Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Book of Mormon 7/18

I majored in history when I was in college, so I can't always remember whether I first learned something in grade school or whether I learned it in college. That makes it difficult for me to know what's common knowledge and what isn't. But there were some things in the BOM that didn't seem quite right based on what I've learned in my history classes.
And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. (1 Nephi 18:25)
When I read this, I texted it to Kay who responded by saying something like, "Sounds like the new world." I wanted to say that didn't sound at all like the new world. There were no horses in north or south American until they were introduced by the Spanish. There was a prehistoric horse that once existed in north America, but it was really small, and it became extinct about 12,000 years ago.

I remember after reading this last year that I searched the internet for Mormon responses. I found a web page that had pictures of cave drawings. The cave drawings looked like people riding horses. The author said something like, "Archaeologists call these dogs, but judge for yourself." I would show you a picture, but I can't seem to find it.

I found this FARMS article on "Horses in the Book of Mormon" by Robert R. Bennett. FARMS is a Mormon apologetics organization. He said that "archaeological evidence for the presence of the horse in the pre-Columbian Americas is presently scant and inconclusive." He makes several suggestions, though. One is that perhaps there were so few horses that they just haven't survived in the archaeological record. He says, "the Book of Mormon claims only that horses were known to some New World peoples before the time of Christ in certain limited regions of the New World."

I know Mormon apologists like to argue that the stories in the BOM happened in a small geographical area, but if you just read the book, you don't get that impression. But I also doubt his claim that there were few horses. Just look at some of the references he cites. In Enos 1:21, it says that the Nephites had "many horses." Well, the Nephites were one of the major people's of the BOM, engaged in battles that killed tens of thousands of people. If you ran into a rancher who said he had "many horses," you might think forty would be enough to justify such a claim. But if a group of 50,000 people said they had "many horses," you wouldn't think forty would be enough to justify the claim. So it seems to me that the Nephites, being as populous as they were, had to have had a pretty significant herd. And they weren't the only people who had horses, either.

In 3 Nephi 3:22, it says the Nephites took "their horses, and their chariots, ...and did march forth by thousands and by tens of thousands..." Of course it doesn't say how many horses there were, but I figure if they were significant enough to mention among tens of thousands of people, there must've been a lot of them.

Just a few chapters later in 3 Nephi 6:1, it says, "And now it came to pass that the people of the Nephites did all return to their own lands in the twenty and sixth year, every man, with his family, his flocks and his herds, his horses and his cattle, and all things whatsoever did belong unto them." Now maybe the author was exaggerating when he said they did all return, every man with his horses, but even if half of them had horses, that's still a pretty significant number of horses. And remember that these horses were in the land for hundreds of years, which means many generations of significant herds of horses.

If these horses became extinct, it had to have been fairly recently. At the very latest, they became extinct around the time of Christ, just 2000 years ago. Yet we have no problem discovering a prehistoric horse that became extinct 12,000 years ago. That's not to mention the many mammoths we've found. But no trace of the BOM horses.

Later in the article, Bennett suggests that perhaps Lehi's people saw something similar to a horse and called it a horse when it really wasn't. But there are two problems with that. First, if it wasn't a horse, then what else might one use to pull chariots? A llama, maybe? Second, it casts doubt on the supposed divinely inspired translation of the BOM. After all, words get their meaning from their use. Whatever token the Nephites used to refer to this animal, you would expect that an accurate translation would use the equivalent English word. If the Nephites meant "llama" by whatever word they happened to use, even if it had previously been used of horses, then the correct English translation would've been "llama."

Bennett seems to think the Nephites may have been referring to a tapir as a "horse." Here's a tapir:

Well, I think it's always possible that something existed which we just haven't dug up. I can't dismiss the possibility that there were horses in America during the time of the Nephites and Lamenites. Bennett makes a good point about the Huns and the paucity of horse fossils in their lands in spite of the significance of horses in their culture. But I remain suspicious.

The BOM also mentions extensive use of steel swords, and battles where tens of thousands of people are killed. As far as we know, there was no steel in the Americas until the Spanish brought them over, and I don't think the Israelites had steel in 600 BCE either, but I could be wrong about that. This seems to me to be a bigger problem than horses. Some Mormons have suggested maybe they were talking about other metals and "steel" is just being used in a generic sense to mean "metal." The problem is that "steel" is distinguished from other metals in the BOM.
And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance. (2 Nephi 5:15)
A lot has been written on this subject, so I'm just going to leave it at that. There are other things in the BOM that other people have pointed out are anachronistic, like wheat and barley, cows, oxen, etc. But when I was reading the BOM the things that jumped out at me were the horses and the steel swords. The elephants and chariots also jumped out at me. Of course there was the mammoth, but they became extinct something like 10,000 years ago. Here is a picture of a piece of Mayan artwork one Mormon used as evidence:

The author of the article said, "Critics say those are parrots. What do YOU think?" I have to admit they look like elephants to me.

The interesting thing is that among all the crops the BOM mentioned, it didn't say much about the food we know native Americans did grow, such as maize and various kinds of squash.

There is a wealth of Mormon apologetic literature on these subjects. I was interested in knowing if any of this information had ever been submitted for peer review or published in academic journals. I know there are some Mormon academic journals, but I wanted to know if anybody had ever submitted an article to a secular academic journal arguing anything like there being horses, elephants, steel swords, etc. in ancient American civilizations. I posted a question about it on Yahoo Answers. I got a link to Jeff Lindsay's web page, but nobody gave me any references to peer reviewed academic journal articles. I would be interested in knowing whether such articles would survive peer review and what other scholars would say about them.

Part 8


James said...

Hi Sam.

I recommend this article by LDS scholar Michael Ash on the subject of horses in the BoM. It is my opinion that it is currently the best article on the subject.

Sam Harper said...

Thanks James.

Unknown said...

Interestingly, the Malaysian geographic model has all the right cultural markers (horses, elephants, rivers & seas in the right places, neck of land, steel, etc.) - it just doesn't explain how the plates got to upstate NY. Of course, if you believe in angels showing you where the plates are, maybe you believe in angels being able to move plates wherever they need them. I should add the Malaysian theory is wonky enough that almost no Mormons have even heard of it. The preferred theory is MesoAmerican.

James said...

I'm aware of the Malaysian theory, and as you say, it is wonky. The Mesoamerican view works just fine.

Scott said...

Hi Sam:

You mentioned elephants in the Book of Mormon. The best writeup on the topic is at You also referred to the Copan statue of the elephants -- the best review of this statue is at the same website, Appendix I.