Evidence #204 | June 15, 2021

Migrations Northward

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Scripture Central


Book of Mormon accounts of migrations to the land northward are consistent with evidence from archaeology, linguistics, agriculture, and other fields.

“In Joseph Smith’s day,” writes Latter-day Saint anthropologist John Sorenson, “there was a view that the western hemisphere was populated across the Bearing Strait, and that civilization moved from the Northwest through North America and then to Central America. Contrary to that view, the Book of Mormon speaks of migrations going the opposite way, from the land southward to the north, in the first century before Christ.”1

Book of Mormon Northward Migrations by Land and Sea

Beginning in the thirty-seventh year of the reign of the judges, many of the people of Nephi began to establish settlements in the land northward. This expansive movement included migrations by both land and sea. At this time “there was a large company of men, even to the amount of five thousand and four hundred men, with their wives and children, departed out of the land of Zarahemla into the land which was northward” (Alma 63:4). The ship-building enterprise led by Hagoth (Alma 63:5–8, 10), as well as subsequent shipbuilding activities (Helaman 3:10, 14), allowed additional Nephites to establish settlements in the land northward (and presumably elsewhere).2 Eventually “there were many people who went forth into the land northward” (Alma 63:9).

The Ship of Hagoth, by Minerva Teichert

During the reign of Helaman, one numerous group “did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers. Yea, and even did spread forth into all parts of the land” (Helaman 3:4–5). These and many others established significant settlements throughout the region. “And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east” (Helaman 3:8).

At different times, trade between settlements in the north and the south was notable (Helaman 3:10–11, 14; 6:8–13). While the text does not provide many details about these people and their history, after a period of righteousness, descendants of these northward migrants were eventually “scattered upon the face of the earth” (Helaman 3:16; Mormon 5:15), suggesting that not only during but after Book of Mormon times descendants of the people of Lehi spread throughout North America and may have become somewhat dispersed over time.

Evidence of Northward Migrations from Mesoamerica

Evidence for Mesoamerican influences on the cultures of the American Southwest can be found in evidence from linguistics, archaeology, and agriculture.3 Linguistic evidence from Uto-Aztecan languages, carefully catalogued by Brian Stubbs, points to significant movements and interactions between Mexico and the American Southwest.4 Archaeological evidence suggests a similar trajectory. Randall McGuire notes,

Several authors link the expansion of agriculture and a shared cosmology, symbols, and rituals with the spread of the Uto-Aztecan language family from the Valley of Mexico to Utah. In the north and west of Mesoamerica, the Formative begins by 250 BC with the advent of the Chupicuaro Tradition. A continuum of ceramic styles appears from Zacatecas to Durango, to Chihuahua, and to New Mexico. Parallels include red-on-brown decoration, similar vessel forms, and quartered designs with bilateral symmetry. In West Mexico, the development of early village life, pottery making, and agriculture look much like the Pioneer-period Hohokam.5

Hohokam Irrigation, pyramid or platform mounds, and Mesoamerican ball courts point to the dissemination of cultural ideas from Mesoamerica to southern Arizona 6 Trade items such as copper bells and pyrite mosaic mirrors found in the remains of Pueblo cultures have been characterized as “essentially identical with similar items in Mesoamerica.”7

Hohokam Basin-like structure identified by archaeologists as a ball court. Image via nativeamericannetroots.net.

The detailed complex of symbols and meaning associated with Maize agriculture were known over a long period of time in Mesoamerica from at least the Middle Formative period of the Olmec down to Aztec times.8 According to Mayanist Karl Taube, “some of the most striking aspects of this early Formative complex, including the use of directional maize celts, feathered corn fetishes, and the identification of wealth continue in contemporary Puebloan ceremonialism of the American Southwest.”9 He concludes that “the early dissemination of maize agriculture in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest concerned more than agricultural practices and technology; it involved a complex body of ritual and belief” pointing to significant influence from Mesoamerica.10

Traditions, Cultural Concepts, and Religious Beliefs

Another set of evidence connects important traditions, religious ideas, and cultural concepts between the two regions. The Hopi of northern Arizona, for example, hold that they migrated to their present location from the south rather than from the north and that “their Place of Emergence was ‘down below’ in the tropical south, somewhere in Middle America.”11

According to Stephen Plog, “groups throughout the Southwest and Mesoamerica shared significant aspects of cosmology and ritual, and these aspects had deep historical roots.”12 Charles Cobb, Jeffrey Maymon, and Randall McGuire state, “Historic Southwestern cosmology, religion, and ritual exhibit many striking parallels with Mesoamerican beliefs and practices. Anyone familiar with the mythology of the Pueblos, Navajos, O’odham, and Cahitas is struck by the similarities with the Quiche Mayan Popol Vuh, especially the spider women and warrior twins of that myth.”13

Over the last three decades, specialists in Southwestern and Mesoamerican art have found noteworthy correspondences between Pueblo ceremonialism and Mesoamerican cosmology.14 One group of researchers have shown that there was a close relationship between several Mesoamerican deities and divine figures known to Southwestern groups. For instance, they have described significant correspondences between the god Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Puebloan feathered and horned serpent figures such as Awanyu (Tewa), Kolowisi (Zuni), and Paaloloqangw (Hopi).15 Kiva murals and rock art have parallels to warfare symbolism associated with the planet Venus as the Morning Star, the war god Sotuqnangu, and the Aztec god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli.16 They argue persuasively that this detailed complex of deities and ceremonialism was introduced to the Pueblo IV culture from western Mexico sometime after AD 900.17

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. Structures were built by the ancestral Puebloans, called the Anasazi. Image and caption info via fodors.com.

The nuanced similarities between these constellations of ideas suggests that they had to have been carried by groups of people from Mesoamerica to the American southwest, although the precise nature of their relationships and the mechanisms by which these cultural features were dispersed remains obscure. “The fact that these packets of ideas leapfrogged long distances, perhaps 1,000 kilometers or more in some instances, and took root among disparate cultures known to have historical connections implicates the movement of people as a primary mechanism of transmission.” This suggests “the need to reevaluate the still generally accepted paradigm of ancient Southwestern cultural insularity with minimal influences from Mesoamerican societies and cosmologies.”18


John Sorenson wrote in 1987, “Peoples and cultural elements have spread by migration and trade from Mexico into North America periodically since well before the time of Christ.”19 Additional evidence for Sorenson’s claim has increased significantly over the last three decades. The transmission of material goods, agriculture, and cultural concepts from ancient Mesoamerica to the North American Southwest is consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions of northward migrations and the eventual dispersal of Book of Mormon peoples (and their descendants) throughout the land of promise.

Mark Alan Wright, “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 13 (2015): 111–129.

John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 218–220.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 91–95.

Alma 63:4Alma 63:5Alma 63:6Alma 63:7Alma 63:8Alma 63:10Helaman 3:3Helaman 3:4Helaman 3:5Helaman 3:6Helaman 3:7Helaman 3:8Helaman 3:9Helaman 3:10Helaman 3:11Helaman 3:12Helaman 3:14Helaman 3:16Mormon 5:15

Alma 63:4

Alma 63:5

Alma 63:6

Alma 63:7

Alma 63:8

Alma 63:10

Helaman 3:3

Helaman 3:4

Helaman 3:5

Helaman 3:6

Helaman 3:7

Helaman 3:8

Helaman 3:9

Helaman 3:10

Helaman 3:11

Helaman 3:12

Helaman 3:14

Helaman 3:16

Mormon 5:15

  • 1 John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed., John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 218.
  • 2 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Mormon Mention Hagoth? (Alma 63:8),” KnoWhy 171 (August 23, 2016).
  • 3 John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” 218–220; Mark Alan Wright, “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 13 (2015): 111–129.
  • 4 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Uto-Aztecan,” December 29, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Brian D. Stubbs, Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan (Provo, UT: Grover Publications, 2015). According to Stubbs, this data would be consistent with the movement of some Lehite groups from their original settlements in Mesoamerica northward. Uto-Aztecan peoples may then include “northwest diffusions from the historic area about Hagoth’s time” and would be “partially descended from those who launched into the west sea to settle west coast areas of the land northward.” Brian D. Stubbs, Changes in Languages: From Nephi to Now (Blanding, UT: Four Corners Digital Design, 2016), 163.
  • 5 Randall McGuire, “Mesoamerica and the Southwest/Northwest,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, ed. Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher A. Pool (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 515.
  • 6 John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” 218–219; James D. Hayden, “Of Hohokam Origins and Other Matters,” American Antiquity 35, no. 1 (1970): 87–93.
  • 7 J. Charles Kelley, “Mesoamerica and the Southwestern United States,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Gordon F. Ekholm and Gordon R. Wiley, 16 vols. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1966), 4:96. Other elements of a Mesoamerican character are outlined on p. 4:95: “(1) an agricultural economy based on maize-beans-squash agriculture—plus chili and cotton—and, locally, irrigation; (2) permanent houses and villages, with stone and adobe masonry, conventionalized village plans, plazas, and specialized religious structures including platform mounds, kivas, and ball courts; (3) highly developed technology and artistry in stone, bone, shell, ceramics, and weaving; (4) religious art in murals, ceramics, and weaving; (5) highly organized socio-political structures emphasizing village hegemony and dual religious and secular leadership; (6) an organized priesthood; (7) well developed ceremonialism involving curing societies, fertility cults, hunting and war cults, astronomical and nature deities, rain ceremonials, masked dances, god impersonation, horned or feathered serpent deities, with associated bird and amphibian representations, astronomical-ceremonial concepts, directional color symbolism, and an organized utilitarian and ceremonial calendar, culture heroes with dual aspects (such as twin war gods), sun worship, new fire and harvest ceremonials, scalp ceremonials, and possible vestiges of human sacrifice.”
  • 8 Karl Taube, “Lightening Celts and Corn Fetishes: The Formative Olmec and the Development of Maize Symbolism in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest,” in Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica, ed. John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye (New Haven, CT: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000), 297–331.
  • 9 Taube, “Lightening Celts and Corn Fetishes,” 297.
  • 10 Taube, “Lightening Celts and Corn Fetishes,” 297.
  • 11 Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963), 115. Waters further remarks, “The Hopis believe that the early Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs were aberrant Hopi clans who failed to complete their fourfold migrations, remaining in Middle America to build mighty cities which perished because their failed to perpetuate their ordained religious pattern … It is more likely that the people who later called themselves Hopis were a small minority, perhaps a religious cult, who migrated north to the Four Corners area of our own Southwest about 700 A.D.” (p. 118).
  • 12 Stephen Plog, “Ritual and Cosmology in the Chaco Era,” in Religious Transformation in the Late Pre-Hispanic Pueblo World, ed. Donna M. Glowacki and Scott Van Keuren (Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 60.
  • 13 Charles R. Cobb, Jeffrey Maymon, Randall H. McGuire, “Feathered, Horned, and Antlered Serpents: Mesoamerican Connections with the Southwest and Southeast,” in Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, ed. Jill E. Neitzel (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 172.
  • 14 M. Jane Young, “The Southwest Connection: Similarities between Western Puebloan and Mesoamerican Cosmology,” in World Archaeoastronomy: Selected Papers from the 2nd Oxford International Conference on Archaeoastronomy, held at Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, 13–17 January 1986, ed. Anthony Aveni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 167–179; Polly Schaafsma, “Tlalocs, Kachinas, Sacred Bundles, and Related Symbolism in the Southwest and Mesoamerica,” in The Casas Grandes World, ed. Curtis F. Schaafsma and Carol L. Riley (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1999), 164–192; Michael Mathiowetz, “Leaving One’s Handprint: Celebrating the Scholarship of Polly Schaafsma,” New Mexico Historical Review 90, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 165–194; Michael Mathiowetz, Polly Schaafsma, Jeremy Coltman, Karl Taube, “The Darts of Dawn: The Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli Venus Complex in the Iconography of Mesoamerica and the American Southwest,” Journal of the Southwest 57, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 1–102.
  • 15 Mathiowetz, “Leaving One’s Handprint,” 165–194.
  • 16 Mathiowetz, et al., “The Darts of Dawn,” 1–102.
  • 17 Mathiowetz, et al., “The Darts of Dawn,” 2.
  • 18 Mathiowetz, et al., “The Darts of Dawn,” 46–47.
  • 19 John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” 219.
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