Horses in the Book of Mormon

Michael R. Ash

Horses in the Book of Mormon

[Editor's note: This paper is based on a talk and PowerPoint presentation given to the Book of Mormon Lands Conference, 20 October 2007.]

Horses are mentioned in eight different Book of Mormon episodes that involve an ancient New World setting.1 Chronologically the first mention is in Jaredite times (Ether 9:19) and the last mention is among the Nephites in approximately 20 AD (3 Nephi 6:1).

1. Evolving size of horses over thousands of years.

Most scientists believe that the horse originated in the Americas and spread across land bridges from the Americas to Asia, eventually migrating into Africa and Europe. Over the course of millions of years the horse evolved from a smaller breed to the larger horses of today. Near the end of the Pleistocene period–about 10,000 years ago–the most recent ice-age came to an end. During this time several large mammals that once roamed the Americas became extinct. This included mammoths, camels, and the mid-sized horses that once lived in abundance in the New World. Scientists typically argue that these animals died off due to climate changes and possible over-hunting. In other parts of the world, however, horses continued to thrive and eventually evolved into modern-day horses. When the Spaniards came to the New World in the early sixteenth century, they brought horses with them. Some horses eventually escaped and multiplied in the wild.

2. Some of the animals that once lived in the Americas.

According to the most scientists, the mention of “horses” in the Americas during Book of Mormon times presents an anachronism–something that doesn’t fit the time frame for which it is claimed. How do we, as believers, reconcile this dilemma?

3. Artist rendition of the Book of Mormon plates.

First, it is important to remember that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text–it’s a nineteenth-century translation of an ancient text. When we, as modern readers, read texts from ancient or foreign cultures, we often misunderstand what the ancient or foreign author was attempting to convey. Some of the things that seem “plain” to us are not so “plain” upon further investigation or once we understand the culture that produced the text.

Words only have meaning as they relate to the social system of the speakers of a language.2 The same word can mean different things according to the era, language, and culture. One Hebrew word, for instance, can mean ram, deer, ibex, or mountain goat depending on the dialect and differing ecological zone.3 Similarly, the Hebrew word parash can mean “horse” as well as a human “horseman” depending on context.4 Even in English we can “catch” a nap as well as “catch” a fish–but the word “catch” means something different in each example. Most languages have words that can have multiple meanings depending on context. Our English “brother,” for example, can mean older brother, younger brother, male member in our Church, or a modern colloquialism for comrade or friend.

To exacerbate the problem is the fact that all languages have certain words that are “untranslatable.” As explained on Wikipedia, an untranslatable word has “no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language.”5 For example, in Japanese there is no single word for “brother” or for “sister.” Instead there are words for “elder brother,” “younger brother,” “elder sister,” and “younger sister.”6 Imagine trying to translate the “brother of Jared” into Japanese–was he the older or younger brother?

As a reader interacts with a text, she automatically and unconsciously conjures mental pictures based on her own culture and experiences. This is called recontextualization. When a text is written in a different culture or in a different era, our mental images may not accurately reflect what the original author had intended to portray. In Alma 11:1-20, for example, we read of a Nephite proto-monetary system with exchanges for differing weights of pieces of metal. According to more than a few modern readers, the “plain” reading suggests that the Nephites had coins. Several decades ago, the Church began to add notes, cross-references, and chapter headings to the Book of Mormon text. To modern readers it seemed obvious that Alma 11 was describing coins, so the chapter heading including a note that this chapter detailed a system of “Nephite coinage.” The Book of Mormon text, however, never mentions coins and, upon closer examination, the text doesn’t suggest that the Nephites had coins. The “plain” reading was wrong and recent Book of Mormon editions have corrected the chapter heading to read “Nephite monetary system.”

Once we recognize that words don’t always easily translate from one language to another, and once we understand that not all languages delineate categories in the same way as English-speaking people, we find that there are at least two possible resolutions to the “horse” problem in the Book of Mormon: (1) definitions were expanded to include new meanings and (2) horses were present but their remains have not been found.

1. Definitions were Expanded to Include New Meanings

In the Bible the Hebrew word for “horse” is sus and means “leaping,” but it can also refer to the rapid flight of swallows and cranes. Typically our English Bibles translate the word “sus” as “horse,” but twice it is translated as “crane,” and twice as “horseback”–referring to a rider.7

The Book of Mormon authors tell us that their written language, reformed Egyptian, was different than their spoken language. The Nephites would have liked to have written in Hebrew but they used reformed Egyptian instead because it took up less space on the plates (Mormon 9:32-33). Reformed Egyptian was probably a more compact script than Hebrew and it’s possible that it also consisted of a more limited vocabulary. Moroni tells us that if they could have written in Hebrew instead of reformed Egyptian there would have been fewer mistakes. Maybe he understood that at least some reformed Egyptian characters only approximated a concept. As we investigate the Book of Mormon text, we discover that, indeed, reformed Egyptian appears to have had a very limited vocabulary.

LDS researcher Benjamin McGuire has noted that while the Book of Mormon is roughly 270,000 words long, it has a vocabulary of only about 5,500 words. If we compare this to contemporary books of Joseph Smith’s day we find that Warren Ramsey’s The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution had roughly as many words as the Book of Mormon but had a vocabulary 2.5 times greater than the Book of Mormon. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days has only 1/3 as many words as the Book of Mormon, but has a vocabulary nearly 25% larger. Solomon Spalding wrote a novel that some critics claim was the original source for the Book of Mormon. That claim has been soundly refuted, but it’s interesting that Spalding’s manuscript is just under 15% the length of the Book of Mormon, but it has about the same sized vocabulary. The limited Book of Mormon vocabulary becomes even smaller when we remove the unique Book of Mormon names.8

Some might suggest that the Book of Mormon’s vocabulary was limited because Joseph Smith’s vocabulary was limited. The evidence, however, contradicts such a theory. In the Book of Mormon, for example, we find a single word for a moving body of water–a “river.” In the D&C, however, Joseph Smith uses “river,” “stream,” “rill,” and “brook.” Critics frequently claim that Joseph copied the language of the Bible when translating the Book of Mormon. The Bible, however, contains not only “river,” but descriptors such as “stream,” “creek,” and “brook”–none of which are in the Book of Mormon. Reformed Egyptian’s apparently limited vocabulary had only a single word for all moving bodies of water.

Likewise, the Book of Mormon uses only one word for large bodies of water–“sea.” Other than the figurative lakes of fire and brimstone, we don’t read of “lakes,” “ponds,” “oceans,” “pools,” etc. Some LDS scholars have suggested that–in at least some instances–the “seas” of the Book of Mormon may have been large lakes or other bodies of water (like the Dead Sea). The Bible uses not only “sea” but unlike the Book of Mormon it also uses “pond,” “pool,” and “lake.” In the D&C we find “sea,” “ocean,” and “pool.”

Other than wheat, barley, and corn, and the generic term “tree” we find few plants in the Book of Mormon text. In contrast, the Bible mentions the poplar, pine, pomegranate, palm, almond, fig, gopher, chestnut, and olive.9 Of the animals listed in the New World portions of the Book of Mormon, thirteen are physical creatures, whereas the remaining animals are figurative and may have been borrowed from Joseph’s vernacular to express common ideas. Two of the thirteen physical creatures arecumoms and cureloms from Jaredite times (for which we have no Nephite or modern translation). Of the eleven remaining physical creatures we find cow, ox, ass, horse, goat, wild goat, dog, sheep, swine, serpents, and elephant.

In the Bible we find the same animals as listed in the Book of Mormon (with the exception of the “elephant”) along with the lion, bear, ape, ostrich, hare, bat, badger, greyhound, ram, ferret, lizard, chameleon, snail, mole, spider, stork, mouse, weasel, tortoise, vulture, frog, crow, camel, and many more. While “fowl” are said to exist in Book of Mormon lands, no specific bird (nor even the word “bird”) is ever mentioned other than figuratively. In the Bible, however, we read not only of birds and fowls but we find the hawk, dove, quail, owl, pigeon, partridge, swan, swallow, and crane. It quickly becomes apparent that reformed Egyptian had a small vocabulary. What does one do with a small vocabulary when there is a need to include a variety of new and unfamiliar items? The solution is to expand the definition of existing words.

When translators run into the problem of untranslateable words, they resolve the issue by way of several options–such as adaptation, paraphrasing, borrowing, and more.10 The same thing happens when people find it necessary to label new and unfamiliar items–what is known as cross-cultural onomastica (onomastica refers to the names we assign to people, animals, or things). Anthropologists and linguists tell us that when a society encounters foreign floral and fauna, they often “loan-shift” words–they expand familiar terms to include unfamiliar items.11 Loan-shifting can also happen during the translation of one language to another.12 Two languages need not resemble each other phonetically in order for loan-shifting to occur.13 Instead of creating entirely new words for unfamiliar things, sometimes people tend to “translate” new things into their own language by expanding their current words to include the new item.

This problem is not limited to ancient societies. The American “buffalo,” for example, is actually a bison and is only distantly related to the water buffalo and African buffalo (the two true buffalos).14 What most Americans call a “moose” is actually an elk, “elk” are actually red deer, and “antelope” are not real antelopes.15

4. Cotamundi.

Loan-shifting has occurred throughout history. When the Greeks first encountered a large unfamiliar animal in the Nile, for example, they named it hippopotamus or “river horse.”16 Likewise, when the conquistadors arrived in the New World both the natives and the Spaniards had problems classifying new animals. When the Spaniards encountered the coatamundi they described the animal as active, as large as a small dog, but with a snout like a pig. One common Spanish name for this animal was tejon, but tejon is also the Spanish name for the badger as well as the raccoon. The Aztecs called it pisote, which means glutton, but the same term is also applied to peccaries or wild pigs.17

5. The Spanish conquest.

When the Maya saw the European goat they called it a “short-horned deer”18 and when the Miami Indians, who were familiar with cows, first encountered the unfamiliar buffalo they simply called them “wild cows.” Likewise the explorer DeSoto called the buffalo “vaca” which is Spanish for “cow.” The Delaware Indians named the cow “deer,” and a group of Miami Indians labeled the unfamiliar sheep “looks-like-a-cow.”19

The reintroduced Spanish horse was unfamiliar to the Native Americans and so it became associated with either the deer or the tapir. When Cortes and his horses arrived,, the Aztecs simply called the unfamiliar horses “deer.” 20 One Aztec messenger reported to Montezuma: “Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.”21As McGuire explains,

When the Aztecs encountered horses and called them “deer”, they didn’t suddenly lose all cognitive sense of the past meaning of the word “deer”–they simply expanded the meaning of that word in their vocabulary to include this new meaning as well as the old ones.

The Spaniards likewise expanded the definition of some of their animal categories. They called the native tapir an “ass,”22 and some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys “tapirs” because, at least according to one observer, they looked so similar.23

If we find such loan-shifting in verifiable New World sources when the Native Americans and the Spaniards encountered unfamiliar animals, why do some critics think it is impossible that the Nephites would have acted any differently when they encountered unfamiliar items or had to identify different items with a limited written vocabulary? Perhaps the reformed Egyptian word for “horse” was expanded to include other animals that were in some way horse-like. The most likely animals to have been included in the expanded definition of the Book of Mormon “horse” are the deer and the tapir.


6. A man riding a deer in Siberia.

As already noted, some of the Aztecs called the Spanish horse “deer.” Likewise, in the Quiche languages of highland Guatemala we have expressions like keh, which means both deer and horse, and the cognitive keheh, which means mount or ride.24 Early Native Americans had no problem expanding their definition of “deer” to include horses, so why couldn’t the Nephites expand their definition of “horse” to include deer if the American genus of deer–in some ways–acted like horses? An early pre-Spanish incense burner discovered in Guatemala shows a man riding on the back of a deer, and a stone monument dating to 700 A.D. shows a woman riding a deer. Until recently many people in Siberia rode on the backs of deer. In such cases the deer served as “horses.”25

But didn’t the Nephites know real “deer” from their Old World experiences? Possibly. While “deer” are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon–not even in the Old World setting where the Lehites frequently hunted during their travels through the Arabian Peninsula–it seems reasonable to assume that the Lehites were familiar with Old World deer before coming to the New World. Why, then, would the Nephites use the term “horse” for “deer”? Why didn’t they simply use the Hebrew word for “deer”? As previously noted, the Hebrew words for “deer” included several non-deer animals such as “ram,” “ibex,” and “mountain goat.” The Lehites may also have associated the Hebrew term “deer” with “gazelle” or “hartebeest.” The Hebrew-speaking Lehites wouldn’t have limited the label “deer” to exclusively one animal, nor would they have limited the Hebrew words for “horse” exclusively to horses.

While the Lehites would have had a Hebrew word for deer, the question is whether the Nephites had a written reformed Egyptian word for deer. Reformed Egyptian was likely a combination of Hebrew language written in modified-Egyptian characters. The number of reformed Egyptian characters may have been rather small as evidenced by the limited vocabulary we find in the Book of Mormon. It is possible, like the Book of Mormon terms “river” and “sea,” that other reformed Egyptian characters were expanded to describe multiple items. Dr. William Hamblin explains that “deer” were likely extinct in Egypt long before Lehi’s day and that there may not have been an Egyptian word for deer at the time of Nephi. But even if an Egyptian word for “deer” was known to the Lehites, this does not mean that such a word was available in the limited vocabulary of reformed Egyptian. In the absence of a reformed Egyptian word for deer Nephi would have chosen some other word that represented a characteristic of deer or a way they interacted with people. The terms for “horse,” which had already been expanded in Hebrew to refer to “horseman” (or riders) as well as leaping animals (or even cranes), could easily be expanded to include New World “deer.” As noted in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ancient Near Eastern cultures, such as the Hebrews and Arabs, had “looseness of nomenclature” when it came to categorizing animals.26 The Nephites would have had no problem expanding the definition of “horse” to include New World animals that may have behaved in a similar fashion or were used in a similar way.


7. Tapir.

In my opinion, a more likely candidate for the Nephite loan-shift “horse” would have been the Central American tapir. Tapirs are one of only a few odd-toed ungulates–a family that includes the horse, zebra, donkey, onager, and the rhinoceros. These large grazing animals have common traits, including an odd number of toes on each hoof, a large middle toe, and a relatively simple stomach (as compared to other grazing animals like cows who regurgitate their cud for digestion).

Israelites often distinguished animals based on the type of foot and what the animal ate. This generally played a role in determining if an animal was “clean” or “unclean.” If we use the Law of Moses as a guide, tapirs and horses are very closely related–and in a significant way. While there is no clear consensus as to what dietary rules were known and/or applied in the land of Israel just prior to Lehi’s departure, it is possible that the Nephites were obligated to live–or were at least familiar–with some of the dietary restrictions and may therefore have included tapirs in the horse family. And while they may have categorized the tapir in the same family as the horse, it is possible that they might not have had dietary restrictions on eating animals is this family.

While some species of tapir are rather small and look like pigs, the Mesoamerican variety–Baird’s Tapir–can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. A modern government report indicates that

The tapir is docile toward man and hence management of the animal is relatively easy. An indigenous person describes the tapir as follows: “The animal is very sociable. Taken as a pup, one can easily tame it; it knows how to behave near the house; it goes to eat in the mountain and then returns to sleep near the house.”27

Tapirs were frequently eaten and, because of their strength, they may have been used as beasts of burden on a small scale. Charles Darwin wrote that tapirs were kept tame in the Americas, though they did not tend to breed in captivity. This fact might explain the relatively infrequent mention of “horses” in the Book of Mormon.28

“Many zoologists and anthropologists,” explains one researcher, “have compared the tapir’s features to those of a horse or a donkey.”

“Whenever I saw a tapir,” notes zoologist Hans Krieg, “it reminded me of an animal similar to a horse or a donkey. The movements as well as the shape of the animal, especially the high neck with the small brush mane, even the expression on the face, are much more like a horse’s than a pig’s…. When watching a tapir on the alert . . . as he picks himself up when recognizing danger, taking off in a gallop, almost nothing remains of the similarity to a pig.”29

Non-LDS archaeologist, Michael Coe, in his book Breaking the Maya Code, claims that in the Mayan Yucatec language the term “tzimin” would classify either a “horse” or a “tapir.”30 Tzimin originally meant “tapir” but was expanded to include the “horse” when the Yucatec speaking natives discovered a need to label the horse. Once again we could ask how the Book of Mormon can be rejected for suggesting the Nephites had done the exact thing we find in the history of Yucatec-speaking Mayans.

8. Mayan riding a peccary.

While we know that, in at least a few instances, deer were ridden, we do not have the same information concerning tapirs, other than accounts of children riding tapirs. The problem, once again, is of recontextualization. The Book of Mormon never says that Nephite “horses” were ridden. Book of Mormon horses are never used to hasten a journey and they are never used in a combat narrative.

This is most curious and requires an explanation for those critics who claim that Joseph Smith created a fictional Book of Mormon. According to what was known during Joseph’s day, the Indians (and all Westerners) rode horses. Nineteenth-century horses were also used to plough fields, but there is no mention of this in the Book of Mormon. If Joseph had created a fictional story, why doesn’t the Book of Mormon reflect horses in ways that were familiar to nineteenth-century Americans?

Mesoamerica was a maize-based agriculture. Real “horses” in such an agricultural society would not have been very helpful in food production and may actually have been an economic drain.

Maize based agriculture produces 4 times as much food as did the wheat and oat agriculture of Europe. Large cities could be easily supported on a much smaller agricultural land base, where human porters were far more efficient than a horse would be.31

Instead, we read in the Book of Mormon 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” (Enos 1:21). Later we read that while the Nephites fought with the Gadianton robbers, they reserved provisions for themselves. What kinds of provisions?

…horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years, in the which time they did hope to destroy the robbers from off the face of the land…. (3 Ne. 4:4).

After defeating the Gadianton Robbers the Nephites returned to their homes–every man with his “flocks and his herds, his horses and his cattle” (3 Ne. 6:1). It seems that Book of Mormon horses may have been considered to be something like cattle. As noted above, tapirs were frequently eaten in ancient America.

In the ancient Near East early horses were too small to ride and so they were sometimes used to pull things such as chariots. By about 1000 B.C., the Egyptians had bred horses large enough for soldiers to ride bareback. With this adaptation, the war chariot began to die out.32 Large horses are ridden; small horses were used to pull things. Ancient New World horses would have been small horses. A few Book of Mormon verses seem to indicate that New World “horses” may also have been used to pull chariots. In Alma, for instance, we read that Ammon was “preparing” King Lamoni’s “horses and chariots” to conduct him to the land of Nephi (Alma 18:9-12). Later, when Ammon wanted to free his brethren from a neighboring city’s prison, King Lamoni volunteered to go with Ammon and asked that his servants “make ready his horses and chariots” (Alma 20:6). Finally, when the Nephites went to war with the Gadianton robbers (as noted above) they took “horses, and their chariots, and their cattle, and all their flocks, and their herds, and their grain, and all their substance” and gathered to Zarahemla to defend themselves.

The initial “plain” reading of these verses seems to suggest that horse-drawn chariots transported the Nephites to various destinations. It should be noted, however, that chariots are mentioned in only a few verses, and in all but one instance, they belonged to a single king–Lamoni. In the other instance it seems that chariots are used to convey Nephites or their property in their trek to Zarahemla, more in the manner of carts than war chariots. Book of Mormon chariots, like horses, are never mentioned in a combat narrative. If Joseph was sponging information from his nineteenth century environment or from the Bible, why don’t we see chariots used in battle? Why don’t Book of Mormon chariots take on the characteristics of the feared biblical chariots utilized by the Egyptians? Secondly, it’s a natural American assumption to envision a chariot with wheels, but many scholars believe that the wheel was unknown in ancient America.

9. Ancient American wheeled “toy.”

When the Spaniards arrived, the Native Americans seemed unfamiliar with the wheel. Archaeologists, however, have found over one hundred examples of wheeled artifacts in the Americas. Most of these are pre-Columbian wheeled “toys” from Central America.33 Many of these wheels were attached to the “toys” in different ways. This would suggest that the early Mesoamericans had some experience with axles and wheels.34 Unfortunately larger vehicles would most likely have been constructed of wood, and wood deteriorates with time. If small toy-like objects had been fitted with wheels, it is impossible to think that the early Americans would not have understood the benefit of the wheel when used with larger items such as carts and chariots. In all cultures toys are models of larger objects which work on the same principles. For instance, one recently discovered wheeled figure from the Americas is that of a man astride a platform with wheels. This implies that the Mesoamericans understood that wheels could be used to move a person.35

Anthropologist, Dr. John Sorenson notes that “when the Spaniards invaded Guatemala, they reported that the Quiche Indians used ‘military machines’ consisting of wooden platforms mounted on ‘little rollers’ to haul weapons around one battlefield to resupply their soldiers.”36

10. Ancient American wheeled “toy.”

But if the wheel was known in ancient American (and it may not have been) why would its utilization disappear? It’s interesting to note that the Mayas of Guatemala still walk today with loads on their backs, even four hundred years after the Europeans exposed them to the wheel. Frances Gibson, who lived among the Maya and studied their ways, found that the Mayas did not wish to use the wheel due to religious beliefs.37

The wheeled figurines have been called “toys” for lack of a better description. Generally, however, these “toys” were not used for children (as is evidenced by minimal wheel wear and their lack of smooth motion) but rather they had religious significance for adults.38 Not only did the wheel represent the sun, but the commonly portrayed dog, often carried on wheels, was also a symbol of the sun and was intimately associated with the underworld. The wheel was linked to the Mesoamerican belief that the sun died each night when setting and was reborn through an Aztec goddess the following morning. Thus the wheels on a figurine connected it symbolically to the sun. This same connection between a wheeled dog and the concept of death and rebirth is found in the Old World and in Old World burials.39

The wheel, then, may have been known to the early Americans, but disappeared from use due to changes in religious beliefs. But, some may ask, how could all traces of the wheel and chariots disappear? Such disappearances are not as unusual as it sounds. According to the Bible, the Philistines in Saul’s time had 30,000 chariots (1 Samuel 13:5), yet not a single fragment of a chariot has ever been uncovered in the Holy Land.40 In the humid Mesoamerican climate, would we really expect the survival of two-thousand year-old wooden wheels (the last mention of Nephite chariots dates to about 20 AD)?

Normally, our first inclination would be to agree that the term “chariot” suggests wheels. But upon further investigation we must conclude that this interpretation is not mandatory. Turning to the Bible we find that the term “chariot” does not always reflect what we would envision. There are five Hebrew words which translate as “chariot” in the KJV Bible. Some of these Hebrew words have other definitions such as a team, mill-stone, riders, troop of riders, pair of horseman, men riding, camel-riders, place to ride, riding seat, seat of a litter, saddle, portable couch, and human-born sedan chair. The Talmud even uses a version to mean “nuptial bed” and one word used for chariot has an uncertain definition of “amour” or “weapons” and comes from an unused root meaning to be strong or sharp.41 The Arabic cognate of one of the Hebrew terms for chariot refers not to any kind of wheeled vehicle, but can refer to a ship or a boat.42 In most instances, the word refers to a device that can move a person or object, but not necessarily a wheeled device.

11. Native American palanquin.

12. Deer pulling a chariot.

13. Greek goddess Artemis in deer-drawn chariot.

16. Mayan deer being used as beast of burden.

…the Welsh cognate to the English chariot, signifies, among other things, a “dray”–which Webster’s defines as “any of several wheelless land vehicles used for haulage,” and for which it gives as a synonym nothing less than travois; dray is obviously cognate with the verb to drag–or a “sledge” (which term is, itself, related to words like sleigh and sled–which also plainly denote wheelless vehicles).43

The English word “chariot” comes from Latin carrus, car, and is etymologically related to the verb to carry. The primary definition for chariot seems to be a device to carry some sort of load. We should not automatically assume that the Nephites understood chariots as wheeled war machines. Because no Book of Mormon verse says or suggests that chariots are mounted, dismounted, or that they carried people or were ridden (although this could be inferred from a twenty-first century view), we cannot say for certain what a Book of Mormon “chariot” means.44 Native American kings, for example, were often carried into war or to ceremonial events on litters or palanquins. These were sedans carried on the shoulders of other men and certainly fits the Hebrew definition of a “chariot.” The Book of Mormon, it must also be noted, never mentions horses “pulling” chariots.

But if Nephite chariots were not wheeled (and it’s possible that they were), why are chariots mentioned in conjunction with Nephite “horses”? First, Nephite chariots (wheeled or not) may have been pulled by deer or tapirs (which may have been included in the Nephite term “horse”). Several ancient Eastern and Near Eastern pieces of art and petroglyphs depict chariots drawn by deer. Early Hindus had chariots pulled by deer. We find deer-pulling chariots in Asian art. The Greek goddess Artemis supposedly rode a chariot pulled by deer.45

14. Native American with dog pulling a travois.

15. Native American with dog pulling a travois.

17. Mayan war palanquin on right with giant jaguar standing up in back.

18. Inca king on war palanquin with jaguar.

Perhaps deer or tapirs pulled wheelless chariots. We know, for instance, that the American Indian travois (a kind of sled) was pulled, not only by horses, but also by dogs. Maybe King Lamoni used a deer or tapir-drawn travois to cart his supplies while traveling. The mass Nephite movement to Zarahemla certainly suggests that chariots were used to carry supplies rather than soldiers.

It’s also possible that Nephite “horses”–at least when associated with chariots–were among the provisions that King Lamoni needed during his travels (we know that horses were part of the provisions which the Nephites reserved for themselves when fighting the Gadianton Robbers [3 Nephi 4:4]). Perhaps “preparing” the horses and chariots would be like “preparing the chicken and backpack.” To modern ears this doesn’t suggest that the chicken will carry the backpack but rather than a chicken meal will be prepared to go in the backpack. If Book of Mormon horses were eaten, they may have been one of the provisions loaded on a “chariot” and carried or dragged by men.

Another possibility is that King Lamoni’s horses were symbolic battle beasts. Mayan kings brought battle beasts along while traveling on palanquins. In Maya battle imagery, for instance, the king rides into battle on a litter or cloth covered framework between two parallel bars. As Mesoamerican ethnohistory specialist Brant Gardner has written, “the capture of the king’s litter is tantamount to the capture of the gods of that king.” The animal alter-ego of a god accompanied the king and conceptually represented the king and litter. “Thus,” writers Gardner, “there were three important elements of this complex which went into battle: king, litter, and battle beast. There is also evidence that the litter complex was used in other ceremonial occasions other than war.”46

Typically a battle beast statue accompanied the king atop the palanquin. The most common battle beast was the jaguar–which was a symbol of war–but other creatures, monsters, or gods were also associated with the battle beast and war palanquins. Among the ancient Zapotec gods, for instance, was Xolotl–the “lightning beast.” Perhaps coincidently, his image was often associated with the setting sun being devoured by the earth (reminiscent of what we find in religious wheel symbolism). He is also associated with war. While most scholars believe that he is symbolized by a dog (and it is typically the dog that we find on the religious wheeled figures), the eminent non-LDS scholar, Eduard Seler, believes that Xolotl is more closely associated with the tapir.47

19. Xolotl.

According to the Spanish chronicler Sahagun this animal-god, Xolotl, is described as having a “large snout, large teeth, hoofs like an ox, a thick hide, and reddish hair”–a pretty good description of a tapir. Dr. Seler explains that along with the dog, Xolotl’s role of lightning beast is shared by two other creatures in the codices: the tapir, and the jaguar. These animals appear with the hieroglyphs jaguar and kan, meaning corn or yellow. The root xolo, yellow in Zapotec, occurs in both the words for dog and tapir, and according to Seler, it is repeated in Aztec in the name of the god Xolotl.48

So while the jaguar is the most common battle-beast associated with Mayan war palanquins, we see that the warlike god Xolotl is associated with the jaguar, the tapir, the dog (which we find in religious symbolism on wheels), and the devouring of the sun (which is also associated with wheels). The interconnectivity with the battle beasts and palanquins suggest possible (albeit tentative) connections between the Book of Mormon’s statements of preparing horses and chariots.

In conclusion on this first issue, if real Israelites had lived anciently in the Americas and had left records in Hebrew about their lives, the tapir would easily–perhaps likely–have been included into the word “horse.” If 6th century B.C. Egyptians, or people who wrote with an Egyptian script, had lived in the Americas and had left records, they easily could have included the deer, tapir, and perhaps other animals into their expanded definition of “horse.” Both peoples would also likely have referred to Mayan palanquins or travois-type devices as “chariots.”

2. Horses were Present but their Remains have not been Found

Why did horses become extinct in ancient America? After all, if wild horses were present during the Pleistocene period (Ice Age) and thrived once they were re-introduced by the Spaniards, why were they missing when the Spaniards arrived? Darwin asked the same question and today’s scientists still grapple with this question.

At least a few non-Mormon scholars believe that real horses (of a stature smaller than modern horses) may have survived New World extinction. The late British anthropologist, M.F. Ashley Montague, a non-LDS scholar who taught at Harvard, suggested that the horse never became extinct in America. According to Montague, the size of post-Columbian horses provides evidence that the European horses bred with early American horses.49

Non-LDS Canadian researcher, Yuri Kuchinsky, also believes that there were pre-Columbian horses. Kuchinsky, however, believes that horses (smaller than our modern horses) were reintroduced into the west coast of the Americas about 2000 years ago from Asians who came by ship. Among Kuchinsky’s evidences for pre-Columbian horses are (1) horse traditions among the Indians that may pre-date the arrival of the Spaniards, (2) supposedly pre-Columbian petroglyphs that appear to depict horses, and (3) noticeable differences between the typical Spanish horse and the much smaller Indian ponies.50

Unfortunately, however, such theories are typically seen as fringe among mainstream scholars. Due to the dearth of archaeological support, most scholars continue to believe that horses became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene period. Is it possible that real horses lived in the Americas during Book of Mormon times? And if so, why does there seem to be no archaeological support?

First, it is important to recognize that the Book of Mormon never states or implies that horses roamed the New World in large numbers–in fact, horses are mentioned very infrequently. If small pockets of horses lived in pre-Columbian America, it is possible that they would leave little if any trace in the archaeological record. We know, for example, that the Norsemen probably introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs into the Eastern North America in the eleventh century A.D., yet these animals didn’t spread throughout the continent and they left no archeological remains.51 According to one non-LDS authority on ancient American, the Olmecs had domesticated dogs and turkeys but the damp acidic Mesoamerican soil would have destroyed any remains and any archaeological evidence of such animal domestication.52

Even in areas of the world where animals lived in abundance, we sometimes have problems finding archaeological remains. The textual evidence for lions in Israel, for example, suggests that lions were present in Israel from ancient times until at least the sixteenth century AD, yet no lion remains from ancient Israel have ever been found.53

20. Attila the Hun.

In the Bible we read that Abraham had camels while in Egypt, yet archaeologists used to believe that this was an anachronism because camels were supposedly unknown in Egypt until Greek and Roman times. More recently, however, some researchers have shown that camels were used in Egypt from pre-historic times until the present day.54 In the 4th & 5th centuries AD, the Huns of Central Asia and Eastern Europe had so many horses that estimates suggest that each warrior may have had up to ten horses. Horses were the basis of their wealth and military power. According to a non-LDS leading authority on the zoological record for central Asia, however, we know very little of the Huns’ horses, and not a single usable horse bone has been found in the territory of the whole empire of the Huns.55 Based on the fact that other–once thriving–animals have disappeared (often with very little trace), it is not unreasonable to suggest that the same thing might have happened with the Nephite “horse.”

The fact is, however, that there does appear to be archaeological support that horses existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In 1957, for instance, at Mayapan (a site corresponding to Book of Mormon lands/times) horse remains were discovered at a depth considered to be pre-Columbian. Likewise, in southwest Yucatan, a non-Mormon archaeologist found what may likely be pre-Columbian horse remains in three caves. Excavations in a cave in the Mayan lowlands in 1978 also turned up horse remains.56

Why haven’t pre-Columbian horse remains received greater attention from other scientists? As an article for the Academy of Natural Science explains, such discoveries are typically “either dismissed or ignored by the European scientific community.”57 The problem may be one of pre-conceived paradigms. Dr. Sorenson recently related the story of a non-LDS archaeologist colleague who was digging at an archaeological dig in Tula and discovered a horse tooth. He took it to his supervisor–the chief archaeologist–who said, “Oh, that’s a modern horse, throw it away” (which he did)–it was never dated.58

Dr. John Clark, director of the New World Archaeological Foundation has expressed similar concerns:

The problem is archaeologists get in the same hole that everybody else gets in. If you find a horse–if I’m digging a site and I find a horse bone–if I actually know enough to know that it is a horse bone, because that takes some expertise–my assumption would be that there’s something wrong with my site. And so archaeologists who find a horse bone and say, “Ah! Somebody’s screwing around with my archaeology.” So we would never date it. Why am I going to throw away $600 to date the horse bone when I already know [that they're modern]? …I think that hole’s screwed up. If I dig a hole and I find plastic in the bottom, I’m not going to run the [radio]carbon, that’s all there is to it. Because …I don’t want to waste the money.59

Recently, however, FARMS began a project to date the horse remains that were discovered at digs that date to pre-Columbian times. Acquiring the remains was an extensive job in itself. Some of the reported remains had disappeared, and some of the owners of the remains didn’t want FARMS taking them for dating purposes. Of the remains that FARMS was able to acquire it appears that at least two date to pre-Columbian times. The work is not yet complete, and when I spoke to Dr. Wade Miller–the scientist in charge of the project–he indicated that more work was yet to be done before they had conclusive results. Nevertheless, the prospects look promising.

21. Charlton Heston in Ben Hur.

If it turns out that actual horses were not in existence during Book of Mormon times, we can recognize that they need not be present to understand the use of the term “horse” in the Book of Mormon. If it turns out that actual pre-Columbian horse bonesare identified, this would support the Book of Mormon in interesting ways. Actual New World horses may have been smaller than modern horses, possibly only about five-feet high. They may have been used as a food source, and because they were too small to ride, they may have been used to either pull some sort of travois or wheeled cart–but not Ben Hur-style chariots. All of this matches what we find in the Book of Mormon. Horses are never ridden, they may have been used as a food source, and the Nephite text never says that chariots are used in war or even that they were wheeled or ridden.

So while it appears that we may yet have archaeological evidence that actual horses lived during Book of Mormon times, we should also remember that the Nephites may have expanded their term for horse to designate not only real New World horses, but also animals that–to at least some degree–served similar roles.

Source for Photos




4. Coatamundi-07.jpg



7. Tapir1.jpg

8. Photo by Justin Kerr, #1991 on at (accessed 4 April 2008 and used with permission); thanks to Mark Wright for alerting me to this photo. See source for photo 16 which points out that while the images in this photo represent supernatural happenings, that they may still allude to real happenings as well.




12. 1063024.jpg


14. brule253dogtravois.jpg

15. aborig/rodeo/images/161_b.jpg

16. Justin Kerr, #196, on at (accessed 4 April 2008 and reproduced with permission). This image represents supernatural or mythical happenings. Mark Alan Wright (a Ph.D. candidate Mesoamerican Archaeology) notes, however, “any time deer are shown doing something ‘everybody knows they don’t do” then we slap it with a ‘mythological’ label. Kind of a cop out, if you ask me, especially since the mantra among Maya scholars (and religionists in general) is that men create gods in their own image and the divine realm is a reflection of the human realm. Why are the supernatural beings riding on the backs of deer, saddles and all? My guess is because that’s what humans did” (see message posted 3 April 2008 at [accessed 4 April 2008]). Thanks to Mark for alerting me to this photo.







1 1 Nephi 18:5, Enos 1:21, Alma 18:9-12, Alma 20:6, 3 Nephi 3:22, 3 Nephi 4:4, 3 Nephi 6:1, Ether 9:19.

2 Bruce J. Malina, New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd Edition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 1.

3 Bill Hamblin, posted 19 May and 2006 at and (accessed 20 May 2006).

4 David Bokovoy, posted 19 May 2006 at (accessed 19 May 2006).

5 (accessed 30 January 2008).

6 (accessed 30 January 2008).


8 Benjamin McGuire, posted 3 April 2006 at (accessed 27 January 2008).

9 While “olive” is mentioned in the Book of Mormon figuratively (see Jacob 5), there is strong evidence that the author of Jacob 5 actually understood sophisticated olive horticulture—something not likely to have been familiar to Joseph Smith.

10 (accessed 29 January 2008).

11 Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review (1997) 9:1, 132-133; see also Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 93: Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationships: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996), 289; parts available on-line at (accessed 18 January 2008).

12 Effects of the Second Language on the First, ed. Vivian Cook (Dublin, Ireland: Trinity College, 2003) 40-41; parts available on-line at (accessed 18 January 2008).

13 Ulrich Ammon, Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language, (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 50-51; parts available on-line at (accessed 18 January 2008).


15, and (accessed 18 January 2008).

16 John Tvedtnes “Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon” in FARMS Review 6:1 (1994): 10.

17 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1984), 290.

18 Ibid., 293-294.

19 Ibid., 293-295.

20 Tvedtnes, 10.


22 Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting…, 293-294.

23 Roper, 134.

24 Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting…, 295-296.

25 Ibid.


27 (accessed 30 January 2008).

28 Ibid.

29 Robert R. Bennett, “Horses in the Book of Mormon,” at (accessed 30 January 2008).

30 Jeff Lindsay &

31 McGuire.


33 “Book of Mormon Research,” Liahona (December 1988), 38; see also (access 30 January 2008).

34 Diane Wirth, Challenge to the Critics (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1986), 62.

35 John L. Sorenson, “Wheeled Figurines in the Ancient World,” (Provo: FARMS, 1984), 4.

36 John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 9.

37 Wirth, 62.

38 Sorenson, “Wheel Figurines…”, 3.

39 Ibid., 8-12.

40 Sorenson, Images, 59.

41 Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary

42 Transformation of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, eds. Jan Assmann and Guy G. Stroumsa (Leinden, Boston, and Koln; Brill, 1999), 80 (page available on-line at; see also (accessed 1 February 2008).

43 Daniel C. Peterson, posted 3 May 2002 at (accessed 30 January 2008).

44 Sorenson, Images, 59.

45 133 Esther Jacobson, The Deer Godess of Ancient Syberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief (EJ Brill)

46 Brant Gardner, “Wild Horse Hypothesis,” posted 25 November 1996 on SAMU-L; copy in author’s possession.


48 Ellen S. Spinden, “The Place of Tajin,” American Anthropologist 35:2 (April/June 1933): 253.

49 Paul R. Cheesman, The World of the Book of Mormon (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1984), 194, 181.


51 Bennett & 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 2:1 (1993), 193.

52 Bennett.

53 John Tvedtnes, “The Nature of Prophets and Prophecy” (unpublished, 1994), 29-30 (copy in author’s possession); Benjamin Urrutia, “Lack of Animal Remains at Bible and Book-of-Mormon Sites,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, 150 (August 1982), 3-4.

54 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 216-17.

55 Hamblin, 194.

56 Clay E. Ray, “Pre-Columbian Horses from Yucatan,” Journal of Mammalogy 38:2 (1957), 278.


58 This story was told at the Q&A session following Dr. Sorenson’s presentation, “The Trajectory of Book of Mormon Studies,” 2 August 2007 at the 2007 FAIR Conference; audio and video in author’s possession.

59 John Clark during Q&A session following Dr. Clark’s presentation, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” 25 May 2004 at BYU; audio of Q&A in author’s possession.

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