LDS apologist John Sorenson’s response to the Smithsonian statement on the Book of Mormon

LDS apologist John Sorenson’s response to the Smithsonian statement on the Book of Mormon

from I’ve added a few comments and questions in (italicized parenthesis)


Smithsonian Institution Washington D.C.

Your recent inquiry concerning the Book of Mormon has been received in the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology.

The Book of Mormon is a religious document and not a scientific guide. The Smithsonian Institution does not use it in archeological research. Because the Smithsonian Institution receives many inquiries regarding the book of Mormon, we have prepared a “Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon,” a copy of which is enclosed for your information. This statement includes answers to questions most commonly asked about the Book of Mormon.



1. The Smithsonian Institution has never used the Book of Mormon in any way as a scientific guide. The Smithsonian archaeologists see no direct connection between archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book.

2. The physical type of American Indian is basically Mongoloid, being most closely related to that of the peoples of eastern, central, and northeastern Asia. Archeological evidence indicates that the ancestors of the present Indians came into the New World — probably over a land bridge known to have existed in the Bering Strait region during the last Ice Age — in a continuing series of small migrations beginning from about 25,000 to 30,000 years ago.

3. Present evidence indicates that the fist people to reach this continent from the East were the Norsemen who briefly visited the northeastern part of North America around A.D. 1000 and then settled in Greenland. There is nothing to show that they reached Mexico or Central America.

4. One of the main lines of evidence supporting the scientific finding that contacts with Old World civilizations, if indeed they occurred at all, were of very little significance for the development of American Indian civilizations, is the fact that none of the principal Old World domesticated food plants or animals (except the dog) occurred in the New World in pre-Columbian times. American Indians had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1492. (camels and horses were in the Americas, along with the bison, mammoth, mastodon, but all these animals became extinct around 10,000 B.C. at the time the early big game hunters spread across the Americas.)

5. Iron, steel, glass, and silk were not used in the New World before 1492 (except for occasional use of unsmelted meteoric iron). Native copper was worked in various locations in pre-Columbian times, but true metallurgy was limited to southern Mexico and the Andean region, where its occurrence in late prehistoric times involved gold, silver, copper, and their alloys, but not iron.

6. There is a possibility that the spread of cultural traits across the Pacific to Mesoamerica and the northwestern coast of South America began several hundred years before the Christian era. However, any such inter-hemispheric contacts appear to have been the results of accidental voyages originating in eastern and southern Asia. It is by no means certain that even such contacts occurred with the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, or other peoples of Western Asia and the Near East.

7. No reputable Egyptologist or other specialist on Old World archeology, and no expert on New World prehistory, has discovered or confirmed any relationship between archeological remains in Mexico and archeological remains in Egypt.

8. Reports of findings of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts have frequently appeared in newspapers, magazines and sensational books. None of these claims has stood up to examination by reputable scholars. No inscriptions using Old World forms of writing have been shown to have occurred in any part of the Americas before 1492 except for a few Norse rune stones which have been found in Greenland.

9. There are copies of the Book of Mormon in the library of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

The following item was originally posted by Malin Jacobs on the Mormon echo. It is an evaluation of the Smithsonian’s statement recently uploaded by Chris Jacobson.

An Evaluation of the Smithsonian Institution
“Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon”
by Dr. John L. Sorenson

For many years the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has received inquiries concerning the Book of Mormon, its role in the Institution’s scientific activities, and a number of specific informational questions about ancient American archaeology. At least twenty years ago the Institution began responding to such inquiries with a form letter prepared by its Department of Anthropology. Statements in this letter (the content having changed several times over the years) are used by some opponents of the Mormon Church to support the idea that the Book of Mormon account is contradicted by scientific findings; some Latter-day Saints have been daunted in their faith in the book by these statements. This article critiques the method and content represented in the SI statement in order to put it into perspective.

A fascinating study in folklore could and should be done tracing how the Smithsonian has been put in the middle of this Book of Mormon matter. It is clear that for decades at least LDS missionaries and other proselyters for the church have represented the Institution as having used the Book of Mormon to guide archaeological research it has conducted. I remember being told some version of this story as I was growing up many years ago. The tale is passed from missionary to missionary and Sunday School teacher to student in the classic process of all folklore. A new crop of discoverers of this “hidden truth” comes up every year, and no known means can staunch the process.

The frustration and irritation of Smithsonian officials is understandable as they had to deal with such naive inquiries year after year. The form letter response has been a reasonable way for them to cope with this one among many persistent questions from the public. The content of the letter, however, has its own problems.

It would be quite another folklorist project to determine how the Smithsonian became established in the public mind as the most respected source of scientific assurance. (Mormons are the ones using the Smithsonian through folklore as the respected source to “prove” the Book of Mormon and here Sorenson has turned the tables to make the Smithsonian look like the “bad guy”. He continues this irrelevant approach throughout his critique.) Its long existence and the extent of its massive museum facilities in the nation’s capital have contributed, of course. In any case, people willingly accept the notion that the SI should be able to provide authoritative word on any problem about the past. (People do not willingly accept any such thing. “Gullible Mormons” are who Sorenson should substitute in this sentence for “people”.)

Knowledge has expanded so vastly, however, that no one institution can possibly encompass real expertise on more than a fraction of the huge number of specialties in the world of scholarship and science. Valid information on an issue must envolve a person equipped with current, specific data on that matter. We aren’t satisfied with the opinion of an eye surgeon about what makes our feet hurt, nor do we depend on a historian knowledgeable in medieval European events to answer our inquiries about modern China. The Smithsonian as a source of information on Book of Mormon matters suffers on this basis. (This is not necessarily true–especially in light of the questions the Smithsonian is responding to. The questions deal with the history of the American Continent and the Smithsonian has experts on this topic. If the questions sent to the Smithsonian asked what the Mormon Prophet said in the last conference then Sorenson would have a valid point here.) It simply lacks people able to speak with authority on this matter.

What is needed in the case of the Book of Mormon is, obviously, experts in both the scientifically-derived information which, with few exceptions, only professionals control and the scripture itself. The most erudite archeologist who has not also become expert in analysis of the Book of Mormon record is in no position to make a comparison. (One need not become an expert on the Book of Mormon to see that some of its claims are incorrect. One need only know a specific Book of Mormon claim for which we have evidence for or against to adequately comment on that specific claim.)

Conversely, the scriptorian ignorant of appropriate details from the best researchers on the ancient world has nothing significant to say about how scientific findings compare with the claims of the Book of Mormon. Virtually nobody has examined the Book of Mormon as a cultural document. (This may have been true decades ago, but it isn’t true today. “Virtually” should be more accurately quantified. Numerous people had examined the Book of Mormon as a cultural document even when Sorenson wrote this.) It has to be viewed from the perspective of what it contains about cities, houses, pottery, artifacts, patterns of custom, and the other sorts of information which the archaeologist and his collaborators usually deal with. Furthermore, the expert on the ancient world must have studied precisely the right time period and location. If the Nephites lived, fought, worshipped, and died in Guatemala, for example, no one whose expertise is on ancient Brazilian peoples has anything worth contributing to the discussion.

Latter-day Saint believers in the Book of Mormon as well as critics of that book and mere interested bystanders commonly suppose that the Book of Mormon represents the events it reports as having taken place throughout the entire western hemisphere. All detailed studies of the book, on the other hand, have reached the conclusion that only a limited area is presented as the scene of Nephite and Jaredite life. (These studies ignore many of the inconsistencies in the text as well as the things Joseph Smith stated. If we are to ignore such statements and verses then we can dishonestly state that there was “only a limited area”. The text has the Book of Mormon characters running all over North, South, and Central America. Joseph Smith confirmed this aspect of his story.) It cannot be more than five or six hundred miles in length and considerably less across. All the happenings in the record, including the final destructions of both Nephites and Jaredites, took place there, on the basis of an intricate network of statements on geographical matters in the text itself.

Where was this scene? It is essentially certain that only Mesoamerica could be it. (This presents a huge problem requiring two Hill Cumorahs and the ignoring of some of the Book of Mormon text itself.) That name is given to the culture area which included some (but not all) the high civilizations between central Mexico and northern Central America. The matter is much too complicated to be treated here, but in that area it has been possible to show that the Book of Mormon’s statements about customs, the rise of cities, wars, climate, distances, directions, and so on, fit nicely at point after point with the most up-to-date findings about Mesoamerican culture history.(1) (The foremost expert on the Mesoamerican culture history, Michael Coe, has made his conclusions regarding the Book of Mormon well known.)

As to the time period of concern, the scripture makes clear that it is reporting almost exclusively events and characteristics of what the archaeologists call the “pre-Classic” era, prior to around A.D. 300.

Now we see what kind of expert is qualified to comment usefully on the Book of Mormon peoples in relation to scientific findings. We need persons who are highly- and fully-informed about southern and central Mesoamerica in the time prior to the most famous or Classic cultures such as the Maya. We are talking about highly specific data which is controlled by only a handful of scholars. Unfortunately the Smithsonian, as is true of practically any other research institution in the USA or abroad, lacks such people. But even those who do control this data need also to know the Book of Mormon in terms to permit their making a relevant, informed comparison.

Realizing that people have been expecting too much of the Smithsonian scholars, who are certainly highly competent in their own areas of specialization, we can now examine the content of the nine-point “Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon” to see how it stacks up.

These remarks are with reference to the Summer 1979 version of the “Statement.” Earlier versions varied considerably; the general tendency seems to have been for later versions to make fewer and more general statements than earlier ones.

Of the nine points included in the two-page handout, numbers one and nine are straightforward and clarifying: the Institution has never used the Book of Mormon as a scientific guide; their archaeologists see no direct connection between the archaeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book; and there are copies of the Book of Mormon available in the Institution’s library facility should they feel the need to consult them. One would hope that the pointless inquiries from the public on those elementary points of fact could cease completely in the face of these disclosures. The second numbered item mentions “the physical type of the American Indian,” which is said to be “basically Mongoloid.” This is a standard textbook-type characterization which dodges many significant issues. Certain biological characteristics of the American native populations are generally, if not universally, shared throughout the hemisphere, but there are not many such features. Dr. T. Dale Stewart of the Smithsonian, one of the respected senior physical anthropologists, chooses to emphasize what is shared, as in his book, THE PEOPLE OF AMERICA (London: Wiednfeld and Nicolson, 1973). Other, equally-respected experts see substantial variety among “the American Indian.” For example, Dr. Juan Comas, Mexico’s most prominent physical anthropologist, answered the question “Are the Amerindians a biologically homogenous group?” with a firm “no.”(2) Evidence of blood grouping led Dr. G. A. Matson, one of the most noted workers in that field, to say “the American Indians are not completely Mongoloid.”(3) Professor Earnest Hooten of Harvard strongly agreed(4) and thought he saw Near Easterners as a component. Polish anthropologist Andrzej Wiercinski analyzed a large series of skulls excavated at major sites in Mesoamerica and found much variety. He considered there to be three “primary Amerindian stocks” out of Asia to which were added features “introduced by . . . migrants from the Western Mediterranean area.” In summation, Wiercinski feels that “ancient Mexico was inhabited by a chain of interrelated populations which cannot be regarded as typical Mongoloids.”(5) Now, the Smithsonian people may disagree, but by making a categorical, brief statement on this complex matter, they appear to betray either lack of awareness of current research or intent to “stonewall” the issue by ignoring uncomfortably different views. (Sorenson has done some masterful spin doctoring here. Hugh Nibley would be proud. He takes the accurate statement that they were “basically Mongoloid” and reads into it that they are really saying that they are completely Mongoloid and then he dismisses their “categorical” stonewalling of the issue. The Smithsonian Statement did no stonewalling and stated nothing categorically on the issue–even if Sorenson wishes they did. In addition, subsequent evidence of the mtDNA variety has shown Sorenson to be incorrect.)

Item five lists four materials said not to have been used in the New World before A.D. 1492: “iron,” “steel,” “glass,” and “silk.” Those words in the Book of Mormon lead many to suppose that the same substances were used by the Nephites as come to our minds when we encounter these terms today. Any English words in the translated Book of Mormon must, of course, be considered in the same cautionary terms as other terms that translators must use when dealing with an ancient text. For example, some of the Hebrew words translated as the names of certain metals in the Old Testament are problematical. Several original words yield a single English term (such as “bronze”), while a single expression in the early language may get translated variously in the hands of modern writers. Anybody who has done translation realizes the difficulty sometimes in finding exact equivalents. Just what was the referent of “silk,” for example, is unclear in the Book of Mormon. It is simple-mindedness to suppose automatically that the Nephites must, like the east Asians, have had silkworms eating mulberry leaves. The early Spaniards in the New World encountered precisely this problem. There was in fact a wild silkworm in Mexico whose spinnings were gathered by the Indians to make a terribly expensive fabric, but also fine hair from the belly of rabbits was woven into a cloth which the Spanish considered the equivalent of silk.(10) Or, take “wine” as a further example. Mesoamericans did have one or more kind of grape, but we do not know that they produced a beverage from that fruit. The conquerors did, however, refer to “wine” and even “vineyards.” What they meant was pulque, the alcoholic drink made from juice of a maguey plant, and vineyards were the orderly plantings of that cactus-like plant. (Another drink, made from fermented bananas, was also called “wine” in Spanish, although a closer equivalent would have been “beer.”(11) So we must be careful lest our own cultural naivete lead our minds too easily to look for parallels were none should be expected. (If Joseph Smith meant to say “deer” instead of “horse” or “rabbit hair” instead of “silk”, he certainly could have. Perhaps the simple-mindedness was a problem Joseph Smith had when he thought he could create a ancient record based on his knowledge of the King James Version of the Bible and the common 19th century theories of where the American Indians came from rather than a problem some critics have with Sorenson’s apologetics.)

As a matter of fact, however, iron was reported by the Spaniards to have been used among the Indians of Mexico, and iron artifacts have been found.(12) Few of these specimens have been examined to determine whether they are composed of iron from meteorites, although we are sure some are. The possibility that smelted iron was also used is enhanced by a find a Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico by Sigvald Linne, the famous Swedish archaeologist, of a pottery vessel which had been used for smelting a “metallic-looking” mass which contained iron and copper.(13) The same researcher found a piece of iron in a tomb at Mitla, Oaxaca, which he considered of smelted metal.(14) Moreover, knowledge of metallurgy in Mesoamerica is being pushed back by new finds; where once A.D. 900 was supposed to be the early limit, now specimens extend back to the time of Christ. Besides, linguistic studies have shown that in three major language groupings–Proto-Mayan, Proto-Mixe-Zoquean, and Proto-Mixtecan–words for metals occurred on the time level of 1000-500 B.C., although archaeological specimens in no case come even close to that period. At least for Peru, actual metalworking has been shown at the 1900 B.C. level, however.(15) It is obvious that a great deal is yet to be learned about metals and other substances used in ancient America. (Although Sorenson’s “same researcher” above appears to give the Book of Mormon metallurgy a speck of hope, the fact still remains that nothing close to the steel swords described in the Book of Mormon has been found or thought to have been in use by anyone outside the Mormon church.) Categorical statements about what was NOT in use, or when, such as we have in paragraph five in the Smithsonian “Statement,” are clearly inappropriate in the present state of knowledge.

On the same basis, paragraph six is ill-considered. It says that if there were any transpacific voyages, they were of little or no effect and would have resulted only from accidental voyages. The fact is that this whole paragraph is constructed solely from speculation. Negative statements of this kind are particularly hard to document at best, of course. Again the Institution’s own archaeologists, Dr. Meggers and Dr. Clifford Evans, vigorously disagreed with this they-couldn’t-cross-the-ocean assertion. Both scholars have been convinced that transpacific trips were made from thousands of years ago.(16) (I’m not sure if Sorenson is reading the same paragraph six. The statement isn’t a negative one. It says that the possibility exists. There is no they-couldn’t-cross-the-ocean assertion in the Smithsonian Statement. Sorenson appears to want the Smithsonian to say things more condemning of the Book of Mormon than they did in fact state. What kind of dishonest scholarship is this anyway?)

The seventh item in the “Statement” concerns whether a connection existed between Egypt and Mexico in precolumbian times. It is not apparent why this particular statement is included, since the Book of Mormon itself does not make any particular claim of an Egyptian connection. (This statement is obviously being made in response to the Mormon inquiries. Most have probably come from those familiar with Hugh Nibley who does make numerous claims regarding an Egyptian connection. The Book of Mormon claims to be written in “reformed Egyptian”. Has Sorenson forgotten this fact?) I am unaware of a single Egyptologist who has paid significant attention to this sort of comparison; no doubt none of them has found any evidence. As pointed out earlier, a person would have to become expert in BOTH areas, Egypt and Mexico, in order for us to take seriously his/her statement that there was no connection between the two. No such expert exists, to my knowledge. However, my own work pointed out earlier offers scores of detailed parallels between the two areas in question which Schneider and other scholars have found significant.

Paragraph eight is easier to agree with in general. Finds of “ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts” are nearly all subject to question. Not all have been carefully investigated, and some of the purported investigations and translations of such inscriptions are fanciful. Still, conventional archaeologists or epigraphers, such as the Smithsonian statement apparently relies on, have generally ignored this matter. It is simply not possible at this time to rule out the possibility that some inscriptions found were from the pre-Europen era. But that would not make any particular difference in terms of the Book of Mormon. According to that book, the writing system used by its people was not known to any other group (Mormon 9:34). Obviously it was not “Egyptian” as such, although it was considered conceptually linked with Egyptian writing by its users. (Linda Miller Van Blerkom of the University of Colorado has recently shown that “Maya glyphs were used in the same six ways as those in Egyptian” writing.(17))

In summation, careful reading of the Smithsonian Institution’s 1979 “Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon” persuades me that it was a justified attempt to deal with a public information problem but that the substance it offers is often suspect and unduly narrow. It consistently oversimplifies like a professor speaking down to a curious and somewhat pesky child. The answers reveal no serious knowledge of the actual cultural claims or implications of the Book of Mormon, while the facts concerning ancient America are seriously flawed. (In summary, Sorenson appears to oversimplify and distort the Smithsonian Statement to get Mormons to quickly land back on their faith cushions.)

I suggest first that Mormons and non-Mormons alike leave the Smithsonian folks alone. The myth should be smothered that they are closet Mormons, on the one hand, or highly-informed specialist on archaeology relevant to the Book of Mormon issue, on the other. But inquiries are likely to continue, therefore I suggest that a new handout be prepared which is more carefully phrased. It ought to take account of the fact that the Book of Mormon claims only to report events in a restricted area of the western hemisphere. (This would be an error.) It should also reflect knowledge from contemporary anthropology that is more current, less monolithic, and more tentative than appears in the 1979 “Statement.”

1. John L. Sorenson, “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,” ms. Pending publication of this book, hundreds of copies of the manuscript have been distributed to inquirers.

2. “Son los Amerindios un grupo biologicamente homogeneo?,” CUADERNOS AMERICANOS 152 (May-June 1967):117-125. Also his ANTROPOLOGIA DE LOS PUEBLOS IBER-AMERICANOS. Barcelona: Editorial Labor, S.A., 1974, pp. 35-42 and 52ff.

3. G. Albin Matson, et al, “Distribution of hereditary blood groups among Indians in South America. IV. In Chile, “AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 27 (1967):188.

4. Harold Gladwin, MEN OUT OF ASIA. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947, pp. 63-65.

5. “Inter- and intrapopulational racial differentiation of Tlatilco, Cerro de las Mesas, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban and Yucatan Maya,” ACTAS, DOCUMENTOS Y MEMORIAS, 36A CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL DE AMERICANISTAS, LIMA, 1970. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanaos, 1972, pp. 231-248. Also his “Afinidades raciales de algunas poblaciones antiguas de Mexico,” ANALES, INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGIA E HISTORIA (1972-1973), Mexico, 1975, pp. 123-144.

6. Bernardino de Sahagun, HISTORIA GENERAL DE LAS COSAS DE NUEVA ESPANA. Editorial Nueva Espana, S.A. Mexico. Vol. 1, 13, cited, with additional material in my “Some Mesoamerican traditions of immigration by sea,” EL MEXICO ANTIGUO 8 (1955): 425-438.

7. D. J. Chonay and Delia Goetz, translators, TITLE OF THE LORDS OF TOTONICAPAN. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, p. 170.

8. “Prehistoric transpacific contact and the theory of culture change,” AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 79 (March 1977):9-25.

9. George F. Carter, “Domestiacates as artifacts.” In Miles Richardson, ed., THE HUMAN MIRROR. MATERIAL AND SPATIAL IMAGES OF MAN. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 201-230.

10. I. W. Johnson, “Basketry and textiles,” Handook of Middle American Indians, Robert Wauchope, et al, eds. Vol. 10, Part 1. Austin: University of Texan Press, 1971, p. 312.

11. Felix W. BcBryde, “Cultural and historical geography of southwest Guatemala,” SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Publ. No. 4, 1945, p. 36, on banana “wine.” On pulque as “wine,” for example, Sahagun, HISTORIA GENERAL DE LAS COSAS DE NUEVA ESPANA, Vol. 1. Mexico: Editorial Pedro Robredo, 1938, p. 313. On Mayan balche also as “wine,” Alfred M. Tozzer, “Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan,” HARVARD UNIVERSITY, PEABODY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY AND ETHNOLOGY, PAPERS 18, 1941, p. 92.

12. Rene Rebetez, OBJETOS PREHISPANICOS DE HIERRO Y PIEDRA, Mexico: Libreria Anticuaria, n.d. H. H. Bancroft, THE NATIVE RACES OF THE PACIFIC STATES), Vol. 2. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Co., 1882, pp. 407-8. See also other sources cited in “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon” mentioned in note 1.

13. “Mexican highlnad cultures,” ETHNOGRAPHICAL MUSEUM OF SWEDEN, STOCKHOLM, PUBL. 7, n.s., 1942, p. 132.

14. “Zapotecan antiquities,” ETHNOGRAPHICAL MUSEUM OF SWEDEN, STOCKHOLM, PUBL. 4, n.s., 1938, p. 75.

15. J. W. Grossman, “An ancient gold worker’s tool kit. The earliest metal technology in Peru,” ARCHAEOLOGY 25, (October 1972):270-275.

16. Betty J. Meggers, “Cultural development in Latin America: an interpretative overview.” In Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans, eds., Aboriginal Cultural Development in Latin America: An interpretative Review. SMITHSONIAN MESCELLANEOUS COLLECTIONS 146 (1963):132, 139, 79-80. And Clifford Evans and Betty J. Meggers, “Transpacific origin of Valdivia phase pottery of coastal Ecuador,” ACTAS, E6A CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL DE AMERICANISTAS, SEVILLA, 1964. Vol. 1. Sevilla, 1966, pp. 63-67.

17. Linda Miller Van Blerkom, “A comparison of Maya and Egyptian hieroglyphs,” KATUNOB 11 (August 1979):1-8.