Why Cahokia and the Hopewell Mound Builders are NOT the Best Evidence For The Book of Mormon

Posted: January 16, 2022 in Book of Mormon, Fred Anson, Mormon Studies

An artist’s interpretation of what downtown Cahokia would have looked like in the late Sterling period after the palisade wall had been built around Monk’s Mound and the Grand Plaza. credit: National Geographic (click to zoom)

compiled by Fred W. Anson
A common body of evidence that’s often presented by some Mormon faithful as the best evidence for The Book of Mormon is the Hopewell Mound Builder culture in general and the mount builder complex of Cahokia in particular. A well-known case in point is Rock Waterman’s article in which he attempts to make that very case, starting his lengthy treatise like this:

“What struck me when I first arrived in Cahokia was the incredible stink.

I had been called to serve in the Missouri-Independence Mission, but my first area, Plattsmouth, Nebraska, was far from any of the historic church locations I had expected to to see when I got my call. Now, near the end of 1973, I had been transferred to my second location. I would spend my first winter as a missionary in smelly Cahokia, Illinois; as far from Far West or Independence or Adam-Ondi-Ahman as a guy could possibly get.

The small town of Cahokia was located next to East St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, famous for its slaughterhouses. The smell of bovine death and gore hovered in the air long after slaughtering had ceased for the day, floating up and mixing with the rancid smoke spewed from the smokestacks of the nearby Monsanto chemical plant, then slowly settling down over the hapless town of Cahokia to choke its residents while they slept. “It’s something you just get used to,” my new companion told me.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have been delighted to find myself in Cahokia instead of dreading it. As it turns out, I had landed smack dab in the middle of Book of Mormon Central and never even knew it.”
(Rock Waterman, “Best Evidence For The Book of Mormon”, Pure Mormonism website, November 1, 2011)

Mr. Waterman then goes on to point to a long list of secular and Mormon Apologist sources, especially Heartland Apologists like Rod Meldrum, to support the case that Cahokia and the Hopewell Culture as stunning historical and archaeological support for The Book of Mormon. There’s only one problem: It’s been already been soundly discredited by both those inside and outside of Mormonism. Consider, for example, well-known RLDS/CoC scholar “Uncle” Dale Broadhurst, who concluded thusly:

“The Mississippian Culture was NOT a “civilization.” Its members did not live in cities.

Cahokia was NOT Teotihuacan nor Pekin nor Rome — it was a ceremonial center surrounded by farmers’ huts and connected by waterways to other, smaller villages.

We should not think of its residents as engaging in city life, with artisans, shops, government workers, city planning, etc.

If you want to look at a culture on the verge of becoming a civilization, look at the Valley of Mexico at the time Cortez arrived.

No reputable paleo-anthropologist will resort to exotic, transoceanic dispersions to account for the technology, social structure, language, etc., of American Indians associated with the Adena, Hopewell, or Mississippian cultures.

Take a minute to address letters of inquiry to the topmost cultural anthropologists at Brigham Young University, asking them what aspects of the Mississippian Culture necessarily depended upon importation from elsewhere — in other words, what parts of their society could not have been “home-grown” from the ground up.

The answer you will get back is: maize agriculture.

That, and perhaps some external “hints” on how to make better pottery, or weave better baskets, or better shape native copper into ornaments.”
(Dale Broadhurst, Mormon Discussions, Thu Feb 25, 2010 12:39 pm; link now dead)

And then there’s this from secular Science Journalist, Charles Mann, in his award-winning book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”:

“The Hopewell apparently sought spiritual ecstasy by putting themselves into trances, perhaps aided by tobacco. In this enraptured state, the soul journeys to other worlds. As is usually the case, people with special abilities emerged to assist travelers through the portal to the numinous. Over time these shamans became gatekeepers, controlling access to the supernatural realm. They passed on their control and privileges to their children, creating a hereditary priesthood: counselors to kings, if not kings themselves. They acquired healing lore, mastered and invented ceremonies, learned the numerous divinities in the Hopewell pantheon. We know little of these gods today, because few of their images have endured to the present. Presumably shamans recounted their stories to attentive crowds; almost certainly, they explained when and where the gods wanted to build mounds. “There is a stunning vigor about the Ohio Hopewell …,” Silverberg wrote,

‘a flamboyance and fondness for excess that manifests itself not only in the intricate geometrical enclosures and the massive mounds, but in these gaudy displays of conspicuous consumption [in the tombs]. To envelop a corpse from head to feet in pearls, to weigh it down in many pounds of copper, to surround it with masterpieces of sculpture and pottery, and then to bury everything under tons of earth—this betokens a kind of cultural energy that numbs and awes those who follow after.’

Vibrant and elaborate, perhaps a little vulgar in its passion for display, Hopewell religion spread through most of the eastern United States in the first four centuries A.D. As with the expansion of Christianity, the new converts are unlikely to have understood the religion in the same way as its founders. Nonetheless, its impact was profound. In a mutated form, it may well have given impetus to the rise of Cahokia.”
(Charles C. Mann, “1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (Kindle Locations 5242-5255). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition)

In regard to The Book of Mormon, Mann explains elsewhere in the same book:

“Contact with Indians caused Europeans considerably more consternation. Columbus went to his grave convinced that he had landed on the shores of Asia, near India. The inhabitants of this previously unseen land were therefore Asians—hence the unfortunate name “Indians.” As his successors discovered that the Americas were not part of Asia, Indians became a dire anthropogonical problem.

According to Genesis, all human beings and animals perished in the Flood except those on Noah’s ark, which landed “upon the mountains of Ararat,” thought to be in eastern Turkey. How, then, was it possible for humans and animals to have crossed the immense Pacific? Did the existence of Indians negate the Bible, and Christianity with it?

Among the first to grapple directly with this question was the Jesuit educator José de Acosta, who spent a quarter century in New Spain. Any explanation of Indians’ origins, he wrote in 1590, “cannot contradict Holy Writ, which clearly teaches that all men descend from Adam.” Because Adam had lived in the Middle East, Acosta was “forced” to conclude “that the men of the Indies traveled there from Europe or Asia.” For this to be possible, the Americas and Asia “must join somewhere.”

If this is true, as indeed it appears to me to be, … we would have to say that they crossed not by sailing on the sea, but by walking on land. And they followed this way quite unthinkingly, changing places and lands little by little, with some of them settling in the lands already discovered and others seeking new ones.

Acosta’s hypothesis was in basic form widely accepted for centuries. For his successors, in fact, the main task was not to discover whether Indians’ ancestors had walked over from Eurasia, but which Europeans or Asians had done the walking. Enthusiasts proposed a dozen groups as the ancestral stock: Phoenicians, Basques, Chinese, Scythians, Romans, Africans, “Hindoos,” ancient Greeks, ancient Assyrians, ancient Egyptians, the inhabitants of Atlantis, even straying bands of Welsh. But the most widely accepted candidates were the Lost Tribes of Israel. Tribes of Israel.

The story of the Lost Tribes is revealed mainly in the Second Book of Kings of the Old Testament and the apocryphal Second (or Fourth, depending on the type of Bible) Book of Esdras. At that time, according to scripture, the Hebrew tribes had split into two adjacent confederations, the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. After the southern tribes took to behaving sinfully, divine retribution came in the form of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V, who overran Israel and exiled its ten constituent tribes to Mesopotamia (today’s Syria and Iraq). Now repenting of their wickedness, the Bible explains, the tribes resolved to “go to a distant land never yet inhabited by man, and there at last to be obedient to their laws.” True to their word, they walked away and were never seen again.

Because the Book of Ezekiel prophesizes that in the final days God “will take the children of Israel from among the heathen … and bring them into their own land,” Christian scholars believed that the Israelites’ descendants—Ezekiel’s “children of Israel”—must still be living in some remote place, waiting to be taken back to their homeland. Identifying Indians as these “lost tribes” solved two puzzles at once: where the Israelites had gone, and the origins of Native Americans.

Acosta weighed the Indians-as-Jews theory but eventually dismissed it because Indians were not circumcised. Besides, he blithely explained, Jews were cowardly and greedy, and Indians were not. Others did not find his refutation convincing. The Lost Tribes theory was endorsed by authorities from Bartolomé de Las Casas to William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and the famed minister Cotton Mather. (In a variant, the Book of Mormon argued that some Indians were descended from Israelites though not necessarily the Lost Tribes.) In 1650 James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, calculated from Old Testament genealogical data that God created the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. So august was Ussher’s reputation, wrote historian Andrew Dickson White, that “his dates were inserted in the margins of the authorized version of the English Bible, and were soon practically regarded as equally inspired with the sacred text itself.” According to Ussher’s chronology, the Lost Tribes left Israel in 721 B.C. Presumably they began walking to the Americas soon thereafter. Even allowing for a slow passage, the Israelites must have arrived by around 500 B.C. When Columbus landed, the Americas therefore had been settled for barely two thousand years.

The Lost Tribes theory held sway until the nineteenth century, when it was challenged by events. As Lund had in Brazil, British scientists discovered some strange-looking human skeletons jumbled up with the skeletons of extinct Pleistocene mammals. The find, quickly duplicated in France, caused a sensation. To supporters of Darwin’s recently published theory of evolution, the find proved that the ancestors of modern humans had lived during the Ice Ages, tens of thousands of years ago. Others attacked this conclusion, and the skeletons became one of the casus belli of the evolution wars. Indirectly, the discovery also stimulated argument about the settlement of the Americas. Evolutionists believed that the Eastern and Western Hemispheres had developed in concert. If early humans had inhabited Europe during the Ice Ages, they must also have lived in the Americas at the same time. Indians must therefore have arrived before 500 B.C. Ussher’s chronology and the Lost Tribes scenario were wrong.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of amateur science. In the United States as in Europe, many of Darwin’s most ardent backers were successful tradespeople whose hobby was butterfly or beetle collecting. When these amateurs heard that the ancestors of Indians must have come to the Americas thousands of years ago, a surprising number of them decided to hunt for the evidence that would prove it.”
(Charles C. Mann, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, positions 331.0-334.2/1222 Kindle Edition)

Therefore, it should come as no surprise when modern amateur scientific voyeurs retread the same path trod by those after 1492 and prior to better, more complete evidence arising that discredits these now long-discredited American Lost Tribes theories. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In short, and in conclusion, the only way to turn Cahokia and the Hopewell Culture into evidence for The Book of Mormon is to come to the conclusion first and then both cherry-pick the body of evidence for “hits” while ignoring the far more numerous “misses”. In other words, this is yet another one where Mormon Confirmation Bias reigns supreme over logic and reason. Cahokia and the Hopewell Mount Builders are not only not a bull’s eye for The Book of Mormon, but they’re also not even in the same pub where the dartboard resides.

An artist’s recreation of downtown Cahokia, with Monk’s Mound at its center. (click to zoom)

 Artwork courtesy of ArsTechnica

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