The notion that the Book of Mormon peoples were not alone in the Promised Land has been around for decades. LDS Scholars today are basically unanimous in the belief that they (the Nephites and the Lamanites) met and interacted, and even intermixed with other groups and civilizations. However, it must be admitted that most of the evidence drawn out of the Book of Mormon for such a belief is indirect. There seems to be no passage which explicitly mentions an encounter with another group of people (besides the Mulekites, who were from the Old World like the Nephites).
Recently, I came across a passage, which I have yet to see cited by those who support this view, that I believe it the most explicit (not to mention the earliest) reference to other people that the Lehites may have encountered.
When Lehi was close to death, he gathered all his posterity around him, and then proceeded to give each of his sons blessings, advice, and counsel. His words to his son Jacob give us one of the most important chapters in the entire Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2). As he taught Jacob about the Atonement (2 Nephi 2:6-8), Lehi stopped to emphasis missionary work. “Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth…” (2 Nephi 2:8). Who are the “inhabitants of the earth” that Lehi is talking about?
If the Lehites had been isolated in the Promised Land, this counsel would be meaningless. It was not until after Lehi died that they divided into the Nephites and the Lamanites, so we can be certain that at this time that even the children of Laman and Lemuel had been taught about the Gospel (after all, we know from 1 Nephi that neither Lehi, nor Nephi were shy about preaching to Laman and Lemuel and the rest of the group). However, if Lehi’s family had encountered some other people, interacted and traded with them, and possibly even built some positive ties with some, then the counsel to share the Atonement with “the inhabitants of the earth” takes on significant meaning. Knowing that there were contemporary cultures which lacked knowledge of the “Holy Messiah,” Lehi counseled his son to share that crucial information with them. I believe that this makes the most sense of this passage.
This becomes especially significant when we consider how early this is in Book of Mormon history. Assuming that the dates on the bottom of the page are relatively accurate, then the Nephites arrived at the Promised Land around 589 BC (BoM, pg. 43). The events of 2 Nephi 2 take place between 588 – 570 BC, which places it anywhere between one to nineteen years since they arrived in the Promised Land. That means that within the first nineteen years they had already encountered and began to interact with other inhabitants. It is likely that these events happened on the earlier end of the timeline (closer to 588 BC), since within that same timeframe Nephi breaks his people away from his brothers, teaches them to be industrious, make weapons for their defense, and construct a temple (2 Nephi 5:1-17). Thus it is very likely the Lehites had encountered other people within the first few years – possibly even the first year – in which they had settled in the Promised Land.
Of course, I recognize that all this had already been suspected by most of those who have kept up on this issue. Scholars had already imagined that phrases like “all those who would go with me” (2 Nephi 5:5-6) indicated people other than Nephi’s family, and they also suspected that there would have been fairly large numbers of people in order to build a temple. Hence, scholars already suspected that interaction with other cultures had begun very early in Nephite history, even as early as the first few years. I make no pretense of being the first to discover that such integration with others must have happened early on. All I am saying is that 2 Nephi 2:8 confirms what scholars have been thinking all along. It provides the best and the earliest evidence for a Lehite encounter with other inhabitants.
1. For a good example of this theory, I refer you to John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Iss. 1:1 (1992), pg. 1-34
2. I admit I haven’t done any in-depth study of this issue, so it is possible that someone may have already noticed this passage and used it to argue that there were others that the Book of Mormon people had encountered.