Evidence #190 | April 26, 2021

Traditions of Ocean Migrations

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The Book of Mormon records three separate transoceanic migrations from the Old World to the New. Native Americana traditions from pre-Columbian times also describe ancient oceanic crossings to the Americas.

Migration by Sea in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon recounts the transoceanic migration of three groups of people to the New World. The first was a colony of families that migrated from Mesopotamia. Much later, two groups of Israelites came from Jerusalem. One was led by Lehi, a prophet of the tribe of Manasseh, a few years before Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon. Shortly thereafter, a second Jewish colony was led by Mulek, the only surviving son of King Zedekiah. While the Jaredite place of landing is not specified (Ether 6:12), the text suggests that Lehi’s party landed somewhere on the west coast (Alma 22:28), while Mulek’s people apparently arrived on the east (Alma 22:30; 8:7; 51:26). Native America traditions, consistent with the Book of Mormon, point to at least several immigrations to the New World in pre-Columbian times.1

I Will Bring You Up Again out of the Depths, by Jonathan Arthur Clarke. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Arrival from the West

The Mexican historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl reported that one group, the Tultecas, “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.”2 He stated that “they came from the west, sailing along the coast of the south sea,” by which he meant the Pacific Ocean.3 In his History of the Chichimeca Nation, he affirmed,

According to their histories, they were exiled from their homeland and, after having sailed along the coast of what is now California, they came to a sea they named Huitlapalan—which is now known as the Sea of Cortes—so-called because it appeared reddish … And having sailed along the coast of the land of Xalisco and all the southern coast, they landed at the port of Huatulco. After wandering through various lands, they reached the province of Tochepec, which lies along the coast of the North Sea, and having explored and surveyed the land, they finally came to the province of Tolanzinco.4

The Caqchikel Maya of Highland Guatemala hold that they came from a place across the sea called Tulan and then traveled across the ocean from the west to another place called Tulan. “From across the ocean we came. Pa Tulan is the name of the hill where we were born, where we were begotten by our mothers [and] our fathers, you, our sons … Thence came we, from the west … From the west, then, we came, from Tulan; this Tulan is away across the ocean. There we were born.”5

Hopi woman with a traditional pot and traditional clothing. Image and caption via Wikipedia.

The Hopi of northern Arizona, whose culture has many ties to ancient Mesoamerica, hold that their ancestors, escaping the destruction of the Third World (before their migration northward from Central America to their present location), traveled across the ocean from the west, stopping briefly on a series of islands during their journey. The creator god Sotuknang directed Spider Woman to cut down some tall plants with hollow stems and seal the people up inside with food and water.

Spider Woman did as he instructed her. She cut down the hollow reeds; and as the people came to her, she put them inside with a little water and hurusuki (white cornmeal dough) for food, and sealed them up … So he loosed the waters upon the earth. Waves higher than mountains rolled in upon the land. Continent broke asunder and sank beneath the seas. And still rains fell, the waves rolled in. The people sealed up in their hollow reeds heard the mighty rushing of the waters. They felt themselves tossed high in the air and dropping back to the water. Then all was quiet, and they knew they were floating. For a long, long time—so long a time that it seemed it would never end—they kept floating. Finally, their movement ceased. The Spider Woman unsealed their hollow reeds, took them by the tops of their heads, and pulled them out.6

This tradition of the destruction of the Third World by water reminds us of the biblical account of Noah and the Flood, but the Hopi tradition may also echo the account of the Jaredite crossing in wind-driven vessels that could be enclosed tight like unto a dish, protecting the passengers inside from the storm and the mighty waves (Ether 2:16–25).

And it came to pass that the Lord God caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land; and they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind. And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were cause by the fierceness of the wind. And it came to pass that when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being tight like unto a dish, and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah (Ether 6:5–7).

After landing briefly on a series of small islands, the Hopi’s ancestors constructed round, flat, wind-driven rafts of the same material, continually traveling in the direction of the rising sun until they landed safely on land in the current Fourth World.7

Arrival from the East

A set of Mesoamerican traditions hold that yet another group migrated across the sea, in this case landing on the east coast of what is now Mexico. Ixtlilxochitl reported,

Those who possessed this new world in this third age were the Ulmecas and Xicalancas, and according as is found in their histories, they came in ships or boats from the part of the Orient to the land of Potonchan, at which point they began to settle it on the banks of the Atoyac river, which is the one that passes between Puebla and Cholula.8

According to Fray Bernardino de Sahagun,

The account of the origin of this people, which the old people give, is that they came over the waters from the north. And it is certain that they came in some vessels. It is not known in what manner they were constructed … the first people who came to settle this land came from the direction of Florida, came sailing along the coast, and disembarked in the port of Panuco, which they called Panco and which means, “the place where those who crossed the waters arrived.” This people came in search of the terrestrial paradise, and they brought as watchword ‘Tamoanchan,’ which means, “We seek our home.” And they settled near the highest mountains they found … It seems that their ancestors possessed some oracle regarding this subject, either from God, or the demon, or from the tradition of the elders, which was handed down to them.9

According to the Title of the Lords of Totonicapan, the Quiche of Highland Guatemala in contrast to the Caqchikels, came from the east.  They “came from the other part of the ocean, from where the sun rises, a place called Pa Tulan, Pa Civan.”10

“These, then, were the three nations of Quiches, and they came from where the sun rises, descendants of Israel, of the same language and customs … When they arrived at the edge of the sea, Balaam Qitze touched it with his staff and at once a path opened, which then closed up again, for thus the great God wished it to be done, because they were the sons of Abraham and Jacob.”11

As reported by Father Diego De Landa,

Some of the old people of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this land was occupied by a race of people, who came from the East and whom God delivered by opening twelve paths through the sea. If this were true, it necessarily follows that all the inhabitants of the Indies are descendants of the Jews; since having once passed over the Straits of Magellan, they must have extended over more than two thousand leagues of land which now Spain governs.12

Diego de Landa, Spanish colonial Bishop of Yucatan and writer of important historical account of the Maya. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons. 

Most scholars today would conclude that references to the house of Israel in these accounts are due to Spanish influences, but the existence of a variety of such traditions suggests that a belief that some migrants came by boat or ship from across the ocean was a significant part of their pre-Columbian heritage. John Sorenson explains,

Obviously, some of these statements include historical and geographical interpretations by the colonial Indians that would not have been so phrased in the original recordings of the traditions (e.g. names like Babylonia, Abraham, and Chaldea). Still, there can be little or no question that the native writers were confident that the traditions they cited referred to voyages from across the ocean. The use of biblical names would have been an attempt to interpret the geography behind that idea in terms of the rudimentary knowledge of world/biblical geography the Spaniards had imparted to them. One ought not to refuse out of hand to accept their use of such names but to seek to interpret their intention in using the terms. They clearly believed that their ancestors had arrived from overseas.13


As concluded by Sorenson, “It certainly may be said that traditions that the ancestors of a number of peoples originated from across the ocean were widespread in Mesoamerica. These traditions constitute a correspondence of significance with the Book of Mormon story of three colonizing voyages.”14 While speculation about Israelite dispersions were prevalent in the early 19th century, authentic migration traditions among pre-Columbian peoples were likely unknown to the general American populace.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient America Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 150–172.

John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, “Before DNA,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 1 (2003): 6–23.

John L. Sorenson, “Ancient Voyages Across the Ocean to America: From ‘Impossible’ to ‘Certain,’” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 4–17.

John Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1998), 56–57, 222–227.

John L. Sorenson, “Some Mesoamerican Traditions of Immigration by Sea,” El Mexico Antique 8 (December 1955): 422–437.

1 Nephi 18:8–23Omni 1:16Alma 22:28Alma 22:30Alma 63:5–8Helaman 3:10Helaman 3:14Helaman 6:10Mormon 5:18Ether 6:4–12Ether 7:27Ether 8:9Ether 11:21Ether 12:4

1 Nephi 18:8–23

Omni 1:16

Alma 22:28

Alma 22:30

Alma 63:5–8

Helaman 3:10

Helaman 3:14

Helaman 6:10

Mormon 5:18

Ether 6:4–12

Ether 7:27

Ether 8:9

Ether 11:21

Ether 12:4

  • 1 John L. Sorenson, “Some Mesoamerican Traditions of Immigration by Sea,” El Mexico Antique 8 (December 1955): 422–437; John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient America Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 150–172.
  • 2 Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 2 vols., ed., Alfredo Chavero (Mexico: Editora Nacional, 1952), 1:12.
  • 3 Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, History of the Chichimeca Nation, ed. and trans., Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, Peter B. Villella, Pablo Garcia Loaeza (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 40.
  • 4 Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, History of the Chichimeca Nation, 36.
  • 5 Kaqchikel Chronicles: The Definitive Edition, Translation and Exegesis by Judith M. Maxwell and Robert M. Hill II (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006), 2, 7.
  • 6  Frank Waters, Book of the Hopi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1977), 18.
  • 7 Waters, Book of the Hopi, 19–20. Waters also describes a Hopi ritual where this oceanic crossing is remembered and reenacted on pages 214–217.
  • 8 Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 1:19–20.
  • 9 Bernardino de Sahagun, Introduction, in Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 parts, ed. and trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1982), 1:49. Juan de Torquemada reports this same tradition: “Some years after this settlement certain nations came from toward the north, a people that landed at the port of Panuco ... It is unknown from whence they might have come.” Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana 3 vols. (Mexico: Salvador Chavez Hayoe, 1943), 1:254–255.
  • 10 Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, trans., The Annals of the Cakchikels (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 169.
  • 11 Recinos and Goetz, trans., The Annals of the Cakchikels, 170.
  • 12 Alfred M. Tozzer, ed., Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology Papers 18 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1941), 16–17.
  • 13 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 166.
  • 14 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 166.
Traditions of Ocean Migrations
Book of Mormon

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