“There Was a Large Stone Brought Unto Him with Engravings on It”

Brant Gardner

Archaeology: Mesoamerica is unique in the Western hemisphere for its writing systems. While the best-known is that of the Maya, the roots of literacy are much earlier, probably extending to the Olmec. Part of that tradition includes inscriptions on stelae, or large stones. The fact that Mosiah1 viewed an engraved stone is unusual only in Amaleki’s description that it was “brought” to Mosiah1. It must have required some effort to transport the stone. Perhaps it was a smaller stela.

Most of the stelae with hieroglyphs discovered to date have been in the Maya area, but earlier texts exist in early forms of Mixe and Zoque. The most complete text (Stela 1 of La Mojarra, from a village of that name on the Acula River in Veracruz, Mexico) has Zoque as the underlying language. Only eleven texts in this Epi-Olmec script are currently known, but surely many more were created in antiquity.

Interestingly, the Zarahemlaites moved from an area with tradition of literacy in the language they were likely speaking, yet they were unable to read this stone. Either they were illiterate or the stone was written in an earlier form of the language. The second explanation is possible since it recounts the story of Coriantumr1, a Jaredite survivor, who might have spoken a different language. However, Zoque is a daughter language of the earlier Mixe-Zoquean. It seems probable that a literate population would have been able to make some sense of it since the glyphs are generally phonetic. Sorenson’s suggestion that they were illiterate therefore seems more likely. If the Zarahemlaites were illiterate, it confirms their relative poverty and lower status compared to the immigrating Nephites.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3