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Evidence of Sunken Cities Described in the Book of Mormon

Episode Transcript

Around the time of Christ’s crucifixion in the Old World, the Book of Mormon records a great destruction in the New World. Concerning three specific cities—Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem—God’s voice was heard saying, “waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof.” This may cause some to wonder if any cities in ancient America were actually submerged under rising water? So, let’s dive in to the evidence!

As part of a documentary series called A Marvelous Work, we at Scripture Central recently sent a team down to Lake Atitlan located in the highlands of Guatemala. It’s a scenic site with pristine waters surrounded by prominent volcanoes. But the lake wasn’t always quite this large. And you might be surprised at what was discovered beneath the surface.

Roberto Samayoa certainly was, when in the 1990s he noticed ancient ruins on an underwater plateau while scuba diving. This site was later named Samabaj, which is partly derived from Roberto’s last name. And eventually, trained archaeologists began to seriously study the area using scuba gear and underwater scanning equipment.

What they found was extraordinary—not because the structures or artifacts are much different than those at other ancient Maya sites, but because they appear to have been virtually untouched for nearly 2000 years! It was like a time capsule just waiting to be uncovered.  

And before it was submerged under 12 to 30 meters of water, the main plateau was once a 30-acre island near the southern shore. Among the ruins, various types of structures were identified, including homes, staircases, stone monuments, and even saunas. Scholars believe that the site had ritual significance and may have even been a place of pilgrimage. Other structural complexes have been discovered also at various locations along the shore.

Although several studies and surveys have been conducted, our understanding is still really far from complete when it comes to this particular site. According to a UNESCO report, the sedimentation covering the bottom of the lake “probably conceals many other structures that have never been located or geo-referenced. In this sense, only a small percentage of the archaeological site has been identified.”

In 1985, Latter-day Saint anthropologist John Sorenson suggested that the Lamanite city of Jerusalem was located along Lake Atitlan’s shore. At the time, Sorensen knew the lake’s water level had “shifted dramatically” in the recent past. But what he didn’t know was that ancient ruins were actually sitting below the water’s surface. The important thing here is that, based on the text of the Book of Mormon, Sorensen predicted an underwater settlement at this very lake about a decade before its actual discovery.

As far as dating goes, ceramic remains and structures at the site can be traced back to various times during the Preclassic period, with some pots dating as early as twelve hundred BC, while the buildings and other structures begin to date around 400 BC and later. So, settlements had a long period of occupation that continued to the time of Christ and beyond.

Now, final flooding event likely took place between two-fifty and three hundred AD, based on the latest ceramic samples at the site. So one might conclude that, although interesting, the flooding in this area had nothing to do with the destruction recorded in 3rd Nephi, which likely took place more than two hundred years earlier.

But that assumption would be too hasty. This is because, even in modern times, Lake Atitlan’s water level shows major signs of fluctuation, and it occasionally submerges structures along the shore and then drains away. As described in the recent UNESCO report, “one or more floods have considerably affected the cultural landscape of the lake.” So, whatever the precise date may be for the site’s most recent submersion, more data would be needed to verify or rule out the possibility of a major flooding event close to the time of Christ’s death.

In other words, this site could very well be the location of one of the three cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon. At the very least, it offers an example of the type of destruction these cities faced. Rather sinking into the sea or having a flash flood come crashing down on them from above, the Lord declared “waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof.” This is precisely what happened at Samabaj and other settlements along the shore of Lake Atitlan: the water level rose and submerged them.

Although fascinating, this discovery is also quite sobering, especially in light of the foretold calamities that afflict our own day. In a time when sin and turmoil seem to be sweeping over the world like a flood, Christ’s words in the Book of Mormon offer an enduring source of hope. To Lehi’s posterity, he declared, “how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me.” This message applies equally well today. Jesus truly is a refuge from the storm, and he will gather and protect all who come unto him.