Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jimmer Fredette, the "Lonely Master," Might Be Doing Better and Doing More in China than the Deseret News Thinks

Salt Lake City's Deseret News recently published a thoughtful, nicely written, but rather downbeat article about China's most popular basketball player, Jimmer Fredette, the star who once stunned US crowds while playing for Brigham Young University. The article, "Lonely Master: From March Madness to Shanghai, the Unlikely Journey of Jimmer Fredette" by Jesse Hyde, March 12, 2018, has many positive things to say about Jimmer, but the general tone of the article is that Jimmer has missed out on his US dreams and thus had to settle for something terribly inferior by coming to the grim and gritty land of China. As a biased China fan and a big fan of Jimmer, I think there's another perspective that ought to be considered.

Yes, the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) is a far weaker competitive arena than the NBA, and yes, it is disappointing that his NBA career did not give him the opportunities and playing time he sought. But don't shed too many tears for Jimmer: things might not be all that grim.

The negative picture painted of China is a bit disappointing. Foreigners first coming here can be overwhelmed and challenged by some of the differences, but to those who give it a chance, it is a beautiful, exciting place. It is also a land of opportunity where Jimmer is visible and influential to millions of people in ways that would not be possible in Europe or the US.

I have met Jimmer and chatted a few times but don't know him well nor can I speak for him. But what he is doing here is remarkable and already has touched many people. His goodness, his honesty, his humility, and his high standards have also helped him touch people beyond what athletic skills alone could do. For someone who possibly might have a sense of a mission higher than temporal success alone, coming to China brings many opportunities to achieve greater good, while also benefiting from a shorter season and excellent pay. Seems like a win/win to me. His presence in China just might be part of something big, at least in the minds of some of his fans here.

One of those fans, a Communist Party official, requested a chance to meet Jimmer last year. I was honored to be part of the little gathering where introductions were made. Jimmer with his characteristic class and humility brought gifts for the Chinese men who had come -- framed photos of him as keepsakes. I received a photo, too. They were thrilled. Before Jimmer showed up, one man in the small group, a business leader in charge of the large complex where we rent some beautiful space to hold LDS services, chattered excitedly about Jimmer and quoted statistics from Jimmer's games when he was at BYU and in China. I loved his enthusiasm for Jimmer and the sport. The official (I think he was the source) had gifts also, a terrific album of Chinese postage stamps. It was a beautiful souvenir for each of the foreigners at this event, which I'm proudly holding in the photo below.

With typical Jimmer class, Jimmer noticed a couple of keenly interested staff members from the little cafe where we met and invited them to get their photos taken also. It was a big day for all of us.

The Deseret News article makes numerous references to the pollution of China and Jimmer's depressing situation here. The lead paragraph suggests he can't see much of the skyline in Shanghai due to pollution (yes, we have pollution and some days visibility is noticeably reduced, but we have a lot of beautiful days too and air quality is improving). His apartment is "empty, lonely, a place he just crashes, so devoid of personal effects...." Regarding some reminders of his wife and daughter in his apartment: "Sometimes he needs those reminders. Like when he’s in Shanxi, a gritty industrial city where the gray dust blows from the cement factories and the grime is so thick he could scribble his name on the windows of parked cars." And when he's in Shanghai, in spite of the wealth and good food here, "even here, the air carries a slight whiff of chemicals you can almost taste. It’s hard not to want to be somewhere else."

At this point in reading the article, I wondered if the staff of the Deseret News have ever been in Salt Lake City during the winter months, when the winter inversion traps pollution in the Salt Lake Valley and leads to painfully high levels of particles, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants? Of if they have ever been near operations of the massive copper mine that scars the Valley? Or drove through Utah County in the days when the Geneva Steel works were cranking out massive whiffs of chemicals into the air? Or if they have lived near a pulp and paper mill in the United States? Plenty of whiffs there (unlike the generally more advanced pulp mills in China and Japan that can be essentially free of odor).

Shanghai air can get smoggy and is typically worse than most places in the US, but apart from an occasional painter using oil-based paint or a vehicle burning too much oil, as in almost any city, noticeable "whiffs of chemicals" are something I generally don't experience here, unless those chemicals include the cinnamon aromas coming from Shanghai's amazing Cinnaswirl bakery with world-class cinnamon rolls, or from the intoxicating smells of any of the hundreds of different cuisines available in Shanghai. OK, we do have stinky tofu, which does have a noticeable smell from its unusual natural chemistry -- maybe that's what the writer encountered here. But you can just take a few steps and be free of that.

China has pollution, certainly. There are spots that are gritty or grimy, just as in America. But it's also one of the most beautiful and exciting places to live, especially Shanghai. For me personally, my respiratory health during my nearly seven years in Shanghai has been much better than it was in the US, where I would often get bronchitis or other issues in winter. Here it's been great and I've almost never had to miss work due to illness. One or two days for an injury, but my health has been terrific. Part of that is from the food, which is high in fresh produce and generally quite healthy.

Come give China a chance. It's one of the nicest places in the world, in my opinion. Anyplace is grim when you are away from family, but with such a short playing season, we hope that Jimmer can continue to thrive here and increasingly experience the beauty and wonders of China while here.

As a reminder of the surprising beauty and sometimes even miraculous nature of life in Shanghai, here are images of one of Shanghai's secrets: its impressive angels rising from the ground to watch over this city. May Jimmer continue to be among them.


Here are a few more scenes from China, starting with two from Xian in Shaanxi Province (not the same as Shanxi Province), one from Zhangjiajie (where some of the setting for the movie Avatar was filmed -- it really is that beautiful), and the rest from the Shanghai area.

Finally, here's a couple views of one of Jimmer's favorite Shanghai spots, the Shanghai Disney Castle
and Cinderella's Castle in the beautiful, high-tech, and generally not so grimy Shanghai Disneyland, my favorite Disney park.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Broken Tooth: Guest Post from Sister Deb Roundy, New Missionary in Vanuatu

One of Shanghai's most interesting and famous foreigners, Debra Roundy from Idaho, has left Shanghai to serve with her husband, Carlos Roundy, as a missionary couple in Vanuatu. She was famous in Shanghai partially because of her years of work in dance with local Shanghai social dance groups and has been on TV and in the newspaper numerous times. Now she's in a much smaller and very different place, a mysterious island nation that has the world's greatest diversity in languages. 

One of her recent posts reflecting on her service and her experiences in Shanghai caught my eye, and I asked if she would be willing to share it here on Mormanity. After further work and additions, she has kindly submitted the following account in a story called "The Broken Tooth."

"The Broken Tooth"

Guest post by Sister Deb Roundy, missionary in Vanuatu

For several years in the 1980’s-1990’s, I was able to attend LDS Woman’s Conference in Provo. One year they told us that soon they would be starting a Humanitarian arm of the church. I was excited. I listened, watched and waited. Finally it started up. At first we were given simple directions to make school, hygiene and new baby kits to mail into Salt Lake. Then things grew, eventually they started having projects at the Woman’s Conference. By then I had made many kits. A friend of mine, Kathy Duncan, started taking shipments down to Salt Lake. She was put in the stake Relief Society Presidency and started two Humanitarian Days a year. Soon she was taking her horse trailer filled with donations from the good sisters of the Rupert area.

When my daughter Seresa was a senior in high school, about 1996, she was working on her senior project for learning skills such as leadership and organization as seniors do something good to help the world.  She chose to make school bags to be given to the Humanitarian Center for distribution wherever needed in the world.

That year we had Inga, an exchange student from Russia, living with us. I was also a counselor for exchange students and our area had been able to sponsor two students from Russia. It was the first year Russian Exchange students were sent to the USA and it was on a special scholarship.   I was able to get funds thanks to a donation by a local bank to take Inga and another student from Russia, Kirill, to a BSA Scout camp, Philmont.

We decided to take the school bags down to the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City on the way to Philmont.  We arrived at the center and turned in the bags, then took a tour.  We started at a big blackboard covered with names of places. Our guide informed us that this is where the next shipments of supplies would be going. To our great surprise and delight one shipment was going to an orphanage in the town where Inga lived and another to the very town that Kirill lived.  What an amazing occurrence.  Both of them were thrilled that their people would be helped.

We continued on visiting the rooms full of supplies. We saw bundles of good clothes compressed in 100 pound bundles.  They would be sent to Africa and sold for very little money to clothing sellers in Africa who would, in turn, sell the clothes cheaply to the people in their village.  We had learned that if you just give the people clothing, the clothes seller has no income to feed his family so instead we sell it for what they can afford, and then the entire economy of the village can improve. People buy his clothes so he has money to buy food and goods from other villagers who in turn have money to buy more clothes.

We saw lots of medical supplies ready for shipment.  Hospitals might donate their excess or doctors might clean their offices and then donate so they could have tidy offices.

We saw school kits such as my daughter made being prepared for shipment.  The guide told us stories of places in Africa where paper was so priceless that children would take a gum wrapper to write assignments on. They would first write back and forth, then up and down. Then they would turn the wrapper to the side and write diagonally.  Last they would turn the wrapper to the other side and write yet one more time.  Erasing was done with care so as not to tear the paper.  Every scrap was precious. Pencils donated and sent to Africa might be broken in two to be passed to more children.  Things that we have a lot of we learned were precious commodities in some places in the world.  Some of these children would now have notebooks full of paper and pencils to share as well as other needed supplies.  We learned that they always share when they get a school kit.

School kits being assembled for shipment and then a distribution point

We had toured most of the facility and the teens were a bit tired so she invited them to sit down for a few minutes and rest. She then signaled me to follow her as she had something she wanted me to see while the kids rested. The guide took me into a special room. She was excited. It was filled floor to ceiling with medical textbooks. Row after row and shelf after shelf after shelf of brand new medical text books donated by book companies.  “See all these medical text books, they are ready for shipment,” she said excitedly.

We have to translate all of the books into many of the world's languages. It takes five years.  By then the text books are obsolete but it is all we could do.  Now we are starting a new program sending English teachers throughout the world to teach English.  Then the doctors can read the text books themselves and have the latest in research and development immediately available to them.  (This was before the internet, think of it now!) This was a passion for her.

She then said, you are a teacher, maybe someday when you retire you'll be teaching English somewhere in the world and helping us to bring the latest in medical developments to the entire world.  These doctors are very intelligent, they just need one tool to help them, English. It is more time effective and cost effective to send teachers to teach them English than it is to translate books that will be obsolete before we can get them in the hands of those who need them. We are just starting now. Think of the possibilities!

That was about in 1996, so almost 20 years have passed. In those twenty years we have seen an unprecedented explosion of knowledge as the world has never seen before.  The internet is available in almost every place on the entire planet, and much of it is in English. It has been interesting to watch the internet grow and flourish.

Last week [Deb wrote this while in Shanghai] on October 31, 2015 I broke off a big chunk of my back right molar tooth. I would have to see a dentist, and soon. I worried. Would he have the latest technology? Maybe he would just pull the tooth, but the roots were still good. What would happen?

I arrived at the dental clinic, sponsored by my university, Tongji University [a prominent university in northeastern Shanghai]. Some of my students were studying to be dentists. A friend of mine who lives in the Xuhui area [in western Shanghai, near the French Concession region] travels clear across town to go to the dental hospital there so it must be a good one. Still I was a bit apprehensive.

When I arrived someone came to help me fill out the paperwork. He was very polite and helpful. He had good English. I went to see the doctor and she looked at the tooth. It was bad, worse than they had expected. I had not been able to explain it adequately to the person who was my liaison and would help me. She had sent me to a regular dentist. I was sent to a specialist in the same building.

The new dentist was apprehensive. He felt he did not speak good enough English and he was worried. The dental nurse told him to use sign language and we both laughed. It put us at ease. I was assuring him that it would be alright, instead of him assuring me.

He looked at the tooth and at the x-ray I had brought. The entire upper surface of the tooth would need to be rebuilt. He could not tell me what he was doing but soon I relaxed as I knew what he was doing. My dentist in the USA had done the same. He took an impression of my mouth. I knew he was going to make a new porcelain tooth. He did it just like my dentist in the USA had. I recognized all of the steps. He had all of the latest equipment and the latest training.

He had to hammer the old tooth off, but when he saw that it hurt, even just a little, he gave me a shot with some stuff to numb it and just a little, not too much so my mouth was ok. I do not like too much and he was able to understand my sign language and limited, very limited Mandarin.

He took an impression then put a temporary tooth on. He patiently drilled the temporary down just right so it would be comfortable for the week I needed it. He would then have a new tooth made. We even chose out a good color to match the other teeth so it would look right.

Soon enough it was done. I left the clinic assured that I had a good dentist with the latest technology.

Then as I walked to the metro station I remembered long ago going to the Humanitarian Center and seeing the room full of medical text books. I knew that Brigham Young University had had teachers at Tongji for almost 20 years. The first teachers had come in 1997, about a year after I had been at the Humanitarian Center with my daughter and been invited to someday be an English teacher overseas. I realized that the doctor had possibly had a BYU-CTP teacher for a semester or two. If not him, then others at the clinic may have. Those doctors may have read the English medical text books and share the information with their colleges. In some way it is likely that my dentist had been given knowledge as a result of the BYU-CTP. I was directly helped by the program as my dentist had communicated with me. I was literally experiencing the results of our program to share with the world to bring to the world the latest in medical technology. Not only can we share our technology but they can share theirs. My work with students will help them have the knowledge and courage to travel, and to share their discoveries as they research, experiment and present at conferences all over the world.

As I searched the web I learned that now we provide English lessons free of charge. Free English lessons are available all over the world, even in Utah and Idaho for people who have come to the USA from other countries.

Sister Roundy doing a community service volunteer presentation for the Tianping Community Center

I wrote one of my dental students and he was so pleased to hear it. I think it will give him the drive to learn English even better. I know it gives me the will to teach English the best I can to my students.

What a special opportunity a broken tooth became for me, it enriched my life.

Carlos and me with some BYU-CTP teachers. We can only stay with this program for three years so we are “graduated” with the BYU-CTP but continued on for two more years, then returned and volunteered with the community we had grown to love for 3 months, until we returned to the USA to prepare for a humanitarian mission in Vanuatu.

Here are a few pictures of Humanitarian Days we had in Idaho and I used to be involved in.

The pictures up to the x-ray of the tooth all came from the church website.

The tooth x-ray was made by my dentist. The other pictures are mine. My student gave me permission to use his picture to share with others.

The large picture of sisters was taken by someone, not me.

Friday, March 02, 2018

New Life for Ancient Word Plays in the Book of Mormon: Paanchi, Ankh, and Deadly Oaths

It's no secret that secret combinations are one of the most salient and intelligent aspects of the Book of Mormon. The patterns of behavior and potential dangers in exposed secret combinations, ranging from the Mafia to the Mao Mao rebellion in Kenya or the Triads of Asia,  show many elements familiar to the Book of Mormon, including their desire and ability to permeate, influence, or control government. Oaths involving upon the life of someone, even God himself, are part of the pattern of secret combinations that ultimately led to the destruction of two great civilizations in the Book of Mormon.

New insights related to these oaths are revealed in newly proposed Old World word plays in the Book of Mormon. See the latest article at The Interpreter by Matthew L. Bowen "'Swearing by Their Everlasting Maker': Some Notes on Paanchi and Giddianhi,Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2018): 155-170. An excerpt follows:
From the beginning of the abridged Book of Helaman, much of Mormon’s remaining narrative history details the formation, development, and proliferation of oath-bound secret combinations among the Nephites and their eventual fatal impact on Nephite society. The common Egyptian lexeme ʿn — which as a verb means “to live” and as a noun denotes “life”1 — also denotes “to swear”2 as a verb and “oath”3 as a noun and constitutes a common onomastic element. Even in its primary meaning, “to live,” the use of ʿn is attested abundantly in oaths during Lehi’s time (cf. the Late Egyptian oath-formula ʿn n=i NN, “As NN lives for me”).4 Thus, the twofold mention of the name Paanchi (Helaman 1:3, 7) in the immediate context of the first recorded swearing of an oath-bound secret combination (“swearing by their everlasting Maker,” Helaman 1:11) among the Nephites emphasizes this moment as a key event in the ill fated Nephite history. Understanding the semantic range of meaning for Egyptian ʿn to include “oath” and “swear” also helps us appreciate the irony highlighted by Mormon’s inclusion of Giddianhi’s epistolary “oath” as a failed attempt by the latter to intimidate Lachoneus and his people into surrender (see especially 3 Nephi 3:8). 

Thus, both Paanchi and Giddianhi appear to share the Egyptian onomastic element –anchi/anhi/ʿn(i), and Mormon mentions both names in connection with the rise of the secret combinations that eventually overtook the Lamanite and Nephite societies, contributing to the destruction of the latter. Mormon, amid the decay and collapse of Nephite society, had striking personal reasons for their inclusion....

The Book of Mormon attests the name Paanchi twice (Helaman 1:3, 7). As John Gee has noted,9 Paanchi, as a form of the common Egyptian name p3 ʿn, most plausibly denotes “the living one” (transliterated in Greek as Ponchēs).10 The name “the living one” could have reference to a specific deity (cf. the title, “the living God,” Moses 5:29),11 but also to a person/child who lives (cf. Joseph’s Egyptian cognomen, Zaphnath-paaneah = “The god has said, ‘He shall live’” [paanēa = p3 ʿn], Genesis 41:45).12 Mortality rates — not least infant mortality rates — were extremely high in the ancient world.

In addition to the above, I would here point out that the Egyptian lexeme ʿn (vb. “live,” n. “life”) had additional derived meanings. Perhaps the most important secondary meaning of ʿn as a verb was to “swear” and as a noun it also meant “oath.”
While there is much more meat to be explored in the clever ways Mormon links both Paanchi and Gadianton and Giddianhi to ancient concepts of robbers and their oaths, one thing that caught my eye was the link between the authentic Egyptian name Paanchi. meaning "the living one" and parental hopes that a newborn might survive, discussed in the second-to-last paragraph above. Also see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon on Paanchi:
PAANCHI is quite plausibly the EGYPTIAN name p3-ʿnh first attested in the Thirteenth Dynasty (ca. 1800-1600 B.C.)[1] becoming popular from the Twenty-First through Twenty-Seventh Dynasties,[2] and surviving until Roman times (transcribed into Greek as Ponchēs)[3] The name means "the living one."[4] (JG). Hugh Nibley has suggested that this is the same name as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh,[5] although that pharaoh's name has also been read as Piye.[6]
Paanchi would seem to be a good and hopeful name to be selected by parents worried about high infant mortality rates.

Interestingly, in Brian Stubbs' work, Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan (Provo, UT: Grover Publications, 2015), one of his over 400 parallels between Uto-Aztecan and Egyptian is item #427 on p. 144, where he finds multiple UA languages sharing a word possibly related to ankh that refers to infants:
427 Egyptian(F) ʕnx ‘to live, v, (living) person, n’:
UACV-141 *onka / *oŋa ‘baby’: I.Num15 *oŋa(a)(’a) 'baby, child, young (of animals)’; M88-’o15 ‘baby’; KH/M06-’o15: NP(Yerington) oha'a 'baby'; NP(McDermitt) onka’a; NP oŋa’a ‘baby’ (Snapp, Anderson, Anderson 1982, 20); NP(B) oha’a; Mn ’owaa’ ‘sound of baby crying’; Mn owaa’-cci-cci’ / owaa’-nugu’ ‘baby’; TSh ohmaa(cci) 'little baby' (Dayley); Sh ohmaa 'baby'; Sh pa’ohmaa ‘water baby’; WSh ohaa(cci) ‘baby’; WSh pa’ohaa ‘water baby’; Cm ohnáa' 'a baby'; SP oa-C/N 'young of animals'; SP ïŋaa’- ‘baby’, SP paa-ïŋaa’-ppici ‘water baby’; Ch ïŋa’apici. A medial cluster *-nk- > -ŋ- in NP and SP further lenites elsewhere, Iannucci’s reconstruction *oŋa serving well. TSh and/or Sh have forms with and without -m-, so the -maa forms likely contain another morpheme, perhaps *mara ‘little’. [medial cluster w/hm/hn/ŋ/ø] [e1,e2,e3] [NUA: Num]
Here UACV refers to a dictionary of Uto-Aztecan, and the asterisk in *onka means it is a reconstructed Proto-UA form. Specific UA languages are referred to in abbreviations  (see list in my related post on Brian Stubbs' work) like NP (Northern Paiute),  Mn (Mono), TSh (Tumpishia Shoshone), SP (Southern Paiute), Ch (Chemehuevi, a Numic language in Nevada), and WSh (Western Shoshone).

Perhaps Egyptian parents weren't the only ones who gave a hopeful name like Paanchi to their newborn babes. It would be interesting to see if in UA languages, an ancient "onka" root was also used in personal names.

Also of potential interest is Stubbs' item 406, p. 142, where Egyptian b' (ram, soul) shows the same pair of meanings in UA (bighorn sheep, all living creatures) in Proto-UA *pa'aC/ *pa'at (bighorn sheep) and *pa'a (living beings). The occurrences of such double meanings across language families adds to the richness of the proposed relationship between ancient Egyptian and UA languages, for which the number of parallels following regular sound changes already exceed the standards often used to establish common language families among New World languages.

Paanchi looks like an interesting Book of Mormon name whose Old World relationships may have persisted in various forms in UA languages. But did the name itself persist? An interesting question for further exploration, perhaps.

Interestingly, the name Paanchi not only provides an eyebrow-rising example of a clearly Old World name among the Nephites, but the adjacent text in the Book of Mormon suggests an editorial awareness of the meaning of that name as it is employed it in an appropriate way to underscore a key Book of Mormon theme via an apparent word play, as is also done for names of robbers, including a name using the same ankh-related root. It gets even more interesting when we see some traces of these roots in the Uto-Aztecan language family.

It's surprising how many apparent Old World word plays are present in the Book of Mormon. They typically add to the meaning and increase our understanding of the intent of the authors -- in other words, there is explanatory power in the apparent word play. Many have been discovered just in the past two years. The text is rich in such surprises.

Of course, chance alone can create a lucky apparent word play, a stray Hebraism, a random chiasmus, or a blunder of a name like Alma that ends up having archaeological evidence later confirming that it was an authentic man's name in ancient Israel after all. Here the shear volume and high quality of such occurrences weigh against blind luck. The volume of linguistic connections between each of two distinct varieties of Hebrew and Egyptian with Uto-Aztecan leave little room for random chance, while also fitting patterns with explanatory power, including the power to resolve long-standing mysteries in the study of Uto-Aztecan. The volume of Hebraisms, the richness and vast extant of apparently deliberate chiasmus, and the large number of word plays point to ancient origins that simply cannot be dismissed as a bullseye's drawn around a few random targets that hit something. Just the recently discovered word plays identified by Matthew Bowen at The Interpreter, often abounding in detail and explanatory power, offer a treasure to contemplate. But there are others as well. It's a field worthy of reflection and much more research.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Update on Horses in the Book of Mormon

One of the toughest challenges for the Book of Mormon is the issue of horses. At first glance, it's a simple case for rejecting the book. The Book of Mormon speaks of horses used by Book of Mormon peoples, and yet there is no proof of such a thing. In fact, horses went extinct in the Americas thousands of years before they show up in the Book of Mormon. Bingo. The book is bogus.

Several recent publications on this topic deserve to be considered:
Both of these are now mentioned on my related Mormon Answers (LDSFAQ) page, "Questions About Problems with Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon."

These new publications remind us of some vital issues that are often overlooked by those criticizing the Book of Mormon:

1) In Joseph's day, it was understood that horses simply were not in the ancient Americas at all. It was only after the Book of Mormon was published that it became known that there were ancient horses, elephants, and camels here long ago. So yes, these animals were in the Americas, but are believed to have gone extinct well before Book of Mormon times.

2) The last surviving groups of any extinct animal are likely to be present long after the apparent extinction date because fossilized or preserved remains of any species are very rare, and thus the apparent "last" remains found are rarely the actual last animal that existed. The difference between reported extinction date and the actual persistence of a species can be hundreds or thousands of years, or, in some cases, millions of years when species once thought to be extinct were found to still exist (e.g., the coelacanth fish).

3) It is possible that in some regions, now-extinct animals such as the horse might have persisted long after the apparent extinction of the species. Recent evidence also shows some mammoths lived long past the previously recognized extinction date in northern North America. It could be that some surviving horses were found and exploited by Nephites when they arrived. They are not mentioned after the time of Christ, as if they had gone extinct by then.

4) Pre-Columbian remains of horses in the Americas raise the possibility that horses were present for a while in Book of Mormon lands during Book of Mormon times. Both of the above papers provide detailed evidence that needs to be part of future debates on this topic.

5) Finding remains of ancient animals in a hot, humid climate with an acidic soil, typical of Mesoamerica, is extremely unlikely. However, the cooler climate of caves represents a possible place where such remains might endure, and this is where some of the most promising finds have been made. The many decades it took to find any physical evidence of horses among the ancient huns, whose empire was based on heavy use of horses, reminds us of how difficult it is to find animal remains among ancient peoples that used them, especially when the animal is edible (and rather tasty, according to some of my friends in Europe -- for a while I lived next to a horse butcher shop in Switzerland).

6) While it is possible that the word "horse" might have been applied to another species,  in light of evidence that horses were in the Americas anciently and in light of at least some traces of horse remains among pre-Columbian Native Americans, assuming that actual horses were meant is a reasonable approach. Of course, much more work is needed in this area. Meanwhile, the hard evidence presented by Johnson and further evidence discussed by Miller and Roper should not be overlooked.

[The following four paragraphs were added Feb. 28, 2018.]

Critics have asked where are horses in Mesoamerican art if they were still around in Book of Mormon times? I would also like to point out that the horses among the Nephites may have been unusual or rare animals that became fully extinct before the end of the Nephite record. If they were not a significant part of life for Book of Mormon peoples, they may also have not been important or significant in other neighboring cultures. If they became fully extinct in Book of Mormon lands by, say 50 AD, there is no reason to expect Mesoamerican art from later times to show them. What we have from earlier times is a minute fraction of what remains to be excavated. The lack of clear horse figures in what we have so far from the early Book of Mormon period is not conclusive evidence that horses or other animals were not present in the Americas then.

None of this will satisfy the critics. But keep in mind that horses in the Book of Mormon are one of the biggest weaknesses in a book abounding with strengths. If the book is true, as I believe it is, it should hardly be surprising that serious unresolved questions marks persist in some areas. Apparent weaknesses need to be considered in light of the strengths as well, such as the abundance of evidence from the Arabian Peninsula, the Old World elements such as Hebraic word plays and poetical elements throughout the Book of Mormon, the reliable and compelling evidence from numerous witnesses of the plates and the translation process, etc. Further, the weakness of uncertain horses in the Book of Mormon is an area with a hint of a familiar trend: what seemed to be a blunder contrary to common knowledge in 1830 ("no horses ever existed here anciently -- they came from the Spaniards") later changed in light of fossil evidence showing horses were here and actually originated in the Americas. The problem shifted to one of timing relative to their apparent extinction before the Nephites arrived. But the extinction date has been pushed back, and now there is at least tentative though not widely accepted evidence of actual horses in the Americas during Book of Mormon times.

Just as the common knowledge that America's wild horses came from recent Spanish horses didn't manage to inform the authors of the Book of Mormon (whether that was Joseph and fellow conspirators or ancient writers), that "horse sense" may be lacking among the animals themselves.  Daniel Johnson's paper notes the discrepancy between Spanish horses and possible release of Spanish horses with the common type of horses favored by some Indian tribes, raising legitimate questions about the origins of these animals. A recent study on wild horse DNA in British Columbian horses also raises the possibility that non-Spanish origins are important, though this does not necessarily mean the horses have ancient American origins, but could have descended from other Old World imports. It's an area for further research, but one that keeps the door open for the unexpected result that wild horses in the Americas may have been here all along and are not all descended from horses introduced by the Spaniards or others. See E. Gus Cothran and Wayne P. McCrory, "A Preliminary Genetic Study of the Wild Horse (Equus Caballus) in the Brittany Triangle (Tachelach'ed) Region of the ?Elegesi Qayus (Nemiah) Wild Horse Preserve of British Columbia," The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, Nov. 2014, http://www.lrgaf.org/articles/Wild%20Horse%20DNA%20Report%202015.pdf.

Interestingly, DNA evidence is also overturning other aspects of previously established knowledge about horses. See "Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and 'wild' horses," Science Daily, February 22, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180222145132.htm. See an interesting response to this story from Straight from the Horse's Heart (rtfitchauthor.com).

As a reminder of common knowledge on horses being from the Spaniards, here is an excerpt from the article "Equus" in the British Encyclopedia, vol. 3, printed in 1809. An American version of this came out in 1819.

Likewise, the opening page of Jedidiah Morse's popular American Gazetteer printed in 1809 reminds us that the wild horses used by an Indian tribe in South America were, of course, introduced by the Spaniards:

If Joseph were the literati that he seems to have been, based on the evolving narrative used to explain key Book of Mormon evidence, one must ask why he would be ignorant of the well-known fact that horses and elephants were not ever present in the ancient Americas? Why did he not possess the common knowledge that horses were introduced by the Spaniards? For a guy who is pulling arcane information off of elite maps of Arabia and accessing libraries of cutting-edge information to add little bits and pieces of plausibility to the book, it seems bizarre that he would suddenly fail to consult his technical advisory team when it came to animals in the Book of Mormon -- and then manage to have his animal blunders (like many other former blunders in the book) at least given a touch of hope by later fossil finds showing that they actually were native to the Americas anciently. But it seems that this is still mostly too ancient for comfort -- so far, though Daniel Johnson's discussion of the evidence raises significant hopes that there is much more than we've recognized that has already been found. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Worse Than I Thought: Apologies for My Mistake about the CES Letter and Joseph's Cosmology

In my previous post, "Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?," I made a serious blunder when I criticized the CES Letter regarding their claims about Joseph Smith's cosmology, and for that mistake I must apologize. The problem is worse than I thought. That is, the CES Letter's analysis was far worse than I thought, and thus I blundered by being far too gentle. So sorry!

In my overly superficial treatment, I thought the big headline for their analysis of Joseph's cosmology, aimed at showing a book by Thomas Dick was a key source for Joseph, was getting things wrong about the eternal nature of matter. They claimed Dick taught that seemingly novel doctrine of Joseph's, but Dick rather clearly advocates creation ex nihilo. Big mistake for the CES Letter, yes, but I was seriously remiss in letting it go at that. For starters, I should have more vehemently called out the CES Letter for claiming (via Klaus Hansen) that "Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo." Just plain wrong and deceptive. But it gets worse.

In almost the next sentence from their star expert, Hansen, the CES Letter informs us that
Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and that these intelligences were “progressive beings” in various stages of evolution toward perfection. In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars.
Populating stars? That's not what the Book of Abraham teaches, though I know there's been speculation on such things, but nothing that we are taught or have in our canon. And there are other problems with this statement, as we'll see below. Since Hansen isn't supposed to be so sloppy, I was wondering what went wrong here. Then I realized it's not really his fault -- he's just channeling Fawn Brodie. Here's what Brodie wrote in her highly questionable and overly praised No Man Knows My History:
Like the philosophic novelist who creates a character greater than himself to voice the distillate of his own speculations, Joseph created Abraham an eminent astronomer who penetrates all the mysteries of the universe. Abraham relates that there is one star, Kolob, lying near the throne of God, which is greater than all the rest. One revolution of Kolob takes a thousand years, and from this revolution God Himself reckons time. Kolob and countless lesser stars are peopled by spirits that are eternal as matter itself. These spirits are not cast in the same mold, but differ among themselves in the quality of intelligence as the stars differ in magnitude. These concepts, which developed peculiar ramifications in Joseph’s later teachings, came directly from Dick, who had speculated that the stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and these intelligences were “progressive beings” [p. 230 in Dick] in various stages of evolution toward perfection. [emphasis in bold added, italics original]

-- Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), Kindle edition, Chapter XII, “Master of Languages.”
The quoted passage ends with footnote #28 which states: “Compare the Book of Abraham with Dick [2nd ed., 1830], pp. 101, 230, 241, 249. Dick held that in all probability, ‘the systems of the universe revolve around a common center … the throne of God.’”

Likewise, the CES Letter also mentions this, quoting Hansen:
Dick speculated that “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre…the throne of God.” In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob “was nearest unto the throne of God.” Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.
In reality, Dick's book has almost no relationship to the premortal scene described in the Book of Abraham, and doesn't even accept a premortal existence. The throne of God concept turns out to be almost the opposite of what the Book of Abraham teaches, and virtually every aspect of the argument made to link Joseph and Thomas Dick fails to be reasonable or accurate. Again, See Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books: https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=jhUHAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover or at Archive.org, where a PDF of the 1830 printing is downloadable at https://archive.org/download/philosophyoffutu00dick_0/philosophyoffutu00dick_0.pdf. Below I will refer to pages in the 1830 printing at Archive.org.

Brodie has deftly adapted Dick’s teachings to her purpose. Dick contemplates immortal beings doing something more than merely praising and contemplating God, but not much more. In their endless contemplation and study of God’s vast creation, they will progress (but never achieve perfection) in their knowledge of astronomy, philosophy, and history and their admiration of God (Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State, 1830 printing, 174–5, 256). But that’s little more than fleshing out the traditional view of endless contemplation of God and is not the kind of progress Joseph envisions for those in the divine family of God. The God the intelligent immortals will contemplate is not one that they can see or touch, for Dick adheres to Platonic ideals, so his God is an utterly incomprehensible Being unlimited in space who obviously does not have a specific place of residence or actual throne (Dick, 255). He is unknowable except by studying His works, for “we have no sensible measures of the attributes of God, but those which are derived from the number and extent of his actual operations (Dick, 255).

The differences in intelligences Brodie mentions is not based on any reference in Dick to premortal humans, as in the Book of Abraham, but appears limited to non-humans (angels, cherubim, seraphim, etc.) and humans during and after their mortal existence. Dick notes that there must necessarily be differences in intellect and in levels of intellectual progress of these various intelligent beings during their continuing contemplation and study throughout eternity (Dick, 222-223, 230–231; see also 283 on seraphim). But this seems irrelevant to the Book of Abraham. Further, Brodie’s statement about “spirits being eternal as matter itself” is rather troubling given Dick’s clear acceptance of creation ex nihilo and his explicit declaration that the spirits/intelligences of the universe are all created beings. They may now be immortal, but the concept of immortal created souls is modern Christianity 101 and is nothing unique to Dick, nor does it explain Joseph’s more unique views on the eternal nature of intelligence and matter.

About that Throne
To claim a parallel between the Book of Abraham’s teachings on Kolob and Dick’s teachings about the centrality of his abstract throne of God is particularly egregious. The quotation Brodie gives about the throne occurs in a section of Dick’s book entitled, “The Throne of God,” where Dick speculates that if the term “throne of God” is not merely metaphorical, it might refer to the scientific supposition that the universe may have a common center of rotation, and if so, perhaps that center could reflect God’s glory in a way fitting the term “throne of God” as used in the Bible (Dick, 249–250). But in no way does Dick suggest that there is a literal throne or that God has a physical body capable of sitting or even being anywhere in particular.

For Dick, God’s figurative throne is central and the universe revolves around it. This contradicts the Book of Abraham, where the successive orders above the earth are described with the outermost, highest level being where we find Kolob. Kolob, near the throne or residence of God, is at the highest, slowest level, governing the other bodies in lower levels which rotate more quickly. The fixed reference point in this model is “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). Abraham’s cosmology appears to be adapted to a geocentric model that the Egyptians can comprehend, suitable for the science of his era (John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 115–119. See also John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’ – The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), 1–16). It is radically different from Dick’s cosmology, and the teachings on the throne of God seem diametrically opposed. In general, the parallels Brodie finds so convincing are weak, not there, or virtually the opposite of what she claims. She and those who regurgitate who arguments on these points are simply wrong.

How Wide the Divide?
Finally, we must recall a fundamental divide between Dick’s paradigm and Joseph’s. In the passage of Dick cited by Brodie where “various orders of intelligences” are mentioned, Dick clearly sets forth his incorporeal, ethereal view of God:
And one of their chief employments, of course, will be, to investigate, contemplate, and admire the glory of the Divine perfections. Hence it is declared in Scripture as one of the privileges of the saints in light, that “they shall see God as he is” — that “they shall see his face” — and that “they shall behold his glory,” —which expressions, and others of similar import, plainly intimate, that they shall enjoy a clearer vision of the Divine glory than in the present state. But how is this vision to be obtained? The Deity, being a spiritual, uncompounded substance, having no visible form, nor sensible quantities, “inhabiting eternity,” and filling immensity with his presence — his essential glory cannot form an object for the direct contemplation of any finite intelligence. His glory, or, in other words, the grandeur of his perfections, can be traced only in the external manifestation which he gives of himself in the material creation which his power has brought into existence…. (Dick, 209, emphasis added)
God, in other words, is wholly other, immaterial, lacking "eternal matter" and not directly connected to us nor even visible, viewable, or directly capable of being contemplated. But we can stare at the stars, the plankton, and the planets, and thus indirectly contemplate Him forever. That’s better than strumming a harp endlessly, but it’s not the universe Joseph gave us, for His universe is filled by, not with, a God Whom we gladly can call Father because He is our Father, our loving Parent, and His work and His glory is to bring us home. This concept is at the core of Joseph Smith’s universe, and in spite of superficial similarities on a few points, Dick’s universe is worlds apart from Joseph’s, in spite of sharing multiple worlds.

Citing Dick as the source for anything noteworthy in the Book of Abraham or in Joseph's cosmology simply lacks explanatory power. It is a misguided and ultimately deceptive argument, channeled and regurgiated from the reckless passion of Brodie, in my opinion.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?

Neighbors in the Tarantula Nebula, just 160,000 light years away.
Latter-day Saints with an interest in science are often intrigued by the coherent network of ideas Joseph Smith's revelations provide on the nature of the cosmos. These teachings include:
  • the material nature of spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8), including the teaching that spirit matter is a form of matter that is too "fine or pure" to be seen with our mortal eyes, yet is still genuine matter; 
  • the eternal nature of matter (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33);
  • the plurality of inhabited worlds inhabited by sons and daughters of God across the immensity of space;
  • the denial of creation ex nihilo
  • the insistence that the Creation is for a remarkable purpose, namely, God's work and glory, the endless work of bringing about the salvation of his children (Moses 1:39); and
  • the eternal nature of intelligence and the genuine free agency that God's children have.
The compatibility of some of Joseph Smith's views with science does not necessarily provide proof or "signs" that Joseph was a prophet, for many of the concepts he revealed and discussed have parallels in prior debates and in the discussions of his day. Some concepts such as the plurality of inhabited worlds can be found among other voices of the Enlightenment and in other sources, as Robert Paul has thoroughly documented. See Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea," Dialogue, 19/2 (1986): 13–36. However, the net effect of what he provided gives a cohesive set of concepts that strikes me as revolutionary in several ways. Regarding the plurality of worlds, Paul states that:
On careful examination, these complex issues suggest that the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation of the style and structure of restoration pluralism.
 Such can be argued for much of Joseph Smith's cosmology, and certainly for its overall effect.

As for Joseph's coherent cosmic views relative to Christian theology of the day, Terryl Givens in Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) writes:
From an early Mormon perspective, Christian theology was generally too reticent in probing beyond the bounds of the biblically revealed. What of the time before Creation? What was God doing then? Preparing Hell for such as would ask such impudent questions, was the answer Augustine recounted. What of God's other dominions? Why is there man at all? For Milton, it was to compensate for the third of heaven's angels seduced by Satan; the scriptures, however, are silent. What of human destiny in the worlds beyond? What are humans being saved for? Dante thought a state of eternal, rapturous contemplation, and few have proffered more specifics than that. Post-redemption theology seems an oxymoron. (Kindle edition, Chapter 2, footnotes omitted.)
But again, there certainly were ministers speaking of multiple worlds. Some were using it to defend Christianity from deism or to support other arguments, but as Paul observes, Joseph takes this as a given and uses it to teach us God's work and purpose, addressing issues relatively untouched elsewhere. Unfortunately, some critics of the Church attempt to explain away the many profound cosmological and theological aspects of the Book of Abraham by dismissing it as a 19th-centtury fabrication merely drawn from Joseph's environment. The "CES Letter" offers a supposedly well-informed but somewhat shoddy argument on this point, claiming that Joseph merely drew upon a book available in his day.

The book in question is by Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books. A PDF of an 1830 printing is downloadable at Archive.org. Like a number of other evangelical voices of his day, Dick argues for the Christian faith using arguments drawn from science, and along the way speaks of life on multiple worlds. This certainly wasn't a novel concept introduced by Joseph Smith. But the "CES Letter" makes more serious charges of derivation. It claims Joseph owned a copy (at least by 1844, he did have one that he donated to the Nauvoo Library), that Oliver Cowdery quoted from it in 1836, and, more importantly, that it might be the source for the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and that it also rejected creation ex nihilo.

Michael Ash in Bamboozled by the CES Letter  treats this argument, but too briefly for those keenly interested in the scientific aspects of Joseph Smith's universe. More recently, a more thorough response to this issue was provided on the Conflict of Justice blog in the post "Did Joseph Smith Get The Book Of Abraham Cosmology From 'Philosophy Of A Future State'?" The author, Rick Moser, a.k.a "Teancum," is blunt about the CES Letter's reliance Klaus Hansen's claim that Thomas Dick's book teaches eternal, indestructible matter and rejects creation ex nihilo:
False. This is 100% incorrect. Take a look at Philosophy of a Future State. It teaches the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, in contradiction with the Book of Abraham.
None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of stars, which called them from nothing, into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.

What successive creations have taken place since the first material world was launched into existence by the Omnipotent Creator? What new worlds and beings are still emerging into existence from the voids of space? [Dick, p. 214, 1830 printing, or pp. 206-7, Google Books version; emphasis original in Moser]
It teaches that laws and truth are eternal and that resurrection will be a physical restoration, yes, but there is nothing about Joseph Smith’s and Abraham’s doctrine that matter is eternal.
Other seemingly important parallels are shown to have more ancient sources, such as the Bible itself. For example, the notion of innumerable stars, apart from being in numerous other works, is found in the Bible in Hebrews 11:12.

Further related statements from the "CES Letter" are shown at Conflict of Justice to be misquotes or serious blunders, such as claiming that Dick's book and the Book of Abraham teach of a universe that revolves around the throne of God (wrong in both cases!).

Of course, other modern and fairly ancient sources can be found that reject creation ex nihilo, and thus pre-existing matter or maybe even eternal matter will be implicitly if not explicitly taught elsewhere. But cherry picking lone concepts does not create the coherent and satisfying, even breathtaking (for some of us) framework of concepts that arise from Joseph Smith's revelations. Why does he ignore or reject so much of Dick's teachings if that were an influential book for him? If the case is so compelling, why stretch it past the breaking point with assertions that don't bear scrutiny?

Dick has some interesting statements about eternity and the opportunity for mankind to learn much and enjoy much during immortality from the wonders of the cosmos. But he completely misses a key element of Joseph Smith's cosmology and theology: that God's work and his glory in His endless creative work is to bring us into His presence, for we are His children, co-eternal in some way with Him. His glory and His joy grows as we grow and accept the infinite grace He offers. On p. 62 (1830 printing), Dick writes:
The Creator stands in no need of innumerable assemblages of worlds and of inferior ranks of intelligences, in order to secure or to augment his felicity. Innumerable ages before the universe was created, he existed alone, independent of every other being, and infinitely happy in the contemplation of his own eternal excellencies. No other reason, therefore, can be assigned for the production of the universe, but the gratification of his rational offspring, and that he might give a display of the infinite glories of his nature to innumerable orders of intelligent creatures.
 Such thinking is consistent with much of religious thought in Joseph's day, but is hardly the source for the cosmology of the Book of Abraham and the restored Gospel brought through Joseph Smith.

Other scholars and theologians, though certainly not all and perhaps far from a majority, had proposed that other worlds exist. However, what was taught about God's motivation for the Creation of many other planets? Those who recognized from science that other planets probably exist may have necessarily proffered reasons such as saving souls [so they could endlessly contemplate God or praise Him] or, as Dick did above, allowing immortals to learn about the wonders of the cosmos. But if God is perfectly happy without us, as Dick explains, why bother?

We may struggle to find plausible environmental sources for the sweeping scope of Joseph Smith's cosmology in which the weeping God seeks to bring His sons and daughters home in an infinite work that spans space and time, endlessly motivated by love for us, His children. In Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (viewable at Google Books), we are reminded that a still significant religious concept is the notion, much like that expressed by Dick, that a perfect God does not need man or any of His creations for His perfection and glory. It is a concept drawn from Platonism and is one I find to be directly antagonistic to the work and the glory of God taught in Moses 1:39. Lovejoy explains that in this Platonic paradigm that dominated Western thought for over 2,000 years (less so in the twentieth century as he wrote, though it is "still potent"):
The fullness of good is attained once for all in God; and “the creatures” add nothing to it. They have from the divine point of view no value; if they were not, the universe would be none the worse…. [It is in this implicit aspect of Platonic] doctrine that we must recognize the primary source of that endlessly repeated theorem of the philosophical theologians that God has no need of a world and is indifferent to it and all that goes on it. This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle…. It is — to cite by way of anticipation only or two our of a thousand later examples — this Platonic as well as Aristotelian strain that Jonathan Edwards may be heard echoing in Colonial America, when he declares: “No notion of God’s last end in creation of the world is agreeable to reason which would imply or infer any indigence, insufficiency and mutability in God or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness….” This eternally serene and impassible Absolute is, manifestly, somewhat difficult to recognize in the sadistic deity of the sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; but Edwards did not differ from most of the great theologians in having many Gods under one name. [Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, pp. 43-44]
If God has no need of a world, he certainly has no need of many worlds peopled with the same kind of offensive, miserable sinners we have here.

Platonic thought is at the heart of Dick's framework and also guides Jonathan Edwards, another source frequently cited as an influence on Joseph Smith, but Platonic thought is far from the revelatory and revolutionary framework of Joseph Smith.

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways, These concepts continue to be worthy topics to contemplate in light of expanding scientific knowledge. Simple borrowing from his environment, even if he had been among the literati of his day with advanced education, is a theory that lacks explanatory power for what we have been given.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New Light on Mesoamerica from LiDAR, Something Book of Mormon Fans Are Likely to Like

Thanks to Kirk Magleby for sharing some exciting implications from an advanced exploration technique, LiDAR, that is being used to make new archaeological finds in Mesoamerica which many LDS people see as the only reasonable possibility for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon. See his Meridian Magazine article of Feb. 4, 2018, "How an Incredible New Archeological Discovery Corroborates the Book of Mormon." Also see his Feb. 2, 2018 blog post, "LiDAR" at BookofMormonResources.blogspot.com. Magleby's reports draw upon his ongoing attention to LiDAR and a hot new story from National Geographic published Feb. 1, 2018, "Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle." Also see the trailer for their TV show at the page for "The Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake Kings."

LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing technique that uses pulses of laser light to measure distance. With the right kind of light (infrared can be especially useful for looking at sites covered with jungle) and with sophisticated digital processing, reflected signals can be turned into 3-D maps showing structures that aren't apparent to the eye and that have been missed in previous work. It's long been used for meteorological work and recently has been adapted for archaeological exploration.

LiDAR data can be processed to digitally remove the forest canopy and reveal ruins below that have long been overlooked. Now we can see that Mesoamerican cities such as Tikal were much larger than scholars realized based on ground-based exploration. 

The data from aerial LiDAR over Mesoamerican regions has been truly tantalizing. As National Geographic reports,
In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala
Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
Magleby cites some of the results that might be of interest to Book of Mormon students:
Richard Hansen’s and Fernando Paiz’ Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (PACUNAM) just went public with the results of the largest LiDAR survey ever attempted for archaeological research. It mapped 10 tracts totaling 2,100 square kilometers in the Mirador Basin and other areas of northern Guatemala. The surveyed area is less than half the size of Utah County. And what did archaeologists find buried in the Peten?
  • 60,000 previously unknown structures
  • vast networks of highways elevated so they functioned even in the rainy season
  • ubiquitous fortresses, ramparts, and defensive walls
  • waterworks including dikes, dams, canals, and reservoirs
  • agricultural terraces with irrigation systems
  • animal pens
  • stone quarries
It will take decades to study so many new sites, but settlement patterns and big picture insights are already apparent.
  • Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15 million Mormon 1:7
  • Maya civilization was much more complex than previously thought Jarom 1:8Helaman 3:13-15
  • Maya cities were more interconnected than anyone realized 3 Nephi 6:8
  • Food production was on an industrial scale Helaman 6:12
  • land use was intensive – nearing 100% utilization is some areas Mormon 1:7
  • Many people lived on marginal, swampy lands 4 Nephi 1:9
  • Endemic warfare over centuries was the norm Mormon 8:8
  • Warfare was particularly prevalent in the early classic AD 250-500 Moroni 1:2
This northern Guatemalan LiDAR project will continue in phases, eventually mapping more than 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Utah County). At that point it will have mapped approximately 1.4% of the ancient Maya area which covers 350,000 square kilometers (about the size of Montana).
This new work also reveals to a serious blunder I've made in emphasizing the infancy of archaeological exploration of Mesoamerica to counter absence of evidence claims that Mesoamerica is well understood and leaves no room for Book of Mormon peoples. I've previously quoted others to the effect that less than roughly 10% of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica have been excavated. Now that we are realizing that the extent of ancient civilization in that region is far more advanced and complicated than scholars had imagined, it may be better to say less than 1%. It will take decades or centuries to sort through the treasures of knowledge that we have been missing. That doesn't mean we can expect easy answers to the toughest Book of Mormon challenges, but the century-plus trend of laughable items periodically becoming more plausible might not be over yet. In any case, what a world of knowledge remains to be explored, whether it has any relevance to the Book of Mormon or not. Exciting times are ahead, if we can keep research going and have enough political stability in those lands for the work to be done.

Something that even critics of the Church should notice is that faithful Mormons tend to look forward to more archaeological exploration in proposed Book of Mormon lands. We want more scrutiny, more data, more research, more science, not less, and it's been that way for a long time. Ditto for exploration of the Arabian Peninsula, where some of us hope to learn more about places that may be relevant to Lehi's Trail, but are also significant in their own right. Some impatient enthusiasts have been frustrated with unanswered questions, but in many ways the advances in knowledge have been helpful and have been useful in better appreciating many Book of Mormon issues. Witness John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex and An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon or Brant Gardner's Traditions of the Fathers. There is much we can learn by looking carefully at Mesoamerica as well as by looking in the Book of Mormon for Mesoamerican influence.

Back to LiDAR, here is a section from Wikipedia's article on LiDar that discusses archaeological applications:


Lidar has many uses in archaeology, including planning of field campaigns, mapping features under forest canopy, and overview of broad, continuous features indistinguishable from the ground. Lidar can produce high-resolution datasets quickly and cheaply. Lidar-derived products can be easily integrated into a Geographic Information System (GIS) for analysis and interpretation.

Lidar can also help to create high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) of archaeological sites that can reveal micro-topography that is otherwise hidden by vegetation. The intensity of the returned lidar signal can be used to detect features buried under flat vegetated surfaces such as fields, especially when mapping using the infrared spectrum. The presence of these features affects plant growth and thus the amount of infrared light reflected back. For example, at Fort Beauséjour – Fort Cumberland National Historic Site, Canada, lidar discovered archaeological features related to the siege of the Fort in 1755. Features that could not be distinguished on the ground or through aerial photography were identified by overlaying hill shades of the DEM created with artificial illumination from various angles. Another example is work at Caracol by Arlen Chase and his wife Diane Zaino Chase. In 2012, lidar was used to search for the legendary city of La Ciudad Blanca or "City of the Monkey God" in the La Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle. During a seven-day mapping period, evidence was found of man-made structures. In June 2013, the rediscovery of the city of Mahendraparvata was announced. In southern New England, lidar was used to reveal stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads, and other landscape features obscured in aerial photography by the region's dense forest canopy. In Cambodia, lidar data were used by Demian Evans and Roland Fletcher to reveal anthropogenic changes to Angkor landscape. In 2018, archaeologists using lidar discovered more than 60,000 man-made structures in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a "major breakthrough" that showed the Maya civilization was much larger than previously thought. [emphasis added]
I'm looking forward to more light from LiDAR or any other method being shined on Mesoamerica, the spot where, in my opinion, ancient traditions of written language, vast ancient civilizations, a narrow neck of land, the presence of volcanism, and many other factors make it the only reasonable candidate to consider for a plausible New World setting for the Book of Mormon.