Animals in the Book of Mormon

I. A Possible Mormon Source?

Seth R. writes:

Animals in the Book of Mormon:
Bother to actually research the Mormon responses before making claims.

I’ve talked with both LDS friends of mine and with Mormon missionaries on this issue, and was unaware that FAIR existed (although I’ll try and make us of it in the future). I didn’t go more into depth on that issue because it wasn’t the primary point of that post. That said, Seth, I appreciate you providing the link as something you consider the Mormon response. I’ll address their specific claims. This way, hopefully, I can’t be accused of straw-manning, or choosing the worst possible Mormon apologists.

The paragraph in question from my earlier post:

Their Scriptures include reference to “all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats” (Ether 9:18), as well as “horses, and asses, and […] elephants” (Ether 9:19) being in the New World prior to Columbus – none were. This is pretty easily provable, particularly for horses, since their introduction shortly after Columbus’ arrival revolutionized the lifestyle of the Plains Indians and many other groups. The mental image we collectively have of Native Americans riding horses and hunting buffalo is an image only possible after Columbus’ arrival. Their lifestyle prior was radically different.

In addition to that, I make a similar argument about honeybees, which are strangely important within Mormonism. Let’s see how the LDS apologists he cites over at FAIR respond.

II. “Loan-Shifting”
Their major argument is that:

“In the first place, one should not reject the possibility of “loan-shifting,” in which a name for a familiar species is applied for a new species. This is a well-known phenomenon — for example, Amerindians called European horses ‘deer’ when they first encountered them. The classic example is, of course, the hippopotamus, which name the Greeks gave to an animal they called a “river (potamus) horse (hippo).” Critics who scoff should ask themselves how anyone could mistake a hippopotamus for a horse — the answer, of course, is that the Greeks knew perfectly well that the hippo was not a true horse, but the name stuck.

In other words, sure, the animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being in the Pre-Columbian New World weren’t actually there. But here are some animals that did exist which were sort of like those animals. Donkeys weren’t there… but tapirs were! So the argument reads like a cop-out.

But there’s a bigger question: who’s doing the “loan-shifting”? Mormons claim that the angel Moroni translated some pre-Columbian golden tablets out of “Ancient Egyptian” for Joseph Smith, Jr. So three parties may be “loan-shifting”:

  1. The Original Pre-Columbian Authors
  2. Moroni, Prophet-Turned-Translating Angel
  3. Joseph Smith, Jr.

None of these choices make sense.

  1. FAIR mentions that “Amerindians called European horses ‘deer’ when they first encountered them,” but you’ll note that Amerindians didn’t refer to deer as horses… because they didn’t have any contact with horses. So the pre-Columbian Authors, unfamiliar with Old World animals, wouldn’t have referred to the animals they knew by comparing them to animals they’d never seen. If anything, this loan-shifting should be going the other direction: calling Old World animals by New World names. Unless, of course, the author if familiar with European animals.
  2. Moroni was a pre-Columbian New World prophet, so the same argument applies to him. Plus, by the time he’s translating for Joseph Smith in the 19th century, we know the difference between a tapir and a horse, and have names for both. There’s no reason that an angel sent by God to translate pre-Columbian books into English couldn’t know the names of the animals he’s translating in English. Sure, if the translation were going on before Columbus, there weren’t English words for these animals. But by the time he’s translating, there are. Under what possible explanation can we explain him loan-shifting?
  3. Finally, Joseph Smith himself is a possibility, but he claims that he’s just writing down what the angel tells him. And it’s far-fetched to imagine him being like, “‘Tapirs,’ Moroni? Let’s put ‘asses’ instead.”

I’m fine with the general idea of “loan-shifting” in anthropology and cultural studies. People often compare animals that they don’t know with animals that they do (although in the case of the hippo, the Greeks used “water horse” to denote it as a separate animal than a horse, in the same way we say “seahorse”). But that explanation makes no sense at all here, and signals that even LDS apologists can’t defend what Joseph Smith claims that the angel Moroni told him in English.

One final note on this: there’s one time where the Bible does use loan-shifting. Whales are referred to as fish, although there are some Christological reasons for this (the sign of Jonah), so this loan-shift is intention. But it doesn’t occur in the Book of Mormon: Ether 2:24 mentions whales. So it seems that the Book of Mormon isn’t “loan-shifting.” When the original books were written, there wasn’t a word for whales, but when the angel Moroni translated, he used the now-existant word. Why wouldn’t he do that for all the other animals, if he meant things like tapirs?

EDIT: The single best argument against this occurred to me right after I posted. Ether 9:19 says “And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms. ” Cureloms and cumoms are animals who appear nowhere outside of the Book of Mormon. From an LDS perspective, they’re animals known to the ancient people but not known to modern readers. Note that the writers don’t rename cureloms and cumoms into European animals.

III. The Animals, One By One
All right. Let’s look at how FAIR defends each animal, using their order:

A. Ass (Donkey)
FAIR says something very important at the outset: “The only clue to the role of the ‘ass’ in Nephite society comes from Mosiah 12:5 and Mosiah 21:3, in which those in bondage bear burdens like ‘a dumb ass.'” So we’re looking not only for pre-Columbian donkeys, but pre-Columbian donkeys used as pack animals. Otherwise, why would a pre-Columbian author make that sort of analogy? How does FAIR answer this problem? They suggest it’s the tapir. The problem is (1) they’re loan-shifting; (2) tapirs aren’t very much like donkeys at all; (3) tapirs aren’t herd animals, which they acknowledge; and (4) tapirs aren’t used to carry things. They’re only three feet tall as adults! It’d be like trying to use a labrador as a pack animal. Tapirs were, and are, used as a food source in Latin America. This is yet more evidence that they weren’t pack animals, since cultures usually don’t eat the animals they use to get from place to place.

Finally, have you seen a tapir? Here’s one next to an adult in children. They’re about three feet tall, fat, and would be hard to transport things on, even if they weren’t known to be violent.

B. Bees
First, FAIR claims that they’re only mentioned as having them in the Old World. But Ether 2:3 mentions the Jaredites taking them to “the promised land,” which is in the New World. Their fallback position is that:

Some studies suggest, however, that bees were known in the ancient New World. Bruce Warren, for instance, notes that there “are many references in the Maya region to honey bees in ancient times, and these references occur in ritual contexts, i.e., are of native or pre-Spanish origin.” Other New World scholars have observed that “not only was the domesticated bee in ancient America but that there were gods of bees and beekeepers . . . Honey was considered a real treat for the Indians. Equally important was black wax taken from the hives which was often traded for other commodities.”

This paragraph is taken from, but FAIR omits some of the original source’s citations. If you’re wondering, the citations are to:

  • Bruce W. Warren (1963), “Further on the Claims of the Book of Mormon as to the Origin and Characteristics of its First Civilization,” Progress in Archaeology: An Anthology (Provo; Brigham Young University).
  • Diane E. Wirth, A Challenge to the Critics (Bountiful, Ut; Horizon Pub., 1986).

Both are Mormon apologists, not some neutral “New World scholars,” as they’re portrayed.

Note what Ether 2:3 describes: the bringing of honeybees from the New World to the Old World. Arguing that there were other species of native bees in the Old World does nothing to advance this argument. FAIR builds upon the Mormon Fortress paragraph with their own citation, and provide one non-Mormon source: F. Padilla, F. Puerta, J. M. Flores and M. Bustos, “Bees, Apiculture and the New World,” in Archivos de zootécnica, 41/154 (1992-extra): 563–567. That source does nothing to help the Mormon claim. In fact, it says:

The arrival in North America of the first beehives is well documented. In a letter dated 5 December 1621, sent from the Council of the Virginia Company in London to its Governor and Council in Virginia it states We have by this ship and the Discovery sent you… and beehives, probably these beehives contained the A. mellifera mellifera.
The bees brought to America progressed rapidly. The climate in the colonies was good and they developed quickly. The rapid expansion of the european bees was probably due to their predominance over the indigenous insects, or more likely to the absence of competitive insects.

So when Old World honeybees are brought to the New World, they take over the ecosystem, displacing any honey-producing insects or bees which previously existed [there are insects which can be technically considered honeybees in the New World, but they’re not the species we know as honeybees, and they’re not from the Old World – they’re indigenous to the New]. Remember that Ether 2:3 claims that the Jaredites brought bees from the Old World to the New. If this were true,

  • (a) Why is there no ecological evidence of these Old World honeybees? Shouldn’t these superior bees have still been around when Columbus arrived, or at least, shouldn’t the bees have left some sort of trace (perhaps hybrid bees, like we’ve seen with the introduction of Africanized honeybees, etc.)?
  • (b) Why were the indigenous insects still the norm when the Virginia Company sent Old World bees, given how easily they were dominated by Old World bees?

C. Cows/Cattle.
FAIR argues that these cows and cattle were just buffalo and other buffalo. But of course that loan-shifting makes no sense here. FAIR even points out that Amerindians knew what buffalo were and not what cows were, so they called the cows “buffalo” (not, you’ll note, the other way around). All parties – Joseph Smith, Moroni, and the ancient writers – would have known what a buffalo was. Two of the three parties (including the two who allegedly wrote and translated it) had never seen a cow. And we’re supposed to think that they used the word “cow,” instead to refer to buffalo? FAIR claims that “As with many other animals in the Book of Mormon, it is likely that these Book of Mormon terms are the product of reassigning familiar labels to unfamiliar items…” To whom was a buffalo unfamiliar?

Besides that, Enos 1:21 says that “And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses.” And we’re supposed to conclude that they’re buffalo farmers?

D. Elephants (Or Mastodons)
FAIR claims that there is non-Mormon attestation to ancient elephants, and that the prophesies in question are referring to so long ago (pre-2400 B.C.) that maybe elephants (or mastodons) might have existed. I’m skeptical, but I’ll give them this one – I think they’re arguing against the overwhelming majority of knowledgable and unbiased researchers, but they raise good points (art, etc.) for their side. Plus, in this case, loan-shifting would make sense. 19th century readers wouldn’t know what a “mastodon” was, and had no word for it,* and so an inspired writer or translater might use a descriptive term instead of a biological one. Again though, this only makes sense because 19th century readers don’t know what mastodons are. They do know what donkeys, buffaloes, and such are. Do I think elephants existed then? No. But I can see how someone might.

E. Horses
FAIR’s first argument:
“As mentioned, one should not reject the possibility of ‘loan-shifting,’ — candidate species for ‘horse’ under this interpretation include the tapir, deer or llama.”
As usual, loan-shifting doesn’t make sense here. And the fact that they’re trying to say both “tapirs are called ‘donkeys’ in the translation of the Book of Mormon” and “tapirs might be called ‘horses’ in the translation of the Book of Mormon” signals how much they believe their own arguments.

FAIR’s second argument: “However, the case against pre-Columbian horses may not be as ‘iron-clad’ as the critics assume: ” To support this argument, they include a long quote on the alleged evidence: for example, the Mayapan site which allegedly “yielded horse bones in four spots. (Two of the lots were from the surface, however, and might represent Spanish horses.)” The source for this claim? Anonymous, “Out of the Dust,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): N/A–N/A. Right. So an anonymous author for a “Journal of Book of Mormon Studies” cites some second-hand (now third-hand) evidence for the evidence of horses, while admitting that Spanish horses may have been on these spots.

There’s still a glaring problem. A civilization riding on horses easily dominates horseless civilizations. How did all the horse-owning civilizations disappear, along with all of the horses? FAIR argues that “Conspicuously absent is any role of the horse in the many journeys recorded in the Book of Mormon. Nor do horses or chariots play any role in the many Nephite wars; this is in stark contrast to the Biblical account, in which the chariots of Egypt, Babylon, and the Philistines are feared super-weapons upon the plains of Israel. “

The argument is that these horses were raised just to eat, and for their hides. But look at what the Book of Mormon actually says:

Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots. And he said unto Ammon: Come, I will go with thee down to the land of Middoni, and there I will plead with the king that he will cast thy brethren out of prison. (Alma 20:6-7)

That sounds very, very much like a role for horses in transportation. They’re not just riding horses (which is fairly basic) – they’ve got chariots (which is very advanced). Bear in mind: the New World didn’t have chariots before Columbus. How do we know? They didn’t have the wheel. Lamoni, with his horses and chariots, doesn’t need to “plead with the king” for anything. He’s armed with the pre-Columbian equivalent of a suitcase nuke.

Finally, chariots are used for war. And they’re mentioned in 3 Nephi 3:22 as one of the things that the people bring with them when they go to defend themselves. To be fair, they also bring cattle, but it’s unlikely they’re going to eat the chariots.

FAIR’s Third Argument: Since everyone knows that horses didn’t exist in the New World, that means Joseph Smith was telling the truth, because this is too stupid to be a lie. Ok, they actually say, “Besides, ‘everyone knows’ there were no horses in the Americas before Columbus. Joseph Smith would have understood this common belief. If he was trying to perpetuate a fraud, why include an element that nearly everyone would have heard about, especially when it plays such a small role in the book?”

Except that not everyone in the 19th century was cognizant of this fact. For that matter, it’s easy for anyone, even today, to make that mistake. The image of Indians as horsebacked warriors is deeply rooted, even though it’s anachronistic. How many of Mormonism’s early opponents do we see even raising this as an issue? This third argument is very weak, and again, points to their own discomfort with these horses and chariots.

IV. Conclusion
For the ass and cow, FAIR puts all of their eggs in a leaky “loan-shift” basket. For the bee, they use shaky evidence to argue for the existence of Old World bees, bees which (if they did exist) were eliminated by the New World bees after the Columbian Exchange. Even if this evidence were true, it would only support the idea that the bees in the New World pre-1492 weren’t brought over by the Jaredites or anyone else. And for the horse, they try both the loan-shift and shaky (and anonymous) archeology, but are unable to plausibly explain why horses and chariots weren’t found in 1492.

Ether 9:18-19 reads,
“And also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms. ”

In FAIR’s redaction and revision, it reads:

“And also all manner of buffalo, of buffalo, and buffalo, and of sheep,* and of pisote, and of goats,* and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had tapirs, and tapirs/deer/llamas/horses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms. ”

All that animal substitution renders the passage absurd. And it still leaves domesticated sheep and goats, animals unknown to the New World. (There were wild sheep in the New World, but they were never domesticated). So now we’re left with the obvious. Why translate English words like “buffalo” and “tapir” into wildly misleading terms like “cattle” and “horses,” and then not translate “cureloms” and “cumoms” into English words at all? The only two terms it makes sense to “loan-shift” are these two, and they’re the only two which aren’t.

*CORRECTION: Gentleman Farmer notes that “the mastodon or mammoth was actually quite famous in early 19th Century America. The first complete skeleton was mounted by Mr. Peale in 1801.” Ok, so looks like loan-shifting doesn’t make sense there, either. FAIR is still left with claiming that elephants did in fact exist pre-Columbus, which I think is rather far-fetched, but at least sort of defensible.


  1. You missed a big one.

    Absence of evidence rarely means much of anything in the field of archeology because the fact is that the vast majority of archeological evidence is lost or destroyed. An example of this is given by FAIR in pointing out that people still haven’t dug up any horse bones to corroborate the historical accounts of the Huns having vast herds of horses in particular areas.

    People place an almost religious sort of faith in science and scientific disciplines. From this position of faith, they twist the science to mean more than it actually does.

    Any archeologist can tell you that the vast majority of potential artifacts are either lost to the elements, looted, misplaced, or otherwise destroyed. There are huge gaps in what we know about history, and real archeologists know that the majority of the world’s history is not now known, and is probably NEVER GOING TO BE known.

    When you actually find archeological artifacts, it’s a lucky find! It doesn’t happen very often – which is why archeologists get so giddy whenever something is uncovered. It’s because they know that discovery is the exception, not the rule.

    But to here some people talk, you’d think that if anything actually once existed in history, then modern archeology surely would have uncovered it by now.

    Where do people get off making these wild assumptions?

    Why on earth is it a foregone conclusion that all civilizations that ever existed on the planet would have been discovered by now? Why is it a foregone conclusion that if some breed of animal once existed in the Americas, we would have found it’s bones by now?

    These kind of premises show a wild and irrational faith in science to provide results that it never claimed to be able to provide in the first place. From this naive sort of faith, our critics proceed to attack the Book of Mormon.

    There could have been vast herds of horses over Central America and you wouldn’t find so much as a jawbone to prove they were ever there. It’s been true elsewhere, and there’s nothing stopping it being true in the Americas either.

    When French explorers penetrated the Louisiana Purchase, they found large herds of horses already there. They assumed they were from the Spaniards.

    Assumed. But they really didn’t have any proof for that assumption, did they? And neither does anyone else today.

    It’s not just horses, this could have been true of any number of species of animal in Pre-Columbian America.

    I just thought I’d bring this additional point that you missed up.

    Final point of order:

    Moroni didn’t help Joseph Smith translate the gold plates. The LDS Church has never claimed this.

  2. My arguments aren’t based very much on the archeological evidence at all. It’s the link you provided that tries (and fails) to provide this.

    My argument is historical, from history we *do* have record of. When Columbus arives, there are NO horses, chariots, bees, domesticated sheep, cows/cattle, or donkeys. As for physical evidence, there’s no evidence of mass extinctions.

    Domesticated animals, the wheel, horses, and chariots each represent a quantum leap forward in civilization. To suggest that all of these things (a) disappeared and (b) disappeared without any trace at all seems illogical to me.

    I’m not suggesting we should be able to find every animal bone. But if we’re talking about something on the scale of wiping out the dinosaurs, shouldn’t there be *some* evidence somewhere?

    But there’s also no evidence (Even within the Book of Mormon) of mass extinction. So really, I’m wanting to know where all those animals, chariots and wheels are.

    As for the Plains Indians, the reason that they knew they were Spanish horses is that they’d been in contact with these tribes! They knew they weren’t a horse-owning or horse-riding civilization when they met them, some Spanish horses go missing, and low and behold, the Plains Indians suddenly hunt buffalo on horseback rather than on foot. It’s not because of their blind faith in science. It’s a really obvious conclusion from the evidence.

    I’ll acknowledge now that there are civilizations we’ve yet to uncover, and maybe never will. Biblical archeology has helped advance this field. We haven’t found every Biblical site, but we’ve found some (like Jericho) exactly as described. Archeology based on the Book of Mormon hasn’t… ever.

    And if your argument was just “we’ll never have enough evidence to definitively prove a universal negative,” why not just say it? I’ll grant we can never disprove 100% the existence of horses (or aliens) in the New World. But it doesn’t take a blind faith in science to take the evidence for what it is.

  3. Columbus arrived and saw a minuscule fraction of the actual land mass you are making assertions for. I just don’t think there is half as much basis for making assumptions as you think there is.

    And if we are talking about the Book of Mormon, we are not talking about a massive inter-continental situation.

    We are talking about a limited geographical area about the size of Guatemala at the largest.

    And yeah, civilizations like that do vanish without any recognizable evidence. For all we know, we’re looking at Nephite cities right now. We just don’t have the data to know what we’re looking at.

    And I don’t think the loan-shifting argument is all that weak. Your attack on this argument relies on a few assumptions about what a divinely-aided translation would entail that I do not share.

    I do NOT claim that the Book of Mormon is established by these arguments. That’s not what I’m asserting at all. But I do think the loan-shifting argument combined with the sparse nature of archeological knowledge is more than adequate to completely undermine triumphalistic pronouncements that the Book of Mormon has been disproven, debunked, proven an obvious fraud, or even been shown to be unlikely.

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