“The Ten Thousand Ten Thousand Ten Thousand”

Alan C. Miner

From Mormon's description of the destruction of the Nephite armies, we find that they were organized into groups of "ten thousand" (Mormon 6:11-15). According to John Sorenson, at the time of the Spanish conquest, Bernal Diaz used similar language regarding the organization of the Tlascalan armies that faced Cortez. Five captains appeared on the battlefield, each with his ten thousand men -- "Of the followers of the old Xicotenga . . . there were ten thousand; of another great chief named Moseescaci there were another ten thousand; of a third, who was called Chichimecatecle, there were as many more," and so on. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting For the Book of Mormon, pp. 263-264]

The Lamanites Had Hewn Down All 230000 of My People

All told, the Nephite account tells of 92 battles between Lamanties and Nephites, but only near the end did annihilation of the enemy become a realistic goal (see Mormon 4:23; 5:2; 6:6). Clearly by the time of the Cumorah battle, conditions had set the stage for armed conflict and social chaos at a new, more terrifying level.

After the renewal of war early in the fourth century A.D., wholesale destruction, not just conquest and exploitation, became the aim of the Lamanite aggressors. At that point the victims had to either flee or die (see Mormon 2:3-8), whereas a few centuries before they only had to subject themselves to new rules to be left relatively undisturbed so long as they paid up. Nearing the final conflict at Cumorah, the wars became even more decimating and merciless (see Moroni 9:7-19). At length, around A.D. 380, the Nephites as a sociopolitical group were exterminated in one climactic battle wherein hundreds of thousands died in a single day (see Mormon 6:11-15).

We must note carefully, however, that the extermination of the Nephite group was only one episode in a widespread pattern of social and political collapse that was going on around them. Soon after the renewal of the Nephite-Lamanite wars, around A.D. 330, Mormon reported that "the land was filled with robbers and with Lamanites; . . . therefore there was blood and carnage spread throughout all the face of the land, both on the part of the Nephites and also on the part of the Lamanties; and it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land" (Mormon 2:8). Seventy years later, Moroni2, the last custodian of the Nephite record, reported that his extinct people's enemies were engaged in fighting that was "exceedingly fierce among themselves" (Moroni 1:2). "The Lamanites [and, he implies, independent robber groups] are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war" (Mormon 8:8-9). So the Nephite retreat and defeat constituted only one episode within a more general pattern of widespread social and political degeneration quite unlike the less sharp conflicts of earlier times.

For much of the 20th century the Book of Mormon account appeared to contradict the picture of warfare in the culture of ancient Mesoamerica, the apparent area where the Nephites dwelt. The common view of the experts at that time was that the Maya and other peoples in that isthmus zone lived particularly peaceful lives. Armed conflict on a sizeable scale was supposed to have been a development that took place only long after the Nephites were exterminated. But during the final three decades of the 20th century, archaeologists found it necessary to revise that view.

In the last 15 years point after point has emerged on which the archaeologists' findings concerning Mesoamerican combat agree with Book of Mormon statements about military action. Angel Garcia Cook demonstrated in the 1970's that the territory of the modern states of Tlaxcala and Puebla, east of Mexico City, displayed many fortified sites and other evidence of wide political disruption, particularly after A.D. 100.

By the second century A.D., a military confrontation is indicated between some unlabeled group from the western Guatemalan highlands and the people at Kaminaljuyu, the political and demographic center of the area (and considered by many Latter-day Saints to have been the city of Nephi). Fortifications were erected at the big capital site against the threat of armed attack from some (presumably nearby) neighbor. All told, Juan Antonio Valdes concludes, "Around A.D. 200, the principal center of the highlands was passing through one of the worst socioeconomic moments of its history, a factor that resulted in a cultural decline of the sites in the Central Highlands area"

In 1976 at the site of Becan in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, David L. Webster not only demonstrated that a large city had been extensively fortified during the supposedly peaceful Classic era, but he also determined that the date when the protective deep ditch and wall had first been constructed was far earlier. Becan's defenses were probably built between A.D. 250 and 300, though Webster could not rule out the possibility that the true date was between A.D. 100 and 250.

The effects of the collapse in southern Mesoamerica around A.D. 200-400 "were almost as calamitous as those resulting form the [more famous] collapse of Late Classic Maya civilization" centuries later. Dahlin thinks this revolutionary destruction of the old cultures resulted from climatic change, which in turn provoked extensive movements of population from place to place, as well as to warfare, plagues, shifts in trade routes, and so on. Researchers have indeed found evidence for changes in climate; drought afflicted parts of the area beginning as early as the first century B.C. and grew worse until A.D. 300-400 before starting to reverse itself around A.D. 500.

It has now been discovered that the center of the great metropolis Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, appears to have been torched around A.D. 475-500, in some sort of revolution or invasion at that time rather than in the eighth century, as most archaeologists had believed.

In summary, the new research shows that the chaotic, violent milieu depicted by Mormon for the fourth century actually did prevail on a wide scale in southern Mesoamerica. Secondly, archaeological evidence now shows that peoples or ethnic groups were not only subject to the uncomfortable consequences of war that we normally expect, but they, like other Mesoamericans of their time, faced ultimate extermination by their enemies. Research signifies for the history of the Nephites that the final fate depicted for that people in Mormon's record need not be considered fictional nor a mere case of overdrawn military rhetoric. Instead it has the earmarks of genuine Mesoamerican history. What happened to the Nephites was not a unique occurrence. [John L. Sorenson, "Last-Ditch Warfare in Ancient Mesoamerica Recalls the Book of Mormon, in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 9, Num. 2, 2000, pp. 46-53]

Mormon 6:11-15 [The Lamanites] Had Hewn Down All [230,000 of] My People ([Illustration]): United States Casualties in Major Wars [Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, p. 173]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary