The Nahua were Nephites
by Dr. Robert A. Pate.

Repetition of a specific place name four or five times in a rather confined geographical area proved very beneficial when identifying the locations of the original Book of Mormon cities. A very important case in point is the extensive use of the root name Nahua in many place names in the very fertile piedmont of Guatemala known as the Costa Súr.

We know the Nahua as the Aztecs of central Mexico who spoke the Nahuatl language. Their writings available today indicate they used pictographic techniques as pneumonic aids to recite their history. When taught the Spanish alphabet during the Conquest, they began to write their language using these new characters. Frey Bernadino de Sahagún, a very faithful Catholic scribe, left us volumes about the various peoples of the area. Every aspect of their life and history was written in the Nahuatl tongue using the Spanish alphabet.

The Nahua lived from El Salvador, through Pacific coastal Guatemala, and up into all of central Mexico. They penetrated inland to Kumarkaj in the Guatemala highlands and, at the time of the brutal conquest by Pedro Alvarado, the Nahua and Quiché languages were spoken side by side in Kumarkaj. The name of this capitol of the Quiché nation was changed to Utatlán and then to Santa Cruz del Quiché, as it is known today. Kumarkaj means “rotten reeds” in the Quiché Maya tongue of today and by extension “rotten bones”, as the words for reeds and bones are equivalent in many of the indigenous languages of the area and also in Hebrew (qaneh). The land of Kumarkaj (the Spanish j is pronounced like the English h) was the original land of Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. The conquistadors, with their accompanying Aztec warriors, changed the name to Utatlán, which in Nahuatl means “by the reeds” or “the land where reeds are plentiful.” Thus it would appear that the state of Utah received its name from the Aztecs for the plentiful reeds in Utah Lake. Uta is a Spanish rendition of the original Nahuatl word otlatl, which means “reed, cane, or stalk.”

When the book Mapping the Book of Mormon, A Comprehensive Geography of Nephite America was completed, the linkage was made between the names, Nephi and Nahua, and the similarity with the name Noah was noted, but a more complete linguistic explanation was lacking. The linkage between Nephi and Nahua was first suspected when searching the various maps of the area between the fortress city Lehi and the sunken fortress city Moroni for the as yet unidentified fortress city of Nephihah. Nahualá was the only city of consequence between the two on the map. Could it be that Nephi and Nahua are equivalent? In the area is the Nahualate River and not far to the northwest is the Nahuatán River. Near their legendary landing point named Acajutla is the town of Nahuizalco (Nephi’s house). Even around the Aztec heartland of Teotihuacan, the place name Nahua is not so prevalent as in the Costa Súr of Guatemala.

The Nahua root is not limited to place identifiers but extends into their spiritual realm. The root is written in several different ways depending on the particular orthographic rendition of the writer. Sahagún originally wrote the name as naoa. It was later cast with the silent Spanish “h” into the form nahua. In the Quiché Maya tongue, as cast in the orthography of Dr. Allen Christensen, the “w” is used as in nawa.  Phonetically the three representations are equivalent and that is the most important point.

In Quiché, nawal is a “protective spirit” or “supernatural being”, with nawalic meaning “spirit.” Nawalij means “to invent something” and as we will see possibly the most significant linkage might be nawala’, which means “the origin of water.” The Quiché refer to their great wise men and leaders as the Nahuales (Recinos 1953, 169). Their gods are also called nahuales. Even the Aztecs used the word nahualli for “sorcerer.” No doubt the negative connotation of the sorcerer was from the Spaniards. To the Hebrews, the priest was kohen (ko-hane') and the priesthood was khunnah (keh-hoon-naw'). An identical word shows up in Hawaiian, kahuna, meaning “witch doctor.” That which is a sorcerer, witch doctor, or shaman to one, may be a great high priest to another. It just depends on who is looking down their nose at whom.

Return now to the Old World for the root of the name Nephi. What does the name Nephi mean? Some have said that the name Nephi comes from the Egyptian grain god, Nepi (Jakeman 1958, 45). It may seem odd that a Hebrew child would be named after a pagan Egyptian deity, but pre-exilic Israel had close ties with Egypt. The name appears in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 1:36), and Nibley has suggested that the source of Nephi was the Egyptian name Nfy, but he goes on to say that, since the Book of Mormon insists on the “ph” in Nephi, it is closer to Nihpi the original name of the god Pa-Nepi, which may have been pronounced Nephi (Nibley 1988, 27).

Besides that, the name appears to have another definition. Looking in any good English dictionary for the closest approximation to the word Nephi, one finds words like nephoanalysis, “the study of clouds;” and nephelometer and nephoscope, “instruments for measuring cloud characteristics.” All these words come from the Greek words nephele and nephos meaning “cloud” 1 and possibly share their origin with the name Nephi.

Stela 5 from Izapa, Mexico shows an umbrella or cloud-shaped object as the name glyph over the head of the individual who is thought by some to represent Nephi. Also interesting in this regard is the book entitled, The Cloud People, the Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Peoples of Central Mexico (Flannery 1983). Why were these tribes called the Cloud People? Apparently, it is not known where the name came from, just that they called themselves the Cloud People. Looking up the word for cloud in Nahua it is found to be mixtli, so the name of the Mixteca literally means “cloud people.” 2

What would the symbol for the Egyptian grain god look like among the Nephites? Would it be an ear of corn or a bushel of barley? Or would it be a cloud, a rain cloud that brings moisture and life to the grain?

One of the jokes among the author’s children has to do with moisture. Most of the children were born in the arid west, but were raised in Massachusetts. During that time, on trips west each summer, church was attended on Sundays in Young Ward (Cache Valley, Utah). The children would always laugh at the prayers of the old farmers. “Thank thee, Lord, for the moisture,” they would always say. That was because the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts received plenty of rain and the children did not have an appreciation for how dependent the farmers in the west are on water. Those in Cache Valley were usually blessed to have what was necessary to irrigate their crops. They were always in the thanking mode for this blessing. They knew where their blessings came from. “Thank thee, Lord, for the moisture.” Those connected to the soil are very much aware of the God that provides rain in due season. This same sense of gratitude was likely a part of the corn growing culture of the American Indians.

In the introduction to the English version of The Annals of the Cakchiquels (Recinos 1953, 29), a page with some of the calendaring symbols and names is included. The ninth symbol, donut-looking symbol, has the meaning of “rain.”

Now look at a figure taken from the Aubin Codex (O’Brian 1995, 173). O’Brian says that the first personage to the right may represent Nephi. The others would be his brothers, Laman, Sam, and Lemuel in the order shown.

aubin codex

Figure 1. From the Aubin Codex.

Notice the glyph above the head of the first personage on the right (Nephi). It is the symbol for rain. This donut-shaped symbol is the symbol of the Maya rain deity. The very strange looking eye glasses discovered on the dead Maya king, Kinich Yax K’uk’ Mo in Copán, are the same symbol and may have had reference to the Urim and Thummim. Notice the symbol across Nephi’s skirt. That may be a young crop of grain.

The Egyptian grain god, Nepi, and the Greek word Nephos, meaning “cloud,” may refer to the same thing. That would suggest that Nephi’s name, and the name of the Egyptian grain god, may have come to mean “cloud” to the Nephites. It is noteworthy in this regard that the corn and the cloud are two important symbols in the rituals of the Hopi Indians of the southwest (Hugh Nibley, personal conversation, 2001). Schele writes extensively about the use of clouds in the Maya cosmology (Freidel 1993, 151-152). Cloud symbols are carved into their temples. Even the rain forests of Central America are referred to as the “cloud forests” in tourist literature.

In Christenson’s K’iche’ word list, the word nawala’ means “the origin of water.” There are some related words of significance also. Nawal means “protective spirit or supernatural being.” Nawalic means “spirit.” Note that Nahualá and nawala’ are pronounced exactly the same way. Worth note is the fact that old English and Hebrew, as well as Quiché Maya, tied the words spirit, breath, and ghost together. It appears that Nephi may share meaning with spirit, cloud, and fountain.

It appears that the name Nephi is at the root of all of these words. Indeed, it appears that the Nahuatl language had its origins in the Nephite language, though it may have lost a lot over the years. It does not have the crispness of the Quiché writing. There is extensive repetition of syllables making the words long and awkward. This repetition of syllables for emphasis may come from the Sumerian language, an element that may have entered the Nephite language as a result of connections with the Jaredites. With about a fourth of the Nahuatl vocabulary beginning with the letter t, many sounds may have been lost, or the t may have just been added in front of other consonant sounds, as with the speech impediment known as tongue thrust or possibly the lateral lisp.

While, in the Book of Mormon, Sam’s name gets lost as a branch of the people, in the indigenous literature it does not appear to have been lost. Rather, it is Nephi’s tribe that looses its unique identity.

The three great tribes of the Quiché Maya nation are the Tamub, Ilocab, and Cavekib. These correspond to Sam (Tamub— they often put t’s in for their s’s, and the ub on the end is plural; the singular would be Tam, or Sam.  Also note that it is Sam with no connection to Samuel.), Jacob (Ilocab, closer to the Hebrew Ya’acob, Iakob in Greek), and Joseph (Cavekib, or Yeweeph in Hebrew). These three Quiché tribes formed the larger group of Nahuales, which appear to be the Nephites or people of God, as they are called nine times in the Book of Mormon. The name Nahual means “God” according to the translators of the Title of the Lords of Totonicapán (Goetz 1953, 169, 171, 172).

This was the state of the author’s understanding as the book went to press. The conviction that Nahua was equivalent to Nephi was strong, but it was based more on logic than linguistics. This was not as satisfying a case as the author was seeking. As every published author knows, just go to press and errors, possible improvements, and additions show immediately. As it was, modifications to the manuscript were being made up to the very last minute. Discoveries continued like clockwork. Within days, J. M. Sjodahl’s book An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon published in 1927 was loaned to the author.

It became obvious very quickly that Sjodahl had a very good mind and he was not afraid of paradigm shifts. He had arrived at the same conclusion about Nephi being Nahua but from completely different data and logic. He was correct in his statement that the Nahuatl language did not have a letter for our f or ph sound. He said that their u was equivalent to our f so the name may be pronounced Nah-fa, thus making Nephi almost without any change (Sjodahl 1927, 367).

The American Heritage Dictionary adds evidence that can be linked more readily to pull the Nahuatl, Quiché, Phoenician, Arabic, and Hebrew roots together to find Nephi. It states that, “Around 1000 bc the Phoenicians and other Semitic peoples began to use graphic signs to represent individual speech sounds instead of syllables. They used a symbol (y) which is the ancestor to the letters U, V, W, and Y as well as F to represent the sound of the semivowel “w” and called it waw, their word for ‘hook’.”

Previously it was mentioned that the Quiché word for the “origin of water” was nawala’ or nahuala’, depending on the orthographic representation. An Arabic word naufara means “fountain”, and what is a fountain if not an origin of water. These words all share the same sound and the same meaning, and show a common link back to an ancient Phoenician writing form used by both the Canaanites and the Hebrews. The Hebrew lexicon adds another piece. The word neptoah shows up meaning “opening” and is the name of a spring or source of water on the boundary of the territories of Judah and Benjamin. The donut-shaped symbol may be the opening of a stone masonry lined well as found in the arid Middle East, but to the Nephites in the land Bountiful, where water was plentiful, it appears to have evolved more along the Greek lines meaning “cloud” and being associated with the “rain god” and “supernatural spirits.” The pieces are all presented to justify the equivalency of Nephi and Nahua.

To some this may seem like spelling mayhem. However, if one would examine the similarities and differences among Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek for example, which evolved in very close proximity, this level of similarity and difference is the rule rather than the exception. Consider for instance the obscure Book of Mormon city named Gimgimno that was buried in the earth at the time of the Crucifixion. A very close Arabic word is gimgima meaning “skull.” The Hebrew word for skull is gulgoleth. We know the two words, having identical meaning, must be related because of geographic proximity and the repeated g.  Would a linguist consider this sufficient?

While the name root Nahua does not show up much in Mexican place names, it does show up in the Nahuatl language in some interesting ways other than “sorcerer.” Nahui for example means the number “four.” Nahuacalli means “four boats” and nahuacatl means “four reed.” Recall that Nephi was the “fourth” son of Lehi. So, just as Lehi means “jawbone” in Hebrew and the jawbone symbolizes the number “ten” in the Mayan dialects (lahu), Nephi meant the number “four.” Why would Lehi mean the number ten? Count the reasons: Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and two sisters.

Once Mormon’s milieu was correctly identified, the evidence has gushed forth with much improved clarity. The pieces now fit with precision. No cataclysmic topographical changes are required to explain Mormon’s descriptions. The Book of Mormon provides the road map. Just bring the Sumerian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Phoenician languages forward in time and take the Spanish, Nahuatl, Quiché, Cakchiquel (and other native dialects) backward in time and they meet at the Hill Cumorah (rotten bones) in the Guatemalan highlands. The secular evidence is astounding. The faithful old Catholic priests that came with the Conquest taught the natives our form of writing and together they have provided enough evidence to prove the veracity of the Book of Mormon.

Yes we have established the link between Nephi and Nahua, but the Nahua were those that migrated northward leaving Mormon’s world. Those that went northward survived, as they did not participate at Cumorah. The remainder of the Nephites, Samites, Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites, though they were decimated, lived to see the arrival of the Spaniards. They were again decimated by the sword and smallpox, but again there were survivors.

For those with interest in DNA historical reconstruction, here are some suggested guidelines: The blood of Sam is Tamub, Jacob is Ilocab, and Joseph is Cavekib. Combined they form the Quiché or Nahuales (Nephites). Nephi is the Nahua but they went northward into Mexico and some later returned. The Nahua and all of the peoples of Mexico are very heavily mixed with Chinese blood. The tribes of the eastern United States should show less of the Chinese influence as they traveled directly from the Yucatan and up the Mississippi River. The Jaredite influence would be most pronounced in the “ancient ones” or the Mam branch of the Maya. The Zoramites would be the Tzutuhils and the Anti-Nephi-Lehies would be the Cakchiquels. The Chortí appear to have entered Copán just after the decimation at Cumorah. The other blood of Lehi would include the Lenca and all other surrounding tribes in the area and would be mixed quite freely in both North and South America. The Classic Maya were an outgrowth of the Jaredites, Mulekites, Nephites, and Lamanites from the Costa Súr of Guatemala and El Salvador as they migrated northward. The big picture would include Hebrew (and other non-Hebrew Semites) from Jerusalem, traveling through Shiba (Yemen), into the Indian Ocean and then across the Pacific to Guatemala. The Hebrew blood also spread northward from Jerusalem then westward through Europe and eastward through the Orient. The Jaredites left the Mesopotamia area traveling first northward and then eastward. They undoubtedly were accompanied by other people (possibly Mongoloid), since they had eight ships the length of a tree and only twenty-two adults (Ether 6:16).


[1] One must remember that the Greek culture was a powerful literary influence on the known world by 600 bc.

[2] The names of many Indian chiefs in the old West included the word “Cloud”—Chief Red Cloud, Chief Gray Cloud, Chief Rain Cloud, etc. Were these tribes carrying on an old Nephite tradition of including the name Nephi or “cloud” in the names of their chiefs?


Campbell, R. Joe. 1997. Florentine Codex Vocabulary. Available from, INTERNET.

Christenson, Allen J. 2000. Popol Vuh, The Mythic Sections – Tales of First Beginnings from the Ancient K’iche’-Maya. Translated and edited by Allen J. Christenson. Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Brigham Young University.

----. 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.

Flannery, Kent V. and Marcus, Joyce (editors). 1983. The Cloud People: The Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations. New York: Academic Press.

Freidel, David; Schele, Linda; Parker, Joy. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Goetz, Delia. 1953. Title of the Lords of Totonicapán. Translated from the Quiche’ text into Spanish by Dionisio José Chonay, English version by Delia Goetz. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, first edition 1953, fourth printing 1974.

Nibley, Hugh. 1988. Lehi in the Desert, in Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites. ed. John W. Welsh [The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, vol. 5], Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo: F.A.R.M.S.

O’Brien, Ammon. 1995. Seeing Beyond Today with Ancient America. Hastings, East Sussex, England: Cumorah Hill Publishing.

Jakeman, M. Wells. 1958 Stela 5, Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico. University Archaeological Society, Special Publications No.2, 1958, pages 38-42. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University.

Sjodahl, J. M.  1927. An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press.


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