A Mesoamerican System of Weights and Measures?

Alma’s experience with the antagonist Zeezrom in the city of Ammonihah as reported in Alma 11 describes a system of standard weights and volumes in use among the Nephites in their commerce. We would expect that in Mesoamerica, quite certainly the area where the history of the Nephites was played out, there might be evidence of standards. Such would include measures of volume for grains plus weights of precious metals of values equivalent to the amounts of grain.

When the Spanish invaders arrived, they reported that in the markets everything was sold by volume.1 For example, the Aztecs used a wooden box, called quauhchiaquihuitl, to measure corn and other dry goods; this box was divided until the smallest unit was a twelfth part of the whole. Graded sizes of jars served to measure liquid. They also had special cups to measure out gold tribute payments to the Spanish in units roughly equivalent to our ounces. Maya groups in southern Mesoamerica also relied primarily on volume measures (for example, the “armload” and “the fistful”).2 From the area around Kaminaljuyu on the outskirts of Guatemala City (the “land of Nephi” to some) archaeologists have, in fact, found bowls manufactured to a standard pattern and of gradually reducing sizes; these may represent socially established measures of volume belonging to the time period—the first and second centuries BC—when the Lamanites are reported by the Book of Mormon to be living in Nephi.3

Further, there is all but conclusive evidence that weights were not used anywhere in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest, nor were scales known.4 The archaeological and ethnological literature has credited Andean peoples and other South Americans with the possession of scales.5 Fragmentary information hints at the possibility—no more—that scales were known at some points in Mesoamerica in an earlier era even though they apparently were not continued in use for Spanish eyewitnesses to observe.6 (Many other cultural ideas and objects are known to have been lost since ancient times.)7

It has been suggested by some Latter-day Saints that sets of small metal objects used currently in weighing goods for sale in Guatemalan marketplaces are descended culturally from a system of weighing assumed to have been used in pre-Spanish, and indeed in Book of Mormon, times.8 Objective evidence for this claim is lacking. Indeed, historically the use of scales and weights in Guatemala appears to have been brought in by Europeans perhaps no more than 90 years ago.9 All the materials and terminology involved in these devices are of Spanish origin.

Yet the studies of Mesoamerican standards for measurement that have been done so far have been extremely limited. The topic deserves in-depth research whereupon greater clarity may be attained.

Notes

1. See, for example, Francisco Guerra, “Weights and Measures in Pre-Columbian America,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 15 (1960): 342–44; Daniel G. Brinton, “The Lineal Measures of the Semi-Civilized Nations of Mexico and Central America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 22: 194–207, 1885; and Fernando Cortés His Five Letters of Relation to the Emperor Charles V, ed. and trans. Francis A. MacNutt (Glorieta, N.Mex.: Rio Grande, 1977), 1:259.

2. See Guerra, “Weights and Measures”; Munro S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala (New Orleans: Tulane University Middle American Research Institute, 1971), 5–6.

3. See Marion Popenoe de Hatch, Kaminaljuyú/San Jorge: Evidencia Arqueológica de la Actividad Económica en el Valle de Guatemala, 300 a.C. a 300 d.C (Guatemala: Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, 1997), 100.

4. See Guerra, “Weights and Measures,” 342; Brinton, “Lineal Measures,” 194–96; William T. Brigham, Guatemala: The Land of the Quetzal (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 425.

5. See Stephen C. Jett, “Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts,” in Ancient Native Americans, ed. Jesse D. Jennings (San Francisco: Freeman, 1978), 631; Walter Hough, “Balances of the Peruvians and Mexicans,” Science 21/518 (6 January 1893): 30.

6. For example, see Hough, “Balances,” 30; Erland Nordenskiöld “Origin of the Indian Civilization in South America,” in The American Aborigines: Their Origin and Antiquity: A Collection of Papers by Ten Authors, ed. and comp. Diamond Jenness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1933), 278.

7. See “Lost Arts,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 101–4.

8. See Joseph L. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, Utah: S. A. Publishers, 1989), 175; Carolyn Lee, “Weights and Measures,” Book of Mormon Archaeological Digest 1/4 (1998): 13.

9. Felix W. McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1945), 84; McBryde, Sololá A Guatemalan Town and Cakchiquel Market-Center (New Orleans: Tulane University Middle American Research Institute, 1933), 124.