“Desolate and Without Timber”

Brant Gardner

History: Mormon spends a verse describing the settlement pattern of these emigrants: that they went into areas that “had not been rendered desolate and without timber.” Much of Mesoamerica generally is heavily forested today, but it has reached that state only after a thousand years of recovering from the high densities of the Maya and Teotihuacano populations and their lifestyles. One of the earlier cities to suffer extinction was the great Maya metropolis of El Mirador, located in the Petén region of Guatemala. Historian David Drew reports:

In the second and third centuries A.D. disruptions and catastrophe hit the Maya world. About A.D. 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 A.D. 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.

This same fate awaited the great city of Tikal in the Petén (reaching its apogee from A.D., 200 to 850 when it collapsed). The best-known image of Tikal is its use as the setting of the “rebel base” at the end of the first Star Wars movie, in which Tikal’s temples rise from a dense jungle. In the Late Classic, there were virtually no trees for as far as the eye could see. Pollen samples and lake-bed cores indicate a very high degree of deforestation at that time, soon before the once powerful city’s complete collapse in the tenth century.

Not surprisingly, deforestation is also suggested as a major cause for Teotihuacan’s downfall, which was beginning during Mormon’s lifetime. Mormon is accurately depicting Teotihuacan as it existed in his lifetime but is reading its description back into an earlier time. This process is similar to what historian Baruch Halpern suggests for the book of Judges in the Bible. Judges picks up the history of the Israelite invasion of Canaan after their exodus from Egypt. Halpern notes that, while it covers such an early time period, it speaks of that time in terms important to the post-Babylonian-exile Jews. He suggests: “Finding [an exilic redactor] in Judges 1 means working in this tradition: the text has nothing to do with updating a Josianic history to the exile, so the only explanation for its insertion is that, obliquely, it refers to events other than those it describes. It speaks to readers of the exile, as though somehow the reader was expected to divine that here, suddenly, the object of discussion was not the past, but the present, swaddled in symbol. The Canaanites of Judges 1, then, are not the Canaanites of the premonarchic era. They must be archetypes of later enemies.” Halpern suggests that the Hebrew editors of Judges have done something similar to what we see from Mormon. They have described an earlier time in terms that are more relevant to their own time period.

Variant: The typesetter mistakenly typeset “whatever” (v. 5) instead of the correct “whatsoever.” Royal Skousen notes: “The word ‘whatever’ never occurs in the original text, it’s only ‘whatsoever’: [in the] original [manuscript whatsoever occurs] 74 [times] to 0 [for ‘whatever,’ in the] current [edition, ‘whatsoever’ occurs] 72 [times] to 2 [for ‘whatever’].… The 1830 printer put in ‘whatever’ once in Jacob [Jacob 1:11] and elsewhere in Helaman [3:5].”

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5