Evidence #194 | May 25, 2021

Swords (Early)

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New discoveries made long after the Book of Mormon was published show that swords were known over a long period in ancient Mesoamerica going back to the time of the Book of Mormon.

Swords in Book of Mormon Times

Swords are the most common weapon mentioned in the Nephite record.1 Accounts of warfare in the Book of Mormon place its primary events (spanning from approximately 600 BC–AD 4002) in what scholars call the Formative or Preclassic period, with the destruction of the Nephites as a people taking place in the Early Classic (Mormon 6:9). This means that swords had a long history as a significant weapon of pre-Columbian warfare.

The Battle at the Sidon River, by James Fullmer. 

The existence of swords among the Aztec, the Maya, and their neighbors is well known today. However, recent studies of warfare have assumed that such swords were a relatively recent invention in pre-Spanish Mesoamerican history. Ross Hassig, one of the leading authorities on Mesoamerican warfare has argued that Mesoamerican swords were a Postclassic invention.3 If true, that would be hundreds of years after the end of the Book of Mormon narrative.4 Current evidence, however, suggests that Mesoamerican swords had a much longer history in pre-Columbian warfare.

Classic Maya swords

Robert Rands showed a Late Classic Maya figurine from Palenque of a warrior holding a macuahuitl with triangular blades.5 Monument 11 at the site of La Nueva on the Pacific coast of Guatemala (which also dates to the Late Classic) shows a figure posing with a long triangular object with the tip facing down which resembles a sword.6

Swords at Teotihuacan

In 1995 Reuben Cabrera described several partially damaged murals from one of the plazas at the massive site of Teotihuacan. Zone 11 of the city has a section known as the Gran Conjunto, which is thought to have been constructed between AD 200–300. Mural 1 in Portico 3 in the west plaza portrays several objects. “In the lower part of the center section, are shown two saw figures, formed by a series of little triangles connected to two sides of the border of four parallel lines. These saw figures are similar to two macanas.”7

Macanas (above) and round shields (below) from murals at Teotihuacan.

Two round red shields are represented on another mural at the opposite side. “By their form and their composition, as well as their situation in relation to the other side of the portico where one finds two shields represented, it is proposed that these figures represent two macanas or military weapons.”8 Alfonso Garduno Arzave, in a subsequent study in 2006, concluded that the identification of the objects as swords was likely correct given that the people of Teotihuacan were experts in the use of obsidian for their knives and other weapons.9

Olmec Swords

As described by Mayanist Michael Coe, who surveyed various weapons portrayed on Olmec stone monuments in Mexico, one monument from the Middle Preclassic site of Chalcatzingo shows two masked figures brandishing long paddle-shaped “sword–clubs” over a captive.10 Other monuments from the Middle and Late Preclassic show figures brandishing curve-bladed weapons which may have been swords.11

In 2004 archaeologist Ann Cyphers reported the recovery of several monuments at the site of San Lorenzo which portray Olmec macana swords from the early Preclassic period. In reference to figures 89 and 90 found on monument 78 at the site she writes,

The two macanas in the picture below are similar in their lower ends or handles, each one with a triangular perforation near the base. The more complete macana has a curved body with eleven triangular elements encrusted in the sides … Various pieces from San Lorenzo, such as Monuments SL-78, 83 and 91, show weapons. In the three representations, the handle of the macana is wider than the intermediate section and is clearly squared with an edge that the hand can slide into. Its form is like that from later times particularly the Mexica culture, but not like the macanas in the form of an oar in the monumental art of the Middle Classic.12

Monument 78 at San Lorenzo.

In contrast to the swords shown on monument 78, the weapon shown on monument 91 is “in the form of a curved macana with 14 triangular points (possibly shark or dog teeth, or sherds of obsidian) encrusted in the two longitudinal sides. The handle has an elongated base the same as the macana shown on the round altar SL-83. There are little incisions together at the break [of the stone] which could be part of another macana.13 Cyphers believes this evidence adds weight to the argument that warfare was a significant factor among Preclassic Mesoamerican cultures.14

Monument 91 at San Lorenzo.


While the existence of swords in pre-Columbian times is now well known, the use of such weapons during the time contemporary with the Book of Mormon is another significant correspondence with the Nephite record. Even careful scholars of Mesoamerican warfare did not realize until recently that the use of swords in several forms goes back to the early Formative periods, which corresponds to the era of the Jaredites (Ether 14:1–2; 15:29–30). It is thus impossible for Joseph Smith or his associates in 1829 to have known with any degree of certainty whether swords were truly used in the Americas during the time periods described in the Book of Mormon. 

Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Swords in Mesoamerican Antiquity,” Insights: An Ancient Window 28, no. 2 (2008): 2–3.

Matthew Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 39–40.

Matthew Roper, “On Cynics and Swords,” FARMS Review of Books 9, no. 1 (1997): 151–152.

Matthew Roper, “Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 150–158.

William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 329–351.

1 Samuel 17:52 Nephi 5:14Mosiah 8:11Mosiah 9:16Mosiah 10:8Mosiah 19:4Alma 1:9Alma 2:1Alma 2:12Alma 2:29Alma 2:31Alma 17:7Alma 17:37Alma 17:38Alma 17:39Alma 18:16Alma 19:22Alma 19:24Alma 24:12Alma 24:13Alma 24:15Alma 24:16Alma 24:17Alma 43:18Alma 43:20Alma 43:37Alma 43:38Alma 44:8Alma 44:9Alma 44:12Alma 44:13Alma 44:15Alma 44:18Alma 49:20Alma 52:39Alma 57:9Alma 57:33Alma 60:2Alma 61:14Alma 62:5Helaman 1:14Mormon 2:14Mormon 6:9Ether 7:9Ether 14:1–2Ether 15:5Ether 15:20Ether 15:22Ether 15:24Ether 15:29Ether 15:30

1 Samuel 17:5

2 Nephi 5:14

Mosiah 8:11

Mosiah 9:16

Mosiah 10:8

Mosiah 19:4

Alma 1:9

Alma 2:1

Alma 2:12

Alma 2:29

Alma 2:31

Alma 17:7

Alma 17:37

Alma 17:38

Alma 17:39

Alma 18:16

Alma 19:22

Alma 19:24

Alma 24:12

Alma 24:13

Alma 24:15

Alma 24:16

Alma 24:17

Alma 43:18

Alma 43:20

Alma 43:37

Alma 43:38

Alma 44:8

Alma 44:9

Alma 44:12

Alma 44:13

Alma 44:15

Alma 44:18

Alma 49:20

Alma 52:39

Alma 57:9

Alma 57:33

Alma 60:2

Alma 61:14

Alma 62:5

Helaman 1:14

Mormon 2:14

Mormon 6:9

Ether 7:9

Ether 14:1–2

Ether 15:5

Ether 15:20

Ether 15:22

Ether 15:24

Ether 15:29

Ether 15:30

  • 1 The word “sword” is mentioned nearly 100 times by Nephite prophets and writers in the New World. The words “swords” (plural) is mentioned 41 times. This does not include references to these words from Old World scripture.
  • 2 The Jaredites, however, showed up much earlier in history (probably sometime during the third Millennium BC), although the exact timing of their departure and arrival in the Americas is uncertain. See Morgan W. Tanner, “Jaredites,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 4:717–720.
  • 3 Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 112–113, 138–139.
  • 4 In an article published in 1993, Deanne G. Matheny considered the existence of Mesoamerican swords before the Postclassic to be unlikely. See Deanne G. Matheny “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), 293.
  • 5 Robert Rands and Barbara Rands, “Pottery Figurines of the Maya Lowlands,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols., ed. Gordon H. Willey (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 2:53, 548, figure 33.
  • 6 Francisco Estrada Belli and Laura J. Kosakowsky, “Survey in Jutiapa, Southeastern Pacific Guatemala, 1997,” Mexicon 20 (June 1998): 56. Figure 4.
  • 7 Reuben Cabrera, “Conjunto Plaza Oeste,” in La Pintura Mural Prehispanica en Mexico. Teotihuacan Tomo I.  Catalogo, ed. Beatriz de la Fuente (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, 1995), 48. The objects on the murals are shown on 49–51.
  • 8 Cabrera, “Conjunto Plaza Oeste,” 51.
  • 9 Alfonso A. Garduno Arzave, “De Las Armas Ofensivas en el Arte y la Arqueologia de Teotihuacan,” La Pintura Mural Prehispanica en Mexico 12, nos. 24–25 (Junio–Diciembre 2006): 59.
  • 10 Michael D. Coe, The Jaguar’s Children: Pre–Classic Central Mexico (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965), 18.
  • 11 See Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” 43.
  • 12 Ann Cyphers, Escultura Olmeca de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, 2004), 145–146.
  • 13 Cyphers, Escultura Olmeca de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, 159.
  • 14 See Cyphers, Escultura Olmeca de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, 145–146.
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