Ether 9:19. Elephants in the New World

Ether 9:19. Elephants in the New World

The Book of Mormon mentions elephants being useful to the Jaredites (Ether 9:19), yet the only elephant species to have existed in the Americas, the mammoth and the mastodon, died out many centuries before Book of Mormon times.

Book of Mormon CambodianThe Book of Mormon text does not even suggest that elephants were ever numerous, only that at one time they were “useful unto man” (Ether 9:19). This may suggest that some species of the mammoth or the mastodon survived in the Jaredite region into at least the third millennium BC, but then afterward became extinct in the region inhabited by Book of Mormon peoples due to climactic changes. There is a variety of evidence that suggests that limited species of mastodon or mammoth may have indeed survived in scattered regions of the New World until fairly recent times. For example, some have argued that elephants are depicted in pre-Columbian Mayan art in Mexico, and there are Native American traditions about animals that fit the description of the mammoth. 

It is generally held that mammoths became extinct no later than 9,500 years ago, and some scholars believe that the mammoth was the last of the large Pleistocene mammals to become extinct. In recent years, remains of dwarf mammoths have been found on Wrangel Island off the northeast coast of Siberia. The newly-discovered species, named Mammuthus exilis, was about six feet tall, compared to the fourteen-foot height of the normal mammoth. The dwarf species lived as late as 1700 BC, which fits with the timeframe, if not the geography, in which the Book of Mormon places elephants among the Jaredites. Many of the tusks and teeth were found in riverbeds or lying on the surface until the end of the twentieth century. The rather recent discovery of mammoths who survived into historical times suggests that we should not close the door on the possibility that a type of elephant could have survived in Jaredite territory as well. 

In 2004, scientists from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks reported radiocarbon dates for woolly mammoth remains found on St. Paul, one of the Bering Sea Pribilofs Islands, 300 miles west of Alaska, as ca. 6000 BC, some four to five millennia later than the extinction of the same species elsewhere in Alaska and Siberia. A 2005 paper reported mammoth remains from St. Paul dated later still, to 5700 BP (ca. 3700 BC). 

Even more significant, for Book of Mormon purposes, is the fact that mammoth and horse bones discovered near Saint Petersburg, Florida, were radiocarbon-dated to about 100 BC. Mastodon remains uncovered in Cascade Township, Michigan, in 1999, were sent to Geochron Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for radiocarbon dating. Though the C-14 date was 3400+ 130 years BP (about 1400 BC, well within Jaredite times), the sample was believed to have been contaminated with organic carbon from the surrounding sediment. While that may be true, it is important to note that such finds that are outside the normally-accepted ranges are often dismissed as being contaminated. 

Paleontologist Paul S. Martin admitted that “there is no theoretical reason why a herd of mastodons . . . could not have survived in some small refuge until 8000 or even 4000 years ago,”[i] which would bring it down to as late as 2000 BC. In another of his articles, written after Martin had come to reject late dates for fauna that presumably became extinct at the end of the last ice age, he included a list of radiocarbon dates for various finds. Among the dates for mammoth remains are discoveries at Russell Farm, Michigan (5,950 BP + 300 years) and Sullivan Creek, Alaska (2,520 BP + 200 years).[ii] 

In 1929, archaeologist Max Uhle (often called “the father of Peruvian archaeology”) joined paleontologist Franz Spillman, who uncovered the remains of a butchered mastodon at Alangasí, about twelve miles east of Quito, Ecuador. Pottery and obsidian tools found in association with the skeletal remains were dated to the first or second century AD, when Mayan pottery was introduced into Ecuador from Mexico. This is much later than required by the Book of Mormon. Lumps of charcoal used to cook parts of the animal (whose bones had burn traces) were subsequently radiocarbon dated to ca. AD 150, recalibrated by dendrochronological evidence to ca. AD 100. As usual, the dating has been challenged by those who have preconceived ideas about when such species had to have died out in the New World. 


[i] Paul S. Martin, “The Discovery of America,” Science  179 (1973): 974. 

[ii] Paul S. Martin, “Prehistoric Overkill,” in Paul S. Martin and H. E. Wright, Jr., Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause, vol. 6 of the Proceedings of the VII Congress of the International Association for Quaternary Research (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967), 92-93.