“He Did Interpret the Engravings by the Gift and Power of God”

Brant Gardner

Archaeological: The Mesoamerican area is unique in the Western Hemisphere for its developed writing system. While it is best know for the Maya, the roots of the writing system extend much earlier in time, probably to the Olmec (Campbell, Lyle. The Linguistics of Southeast Chiapas, Mexico. BYU. New World Archaeological Foundation. 1988, p. 19). Part of the known tradition is writing on stela, or large stones. The description of a large stone being brought to Mosiah is unusual only in the idea that it was "brought." Most of the stela would have been quite heavy, and we may presume that this is a slight linguistic error. It is much more likely that Mosiah was "brought" to the stone.

While most of the stela with hieroglyphs are known for the Maya area, earlier texts that are written in the early forms of Mixe and Zoque, with the most complete text (Stela 1 of La Mojarra) having Zoque as the underlying language (Justeson, John and Terrence Kaufman. "Un descriframiento de la escritura jeroglifica epi-olmeca: metodos y resultados." In: Archaeologia, July-December 1992, p. 15,20). There are only 11 texts of this epi-Olmec script currently known (Justeson, Kaufman, 1992, p. 16), but it is certain that there were many more in antiquity. Thus the Zarahemlaites come through an area with a literate tradition in the language they were likely speaking, yet they were unable to read this stone.

There are two possible explanations for the inability of the Zarahemlaites to read the stone themselves. Either they were illiterate (as Sorenson has suggested 1985, p. 120) or the stone was written in the earlier form of the language. The second is possible since the stone will tell of Coriantumr who was a Jaredite survivor, and might have therefore spoken a different language. However, the Zoque is a later evolution from the earlier Mixe-Zoquean, and one would suspect that a literate population would have been able to make some sense of it since the glyphs are now known to be generally phonetic, and the gross form should have been understandable. Sorenson's suggestion is therefore the more likely, and the illiterate status of Zarahemla's people further suggest their relative poverty of status if not fact when compared to the immigrating Nephites.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon