Book of Mormon/Lamanites/Relationship to Amerindians/Maya and Olmec
Are the Maya and the Olmec the Lamanites and the Jaredites?
- The Maya and the Olmec are often associated with the Nephites and Jaredites.
- It is claimed that LDS Scholars believe that Mayan cities were inhabited by the Nephites.
- Dr. Michael D. Coe, a prominent Mesoamerican archaeologist and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, stated, "As far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing [the historicity of The Book of Mormon], and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group".
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
The assumption by critics that LDS associate the Nephites and the Lamanites with "the Maya" is an oversimplification of the facts. Most Church members view "the Maya" as a single, homogeneous group of people whom they associate with the magnificent ruins of the Classic Mayan civilization found in Mesoamerica. LDS research has focused on identifying the characteristics of the Preclassic Mayan culture, which does indeed cover the time period addressed by the Book of Mormon.
DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Why the Maya and the Olmec?
A common criticism is that LDS associate the Nephites and/or Lamanites with the Maya, and the Jaredite civilization with the Olmec. There is circumstantial evidence to support this criticism:
- The general consensus among LDS scholars that Book of Mormon events are likely to have occurred in Mesoamerica. This is the location of the ancient Maya and Olmec civilizations.
- The fact that the Maya and Olmec civilizations are in the proper relative locations and approximate time periods required by the Book of Mormon (A detail, by the way, which Joseph Smith could not possibly have known).
- The cover of the 2008 Gospel Doctrine manual (Book of Mormon study guide) shows the painting Christ with Three Nephite Disciples, by Gary L. Kapp. This painting portrays Jesus and the three disciples standing in front of a Mesoamerican pyramid.
- Artwork that has appeared in Church publications and buildings for many years has depicted Book of Mormon events occurring in a Mesoamerican setting. One well-known painting of Christ appearing to the Nephites shows a Mesoamerican pyramid in the background, and to the far left, one of the "elephant-like" snouts associated with masks of the Mayan rain-god Chac.
- A famous set of 12 paintings by artist Arnold Friberg was included in most copies of the Book of Mormon for many years. These paintings depict Book of Mormon events as occurring in Mesoamerican settings.
- The Church produced film "The Testaments" depicts Book of Mormon events as occurring in a Central American setting, with Christ appearing in front of a classic Mayan pyramid.
- "Book of Mormon tours" which take interested members to "see the lands of the Book of Mormon" in Mesoamerica.
- The Maya and the Olmec have a written language—a requirement for Book of Mormon peoples, who kept records. Mesoamerica is the site of the only literate pre-Columbian population.
It is easy, therefore, to see why LDS typically associate the Nephites or Lamanites with the Maya. However, to simply say that Book of Mormon civilizations are associated with "the Maya" is an over-simplification of the facts.
Who are the Maya?
In order to fully understand the criticism, it is necessary to understand who "the Maya" actually are. There are three distinct cultural periods associated with the rise and fall of the ancient Mayan civilization:
- The Preclassic period: Approximately 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D.
- The Classic period: 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.
- The Post-Classic period: 900 A.D. to approximately 1600 A.D.
Critics usually make the simple assumption that LDS associate the Nephites and/or the Lamanites with the Classic Maya. Indeed, the circumstantial evidence shown above indicate that this is often the case with the general Church membership. Since the Classic period occurred between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., this period does not correlate well with the period covered by the Book of Mormon between approximately 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. Those who investigate the issue, however, will find that much of the LDS research centers on the Maya of the Preclassic period.
What is the significance of the late Preclassic period?
During the early part of the Preclassic period, the Maya were simple village-based farmers. The late-Preclassic period marked the transition from a simple society to a much more complex society, and initiated the era of large cities, temples and high culture that we now associate with the Maya. According to Dr. Michael D. Coe, one of the world's foremost experts on the Maya, the Preclassic period marked "the first really intensive settlement of the Maya land. More advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, the construction of cities, and the inscribing of stone monuments are found by the terminal centuries of the Preclassic." 
Effective farming centered around densely inhabited villages appeared during the Preclassic period, with evidence indicating that the change began in the area of Chiapas, Guatemala and western El Salvador.  This change also marked the expansion into the highlands and lowlands, which occurred between 1000 B.C. and 300 B.C. The nearby Olmec civilization reached its peak during this period of time before its sudden collapse. According to Dr. Coe, the Olmec influence was found throughout Mesoamerica, "with the curious exception of the Maya domain—perhaps because there were few Maya populations at that time sufficiently large to have interested the expanding Olmecs."  It seems that the Maya population was too small during this period time to have interacted much with the Olmec prior to the demise of the Olmec civilization.
The reason for rather sudden transition of the Maya from a simple agrarian society to a higher level of culture and expansion is not known. Dr. Coe states:
- The all-important questions are, what happened during the intervening time covered by the Late preclassic period, and how did those traits that are considered as typical of the Classic Maya actually develop?
- There have been a number of contradictory theories to account for the rise of Maya civilization. One of the most persistent holds that the previously undistinguished Maya came under the influence of travelers from shores as distant as the China coast; as a matter of interest to the lay public, it should be categorically emphasized that no objects manufactured in any part of the Old World have been identified in any Maya site, and that ever since the days of Stephens and Catherwood few theories involving trans-Pacific or trans-Atlantic contact have survived scientific scrutiny.
- The possibility of some trans-Pacific influence on Mesoamerican cultures cannot, however, be so easily dismissed...As oriental seafaring was always on a far higher technological plane than anything ever known in the prehispanic New World, it is possible that Asian intellectuals may have established some sort of contact with their Mesoamerican counterparts by the end of the Preclassic.
In other words, something happened in the late-Preclassic period (sometime between 1000 B.C. and 300 B.C.) which became the catalyst of the cultural change from the Preclassic to the Classic Maya civilization. It was also during this period that the famous Maya calendar system began to be employed, with the earliest recorded date being 36 A.D. The location of the beginning of what Dr. Coe calls the "cultural efflorescence" in the late Preclassic period was centered in the Maya highlands and the Pacific Coast in the area around the ancient city of Kaminaljuyu, located near the present day site of Guatemala City.
How do current Mesoamerican limited geographical theories fit with the existing data?
It has long been postulated that the Book of Mormon occurred within a specific, limited geographical area on the order of hundreds of square miles. The question is: How does this compare to what little is known about the Preclassic Maya?
Dr. John L. Sorenson, in his 1985 book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, created a model in which he postulated a correlation between certain Book of Mormon locations and the geography in the area centered around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Dr. Sorenson assumed a correlation between the ancient ruin of Kaminaljuyu (near Guatemala City) and the city of Nephi, with the surrounding land being the Land of Nephi. This would represent the location first settled by Lehi's party when they first arrived in the New World. Assuming, as the limited geography theory requires, that Lehi's group arrived in a land already populated, it is not unreasonable to assume that Lehi's group introduced a higher level of culture to the native inhabitants of the area. Dr. Sorenson notes,
- Within this first century B.C., probably between 50 and 25 B.C., culture traits and perhaps migrating parties moved from central Chiapas to a number of distant spots. Specific evidence shows Chiapas' influence in the Maya lowland centers of Tikal and Altar de Sacrificios, the Oaxaca Valley, Tlapacoya at the south edge of the valley of Mexico, and central Veracruz. From a localized culture a hundred years before, the Chiapas pattern had temporarily become something of a model with widespread influence.
- The valley of Guatemala flourished at the same time. The giant site of Kaminaljuyu was clearly the center. Roughly between 100 and 50 B.C., dramatic social differences arose there also... 
- When we read the Book of Mormon story to discover that culture, we find interesting ways in which the descendants from Lehi's party plausibly relate to the Second Tradition and could even have been a catalyst in its origin.
What is the focus of LDS research regarding the Maya?
LDS research of the Maya concentrates on the Preclassic period, since this is the time period which correlates with most of the Book of Mormon record. Therefore, the simple argument that the "Maya" do not correlate with the time period covered by the Book of Mormon is an inaccurate statement. The research of the Preclassic Maya becomes complicated, however, since the constructions of the Classic period were built upon the rubble of those constructed during the Preclassic period. In essence, to research the Preclassic Maya, you have to dig through the evidence of the Classic Maya. An example of this is the lowland Mamom culture (700 B.C. to 400 B.C.), Dr. Coe notes,
- The lowland Maya almost always built their temples over older ones, so that in the course of centuries the earliest constructions would eventually come to be deeply buried within the towering accretions of Classic period rubble and plaster. Consequently, to prospect for Mamom temples in one of the large sites would be extremely costly in time and labor. 
Needless to say, this complicates the task tremendously if one is attempting to uncover evidence of the earlier cultures. In addition, the hot and humid Mesoamerican climate is not conducive to the preservation of artifacts or human remains.
Were Mayan cities "inhabited by the Nephites?"
It cannot be stated whether a particular group, whether Nephite or Lamanite, inhabited a specific city, although there has certainly been speculation. For example, Joseph Smith once speculated that Palenque was a Nephite city. In most cases, the original names of the cities themselves are not known—they are instead known by the names assigned to them by explorers. Ironically, one of the ancient cities for which the original name is known is the city of Laman’ayin (Mayan for "submerged crocodile"). This city, usually called "Lamani," is located in Belize and is believed by archaeologists to have been inhabited as early as 1500 B.C. The city would have been inhabited during the period of time described by the Book of Mormon. While the name of this city is an interesting coincidence, there is not sufficient information given in the Book of Mormon to allow one to assume that it correlates with any city mentioned therein.
- [note] Michael D. Coe, "Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought x no. y (Summer 1973), z.
- Vern G. Swanson, "The Book of Mormon Art of Arnold Friberg: "Painter of Scripture"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 35–36. off-site wiki
- [note] Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 6th edition, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), p. 33.
- [note] Coe, p. 46.
- [note] Coe, p. 49-50.
- [note] Coe, p. 57.
- [note] Coe, pp. 66-72.
- [note] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 47. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.). Dr. Sorenson states, "The city of Nephi was probably the archaeological site of Kaminaljuyu, which is now incorporated within suburban Guatemala City; the land of Nephi in the broader sense constituted the highlands of southern Guatemala."
- [note] Sorenson, p. 124.
- [note] Sorenson, p. 125.
- [note] Coe, p. 54.