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  • Writer's picturestephenstrent7

City States of Pre-Columbian America

Photo of a monument in Mexico, ID ZA12; I am not implying by this image that the Book of Mormon setting was necessarily in Mexico

Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: May 6 - 12; Mosiah 7-10

We read in Mosiah 7:1-4, “And now, it came to pass that after king Mosiah had had continual peace for the space of three years, he was desirous to know concerning the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi, or in the city of Lehi-Nephi; for his people had heard nothing from them from the time they left the land of Zarahemla; therefore, they wearied him with their teasings. And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted that sixteen of their strong men might go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi, to inquire concerning their brethren. And it came to pass that on the morrow they started to go up, having with them one Ammon, he being a strong and mighty man, and a descendant of Zarahemla; and he was also their leader. And now, they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness, even forty days did they wander.”


We are told in Mosiah 8:7-8, “And the king said unto him: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage. And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel.”


Again, we read in Mosiah 9:18-19, “And God did hear our cries and did answer our prayers; and we did go forth in his might; yea, we did go forth against the Lamanites, and in one day and a night we did slay three thousand and forty-three; we did slay them even until we had driven them out of our land. And I, myself, with mine own hands, did help to bury their dead. And behold, to our great sorrow and lamentation, two hundred and seventy-nine of our brethren were slain.”


The encounter between Ammon and King Limhi occurred about 121 BC, or some 479 years after Lehi’s family left Jerusalem, and maybe fifty years after the first Mosiah and his people had come from Lehi-Nephi to the Land of Zarahemla and joined with the Mulekites. Yet the “wilderness” between the lands of Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla was such that, according to two of the scriptures cited above, whoever ventured into that wilderness got lost. We are not told what type of wilderness existed between those two settled areas. When Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, they went into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:2), which was almost certainly desert. The American wilderness may also have been a desert, but it may also have been a forest — we are not told, but if it were a wilderness where “strong” and able men are easily lost, to me, that sounds like a forest wilderness. I have no idea where in the Americas Lehi-Nephi and Zarahemla were located. Many people have speculated about where they were, but I have no opinion.

The picture painted in the above verses is of a land with a number of very large city-states (the Lamanites could suffer the loss of “three thousand and forty-three” warriors without being wiped out, and, indeed, they came back in Mosiah 10:20 and lost an innumerable portion of their army again) separated at some unspecified distance by dense forest or jungle where people crossing between cities commonly became lost. Population Genetics cannot account for the large numbers of Lamanite losses being born by the descendants of fifty or one hundred settlers in less than 480 years. The settlers must have mixed with large numbers of indigenous people for those numbers to make any sense. Even if the Lamanite army suffered 20-30% losses, which is considered to be  a number where the unit loses its combat effectiveness, that would make the entire army in the range of ten to fifteen thousand.1 Furthermore, an army usually is less than 1% of the total population.2 That means that the total population from which the Lamanite army was drawn was at least a million to a million and a half people. That is a huge population for any ancient city-state.

The story of the people of Zeniff is reminiscent of the Aztec Triple Alliance in 1428-1521. The Aztec Empire at that time ruled over 400-500 smaller city states from whom they collected tribute. The Empire at that time consisted of some 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people, which could field an army of around 50,000 soldiers.3 


Trent Dee Stephens, PhD



1.     Clark, Dorothy K., Casualties as a Measure of Loss of Combat Effectiveness of an Infantry Battalion,, 1954; retrieved 28 April 2024



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