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Accusatory Questions

Doesn't the Book of Mormon mention plants and animals which did not exist during the supposed Book of Mormon time period?  Doesn't this prove that the Book of Mormon is false?

"Missing" Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon

by Jeff Lindsay


The Naming of Animals and Plants

Many critics point to names of several animal and plants species mentioned in the Book of Mormon and allege that these species are anachronistic or anomalous (i.e., they were not found in Central America prior to Columbus), thus proving the Book of Mormon to be false. In most cases, the attack reflects a superficial reading of the text and a failure to consider carefully what is meant.

We must not be rash in assuming that all translated names of plants and animals or other physical objects describe the same things we think of today in 20th century America. Names in many languages are ambiguous and difficult to translate with certainty. For example, the Hebrew word for horse , "sus," has a root meaning of "to leap" and can refer to other animals as well - including the swallow. Hebrew "teo" typically means "wild ox" but has also been applied to a type of gazelle. The general Hebrew word for ox is "aluph," which has a root meaning of "tame" or "gentle" that could be applied to describe a human friend as well (J. L. Sorenson, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p. 345) - could it also describe a tapir? One Hebrew word for sheep, "zemer," has been translated as "mountain sheep" and "rock-goat" in different Bible versions, while Sorenson notes that one Jewish scholar says it means antelope.

The difficulties of assigning and translating animal names are illustrated by the example of the Spaniards in dealing with American animals. Bishop Landa called a Yucatan deer a "kind of little wild goat" (Sorenson, Ensign, Oct. 1984, p. 19). Likewise, bisons were called "cows," turkeys were called "peacocks," antelope were described in terms of sheep, and the tapir was described in one source as "a species of buffalo of the size and somewhat looking like an ass" (Sorenson, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p. 346; also see the extensive documentation in Chapter 7 of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon). The Spaniards called the prickly pear a "fig" and used "plum" (ciruelo) to name a native non-plum species, while some Spaniards used "wheat" (trigo) to name American maize (ibid., p. 338-339). The Nephites and Jaredites might have made similar name assignments to species they encountered in the New World. We should not expect the religious record they kept to be a manual on natural science, and we should not insist that their terminology reflect our modern views - especially if the Europeans could do no better. If Nephites called a tapir an ox, we should not abandon the Book of Mormon when Joseph Smith follows their convention in his translation. And if they called it by a completely new name, how should it be translated?

Please recall that the translation process behind the Book of Mormon was not pure magic in which the thoughts of the original writer were expressed in sublime, flawless English with no effort on the part of the translator. Had that been the case, we could have bypassed all the hassle with preparing, preserving, and translating the engraved golden plates. But God requires humans to do all within their power for His work, and only then makes up the difference when necessary, typically applying miraculous aid rather conservatively. Indeed, considerable effort was required of Joseph Smith and the translation was a genuine translation of what had been written rather than what someone had thought. Joseph had been given a divine tool and gift to allow him to translate, but the human factor was not eliminated. If Mormon wrote a word for "swine" to describe something that we might call a peccary or tapir today, then I believe the translation would give us the word "swine", especially if Joseph had no word in his vocabulary for peccary or tapir. The results were expressed in the language and vernacular of the translator, based on whatever the original author had written - blemishes and all. Now if it were essential for our salvation that we read about peccaries rather than swine, I suppose that God would have instructed Joseph in the matter and corrected the translation appropriately. But we are dealing with a translation, not direct English quotes from God.

My experience with the Mandarin and Hmong languages makes it clear that animal and plant names often cannot be translated accurately when the particular species referred to is not common to the cultures behind both languages. In the Hmong culture of Laos, for example, where rice is the primary grain, grains such as wheat, barley, millet, etc., may all be described as rice or forms of rice. English "bread" also translates as a form of rice. If Joseph Smith had been born in northern Laos, the Book of Mormon would undoubtedly talk about rice instead of barley and wheat. Fortunately, the English language allows more flexibility in the naming of grains, but we still must be cautious when we encounter specific names.

Consider some of the odd names we give to various creatures and ask yourself how those names might be translated in other languages. For example, what we call a star fish is not a fish at all. If the translator didn't know what a star fish was, would he be wrong to call it a fish? Our word for hippopotamus literally means "river horse," which is what the Greeks called that animal. But the hippopotamus is totally unrelated to horses. Is it wrong to name it a horse or translate the name as a kind of horse? If Joseph Smith had translated a Greek document that spoke of river horses and he knew nothing of the hippopotamus, would he be a fraud if he had called it a horse? Several languages call our potato an "earth apple," yet it is not an apple. Ditto for our sea cucumber, our mountain lion, our sea horse, and our hedgehog. Zoological accuracy is not the purpose of the scriptures and has little to do with the salvation of souls. Zoological uncertainty may be hard to avoid given the realities of translation.

The same sword that critics use to attack the Book of Mormon slices the Bible just as nicely. The lack of physical evidence for many animals mentioned in the Bible has long perplexed Bible scholars. In the case of lions, for example, there is textual evidence of their existence in Israel throughout ancient times and even as late as the 1500s, but it appears that no lion skeletons or remains of any kind have ever been found (John A. Tvedtnes, Reviews of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp. 29-30), though one e-mail source has informed me that two lion skeletons were found in 1983. The same source told me that prior to the 1960s, there were not even any known artistic depictions of lions from the Biblical era. But based on the textual evidence, it seems clear that lions were a well known factor in the ancient Middle East.

On a related note, the Bible talks about tents, brass, steel, and other physical objects in times and places for which inadequate confirming evidence has been found (evidence of ancient tents may have been found at one site, Timna; the 116 occurrences of "brass" in the KJV Old Testament may simply refer to copper or bronze). We should not be surprised when the surviving evidence for ancient animals and other objects proves to be scant. It's hardly a reason for abandoning a sacred text.

New discoveries are constantly changing our understanding or flora and fauna in the ancient world. Many discoveries favorable to the Book of Mormon, such as ancient New World domesticated barley, pre-Columbian horses in Mayan territory, and sheep wool in Mesoamerica, have been very recent. With only a fraction of the evidence in, it's too early to assume that any argument from silence is truly meaningful. Consider this thought from Sorenson ( An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 296):

The case of the horse bones, found years ago but ignored by all the archaeologists, tells us that we must constantly scrutinize the adequacy of "current" scientific beliefs. The Eurasian sheep is not supposed to have been in pre-Columbian America either, yet real sheep's wool was found in a burial site at Cholula, Puebla, Mexico, in an archaeological setting that gave no other indication of dating after the Spaniards arrived [Linne, Mexican Highland Cultures, p. 156]. This lone specimen doesn't take us far toward a literal reading of the Book of Mormon term sheep, but perhaps we should keep this door too ajar a little.

With that note as a foreword, we can better deal with specific questions about animals and plants mentioned in the Book of Mormon. (The issue of horses is most commonly raised, at least in e-mail to me, so I'll treat that in the most detail below.)

What kind of evidence should we expect to find?

Critics of the Book of Mormon assume that if Book of Mormon peoples did have the horse, sheep, elephants, chickens, or other disputed animals, that there should be clear archaeological remains to confirm their presence. Nevertheless, it is possible for a now extinct animal species to have been known to Mesoamericans without leaving clear archaeological evidence. William Hamblin illustrates this with the example of horses among the Huns ("Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring and Fall 1993, p. 194):

The Huns of Central Asia and Eastern Europe were a nomadic people for whom horses represented both a major form of wealth and the basis of their military power. Estimates are that each Hun warrior may have had has many as ten horses [Rudi P. Lindner, "Nomadism, Horse and Huns," Past and Present 92 (1981): 15]. Nonetheless, "To quote S. Bokonyi, a foremost authority on the subject, 'We know very little of the Huns' horses. It is interesting that not a single usable horse bone has been found in the territory of the whole empire of the Huns'" [Denis Sinor, "The Hun Period," in Denis Sinor, ed., The Cambridge History of Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 203; cf. Lindner, "Nomadism, Horse and Huns," 13, for additional references]. During the two centuries of their domination of the western steppe, the Huns must have had hundreds of thousands of horses. If Hunnic horse bones are so rare despite their vast herds, why should we expect extensive evidence of the use of horses in Nephite Mesoamerica, especially considering the limited references to horses in the Book of Mormon text?

Many Book of Mormon critics rely too much on the argument from silence, placing great emphasis on on the lack of animal and other remains, when that same approach could unjustly condemn the Bible. As John A. Tvedtnes explains (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp.29-30):

Anyone who has been involved in archaeology knows that new discoveries are continually changing previous concepts of the past. The absence of faunal evidences has perplexed Bible scholars in the Near East. Why, for example, with the textual evidence for lions in Israel in both ancient and modern times (up to the sixteenth century A.D.), have no lion skeletons or other remains ever been found? Similarly, I know of only one instance (Timna) where remnants of an ancient tent have been found in the territory of ancient Israel, despite the frequent mention of tents in the Bible.

Likewise we expect that Norse settlers brought animals from Europe with them to their early settlements on this continent, probably including the horse, the cow, sheep, the goat, and the pig, but these animals did not spread and have left no archaeological remains (Gwyn Jones, The Norse Atlantic Saga, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford, 1986, p. 107. pp. 129-130, as cited by Hamblin, p. 194; and Erik Wahlgren, The Vikings and America, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986, p. 124, as cited by Hamblin, p. 194). We must be cautious in drawing conclusions from an apparent lack of animal remains or other remains. Specific animals and plants could have been used without leaving substantial traces.

Questions answered on this page:

How do you account for the incorrect mention of certain animals in the Book of Mormon - especially the horse?

First, please consider the general note on plants and animals above. In addition to my discussion below, you may also wish to see the Chapman Research page on Horses in the Book of Mormon.

Many critics ridicule the mention of horses in the Book of Mormon, for it is widely assumed that horses were not known to man in the Americas prior to contact with Europeans. I will show below that this assumption may be invalid, but first I must remind the reader of the general problem of translating the names of animals and plants from one language and culture to another. It is naive to assume - without careful consideration of the text, the setting, and other external information - that the word "horse" must refer to the specific animal we think of today. To understand what is meant by "horse," we must at least read the text carefully and understand how that word is used. 1 Nephi 18:25 tells us that the Nephites found "horses" in the wilderness upon their arrival on the American continent (Mesoamerica). There were many in the land (2 Nephi 12:7) and they were later raised by the Nephites (Enos 1:21). The earlier Jaredites also "had" horses (Ether 9:19). Interestingly, there is no description of horses playing any kind of a role in battle and no description of horses being ridden. Two passages refer to horses and chariots (Alma 18:9-12 and 3 Nephi 3:22), but there is no clue as to how horses and chariots were used except that they helped "conduct" a king on a local journey. Nowhere in the text do we get a description of what horses were and we have essentially no information on how they were used. Interestingly, 3 Nephi 4:4 groups "horses" with" cattle" and "flocks" as means gathered for the Nephites to "subsist" during a an expected long-term siege - in other words, horses may have been part of their food supply.

As a beginning, we must ask what is meant by the word horse? Does it refer to the true horse (Equus) of today? Was it a label given by the Nephites to an analogous creature in the Americas (deer or tapir, for example)? Does it refer to the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus) thought to have been extinct before Book of Mormon times? Was it a reasonable approximation given by Joseph Smith for some other species? If we don't want to bother with the work of seriously understanding the text, then we can simply jump ahead to the easy but careless conclusion made by critics: the word "horse" is an anachronism that disproves the Book of Mormon.

Were there horses in the Americas?

Yes, the fossil record is now clear on that point, but it is widely thought that they were extinct before Book of Mormon times. However, that assumption may be incorrect. I quote from a review by Matthew Roper in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 4, 1992, p.208:

Scholars no longer doubt that horses were present in the New World during the Pleistocene period. Although many believe that horses were extinct long before the Book of Mormon era, there is still disagreement as to just how long horses survived in the New World. Some scholars believe that horses could have survived as late as 3000 B.C. [see discussion in Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 98-99]. Ivan Sanderson states that "there is a body of evidence both from the mainland of Central America and even from rock drawings in Haiti . . . tending to show that the horse may have been known to man in the Americas before the coming of the Spaniards." Sanderson further suggests that it is conceivable that "isolated small populations of horses or horse-like animals continued to exist until much later times in outlying corners of the two continents where conditions were suitable to their requirements and where they were free from whatever animal foes or parasitic diseases caused their extermination" elsewhere [Ivan T. Sanderson, Living Treasure (New York: Viking Press, 1941), 39-40]. Pre-Columbian horse remains that showed no signs of fossilization have actually been found in several sites on the Yucatan Peninsula ["Once Again the Horse," F.A.R.M.S. Update, June 1984; John Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 98-100]. In 1957, Mayapan, a Post-Classic Mayan site, yielded the remains of horses at a depth of two meters under ground. They were "considered to be pre-Columbian on the basis of depth of burial and degree of mineralization"[Clayton E. Ray, "Pre-Columbian Horses from Yucatan," Journal of Mammalogy 38 (May 1957): 278].

In the Yucatan area, horse remains were found during archaeological investigations in three caves (see Henry Chapman Mercer, The Hill-Caves of Yucatan: A Search for Evidence of Man's Antiquity in the Caverns of Central America, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1896, p. 172, as cited in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 99). These remains were associated with signs of human activity (potsherds), and bore with no sign of fossilization. More recently, 1978 excavations at the Loltun Cave in the Maya lowlands also yielded the remains of horses (see Institute of Maya Studies, Miami Museum of Science, Newsletter 7, no. 11, Nov. 1978, p. 2, as cited in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 99).

That seems pretty significant: the discovery of pre-Columbian, non-fossil horse remains from Book of Mormon times in the Book of Mormon setting of Mesoamerica. Careful work remains to be done in dating and classifying these remains. But it should be clear that references to horses in the Book of Mormon are insufficient grounds for rejecting the book as fraudulent. This doesn't prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but helps establish the possibility of plausibility on one minute issue - and should serve to warn us about the risky and tentative nature of conclusions drawn from arguments of silence (failure to find something does not necessarily mean it never existed).

Further, there is linguistic evidence for American horses before Columbus:

"No systematic research has been done comparing the names of animals in the Near East and Mesoamerica. Just as we saw with the metals, perhaps also with beasts: clarifying links may appear through linguistic studies. A hint of the possibilities derives from work on the Yuman language group (located around the lower Colorado River, near the U.S.-Mexican border). Reconstructing the protoculture associated with the ancestral Yuman language by comparing the descendant tongues, an investigator reconstructed a word for "horse" on strong evidence [Howard W. Law, "A Reconstructed Proto-Culture Derived from Some Yuman Vocabularies," Anthropological Linguistics 3 (1961):54]. That is, the indications are that a term for horse was shared by those people long before European horses arrived. The evidence is not foolproof, of course, but it does demand some alternative explanation if we are not to suppose early knowledge of the horse."

(John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Comp., SLC, UT (1985), p. 297.)

Could other species be meant?

It may be naive to assume that the word "horse" necessarily refers to the species of we know today. The Hebrew word for horse , "sus", has a root meaning of "to leap" and can refer to other animals as well - including the swallow (J. L. Sorenson, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 345). Since deer also leap, it is not impossible that the early Nephites might have described them with a word related to "sus" or even the word "sus" itself. (Sorenson notes also that "ss" in Egyptian means horse, while "shs" is antelope). Could the "horse" of the Book of Mormon be Mesoamerican deer?

John L. Sorenson has suggested the latter possibility and has pointed to archaeological specimens showing humans riding on the backs of animal figures, some of which are evidently deer. Also Mayan languages used the term deer for Spanish horses and deer-rider for horsemen. Indians of Zinacantan, Chiapas, believe that the mythical "Earth Owner," who is supposed to be rich and live inside a mountain, rides on deer. In addition, the Aztec account of the Spanish Conquest used terms like the-deer-which-carried-men-upon-their-backs, called horses (see Bernardino de Sahagun, The War of Conquest: How It Was Waged Here in Mexico, trans. A. J. Anderson and C. E. Dibble [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1978], pp. 28, 35, 55, 60).

--Quoted from Reexploring the Book of Mormon, John Welch, ed., Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1992, p. 98).

Further work needs to be done to better understand what "horses" in the Book of Mormon actually refers to and how they were used. If anything, though, the occurrence of the "horses" in the Book of Mormon should serve as an invitation for further scholarship, not as a reason for ending it.

For additional information, see the Chapman Research page on Horses in the Book of Mormon.

What about the mention of elephants?

Elephants are mentioned only once (Ether 9:19) as having been "had" by the ancient Jaredites. This occurrence is at an early point in the history of the Jaredites, probably well before 2500 B.C. based on the chronology proposed by Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Is this an obvious blunder? Mastodons and mammoths, a form of elephants, lived across North America and part of South America. It is widely believed that they went extinct before Jaredite times. However, there are other indications:

Experts agree that the mammoth, and mastodon could have survived in favored spots much later than the time normally assigned for their extinction. The mastodon has already been dated as late as 5000 B.C. at Devil's Den, Florida, and around the Great Lakes to 4000 B.C. Then there is the remarkable discovery of the remains of a butchered mastodon in Ecuador; pottery associated with the find is said to date to after the time of Christ [J. Augusta, The Age of Monsters, Prehistoric and Legendary (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1966), pp. 11-12.]. In its light, the radiocarbon date around 100 B.C. of horse, mammoth and mastodon remains at St. Petersburg, Florida, does not seem impossible [Jim J. Hester, "Agency of Man in Animal Extinction," in Martin and Wright, "Pleistocene Extinctions," p. 185]. The Jaredite mention of the elephant a single time - very early in their lineage history - hints that the creature became extinct in their area soon thereafter. Perhaps the Jaredites themselves killed off the last of the beasts within their zone. But the Jaredites might not have been the only people to record the presence of the big animal. Some North American Indians have recounted legends of "great stiff-legged beasts who could not lie down" and of an animal with a fifth appendage, which came out of its head [H. P. Beck, "The Giant Beaver: A Prehistoric Memory," Ethnohistory 19 (1972):117; William Duncan Strong, "North American Indian Traditions Suggesting Knowledge of the Mammoth," American Anthropologist 36 (1934):81-88]. Possibly, tribes transmitted through oral tradition some vague remembrance of encounters with these "elephants." The later the beasts survived, the easier it is to accept the reliability of the tradition. In any case, it is possible that the mammoth or mastodon hung on in Mexico at least as late as 2500 B.C.

(John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Comp., SLC, UT (1985), p. 297.)

Hugh Nibley has some interesting comments on this issue in his book, Since Cumorah, p. 255:

What happened to the elephants? The Jaredites used them, we are told, but there is no mention of the Nephites having them. They disappear in between the two cultures. When? The Book of Mormon does not say, and the guesses of scientists range all the way from hundreds of thousands to mere hundreds of years ago. Elephants have strange ways of disappearing. If it were not for the written accounts of unquestionable authenticity, no one would ever have guessed that the Pharaohs of the XVIII Dynasty hunted elephants in Syria - where are their remains? Prof. Mallowan says that the wonderful Birs Nimrud ivories which he discovered were made from the tusks of a now-extinct breed of elephant that was being hunted in Mesopotamia as recently as the eighth century B.C. Who would have guessed that ten years ago?

At the moment, I think that the single mention of elephants among a very early group of New World people could be accounted for plausibly by surviving mammoths or mastodons, which later became fully extinct. Failure to find abundant elephant remains from the Jaredite period need not be taken as proof against the Book of Mormon.

For more information about elephants on this continent, see Glen Chapman's page on elephants in the Book of Mormon - now including scanned images from various publications.

P.S. - In our local paper, the Post-Crescent, an Associated Press article was printed on Oct. 30, 1996 about the discovery of several mammoth skeletons in San Miguel Tocuila, Mexico. Though scientists believed it lived between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, it is further evidence of the presence of mammoths in ancient Mexico - and perhaps others survived into Jaredite times. Along with several mammoth skeletons, fossilized bones of bison, flamingos, and other wildlife were found.

What about other animals like chickens, cattle, and swine?

The term chicken could easily apply to the native turkeys that Mesoamericans used. Although a turkey is not a chicken, it is not surprising that people encountering turkeys for the first time might use the term "chicken" to describe them. When the Arabs encountered the turkey, they called it an "Indian rooster." In fact, the English word "turkey" is derived from the sixteenth-century term "turkey-cock," meaning essentially "turkish rooster." The term originally referred to a fowl from Ottoman Turkish territory in North Africa, but now describes birds native to the Americas (Simpson and Weinder, The Oxford English Dictionary, 18:690c, 692a, as cited by William J. Hamblin, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring and Fall 1993, p. 194).

It is important to note that there were many species of animals used by Mesoamericans. Semitic peoples naming these animals might have used words familiar to them to describe the new creatures, much as English speaking peoples used the term "turkey" to describe the famous native American gobbler. For example, Michael D. Coe notes that there were "several breeds of dogs current among the Maya, each with its own name. . . . Both wild and domestic turkeys were known. . . .The larger mammals, such as deer and peccary, were hunted with bow-and-arrow in drives (though in Classic times the atlatl-and-dart must have been the principal weapon), aided by packs of dogs. Birds like the wild turkey, partridge, wild pigeon, quail, and wild duck were taken with pellets shot from blowguns. A variety of snare and deadfalls are shown in the Madrid Codex, especially a trap for armadillo." (Coe, p. 156.)

An excellent summary of information on some allegedly "incorrect" animals in the Book of Mormon is given by Matthew Roper in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 4, 1992, pp. 205-209. He treats several cases:

The Chicken

The word "chicken" only occurs in a metaphor used by Christ speaking of a hen gathering chickens under her wings (3 Nephi 10:4-6). The concept of a bird protecting her young could be understood by the Nephites regardless of what they knew about chickens in particular. It is possible that some other species of bird was used by Christ when speaking to the Nephites, with "chicken" as an appropriate translation into English - especially since the Bible uses the same metaphor. However, real chickens may have been in the Americas. Roper (op. cit., p. 206) says "George F. Carter of Texas A&M University has discussed evidence that chickens were present in pre-Columbian America, probably having been imported from East Asia" [see George F. Carter, "Pre-Columbian Chickens in America," in Caroll L. Riley et al., Man across the Sea (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 178-218; George F. Carter, "Before Columbus," in Paul R. Cheesman, The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 172-76; "F.A.R.M.S.-Sponsored 'Chicken Project' Will Be Published Soon," Insights: Ancient Window (July 1992): 5]. Actual pre-Columbian chicken bones have been found at several sites in the Western United States, though prior scholarly publications have ignored these finds since "everybody knows" that there were no chickens there before Columbus.


The Hebrew word b'hemah, sometimes translated as "cattle" in the Old Testament, can refer to "any large quadruped or animal" [Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible, 19]. The Hebrew word s'eh, also translated as "cattle," usually refers to smaller domesticates such as sheep or goats. The Book of Mormon term could easily refer to any small or large quadruped. There are, of course, many New World species that could fall within this description.

(Roper, op. cit. p. 207)

After reading about the discovery of fossilized bison along with the mammoths recently found in Mexico (Associated Press, Oct. 30, 1996), perhaps one could speculate that bison were treated and named as cattle. If buffalo or bison had been in Joseph Smith's vocabulary in 1829, perhaps a more specific term might have been used in the translation, but "cattle" (perhaps as a generic term) may have been the most accurate translation for whatever word was used in the Nephite language.


Contrary to allegations in some anti-LDS books, the Book of Mormon does not say that the Nephites ate swine (which would have been a violation of the law of Moses), though the earlier Jaredites did (Ether 9:18) - but the Jaredites were not under the law of Moses. Does "swine" necessarily refer to the type of animal we think of today? Perhaps not. Roper (p. 207) notes that "peccaries were well known in Mesoamerica and look very much like domesticated pigs and could easily fit the Book of Mormon designation of swine."

What about grains like barley and wheat?

Barley and wheat are mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 7:22, 9:9; and Alma 11:7,15). These are not said to be derived from Old World "seeds" that Nephi's group brought with them in 600 B.C. Indeed, plant transfers from one land to another often don't succeed in the long run, and we may assume that many or most references to grains and plants in the Book of Mormon were to New World plants. The complex issue of translating plant and animal names again needs to be considered.

The reference to barley, long derided by critics, received increased plausibility in 1983, when professional archeologists announced the discovery of pre-Columbian domesticated barley found in Arizona (see the Dec. 1983 issue of Science 83). This was a New World species of cultivated (unhulled) barley. Further, it has been known for years that there are several kinds of wild barley native to the Americas (Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 130). You can partially verify this yourself on the new USDA Plants Web site, where a search on barley (enter the search string "*barley*") reveals that "foxtail barley" and "dwarf barley" are native plants in the United States.

Critics now say that the New World barley has nothing to do with the barley mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which they incorrectly assume must have been Old World barley. The occurrence of "barley" in the Book of Mormon is hundreds of years after Nephi came to the New World. There is no reason to believe this barley was descended from Old World barley that theoretically could have been brought by Nephi's group. The Nephites could easily have been using a similar New World grain that they called barley and that Joseph Smith translated as barley. I am amazed at the critics who, after years of attacking the Book of Mormon for its "anomalous" mention of barley, simply dismiss the recent scientific evidence of ancient, domesticated New World barley as being "inapplicable." Is that intellectually honest?

There are a wide variety of cultivated grains from ancient Mesoamerica that could have been called "wheat" or "barley." Sorenson gives a partial list (Rev. of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp. 338-339) including amaranth, huauzontle, chia (used heavily by the Aztecs), fox-tail millet, two species of 'perennial corn,' and Chalco teosinte. References are provided to scholarly, non-LDS publications for each of these grains. By entering "*wheat*" as a search string on the new USDA Plants database, I found that there are numerous native North American species with names comprising the word "wheat." Specifically, there are multiple varieties each of "wheatgrass," "buckwheat," and "cowwheat," and one species called "desert Indianwheat." I have no evidence that any of these were cultivated or would even be worth cultivating. The point, though, is that English speakers have used common names for grains (like "wheat" or "barley") to describe some native plant species - something that could easily have happened with other peoples as well.

One interesting plant mentioned in the Book of Mormon is "sheum" (Mosiah 9:9). "This name rather obviously derived from Akkadian (Babylonian) 'she-um,' barley (Old Assyrian, wheat), 'the most popular ancient Mesopotamian cereal name.' A Jaredite source [for that name[ is logical, for that group departed from Mesopotamia, although the Book of Mormon reference is to a plant cultivated by the Zeniffites (a Nephite-'Mulekite' group) in the second century B.C. (Sorenson, op. cit., 1994, p. 338). Sorenson cites this as an example of a name change, for the Nephites at this time had a separate word for barley, and must have been calling some other species by the name "sheum." Perhaps it was one of the several Mesoamerican grains listed above.

What about figs and grapes?

"Figs" and "grapes" are mentioned in 3 Nephi 14:16 when the resurrected Lord recites much of the Sermon on the Mount to a group Book of Mormon peoples. "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" The New Testament Greek literally reads "bunches" (staphulas) instead of grapes. While thorns and thistles were present in the New World, critics have claimed that grapes and figs were absent. Yet some types of grapes were present, and various New World plants could be described by the term "bunches." Mesoamerican fig trees do exist (though I don't know about their fruit), and fig bark was used to make paper by the Aztecs. Note, however, that the Book of Mormon does not say that figs and grapes were available to the Book of Mormon peoples; perhaps they were only aware of such fruits from their scriptural records from Israel or perhaps the context of the sermon made it clear that some type of fruit available in bunches was referred to. Perhaps the Nephites used Semitic words for grapes and figs to describe New World plants they encountered. The arguments against the Book of Mormon based on the words "figs" and "grapes" seem rather weak.

Extensive inventories of plants cultivated in Mesoamerica have been published in several sources (e.g., C.B. Heiser, Jr., "Cultivated Plants and Cultural Diffusion in Nuclear America," American Anthropologist, Vol. 67, pp. 930-949, 1965). Some critics have published small lists of plants recovered from single excavations, as if their fractional lists should pose a problem for the Book of Mormon. More complete lists do include species of grape (sometimes called "vitis"). Some critics say that no Old World plants have been identified in the Americas, but this is manifestly false. An extensive bibliography is available in Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography by J.L. Sorenson and M.H. Raish, 2 vols., Provo, UT: Research, 1990 (available through FARMS). Evidence for numerous Old World plants, including cultivated plants for crops, has been found in the New World. These plants were brought across the oceans, but we don't know how or by whom.

What about the mention of bees? They weren't introduced into the New World until long after Book of Mormon times

There are several references to bees or honey in the Book of Mormon - but all occur in the Old World. Lehi's group found honey in the Old World, a passage quoted from Isaiah mentions bees, and the Jaredite group carried bees with them as they traveled in the Old World. We are not told that the Jaredites brought bees into the New World. Bees are missing in the list of items placed on the ships in Ether 6:4. But no wonder: I'd be uncomfortable being locked in a closed vessel with hives of bees. With no indication of bees being brought to the New World, we have nothing to explain. We simply don't have to explain or apologize for things that the Book of Mormon does not say.

Nevertheless, the allegation that bees were unknown in Book of Mormon times may be incorrect. In my copy of Michael D. Coe's excellent book, The Maya (4th edition, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), Coe discusses Mayan life based on the Spanish missionaries' "first-class anthropological accounts of native culture as it was just before they came" (p. 155). He states that "the Maya farmer raised the native stingless bees, which are kept in small, hollow logs closed with mud plaster at either end and stacked up in A-frames, but wild honey was also much appreciated" (p. 156). Honey was a valuable export from the Yucatan (p. 157). Coe also refers to Classic Maya rituals to increase animal life and honey (p. 172).

Comments About This Page

The following is taken from one of the more polite responses I have received from someone who disagrees:

"... I have to disagree with the assumption that "horse" could mean deer or any other similar lifeform. Because if you look into the Holy Bible, whenever they used a word like horse or deer it actually was talking about a horse or a deer. We cannot just assume one animal really was meant to represent another animal. That is not a scientific approach."

Interesting point. The Bible is true, we agree, but you may be surprised that many non-believers have ridiculed it for the same apparent problem that you think the Book of Mormon has. The King James Version, for example, mentions dragons (Ps. 91:13; Is. 27:1; Is. 43:20; Jer. 51:34; and many others), unicorns (Deut. 33:17; Num. 23:22, 24:8; Job 39:9-10; Ps. 92:10; Is. 34:7 and several others), fiery flying serpents (Is. 30:6); satyrs (Is. 13:21; Is. 34:14), and other strange creatures. Those who defend the Bible against the critics are quick to point out the difficulty of understanding and translating various terms for animals (especially for extinct or unfamiliar species) and indicate how it is unclear in many cases what actual creature is referred to. It is a fact of life that some words in Hebrew may refer to a variety of species, and some words mean things that we just don't understand for sure.

It is easy to assume that a translated reference to a deer, horse, camel, or serpent was derived from a word that actually was intended to convey the species we think of, but it's simply incorrect to say that what we picture is always what the original writer meant. What did the writer mean by the terms translated as unicorn, dragon, leviathan, satyr, or flying serpent? What was really meant by the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden? What is the dragon of the sea? Even the term "ox" may not agree with our modern understanding of that word.

The problem extends to plants (e.g., corn, wheat, mustard), metals, and other items. For example, the Bible mentions brass and steel in times thought to be too early for such metals to have been known (Job 20:24; Exodus 25:3). Was the same kind of metal that we think of really meant? Not always, it seems. Translation of ancient languages, as well as proper interpretation of details in even the most accurate translations, is a challenging task. Don't expect assumptions based on your experiences as a 20th century North American to be a reliable for accurately understanding a translated text from an ancient and very different culture. Don't expect a 1996 tour of the San Diego Zoo to be a reliable guide to understanding the creatures mentioned in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon.

As for horses, it's possible that actual horses were meant, for evidence exists of actual pre-Columbian horses in Book of Mormon times.

Understanding what an ancient text actually meant to the writers may require dropping some easy assumptions based on our cultural and zoological experiences. Doing so is not unscientific - it's demanded by the scientific process. We must beware the danger of clinging to the apparent "plain meaning of the text" without careful efforts to discern that meaning. To do otherwise is to ride the unicorn of foolishness into a dragon's lair, so to speak.

(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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