Evidence #220 | July 31, 2021

Treatment of Prisoners

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Scripture Central


Historical sources and evidence from pre-Columbian art showing the treatment of Maya captives is consistent with descriptions of the treatment of prisoners in the Book of Mormon.

Captives and Prisoners in the Book of Mormon

The danger of captivity in warfare was a real possibility for most of Nephite history. As early as the time of Nephi’s brother Jacob the prophet urged his people make use of their resources to “liberate the captive” (Jacob 2:19). The experience of Alma and Amulek in the prison of Ammonihah shows that prisoners could be horribly abused by their captors. Alma and Amulek were bound (Alma 14:4, 22), forced to watch the massacre of fellow believers (Alma 14:9), repeatedly smitten (Alma 14:14, 24–25), spit upon, bitten, mocked (Alma 14:21), stripped naked, and denied food and water (Alma 14:22).

Alma the Younger and Amulek Praying as the Prison Begins to Shake. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Before their final destruction as a people, the treatment of war captives was particularly cruel. Women and children were sacrificed by the Lamanites (Mormon 4:14, 21), and depraved Nephites raped, tortured, and killed Lamanite women (Moroni 9:9–10). Descriptions of the treatment of captives in the Book of Mormon have parallels with the treatment of prisoners in ancient Mesoamerica.

Prisons and Forced Labor

Captivity for prisoners of course meant confinement.1 Material evidence that would identify structures that were used for jails or prisons as opposed to other purposes would not be obvious to an archaeologist. However, historical sources from early Spanish priests who gathered information about native pre-Columbian practices attest to the existence of several kinds of prisons among the Aztec and the Maya. Such structures could equally serve for criminals as well as war captives. According to Friar Geronimo de Mendietta,

The condition of the prisons was inhuman, especially for those who awaited execution, and for prisoners-of-war, destined to be sacrificed. The prisons were dank and almost without light, and the cells resembled cages. Access was by means of an opening as small as that of a pigeon-loft, and this “door” was barricaded on the outside with planks held in position by large stones and guarded by warders. The inhuman condition of the gaols [sic] induced a rapid deterioration of their unfortunate inmates. They weakened, looked pale and this as a result also of the food they were given, which was both deficient in quality and quantity. They presented a pitiful sight, and most likely they preferred death to suffering in captivity.2

This reminds us of the treatment of Ammon’s brethren in Middoni: “And when Ammon did meet them, he was exceedingly sorrowful, for behold they were naked, and their skins were worn exceedingly because of being bound with strong cords. And they also had suffered hunger, thirst, and all kinds of afflictions” (Alma 20:29).

Francisco Avalos concluded that some prisons were so bad that “a jail sentence usually meant the death of the prisoner.”3 Diego Duran related that the Aztec King Motecuhzoma frequently imprisoned those who displeased him.4 On one occasion, he imprisoned a group of sorcerers who displeased him with bad omens. He “gave orders that these diviners be thrown into some special cages they have that are like jails. Here no one was to feed them, under pain of death, but these men were to be left there until they starved to death.”5

On another occasion a group of priests failed to protect a temple from fire. “The floor of these cages was covered with small sharp blades and fragments of sharp stone and the prisoners had to sit upon them and sleep upon them until their deaths. They were given food in very small portions (as we say, “by ounces”) until they starved to death.”6 As if that were not enough, every day the king sent messengers to the jails to rebuke them and remind them of their failure to fulfill their duties.7 This reminds us of the incessant mocking and abuse inflicted upon Alma and Amulek by the Nehor leaders at the city of Ammonihah (Alma 14:20–23).

Prisons for war captives were also known among the pre-Columbian Maya in Highland Guatemala.

This town [Sacapulas] in ancient aboriginal times served as a jail or prison, where the Quiche kings, to whom these lands belonged, enclosed the captives from the wars which they continually had with their neighbors, because these Quiche kings were very powerful. Every night they put the captives in a kind of rock pen which was very large, and by day they made them go to the salt factory, where they made much salt, and it was of great importance to their king. Because of this factory and the scarcity of salt [the Quiche] king was more powerful than his neighbours.8

The exploitation of prisoners through forced labor to enhance the wealth of kings is also described in the Book of Mormon. The wicked king Riplakish had many prisons where he forced the incarcerated to “labor continually for their support; and whoso refused to labor he did cause to be put to death” (Ether 10:6).

Abuse of Captives

According to Mayanist Linda Schela, “captives taken in war could look forward to humiliation, torture, and slavery or death.”9 She notes, “some captives faced their gruesome deaths with dignity.”10 One figurine shows an “old man, bound and beaten, his nose swollen like a turnip, nevertheless holds his head high.”11 She shows several other male figurines from pre-Columbian burials on Jaina Island which portray Mayan captives:

Two of the figures in this group depict captives who display the pot bellies and sagging muscles of middle-aged men who were probably of high social rank. With his hands bound behind his back, the man with the beard looks toward the right with a look of resignation on his face. The other middle-aged captive has his genitals exposed and a grimace on his face. A third figurine is also totally naked and sits on the floor, with his hands tied behind him and his eyes severely swollen. The last two captives have both been beaten and have been stripped of their clothing as part of their public humiliation. Another captive writhes in the agony of torture although his arms and the post he was bound to did not survive.12

Maya figurine of a bearded prisoner with a look of resignation on his face. Image via https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/.
Maya figurine of prisoner who has been beaten and stripped of clothing. Image via https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/.

Female captives are also portrayed on Late Classic Maya monuments. Simon Martin references several examples from martial art of the period which portray these unfortunate women. “Their treatment is no better than their male counterparts. One is tied with a rope and her dress cut with flapped holes, a second is trampled beneath the feet of her female abuser, while a third is shown bound and half-naked.”13

Schele describes another example of the cruelty experienced by some captives:

A figurine in the Baltimore Museum of Art is that of a tortured captive whose face strains in anguish as he emits a tremendous howl of pain. He has been scalped by his captors, as can be seen from the pate hanging from the nape of his neck. His hands and feet are contorted, as of they have been twisted out of joint, and his nose is swollen and bruised. … This captive, hollow from his sternum to his groin, is the victim of disembowelment, a torture also known from Maya painted ceramics and the remarkable battle scene at Cacaxtla, a site from the maya region, where wall paintings depict warfare between Maya and Central Mexican warriors. As if the victim’s disembowelment were not enough, small sticks of kindling have been tied to his lower back; his captors are about to set him on fire.14

Sacrifice of Captives

Late Classic Maya rattle in the form of a bloated hanging corpse, A.D. 650–850. Image and caption info via https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/.

“Most war captives were enslaved,” notes David Webster, “but distinguished male captives were usually sacrificed.”15 Helaman reported that during wartime many Nephite prisoners taken by the Lamanites were immediately killed. However, “the Lamanites had also retained many prisoners, all of whom are chief captains, for none other have they spared alive. And we suppose that they are now at this time in the land of Nephi; it is so if they are not slain” (Alma 56:12). The passage suggests that among the Lamanites valued captives of higher rank may have been preserved for later public display or sacrifice.

The Leiden Plaque portrays the ascension of a Maya king where a captive “lies bound and prostrate at his feet. The captive, marked as a noble by an ahau glyph on his head, was taken in battle specifically to serve in this ritual. Unhappy with his fate, he lifts his bound wrists and kicks his feet, twisting his body to look back across his shoulder, perhaps hoping for a reprieve.”16

In addition to standard executions, death by sacrifice, torture, hanging, and stoning are also attested. According to Schele, “One of the most extraordinary figures shows a naked captive hanging from a stand of modern construction. Scenes in the murals of Mulchic, a site near Uxmal in Yucatan, show dead captives hanging from trees and others executed by stoning.”17 We are reminded of the execution of the Gadianton robber Zemnarihah who, after his capture by the Nephites, suffered a similar fate (3 Nephi 4:28).18

Given Power in the kingdom

Although kings taken as prisoners were frequently sacrificed, some Maya kings were restored to their thrones by their former conquerors. According to Miller, “In the case of male captives it was long assumed that all met a grisly end in ritual killing, but we now know that some not only survived imprisonment, they were restored to their thrones.”19

The king Yich’aak Bahlam of Ceibal was captured and even portrayed on monuments at Aguateca and Dos Pilas as a bound captive, being trampled underfoot, but several years later was restored to his throne “albeit under the oversight of his conquerors.”20 The book of Ether relates how one former rebel king was defeated and taken captive, but was later entrusted with authority under his former enemy. “And Corihor repented of the many evils which he had done; wherefore Shule gave him power in his kingdom” (Ether 7:13).

Choices of Captives

Sometimes war captives were given a choice to adopt the lifestyle and beliefs of their captors rather than suffer torture and death. The Rabinal Achi is a post-Spanish Conquest drama which is still performed today in the Maya town of Rabinal in Guatemala.21 The play portrays a Maya warrior captured by a rival tribe who is given the choice to be spared from torture and death if he will betray his people, but instead he chooses to die with honor.

Schele argues that this portrayal reflects pre-Columbian ideals. She notes, “not all captives died. They could become slaves or choose to accept the authority of their captors.”22 This is interesting in light of the conversion of the people of Anti-Nephi Lehi who made a covenant to no longer shed blood and would willingly die rather than break their covenant with God. “Therefore, they would suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take up the sword” (Alma 27:29).

Mural depicting bleeding captives from Bonampak, Room 2. Image via latinamericanstudies.org.

Hundreds of years later, as the Lamanites ruthlessly hunted down his people, Moroni wrote, “They put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ. And I Moroni will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life” (Moroni 1:2–3). The cruelty of torture and death that could be and often were inflicted on war prisoners in Mesoamerica adds appreciation to what such choices might have meant for faithful Nephites who were captured by their enemies.

Mesoamerican Captives in Mormon’s Day

Archaeological evidence for the treatment of war captives during the late fourth century AD is attested in the Maya Lowlands. During this time, the region was invaded by a force with ties to the Mexican city of Teotihuacan.23 Archaeologists working at the Lowland site of Rio Azul discovered several altars decorated with figures of male war captives.24 According to Richard Adams,

All of these human figures are presented in the same pose—down on one knee with the appearance of being pulled off balance or falling. Blood is depicted flowing in a large stream from each man’s head to the ground. The heads have disheveled hair, no headdress, and mutilated ears without earplugs. Each figure is bound with rope around the wrists. Male genitalia are clearly depicted in each case, and the total effect is that each person has been stripped of his clothing and jewelry and exposed to ridicule. In spite of the similarity of poses, each face is individualized. Their eyes and mouths are wide open, giving the appearance of terror.25

The style, stratigraphy, and pottery associated with the structures date the altars to between 380 and 392 AD.26 While we cannot identify the figures portrayed on the altars with any individuals mentioned in the Book of Mormon, this scene demonstrate that the types of cruelties and torture mentioned by Mormon and Moroni correspond well with the nearly contemporary treatment of war captives in ancient Mesoamerica.


War captives and prisoners in ancient Mesoamerica were often confined in jails or prisons and were forced to labor in captivity. Abuse of captives could be severe and sometimes unspeakably cruel. Evidence suggests captives were stripped naked, bound, beaten, starved, humiliated, mocked, maimed, scalped, burned, sacrificed, hung, and stoned. Evidence from Early Classic art shows that prisoners in the days of Moroni could, if captured, expect to suffer terribly at the hands of their captors. This evidence is consistent with similar descriptions of the treatment of prisoners in the Book of Mormon.

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), 375–378, 401, 422, 612, 686–687.

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 4:239–240.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press and FARMS, 1998), 116–117, 124.

Jacob 2:19Mosiah 2:13Mosiah 7:7–8Mosiah 21:23Alma 8:31Alma 14:4Alma 14:9Alma 14:14Alma 14:21Alma 14:22Alma 14:20–23Alma 14:24–25Alma 14:27–29Alma 20:29Alma 21:13–15Alma 27:29Alma 46:23Alma 56:12Helaman 5:21–223 Nephi 4:283 Nephi 28:194 Nephi 1:30Mormon 4:14Mormon 4:21Mormon 8:24Ether 7:13Ether 10:6Moroni 9:9–10

Jacob 2:19

Mosiah 2:13

Mosiah 7:7–8

Mosiah 21:23

Alma 8:31

Alma 14:4

Alma 14:9

Alma 14:14

Alma 14:21

Alma 14:22

Alma 14:20–23

Alma 14:24–25

Alma 14:27–29

Alma 20:29

Alma 21:13–15

Alma 27:29

Alma 46:23

Alma 56:12

Helaman 5:21–22

3 Nephi 4:28

3 Nephi 28:19

4 Nephi 1:30

Mormon 4:14

Mormon 4:21

Mormon 8:24

Ether 7:13

Ether 10:6

Moroni 9:9–10

  • 1 Some readers of the Book of Mormon have claimed that prisons did not exist in pre-Columbian times. See, for example, Thomas Key, The Book of Mormon in the Light of Science, Fifteenth edition (Marlow, OK: Utah Missions, 1997), 67.
  • 2 Geronimo de Mendietta, Historia Eclesiatica Indiana, Book 2, Chapter 29, in Historia Eclesiastica Indiana: A Franciscan’s View of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, ed. and trans. Felix Jay (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), 44–45.
  • 3 Francisco Avalos, “An Overview of the Legal System of the Aztec Empire,” Law Library Journal 86, no. 2 (1994): 268.
  • 4 Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 457, 461–463, 485, 491–495.
  • 5 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 461.
  • 6 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 457.
  • 7 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 457.
  • 8 W. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatan Highlands, 1500–1821, revised edition (Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1992), 50–51.
  • 9 Linda Schele, Hidden Faces of the Maya (Singapore: Toppan Printing, 1997), 114.
  • 10 Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (New York, NY and Fort Worth, TX: George Braziller and the Kimball Art Museum, 1986), 218, plate 93.
  • 11 Schele and Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, 218.
  • 12 Linda Schele, Hidden Faces of the Maya, 115, plates 22–25.
  • 13 Simon Martin, Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period 150–900 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 207.
  • 14 Schele and Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, 218, Plate 94.
  • 15 David Webster, “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War,” Journal of World Prehistory 14, no.1 (2000): 80.
  • 16 Schele and Miller, The Blood of Kings, 110.
  • 17 Schele, Hidden Faces of the Maya, 115, plate 26.
  • 18 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Zemnarihah’s Hanging,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 19 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 207.
  • 20 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 207–208.
  • 21 Rabinal Achi: A Mayan Drama of War and Sacrifice, trans. Dennis Tedlock (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • 22 Schele, Hidden Faces of the Maya, 117.
  • 23 David Stuart, “‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History,” in Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 465–513.
  • 24 Richard E. W. Adams, Rio Azul: An Ancient Maya City (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 75–78; Richard E. W. Adams, “Early Classic Maya Civilization: A View from Rio Azul,” in The Emergence of Lowland Maya Civilization: The Transition from the Preclassic to the Early Classic, ed. Nikolai Grube (Mockmuhl, Germany: Verlag Anton Saurwein, 1995), 35–48.
  • 25 Richard E. W. Adams, Rio Azul: An Ancient Maya City (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 75. For drawings of the captives portrayed on the altars, see Adams, “Early Classic Maya Civilization: A View from Rio Azul,” Figure 31.
  • 26 Adams, Rio Azul, 77–78.
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