Barley and Wheat in the Book Mormon

Barley and Wheat in the Book Mormon

Of the more than twenty-eight references to grain in the Book of Mormon, barley is mentioned four times (Mosiah 7:22; 9:9; Alma 11:7, 15) and wheat once (Mosiah 9:9). These references to barley and wheat in an ancient American record have puzzled some readers because it is generally assumed that domesticated barley and wheat were introduced to the New World by Europeans after 1492.

Research on this matter supports two possible explanations. First, the terms barley and wheat, as used in the Book of Mormon, may refer to certain other New World crop plants that were given Old World designations; and second, the terms may refer to genuine varieties of New World barley and wheat.

Naming New World Grains by Analogy

The Lehites may have used the terms translated in the Book of Mormon as barley and wheat to refer to other New World plants or species of grains that resembled barley and wheat. “It is a well-known fact,” writes Professor Hildegard Lewy, a specialist in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian (Akkadian) languages, “that the names of plants and particularly of [grains] are applied in various languages and dialects to different species.” Lewy notes that this often poses a challenge in interpreting references to cereals in Near Eastern documents. When doing so, “the meaning of these Old Assyrian terms must be inferred from the Old Assyrian texts alone without regard to their signification in sources from Babylonia and other regions adjacent to Assyria.”1 Other Assyriologists have observed that the ancient Assyrian term sheum was used at various times to refer to barley, grains generally, and even pine nuts.2

It is worth noting that sheum is also mentioned in the Book of Mormon in an agricultural context (see Mosiah 9:9). It apparently refers to a New World crop cultivated in the land of Nephi that was designated by an Old World term. Use of this term in the Book of Mormon is itself significant, since Akkadian could not be read (and hence the term sheum was not known) until decades after the Book of Mormon was published.

In the New World many Spanish names were applied to American plants following the Conquest, because of the plants’ apparent similarity to European ones, even though the New World plants were, from a botanical perspective, often a different species or variety. For example, the Spanish called the fruit of the prickly pear cactus a “fig,” and emigrants from England called maize “corn,” an English term referring to grains in general. A similar practice may have been employed when Book of Mormon people encountered New World plant species for the first time.

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.”3 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.”4

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.”5

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.

This Research Report was prepared by the FARMS Research Department and is based on the latest available scholarly research. It is subject to revision as more information on the subject becomes available. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position of FARMS, Brigham Young University, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Report last updated August 2000

Recommended Readings

Sorenson, John L., and Robert F. Smith. “Barley in Ancient America.” In Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, 130—32. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992.

Sorenson, John L. “Life’s Routine,” “Foods,” and “Luxury Consumption.” In Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life, 32—35, 36—41, 42—45. Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1998.

Historical Perspective

In 1973 Robert F. Smith, an authority on ancient Near Eastern languages, pointed out that sheum is “a precise match for Akkadian [she’um], ‘barley’ (Old Assyrian ‘wheat’), the most popular ancient Mesopotamian cereal-name” (Robert F. Smith. “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” in Conference on the Language of the Mormons [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Language Research Center, 1973], 66). This point has since been discussed in subsequent treatments of the subject by other LDS scholars.


1.   Hildegard Lewy, “On Some Old Assyrian Cereal Names,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 76/4 (1956): 201.

2.   See The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, ed. Ignace J. Gelb et al. (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1992), vol. 17, pt. 2, 345—55.

3.   Daniel B. Adams, “Last Ditch Archeology,” Science 83, December 1983, 32.

4.   Nancy B. Asch and David L. Asch, “Archeobotany,” in Deer Track: A Late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley, ed. Charles R. McGimsey and Michael D. Conner (Kampsville, Ill.: Center for American Archeology, 1985), 44; see p. 78.

5.   Vorsila L. Bohrer, “Domesticated and Wild Crops in the CAEP Study Area,” in Prehistoric Cultural Development in Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region, ed. Patricia M. Spoerl and George J. Gumerman, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper 5 (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 1984), 252.