By Robert A. Pate
We got up as the sun was coming up in the Guatemalan highland town of Quetzaltenango. The name was given to the city by the Spaniards during Pedro de Alvarado’s conquest in 1524 AD. The name means “fortress of the quetzal bird” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The resplendent quetzal is a beautiful bird about the size of a magpie that is predominantly green with delicate tail feathers three feet long. The breast is a brilliant red with some white under the wings -- truly a magnificent bird. The original city name still used by the indigenous people is Xelahuh or Xelaj depending on ones tribal origin. The locals call it by the pretty name of Xela (pronounced as Shela with a short e). I went down to the corner across from the park and had a quick breakfast at McDonalds. My wife Elaine, preferring healthier fare, waited in the Hotel Bonifaz with her fruits and nuts.
The objective this day was to find the hill. We headed northeast out of the city past the larger-than-life bronze statue of a very buff Tecún Umán, a legendary Quiché warrior and captain who is their honored national hero. At the four-corners (Quatro Esquinas) we took a right turn and headed along the mountainous highland road to the famous Indian town of Chichicastenango. Along the very winding but excellent road we passed many women and children tending their flocks of sheep that grazed along the road. We passed many individual men, each out tilling the mountainsides preparing the soil and planting corn. The end of the dry season was approaching and it was time to get the young corn coming before the heavy rains arrived. The farmers’ two tools are simple in the extreme but very effective, a one-foot square hoe called an asedon in Spanish and the ever-present machete. They can run the country (including the government) with these two tools. Observing the utility of the very large hoe, Elaine insisted we buy one for the garden.
The clothing is very distinctive and varied from region to region as we meandered through the highlands. Each region the clothing was slightly different in color and pattern in the hand woven fabric. The Indian farmers wore a heavy, course woven, wrap-around, dark wool skirt and a short-sleeve light colored store-bought shirt. Some wore long pants under the skirt. The women wore dark, hand-woven, wrap-around, wool skirts with distinctive patterns. They also wore bright, ruffled pinafores. Their blouses were beautiful, brightly colored, with white lacy collars. If there was a child or burden to be carried, the women used a large sash. The women usually carried the loads balanced on their heads. A large heavy sash was rolled and then wrapped around in a doughnut shape on their heads to cushion and help balance the loads. Or, when carrying a child, the sash was tied in a sling. For very heavy loads, the men and women would use a tamp strap across the upper forehead and around the large bundle on their backs.
As we drove the highland highway we were repeatedly impressed with the beauty of these rather short people, the functionality, beauty and modesty of their dress, their industry, and their happiness. We passed the women doing laundry at each little stream. Washing the cloths on the rocks and laying them out to dry on the bushes and grass. How they kept those white lacy collars so white was Elaine’s lingering question.
We passed the shepherds, the ladies doing laundry, the cornfields, and the apple orchards. Out in the middle of nowhere lone individuals would be walking. These people know how to walk and are not afraid of work. The people seem well fed, healthy, and happy. Obesity was not seen until we again landed stateside.
We finally arrived at Chichicastenango. It was not market day. The church steps were quite empty where Quiche’ practice their unique form of religion that resembles Hebraic tradition mixed with Catholic ritual. Chichi was not our intended destination this day, we were going on another 19 kilometers to the little but very old town of Santa Cruz del Quiché, the place that was the head of the Quiché nation when Alvarado arrived to destroy it with the sword, fire, and small-pox.
We crossed the higher, rather flat top mountains where the villages are and then down the switchbacks, across the streams and rivers, and then back up the switchbacks to the next hilltop civilization. As we slowly entered the hilltop town of Santa Cruz del Quiché from the south, I was somewhat disappointed. The area was dry and dusty at the end of the dry season. I could see from the trees and agricultural residue that the area would indeed be lush and productive in the rainy season. I didn’t see any prominent hill. I was looking for a hill. The whole town was on a hilltop and the town covered almost the entire flat of the hilltop. As we entered town, the first building we saw was a very nice LDS chapel. The well-fenced church compound included an outdoor basketball court, it must be the true church. As we passed the chapel, about a block down the road we spotted two white shirts and ties. It doesn’t take any skill to spot the Elders.
We asked the missionaries where the ruins were. They pointed to the west of town a short distance toward another group of flat top hills and said, “But there is not much there to see.” We went on into town to pick up some film. The highways are great, even by U.S. standards, but then you reach the town that antedates the United States by about three millennia and things change. The streets become very narrow, one-way, rough cobblestone. We started working our way the very few necessary blocks west. Quickly the streets dropped back from cobblestone to dirt. Many streets were blocked by large mounds of dirt and trenches. The water and sewage system on the west side was being re-done. We finally made it the three or four blocks west to where the houses started to thin out. After several unsuccessful attempts down rough undulating roads without finding a bridge, we asked an older gentleman for directions. He said he was headed that way into town and would show us the way. He hopped in and showed us the to the correct road, told us where to turn, and where to watch for the sign.
We followed his instructions, found the sign, and drove up the hill to the parking area. We parked and took a GPS (Global Positioning Sensor) reading at the gate to the archaeological site. The reading was 15.02319o North latitude and 91.16946o West longitude and the elevation was 8081 feet above sea level. We read and photographed the rickety sign over the gate. The sign read, “Each person will be charged that enters the site of Utatlán,” and then the sponsoring organization was listed, El Quiché Anthropology and History. As I walked through the gate I asked myself, “Does this feel like the place?” The answer was a very certain, “Yes.” This was the hill Cumorah, the place where two large fallen civilizations met their end. The readings have become feelings. The knowledge has become love and deep appreciation for the very dear and dedicated valiant souls that recorded their story and gave us the Book of Mormon, their testimony of Christ’s atonement, and the Father’s love.
We went to the small but very adequate visitors center. We paid the 20 quetzals for admission and studied the displays. The caretaker asked if we would like his ten-year-old son to give us a guided tour. I accepted and then he asked if we knew about the cave. I said I had read about the cave but didn’t realize that it was right here. We then had a very nice guided tour of the complete temple site and “two” caves.
It was great absorbing the site, the tall pine trees, the ruins, the past, the simplicity of our ten-year-old guide Miguel Angel Tipas Ramos. Why was I drawn to this sight? I didn’t know what I would find. I didn’t even know if we could find the hill. I was hoping it would be obvious once we were in the area. We got much more than I expected and much more than I even dared to hope for.
I was drawn to this site by its name. Years ago my carpooling buddy in Shelley, Idaho, Richard Schultz said, “We know where Jerusalem is. We know where Nineveh is. But, you Mormons don’t know where any of the places in The Book of Mormon are.” That challenge stung. I never forgot it and I continued studying and watching. More than 20 years later I had a breakthrough while reading a book by John L. Sorenson. That breakthrough led to some very intense studying. With much help from where help comes from, and the help of many friends, almost all of The Book of Mormon sites have been tentatively identified. That is a much longer story. These notes are about the Hill Cumorah only.
I will now change hats and tell the rest of the story. I would not have gone to Guatemala to see a very old set of ruins in very poor condition named Utatlán, but this set of ruins had had a different name prior to the destructive conquest wrought by the hand of Pedro de Alvarado at the command of Hernando Cortés. The first time I recognized the name in print I was reading one of Linda Schele’s works, The Code of Kings. There it was on a map, Q’umarkah. By this time I had already located several other cities on maps and in the old writings and knew the area in which I should focus. After finding the first city, Ammonihah, I got my hands on every relevant book and map I could find and this is what I learned about Q’umarkah.
Cumorah was the place where two great civilizations died—the Jaredites and the Nephites. Have you ever wondered what the name Cumorah means? Robert Carmack, the brother to Elder John Carmack served a mission in Guatemala several years ago. He was fascinated by the area and made it his career. He received his doctorate in anthropology and studied extensively the site at Utatlán. He has extensively documented his findings.
The reader should be aware that the spellings of the many names for the old Indian places have varied over the years. The orthography of the many languages and dialects in the area is becoming more standardized but that has not always been the case, so do not let the variations in spelling be a hindrance.
Carmack uses K’umarcaj as the representation for the older name of the city of Utatlán. Carmack says that the etymology of K’umarcaj has never been adequately explained and then presents his own useful explanation. He states that Ximenez translated K’umarcaj as “rotten huts” and that Recinos noted the similarity between this meaning and that of Utatlán, which comes from the Nahuatl language and means “among the reeds.” Utatlán was the translation given by the Mexican warriors who arrived with Alvarado. Carmack says that K’umar means rotten, but also possibly old or ancient. He continues, caj means the reeds or canes, and apparently by extension, the reed huts. The etymology of the word might be “the old reed huts,” perhaps a reference to simple structures standing there at the time the Quiché first began to build their capital (Carmack 1973, 322). Allen J. Christenson was so gracious and sent me a digital copy of a Quiché Maya word list or dictionary that he has prepared. He uses K’iche’ as the orthographic representation for Quiché but told me that the orthography has changed in recent years. Christenson (2000) states that the meaning of K’umar is rotten, as in rotten wood (Christenson 2000, 59).
I appreciate Carmack’s explanation but I think I’ve found the rest of the story. If k’umar means rotten, old, or ancient, we know that it refers to rotten bones, not reed huts. I went looking for bones not reeds. I went to the various dictionaries that I have been collecting. These include Spanish, Nahuatl from the Aztecs, Quiché, Cakchiquel, K’ekchi’, Tz’utujil, Tzeltal, Cholan, Chorti, Mam, Popoluca, Tarahumara, Pokomchi, Quichua from Ecuador, Quechua from Perú, Aymara from Bolivia, Sumerian, Arabic, and Hebrew. In addition I bend the ear of some selected missionaries and acquaintances from many of the Pacific-rim countries and all over the world.
Looking for “bones” and “reeds” the Quichua dictionary from Ecuador was the first place I made the connection. I looked up hueso, which is Spanish for bone. The Quichua word was tullu. I then looked up tullu in the Spanish side and searched for all the words with the same root. The words I found were tula, meaning an ancient sepulcher of the earliest inhabitants, or a small stake of wood used by the Indians to dig potatoes or scrape the ground in other agricultural labors, and tullu, meaning bone, skinny, or sterile. I picked up on the words tullu and tula because I was familiar with our English word “tule” which comes through the Spanish from the Nahuatl word tullin which means bulrushes or reeds. This last word actually comes from the Sumerian language of Babylonia and means “abundant lowland.” It is equivalent to the Hebrew word Canaan. I then went to the Aymara dictionary from Bolivia and looked up bone and found ch’aqha. The last part of ch’aqha sounds identical to caj, but then the first part could also. The looking did not stop there.
Later I obtained Infobases biblical Hebrew lexicon. The Hebrew word of interest was qaneh, which is pronounced as kaw_neh’, according to the lexicon. It means reed, stalk, bone, and balances. The caj and the kaw are near identical but the Indian caj may be a contraction or shortening of the two Hebrew syllables kaw_neh’. I’ve come to recognize that the Indians did a lot of shortening, contracting, and compounding as their language evolved. As for the “balances” part of the Hebrew definition, I’ve found the root caj and kaj in several words that have to do with weights in Christenson’s K’iché dictionary.
On the hunch that the English word “cane” was related to the Hebrew and Quiché words, I looked up the word “cane” in some unabridged dictionaries. They said the word came through Middle English, Middle French, Old Provincial, Latin, Greek, and was of Semitic origin from Hebrew, Arabic, and Assyria. The Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, and Greek forms are qaneh, qanah, qanu, and kánna respectively. The Spanish word caña would have come from the Arabic through the Moors connection. Look at the connection this one word demonstrates among Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, Latin, Greek, Spanish, English, and even Quiché Mayan. The dictionary gave the definition for cane as any hollow or pithy jointed stem. Even from this definition one can see how bone fits in. The extensive usage of this word would indicate something that was associated with international commerce, possibly paper for writing, house building material, or boat transportation. I think there is ample evidence that it involved all of these uses.
So we have a direct translation of the name K’umarkaj, K’umarcaaj, Q’umarkah, Gumarcaah, Qumarcah, or however else it has been spelled in the literature and the translation most relevant to us is “rotten bones” because we know the rest of the story thanks to the masterful work of Mormon. The Quiché language was probably not an original language, but rather it probably evolved from other languages. The word for rotten (kumar) shows up in the other Maya languages but not in the surrounding non-Maya languages. So where did the word actually come from? It has no Hebrew roots. The Quiché word kumar actually comes from two Jaredite root words, ku meaning to “lie down” and mar meaning “worms” in Sumerian. What an excellent description of the moldering process that occurred – “to lie down with worms.” The Jaredites first christened the hill with their bones. 1600 years later the Nephites again christened the hill with fresh bones when their civilization ended in battle, as did the Quiché again with their bones when Pedro Alvarado arrived.
I find it absolutely hilarious that the Spaniards renamed the place Utatlán. Any good Mormon kid should spot that one. Many have stated that Utah or Ute means in the tops of the mountains. Some have chosen to refute that assertion. While the valleys are in the tops of the mountains, the name may have come from the cattails in Utah Lake. Likewise Utatlán may mean “among the reeds,” but it’s also in the tops of the mountains. The name Utah is pronounced the same as Uta with the silent Spanish h. The Nahuatl ending lan means “land of” or “place where something is plentiful.” Often the scholars just translate it as “by the.” The Quiché use pa and the Cakchiquel use pan for this same place identifier. The t on tlán shouldn’t bother because in the Nahuatl language they put the tongue thrust t on the front of all of the words that start with l. Utatlán is pronounced as U-ta-tlán with the tlan being a single sound.
As the 74 year old wounded General and Prophet Mormon completed his sad story from the top of hill Cumorah. He then gave his valiant son Moroni charge of the plates that became our beloved Book of Mormon. The remainder of the ninety and ninth part of the Nephite and Jaredite records were sealed up in the Hill Cumorah and no unhallowed hand will desecrate them. Mormon’s magnificent abridgment was eventually deposited in the hill in up-state New York that also has come to be known as the Hill Cumorah. A resurrected Moroni informed young Joseph Smith of the location of the plates and through the gift and power of God using the Urim and Thummim they were translated into our sacred and beloved Book of Mormon.
I found some more of Schele and Freidel’s comments interesting. There’s a cave at Utatlán that is a sacred place for the natives. Speaking of the cave Linda said:
This is the most sacred place in all the K’iche’ world. Manuel told us that the people of his town (Antigua) prefer to bury the afterbirth of their children in the cave at Utatlán because of the power of the ancestors there. The souls of many, many chuchkahawob abide in and near the cave ready to help their successors in their work. For the K’iche’, the cave is alive with the most powerful energies of the Otherworld. (Freidel 1993, 187)
The chroniclers wrote much about the events that occurred in this area. While the dates and other descriptions don’t match, the events appear recognizable. Here are two quotes from The Annals of the Cakchiquels). The place is Gumarcaah, or Qumarkah, or Kumarcaj’.
By the order of the warriors, the thirteen tribes gathered in Gumarcaah, to repair and make ready their bows and their shields, and they went to conquer all the small towns and the large towns, the countries as well as the cities. But the Quichés didn’t do this alone, the warriors of the thirteen divisions conquered the towns and in this way augmented the glory of King Quikab.
When the sun rose on the horizon and shed its light over the mountain, the war cries broke out and the banners were unfurled; the great flutes, the drums, and the shells resounded. It was truly terrible when the Quichés arrived. They advanced rapidly, and their ranks could be seen at once descending to the foot of the mountain. They soon reached the bank of the river, cutting off the river houses. They were following the kings Tepepul and Iztayul who accompanied the god. Then came the encounter. The clash was truly terrible. The shouts rang out, the war cries, the sound of flutes, the beating of drums and the shells, while the warriors performed their feats of magic. Soon the Quiché were defeated, they ceased to fight and were routed, annihilated, and killed. It was impossible to count the dead. (Recinos 1953, 91 and 103)
The stories sound the same. We’re talking about the same people and the same location. This could be any one of many battles. Even the great King Quikab sounds like Jacob. Could the reference really be to the God of Jacob, i.e. the God of Israel? The weapons and war tactics sound familiar. The last line sounds all too familiar. To put it in Mormon’s words during Alma’s day, “Now the number of the slain were not numbered, because of the greatness of their number.” After Mormon’s final battle he knew all too well the number of dead. He mourned the loss of virtually all of the 230,000 fair sons and daughters on his side of the line and probably a comparable number of Lamanites and Gadianton robbers.
The name of the town adjacent to Qumarkah today is Santa Cruz del Quiché. Nothing in the information I had read prior to the visit said that it had to be a hill, but it was. It was the highest hill in the immediate region. Subsequent readings clearly identify it as a small hill surrounded by very steep slopes (barancas) with a single connecting causeway to the town.
We were duly impressed with the site. It’s covered with tall pines and has a temple site excavated on top. Inside the little visitors center was a large display. One of the displays had Robert Carmack’s name on it. The cave mentioned by Schele as the most sacred place in the Quiché Maya world is under this hill. There are actually two caves. The longer one has a room at the end and is empty. The hill isn’t made of rock but of fine white pumice or volcanic ash. At first it looked like clay, but subsequent examination showed that it was very crumbly fine ash. The caves have been in the hill for hundreds of years and haven’t collapsed.
We went about 100 feet into the caves but without light we didn’t want to proceed any farther. The manmade tunnel was about three-feet wide and eight-feet high with an arched ceiling. The walls were plumb and the tunnel was straight for the full distance that we entered. There was a slight bend in the longer tunnel where we stopped. The wall was sloughing down at a place in the cave that we passed. The shorter cave was below the longer one. It appeared to have the same bearing and maybe it was directly below the upper cave. The temple ruins on top were of the same stone and clay construction, coated with plaster like we had seen elsewhere. The plaster was missing from most of what remains of the walls. There were some places that showed cut stone and masonry walls with square corners.
The hill K’umarkaj was higher than the flat hilltop town of Santa Crúz del Quiché but not by more than about fifty feet to 100 feet. If the trees were not so dense the entire town would be visible from the hill Qumarkah. The hilltop was small, possibly twenty acres. There was a flat region east of the hill where the town stood that was a few miles long and one-half-mile wide. Many small lakes and ponds are shown on the map. There were rivers and streams in every draw. The elevation was high enough that the streams appeared relatively small. We visited at the driest time of the year and I’m quite certain there would have been more water at the time of the final battle.
Is Mormon’s Hill Cumorah the hill at K’umarkaj or Qumarkah, the place of the “rotten bones?” The place, the topography, the legends, the name, and even the meaning of the name not just in Quiché but also Sumerian would indicate it is the place where Mormon deposited all the records “save it were these few plates which I give unto my son Moroni” (Mormon 6:6).
Carmack, Robert M. 1973. Quichean Civilization, The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Sources. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
----. 1981. The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Christenson, Allen J. 1979. K’iche’ Dictionary. Unpublished manuscript, shared electronically in private communication. Affiliation, The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
Freidel, David; Schele, Linda; Parker, Joy. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Recinos, Adrian. 1953. The Annals of The Cakchiquels. Translated from the Cakchiquel Maya by Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz. First edition, fourth printing, 1974. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Schele, Linda and Mathews, Peter. 1998. The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Schribner.