In a FARMS brown bag lecture on 10 January 2001, John L. Sorenson, emeritus professor of anthropology at BYU and a senior research scholar at FARMS, reported on three of his ongoing projectseach a monumental effort in itselfthat share the ultimate goal of strengthening his synthesis of the Book of Mormon account and scholarly knowledge about ancient Mesoamerica. Two of the projects involve mining large bodies of empirical research in order to lay the groundwork for the third, a correlation between the archaeological record of Mesoamerica and Book of Mormon geography, events, and chronology. The three project reports that follow are based on Sorensons lecture and his subsequent input.
Transoceanic Contacts in Ancient Times
For years Sorenson has cataloged the evidence for cultural diffusion between the Old and New Worlds, resulting in Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography, a seminal two-volume work coauthored by Martin Raish that was published in 1990 and updated in 1996. Sorenson continues that effort by gathering decisive evidence for the interhemispheric transfer of flora and fauna that could have occurred only by way of human migrations by sea. Nearly all anthropologists, botanists, and geographers continue to assume that few or no plants were shared between the two hemispheres and that diffusionist theories are not supported by solid evidence.
However, a well-documented example of flora transfer is maize, a native American plant depicted in stone carvings in ancient temples of India. The intricate detail of these carvings demonstrates that the sculptors used as their models real maize ears grown locally, the plant having been introduced to India from the Americas. Some of the carved images in India date from B.C. times.
Evidence for flora transfer also includes archaeological specimens dating to before 1492, empirical studies on the distribution of plants, and similarities in plant names in New and Old world languages. The plants involvedamong them chili peppers, amaranth, cotton, the cashew nut, and pineapplestotal more than 40 species, with scores of others possible.
|Carvings on Indian temples, like the one above, often show figures holding ears of maize, providing evidence of transoceanic contact in pre-Columbian times.|
Courtesy Carl L. Johannessen
Sorenson and collaborator Carl L. Johannessen, a University of Oregon geography professor, will summarize their work at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania in May. Full details will appear in a book they are preparing.
Sorenson lamented the fact that academicians tend to ignore or dismiss, largely for political reasons, the increasingly compelling body of diffusionist studies that challenge time-honored views. Noting that such wide-ranging and time-intensive research is best undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of specialists, Sorenson invited the help of interested colleagues.
|Stone carving in India and American sunflower show striking similarities.|
Courtesy Carl L. Johannessen
Mesoamerican Chronology Project
Another long-standing research interest of Sorensons is the archaeological chronology of Mesoamerica, on which he published professionally in 1955 and again in 1977. He feels that the vague sequence of events as presently established needs to be fixed more accurately before the chro nology can be treated as history to which the Book of Mormon historical account can be usefully compared.
He set out to create the most accurate Mesoamerican chronology to date by consulting the primary sources on comparative pottery chronology and radiocarbon dating (over 430 publications or unpublished papers). From these he first constructed a massive chart that matched up the se quences of pottery for 130 sites or regions, but without any year dates attached. He then gathered 1,700 radiocarbon dates for Mesoamerica and sub jected them to a quality evaluation. Old, poorly described, or inconsistent dates were put aside; the best were then connected to the pottery chart to define the time periods as well as they can be with todays information. The result was offered to the experts on Mesoamerican chronology to correct or supplement the alignments and dates. Two dozen leading specialists responded with enthusiasm for the project, but none has been able to furnish new C-14 dates or significantly modify the product.
Recent methodological work on radiocarbon dating has demonstrated that inherent technical problems will probably always limit the precision that was once anticipated. Eleven kinds of statistical and technical uncertainties have now been identified, making it inevitable that C-14 dating at best will never have a margin of possible error less than ±140 years. Particularly troublesome is the fact that wood, which in the form of charcoal is the material most often dated, frequently was up to centuries old by the time it was burned and so can yield mis leadingly old ages. The present difficulties mean that, for example, charcoal from a burned building that one might initially think resulted from a fire around A.D. 30 in Book of Mormon terms cannot be dated by the C-14 method more firmly than sometime between 110 B.C. and A.D. 170.
So while Sorensons new chronology scheme is the latest word, it leaves him without the level of accuracy needed to definitively correlate historical details of the Nephite record with the archaeological results.
Correlating Mesoamerican Historical Chronology with the Book of Mormon
To whatever degree the Mesoamerican chronology can be refined, the next step for Professor Sorenson will be to harmonize that history with the Book of Mormon narrative. Over a period of 50 years, he has noted numerous connections that need to be assessed and set forth articulately in a book demonstrating that what archaeology has established as a stream of events and contexts can be connected to the Book of Mormon in plausible terms. This year Sorenson is undertaking to organize and perhaps to write a version of how those two versions of the past connect with each other.
His work in this area is also supported by a grant from the BYU Religious Studies Center and is expected to result in a fully documented scholarly treatment of this subject.