Evidence #147 | February 2, 2024

Sunken Cities

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Scripture Central


A sunken settlement discovered under Lake Atitlan demonstrates that a type of destruction mentioned in 3 Nephi (waters rising up to cover cities) occurred anciently in the Americas near the time of Christ.

Book of Mormon Cities Submerged by Water

After the great destruction recorded in 3 Nephi, the Lord’s voice was heard among the people declaring that the “great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned” (3 Nephi 9:4). The cities of Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem suffered similar fates. Concerning them, the Lord declared that “waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof” (v. 7).

Samabaj under Lake Atitlan

In the 1990s, Roberto Samayoa noticed ruins on an underwater plateau while scuba diving in Lake Atitlan, located in the highlands of Guatemala. The site was subsequently named Samabaj, which is partly derived from Roberto’s last name. Eventually, trained archaeologists began to seriously study the area.1 A geophysical survey using side sonar scanning revealed even more man-made structures at other underwater locations along Lake Atitlan’s southern shore.2

Team preparing for a dive on Lake Atitlan. Image via Scripture Central. 

Concerning Samabaj, anthropologist John L. Sorenson noted that the “buildings appear to have been undamaged before their submersion, implying a sudden rise of the water.”3 The site has been described as an “underwater time capsule unmolested by looters and untouched by urbanization.”4 Researchers have found “about 30 ancient homes, a plaza, staircases, and even saunas, among the submerged ruins of Samabaj.”5 It also features “no fewer than 16 religious structures,” including “at least seven stelas, standing stone markers that often signified power and authority in antiquity.”6 Sonia Medrano, an archaeologist involved with Samabaj’s underwater excavation and mapping, described it as “a place of public rituals and pilgrimage.”7

Ruins at samabaj. Image via zandersturgill.com.

The sudden rise in water, which left the 30-acre island submerged under 12 to 30 meters of water, was likely due to local volcanic activity.8 Based on ceramic remains, Sorenson felt that the ruins were from the “Late Pre-Classic period, probably around the time of Christ.”9 Other scholars have provided similar dates, noting that the ceramic remains range between 200 BC and AD 300.10 Sorensen noted that “some finds in the Atitlan area indicate that settlers lived in the vicinity since before the time of Christ, and the smoothed stela at Samabaj points to a date possibly earlier.”11 Medrano dated “the island’s moment of destruction to no later than A.D. 300.”12

A pot extracted from Lake Atitlan. Image via Scripture Central. 

Samabaj and Jerusalem

In 1985, before the ruins of Samabaj were discovered, Sorenson suggested that the Lamanite city of Jerusalem was situated along Lake Atitlan’s southwestern shore. Sorenson’s proposal was based on several factors, including his belief that the land of Mormon (Mosiah 18:4; 3 Nephi 5:12, 20) was located “near the eastern end of the lake.”13 According to Sorenson’s larger proposed geography, “The spot was also close to the main areas of Lamanite population only a few miles away down in the hot but agriculturally rich piedmont zone.”14

At the time, Sorensen knew that Lake Atitlan’s water level had “shifted dramatically—by as much as 60 feet within historical times, and up to 15 feet in a single year—so a city located on this shore could understandably be submerged quite abruptly.”15 What he didn’t know then was that remains of settlements were indeed sitting below the water’s surface at Samabaj and other locations near the shore. It is not insignificant that submerged ruins have turned up at the very lake where Sorenson predicted they might be located, in connection with a Book of Mormon location.  


It remains uncertain if Samabaj and its sudden flooding had anything to do with Book of Mormon peoples or the destruction reported in 3 Nephi. Current estimates date the site’s flooding several hundred years too late, based on the latest samples of ceramic remains at the site. On the other hand, Lake Atitlan’s water level has fluctuated over time.

Even today, the sudden swelling of Lake Atitlan and the wild swings in its level can be unnerving for local residents as they watch the water creep over town squares and kitchen floors. Since the lake still has no outlet, it can rise as much as 15 feet in a matter of weeks, as it did in 2011, and then just as suddenly retreat. Local people hold title to land that is now underwater. They tell stories about how the lake once reached as high as a nearby church’s walls, and then drained away again like a bathtub. “The Lake is the master of its own destiny,” says Samayoa, “It rises and falls, rises and falls.”16

According to a UNESCO report of a geophysical survey conducted in 2022, “one or more floods have considerably affected the cultural landscape of the lake.”17 In another instance, the report states that its collection of data is intended to facilitate “understanding of the palaeolandscape, the process of occupation and formation of the site, as well as the onslaught of various floods that led to its abandonment.”18 Thus, whatever the precise date may be for the site’s most recent submersion, more data would be needed to either verify or rule out the possibility of a major flooding event close to the time of Christ’s death.

Sillouette of Atitlan's southern shore. Image via anywhere.com.

Whatever this region’s relationship may be, if any, with the events reported in 3 Nephi, the ruins at Samabaj offer an example of the type of destruction experienced by the cities of Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem. Rather than sinking into the sea or having a flash flood come crashing down upon them from above, the Lord declared that “waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof” (3 Nephi 9:7; emphasis added). This is precisely what happened at Samabaj—the water level of its surrounding lake quickly rose and submerged it.

Book of Mormon Central, “Is There Evidence of Sunken Cities in Ancient America? (3 Nephi 9:7),” KnoWhy 429 (May 1, 2018).

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2013), 133–135, 647–648, 664.

John L. Sorenson, “The Submergence of the City of Jerusalem in the Land of Nephi,” Insights 22, no. 4 (2002): 2–3.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 221–227.

3 Nephi 9:4, 7

3 Nephi 9:4, 7

Book of Mormon

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