Horses in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon mentions horses, yet these animals seem not to have been known to native Americans who greeted the Spaniards upon their arrival in the New World in the sixteenth century. Moreover, archaeological evidence for the presence of the horse in the pre-Columbian Americas is presently scant and inconclusive. How can this be explained? Careful consideration of this question begins with an examination of what the Book of Mormon says and does not say about horses.
Horses are mentioned only once in the land northward during the Jaredite period—that is, during the prosperous reign of King Emer around 2500 B.C. and before the great drought sometime in the third millennium B.C. (see Ether 9:19, 30—35). Since horses are not mentioned again in the Jaredite record, it is possible that they became extinct in the region north of the narrow neck of land following that time.
Horses were known to some Nephites and Lamanites from about 600 B.C. to the time of the Savior. They were found in the “land of first inheritance” during the time of Nephi, son of Lehi (see 1 Nephi 18:25), and in the land of Nephi during the days of Enos (see Enos 1:21). They were also utilized by at least some of the Lamanite elite during the days of King Lamoni in the same general region during the first century B.C. (see Alma 18:9—12). The text does not mention horses in the land of Nephi after that time. The only other region associated with horses was the general land of Zarahemla at the time of the war with the Gadianton robbers, just prior to the birth of Jesus Christ (see 3 Nephi 3:22; 4:4; 6:1). There is no indication in the text that horses were indigenous to that region. The Savior’s reference to horses in 3 Nephi 21:14 is a prophecy of the latter days and need not be interpreted as referring to Nephite horses. In the Book of Mormon, horses are never mentioned after the time of Christ.
In short, the Book of Mormon claims only that horses were known to some New World peoples before the time of Christ in certain limited regions of the New World. Thus we need not conclude from the text that horses were universally known in the Americas throughout pre-Columbian history. Moreover, the Book of Mormon never says that horses were ridden or used in battle, although some passages suggest that at times they may have been used by the elite as a draft animal (see, for example, Alma 18:9; 3 Nephi 3:22).
Small herds of animals in a limited region sometimes leave no archaeological remains. We know that the Norsemen probably introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs into Eastern North America during the eleventh century A.D., yet these animals did not spread throughout the continent and have left no archaeological remains.1 “It is probable,” writes Jacques Soustelle, an authority on the Olmec, “that the Olmecs kept dogs and turkeys, animals domesticated in very early times on the American continent, but the destruction of any sort of bone remains, both human and animal, by the dampness and the acidity of the soil keeps us from being certain of this.”2
Even if horses had been abundantly used and had been a vital element in the culture of Book of Mormon people (a claim never made by Book of Mormon writers), one cannot assume that evidence for this would be plentiful or obvious from the current archaeological record.
The study of fossilized animal remains from archaeological sites is known today as “zoo-archaeology.” Zoo-archaeologist Simon J. M. Davis notes that the majority of bones found in archaeological sites are those of animals that were killed for food or other slaughter products by ancient peoples. It is rare to find remains of other animals in such locations. “Animals exploited, say, for traction or riding [such as horses], may not necessarily have been consumed and may only be represented by an occasional bone introduced by scavenging dogs.” Thus “the problem of correlating between excavated bones and the economic importance of the animals in antiquity is far from being resolved.”3 In fact, “One sometimes wonders whether there is any similarity between a published bone report and the animals exploited by ancient humans.”4
The horse was the basis of the wealth and military power of the Huns of central Asia (fourth and fifth centuries A.D.). Nonetheless, according to S. Bokonyi, a leading authority on the zoological record for central Asia, “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. This is all the more deplorable as contemporary sources mention these horses with high appreciation.”5
The lack of archaeological evidence for the Hunnic horse is rather significant in terms of references to horses in the Book of Mormon. During the two centuries of their dominance, the Huns must have possessed hundreds of thousands of horses. If Hunnic horse bones are so rare, notwithstanding the abundance of horses during the Hunnic empire, how can we expect abundant archaeological evidence for pre-Columbian horses in the New World, especially given the scant and comparatively conservative references to horses by Book of Mormon writers?
A parallel example from the Bible is instructive. The biblical narrative mentions lions, yet it was not until very recently that the only other evidence for lions in Palestine was pictographic or literary. Before the announcement in a 1988 publication of two bone samples, there was no archaeological evidence to confirm the existence of lions in that region.6 Thus there is often a gap between what historical records such as the Book of Mormon claim existed and what the limited archaeological record may yield. In addition, archaeological excavations in Bible lands have been under way for decades longer and on a much larger scale than those in proposed Book of Mormon lands.
Possible Late Survival of Prehistoric Horses
Some native Mexican traditions suggest memory of the late survival of some species of horse in the New World. When Mexican peoples first encountered Spanish horses they compared them to deer. American Historian Hugh Thomas, in his seminal study of the conquest of Mexico, suggests that this association may have been partly based on native ancestral traditions that mentioned deer with tails and manes of hair. According to Thomas, “The Mexicans may have continued to think of these animals as deer. But perhaps some folk memory may have reminded them that there had once been horses in the Americas.”7
Naming by Analogy
It is also possible that some Book of Mormon peoples coming from the Old World may have decided to call some New World animal species a “horse” or an “ass.” This practice, known as “loanshift” or “loan-extension,” is well known to historians and anthropologists who study cross-cultural contact. For example, when the Greeks first visited the Nile in Egypt, they encountered a large animal they had never seen before and gave it the name hippopotamus, meaning “horse of the river.” When the Roman armies first encountered the elephant, they called it Lucca bos, a “Lucanian cow.” In the New World the Spanish called Mesoamerican jaguars leones, “lions,” or tigres, “tigers.”
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.”8
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.”9 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.10
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.
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
Hamblin, William J. “Animals.” In 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—95.
Sorenson, John L. “Animals in the Book of Mormon.” In Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985, 288—99.
——— “Plants and Animals.” In “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!” Review of “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” by Deanne G. Matheny. Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 342—48.
——— “Once More: The Horse.” In Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, 98-100. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992.
1. See Gwyn Jones, The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, America, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 119; see also Erik Wahlgren, The Vikings in America (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 124.
2. Jaques Soustelle, The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), 23.
3. Simon J. M. Davis, The Archaeology of Animals (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), 24.
4. Ibid., 23.
5. S. Bokonyi, History of Domestic Mammals in Central and Eastern Europe (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1974), 267.
6. L. Martin. “The Faunal Remains from Tell es Saidiyeh,” Levant 20 (1988): 83—84.
7. Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 178; see also Eugene R. Craine and Reginald C. Reindorp, eds. and trans., The Chronicles of Michoacán (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, 63—64.
8. Quoted in Hans Frädrich and Erich Thenius, “Tapirs,” Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, ed. Bernhard Grzimek (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company), 13:19—20.
9. Ibid., 20.
10. Ibid., 28—30.