Evidence #192 | May 11, 2021

Seven Lineages

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Scripture Central


Book of Mormon references to seven tribes of Lehi’s people are consistent with widespread pre-Columbian traditions from Mesoamerica of seven ancestral groups.

Seven Tribes in the Book of Mormon

Shortly before his death, father Lehi gave several blessings to his posterity and extended family. These blessings were given to Zoram, the former servant of Laban (2 Nephi 1:30–32), Jacob (2 Nephi 2), Joseph (2 Nephi 3), Laman (2 Nephi 4:3–7), Lemuel (2 Nephi 4:8–9), and Sam and Nephi, who were blessed and numbered together (2 Nephi 4:11). After the death of Nephi, Jacob recorded that the descendants of Lehi’s family consisted of seven groups. They “were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites” (Jacob 1:13). These seven tribes, though somewhat obscured by the brevity of the small plates and Mormon’s abridged text, continued to be significant and distinct social entities from the time of Nephi and Jacob until Mormon’s day (4 Nephi 1:35–38; Mormon 1:8–9).

Lehi teaching his family. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

On the surface, several aspects of this tribal organization seem peculiar. Although Zoram and Lehi’s sons Jacob and Joseph were each assigned their own tribes, there is no separate tribe for Sam, who instead is numbered with the tribe of Nephi. Additionally, while Laman and Lemuel each have their own tribes, the sons of Ishmael share a tribal name rather than have their own respective groups named after each son.

John W. Welch provides a useful analysis of the legal implications for this arrangement,1 but the division of Lehi’s children into seven tribes may still seem somewhat arbitrary to the reader. While we do not know all the reasons for this seven-tribe structure, it is consistent with widspread pre-Columbian traditions which hold that various Mesoamerican peoples were descended from seven founding leaders or groups.

Diane Wirth has described “a pan-Mesoamerican legend  [that] tells of a core people descended from seven tribes, which may coincide with seven linegaes mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon.”2 While the evidence does not demonstrate that these legends and the Book of Mormon are describing the same groups of people, the seven tribes of Lehi fit nicely within the pre-Columbian pattern of seven ancestral lineages.

Caves As Symbols of Ancestoral Origins

Caves were sometimes symbolic of the womb from which mankind was born and could be used to symbolize ancestral origins.3 According to Dorris Heyden,

Humans … came from caves. The womb of the earth was the place of creation of ethnic groups. It had many names; the best known is Chicomoztoc, “Seven Caves.” Another is Tamoanchan, the paradise of the Mother Goddess, the place of birth, the cincalli, or house of maize. Garibay defines cincalli as the cavern that is “the place of the origin of humanity.” Seven groups emerged from Chicomoztoc, the caves “from which their ancestors came,” where “their fathers were born in caves.”4

In her study, Wirth reproduces examples from the Codex Duran, the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, the Map of Cuauhtinchan, and the Lienzos Tlapiltepec and Jucutacato, which portray the ancestral seven caves.5

The seven caves of Chicomoztoc, from Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca. Image and caption via Wikipedia.

Chichimec Peoples

The Chichimeca ancestors of the Aztecs and their neighbors, who settled around the Valley of Mexico, brought with them a tradition of seven tribes who had once lived in seven caves. According to Diego Duran, “The only knowledge I have of the origins of these people, and the Indians know more than they relate, tells of Seven Caves where their ancestors dwelt for a long time, and which they abandoned in order to seek this land, some coming first and others later, until those caves were deserted.”6 The Spanish historian Jose de Acosta wrote,

They are divided into seven clans or nations, and because in that land each clan has a recognized site and place the Nahuatlacas depict their origin and descendance as a cave and say that they came to settle the land of Mexico from seven caves; and they describe this in their books, depicting seven caves with their descendants”7

Friar Bernardino de Sahagun recorded another version of the tradition which spoke of immigration by sea. “It is said among all these natives, that they came forth from seven caves, that these seven caves are seven ships or galleys in which the first settlers of this land came.”8

Seven Tribes from Codex Duran. Image via bmaf.org. 

Some Native American peoples may have carried traditions about seven tribes with them when they migrated from Mesoamerica to their current locations in what is now the southwestern United States. Accordng to Frank Waters, upon their arrival in the Fourth World, “the Hopis first lived in seven puesivi, or caves. Migrating northward they established seven successive villages named after these seven original caves or womb-caverns.”9 Some Navajo sand paintings portray seven ancestral hills of emergence.10

The Toltecas

Other Mexican traditions speak of an even earlier migration associated with the Toltecas. Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl affirmed that this earlier migration consisted of “seven companions and their wives,” who “came to these parts having first crossed large lands and seas, living in caves and undergoing great hardships, until they came to this land, which they found good and fertile for their habitation.”11 This group of seven consisted of “two principal leaders and five other minor ones.”12

Hill of Origin with Flowers/Tribes (drawn after Historia Tolteca Chichimeca). Image via Diane E. Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages of the Book of Mormon and the Seven Tribes of Mesoamerica,” BYU Studies 52, no. 4 (2013): 82.

The Highland Maya of Guatemala

The Maya peoples of highland Guatemala also have traditions about the migration of seven tribes. The Popol Vuh,13 the Titulo C’oyoi,14 and the Annals of the Cakchiquels15 state that they came from a place called Tulan Zuyva, the “Seven Caves” or the “Seven Canyons.” Another related account, the Titulo Sacapulas, speaks of the “seven caves and hills” as their place of origin.16 In these accounts, the Maya who originally migrated to Guatemala were seven tribes consisting of the Zotzils, Cakchiquels, Tukuches, Akahals, Quiches, Rabinals, Zutuhils.17 It is notable that these seven Maya tribes were distinct from other groups of seven founding tribes and leaders mentioned in Aztec sources from Central Mexico.

Some Mesoamerican scholars believe that this pattern of seven tribes, represented by seven caves, goes back at least to the Formative period of Mesoamerica (ca. 2500 BC–AD 250). Beneath the massive Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, archaeologists discovered a cavern that had once been a spring of water. The cavern which appeared to be partly natural and partly man-made had seven chambers. This has led some scholars to believe that the pattern of seven caves dates to an early period.18


Pre-Columbian traditions of seven ancestral tribes provide a notable correspondence with the seven tribes of Lehi’s people in the land of promise. As Wirth observes, “Lineages in Mesoamerica claiming seven in number vary with their individual identifying names—they differ from east to west. Yet there are always seven, not six, eight, or an arbitrary number.”19

The enduring legacy of this tradition and its importance among several geographically diverse groups, each of whom adopted a version relevant to their own tribal indenties, mirrors the significance of Lehi’s seven distinct tribes—a social structure that lasted nearly a thousand years in the Book of Mormon. Whether Book of Mormon peoples influenced or were influenced by this tradition in any way is ultimately unknown. What can be stated confidently is that Lehi’s seven founding tribes, who came from across the ocean, fit especially well in an ancient American setting.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Lehi Divide His People into Seven Tribes? (Jacob 1:13),” KnoWhy 319 (May 29, 2017).

Diane E. Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages of the Book of Mormon and the Seven Tribes of Mesoamerica,” BYU Studies 52, no. 4 (2013): 77–88.

John L. Sorenson, John A. Tvedtnes, and John W. Welch, “Seven Tribes: An Aspect of Lehi’s Legacy,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992): 93–95.

John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testamnt: A Legal Approach,” in The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monto S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 61–82.

Ross T. Christensen, “The Seven Lineages of Lehi,” New Era 5, no. 5 (May 1975): 40–41.

Jacob 1:134 Nephi 1:364 Nephi 1:374 Nephi 1:384 Nephi 1:36-38Mormon 1:8Mormon 1:9Mormon 1:8–9

Jacob 1:13

4 Nephi 1:36

4 Nephi 1:37

4 Nephi 1:38

4 Nephi 1:36-38

Mormon 1:8

Mormon 1:9

Mormon 1:8–9

  • 1 John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testamnt: A Legal Approach,” in The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monto S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 61–82.
  • 2 Diane E. Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages of the Book of Mormon and the Seven Tribes of Mesoamerica,” BYU Studies 52, no. 4 (2013): 77–88.
  • 3 Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages,” 79.
  • 4 Doris Heyden, “Rites of Passage and Other Ceremonies in Caves,” in In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerica Ritual Cave Use, ed. James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005), 22.
  • 5 Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages,” 79–83.
  • 6 Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 10. See also Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana, 3 vols. (Mexico: Editorial Salvador Chavez Hayhoe, 1943), 1:37; Hernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana (Barcelona: Linkgua Ediciones, 2009), 13.
  • 7 Jose de Acosta, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, trans., Frances Lopez-Morillas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 382.
  • 8 Bernardino de Sahagun, General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 parts, trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1982), 1:49.
  • 9 Frank Waters, Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness (Chicago, IL: Swallow Press, 1975), 170. See also Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963), 115–117.
  • 10 Gordon Brotherson, Image of the New World: The American Continent Portrayed in Native Texts (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 196, figure 13 right.
  • 11 Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 2 vols., ed. Alfredo Chavero (Mexico: Editora Nacional, 1952), 1:12. “It is said that they came from the west, led here by seven nobles or captains.” Richley H. Crapo and Bonnie Glass-Coffin, eds., Anonimo Mexicano (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2005), 7.
  • 12 Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 1:23.
  • 13 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 210.
  • 14 Robert M. Carmack, Quichean Civilzation: The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Sources (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 287.
  • 15 Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, The Annals of the Cakchiquels (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 45n.8. For references to the seven tribes, see pp. 48–49, 51, 53–56, 66–67, 70–71, 73, 75, 77, 93, 98–100, 114. These seven tribes were sub-divided into thirteen smaller groups.
  • 16 Carmack, Quichean Civilzation, 38.
  • 17 Recinos and Goetz, The Annals of the Cakchiquels, 80.
  • 18 Doris Heyden, “An Interpretation of the Cave underneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico,” American Antiquity 40, no. 2 (April 1975): 131–147; Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 60; Christensen, Popol Vuh, 210n. 549.
  • 19 Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages,” 87.
Seven Founding Lineages
Book of Mormon

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