Horses in the New World

Horses in the New World

The Book of Mormon mentions that there were horses in America during both Jaredite and Nephite time. (1 Nephi 18:25; 2 Nephi 12:7; Enos 1:21; Alma 18:9-12; 3 Nephi 3:22; 4:4; 6:1; 21:14; Ether 9:19).  This is a gross anachronism, since horses were not introduced to the Americas until after the arrival of the Spaniards.

Book of Mormon RussianThe Book of Mormon never claims that the horse was universally known or used in the New World.  For example, Book of Mormon references to horses suggest that they may have been uncommon or rare, being limited only to certain regions during specific periods of Book of Mormon history.  Horses are only mentioned once during the nearly two‑thousand years of Jaredite history (Ether 9:19), somewhere around 2600 BC. They were known to Lehi’s family, while travelling in the wilderness shortly after their arrival in the New World around 589 BC. (1 Nephi 18:25), twice in the Land of Nephi; once between 544‑421 BC and later around 90 BC (Enos 1:21; Alma 18:9-12). Horses are only mentioned during one period in the land of Zarahemla around the time of Christ (3 Nephi 3:22; 4:4; 6:1). It is possible that horses were not even native to the land of Zarahemla, but may have been introduced through trade from other Mesoamerican regions such as the land of Nephi or elsewhere (Helaman 6:7‑9).

It was long thought that native American horses died out 10,000 BC, with the end of the ice age, but many specimens have been found that postdate that event, sometimes by thousands of years. To date, only one horse specimen of the time period covered by the Book of Mormon has been found. Discovered in Florida, it was carbon‑dated to about 100 BC, providing evidence that not all American horses postdate the arrival of the Spaniards. Other horse remains have been found in precolumbian archaeological contexts in Mexico, but none have, as yet, been radiocarbondated. Horse remains from Horsethief Cave, Wyoming, were subjected to thermoluminescence testing some years back and dated thereby to about 1000 BC. Plans are under way to narrow down the date using the AMS (accelerator mass spectrometer) method of radiocarbon dating. Elaine Anderson identified horse bones from Wolf Spider Cave, Colorado, as equine, and the radiocarbon date is AD 1260-1400, thus after Book of Mormon times but prior to the arrival of Columbus. Bones found in a cenote on Cozumel Island, Mexico, by archaeologist Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales have been radiocarbon dated to AD 1230-1300.

The paucity of skeletal remains cannot be taken as evidence that there were no horses.  Archaeology is a serendipitous affair; one finds what one finds, not necessarily everything that was once there. Though the Bible mentions lions in the Holy Land (Judges 14:5‑9; 1 Samuel 17:34‑37; 2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Kings 13:24‑28; 20:36; 2 Kings 17:25‑26; Jeremiah 5:6), and despite the fact that archaeologists had been working there since 1864, it was not until 1983 that the remains of two lions were found in Israel, with no others being discovered since. Similarly, lions were frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian wall reliefs and papyri and were hunted and even raised as pets by the royal family, but no lion remains were found until 2001, when French Egyptologist Alain Zivie and zoo-archaeologist Cécile Callou discovered a mummified lion from the first century B.C. in an Egyptian tomb. This was more than a century and a half after archaeological work began in Egypt.

But even if there were no horses in Mesoamerica in Nephite times, we could be dealing with a literal translation of Hebrew names given to animals previously unknown to the Nephites.  This is a common phenomenon in languages. When the Greeks encountered a Nile river animal previously unknown to them, they called it hippopotamus, “river horse.” Hundreds of such examples could be given. For example, when the Spaniards brought horses into Mesoamerican, some Indians called them “deer.” What might the Nephites have called such animals as the peccary, the anteater, and others that they had not known in the Old World? Would they have done like the Spaniards who, when they arrived in the New World and spotted the jaguar, called it tigre, “tiger” or leon, “lion”? It is known that the Spanish Conquistadores called the peccary (which is a type of swine) anteburro, which means “once an ass,” and that some of them described tapirs as horses (they have a horse‑like mane, hooves, and can run rather quickly; one species is quite large).