Evidence #214 | July 19, 2021

Pre-Columbian Books

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Pre-Columbian writing and books were known from an early time in Mesoamerica, just as the Book of Mormon suggests.

A Literary Tradition in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon frequently refers to writing, records, and books. In addition to the keeping of records on metal plates,1 the text indicates that other materials were also written on, such as a large stone (Omni 1:15) and a rent coat (Alma 46:12). Jacob implies that while some important things were recorded on plates for long-term preservation by Nephite prophets, it was easier and apparently more common to write on other materials (Jacob 4:1–2).

Some Lamanites during the time of Alma the Elder were taught by the priests of King Noah to keep records “that they might write to one another” (Mosiah 24:6). Writings on more perishable materials is also suggested by references to epistles (Alma 52:8, 10; 54:1, 4, 15; 56:1; 58:4; 59:1, 3; 60:1; 61:1; 3 Nephi 3:1; Ether 15:4; Moroni 8:1; 9:1), public proclamations (Alma 22:27; 3 Nephi 3:13), petitions (Alma 51:15), inquiries (Mosiah 5:1; 29:1–4), and copies of sermons (Mosiah 2:8; Moroni 7:1). Some records are even mentioned as having been burned and destroyed (Alma 14:8).

Finally, Mormon stated that “there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites.” (Helaman 3:15). Collectively, these passages suggest that a widespread and diverse tradition of writing and records—including books—was had among Book of Mormon peoples, and possibly those associated with them.

King Benjamin resting his hand on the sacred records of his people. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Early Misconceptions about Pre-Columbian Writing

The idea of pre-Columbian writing seemed strange to some early readers of the Book of Mormon who held a negative image of native Americans as being uncivilized. In 1831, one Protestant minister told an early Latter-day Saint missionary named Parley P. Pratt that there was no evidence of ancient monuments or inscriptions from pre-Columbian times.2 In a lecture given in Great Britain in 1838, another commentator remarked, “According to Mormon, these native Americans could read, and write … but when that country first became known to Europeans, the inhabitants knew no more about letters than a four-legged animal knows the rules of logic; and not a scrap of writing was to be found.”3

In 1840, another reader claimed there was not “even so much as a shadow or proof, that the sciences of reading and writing [and other evidences of advanced culture mentioned in the Book of Mormon] were ever known here.”4 Even as late as 1920, one individual commented: “It is a well-known fact that the Indians had no books, and among the twenty millions, who were found scattered about through the three Americas when Columbus made his discovery four hundred years ago, none of them could read, and consequently they had no literature to transmit.”5

Emerging Evidence for Pre-Columbian Writing

Beginning in 1841, eleven years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published an account of their travels in Central America along with many detailed drawings of significant ruins they encountered in the region. Most of these ruins had never been documented before and included many stone monuments containing Mayan inscriptions.6 Stephens believed that those inscriptions, which could not yet be deciphered, contained history about those who built the ruined monuments.7

Excerpt from John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Image via metmuseum.org.

Latter-day Saints who learned of Stephens and Catherwood’s discoveries saw their work as emerging evidence for the Book of Mormon. Erastus Snow, a missionary who learned of the explorers’ discoveries even before the publication of their book, wrote, “nearly all the principal papers of this country have of late published the result of the researches of Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood in Central America,” in which they had found many examples of “monuments and statues” which were “covered with writings.”8

The Decipherment of Pre-Columbian Writing

Although such writing could not be read in the 1840s, subsequent work by Mayanists in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries led to the decipherment of Mayan inscriptions. According to David Stuart, one of the leading scholars in this effort, “after four decades, Mayanists are now accustomed to the idea that ancient Maya artisans and scribes, when composing and carving monumental inscriptions, were principally concerned with the commemoration of historical events surrounding kings, their families, and their courts.”9 One recent discovery at the site of San Bartolo in Guatemala found Maya writing dated to 300 BC.10 The discovery and decipherment of such writings confirm that there was a long and widespread history of writing in ancient Mesoamerica.

Maya Codices

Today, while it is generally held that pre-Columbian writing was unknown in other regions of the Americas, the pre-Columbian practice of writing codices (or books) in Mesoamerica is widely recognized. John Sorenson has provided a detailed overview of the evidence for Mesoamerican books:

Maya books were most often manufactured of long strips of bark paper folded back and forth in accordion fashion to form multiple pages. To make long sheets of paper, bark was stripped off fig trees, soaked, then pounded together with a wooden club. A thin coating of lime plaster was spread on dried strips cut from these sheets. The plaster stiffened the paper and provided a smooth, clean surface on which characters were painted. Such paper was relatively easy to manufacture, but finished books were expensive because the symbols or pictures on the pages had to be hand painted by scribes.11

Only four readable pre-Columbian Maya codices are known to have survived. These include the Dresden Codex (74 leaves), the Madrid Codex (56 leaves painted on both sides), the Paris Codex (11 leaves), and the Grolier Codex (10 leaves)—which is the oldest and has been carbon dated to the 13th Century AD. According to Mayanist Michael Coe, “there must have been thousands of such books in Classic times, but the only ones we have today are the tiny handful of Post-Classic codices.”12 Evidence suggests that Mesoamerican books may have a history dating back to an early Mesoamerican period.

Fragments of the Groiler Codex. Image via theconversation.com.

Congealed fragments of a Maya codex were recovered by archaeologists from the site of Uaxactun in the Maya Lowlands and date to AD 400–600. They show evidence that the scribe had erased and reinscribed portions of the text, the first textual evidence for this practice from ancient Mesoamerica.13 Delicate fragments of two folded codices were recovered by archaeologists from burials at the site of Mirador in Chiapas, Mexico dating to AD 350–550.14

They reported, “Although separate sheets with bits of painted glyphs and designs could be discerned, the paper or leather of these codices had disintegrated completely, leaving only the layers of calcium carbonate coating fused together to form an almost solid mass.”15 The poor state of the fragments made it impossible to determine whether the script was Mayan or some other language, but the existence of such texts suggests some at the site had been literate at that early period.16

In their work, The Art of the Maya Scribe, Michael Coe and Justin Kerr suggest that such books may date back to Olmec times:

Incised on the sides of a white ware ceramic bowl in the collection of the Snite Museum at Notre Dame University are the representations of two objects which appear to be side views of codices, each bound with a ribbon or cord. Although this vessel has no archaeological context, it is identical in style to Olmec pottery made at the site of Tlapacoya, in the Valley of Mexico, during the early Pre-Classic, and is thus contemporary with the apogee of San Lorenzo. If so, then the screen fold codex made from amate barks coated with gesso may already have been present in Mesoamerican culture as early as 1200 BC.17


Contrary to the negative views of some early readers of the Book of Mormon, pre-Columbian civilization had a long tradition of writing in Mesoamerica on a variety of mediums, including paper codices or books. Evidence suggests that such books could be lengthy and were known over a long period of time in that region dating back to the Early Formative Period with cultures contemporary with those described in the Book of Mormon.

Kirk Magleby, “Flammable Books,” Book of Mormon Resources, October 8, 2017, online at bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com

Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Central American Ruins, and the Book of Mormon,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 141–162.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 184–232.

John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 391–521.

John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the SEHA 139 (December 1976): 1–9.

Jacob 4:1–2Omni 1:20Mosiah 24:4–7Alma 14:8Helaman 3:13–153 Nephi 5:9

Jacob 4:1–2

Omni 1:20

Mosiah 24:4–7

Alma 14:8

Helaman 3:13–15

3 Nephi 5:9

  • 1 While Nephite scribal elite had a practice of recording important records on metal plates, that practice may not have been common among the broader populace under their rule, and it may not have been shared by other Mesoamerican cultures.
  • 2 Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 69.
  • 3 H. Stevenson, Lecture on Mormonism (Newcastle: J. Blackwell and Company, 1839), 12.
  • 4 A Philanthropist, Mormonism Unmasked (Philadelphia, PA: T.K. & P.G. Collins, 1840), 5–6.
  • 5 William Baxter Godbey, Mormonism (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Press, 1920), 1.
  • 6 John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1841); John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1843). Both this and the 1841 work was reprinted by Dover Publications in 1969. F. Catherwood, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York, NY: Bartlett and Welford, 1844).
  • 7 Stephens, Incidents, 1841, 1:159–160.
  • 8 [Erastus Snow], E. Snow’s Reply to the Self-Styled Philanthropist of Chester County (Philadelphia, PA: No publisher listed, 1840), 2–3.
  • 9 David Stuart, “A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on a Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan,” in Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, ed. E. Wylls Andrews and William L. Fash (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2004), 373.
  • 10 William A Saturno, David Stuart, Boris Beltran, “Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala,” Science 311, No. 5765 (March 3, 2006): 1281–1283.
  • 11 John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 230.
  • 12 Michael D. Coe, The Maya Scribe and His World (New York, NY: The Grolier Club, 1973), 8.
  • 13 Nicholas P. Carter and Jeffrey Dobereiner, “Multispectral Imaging of an Early Classic Maya Codex Fragment from Uaxactun, Guatemala,” Antiquity 90, no. 251 (June 2016): 711–725.
  • 14 Pierre Agrinier, “Mounds 9 and 10 at Mirador, Chiapas, Mexico,” Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, 39 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1975), 3.
  • 15 Agrinier, “Mounds 9 and 10 at Mirador, Chiapas, Mexico,” 100.
  • 16 Agrinier, “Mounds 9 and 10 at Mirador, Chiapas, Mexico,” 100.
  • 17 Michael D. Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 63.
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