Geography: Sorenson suggests the site of Santa Rosa along the Grijalva River as his candidate for the location of Zarahemla, listing the following reasons:
The largest archaeological site on the upper Grijalva in an appropriate position to qualify as Zarahemla is Santa Rosa.… By 1974 the site had been inundated by waters backed up nearly 70 miles behind Angostura Dam.…
Linguistic research tells us that the upper Grijalva lay at the juncture of two major areas where long-established peoples and their languages existed. A couple of thousand years ago the Mayan languages probably extended throughout much of Guatemala to about the mountainous wilderness strip that separates the highlands of that nation from the Grijalva River valley. Downstream, from near Chiapa de Corzo and extending north and westward, were speakers of Zoque dialects; in the isthmus proper was the closely related Mixe language. Both blocs, the Mayan speakers on the Guatemalan and groups using tongues of the Mixe-Zoquean family on the isthmian side of Santa Rosa, had been there a long time. Ancestral Mixe-Zoquean has been shown to be the probable language of the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, while Mayan speakers likely had been in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala since well before 1000 B.C. (Evidence is uncertain, however, whether Mayan languages were spoken until post-Book of Mormon times in the actual areas of the southern Guatemalan highlands where the Nephite and Lamanite settlements are best placed.) But neither major language group seems to have been established on the upper Grijalva, at least not until well into A.D. times. That intermediate zone seems to have been a linguistic frontier. Zarahemla’s people had moved into the area from the Gulf Coast through lands occupied by Zoque speakers for centuries. His local followers in Mosiah’s day likely spoke a language like Zoquean. Mosiah and his party, coming from the opposite direction, were among the first of a long series of groups who drifted down out of Guatemala into this valley over the next thousand years.
The archaeological sequence at Santa Rosa is interesting in terms of the Book of Mormon, although the findings will always remain incomplete because the site is now underwater. Major public construction in the form of what seem to have been “temple” or “palace” foundation mounds started on a modest scale at approximately 300 B.C. That coincided with growth in population, which produced the “city” of Zarahemla that Mosiah’s party encountered a couple of generations later. The place remained no larger than a modest town, as we think of size, during the time when Mosiah, Benjamin his son, and Mosiah II reigned. Around 100 B.C. a spurt in the city’s prosperity is evident, and a large number of major public structures were erected. That condition continued for around a century. Except for the site of Chiapa de Corzo far downstream, Santa Rosa became the largest, most significant “city” in the Grijalva basin just at the time when Zarahemla is reported by the Book of Mormon as becoming a regional center.
As Sorenson points out, an interesting combination of factors reinforces Santa Rosa as the potential site for Zarahemla. The archaeological indication of a population explosion in Santa Rosa soon after Mosiah1 and his people entered Zarahemla is quite suggestive. While the linguistic data do not tell us much at the moment, the position of Zarahemla along a linguistic and probably cultural frontier will certainly impact our understanding of some of the events later discussed for Zarahemla. (See commentary accompanying Alma 2:8–9, 22–30.)
Culture: Most fascinating is the reception given to Mosiah1’s people: They are met with rejoicing. Since Mosiah’s people have been struggling through the wilderness for forty days or more, they certainly would not have been able to present themselves as a royal procession. Rather, they would have been bedraggled and hungry refugees, in need of food and rest.
Rather than envisioning a spontaneous welcoming celebration, I suggest that Amaleki is conflating details of the story that actually occurred in a different sequence. The cause of the rejoicing comes from an explication of their genealogy, but this detail does not actually occur until later (v. 18). At that point, the Zarahemlaites rejoiced. I conjecture that Amaleki has restructured his story to create a socially and spiritually accurate history rather than one more faithful to the actual sequence of events.
Furthermore, the standard processes of two strange groups meeting in the ancient world would dictate a different scenario. First, the Zarahemlaites would have had to determine that Mosiah1 and his people were not a military patrol and, on Mosiah1’s side, that the Zarahemlaites would not immediately attack them. The next stage would have been welcoming the strangers and offering them hospitality. Perhaps it was during the process of exchanging information so that they might know how to treat each other that the rejoicing began. From the brief text, it seems that the brass plates played a key role. Amaleki states that the Zarahemlaites “did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah1 with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews.”
Why would the plates have had this effect? I suggest that possession of the record—rare in itself, but also on the distinctive brass plates—served a talismanic function identifying Mosiah1 as an important man. Since the Nephites’ acceptance based on genealogy occurred after the initial reception, apparently it was the very fact of possessing such an important item as the plates that prompted the Zarahemlaites’ acceptance of the Nephite refugees.
Conferring on the content of the plates must have occurred later. At that point, the common genealogy of the two groups would have been established, making their incorporation into a single people less improbable than one might imagine. It would not be the political union of two groups of strangers but the reunion of long-lost relatives.
History: I have already argued that Mosiah1 was not the king in Nephi. (See commentary accompanying Omni 1:12.) Nevertheless, he must have been of Nephi’s lineage both because he later becomes king and because he had the brass plates, which would have remained with the kingly line. (Jacob and his descendants never mention transmitting the brass plates, only the small plates of Nephi.) Thus, Mosiah1 had to have a genealogical right to the plates. Furthermore, he also took with him the Liahona and the sword of Laban. (Benjamin gives them to Mosiah2 [Mosiah 1:16], hence, they had to have come with Mosiah1.)
The Book of Mormon is entirely silent about the people who remained in Nephi or from whom Mosiah1 and the believers fled. Was it a new invading army of Lamanites? Or were the Nephite leaders becoming so wicked that they turned on the righteous? Either possibility is plausible, but the outcome of either would be that the city of Nephi became a Lamanite holding, using as the definition of “Lamanite” those unfriendly to the Nephites.
The only information Amaleki gives about Zarahemla is that both the land and city are named the same as the current ruler. It is likely that Zarahemla founded this city, giving it his name. While he founded the city, he certainly did not begin the lineage. Just as the Nephites continued to trace their origins to the Old World after sojourns in both Nephi and Zarahemla, the people of Zarahemla are named for a more recent king but traced their history to Mulek, who had come from Jerusalem. According to Amaleki, God had led the people of Zarahemla “into the land where Mosiah1 discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth” (Omni 1:16). No date is given for this migration from the location where the original Mulekites landed to this place where Mosiah1’s people meet with Zarahemla’s people.
The people of Zarahemla seem to have been named after their leader, who reported to Mosiah that his ancestors had arrived from the Mediterranean area by boat and that he was a descendant of “Mulek,” a son of Zedekiah, the last of the Jewish kings before the Exile. The voyage arrived first in the land northward, then moved south. Probably they first settled at the east-coast site known later as “the city of Mulek” (note Alma 8:7). “And they came from there up into the south wilderness” (Alma 22:31), where Mosiah later encountered them. Factions had warred among themselves; Zarahemla was now chief over one group (Omni 1:17). If the city of Zarahemla was named after him (or his father), then his group would not have been in that spot for very long, although they might have lived in the general locale for some time.
It is a fairly common practice in the Book of Mormon to name a city after its founder. Since we have a man named Zarahemla at the head of the city named Zarahemla, Sorenson’s suggestion that they had not been in that area very long appears to be correct. The people’s identity was modified by the lifetime of the man Zarahemla. This would mean that Zarahemla’s ancestors had been in the north for over four hundred years before traveling south up the Sidon River valley, though the migration up the valley may have been incremental.