Evidence #209 | June 28, 2021

Views of Warfare

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Scripture Central


Ancient Mesoamericans were once considered to be relatively peaceful, but recent discoveries and research show that they engaged in serious warfare from an early period.

Warfare in the Book of Mormon

Warfare was a significant element in the lives of Book of Mormon peoples. In vision, Nephi saw that “great slaughter” and “wars and contentions” would be pervasive among Lehi’s descendants (1 Nephi 12:2–3). This vision is corroborated by subsequent writers of the small plates, who repeatedly mentioned military conflicts with the Lamanites. Numerous military accounts are given in greater detail in Mormon’s abridgment. Endemic warfare was also present in Jaredite times and was a feature of Mulekite societies before their merger with the people of Mosiah. While some of these conflicts may have involved small groups of people, other reported confrontations were widely destructive, involving large numbers of combatants and even the annihilation of entire civilizations.1

An Older View of Warfare

For much of the twentieth century, scholars held that warfare in Mesoamerica was little known to any significant degree until the time of the Aztecs. Sylvanus Morley, in what became a standard reference work on the Maya, wrote in 1947 that while Maya inscriptions might contain astrology and religious material, “they are in no sense records of personal glorification and self-laudation like the inscriptions of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. They tell no story of kingly conquests, recount no deeds of imperial achievement; they neither praise nor exalt, glorify nor aggrandize, indeed they are so utterly impersonal, so completely non-individualistic, that it is even probable that the name glyphs of specific men and women were never recorded upon Maya monuments.”2 They did not include such “matters as wars, conquests, public works, accessions and deaths of rulers.”3 “In Mesoamerica,” observed Julian Steward in 1949, “it is generally believed that the states were peaceful and theocratic.”4

A painting of everyday life in a Maya village. Illustration by H. Tom Hall. Image via nationalgeographic.com.

Sir. J. Eric S. Thompson was a highly influential scholar and popularizer of the Maya in the mid-twentieth century. “We can assume,” he wrote in 1966, “that relations between city states of the Classic period were, on the whole, quite friendly.”5 He granted some small friction over territorial boundaries and perhaps “a little fighting” with “occasional raids on outlying parts of a neighboring city state to assure a supply of sacrificial victims, but I think the evidence is against the assumption of regular warfare on a considerable scale.”6 In fact, “The Maya motto was ‘live and let live,’ and somehow I don’t see too much bullying of a small city state.”7

Some readers of the Book of Mormon, taking note of these scholarly views, suggested that this posed difficulties for Book of Mormon accounts of significant warfare. “Wars of conquest were unknown” and such conflict was limited “to just a few centuries preceding the Spanish conquest.”8 “Archaeologists assert that, during the Book of Mormon period, warfare was almost unknown in the Americas, except for ceremonial purposes (as practiced by the Aztecs).”9 New research and discoveries in recent decades, however, have shown that this earlier view was incorrect.

A New View of Mesoamerican Warfare

In his survey of past interpretations of Mesoamerican warfare, archaeologist David Webster wrote in the year 2000:

Right up through the late 1960s most archaeologists still bought heavily into the “peaceful Maya” perspective. Classic Mesoamerican societies (AD 250–900) were more generally envisioned as both peaceful and theocratic, and no one thought about Preclassic (2500 BC—AD 250) war at all. Leaving aside those pugnacious Mexicans and Maya who lived in the few centuries prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, ancient Mesoamerica seemed to be singularly free of conflict (except for a bit of raiding for sacrificial victims), thus contrasting strongly with virtually every other early civilization.10

All this has changed. “Today, in startling turnabout, warfare is all the rage. The Maya are often portrayed as compulsively warlike.”11 In fact, “The ‘peaceful Maya’ were not peaceful at all” and “prove to have been warlike to their deepest Preclassic roots.”12

Ancient Patters of Warfare

Various types of evidence help build the case for early Mesoamerican warfare. In 1979 archaeologists working in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico reported the remains of a skull rack or tzompantli with sixty-one human skulls aligned in rows dating to the Late Formative Period (200 BC—AD 200). The skull rack was a sign of conquest and was used by later Postclassic groups such as the Aztec to terrorize and subjugate peoples and keep them submissive to the state.13 The discovery of this gruesome device from such an early period suggests that the tzompantli had a long history.

A skull rack in the ceremonial center at Tenochtitlan. Image via mexicolore.co.uk.

A different line of evidence concerns weaponry. The macana or Aztec sword was once thought to have been introduced only a few centuries before the Spanish Conquest. The same is true of the curved, scimitar-like “short swords” which some have argued were introduced during the Postclassic. Yet these weapons have now been identified by scholars in much earlier art from the Ealy Formative Olmec, the Classic Period at Teotihuacan, and Classic Maya times, showing that they had a lengthy history in ancient Mesoamerica, including the time of the Book of Mormon.14

Archaeologists in recent decades have identified significant “destruction levels, mass burials, and fortifications from Middle and Late Preclassic times,” and “war related imagery is found in Early Classic art.”15 New evidence from Lidar technology shows a high degree of regional complexity in the southern Maya lowlands, including “defensive or military features pointing to a high incidence of conflict” during the Late Classic and likely much earlier.16 It is increasingly recognized that Mesoamerican wars were often fought for political and economic reasons, for the acquisition and preservation of territory, and the protection and exploitation of trade routes.17

Guatemalan LiDAR data after rendering and graphical processing. 

While there is still much to learn, the emerging picture of ancient Maya warfare looks increasingly like that of other major civilizations, where “engagements range from minor skirmishes to major campaigns, and objectives can vary from merely making a show of force and testing the strength of a rival, to efforts at their complete conquest or annihilation. There is no reason not to assume similar variation among the Maya.”18

Decipherment of Classic Mayan Inscriptions Relating to Warfare

Another significant reason for the change in perspective is the decipherment of Classic Maya inscriptions which have words relating to warfare. As noted by Mayanist Simon Martin, “epigraphic records of warfare offer a source of unmatched specificity. They identify protagonists, both victors and victims, as well as different types of engagement and their timing accurate to the day.”19 In a recent study, Martin discusses a variety of Mayan “war words” that provide insights into various aspects of pre-Columbian conflict.

The word chuk, for example, means to “to seize, tie up” and has reference to the seizing and binding of captives taken in battle. In martial art, prisoners are often identified by words written on their naked thigh. “A good many pictured captives have captions that provide the names and titles.”20 Clearly the rulers who commissioned these monuments intended to proclaim their military prowess and victory over defeated opponents.

The so-called “star war” glyph denotes “the most momentous encounters, including those resulting in the capture of kings and the fall of dynasties.”21 Martin thinks that a related term was used as an expression of the Maya king’s “martial power as well as the physical realization of that power as a body or armed men.”22 Other words have been identified as referring to the capture or burning of cities.23

Another interesting phrase associated with warfare is nahbaj ch’ich witzaj jol, which means, “blood is pooled, skulls are piled up.”24 This later phrase recalls horrific descriptions in the book of Ether (Ether 10:6; 14:21).

The left figure is the so-called "star war" hieroglyph. The right figure reads, "The blood was pooled, the skulls were piled up." Detail of drawing by Ian Graham. Image and caption info via metmuseum.org.


The trend of evidence for widespread warfare in ancient Mesoamerica is consistent with the picture of recurring conflicts in the Book of Mormon, where serious wars were known from an early period and were fought for a variety of reasons. The issue of warfare also shows how the once widely held views of even excellent scholars can change or even be reversed over time, due to new discoveries and additional information.

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), 381–425, 672–693.

John L. Sorenson, “Last-Ditch Warfare in Ancient Mesoamerica Recalls the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no.2 (2000): 44–53.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 260–239–264.

1 Nephi 12:2–31 Nephi 12:212 Nephi 1:11–122 Nephi 5:342 Nephi 26:22 Nephi 26:15Jacob 7:24–25Enos 1:24Jarom 1:13Omni 1:3Omni 1:24Alma 16:1Alma 28:2–3Alma 43:37Alma 62:39Alma 63:15Helaman 4:5Helaman 11:243 Nephi 2:173 Nephi 4:11Mormon 1:10Mormon 2:1Mormon 8:8Ether 9:12Ether 11:7Ether 13:15Moroni 1:2

1 Nephi 12:2–3

1 Nephi 12:21

2 Nephi 1:11–12

2 Nephi 5:34

2 Nephi 26:2

2 Nephi 26:15

Jacob 7:24–25

Enos 1:24

Jarom 1:13

Omni 1:3

Omni 1:24

Alma 16:1

Alma 28:2–3

Alma 43:37

Alma 62:39

Alma 63:15

Helaman 4:5

Helaman 11:24

3 Nephi 2:17

3 Nephi 4:11

Mormon 1:10

Mormon 2:1

Mormon 8:8

Ether 9:12

Ether 11:7

Ether 13:15

Moroni 1:2

  • 1 For data involving Book of Mormon wars, see John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), charts 136–138.
  • 2 Sylvanus Griswold Morley, The Ancient Maya, 2nd edition (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1947), 262.
  • 3 Morley, The Ancient Maya, 262.
  • 4 Julian H. Steward, “Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations,” American Anthropologist, 51, no. 1 (January–March 1949): 20.
  • 5 J. Eric Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, 2nd edition (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 98.
  • 6 Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, 98.
  • 7 Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, 98.
  • 8 Gordon H. Fraser, Joseph and the Golden Plates: A Close Look at the Book of Mormon (Eugene, OR: Industrial Litho, 1978), 60.
  • 9 Latayne Colvette Scott, The Mormon Mirage (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 83.
  • 10 David Webster, “Mesoamerica: The Not-So-Peaceful Civilization?” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 15, no. 1 (April 2005): 127–128.
  • 11 Webster, “Mesoamerica: The Not-So-Peaceful Civilization?” 68.
  • 12 Webster, “Mesoamerica: The Not-So-Peaceful Civilization?” 112.
  • 13 Charles S. Spencer and Elsa M. Redmond, “Formative Classic Developments in the Cuicatlan Canada: A Preliminary Report,” in Prehistoric Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Area of the Tehuacan Valley: Some Results of the Palo Blanco Project, ed. Robert D. Drennan, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan Technical Reports, Number 11 (Research Reports in Archaeology, Contribution 6), 1979, 211.
  • 14 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Swords in Book of Mormon Times,” May 25, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Cimeters,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 15 Webster, “Mesoamerica: The Not-So-Peaceful Civilization?” 69.
  • 16 Marcello A. Canuto, et. al., “Ancient Lowland Maya Complexity as Revealed by Airborne Laser Scanning of Northern Guatemala,” Science 361 (September 28, 2018): 13. See also p. 11, table 10. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Fortifications,” March 3, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 17 Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 148–149.
  • 18 Simon Martin, Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period 150-900 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 229.
  • 19 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 204.
  • 20 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 207.
  • 21 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 208.
  • 22 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 209.
  • 23 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 209–215. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Burning Cities,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 24 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 228.
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