Evidence #168 | March 15, 2021


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Ladders, which are mentioned in the Book of Mormon in a military context, were known and used for warfare in pre-Columbian times.

Ladders in the Book of Mormon

Near the end of a lengthy war with the Lamanites, Captain Moroni led his soldiers in a successful operation to recapture the city of Nephihah. A key part of their success involved the use of ladders:

And when night came, Moroni went forth in the darkness of the night, and came upon the top of the wall to spy out in what part of the city the Lamanites did camp with their army. And it came to pass that they were on the east, by the entrance, and they were all asleep. And now Moroni returned to his army, and caused that they should prepare in haste strong cords and ladders to be let down from the top of the wall to the inner part of the wall … And it came to pass that they were all let down into the city by night, by means of their strong cords and their ladders; thus when the morning came they were all within the walls of the city. (Alma 62:20–21, 23)

Although it has been claimed that ladders of rope and other materials were unknown in pre-Columbian times,1 evidence is clear that ladders were in fact known and used in ancient Mesoamerica.

Historical Accounts of the Use of Pre-Columbian Ladders in Warfare

The Spanish Friar Diego Duran reported several examples where Aztec armies made use of ladders during their sieges of walled cities. One instance can be seen in the campaign led by Motecuhzoma against Nopallan and Icpatepec. “Since the king was informed that the cities in those two provinces were surrounded by high wide walls made of stone, earth, and wood, all strongly compacted, he had many kinds of ladders made, some of wood, some of rope.” Duran further recounts, “Motecuhzoma, who was astute, ordered his explorers and spies to approach when night had fallen. That way they found the guards at the main wall sleeping and cut off their heads, which they delivered to the king.”2  Ladders were then used to allow the remainder of the soldiers to scale the walls and catch the enemy by surprise. It is hard to miss the similarities between this account and Moroni’s capture of the city of Nephihah.

Reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city center, by Ignacio Marquina. Image used merely as an example of an Aztec city.

Representations of Ladders in Pre-Columbian Art

Ladder on Stone Stela from the Pacific Slope of Guatemala. Photo by Martin Franken. 

A colorful Maya panel from the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at the Post-Classic site of Chichen Itza portrays a battle scene in elaborate detail, showing “siege towers and scaling ladders.”3 A stone stela from the Classic site of Bilbao near the Pacific coast of Guatemala shows a human figure scaling a ladder.4 Ross Hassig, an authority on pre-Columbian warfare, thinks that “most Mesoamerica walls were not high enough to require anything more elaborate than ladders to scale them” assuming, of course, the attackers could surprise the enemy.5 Moroni was apparently able to use ladders during a night attack to do just that.


When the historical evidence from Spanish accounts is combined with earlier depictions of ladders in pre-Columbian artwork, it becomes clear that ladders were used in ancient Mesoamerican warfare. These findings are consistent with the text of the Book of Mormon, which also depicts the use of ladders in a military context.

Kirk Magleby, “Light from Guatemala,” Book of Mormon Resources, March 3, 2019.

Alma 62:21Alma 62:23

Alma 62:21

Alma 62:23

  • 1 Thomas Key, The Book of Mormon in the Light of Science, Fifteenth edition (Marlow, OK: Utah Missions, 1997), 67.
  • 2 Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 399. See also p. 421; Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Normon, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 107–108. For further evidence for ladders in Mesoamerica, see Jesper Nielsen, “The Great Ladder of Ocosingo: A Twentieth-Century Example of Maya Building Techniques,” The Pari Journal 13, no. 1 (2012): 1–9.
  • 3 William M. Ringle, “The Art of War: Imagery of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, Chichen Itza,” Ancient Mesoamerica 20 (2009): 23, figure 6.
  • 4 Kirk Magleby, “Light From Guatemala,” Book of Mormon Resources, March 3, 2019, online at bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com.
  • 5 Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 129.
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