Economy and Technology
The Book of Mormon reports information about three pre-Hispanic American peoples. Although its writers do not offer a detailed picture of the economic and material culture of their societies, numerous incidental details are preserved in the account. In many cases, though not in every instance, archaeology confirms the general details. The problems that remain in matching the Book of Mormon to its presumed ancient setting are no doubt due both to the scant information given in the book itself and to incompleteness in the archaeological record.
Testing what the Book of Mormon says about pre-Columbian material culture is more difficult than it might at first appear to be. For instance, it is a historically well-established fact that craft techniques can be lost; thus one cannot confidently assume that technologies mentioned for limited Book of Mormon populations survived after the destruction of the Nephites. Nor can one assume what Old World technologies were successfully transferred to the New. Many crafts would not have been known to the small colonist parties, and even among the skills that were transported across the sea, many may not have proved useful or adaptable in the new environment. For that matter, items attested in early portions of the Book of Mormon may not safely be assumed to have survived into subsequent history within the record itself.
The economy of Book of Mormon peoples seems, on the whole, to have been relatively simple. Although many Nephites and Jaredites lived in cities of modest size (a point whose plausibility has been enhanced by recent research), their societies were agriculturally based. Trade was mentioned for some periods, but was constrained by frequent wars. In the infrequently mentioned times of free travel, trade barriers fell, and Lamanites and Nephites predictably prospered (e.g., Hel. 6:7—9).
Despite the economy’s agrarian base, wealth was manifested in terms of movable flocks, herds, costly clothing, gold, silver, and “precious things” rather than land (Jacob 2:12—13; Enos 1:21; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 9:12; Alma 1:6, 29; 17:25; 32:2; Ether 10:12). The ideology of the leading Book of Mormon peoples undoubtedly contributed to this phenomenon: They referred to themselves as a righteous remnant obliged to abandon their comfortable dwellings and depart into the wilderness because of their religious convictions. Since entire populations seem to have moved often, land may not have been a stable source of wealth (2 Ne. 5:5—11; Omni 1:12—13, 27—30; Mosiah 9; 18:34—35; 22; 24:16—25; Alma 27; 35:6—14; 63:4—10; Hel. 2:11; 3:3—12; 4:5—6, 19; 3 Ne. 3:21—4:1; 7:1—2). Ideally, wealth was to be shared with the poor and for the common good, but strong contrasts between rich and poor are evident more often than not.
Agriculture in the Book of Mormon involved livestock and sown crops. For example, in the fifth century B.C., the Nephites “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). In the second century B.C., the people of Zeniff cultivated corn, wheat, barley, “neas,” and “sheum” (Mosiah 9:9; cf. Alma 11:7). Early nineteenth-century American language usage suggests that Book of Mormon “corn” may denote maize or “Indian corn,” which was and is a staple in diets in most parts of native America. Some of the other listed items remain less certain. Only in 1982 was evidence published demonstrating the presence of cultivated pre-Columbian barley in the New World (Sorenson, 1985, p. 184). “Neas” is not identifiable; but the word “sheum” appears to be cognate with early Akkadian sheum, a grain probably of the barley type (see FARMS Staff, “Weights and Measures”).
Book of Mormon mention of horses in pre-Columbian America has drawn much criticism, and no definitive answer to this question is at present available. Linguistic data suggest that Book of Mormon “horse” need not refer to equus, but could indicate some other quadruped suitable for human riding, as Mesoamerican art suggests (Sorenson, 1985, p. 295). Moreover, some little-noticed archaeological evidence indicates that in certain areas the American Pleistocene horse could have survived into Book of Mormon times (Update, June 1984).
Most transportation was evidently on human backs; in the two contexts that the Book of Mormon mentions “chariots,” it appears that their use was quite limited (Alma 18:9—12; 20:6; 3 Ne. 3:22). Chariots are never mentioned in military settings. Wheels are nowhere mentioned in the Book of Mormon (except in a quote from Isaiah). Thus, it is unknown what Nephite “chariots” may have been. “Highways” and “roads” are mentioned as used by the Nephites (3 Ne. 6:8). Some Latter-day Saints consider these to be reflected in the extensively documented road systems of ancient Mexico. “Ships” of unknown form were used during the middle of the first century B.C. for travel on the “west sea” coast (Alma 63:5—6) and for shipping timber to the north (Hel. 3:10), and at times maritime travel was evidently extensive (Hel. 3:14). Fine pearls are also mentioned as costly items (4 Ne. 1:24).
“Silk and fine-twined linen” are mentioned (e.g., Alma 1:29; Ether 10:24) along with common (cotton?) cloth. The “silk” is unlikely to have been produced from silkworms as in China, but similar fabrics were known, at least in Mesoamerica. For example, in Guatemala fiber from the wild pineapple plant, and among the Aztecs rabbit hair, served to make silklike fabrics. Although flax apparently was not known in America prior to the arrival of the Spaniards (linen was made from flax in the Old World), several vegetable-based fabrics with similar characteristics are well attested in ancient America (Update, Nov. 1988).
Care must be exercised when reading the Book of Mormon, or any other text originating in a foreign or ancient culture, to avoid misunderstanding unfamiliar things in light of what is familiar. For instance, the Nephites are said to have used “money,” but since the Israelites in Lehi’s day lacked minted coin-age, Nephite “money” was probably noncoined.
A well-integrated system of dry measures and metal-weight units is outlined in Alma 11; some analysts have pointed out that the system sketched is strikingly simple, efficient, and rational (Smith). In its binary mathematical configuration and its use of barley and silver as basic media of exchange, the Nephite system recalls similar systems known in Egypt and in the Babylonian laws of Eshnunna (FARMS Staff, “Weights and Measures”; Update, March 1987).
Making weapons of “steel” and “iron” is mentioned by the Nephites only during their first few generations (2 Ne. 5:15; Jarom 1:8; iron is mentioned only as a “precious” ornamental metal during the time of Mosiah 11:8). Just what these terms originally meant may not be clear. Jaredite “steel” and “iron” and other metals are mentioned twice but are not described (Ether 7:9; 10:23). The weapons of the common soldier were distinctly simpler: stones, clubs, spears, and the bow and arrow (e.g., Alma 49:18—22).
The relative simplicity of Book of Mormon society does not imply lack of sophistication by ancient standards. For example, it would seem that literacy was not uncommon among either Nephites or Jaredites. The founding leaders of the migrations were definitely literate, and the Nephites in their middle era are said to have produced “many books and many records of every kind” (Hel. 3:15). The Lamanites and Mulekites, on the other hand, were less consistent record keepers (Omni 1:17—18; Mosiah 24:4—6; Hel. 3:15). The Jaredites and Nephites kept their most sacred records on almost imperishable metal plates, although some of their books were on flammable material (Alma 14:8). The plates that Joseph Smith had in his possession, and that he and other contemporary eyewitnesses described, seem well within the skill of pre-Hispanic metallurgists (Putnam; Sorenson, 1985, pp. 278—88), and the manner of their burial has rich precedent in the Eastern Hemisphere (Wright).
Cheesman, Paul R. Ancient Writing on Metal Plates. Bountiful, Utah, 1985. FARMS Updates (Provo, Utah), contain useful discussions, including bibliographies, of pre-Columbian horses (June 1984), metallurgy of gold plates (Oct. 1984), pre-Hispanic domesticated barley (Dec. 1984), the loss of technologies (July 1985), the legal implementation of the Nephite system of weights and measures (Mar. 1987), and possible silks and linens (Nov. 1988). FARMS Staff. “Weights and Measures in the Time of Mosiah II.” Provo, Utah, 1983. Nibley, Hugh W. The Prophetic Book of Mormon, in CWHN 8:245—46, 385—86, and Since Cumorah, in CWHN 7:220—27. Discusses metallic plates, steel, cement, money, and fauna. Putnam, Reed. “Were the Golden Plates Made of Tumbaga?” IE (Sept. 1966): 788—89, 828—31. Smith, R. P. “The Nephite Monetary System.” IE 57 (May 1954): 316—17. Sorenson, John L. “A Reconsideration of Early Metal in Mesoamerica.” Katunob 9 (Mar. 1976): 1—18. ———. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, 1985. Wright, H. Curtis. “Ancient Burials of Metallic Foundation Documents in Stone Boxes.” In Occasional Papers, University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science 157 (1982): 1—42.
Sorenson, John L. “Metals and Metallurgy Relating to the Book of Mormon Text.” Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992.
Daniel C. Peterson