Out of the Dust

Were Ancient Americans Familiar with Real Horses?

The FARMS newsletter published an Update in June 1984 on the question of horses in pre-Columbian America during the period when human beings were here. That piece was republished in Reexploring the Book of Mormon under the title “Once More: The Horse.”1 Since then, previously unrecognized research has shed new light on the question.

The most striking information comes from excavations that confirm the possibility that a species of native American horse survived the Pleistocene (Ice Age) in Mesoamerica down to an age when humans were familiar with this animal.

Publications from the late 1950s reported results from excavations by scientists working on the Yucatan Peninsula. Excavations at the site of Mayapan, which dates to a few centuries before the Spaniards arrived, yielded horse bones in four spots. (Two of the lots were from the surface, however, and might represent Spanish horses.) From another site, the Cenote (water hole) Ch’en Mul, came other traces, this time from a firm archaeological context. In the bottom stratum in a sequence of levels of unconsolidated earth almost two meters in thickness, two horse teeth were found. They were partially mineralized, indicating that they were definitely ancient and could not have come from any Spanish animal. The interesting thing is that Maya pottery was also found in the stratified soil where the teeth were located.2

Subsequent digging has expanded the evidence for an association of humans with horses. But the full story actually goes back to 1895, when American paleontologist Henry C. Mercer went to Yucatan hoping to find remains of Ice Age man. He visited 29 caves in the hill area—the Puuc—of the peninsula and tried stratigraphic excavation in 10 of them. But the results were confused, and he came away disillusioned. He did find horse bones in three caves (Actun Sayab, Actun Lara, and Chektalen). In terms of their visible characteristics, those bones should have been classified as from the Pleistocene American horse species, then called Equus occidentalis L. However, Mercer decided that since the remains were near the surface, they must actually be from the modern horse, Equus equus, that the Spaniards had brought with them to the New World, and so he reported them as such.3 In 1947 Robert T. Hatt repeated Mercer’s activities. He found within Actun Lara and one other cave more remains of the American horse (in his day it was called Equus conversidens), along with bones of other extinct animals. Hatt recommended that any future work concentrate on Loltun Cave, where abundant animal and cultural remains could be seen.4

It took until 1977 before that recommendation bore fruit. Two Mexican archaeologists carried out a project that included a complete survey of the complex system of subterranean cavities (made by underground water that had dissolved the subsurface limestone). They also did stratigraphic excavation in areas in the Loltun complex not previously visited. The pits they excavated revealed a sequence of 16 layers, which they numbered from the surface downward. Bones of extinct animals (including mammoth) appear in the lowest layers.

Pottery and other cultural materials were found in levels VII and above. But in some of those artifact-bearing strata there were horse bones, even in level II. A radiocarbon date for the beginning of VII turned out to be around 1800 BC. The pottery fragments above that would place some portions in the range of at least 900–400 BC and possibly later. The report on this work concludes with the observation that “something went on here that is still difficult to explain.” Some archaeologists have suggested that the horse bones were stirred upward from lower to higher levels by the action of tunneling rodents, but they admit that this explanation is not easy to accept. The statement has also been made that paleontologists will not be pleased at the idea that horses survived to such a late date as to be involved with civilized or near-civilized people whose remains are seen in the ceramic-using levels.5 Surprisingly, the Mexican researchers show no awareness of the horse teeth discovered in 1957 by Carnegie Institution scientists Pollock and Ray. (Some uncomfortable scientific facts seem to need rediscovering time and time again.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Steven E. Jones of the BYU physics department has for several years been tracking down horse bones in North America considered to predate the European conquest. Professor Jones’s purpose for this search is to submit the bones to tests by the radiocarbon method (some of that work has taken advantage of assistance from FARMS). So far, one or more finds appear to be possibly of pre-Spanish Conquest date, although definitive results will take more work. Further work is being done by Yuri Kuchinsky, a researcher in Canada who has been pursuing a variety of other evidence, based mainly on Native American lore, about possible pre-Conquest horses in North America.

Hebrew Writing in Bolivia?

In a private communication to John Sorenson, an archaeologist in the Midwest reports that a group of people in Bolivia who are interested in antiquities of the area have asked U.S. archaeologists for help in evaluating the authenticity of an artifact found in that South American country. The large ceramic basin is modeled to show stylized fauna on its sides. That much can be seen on an indistinct photograph submitted by e-mail, but there are also supposed to be “characters” on it, not perceptible in the photograph, that the people concerned feel might be in a Semitic script. A relevant expert (not LDS) will be traveling to Bolivia to examine the piece firsthand. Even if characters are apparent, it will still probably be impossible to learn the context from which the loose artifact was obtained and thus what it might signify.

Notes 1. John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 98–100.

2. See Harry E. D. Pollock and Clayton E. Ray, “Notes on Vertebrate Animal Remains from Mayapan,” Current Reports 41 (August 1957): 638; this publication is from the Department of Archaeology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. See also Clayton E. Ray, “Pre-Columbian Horses from Yucatan,” Journal of Mammalogy 38 (1957): 278.

3. Henry C. Mercer, The Hill-Caves of Yucatan: A Search for Evidence of Man’s Antiquity in the Caverns of Central America (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1896), 172.

4. Robert T. Hatt, “Faunal and Archaeological Researches in Yucatan Caves,” Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bulletin 33, 1953. See Peter J. Schmidt, “La entrada del hombre a la peninsula de Yucatan,” in Origines del Hombre Americano, comp. Alba Gonzalez Jacome (Mexico: Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 1988), 250.

5. Schmidt, “La entrada,” 254.