Subject: John L. Sorenson: Emeritus BYU Mopologist Madman (part I--long)
Date: Apr 13, 2010
Author: SL Cabbie

If the number of links posted here to "MormonTimes" is any example, we appear to be subjected to a barrage of claims involving the "Limited Geography Theory." This notion, of course, purports to offer a Mesoamerican locale for Book of Mormon events. As a result, I felt RFM readers would benefit from a critical examination of the writings and claims of John L. Sorenson, the retired BYU anthropologist and FARMS/Maxwell Institute contributor whom many credit with originating that hypothesis.

Here are two local media accounts discussing the issue:

Reporter Moulton summarizes the matter in the first instance...

But, in the 1950s, careful reading of the text led scholars to propose a more limited geography and since then, most of the dozens of theories have focused on "Mesoamerica," a region that includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the northwestern part of Honduras and El Salvador in Central America.

Salt Lake Tribune religion editor, Peggy Fletcher Stack, offers more illumination:

For the past 55 years, John Sorenson has inhaled every detail of Book of Mormon life and history. It was Sorenson who first proposed that the scripture's action likely took place in Guatemala and southern Mexico, rather than encompassing both North and South America. This idea, known as the limited geography thesis, better explained the book's description of a "narrow neck of land" and the Land Northward and Southward, and helped solve some of the earlier archaeological challenges and is now the consensus view.

No doubt Rodney Meldrum et al would dispute that "consensus" analysis, but since I thoroughly debunked the Meldrumites' evidence and talking points a few weeks ago after watching one of their videos, I'd like to move on Sorenson. I suggest any debate between these two factions amounts to psych ward soapbox arguments with neither side possessing any merit nor any grounding in scientific or historical reality.

Fletcher Stack provides us with a lead-in...

Sorenson belongs to a renegade group of anthropologists known as "diffusionists," who believe numerous voyages carried people and animals to the New World. Last year, he collaborated with Carl L. Johannessen, a non- Mormon geographer at the University of Oregon on a paper, "Biological Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages." In it, they cited 99 plant species that appeared in both the Old and New Worlds before the Spaniards' arrival.

Such views are scorned by most conventional archaeologists, Sorenson said, but it doesn't deter him.

I suggest Sorenson's and Johannessen's views richly deserve the scorn of conventional archaeologists, and indeed dismissal by critically thinking individuals in general.

"Diffusionism" rests its case on the premise that prior to Columbus' voyage 1492, a number of successful transoceanic sailing voyages occurred, and there was extensive commerce between the two hemispheres. That is sheer nonsense, and I'll not only demonstrate the improbability of such events, I'll also offer up examples of Sorenson and Johannessen engaging in gross misrepresentations to the degree that if they were still teaching at their respective universities, I would suggest they be charged with academic malpractice.

Cultural "Diffusion" has long been an important concept in anthropological circles, and instances of its occurrence are easy to find in the historical record. Chickens that originated in China and the Far East found their way to European farms and tables by the Middle Ages, and the use of the alphabet in writing spread from Mesopotamia and the Phoenicians outward, with contributions from Egypt and elsewhere bringing us the "final product." Similarly in the New World, three plants, corn (maize), squash, and beans, clearly became widespread in Native American cultures on both continents and formed the basis of their agriculture and diet.

"Diffusionism" in the sense of plants, domesticated animals, and cultural inventions and practices being transported across oceans before 1492 is another matter altogether. And of course the relevance to Mormonism is that the Book of Mormon is claimed to be a "diffusionist document," with religious practices being brought from the Middle East to the Americas circa 600 B.C. As has been noted here many times, it was a common 19th Century idea, and Joseph Smith certainly held no monopoly on its tenets.

It fell out of favor in the 20th Century, however, as scientists noted the similarities between Asiatic people around Siberia and Mongolia and Native Americans. Too, superficial similarities between the architecture of places like Mesoamerica and Egypt were easily explained with the concept that similar problems invite similar solutions. And other than the dog (and people), there were no matching species of animals found in the Old World that also existed in the New prior to Columbus.

Pre-Coumbian trans-oceanic diffusion re-emerged, in Phoenix-fashion, when a fifth "haplogroup" of mitochondrial DNA ("X") was discovered in ancient Native Americans and initially couldn't be found in the regions around Siberia. The fringe groups had a field day, perhaps reaching its zenith with a three part article, "The Diffusionists Have Landed," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.

(there are links to Part Two and Part Three, and Sorenson's role and contribution will become apparent in Part Two)

Sorenson and Johannessen also collaborated in "World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492," which purported to offer evidence supporting their outrageous claims:

I suggest, though, before spending the $40 or so for this volume, curious and undecided sorts should listen to the following from Johannesen on the subject and then read my evaluations that follow.

My full praise and sympathies are offered to those who manage to sit still through all of this one. I managed a second time through in order to crystallize the notes I took from my first go-round. What is truly bizarre about these claims is that diffusionism originally arose as an ethnocentric, racist doctrine that held that 19th Century Native Americans were incapable of producing the cultures for which there was ample evidence, and hence there must have been a Eurasian or African influence. Now the claim is made that Northern Europeans suppressed this evidence in order to deny Native Americans any semblance of Old World connections or heritage. Hey, if one conspiracy theory doesn't fit, try another...

My view on that one is that Native Americans were going to get hosed regardless. Greedy individuals have always found a way to justify their actions against those who have something they want.

Before I dissect a number of the claims in this slideshow, however, I think it's important to establish what are some obvious axioms, historical and otherwise, on the subject of maritime technology and ocean-going navigation.

1) The oceans are huge, and transoceanic crossings involve incredibly long distances. It's 2000 miles from London to New England, over 3500 miles from say, Gibraltar to Florida; well you get the idea. In the Pacific, the distance from Indonesia to Panama is around 9,000 miles; from San Francisco to Tokyo is over 5,000 miles.

2) Human beings on ocean voyages require fresh water and other provisions such as food. The ocean's saltwater didn't qualify as a water source until desalination was developed in the 20th Century. Recovering freshwater from rainstorms and squalls is problematic because such storms eliminate or severely restrict navigational capabilities.

3) Extended ocean crossings require considerable navigational aids that were likely the products of a seafaring history over many generations and hundreds of years. There's considerable mythology originating in "oral traditions," but nothing much in the way of maps, etc., and the maritime compass wasn't invented until around 1000 A.D. Before that time, sailing was confined to coastal fishing and exploration or "island hopping" in the case of the Polynesians, who could determine their location via ocean currents and the location of certain stars at sunrise and sunset (near the equator, no less). The Vikings were also magnificent sailors, but they stuck to coastal raiding down the coasts of Europe and Africa; their transatlantic explorations were confined to the north where the presence of Polaris in the night sky and the knowledge they would always encounter ice sooner or later permitted east-west voyages.

4) There is a certain "romance" about ocean voyages (hey, ask the wife if she wants to go on a cruise and see how she answers that one) that doesn't translate into its presence in the historical record. Diffusionists make a huge deal about how Australia was settled by open water crossings from Indonesia; that one amounted to a relatively short shallow water crossing--approx. 100 miles in tropical seas--during the Ice Age when sea levels were much lower. The ancestors of the Polynesians managed the deep water crossing to settle the island of Taiwan (Formosa), but mainland Chinese were not able to displace them until the Middle Ages, despite the overall sea-worthiness of the Chinese junk. Chinese seafaring didn't begin until around the third century, A.D. Japanese maritime activities included contact with mainland Asia in the first millennium B.C., but Harvard anthropologist Betty Meggers's claims of contact between the ancient Jomon and South Americans in Peru have been roundly rejected by mainstream academia.

Small wonder then that Wiki offers the following on the subject of pre-Columban Old World/New World exchanges:

Many such contacts have been proposed, based on historical accounts, archaeological finds, and cultural comparisons. However, claims of such contacts are controversial and hotly debated, due in part to much ambiguous or circumstantial evidence cited by proponents. Only one instance of pre-Columbian European contact – the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada c. 1000 C.E. – is regarded by scholars as demonstrated. The scientific responses to other pre-Columbian contact claims range from consideration in peer-reviewed publications to dismissal as fringe science or pseudoarcheology.

Sorenson and Johannessen have persisted in publishing their claims in spite of these prevailing views, so perhaps we should examine them and see if they have any merit, whether extraordinary or none at all or somewhere in between.

1) Pre-Columbian Corn (Maize) as a motif in Asian/Indian Stone Carvings:

Sorenson offers the following as an example of corn-in-art and claims it is proof they grew maize on the Asian subcontinent in the 13th Century.

As I pointed out here before in an objection to this one, in the mid-1960's I was with a group of Boy Scouts who found an Anasazi (Native American) cliff dwelling along the Fremont River in Southern Utah. There was a grinding stone and a number of ancient corn cobs, none much bigger than a grown man's thumb. The depiction in the reliefs shows something much larger than that.

I've researched this issue further, and mainstream literature overwhelmingly identifies this fruit (it's identified as such and not a vegetable) as a "muktaphala." Here's a thorough discussion and dismissal of the S/J claims.

Abstract:  Economic Botany 47(2)202-205. 1993. The contention that objects in the hands of male and female deities sculpted on the exterior of the Kesav Temple at Somnathpur near the city of Mysore, Karnataka State, India, represent maize ears is rejected on linguistic, religious, sculptural, archaeological, agricultural, and botanical grounds. The stone inscriptions associated with the temple list items or commodities used in worship, maize is not included. We find no evidence for maize figuring in any kind of religious ritual or worship. The word for maize used currently in the Kannada language is “Musukin Jola” which refers to a kind of millet resembling sorghum (“jola”). This appellation is of recent origin and does not appear in any literary work contemporary with the period of construction of Somnathpur temple. The wall images do not fully simulate in form and proportion the actual human figures. The beaded ornamentation, likewise, of the hand-held object shows considerable variation and its comparison whether on qualitative or quantitative basis with actual maize kernels of both primitive and modern maize is inappropriate. The variation inform and proportion and stylistic features of these objects is ascribed to their being the work of different sculptors. Maize now grown near the temple comprises modern cultivars, especially hybrids released during the early 1960’s. It is inconceivable that none of the primitive and advanced types of maize purported to be represented in the temple sculpture would have been considered worthy of cultivation from the thirteenth century to the present time. We hold that these temple sculptures do not represent maize or its ear but an imaginary fruit bearing pearls known in Sanskrit as “Muktaphala.”

As these are religious sculptures, the mythological basis of a fruit bearing sacred--and precious--pearls seems well-grounded, particularly given the necklaces the deity is wearing. Moreover, there is actually a plant native to the Himalayas of the same name with "strong psychoactive" properties. Here it is...

2) As noted, the "Holy Trinity" of Mesoamerican--indeed most Native American--agriculture pre-1492, consisted of maize, beans, and squash. Here's Sorenson insisting he knows... Okay, sorry about that...

Scroll down to...

Phaseolus lunatus

Origin: Americas

Summary: This fundamental American crop has been found in India (before 1600 BC) and also in China.

Transfer: Americas to Asia

Time of transfer: before 1600 BC

Grade: A

Sources: Phaseolus lunatus—lima bean, sieva bean, butter bean


Phaseolus vulgaris

Origin: Americas

Summary: Archaeologically attested in early Indian sites and, on the basis of names, it was present in the Near East all the way back to Sumerian times and in India to a time when Sanskrit was active.

Transfer: Americas to the Near East or India

Time of transfer: before 1600 BC

Grade: A

Sources: Phaseolus vulgaris—kidney bean

Sauer 1993, 73. Vernacular names—common, kidney, navy, string, wax bean.

Sorenson makes the following claim about lima beans:

Newcomb 1963, 38. P. lunatus raises a distribution question. Lima beans contain prussic acid. Old World types contain this acid, but few New World ones do except in the varieties found in the West Indies. Prussic acid content was evidently bred out under cultivation in the Americas. But around the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Madagascar, Malaysia) dangerous types occur. Where did they come from and when?

I submit the preceding comment is prima facie evidence of the validity of my characterization of Sorenson as a madman in the sub-line.

For the non-chemists out there, prussic acid is ordinary cyanide, and it is not removed by boiling, a treatment cooks for thousands of years have accorded beans in both Eastern and Western hemispheres.

Hydrogen cyanide (with the historical common name of Prussic acid) is a chemical compound with chemical formula HCN. Hydrogen cyanide is a colorless, extremely poisonous liquid that boils slightly above room temperature at 26 °C (79 °F). Hydrogen cyanide is a linear molecule, with a triple bond between carbon and nitrogen. A minor tautomer of HCN is HNC, hydrogen isocyanide.

Hydrogen cyanide was first isolated from a blue dye (Prussian blue) which had been known from 1704 but had a structure which was unknown. It is now known to be a coordination polymer with a complex structure and an empirical formula of hydrated ferric ferrocyanide. In 1752, the French chemist Pierre Macquer made the important step of showing that Prussian blue could be converted to iron oxide plus a volatile component and that these could be used to reconstitute the dye. The new component was what we now know as hydrogen cyanide.

In addition to this demonstrable bit of fraud, Sorenson appears unaware that there are very edible beans that arose in Asia, particularly Indo-China, and while not as palatable as New World varieties and requiring more preparation, they are still part of the local cuisine. The "hyancinth bean" is one example.

The Hyacinth Bean . . . also called Indian Bean, Egyptian Bean, Bulay (Tagalog), Bataw (Bisaya), or đậu ván (Vietnamese), is a species of bean in the family Fabaceae that is widespread as a food crop throughout the tropics, especially in Africa, India and Indonesia. . . . A traditional food plant . . . this little-known vegetable has the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare

3) As a conclusion to Part I, I'll switch from the vegetable kingdom to the the animal, and address a claim Sorenson makes regarding a parasite carried by humans, the hookworm.

A prime example of the kind of evidence at hand to establish transoceanic transport for such organisms is the case of the hookworm, Ancylostoma duodenale. Its relative rarity in some tropical areas of the New World and its long-term prevalence in East and Southeast Asia make the latter area the place where epidemiologists think the organism originated. At first early historians of medicine assumed that A. duodenale had been introduced into the Americas by slaves brought from Africa. Early in the 20th century, O. da Fonseca discovered the parasite in an isolated Amerindian population in the Amazon basin. Shortly afterward, microbiologist Samuel Darling weighed the evidence and concluded it was likely that the hookworm had reached native South American forest dwellers before Columbus arrived.

One would think a hundred-year old scientific claim wouldn't have been tossed in so carelessly (particularly since another species of hookworm, Necator americanus, appears to have originated in the New World, as its scientific name indicates). However,

The hookworm's pre-Columbian presence in America was finally established by Marvin Allison and colleagues, who in 1973 found traces of hookworms in a Peruvian mummy dated AD 700.


Abstract: It has been asserted that evidence of pre-Columbian hookworm has been found in the Americas, specifically in Peru, Brazil, and Tennessee. However, based on an analysis of the life cycle and morphology of hookworm, the paleopathologic indications for the presence of hookworm infestation in the Americas prior to 1492 are suspect. It is concluded that the material found in the Peruvian mummy is probably pinworms, that the Brazilian and Tennessee materials are probably not hookworm, and, therefore, that hookworm was one of many pathogens brought to the Americas after contact in 1492.

Seriously, John L. Sorenson almost makes Cleon Skousen look good by comparison...

(End Part I; Part II will address additional claims, including those from the slideshow)


Subject: Nice research Cabbie . . .
Date: Apr 13 08:33
Author: JackMormon'sWife

Looking forward to parts II and III.

You certainly have more patience than I do in discrediting Mormon apologists. Personally, I think they're all crazy.

The BOM is fiction. Sorenson and Meldrum arguing about where all the action took place (Mesoamerica or the U.S. Heartland) is like debating which Disney character is "true" - Mickey Mouse or Goofy.

Nice job exposing the ridiculousness of it all.

Shannon ;o)


Subject: Re: John L. Sorenson: Emeritus BYU Mopologist Madman (part I--long)
Date: Apr 13 08:48
Author: MichaelM

Thanks Cabbie.

The Salt Lake Tribune had written:
"For the past 55 years, John Sorenson has inhaled every detail of Book of Mormon life and history."

During those years, what had he published in professional journals?

American Anthropological Association
American Journal of Archaeology
Archaeological Institute of America

I searched but could not find anything.


Subject: Yeah, Sorenson definitely inhaled something...
Date: Apr 13 09:20
Author: Gorspel Dacktrin

but I doubt that it was "every detail of Book of Mormon life and history". Inhalation would go a long way toward explaining how a grown man could think that a tapir could be pretty much the same thing as a horse and serve as a trusty steed for warriors and as a reliable chariot-puller.



Subject: topping for the evening crowd and, Cabbie,
Date: Apr 14 21:49
Author: BestBBQ

wow...just wow. You should teach. I guess it could be said that you teach here, but you should stand in front of a classroom and have students hanging on your every word. You are truly a wealth of information.


Subject: Thank You; This One is Mostly Just Research . . .
Date: Apr 14 22:36
Author: SL Cabbie

And it's not that tough to dig out (but it does require a lot of work and self-examination to avoid cherry-picking), it's just time-consuming. I owe a big debt to Simon Southerton (Simon in Oz) who's freely shared his own information on this subject, above and beyond what's available on the Web. FlattopSF and Jesus Smith have also offered support as well, as have others I hope I haven't overlooked.

Mostly it's as much an act of self-purgation as anything. I am horrified at what amounted to LDS propaganda in the schools when I was growing up, both in the sciences and history, and I haven't seen any checks on it in the two generations since (and I really didn't learn of it until I began participating on RFM). And where else but in Utah are LDS seminaries right next to public schools where legitimate educators, some LDS, try to teach kids to think for themselves but are thwarted by the CES.

And yes, I did teach for a time in Utah. Of course I toned things way down, but as I look at it now, I would be a better fit outside this place.


Subject: JLS
Date: Apr 15 16:52
Author: Jesus Smith

Hey Cabbie, great stuff. Given how JLS is quoted often at FAIR this tread should be archived.

I searched JLS's publication list for refereed journal publications and found none. I take it that he is an unknown in the real worlds of anthropology and archeology.

Does anyone know if Mo GA's actually reference him or use his material? I mean, if only FARMS/FAIR use it, that alone says a lot. No accredited journals, no professional symposiums talks, and not even his own church leadership quote him. Just the little boy's club at BYU.

On his corny art claims, that 1993 publication you referenced was out well before many of JLS's claims. Does he ever dispute it directly?

I'll take a look at the second part now...


Subject: the native corn in the southwest
Date: Apr 17 19:42
Author: hello
Mail Address:  

was pretty small, all right.

I was poking around the back blocks of Sedona AZ once, and found some shelter caves ten meters up in the rock walls of a box-canyon. There were the usual things within. Charcoal, rabbit and bird bones, small flaked stone skin scrapers and cutters, and tiny cobs of corn.

The corn was no doubt grown in the open canyon bottomland, where the small seasonal stream flowed.

I felt sorry for the native women trying to feed their kids on such slim rations.


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