In addition to the detailed historical and spiritual information found in the Book of Mormon, there is also present an interesting sociological study on the diversification of culture over time. The Lamanites and Nephites both originated from the same Hebraic source, but over time differentiated into much different cultures. Much of this differentiation resulted from the Lamanite's overt rejection of their original Hebrew traditions and values. In addition, this rejection was colored by their deep animosity toward their perceived enemies, the Nephites.
In this blog, I will attempt to reconstruct the Lamanite culture, although the source material, provided by Nephite authors is obviously biased against the Lamanites in most instances. The Lamanites are perceived as barbaric, savage, murderous, and deceptive, with few values or positive traits. Often they are depicted as ruthless enemies who should be destroyed. However, there are several examples of positive critiques, such as Zeniff's defense of the Lamanites, and the sons of Mosiah's experience with Lamanite converts.
Zeniff (Mos. 9:1) was sent as a spy among the Lamanites, to learn of their weakness in order to come upon them and destroy them. However, when he observed their positive qualities, he changed his mind. So much so that he was willing to shed the blood of his fellow Nephites in order to defend them and prevent their destruction.
The sons of Mosiah went as missionaries among the Lamanites. The general Nephite attitude was expressed in response to their planned mission. In Alma 26:23-25 we read: “Now do ye remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites, and they laughed us to scorn? For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiff necked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language. And moreover they did say: Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us.
But after suffering some initial trials, the sons of Mosiah were able to convert a great number of the Lamanites, after which they abandoned their evil traditions. The sons of Mosiah spent 14 years among the Lamanites and came to regard them as the best of people.
In the following sections, we will examine what evidence we have of the various aspects of Lamanite culture. This evidence comes from the Book of Mormon itself, as well as accounts of the early Spanish conquistadors, and the few records that we have of the Indian histories that survived the conquest.
Religion and beliefs
Following Laman and Lemuel's rebellion, they undoubtedly neglected any teaching of the scriptures or the need for faith in God. Although they were familiar with Jewish religion, and had a first hand knowledge of God's power and miracles, it is unlikely that they ever taught these things to their posterity. They may have even persuaded their descendants to disbelieve in God and the “traditions of their fathers.” After about 400 years the Book of Mormon demonstrates that there was little of the original knowledge of the gospel to be found among their descendants.
Mormon, writing in 90 BC, comments “Now this was the tradition of Lamoni [and by extension, the rest of the Lamanites], which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit they supposed that whatsoever they did was right (Alma 18:5).” Essentially, they believed in an amorphous, undefined, supreme being who did not give his creations commandments or restrictions, and who had no expectations for their behavior.
Ammon, in teaching King Lamoni, elicited the following information regarding Lamanite beliefs:
Lamoni did not know the Nephite word for God. He believed that the “Great Spirit” created all things on the earth, but he did not know anything about the heaven or its location (Alma 18:24-32). It appears that the Lamanites had not been exposed to the teachings of the scriptures (from the Brass Plates) and were not familiar with their precepts. Many of the Lamanites worshiped idols (Alma 17:15).
Lamoni's father gives us a good example of the prevailing Lamanite attitude toward their perceived enemies, the Nephites. Ammon and Lamoni were traveling to Middoni to rescue Ammon's brethren when they encounter the father who is the king over all the land. He challenges Lamoni asking him "Whither art thou going with this Nephite, who is one of the children of a liar (liar referring to the Lamanites original complaint against Nephi)?" Lamoni's explanation is rejected by his father who counters with "Lamoni, thou art going to deliver these Nephites, who are sons of a liar. Behold, he robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property (Alam 20:10, 13)." This attitude was apparently widespread and explains a lot of the hostility which existed between the two groups.
It is not clear whether the early Lamanites had places of worship and held religious services, but they did allow others among them (such as the Amalekites) to construct synagogues for religious purposes. However, in at least one reference we are told that they had synagogues, temples, and sanctuaries (Alma 23:2).
Much later (at the time of the conquest), the Lamanites (or the Native American Indians) seemed to have developed various belief systems which reflected shadows of the truth, but were mostly superstitious, pagan beliefs.
Franciscode Bobadilla, one of the early Spanish Catholic priests to work in Nicaragua (in an account written by Gonzalo Oviedo about 1540), interviewed some of the Indians of Nicaragua regarding their beliefs and religion. These Indians were mostly Nicaro (who were possibly Neo-jaredites from Mexico) and Chorotega (the original indigenous inhabitants of the Nicaragua area). He found that:
The Indians worshiped two principal gods named Famagostad and Zipaltonal, the first male and the second female. There were other minor gods who controlled many of the natural phenomena. These gods were male and female, had bodies, were immortal, and dwelt in heaven. They had personal gods which they could call on for assistance. They had public images of these gods, and also had small personal images of them for their homes.
They had a vague knowledge of the flood, but believed that all men and animals had been destroyed during this event, and then the gods recreated mankind and the animals. Those who died in battle went with the gods, while they who died a normal death went to a “hell-like” place under the earth. They believe that their ancestors had become gods. They were uncertain about the resurrection. Only certain individuals would be resurrected. The resurrection would not be universal.
They did not practice fasting. They practiced a rite similar to the Catholic confession. Their traditions were kept orally and passed from generation to generation. The essence of life was something like the spirit and dwelt in the heart. When this left the body it resulted in death. They had a tradition that the gods anciently communicated with man, but no longer did so.
There were special temples which only the priests, chiefs and young boys could enter. Other common temples were provided for the general population but only males were admitted. The Indian temples were large buildings built of wood with thatched roofs. None but the priests and current chief were allowed entrance.
Bobadilla was told that the Indians practiced human sacrifice. They believed that human blood nourished the gods. People were sacrificed to propitiate the gods. Their blood was sprinkled on the idols in the temples. Young children were sacrificed to induce the gods to send rain. The people also offered animals, garden produce, etc. as sacrifices in the temples. The people made self sacrifices by cutting the tongue or genitals to produce drops of blood. The Indians practiced certain formalized burial rites.
There were twenty one religious festivals held every year with certain rites and practices associated with each. The Indians had a well established rite corresponding to the confession of the Catholic Church. These confessions were heard by senior, single men chosen by the “council” for this purpose. Everyone above the age of puberty was expected to confess.
Another Spaniard (Andres de Cerezeda) describes the Indian temples. He informs us that they were built of timber, and thatched; but large, with many low, dark, inner chapels. These, it seems, were surrounded by large courts, beyond which none except the priests and the cazique [were allowed] ... Besides these, there were what the Indians called Tezarit oratorios, or "high places," which stood before or around the temples, and which [are] described as being conical or pyramidal in shape, ascended by steps. Upon these high places the human victims were sacrificed.
We read that “the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents (Alma 22:28).” We can infer from this that there was a “more ambitious” group of Lamanites as well. I would suggest that this group would have been in the majority. These are the ones who would have populated the towns and villages. Hunters and gatherers (to use a term of the anthropologists), which the more idle part of the Lamanites surely would have been, cannot maintain a settled lifestyle, and have to keep moving and wandering in order to find enough food to subsist. Such groups would have difficulty establishing any type of government or organized community, and would have had difficulty mobilizing for war, as the Lamanites did on many occasions. So it seems obvious that the Lamanites must have had an agricultural base to maintain their settled (although primitive in comparison with the Nephites) lifestyle, however, there are few references to such practices.
We are told that the Lamanites kept flocks (see Alma ch. 17). We aren't told what kind of animals they were, but they were herded in groups, were driven to the watering hole, and could be scattered and then rounded up. Crops aren't mentioned in the text, but provisions were sent to the Lamanite armies which were undoubtedly produced by Lamanite agriculture. One example, “they (the Lamanites) were continually bringing new forces into that city (Morianton), and also new supplies of provisions (Alma 55:34).”
Although there are not many references to Lamanite agriculture in the Book of Mormon, this is not the case with the later Lamanites at the time of the Spanish conquest. Throughout the Americas the Europeans discovered substantial crops, fields and harvests. In fact their survival, in many cases, depended on the bounteous Indian stores.
Christopher Columbus, and his crew members, observed many of the Indian communities practicing an efficient and productive form of agriculture. On his fourth voyage of exploration, in what is now Panama, his son Ferdinand wrote of the harbor that they called Portobelo; “he (Columbus) gave it that name because it is very large, beautiful, thickly populated, and surrounded by cultivated country … The country about the harbor is well tilled and full of houses only a stone's throw or crossbow shot apart, all as pretty as a picture, the fairest thing one ever saw (Ferdinand p. 243-4)” Another place nearby was named Puerto de Bastimentos “because all the land about and the islets were full of maize fields (p. 244).”
On another expedition into the interior of Panama Ferdinand reports; “Next day the Adelantado (an officer, Columbus' brother Bartolomeo) sent most of his men overland back to the ships while he continued with thirty men to a village called Cobrava, where were cornfields stretching over an extent of six leagues (about 15 miles), and then he proceeded to Cateba. In both places they met a friendly reception and were given much food (p. 253).”
Gil Gonzalez, who in 1522 was the first Spanish conquistador to explored Costa Rica and Nicaragua, traveled approximately 580 miles along the Pacific coast (from Panama to Nicaragua). In this journey he encountered 50 major Indian towns with their chiefs and inhabitants. Many souls were baptized in each location indicating major populations, and these populations would have required an established agriculture to maintain themselves.
Recent archaeological work at the Salvadoran site of Joya de Ceren has given us a clear view of native agricultural practices of about 500 AD. This village was buried by a thick layer of volcanic ash in about 490 AD following a major eruption of a nearby volcano. The village was covered quickly and the evidence of everyday living, and farming practices were well preserved. Gardens, near the homes, and farming areas farther away, have been uncovered during the excavations. The main crops were corn and manioc, and were productive enough to support a population of 200-400 people per square kilometer. Evidence indicates that the manioc crops of this village were more robust that our modern varieties. Other crops, such as beans and squash, were also grown.
From the above information, I think we can conclude that although the Lamanites were not as advanced agriculturally as the Nephites, they certainly had much of the same knowledge, and were able to produce and store a surplus, as well as support a substantial population. In fact, on many occasions during the Colonial Period, the Spaniards relied heavily on the abundant Indian stores, begging for them, buying them, or stealing them if necessary.