flight into the land northward.
    "And it came to pass that they did not head them until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east." (Alma 50:33-34) Note: The 1830 version uses slightly different punctuation, but the meaning is unchanged.
    We learn from this scripture, that the narrow pass was by the borders of the land Desolation, and that the pass was situated between water on the east and on the west. In other words, the narrow pass ran through a body of water. This body of water is referred to in the Book of Mormon as "the sea", and this sea is what divided the land northward from the land southward. (Ether 10:20-21)
    Notice that Alma 50:34 (quoted above) does not use the term "east sea" or "sea east" named at other locations in Book of Mormon lands. The verse speaks of the "narrow pass" being located by "the sea" (singular). The Nephites saw the narrow pass, passing through a single body of water, such that the waters of this sea were found on the west and east of it. In other words, the narrow pass was small enough for the water on either side of it to be regarded as the same body of water.
    A narrow land passage, having water on either side, can be described as "a narrow neck", but it is not fitting to describe a broad isthmus, or a slight narrowing of a continent (from a hemispheric point of view), as a "narrow pass". We are told specifically in Alma 50:34, that it was "the narrow pass" that "…led by the sea into the land northward", that is "by the sea, on the west and on the east." If the narrow pass was within a small or narrow neck of land, the pass nevertheless had the sea close by on either side.

    There are other references to the "small" or "narrow neck", "pass", or "passage". (Alma 22:32; 52:9; 63:5, Mormon 2:29; 3:5) All of these verses are geographically consistent with Alma 50:34 (quoted above). Mention of the "narrow pass" or "neck" is repeatedly accompanied with essentially the same description. From the point of view of Nephites occupying lands to the south, the geographic feature is described as "the narrow pass which led into the land northward…" or "the narrow neck which led into the land northward." From the point of view of Nephites occupying lands to the north, we read of "the narrow passage which led into the land southward" or "the narrow pass which led into the land southward."
    The narrow neck is not the same as the "narrow strip of wilderness" that divided the land of Zarahemla from the land of Nephi. (Alma 22:27-28) Trying to make "the narrow pass" fit at Tehuantepec, the authors of Ancient America and the Book of Mormon assert that:
    "The region to the north was most accessible by way of a "narrow pass" running east and west along a seashore at the narrow neck of land." (A.A. and the B of M, pp. 182-183)
    But this is not how the scripture reads. If the commentator Mormon wanted us to understand that the narrow pass ran east and west, he would have used words other than "…on the west and on the east" describing the sea. For instance, he would have used language similar to his description of the "narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west…" (Alma 22:27) The ancient commentator describe how "the land of Nephi did run…from the east sea to the west." (Alma 50:8) But when Mormon tells of the sea being "… on the west and on the east" in Alma 50:34 he is clearly not saying that the narrow pass led from the east to the west into the land northward.
   "…on the west and on the east", describes the position of waters with respect to a location "by the narrow pass…" The verse is not using a global perspective involving west or east stretches of ocean.
   The word translated sea in Hebrew scripture, is "yam" . Yam doesn’t have to mean ocean. Examples are: yam kineret ("the sea of Chinnereth", Numbers 34:11, KJV); westerners call this sea "the Sea of Galilee." There is also yam melah ("the salt sea", Genesis 14:3, KJV); westerners call this sea "the Dead Sea." These are inland bodies of water.
    Just as we should not assume that everywhere the Bible mentions a "sea" or even "the sea", it is referring to ocean, so we should not assume, as we read the Book of Mormon, that "the sea south", "the sea north", "the sea west", "the sea east", "the west sea, south" and "the place where the sea divides the land" all refer to oceanic bodies of water. (Helaman 3:8, Alma 53:8, Ether 10:20) Ocean, in fact, is a Gentile term that does not appear in Hebrew Scripture or in the Book of Mormon. Distinguishing the Ocean from other seas, both the Book of Mormon and the Bible speak of the "the great deep" or the "the great sea" (the Mediterranean). (Doctrine and Covenants 133:20, Genesis 7:11, Isaiah 51:10, Ezekiel 47:19-20, 2 Nephi 4:20, Helaman 12:16, Ether 2:25; 7:27)
    The Book of Mormon indicates that the narrow neck was precisely that - a narrow neck, with water immediately to the west and east of it. The narrow pass was not a pass somewhere within the 130 mile wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Central America. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is barely narrower than the lands just beyond it. Relative to the breadth of Veracruz and Oaxaca on the west, and Tabasco and Chiapas on the immediate east, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec hardly qualifies as "narrow". It is unlikely that ancient peoples inhabiting Tehuantepec would have perceived the isthmus as a "small neck of land…" (Alma 22:32)

    The Book of Mormon indicates that the narrow neck (or pass) was smaller in breadth than the land Desolation and the land Bountiful, because it was situated "by" the borders of these lands. (Alma 63:5, Mormon 3:5)
    The land at the northern and southern ends of the narrow pass bore the name "Desolation". We read in Ether 10:20, "...by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land." Notice that not only is "sea" singular in this verse but "land" is also singular. In other words, a sea divided the land of Desolation into northern and southern portions. These portions were connected by the narrow pass. Hence we read that the land of Desolation, bordering on Bountiful, "came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed…" The southern portion of Desolation "came into" the desolate land of the Jaredites by way of "a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward." (Alma 22:29-30, 32)
    In the abridged book of Ether, Moroni describes the Old World Ocean:

    "…the Lord did bring Jared and his brethren forth to that great sea, which divideth the lands…" (Ether 2:13)

    Describing the limits of the land of Israel, the LORD says:

    "And as for the western border, ye shall even have the great sea for a border: this shall be your west border." (Numbers 34:6, KJV)

    The LORD refers to the Mediterranean Sea as "the great sea." Mediterranean is Latin for "in the midst of lands." Similarly, the Book of Ether describes the ocean as dividing "the lands" (plural). The American sea mentioned by Moroni in Ether 10:20, on the other hand, locally divided a single land (Desolation), and on a larger scale, divided "the land northward" from "the land southward". (Mormon 2:29)
   The city of Desolation was located by the narrow pass, on the northern side of the invading sea. When Lamanite armies came down from higher southern grounds, to attack the city of Desolation the narrow pass was not their only access. Canoe war parties may have massed along the shores. This explains why it was convenient for the Nephites defending Desolation, to cast the dead of the Lamanites into the sea. (Mormon 2:28-29; 3:5-8) Both the city Desolation and the narrow pass were near a body of water - the same body of water that divided that land.
   The entrance to the narrow pass, near the Bountiful border, was such a localized feature that scripture describes it as a "point". In addition to fortifying the land Bountiful this critical "point", needed to be secured. (Alma 52:9) By comparison, the breadth of Bountiful is described as a "line". (3 Nephi 3:23) We learn that "…it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea…" (Alma 22:32) Thus we see that the breadth of the narrow neck of land must have been smaller than the length of Bountiful and Desolation. In fact, we should expect that the width of the small neck was considerably smaller than the breadth of these lands. Tehuantepec is as wide as Florida! The narrow neck was small enough to be blocked by a poisonous serpent epidemic during a time of drought. (Ether 9:30-35; 10:19-20) Be aware, that the foremost Mesoamerican theory has the entire Desolation / Bountiful line within the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which it alleges is the small neck of land.
    But Alma 63:5 tells us that:

   "…Hagoth…went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward."

   If the borders of Bountiful and Desolation lie within the narrow neck, it would be better for scripture to use the words "launched it…from the narrow neck…" Instead, the passage reads: "launched it…by the narrow neck…", because the nearby narrow neck was smaller than the borders of Bountiful and Desolation.

   Phyllis Carol Olive, author of The Lost Lands of the Book of Mormon, places the line Bountiful in northern America, near two of the Great Lakes. The line Bountiful perceived by Sister Olive, is seen on a map of western New York – one of the lands of the ancient mound builders. The breadth of Bountiful is approximately the thirty-three mile distance from Batavia, New York, to the coast of Lake Erie (the west sea near Buffalo). Sister Olive’s proposed narrow neck of land (a moraine passing through ancient Lake Tonawanda) squares with scripture and the compass. Sister Olive has realized that the true lands of the Book of Mormon cannot be very distant from the place that scripture designates as Cumorah. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)
   Don Veytia records that migrating Toltecs journeyed about six leagues (~18 miles) each day. (A.A.R, pg. 196) Suppose that an agile Nephite could travel at double this rate (~36 miles / day) along the Desolation / Bountiful line. Even at this speed, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Central America seems far too wide to walk from the supposed "east" (really north) extreme to the "sea west" (really south) in a day and a half.
   Scripture stresses that the Desolation / Bountiful line "was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite…" The verse does not say "…for a Nephite on horseback…" or "…for a Nephite by boat…" Evidently the commentator (Mormon) saw no need for additional clarification. The adverb "only" stresses that "the distance" across Bountiful was perceived as short by Nephite standards. Helaman 4:5-7 tells us that the Nephites had fortified a line north of the land of Zarahemla from the west sea to some eastern point that was a distance of "a day’s journey for a Nephite…" Again, there is no comment leading us to believe that an especially swift means of transportation was required to reach this eastern point in a day’s time. The commentator also does not say that the eastern point was the shore of the east sea. Perhaps there were marshlands in the east like those of east Tonawanda.
  Can someone actually walk and paddle across Tehuantepec in a day and a half? A tall, able and willing athlete might be found to undertake the challenge. Better yet, there should be a friendly competition: Let an athlete walk and paddle across Tehuantepec, while a healthy middle aged individual puts Sister Olive’s Book of Mormon setting to the test.
   Traveling from the south, the narrow neck of land led into the land northward. Tehuantepec theorists would have us believe that "the land northward" occupies southern Mexico, northwest of the large Isthmus. Lying between the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean, Southern Mexico is wide open to the northern continent. If one were to march from Tehuantepec to "the furthermost parts of the land northward" how far north could this be? Put another way, from Tehuantepec, how far north is the "northernmost part of the land", the Arctic? (3 Nephi 4:23; 7:11) Sister Olive points out, that there is a boundary to the Book of Mormon "land northward" in the form of a large northern sea, "the waters of Ripliancum", Lake Ontario and the ST. Lawrence. "The Hill Cumorah, or Ramah is south of this body of water. This natural boundary makes sense of scriptural statements like, "the furthermost parts of the land northward" and "northernmost part of the land". Compared to the "large bodies of water" constituting the nearby Finger Lakes, Ripliancum is exceedingly large. (Ether 15:8, 10-11, Alma 50:29)

   There are obvious problems with trying to make the distant Tehuantepec isthmus fit the constraints of the Book of Mormon. There is the problem of its breadth (far too wide) and the problem of its orientation. But is it possible to sidestep the orientation problem using biblical directions?
   The Hebrew word "qedem"  means front or before, it is sometimes translated east. The Hebrew word "ahor"  means back, after or hinder and can, in some instances, be interpreted west. (Y’shaYahu 9:11 in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 9:12 in the KJV) The Dead Sea is sometimes referred to as the "former sea" or "eastern sea", while the Mediterranean is sometimes called the "back sea", "hinder sea" or "western sea". (Zechariah 14:8) Relative to Jerusalem, the Mediterranean is west, as the sun sets, and the Dead Sea lies east - toward sunrise.
   The LORD said to Joshua, "…unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast." (Joshua 1:4) It makes sense in the land of Israel to equate seaward with "westward". (Genesis 13:14) The Hebrew dictionary in the LDS RESOURCE EDITION of THE SCRIPTURES notes that seaward, pronounced "yamah"  is locally "westward". In other words, seaward is "westward" relative to the land of Israel. Interpreting seaward as west elsewhere risks taking things out of context.
   The Semitic compass is actually based on the perceived movement of the heavenly quarters, and there are other terms in Hebrew scripture for east and west, and these terms directly relate to sunrise and sunset:
   The Hebrew word "mizrah"  literally means from sunrise or place of sunrise and is translated "east". For example: "mizrah" is translated "east" in Joshua 11:3 (KJV). The English word east relates to the Greek eos meaning dawn. The Hebrew word for west, "maarav"  means from evening or place of the sun’s passing. The English word west relates to the Latin vesper, and has much the same meaning as the Hebrew word. (Isaiah 45:6) There is no sound reason why the LORD would allow the meaning of west in the English translation of the Book of Mormon, to not remain true to its origin. Consider the following passage:

      "Behold the back pass, through the back wall, on the back side of the city…" (Mosiah 22:6)

   Notice that the above verse does not use west, i.e., "Behold the west pass…", even though the word ahor, meaning back, is sometimes interpreted as west. Of course, with respect to Jerusalem, the "back sea" really is west - the place of sunset. In the land of Nephi, however, the "back pass…wall…side of the city" may not have been on the city’s west side (according to the heavenly compass), so the LORD did not let west substitute for back in the English translation of the verse. Likewise, the use of the word "forward" in the Nephite scripture, does not necessarily mean east. (Alma 58:26)
   In Ancient America Rediscovered, (a translation of Veytia's history of Mexico) there are several references to Mesoamerican people observing the sun for a sense of direction. (pg. 49 and pp. 52-53) This shouldn’t surprise us. The ancient peoples of Anahuac would have perceived the region of Tehuantepec as situated between northern and southern seas. But those who question the idea that the Mesoamerican isthmus is the "small neck" on the basis that its shores lie north and south not east and west, have often been accused of naively imposing European coordinates.
   University credentials aside, the fact remains, to insist that the seas north and south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec can somehow be seen as "east" and "west" respectively, is to ignore the heavens.
   We do not know if the Nephites ever used the terms front sea or back sea to name New World bodies of water. But if they did use these terms, it would not make sense to translate them "sea east" and "sea west", if the front and back seas were not respectively east and west. The directions of these seas would have to agree (as in the land of Israel) with the west and east of the heavenly compass, or more correctly, with the earth’s rotation; "for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun." (Helaman 12:15)
   In keeping the ordinances of Israel, the Nephites would not have abandoned the Semitic way of coordinating directions. (Leviticus 1:11) We expect the definition of "eastward" in connection with Lehi’s journey in Arabia to be consistent with Semitic east. Why should Nephi’s followers orient their altars differently in America? (1 Nephi 16:13-14; 17:1)
   The coordinate system of the Mi’kmaq (Micmac) people of northern America is defined in their creation story. Incidentally, some Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs are similar to Egyptian and to characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates. The Mi’kmaq creation story tells us that:

   "After the Mi’kmaq world was created and after the animals, birds and plants were placed on the surface, Gisoolg (the Great Spirit Creator) caused a bolt of lightning to hit the surface of Ootsitgamoo (the Earth). This bolt of lightning caused the formation of an image of a human body shaped out of sand. It was Glooscap who was first shaped out of the basic element of the Mi’kmaq world, sand.
   "Gisoolg unleashed another bolt of lightning which gave life to Glooscap but yet he could not move. He was stuck to the ground only to watch the world go by and Nisgam (the Sun) travel across the sky every day. Glooscap watched the animals, the birds and the plants grow and pass around him. He asked Nisgam to give him freedom to move about the Mi’kmaq world.
   "While Glooscap was still unable to move, he was lying on his back. His head was facing the direction of the rising sun, east, Oetjgoabaniag or Oetjibanoog. In Mi’kmaq these words mean "where the sun comes up " and "where the summer weather comes from" respectively. His feet were in the direction of the setting sun or Oetgatsenoog.
    "Other Mi’kmaq words for the west are Oeloesenoog, "where the sun settles into a hallow" or Etgesnoog "where the cold winds come from". Glooscap’s right hand was pointed in the direction of the north or Oatnoog. His left hand was in the direction of the south or Opgoetasnoog. So it was the third big blast of lightning that caused Glooscap to become free and to be able to stand on the surface of the earth.
   "After Glooscap stood up on his feet, he turned around in a full circle seven times. He then looked toward the sky and gave thanks to Gisoolg for giving him life. He looked down to the earth or the ground and gave thanks to Ootsigamoo for offering its sand for Glooscap's creation. He looked within himself and gave thanks to Nisgam for giving him his soul and spirit.
   "Glooscap then gave thanks to the four directions east, north, west and south. In all he gave his heartfelt thanks to the seven directions."

   The seven directions are east, west, north, south, above, below and within. Like the directions of the Semitic compass, the coordinate system of the Micmac world has sacred significance:
   "Glooscap instructed … that seven, fourteen and twenty-one rocks would have to be heated over the Great Fire. These heated rocks will be placed inside a wigwam covered with hides of moose and caribou or with mud. The door must face the direction of the rising sun. There should be room for seven men to sit comfortably around a pit dug in the center, where up to twenty-one rocks could be placed. Seven alders, seven wild willows and seven beech saplings will be used to make the frame of the lodge. This lodge should be covered with the hides of moose, caribou, deer or mud.
   "Seven men representing the seven original families will enter into the lodge. They will give thanks and honor to the seven directions, the seven stages of creation and to continue to live in good health. The men will pour water over the rocks causing steam to rise in the lodge to become very hot. The men will begin to sweat, up to the point that it will become almost unbearable. Only those who believe in the spiritual strength will be able to withstand the heat. Then they will all come out of the lodge full of steam and shining like new born babies. This is the way they will clean their spirits …" (Renown Mi’kmaq Legend, edited from an account given by Black Riverwolf, See also commentary by Stephen Augustine, noted Mi’kmaw Elder: fourdirectionsteachings.com)
   Finally, consider this: yam suf which literally means, sea of reeds in Hebrew, is commonly translated "Red sea". See for instance, the foot note to Exodus 15:4 in the LDS edition. The term Red sea, in fact, does not exist in Hebrew scripture. Not surprisingly we find "Red Sea" in the English translation of the Book of Mormon, even though Nephi son of Lehi undoubtedly spoke of yam suf - Reed Sea. (1 Nephi 2:5)
   The LORD suffered the English translation of the Book of Mormon to contain the substitution, "Red Sea" in the understanding that western readers would recognize the sea by this name. Readers of the King James Bible are familiarized with the Red sea.
   Now if Nephite "east" was really north or north-east according to our way of coordinating, why wouldn’t the LORD have had it translated as such, avoiding confusion and misdirection?
   It is evident that the Nephite scripture has been translated into dignified, yet plain English, and that the LORD intends us to understand that "east" in the Book of Mormon means east and "west" means west, and all of the other directions are likewise to be plainly oriented in our minds using common definitions.
   Of course this means that the wide, lateral Isthmus of Tehuantepec is an unlikely candidate for the narrow neck of the Book of Mormon. Still, many LDS settle for Tehuantepec, because they accept that the Book of Mormon land of Zarahemla lies in the vicinity of current day Guatemala. This limits their selection of isthmuses.
   Those who accept the Tehuantepec theory also feel compelled to relocate the land of Cumorah thousands of miles southwest of the location defined in LDS scripture. Advocates of this theory have been undaunted despite opposition from certain General Authorities of the Church.
   To date, there is no archaeological evidence that conclusively links the lands and cities of the Book of Mormon with Guatemala or its neighboring countries. The impressive stone ruins that many Latter-day Saints were so sure belonged to cities of the Book of Mormon, have upon patient investigation, proven otherwise.
   Zealous members of the Church, after devoting themselves intensely for years to the pursuit of Book of Mormon cities in Mesoamerica, have wound up deeply disappointed and shaken.
   An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, the renowned work of John L. Sorenson, is essentially a rework of the limited Mesoamerican geography set forth in Hunter’s and Ferguson’s Ancient America and the Book of Mormon. Brother Sorenson of course, realizes that the Guatemalan Zerahemla hypothesis dates back to an early Mormon newspaper article published October 1, 1842. This article tries to match Zarahemla with ruins described in the popular Incidents of Travel in Central America (Stephens, 1841). The Mormon newspaper article mentions the "narrow neck of land", but strangely, the only isthmus named in the article is the Isthmus of Darien (Panama).
   Who wrote the article? That’s a good question. Joseph Smith had previously taken up the position of newspaper editor, but he was also in hiding at the time the article was published. Nevertheless, October 1, 1842, inaugurated a romance that would take the interest and imaginations of generations of Latter-day Saints, thousands of miles away from the place the plates were found.

   In An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Melchizedek Priesthood manual, 1957), in the appendix section titled "Looking for the Wrong Things", Hugh Nibley admonishes:

   "Blinded by the gold of the pharaohs and the mighty ruins of Babylon, Book of Mormon students have declared themselves "not interested" in the drab and commonplace remains of our lowly Indians. But in all the Book of Mormon we look in vain for anything that promises majestic ruins." (A. A. to the B. of  M., pp. 440-441) 

For a more comprehensive study of the differences between the Mesoamerican and New York settings, you may purchase Vincent Coon's 300 page book, entitled, Choice Above All Other Lands, at his website. This work is a must read for those looking for answers to the placement of  the Book of Mormon Geography in the New World setting.

A new book by author W. Vincent Coon (MS Physics, Hebrew language background). The book can be purchased on the author's website.

by Vincent Coon

Choice Above All Other Lands
A new book by author, linguist, W. Vincent Coon.
The book can be purchased on the author's website.

Click here to view Vincent Coon's website

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