“Had Not Been Rendered Desolate and Without Timber”

Brant Gardner

Historical: Mormon gives us this quick statement that the people went into areas that “had not been rendered desolate and without timber.” On the surface, this would appear to be a very unusual statement for the Mesoamerican area in which we are placing the Book of Mormon. This is a land of heavy forestation. Where would they have gone that even might have been “desolate and without timber?” The answer lies in the population explosion and the effects of population on the land. This land has had over a thousand years to recover, and it is only recently that scientists are beginning to discover that this land of jungle had been stripped of trees as a result of the high density of certain Mesoamerican populations and their lifestyle. One of the earlier cities to suffer extinction was the great metropolis of El Mirador:

“But in the second and third centuries AD disruptions and catastrophe hit the Maya world. About AD 150, El Mirador seems to have collapsed quite suddenly. Until very recently, it was a mystery why this had occurred. Archaeologists had found signs of violence in the city centre. Many monuments and most of the stelae recovered here were found smashed. Were they invaded by their enemies? Yet the signs of aban­donment were almost total and it seemed extraordinary that such a great power should fold so completely. Today the findings of climatologists and soil scientists are suggesting environmental reasons for El Mirador’s demise.- For the tens of thousands of people congregated in the area would very quickly have destroyed the forest cover for miles around. 

They cut down trees to cook, to fire pottery and above all to burn the lime to produce ton after ton of lime plaster for endless construction projects and repairs to buildings and reservoirs. As they did this, the climate began to change. After about AD 100 it became drier across this part of the lowlands, a cyclical phenomenon which was to last for about four hundred years. This increased aridity may well have been enhanced locally by the scale of deforestation. And when it did rain, the water ran soil and sediment from the denuded landscape into the once-fertile swamps. In due course they dried up.” (David Drew. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings. University of California Press, 1999, p. 145-6). 

This same fate awaited the great city of Tikal. It is hard to imagine today when most of the world’s image of Tikal comes from the first Star Wars movie where Tikal’s temples rising from a dense jungle was the picture used for the “rebel base” at the end of that movie. In the Late Classic, someone standing on one of those same temples would have seen virtually no trees for as far as vision could perceive. Pollen samples and lake-bed cores indicate a very high degree of deforestation at that time – not coincidentally not long before the collapse of the once powerful city. (David Drew, 1999, p. 345).

Not surprisingly, it is this same deforestation that is suggested as one of the major causes of the downfall of Teotihucan, which was beginning during Mormon’s lifetime. What we see from Mormon is an accurate depiction of the world around him, but imputed to an earlier time.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon