Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Animals/Horses/Loanshifting: deer and tapirs

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Loanshifting: Is the horse referred to in the Book of Mormon actually a deer or tapir?

Question: Do Mormon apologists claim that the horse referred to in the Book of Mormon is actually a deer or tapir?

The origin of the suggestion that that name "horse" could have been "loan-shifted" or expanded to refer to "deer" or "tapir" was anthropologist John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson originally suggested the possibility of "loan-shifting" of the word "horse" to "deer" or "tapir" in 1984. Mormon apologists have never claimed that "horses were tapirs." It is a suggestion of plausibility only: They offer it as one possible loan-shift, however, many apologists generally favor the presence of true Equus horses for horses, and tapirs for asses.

The Maya called the Spanish horse tzimin ("beast") and the tapir tzimin che ("forest beast") in order to distinguish them

For example, the Maya used the word tzimin to refer to horses brought to the new world by the Spaniards. They used the word tzimin che ("forest beast" or "forest horse,") to refer to the tapir. Words change over time. Horses are now quite common, and Maya languages have shifted the primary meaning of tzimin to mean horse. North Americans use buffalo for bison. Words are reassigned often.

Composite expressions such as this were used in Lowland Maya nomenclature:

Composite expressions also occur for a few generic species when their names indicate an intermediate category. For example, the tapir, tzimin(+)che' ("forest beast"), forms an intermediate category tegether with horse, tzimin, which is optionally marked by the composite expression tzimin(+kaj)("village beast") or tzimin(+kastil) ("Spanish beast"). [1]

Prior to the arrival of the horse, tzimin had a different meaning, but with the shift to horse as the primary meaning, the "forest horse" was added to distinguish the use of the word for "tapir" from what has become the lesser usage. Still, the pre-contact meaning of tzimin was "beast" rather than "horse." It was a word reassigned to horse when they had to describe the new animal, and eventually the horse became the most important reference.

Anyone else who has mentioned the possibility of "horse" as "deer" or "tapir" has based it upon Sorenson's 1984 research

John L. Sorenson said in 1992,

Is "horse" in the Book of Mormon merely a matter of labeling by analogy some other quadruped with the name Equus, the true horse, or does the scripture's use of "horse" refer to the actual survival into very recent times of the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus)? If, as most zoologists and paleontologists assume, Equus equus was absent from the New World during Book of Mormon times, could deer, tapir, or another quadruped have been termed "horse" by Joseph Smith in his translating?[2]

In 2000, the FARMS Research Department wrote,

Similarly, members of Lehi's family may have applied loanwords to certain animal species that they encountered for the first time in the New World, such as the Mesoamerican tapir. While some species of tapir are rather small, the Mesoamerican variety (tapiris bairdii) can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. Many zoologists and anthropologists 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 [to which some have compared the smaller species]. 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."[3]

Other zoologists have made similar observations. "At first glance," note Hans Frädrich and Erich Thenius, "the tapirs' movements also are not similar to those of their relatives, the rhinoceros and the horses. In a slow walk, they usually keep the head lowered." However, when a tapir runs, its movement becomes quite horselike: "In a trot, they lift their heads and move their legs in an elastic manner. The amazingly fast gallop is seen only when the animals are in flight, playing, or when they are extremely excited." In addition, tapirs can "climb quite well, even though one would not expect this because of their bulky figure. Even steep slopes do not present obstacles. They jump vertical fences or walls, rising on their hind legs and leaping up."[3] Tapirs can be domesticated quite easily if they are captured when young. Young tapirs who have lost their mothers are easily tamed and will eat from a bowl, and they like to be petted and will often allow children to ride on their backs.[3]

One could hardly fault Old World visitors to the New World for choosing to classify the Mesoamerican tapir as a horse or an ass, if that is what happened. Given the limitations of zoo-archaeology, and also those of other potentially helpful disciplines when probing many centuries into the forgotten past, it is unwise to dismiss the references in the Book of Mormon to horses as erroneous.[4]

John A. Tvedtnes cites Sorenson

John A. Tvedtnes refers to Sorenson's work in 1994 while responding to a criticism of the idea,

Hutchinson's criticism of John Sorenson's work on Book of Mormon geography is a gross oversimplification and the "problems" he claims to identify are mostly nonexistent. For example, he criticizes Sorenson's comment that the cows, asses, and swine of the Book of Mormon might be Mesoamerican animals such as deer, tapirs, and peccaries. "When is a cow not a cow?" he asks. I respond, "When it's a deer!" There are, in fact, many linguistic parallels to the kind of thing Sorenson discusses, wherein people have applied the names of known animals to newly discovered or newly introduced creatures. Thus, the Greeks named the huge beast encountered in the Nile River, hippopotamus, "river horse." The same kind of thing happens with both fauna and flora. For example, the term used for potatoes in a number of the languages of Europe (where the tuber is not indigenous) is "earth apple." When the Spanish introduced horses into the New World, some Amerindian tribes called them "deer." I agree with Hutchinson, however, that dogs are an unlikely explanation for the "flocks" of the Book of Mormon. The term more likely refers to herd animals meeting the requirements for cleanliness in the law of Moses.[5]

Daniel C. Peterson cites Sorenson

Daniel C. Peterson cites Sorenson here, as one theory among many (if anything, favoring actual Equus horses).

Even if one assumes that the true horse (Equus equus) was absent from the Americas during Book of Mormon times, it remains possible that the term horse in the Book of Mormon-which, by the way, does not occur very often, and even then in rather puzzling contexts-refers simply to deer or tapirs or similar quadrupeds thought by the Nephites to be analogous to the horse. (It should be noted, incidentally, that no Book of Mormon text speaks of people riding their "horses.") Both Mayan and Aztec texts, for instance, appear to refer to Spanish horses as "deer" and to their riders as "deer-riders." But there is archaeological reason to believe that horses may, in fact, have existed in the Americas during Book of Mormon times. The question remains very much open.[6]

Peterson's footnote states "Valuable discussions of the evidence can be found at John L. Sorenson, "Animals in the Book of Mormon: An Annotated Bibliography" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992); Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 295-6; Welch, "Finding Answers," 8; Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 98-100."

Matthew Roper cites Sorenson

Matthew Roper cites Sorenson's, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (1985), 288-99. in 1997:

Kiddle notes that "The first two naming procedures are hard to study because they require an intimate knowledge of the receiving languages in order to comprehend the thought processes of their speakers."118 This is, of course, extremely relevant in the case of Book of Mormon animal names, which may have similar complexities, since the book purports to be a document translated from another language and deals in part with Old World cultures encountering New World cultures for the first time. What, for example, would Nephi have called a Mesoamerican tapir if he had encountered one? Could he have called it a horse? The tapir is considered by zoologists to be a kind of horse in unevolved form.119 Although the Central American tapir, the largest of the New World species, can weigh up to 300 kilos,120 it can move rather quickly at a gallop and can jump vertical fences or walls by rising on its hind legs and leaping up.121 Zoologist Hans Krieg notes, "Whenever I saw a tapir, 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 is much more like a horse's."122 The tapir can also be domesticated quite easily if captured when young.123 Young tapirs who have lost their mothers are easily tamed and can be fed from a bowl. They like to be petted and will often let children ride on their backs.124 When the Spanish arrived in the Yucatan, the Maya called European horses and donkeys tzimin, meaning "tapir," because, according to one early observer, "they say they resemble them greatly."125 After the spread of horses, tapir were still called tzimin-kaax, which means literally "forest horse."126 Some observers have felt that the tapir more accurately resembles an ass. In fact, among many native Americans today, the tapir is called anteburro, which means "once an ass."127 In Brazil some farmers have actually used the tapir to pull ploughs, suggesting potential as a draft animal.128 So tapirs could certainly have been used in ways similar to horses.[7]

Brant Gardner cites Sorenson

Brant Gardner cites Sorenson in 2005 (on tapirs, deer, and other options):

What, then, is the outrageous claim for horses, tapirs, and deer? From Sorenson:

True horses (Equus sp.) were present in the western hemisphere long ago, but it has been assumed that they did not survive to the time when settled peoples inhabited the New World. I recently summarized evidence suggesting that the issue is not settled. Actual horse bones have been found in a number of archaeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, in one case with artifacts six feet beneath the surface under circumstances that rule out their coming from Spanish horses. Still, other large animals might have functioned or looked enough like a horse that one of them was what was referred to by horse. A prehispanic figure modeled on the cover of an incense burner from Poptun, Guatemala, shows a man sitting on the back of a deer holding its ears or horns, and a stone monument dating to around a.d. 700 represents a woman astride the neck of a deer, grasping its horns. Then there is another figurine of a person riding an animal, this one from central Mexico. Possibly, then, the deer served as a sort of “horse” for riding. (That was a practice in Siberia until recently, so the idea is not as odd as moderns might think. Besides, in the Quiche languages of highland Guatemala we have expressions like keh, deer or horse, keheh, mount or ride, and so on.)[58][8]

Daniel C. Peterson and Matt Roper cite Sorenson here (indeed, it is an explicit defense of an attack on Sorenson's ideas):

Tapir as "Horse." As Professor Sorenson and others have repeatedly pointed out, the practice of naming flora and fauna is far more complicated than critics of the Book of Mormon have been willing to admit. For instance, people typically give the names of familiar animals to animals that have newly come to their attention. Think, for instance, of sea lions, sea cows, and sea horses. When the Romans, confronting the army of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 BC, first encountered the elephant, they called it a Lucca bos or "Lucanian cow." The Greeks' naming of the hippopotamus (the word means "horse of the river" or "river horse") is also a good example. (Some will recall that the hippopotamus is called a Nilpferd, a "Nile horse," in German.) When the Spanish first arrived in Central America, the natives called their horses and donkeys tzimin, meaning "tapir." The Arabs' labeling of the turkey as an Ethiopian or Roman rooster (dik al-abash or dik rumi), the Conquistadors' use of the terms lion and tiger to designate the jaguar, and the fact that several Amerindian groups called horses deer represent but a few more examples of a very well-attested global phenomenon. The Nephites too could easily have assigned familiar Old World names to the animals they discovered in the New.[9]

Peterson and Roper mention other possibilities

However, Peterson and Roper also mention other options offered like deer, and genuine Equus horse bones.

Incidentally, horse bones were also found in association with cultural remains at Loltun Cave in northern Yucatan. There, archaeologists identified a sequence of sixteen layers numbered from the surface downward and obtained a radiocarbon date of about 1800 BC from charcoal fragments found between layers VIII and VII.66 Significantly, forty-four fragments of horse remains were found in the layers VII, VI, V, and II—above all in association with pottery. But the earliest Maya ceramics in the region date no earlier than 900-400 BC.67 [10]

Question: What is "loan-shifting"?

The term "loan-shifting" or "semantic extension" refers to a change in the meaning of an established native word in order to extend the number of things to which it applies

Loan-shifting has occurred throughout history. For example, when the Greeks first encountered a large unfamiliar animal in the Nile, they named it hippopotamus, which in ancient Greek means "river horse."[11]:10 Anyone would agree that a hippo bears little resemblance to a horse, yet the Greeks chose to extend the use of the word "horse" to describe this new creature.

Likewise, when the conquistadors arrived in the New World, reintroducing the horse to the Americas, the natives had problems classifying these new animals. 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."[12]:10 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."[13]

Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because they looked so similar

Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because, at least according to one observer, they looked so similar.[14]:134

The Spaniards likewise expanded the definition of some of their animal categories. They called the native tapir an "ass."[15]

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.

"Loan-shifting" simply means that the idea is plausible

This does not mean that loan-shifting must be the answer in this case. What it does mean, however, is that the idea is plausible, and most who mock it evidence little sign that they have understood the argument, or can represent it fairly. They resort, instead, to the logical fallacy of appeal to ridicule.

One of the items which some love to mock is the idea that the "horse" referred to in the Book of Mormon might have actually been another animal, such as a deer or tapir. 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 need to have an understanding of 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.

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 the term "horse."

The Book of Mormon never mentions horses pulling chariots or being ridden

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • The Book of Mormon does not mention horses pulling chariots. The BOM does not mention horses being ridden. Horses are mentioned with chariots several times. Assuming that they were present in order to pull the chariots must be extrapolated.
  • The Old Testament and New Testament do mention horses being ridden. The D&C mentions that horses can be ridden.
  • Joseph knew much about horses yet in the Book of Mormon, they are not used in any way he was familiar with. They are not mentioned as being used for work, transportation or battle.
  • Joseph likely knew, as everyone did, that the European horse was introduced by the Spanish. Why, then, did he make such a clumsy error in his forgery?
  • Critics of the Church falsely attributes the possibility of the word "horse" as a description of a similar animal to Joseph mistranslating the text. No one claimed that Joseph "mistranslated" the term deer for horse. The accurate position is that early Nephites may have labeled deer "horses." This conjecture is based on the fact that The Amerindians called horses "deer" when they first saw them.


  1. Folkbiology Douglas L. Medin, Scott Altran editors. MIT Press (1999) p. 131.
  2. John L. Sorenson, "Once More, The Horse," Reexploring the Book of Mormon (1992).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Quoted in Hans Frädrich and Erich Thenius, "Tapirs," Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, ed. Bernhard Grzimek (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company), 13:19—30.
  4. [Horses in the Book of Mormon "Horses in the Book of Mormon,"] Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
  5. John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994).
  6. Daniel C. Peterson, "Yet More Abuse of B. H. Roberts," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997)
  7. Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997).
  8. Brant Gardner, "Behind the Mask, Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Illusion," The FARMS Review 17/2 (2005).
  9. Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," The FARMS Review 16/1 (2004).
  10. Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," The FARMS Review 16/1 (2004).
  11. John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50. off-site
  12. John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50. off-site
  13. See
  14. Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism Raised by Mormon Defenders)," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 87–145. [ off-site]
  15. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 293-294.

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims