“Wherefore We Did Call It Nephi”

Alan C. Miner

According to Glenn Scott, archaeologist Joseph Michels of Penn State University wrote:

Within the onset of the Middle-Formative [600-300 B.C.] Kaminaljuyu emerges as an incipient regional center … the emergence of ranked [specialized] households at Kaminaljuyu was not an in situ evolutionary manifestation but … an intrusive organizational feature that evolved in some other region. (Sanders & Michels 1979, Settlement Patterns at Kaminaljuyu, vol. 4) [Glenn A. Scott, Voices from the Dust, p. 98]

“Wherefore We Did Call It Nephi”

Some people might wonder why it is that if archaeologists have found Jerusalem in the Old World, we have yet to definitely locate a major city from the Book of Mormon in the Americas, such as the city of “Nephi” (2 Nephi 5:8). According to William Hamblin, comparing the current state of geographical knowledge of the Book of Mormon and the Bible is a false analogy… . Without the continuity of place names (toponyms) between biblical and modern times, only about 36 of the 475 biblical place names could be identified with certainty. But in fact those 36 are identifiable largely because it is possible to triangulate their relationship to known sites, moving from the known to the unknown.

Over time, people can easily forget linguistically where even a major city like Jerusalem might be located. For example, from the Canaanite u-ru-sa-lim derived the Hebrew Yerushalem or Yerushalayim. The city was also frequently called the City of David, and Zion, giving four common names for Jerusalem in the Old Testament alone. The Greeks called the city both Ierousalem and Hierosolyma; the Latins retained Hierosolyma. However, following the Roman conquest in A.D. 135, the emperor Hadrian changed the name to Aelia Capitolina. It retained its identity as Jerusalem only because Christians eventually came to dominate the Roman Empire and changed the name back. Following the Muslim conquests, however, the city was called Aliya, Bayt al-Maqedis, or al-Quds, as it still is by Palestinians today. If Christianity had been exterminated rather than becoming the dominant religion of the Roman empire, what linguistic evidence would we have that al-Quds of today was the ancient Jerusalem?

Thus, discontinuity of toponyms (place names) is a common historical occurrence, especially in periods of major cultural, linguistic, and political transformations, similar to those described in the Book of Mormon itself. We can see just this phenomenon in the Book of Mormon, where the Jaredite hill Ramah is later called the hill Cumorah by the Nephites (Ether 15:11; Mormon 6:6).

A serious problem facing Book of Mormon geography is the severe discontinuity of Mesoamerican toponyms between the Pre-Classic (before c. A.D. 300), the Post-Classic (after A.D. 900), and the Colonial Age (after A.D. 1520). For example, what were the original Pre-Classic Mesoamerican names for sites currently bearing Spanish colonial names such as Monte Alban, San Lorenzo, La Venta, or El Mirador? These and many other Mesoamerican sites bear only Spanish names, dating from no earlier than the sixteenth century… . For most indigenous Mesoamerican dialects, the vast majority of toponyms were recorded only in the sixteenth century, over a thousand years after the Book of Mormon period… . Furthermore, Pre-Classic (Book of Mormon times) Mesoamerican inscriptions are relatively rare. Whereas several thousand inscriptions exist from Classic Mesoamerica (A.D. 300-900), Pre-Classic inscriptions are limited to a few dozen. In addition, the earliest “simple phonetic spelling developed about A.D. 400” in Mesoamerica. This means that all Mesoamerican inscriptions from Book of Mormon times are logograms. Therefore, all surviving inscriptional toponyms from Book of Mormon times are basically symbolic rather than phonetic, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to know how they were pronounced. [William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Spring 1993, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 164-168]

“We Did Call It Nephi”

According to Joseph Allen, the ruins of Kaminaljuyu, located where Guatemala City now stands, have been proposed as the location for the City of Nephi and the Land of Nephi. Some of the reasons are as follows:

1. The Late Formative Period of Kaminaljuyu (when a significant amount of building occurred) is listed at 500 B.C. to 20 B.C. with an estimated error of + or - 100 years. This dating (of the Late Formative Period) coincides with the time period from the arrival of Nephi and his followers on the scene until the end of Nephite influence.

2. Kaminaljuyu had a trade and travel relationship such that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (a proposed location for the “narrow neck of land”) was of importance to them.

3. The climate, agriculture base, and mountainous regions all parallel nicely with the statements in the Book of Mormon.

4. Temple mounds showing a high degree of workmanship with an apparent function of ceremonial and ritual use, including burned areas reminiscent of animal sacrifice, remind us of Nephi and his temple.

5. Dr. John Sorenson, who proposed that Kaminaljuyu was anciently the City of Nephi, notes that the site of Kaminaljuyu was for many centuries the dominant culture center for all highland Guatemala, the most important spot for several hundred miles around. The great size (at least a mile square) and impressive constructions of Kaminaljuyu underline its key importance and that of the valley. The land of Nephi is portrayed in the Book of Mormon as dominant among its neighbors to the same degree. (Sorenson 85:141)

6. As Michael Coe states, and as referred to above, the elite of the Valley of Kaminaljuyu were very literate during this time period. The elite were probably the Nephite record keepers. In all of the Americas, Kaminaljuyu was the most prominent city center that had an appropriate written language base during Middle Preclassic times, 600 B.C. to 300 B.C.

7. The term “Land of Nephi” not only fits the role of a city, but also a state, and also a country. Although this might seem confusing, this is the same structure that exists today. Guatemala is a major city located in Guatemala (the Department or State) which is located in Guatemala (the country).

8. The stone monument called “Stela 10” located in the archaeological ruins of Kaminaljuyu might be a representation of the events of the story concerning Abinadi, Noah, and Limhi. Stela 10 could become as familiar to Latter-day Saints as Izapa Stela 5 (Tree of Life stone).

9. Kaminaljuyu has an elevation of 4,800 feet above sea level and sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains. Thus it is up from the proposed land of Zarahemla in Chiapas, Mexico. One can also come down into the valley from the hills to the “north.”

[Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, p. 359]

2 Nephi 5:8 Wherefore we did call it Nephi ([Illustration] The ruins of Kaminaljuyu consist of several dirt mounts. Located in Guatemala City, the site is proposed as the City/Land of Nephi. [Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, p. 360]

2 Nephi 5:8 Wherefore we did call it Nephi ([Illustration] Top: The area of Guatemala City suggested as the immediate land of Nephi; Bottom: Part of Kaminaljuyu, the large site within Guatemala City that qualifies as the city of Nephi. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 144]

2 Nephi 5:8 My people would that we should call the name of the place Nephi ([Illustration] The great city at Kaminaljuyu was once at least a mile square and contained hundreds of major buildings. This photograph only hints at the former extent and the density of public structures. Encroaching suburban growth has by now destroyed all but a small portion of the site, which is preserved as a park. [John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, p. 199]

“We Did Call It Nephi”

According to Richard Hauck, the archaeological site of Mixco Viejo is a viable candidate for ancient Nephi for a variety of reasons.

First, topographical maps demonstrate that along with Kaminaljuyu [19 miles to the southeast], Mixco Viejo is the one other location in this highland region where the soils, moderate slopes, and water resources could support a large pre-Columbian population. Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman, a seventeenth-century Spanish chronicler writing about Mixco Viejo, suggests that the Mixco locality may have contained from eight to nine thousand people prior to Spanish domination.

Second, Mixco Viejo has defensive capabilities, an important characteristic of ancient Nephi. The scriptural references associated with Nephi leave no doubt about the defensive nature of that location (see 2 Nephi 5:34; Enos 1:24; Jarom 1:13; Omni 1:3; Mosiah 7-22). Evidence does not suggest that ancient Nephi was ever captured or overrun by an attacking force. As noted in Mosiah 11:12, the tower at Nephi overlooked the surrounding countryside. These factors suggest that the city of Nephi was in an elevated and easily defended position.

Mixco Viejo has similar characteristics. It was a formidable Mayan fortress prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The site is positioned on the top of the plateau overlooking the Motagua River valley to the north and the Llano Grande plateau to the southeast. Access into the site is very limited, due to the steep ravines or barrancos that surround the plateau in every direction. The deep soils that compose this plateau are volcanic ash or wielded tuff. When these soils are exposed to the air, their surface stabilizes, resisting further erosion. Thus, the defensive potential of the site was amplified by men digging away the lower portions of the cliffs to eliminate any attempt by an enemy to scale the ravines in an assault.

Henri Lehmann, a French archaeologist, excavated and reconstructed the historic Mayan structures at Mixco Viejo between 1954 and 1967 … Lehmann’s excavations were aimed at exploring the architectural structures that were contemporaneous with the Spanish invasion when the Mayan Pokomam people had their capital there. He was not interested in establishing the earliest period of occupation on the site. To do so he would have had to dig deeply below the historic structures, thus further weakening and destroying the standing architecture that he was struggling to preserve. Lehmann does note, however, the recovery of preclassic pottery sherds in the excavations, indicating that the occupation of this site extends back into the past perhaps several thousand years previous to the thirteenth century A.D. occupation prominent on the surface… .

A third factor that enhances Mixco Viejo as a possible candidate for ancient Nephi is its situation within seven miles of the ancient, historic trail system at Granados. That trail is identical with the orientation of the Nephi/Manti/Zarahemla route in the Book of Mormon because it links the southern highlands with the northern highlands and the lush jungles of the Peten far to the north (see Alma 17:1; 22:29). Further, the Motagua River ford near here is the main river crossing near the southern end of that ancient north-south trail. The trail’s immediate proximity to Mixco Viejo enhances the potential that the marvelous archaeological site gradually opening to our view may be the location of the city of Nephi. [F. Richard Hauck, “In Search of the Land of Nephi,” in This People, Fall 1994, pp. 52-63]

2 Nephi 5:8 We did call It Nephi (Illustration): Looking nearly west across restored Mayan walls of Mixco Viejo. Fifty-four verses in the Book of Mormon give some detail of the land or the city of Nephi. Though the restored city shown dates to the 11th and 12th century A.D., artifacts and excavations reveal the original city to be contemporaneous with the Book of Mormon. [F. Richard Hauck, “In Search of the Land of Nephi,” in This People, Fall 1994, p. 53. (Photography by Scot Facer Proctor)]

2 Nephi 5:8 We did call it Nephi (Illustration): Afternoon light touches hillsides and the archeological site of Mixco (pronounced meesh-ko) Viejo, formidable ancient city located on the south side of the Motagua River. We may surmise that Nephi used the Liahona to guide the faithful to a place like this where they could build a city and use natural protection to defend themselves from their enemies… . [Scot F. Proctor and Maurine J. Proctor, Light from the Dust, p. 71]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary