Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon:
Some Solutions to Apparent Problems
Critics of the Book of Mormon often point to apparent problems with plants and animals as evidence of fraud from Joseph Smith. As with the Bible, there are some complex issues that require some exploration. Here I offer my views. This supplements my LDSFAQ page, "Problems with the Book of Mormon," part of a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." Also see Book of Mormon Evidences. This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay.
Mormanity is my LDS blog. Numerous issues have been discussed there. Join the fray! Or visit the other blogs on my blogroll there.
Also consider my "Book of Mormon Evidences" page.
You can order a free copy of the Book of Mormon at Mormon.org.
The names of several animal and plants species mentioned in the Book of Mormon are said to be anachronistic or anomalous (i.e., they were not found in the New World before Columbus). In many cases, the problem reflects a superficial reading of the text and a failure to consider carefully what is meant. In other cases, critics rely on the argument of silence to prove a negative. Just because ancient remnants of camels and lions have not (yet) been found in Israel does not prove that they were never there. Just because there aren't many obvious horse remnants from 100 B.C. in ancient America doesn't mean that they didn't exist. The objections, though, are significant and should not be blithely dismissed, though there are some intriguing factors to consider.
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, "Vive Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 6/1 (1994), p. 345) -- could it also describe a tapir? (But in light of emerging evidence discussed below, there is a reasonable case that actual horses were meant in the Book of Mormon record.) 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, ibid., 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, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology," FARMS Review, 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.
There have been some finds of unexpected items favorable to the Book of Mormon, such as ancient New World domesticated barley and the possibility of pre-Columbian horses in Mayan territory (though there are several other possibilities to consider). With only a fraction of the evidence in (the vast majority of sites have not yet been excavated), 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 ambivalent note as a foreword, we can better deal with specific questions about animals and plants mentioned in the Book of Mormon. We will continue to find uncertainty and arguments from silence coupled with often tentative but sometimes quite interesting insights and evidences, leaving plenty of questions but also some possible answers. (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.)
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?
But wait! Evidence of Hunnic horses was finally found in 1990 in Mongolia, in a tomb of princess. I suspect that this fortunate find of evidence for ancient horses in Mongolia is partly due to its cold, dry climate, which makes it vastly easier for animal and human remains to survive compared to moist, hot Mesoamerica. And having a royal tomb for a princess certainly helps. But just stumbling across mounds of obvious horse bones from the time of the Huns has not been a common occurrence, it seems, in the vast regions where they once roamed.
Why are horse remains so hard to find even in areas where they once abounded. Seems like there a movie about this? "They Eat Horses, Don't They?" Yes, cultures with horses often recognize that they have a lot of meat that can be eaten. On my mission in Switzerland and Germany, I was amazed to see multiple horse butcher shops ("Pferdmetzgerei" -- here's one example in Munich). We were served horse a time or two by Swiss people. Not super popular, but they are still there. In general, horses will be end up being eaten or used in other ways, with not much left to be preserved for posterity centuries later. So if we had to wait for a lucky, nicely preserved royal tomb in cold Mongolia to finally give us physical evidence of the Huns' abundant horses, is the small amount of evidence for horses in Mesoamerica really sufficient evidence that horses did not exist during Book of Mormon times?
Many Book of Mormon critics rely too much on the argument from silence, placing great emphasis 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.
New discoveries are constantly changing our understanding or flora and fauna in the ancient world. For excellent overviews of some of the key issues and evidence related to the horse in the Book of Mormon, please see:
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. For detailed information on various proposals that have been made to deal with the issue of horses and the Book of Mormon, see "The Anachronism of Horses in the Book of Mormon as an Indication of Its Historicity" by Ted Dee Stoddard, 2016 for BMAF.org. Also see Robert Bennet, "Horses in the Book of Mormon" (Maxwell Institute, 2000) and the discussion of several different possibilities raised by LDS archaeologist Mark Wright. I agree with Mark that there is no completely satisfying answer to this issue now and that we don't have clearcut evidence to resolve this question, whether we try to argue that real horses are meant by "horse" or perhaps some other species. A variety of problems remain, making this an area for further research, faith, and patience. But let's examine the potential answers to this question.
Evidence for Horses in Precolumbian Mesoamerica?
The following is an excerpt from "Out of the Dust: Were Ancient Americans Familiar with Real Horses?" in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 10, No.1, 2001. This provides possible though still uncertain evidence for actual horses used in some way by peoples in Book of Mormon lands during the times of the Book of Mormon.
Publications from the late 1950s reported results from excavations by scientists working on the Yucatan Peninsula. Excavations at the site of Mayapan, which dates to a few centuries before the Spaniards arrived, yielded horse bones in four spots. (Two of the lots were from the surface, however, and might represent Spanish horses.) From another site, the Cenote (water hole) Ch'en Mul, came other traces, this time from a firm archaeological context. In the bottom stratum in a sequence of levels of unconsolidated earth almost two meters in thickness, two horse teeth were found. They were partially mineralized, indicating that they were definitely ancient and could not have come from any Spanish animal. The interesting thing is that Maya pottery was also found in the stratified soil where the teeth were located. [See Harry E. D. Pollock and Clayton E. Ray, "Notes on Vertebrate Animal Remains from Mayapan," Current Reports 41 (August 1957): 638; this publication is from the Department of Archaeology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. See also Clayton E. Ray, "Pre-Columbian Horses from Yucatan," Journal of Mammalogy 38 (1957): 278.]
Subsequent digging has expanded the evidence for an association of humans with horses. But the full story actually goes back to 1895, when American paleontologist Henry C. Mercer went to Yucatan hoping to find remains of Ice Age man. He visited 29 caves in the hill area - the Puuc - of the peninsula and tried stratigraphic excavation in 10 of them. But the results were confused, and he came away disillusioned. He did find horse bones in three caves (Actun Sayab, Actun Lara, and Chektalen). In terms of their visible characteristics, those bones should have been classified as from the Pleistocene American horse species, then called Equus occidentalis L. However, Mercer decided that since the remains were near the surface, they must actually be from the modern horse, Equus equus, that the Spaniards had brought with them to the New World, and so he reported them as such. [Henry C. Mercer, The Hill-Caves of Yucatan: A Search for Evidence of Man's Antiquity in the Caverns of Central America (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1896), 172.] In 1947 Robert T. Hatt repeated Mercer's activities. He found within Actun Lara and one other cave more remains of the American horse (in his day it was called Equus conversidens), along with bones of other extinct animals. Hatt recommended that any future work concentrate on Loltun Cave, where abundant animal and cultural remains could be seen. [Robert T. Hatt, "Faunal and Archaeological Researches in Yucatan Caves," Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bulletin 33, 1953. See Peter J. Schmidt, "La entrada del hombre a la peninsula de Yucatan," in Origines del Hombre Americano, comp. Alba Gonzalez Jacome (Mexico: Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 1988), 250.]
It took until 1977 before that recommendation bore fruit. Two Mexican archaeologists carried out a project that included a complete survey of the complex system of subterranean cavities (made by underground water that had dissolved the subsurface limestone). They also did stratigraphic excavation in areas in the Loltun complex not previously visited. The pits they excavated revealed a sequence of 16 layers, which they numbered from the surface downward. Bones of extinct animals (including mammoth) appear in the lowest layers.
Pottery and other cultural materials were found in levels VII and above. But in some of those artifact-bearing strata there were horse bones, even in level II. A radiocarbon date for the beginning of VII turned out to be around 1800 B.C. The pottery fragments above that would place some portions in the range of at least 900-400 B.C. and possibly later. The report on this work concludes with the observation that "something went on here that is still difficult to explain." Some archaeologists have suggested that the horse bones were stirred upward from lower to higher levels by the action of tunneling rodents, but they admit that this explanation is not easy to accept. The statement has also been made that paleontologists will not be pleased at the idea that horses survived to such a late date as to be involved with civilized or near-civilized people whose remains are seen in the ceramic-using levels. [Schmidt, "La entrada," 254.] Surprisingly, the Mexican researchers show no awareness of the horse teeth discovered in 1957 by Carnegie Institution scientists Pollock and Ray. (Some uncomfortable scientific facts seem to need rediscovering time and time again.)
Responding to the above quote, I think there may be a mistake in arguing against the role of tunneling rodents. Looking at the Clayton Ray article in the Journal of Mammalogy (see the image below), there may be a credible argument that the horse remnants found in recent layers were the result of disturbances that brought up older bones, whether it is from tunneling or humans bringing in old horse remains as curios that got added to more recent layers without representing the types of animals living at that time. The authors of the studies involved were not arguing that wild horses lived among Pre-Columbian humans. The finds appear mineralized (fossilized) unlike other finds at that depth, suggesting that they may have come from older times. The presence of horse remains in more recent layers may be explainable as the result of disturbances, either from tunneling animals or from human action of various kinds. In my opinion, based on the Clayton Ray reference, there is not yet a clearcut case that horses were roaming with pre-Columbian humans in Book of Mormon times. Here it is:
In approaching the issue of the horse and the Book of Mormon, please consider the general note on plants and animals above. Also see the FARMS report on horses in the Book of Mormon and Ted Dee Stoddard's excellent article at BMAF.org.
In spite of some intriguing scattered finds, the evidence from identifiable horse bones in archaeological digs does not support the existence of ancient American horses long past the apparent extinction date of around 11,000 B.C., though some remains have been found dating to around 9,000 B.C. (S. Fiedel, "Sudden deaths: The chronology of terminal Pleistocene megafaunal extinction," pp. 21-37, in American megafaunal extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, ed. by G. Haynes, Springer Science + Business Media, 2009, as cited in "Equus conversidens Owen 1869--Mexican Horse" at the Univ. of Texas at El Paso, accessed Dec. 16, 2012). Some of the evidence cited for later dates is problematic and in one case even fraudulent (due to a prank!--I refer to a horse skull unearthed in the Spencer Lake Mounds in Wisconsin, as I discuss in a post at Mormanity on questionable evidence for horses). But recently, a new type of evidence, DNA evidence from frozen soil, was examined and may dramatically revise the extinction date. See "Mammoths Hung On Longer? Late-Surviving Megafauna Exposed by Ancient DNA in Frozen Soil" (American Museum of Natural History, Dec. 15, 2009, ScienceDaily, accessed December 15, 2012; also see New Evidence Rewrites Time for American Horse Extinction at Horsetalk.co.nz). In fact, this initial effort at exploring DNA remnants in soil has already shown that pockets of horses may have survived 5,000 years later than previously assumed. Not exactly getting into the era of the Nephites, but much closer. Will the surprise discovery of horses living much later than previously supposed in Alaska also translate into similar or much later survival in Mesoamerica? Perhaps, but we don't know yet.
Another possibility is that something other than the horse we are familiar with was meant. 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. Horses for food rather than transportation? They are eaten by many people today and were apparently hunted and eaten by the earliest peoples on the continent since recently discovered tools from the ancient Clovis culture See the MSNBC story, "13,000-Year-Old Tools Dug Up in Colorado Yard: Cache of More Than 83 Ancient Tools Buried by Ice Age Hunter-Gatherer" by Alysia Patterson (AP), Feb. 26, 2009. Analysis of blood and protein on ancient stone tools reveals that the Clovis culture people butchered horses, camels, sheep and bears, not just mammoths. But was this practice also known in Mesoamerica? Did Mesoamericans in Book of Mormon times interact with horses at all?
If we take the Book of Mormon at face value, to begin, it is fair to 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.
As for the possibility that the word "horse" might also describe a tapir, we find support in the Yucatec language, according to the following message that I received August 2003 from Keith Donovan:
Michael Coe, in the book Breaking the Maya Code (1992, Thames and Hudson, page 53) is discussing the need for numerical classifiers in Mayan languages. In speaking specifically of the Yucatec language, he makes the following statement:If I see three horses in a pasture, I would count them as ox-tul tzimin (ox, "three"; -tul, classifier for animate things; tzimin, "horse" or "tapir").I do not have easy access to an English-Yuctan dictionary to confirm it but apparently Coe (decidedly a non-Mormon) is saying that the Yucatec word for horse is the same as the word for tapir.
For another interesting and thorough take on the issue of "horses" in the Book of Mormon, see "'I Will Cut Off Thy Horses Out of the Midst of Thee': The Issue of the Word Horse in the Book of Mormon" by Ted Dee Stoddard. He makes several important points, including the obvious lack of horses in military actions in the Book of Mormon, suggesting they were not available to the ever-resourceful Nephites as a military tool. He also raises the possibility that human carriers were used for King Lamoni's enigmatic "chariots" mentioned once in the Book of Mormon. I'd appreciate your comments on his article.
Yes, the fossil record is now clear on that point. Not just the fossil record, either. For example, a recent find of ancient human tools in Colorado (the Mahaffy Cache Discovery) allowed biochemical analysis to reveal that the tools had been used to butcher horses and camels about 13,000 years ago, around the time horses were thought to have become extinct. The real problem is not whether there were horses in the Americas, but whether they had become extinct before Book of Mormon times, which is generally believed to be the case. 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. But this evidence is still questionable and may not reflect what we Book of Mormon fans would like it to reflect. Careful work remains to be done in dating and classifying these remains and understanding if they really have any relevance to the question about ancient horses in the Book of Mormon. The issue of the horse for now remains unsettled. It can be viewed as a strike against the Book of Mormon, but is surely an insufficient reason for rejecting the book. If ancient pre-Columbian horses in the New World are later confirmed, that doesn't prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but helps clarify its plausibility on one minute issue. Meanwhile, we should consider the risky and tentative nature of conclusions drawn from arguments of silence (failure to find something does not necessarily mean it never existed).
A 2012 publication also offers some further information in the debate on horses, though caution is still advised. An LDS Guide to the Yucatán by Daniel Johnson, Jared Cooper, and Derek Gasser (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2012) is available as a PDF directly from Cedar Fort . This book discusses major sites in the Yucatan by people who have gone there and done a good deal of homework in addition to legwork. In a section of the book about the famous Loltun Cave system, the authors note that in addition to its well-known Pleistocene era fossils (the Pleistocene era dates from about 2.5 million years ago to 11,700 years ago), more recent layers of the cave show that later Pre-Columbian humans and horses may have been present in the New World at the same time. From the book, pages 77-78:
The bones and artifacts found in 1977 in two lateral extensions of the Huechil Grotto at Loltún, known as El Túnel and El Toro, have been described by Dr. Peter Schmidt of INAH as "problematic" and "complicated."19 Unfortunately, very few details about the findings have been published. Most of the data come from stratigraphic excavations in El Toro. Labeled I to XVI, the levels represent the caves" chronology, with I being the most recent and XVI the most ancient. Bones and bony fragments of Pleistocene megafauna have been found in most of El Toro"s levels, but the only published radiocarbon dating comes from levels VII and VIII. Taken from various pieces of charcoal, the date is 1805 BC, with an error of + 150 years,20 well after the Ice Age. But this is not all. "Sadly," as Dr. Schmidt laments, 44 horse bone fragments have been recovered from levels VII to II, all supposedly from earlier time periods and also containing Classic and Preclassic ceramics! His article exclaims that something has happened in Loltún that is still hard to explain: The survival of extinct animals like the Mexican Horse may need to be extended to the beginnings of the ceramic era, which would not please paleontologists. The following page has a detailed chart of these excavations at Loltún....
Since about 2000, Dr. Steven Jones (formerly of BYU) has been working with Dr. Wade Miller from the BYU Department of Geology, INAH archaeologist Joaquín Arroyo-Cabrales, and others to conclusively date ancient American horse bones. An unpublished paper Dr. Jones co-authored with Dr. Miller contains some of their initial findings. Out of 45 equus samples they tested from Mexico, 38 had insufficient collagen for AMS dating; one was from the Ice Age and the others dated to after the Spanish Conquest. However, they have had surprising results from some North American samples. A horse bone from Pratt Cave near El Paso, Texas dated from 6,020 to 5,890 BC. Another specimen from Wolf Spider Cave in Colorado dated from AD 1260 to 1400. A bone from Horsethief Cave in Wyoming dated to 1,100 BC. Most of these dates were obtained through AMS dating, but the Wolf Spider specimen"s date was obtained with thermoluminescent methods. Some Native American traditions also support the existence of horses from a post-Pleistocene but pre-Columbian era.21 Dr. Jones graciously provided this paper to us and we anxiously look forward to more results from their ongoing research.
The hard evidence of pre-Columbian horses means that we should not be too apologetic about their appearance in the Book of Mormon, nor do we have to go to extraordinary lengths to explain them. There are still some controversial elements in the scriptural record that we may never be able to explain, but the existence of horses in Ancient America is not one of them. The case is closed on that subject. When Nephite record keepers wrote about horses, they apparently meant horses just as we would understand them. The only remaining question may be whether they had curly coats or not. [A reference to a related rather speculative section on the American Curly horse and its potential pre-Hispanic sources in the New World..]
The authors could be overstating the argument for Nephite writers referring to horses "just as we would understand them," for it is still possible that other species were meant or included in at least some of the references, but they feel that there is a case to be made that horses may have persisted into at least early Book of Mormon times. Again, though, they rely on some evidence that may be weak and explainable by disturbances to sites or other errors. Solid, clear evidence from archaeological digs does not yet provide a resolution to the problem of the horse. (You can see related arguments made by Johnson in a post on horses at BMAF.org.)
However, there may be linguistic evidence for American horses before Columbus, in John Sorenson's view:
"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.)
I received e-mail from someone with ties to the Cherokee tribe (may have been a member of the tribe), a people legendary for their skills with horses. He claimed that Cherokee tradition maintains that they had horses before the Spaniards came and that Cherokee had a long and ancient tradition of working with horses, horses that were native to this continent. I am not familiar with Cherokee traditions, but I have never heard scholars explain why the Indians of North America suddenly proved to be far better horsemen than the Spaniards ever were once the Spaniards (supposedly) introduced the horse to this continent. Skills and traditions involving horses and other animals don't emerge suddenly - it's the kind of thing that would seem to require many generations of development. I do have one interesting piece of evidence that I encountered on a trip to Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. There is a famous slab of stone with ancient petroglyphs there called "Newspaper Rock." The carvings on the rock date from roughly 100 A.D. to 1500 A.D., overlapping into the post-Spanish period. There are many carvings that may have been made over the centuries, but right in the middle of the rock, one of the most prominent carvings - in the place that I would choose as one of the first places to carve - is a man riding a horse. Was there a big blank spot conveniently left after centuries of carving for a late Indian to carve something he saw from the Spaniards, or was this a more ancient carving depicting something of importance to Indian culture? (Update from 2002: it may be that the central horse carving was inscribed over earlier, older carvings that had become covered with tarnish, as was suggested to me in 2002 in correspondence with someone familiar with Newspaper Rock.)
A recent article in National Geographic News, "Remains Show Ancient Horses Were Hunted for Their Meat," by Hillary Mayell, May 11, 2001, reports that ancient spear points have been found with identifiable horse protein on them, indicating that horses were hunted for food. These horses are believed to have gone extinct 10,000 years ago, though again, pockets of them may have survived in some places, such as Book of Mormon lands. They were probably smaller than modern horses, perhaps unsuitable for riding--which the Book of Mormon does not require--but big enough for herding and eating, as the Book of Mormon does imply.
Today we know that there were ancient horses in the Americas, but this discovery based on fossils came after Joseph Smith's day. When he was alive, it was believed that this continent never had horses until the Spanish brought them. For example, in describing the zoology of South America, John Bigland and Jedidiah Morse wrote the following in A Geographical and Historical View of the World, vol. 5 (Boston: Thomas Wait and Company, 1811), p. 457:
It is well known that neither horses nor horned cattle existed in any part of the new continent previous to its discovery by the Spaniards; and the surprising herds with which the country is now overspread, have multiplied from a few that were carried over and turned loose by the first settlers.
If Joseph were drawing upon his own knowledge and the scholarship of others, it would have been foolhardy to mention horses in the Americas anciently. Now that we know horses were here anciently, their mention in the Book of Mormon is far less problematic today than it was in 1830, though it is still a problem requiring further investigation.
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).
Regarding the riding of deer as a concept among the ancient Mayans, please see "Were There Mayan Saddles?" by Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, Misericordia University, Dallas and Pennsylvania (no date given). Davies provides a number of interesting specimens of Mayan art and points to possible evidence of functional, practical saddle-like devices that reflect more than just imagination. However, the depictions he shows are apparently from mythological scenes and do not mean that deer riding was part of Mayan life. "If it was done it all, the safest guess might be that it was done by women for fun." Also shown is a vase in which a deer is being used as a pack animal. Davies' short survey may strengthen the possibility that deer were sometimes may have been used in ways that are more what we expect of horses.
Another source discussing riding deer is "Mesoamerican Art & The 'Horse' Controversy" at Lehi's Library, April 16, 2008, quoting from LDS archaeologist Mike Wright (the link to Wright is broken at Lehi's Library, but you can see the original quote here). More food for thought, and more questions than answers.
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.
Regarding the possibility of deer being used for rides in some situations, see "Were there Mayan saddles?" by Stevan Davies, Professor of Religious Studies, Misericordia University, Dallas, Pennsylvania.
Finally, let me quote from Daniel Johnson, who favors real horses versus other species for the Book of Mormon horse. This excerpt is from "Response to Horses and Bridles in the Book of Mormon by Ted Dee Stoddard" posted in 2011 on the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (BMAF):
Hopefully, we have finally rejected the fallacy that horses were first introduced to the Americas by Europeans. Science now reluctantly admits that this was a re-introduction. It is well known that horses as we would recognize them did live here anciently. Now the arguing point is over when, not if. Did ancient horses live in Book of Mormon lands during the required time period? We may never know that for sure, but there is some strong evidence to consider. Non-fossilized horse remains have been found in the Yucatan Peninsula.[i] Equine teeth were recovered from a cenote at Mayapan. By the late nineteenth century, horse and other large animal bones were found in Yucatan caves. In 1957, the Journal of Mammalogy published accounts of these horse remains found alongside potsherds, indicating some form of human interaction.[ii] Horses and other such large animals were most likely unknown to the Maya and other known Mesoamerican cultures, but as this scientific journal explains, the bones were from a 'pre-Mayan' time. That vague time period describes that majority of Book of Mormon history.
It is even possible that these ancient horses never became extinct, but were still unknown to later peoples. The Bashkir Curly, an American breed of horse, is theorized by some to be an ancient variety that has been in this hemisphere for a long time, migrating from Asia before the last Ice Age. There is currently no other explanation for its origin.[iii] Were these the horses that Nephi first described? Some LDS authors like Jerry Ainsworth have suggested that these horses were too small to ride, but large enough to pull loads.[iv]
We may never know for sure, but trying to explain away horses in the Book of Mormon becomes a tortuous, convoluted process that is not very convincing to the skeptics. We are left with the obvious and most likely position that Nephite and Lamanite horses were probably horses, in spite of what conventional wisdom now tells us. Hopefully, this conclusion is not illogical or unfounded. After all, the Book of Mormon has contradicted conventional wisdom since the beginning, only to have been proven correct much later. Bro. Stoddard is correct in that bridles and riding were never described. This is a useful clarification, but beyond that, we do not need to agree with our critics on this point.
[i] Andrew Coe, Archaeological Mexico (Chico: Moon Publications, 1998), p. 304, 321-322.
[ii] Clayton E. Ray, "Pre-Columbian Horses From Yucatan," Journal of Mammalogy, vol. 38 no. 2 (May 1957), p. 278.
[iii] 02-02-2009. www.abcregistry.org//about.asp [archived]. [Jeff's note: This cited URL is now dead. An active site on curly horses is www.CurlyHorseCountry.com. See "History of The Curly Horse," where the mysterious origins of this curly-haired horse breed are discussed.]
[iv] Personal communication by e-mail, 3 February 2009.
Update, Jan. 2013.: The above statement by Daniel Johnson is actually too brash, in my opinion, and overlooks some reasonable questions and objections that can be raised to each of the finds he refers to. The mineralized teeth at Loltun Cave, for example, appear to be much older remnants that were somehow introduced into a more modern layer. At this point, we may still lack the luxury of having conclusive evidence for the late survival of ancient American horses into pre-Columbian times, making the issue of the horse in the Book of Mormon a still unresolved issue.A Scientist Looks at Book of Mormon Anachronisms ," Mormon Interpreter, May 2014). As you can see in the Wikipedia entry for mammoths (accessed May 17, 2014), they are more closely related to the Asian elephant than the Asian elephant is related to the African elephant. It is widely believed that mastodons and mammoths 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.Hugh Nibley has some interesting comments on this issue in his book, Since Cumorah, p. 255:
(John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Comp., SLC, UT (1985), p. 297.)
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.
2012 Update: Some critics are now arguing that there were scientists in Joseph Smith's day writing about the evidence for ancient elephants in the Americas, and that this explains why Joseph mentioned them in the Book. There is no evidence, however, that Joseph ever saw such information. Further, if you're going to argue that Joseph relied on the latest scientific data to make a passing mention of elephants, then why would he not do so in mentioning other animals such as horses? The argument there is that the Book of Mormon is invalid because it's out of touch with the latest science now (and in Joseph's day). When something appears to have had some scientific support, is that now also evidence against the Book of Mormon, as in obvious evidence of drawing upon published science? Make up your mind: is the Book of Mormon invalid because Joseph failed to consider science, or invalid and obviously made up because he did? Or is it just invalid no matter what? I guess any argument will do when you're not willing to consider other possibilities.
The Book of Mormon doesn't speak of chickens except in the use of a simile, indicating that the Lord has cared for his people has a hen cares for its chicks. This phrasing could be a fair translation of a similar concept expressed in terms of many kinds of birds. Nevertheless, it appears that there were chickens in wide use in the Americas before Columbus. Dr. George F. Carter provides detailed information on this topic in "The Chicken in America: Spanish Introduction or Pre-Spanish?" in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998, pp. 151-160. Early accounts of Europeans show that Native Americans had chickens different from the ones introduced by Europeans, and that Native Americans already had their own words for chickens and, in fact, that chickens already played significant roles in native religion.
More recent studies also point to the possibility of pre-Columbian chickens in the America, which are often taken as evidence for Polynesian contact with the Americas. See, for example, "Chicken Bones Suggest Polynesians Found Americas Before Columbus" by Heather Whipps, published in LiveScience June 4, 2007. If there were pre-Columbian chickens, the Polynesian connection may not adequately explain their origins in the Americas since recent DNA testing is consistent with Old World rather than Polynesian origins for chickens with alleged pre-Columbian roots in the New World, according to Jaime Gongora et al., "Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific Chickens Revealed by mtDNA," Proc. of the National Academies of Science, July 29, 2008, Vol. 105 No. 30 pp. 10308-10313. Much remains unresolved, and the authors question whether there were pre-Columbian chickens in the New World.
The term chicken also 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).
The possibility that turkeys were an important part of any references to "flocks" in the Book of Mormon is strengthened by recent discoveries of Mayan remains showing that domesticated turkeys were present much earlier than previously realized. See "UF Researchers Discover Earliest Use of Mexican Turkeys by Ancient Maya" from Eureka Alert (eurekalert.org) in a release dated Aug. 8, 2012. An excerpt follows:
UF researchers discover earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A new University of Florida study shows the turkey, one of the most widely consumed birds worldwide, was domesticated more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.
Researchers say discovery of the bones from an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication, usually a significant mark of civilization, and the earliest evidence of the Mexican turkey in the Maya world. The study appears online in PLoS ONE today.
The discovery of the turkey bones is significant because the Maya did not use a lot of domesticated animals. While they cultivated domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came mostly from wild resources, said lead author Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre.
"We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time," Thornton said. "The species originates from central Mexico, outside the Maya cultural area. This is the species the Europeans brought back with them to Europe -- all domestic turkeys originated from Mexico."
Using archaeological evidence, comparisons of bone structure and ancient DNA analysis, scientists determined the turkey fossils belonged to the non-local species Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico. The Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today and Mesoamerica's only indigenous domesticated animal. The discovery of the bones south of the turkey's natural range shows animal exchange occurred from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural region during the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100.
"This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource," Thornton said. "The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast."
The bones were recovered from the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the largest and most developed Preclassic locations found in the Maya lowlands. The site contains massive temple complexes, some of the largest Maya architecture ever constructed.
"Plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment -- you're intentionally modifying it and controlling it," Thornton said.
Researchers assumed turkey bones previously recovered from Maya sites belonged to the native ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata. The new evidence means researchers may need to re-examine previously recovered bones, said Florida State University anthropology professor emeritus Mary Pohl.
"This study is extremely significant and I think it opens up a whole new perspective on the Maya and animal domestication," Pohl said. "I find it especially interesting that these turkey bones are in this very special pyramid context because people often think of turkeys as something to eat, but they were probably making some sort of special offerings of them, which would go along with the fact that they brought them in from a long distance."
Very interesting. Was Ammon risking his life to vigorously defend King Lamoni's turkey flocks? Food for thought. And thanksgiving. The relationship to religious rites (animal sacrifice) and religious sites is especially interesting.
Besides turkeys, other indigenous species of birds in the Americas could be termed "chickens." In fact, in North America, we already use the term chicken for one native bird, the prairie chicken. See, for example, Science, vol. 282, 27 Nov. 1998, pp. 1658-1659, which is an article discussing the population dynamics and the risk of extinction for the prairie chicken. Based on its appearance, I have no problem with the name it has been given. (See photos at https://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/apc.html or https://www.rt66.com/~kjherman/audubon/LPC.html.)
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 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. Further, the tapir in Mesoamerica is sometimes called a "cow." In fact, the national animal of Belize, Baird's tapir, is known in Belize as the "mountain cow" It is not a cow, of course, and is actually more closely related to the horse. Interestingly, Wikipedia reports that in Lacandon Maya, Baird's tapir is called cash-i-tzimin, meaning "jungle horse." Interesting, eh? Just shows how species and animal names can be perplexing as we move across cultural and linguistic barriers. Just because someone writes about a horse or cow doesn't mean it's the species we're familiar with.
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."
Speaking of peccaries, I just ran into an article that mentioned the ongoing search for living but undiscovered mammals in South America ("Beasts in the Mist" by Marguerite Holloway, Discover, Vol. 20, No. 9, Sept. 1999, pp. 58-65). Some men are looking for an elusive beast in the jungle that may be a surviving giant sloth. But incidental to the article is the mention of a third species of South American peccary, the Chacoan peccary, just discovered in 1975 and pictured to the left (photo taken from page 64 of the article). If a swine-like creature was not discovered until 1975, and if some scientists suspect some "long-extinct" giant sloths may still be living in the jungle, we ought to be careful about discarding the Book of Mormon for its mention of animals like swine or other creatures that are now extinct or believed to be extinct.
Here is a typical question on this topic:
When Nephi correctly states that he and his family journeyed in an uninhabited region ("wilderness") - for all the Jaredites had been destroyed - how was it possible for them to find oxen roaming in the wilds (see 1 Nephi 18:25)? Did the author of the Book of Mormon fail to realise that an ox is in fact a castrated bull? If nobody was inhabiting the land, who castrated the bulls?
John Tvedtnes pointed out that the dictionary provides at least part of the answer to this objection. Look at the entry for "OX" in Webster's 1828 dictionary (emphasis added):
The male of the bovine genus of quadrupeds, castrated and grown to his size or nearly so. The young male is called in America a steer. The same animal not castrated is called a bull. These distinctions are well established with us in regard to DOMESTIC animals of this genus. WHEN WE SPEAK OF WILD ANIMALS OF THIS KIND, OX IS SOMETIMES APPLIED BOTH TO THE MALE AND FEMALE, AND IN ZOOLOGY, THE SAME PRACTICE EXISTS IN REGARD TO THE DOMESTIC ANIMALS.
So linguistically, there is no problem with Nephi referring to oxen found in the wilderness. (By the way, the destruction of the Jaredites does not mean that there were no Jaredite people left, even though the organized armies had self-destructed. Many Jaredite people undoubtedly fled and survived, though their civilization was destroyed. We do see Jaredite names cropping up frequently among the Nephites, especially in the unbelieving segments of their society.)
But what did Nephi mean by the term "ox"? As mentioned earlier on this page, 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 "aluph" also describe a tapir? But we must not overlook the bison as a candidate for ox, though I don't know if they were in Mesoamerica when Nephi arrived.
Key information on the barley issue is found in "Book of Mormon Barley or Going Against the Grain" from Ether's Cave, along with "How Can Barley in the Book of Mormon Feed Faith?" from Book of Mormon Central (Aug. 27, 2016). Another useful resource on this question is "Barley in Ancient America" by Robert F. Smith and John L. Sorenson, a chapter in Reexploring the Book of Mormon by John W. Welch. Also see Robert R. Bennett, "Barley and Wheat in the Book of Mormon" from the Maxwell Institute (2000). Finally, consider "Another Look at Barley in The Book of Mormon" by Tyler Livingston at FairMormon.org and also at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (and see the postscript there by Dr. Joseph Allen on the issue of Peru).
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 ("Barley in Ancient America" in 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 - along with "Arizona barley," "California barley," "Stebbins' barley," and others. But note that Livingston's article lists multiple references for pre-Columbian barley in various locations including Mexico.
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.
An excellent overview on the issue of grains in the Book of Mormon is "Barley and Wheat in the Book Mormon" by Robert R. Bennett Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2000). Here is an excerpt, with references omitted (see the original for those):
Domesticated Varieties of Barley and Wheat in Ancient America
Of course, it is possible that references in the Book of Mormon to barley and wheat indeed refer to actual varieties of those grains that were encountered by Book of Mormon peoples in the New World. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columbian Americans cultivated barley over a long period of time. A 1983 article in Science 83 describes archaeological work at the Hohokam site of La Ciudad, near downtown Phoenix, Arizona (the Hohokam culture flourished in the North American Southwest from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 1450). The writer states, "Perhaps the most startling evidence of Hohokam agricultural sophistication came last year when salvage archeologists found preserved grains of what looks like domesticated barley, the first ever found in the New World." Shortly thereafter, additional samples turned up at other archaeological sites in Oklahoma and Illinois. Of the discoveries made in Illinois, one recent study states that a "previously unidentified seed type . . . has now been identified as little barley (Hordeum pusillum), and there are strong indications that this grain must be added to the list of starchy-seeded plants that were cultivated in the region 2000 years ago."
Barley samples dated to the Middle Woodland (early centuries A.D.) and Late Woodland (A.D. 600-1050) cultural periods indicate that pre-Columbian barley was both known and cultivated over an extended period in the New World. "It is reasonable to conclude," states archaeologist Vorsila L. Bohrer, who directed the work associated with these discoveries, "that we are looking at a North American domesticated grain crop whose existence has not [previously] been suspected."
What is now known about pre-Columbian barley in the Americas should caution readers of the Book of Mormon not to quickly dismiss the reference to pre-Columbian wheat as anachronistic.
Regarding wheat, let me point out that the biology and naming conventions for "wheat" are rather complex. See "Taxonomy of Wheat" at Wikipedia, and the related article, "Wheat." From the latter, here is an excerpt taken on Sept. 2, 2012:
Wheat genetics is more complicated than that of most other domesticated species. Some wheat species are diploid, with two sets of chromosomes, but many are stable polyploids, with four sets of chromosomes (tetraploid) or six (hexaploid).
- Einkorn wheat (T. monococcum) is diploid (AA, two complements of seven chromosomes, 2n=14).
- Most tetraploid wheats (e.g. emmer and durum wheat) are derived from wild emmer, T. dicoccoides. Wild emmer is itself the result of a hybridization between two diploid wild grasses, T. urartu and a wild goatgrass such as Aegilops searsii or Ae. speltoides. The unknown grass has never been identified among now surviving wild grasses, but the closest living relative is Aegilops speltoides.... The hybridization that formed wild emmer (AABB) occurred in the wild, long before domestication, and was driven by natural selection.
- Hexaploid wheats evolved in farmers' fields. Either domesticated emmer or durum wheat hybridized with yet another wild diploid grass (Aegilops tauschii) to make the hexaploid wheats, spelt wheat and bread wheat. These have three sets of paired chromosomes, three times as many as in diploid wheat.
The presence of certain versions of wheat genes has been important for crop yields. Apart from mutant versions of genes selected in antiquity during domestication, there has been more recent deliberate selection of alleles that affect growth characteristics. Genes for the 'dwarfing' trait, first used by Japanese wheat breeders to produce short-stalked wheat, have had a huge effect on wheat yields world-wide, and were major factors in the success of the Green Revolution in Mexico and Asia. Dwarfing genes enable the carbon that is fixed in the plant during photosynthesis to be diverted towards seed production, and they also help prevent the problem of lodging. 'Lodging' occurs when an ear stalk falls over in the wind and rots on the ground, and heavy nitrogenous fertilization of wheat makes the grass grow taller and become more susceptible to this problem. By 1997, 81% of the developing world's wheat area was planted to semi-dwarf wheats, giving both increased yields and better response to nitrogenous fertilizer.
Wild grasses in the genus Triticum and related genera, and grasses such as rye have been a source of many disease-resistance traits for cultivated wheat breeding since the 1930s.
Numerous species and genotypes are mentioned, and the scope is even broader in light of the related taxonomy article. But still, these species are not known to have been cultivated anciently in the New World. But there are other grains or pseudo-grains such as quinoa or amaranth that were cultivated, and these might have been described with the Hebrew word for "wheat" in the Book of Mormon, or perhaps translated as "wheat" since that term might not have been in Joseph's vocabulary. However, since the foreign name "sheum" is used to describe a plant in the Book of Mormon, I presume that some word translatable as "wheat" was probably used by Mormon to describe the grains mentioned in the record he was abridging. Anciently, what might be called wheat? What would Hebrews coming to the New World call the grains used there? Is it possible that the Hebrew word for "wheat" was applied to chia, amaranth, or quinoa? Why not? That kind of thing happens frequently when foreign groups move into an area with strange new plants and animals.
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.
Finally, I was surprised recently to read an article by Thomas Murphy on the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon in which he mentioned that one of the problems with the Book of Mormon was its teaching that people on this continent "ate wheat and oats." I've discussed wheat above. Regarding Murphy's problem with oats in the Book of Mormon, I suspect that he has been reading anti-Mormon literature a little too much, for the word "oats" does not occur anywhere in the Book of Mormon.
Alma 4:6 refers to silk in the New World. Some LDS scholars have pointed to known materials from ancient Mesoamerica that could have been called silk (see my page on the old Smithsonian statement on the Book of Mormon), but there is also evidence that the silkworm actually was known in the New World before the arrival of Columbus. See "The Prophet Said Silk" by Maurice W. Connell, The Improvement Era, Vol. 65, No. 5 (May 1962), pp. 324-345. Stan Barker has also called my attention to a more recent non-LDS publication, "Silkworm of the Aztecs" by Richard S. Peigler, Ph.D., Curator of Entomology, in Museum Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1993): pp. 10-11 (published by the Denver Museum of Natural History). Critics continue to challenge the Book of Mormon based on the long-standing belief that silk was unknown in the ancient Americas, but it appears that they are wrong. Was this just a lucky guess by Joseph?
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 the Americas during 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).
According to Alexander von Humboldt, the Spanish conqueror Cortes found honey being sold by Native Americans in their market places when he came to the New World. Here is the passage from Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, translated by John Black, London, 1811, vols. 1 of 3 volumes (accessed in the Special Collection Department at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa):
Cortez . . . told Emperor Charles V of the commodities sold in the great market of Tlaletolco--"There is sold," says he, "honey of bees and wax, honey from the stalks of maize, and honey from a shrub called maguey by the people. The natives make sugar of these plants, and this sugar they also sell."When Cordoba discovered the Yucatan in 1517, he encountered the beautiful island of Cozumel, now a popular Mexican tourist spot with fabulous diving, as my wife and I discovered in 2017. When the Spaniards arrived at this island, they name it Cozumel because of its abundant honey. Here is the report printed in "The Discovery of Yucatan in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba" by Marshall H. Saville, Geographical Review, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Nov., 1918), pp. 436-448, available at Jstor.org and also at Archive.org as plain text or as an image/PDF (best)). Saville writes (p. 445):
Cervantes de Salazar narrates that after leaving Cuba the expedition came into shallow water one night, and "at ten oclock in the morning with great joy they sighted land and came to the weather side of a small island that was called Cozumel on account of the great quantity of honey which was there." [Cervantes de Salazar, Cronicá de la Nueve España, Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 60]For those tempted to reflexively say that Joseph Smith, the inveterate bookworm, would surely have been aware of Cervantes de Salazar and the history he wrote, Mayan honey and all, Saville has a valuable observation in a footnote on p. 438:
The fact that Francisco Cervantes de Salazar had written a history of New Spain was known, but the whereabouts of the manuscript, if indeed it had been preserved, was unknown until the end of 1911, when it was seen by Mrs. Zelia Nuttall in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Mrs. Nuttall communicated.Not that it matters, but that's an interesting reminder of some of the limitations to knowledge that even avid bookworms faced in the 19th century.
Information on pre-Colombian bees and honey in Mesoamerica is found in " Ancient Maya Beekeeping: The Stingless Bee in Pre-Columbian America" by K. Kris Hirst, ThoughtCo.com (formerly About.com), updated Sept. 23, 2017. You can also read that ancient Mesoamericans traded honey in "Honey: A Sweet Maya Legacy" at MexConnect.com. Another note on honey from stingless bees in the Americas is at www.ancientsites.com/aw/post/384974 (archived). Also see a Dutch page on stingless beekeeping which has the following information:
Since pre-Hispanic times the Mayan and Nahua ethnic groups of Central America bred stingless bees for their honey and wax. This type of beekeeping, which is called "meliponiculture", was a well-developed enterprise at the time of the Spanish conquest. Bee stands with hundreds of colonies of Melipona beecheii supplied honey and wax for exportation to Europe. To this day, peasant farmers continue to keep stingless bees in forest areas. Melipona beecheii is still the preferred species for husbandry, while some eight more species are being kept in the home gardens. The honey, wax and pollen of almost all the other stingless bee species are collected in the forest.
(Thanks to Joseph Barbados for pointing out these last two URLs.)
As for the possibility that Mayan stingless bees might be descended from Old World stingless bees brought over by the Jaredites, I am not aware of information that could support or rule out that hypothesis. One place to look is the emerging data on the genetics of stingless bee species, though the focus appears to have been on Old World species. For starters, see Claus Rasmussen and Sydney A. Cameron, "A molecular phylogeny of the Old World stingless bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Meliponini) and the non-monophyly of the large genus Trigona," Systematic Entomology 23 (2007):26-39.
"... 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.
FARMS reviews of pro- and anti-Mormon books - lots of great material. Example: William J. Hamblin's excellent article, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon."
"Once More: The Horse" by John L. Sorenson. Explores the issue of horses in the Book of Mormon.
"The Prophet Said Silk" by Maurice W. Connell, The Improvement Era, Vol. 65, No. 5 (May 1962), pp. 324-345. This article provides evidence that the term "silk" in the Book of Mormon is not an anachronism. Stan Barker has also called my attention to a more recent non-LDS publication, "Silkworm of the Aztecs" by Richard S. Peigler, Ph.D., Curator of Entomology, in Museum Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1993): pp. 10-11 (published by the Denver Museum of Natural History).
Nixtamalization: The Mesoamerican Food Preparation Process that Creates Niacin in Corn - great Wikipedia article about how ancient Mesoamericans applied a chemical process (soaking in alkaline solution) that creates niacin, an essential nutrient, that would otherwise be missing in their diet. Were they just lucky in coming up with that? Or blessed? I say gratitude is rarely wasted.
Science and the Book of Mormon by Wade Miller. Transcript of a 2009 FAIRLDS presentation given by a geologist and scientist about some of the alleged scientific gaps in the Book of Mormon (metals, horses, etc.).