Metals in the Book of Mormon
Metallurgy in ancient America was completely unknown before 900 AD. It is ridiculous for the Book of Mormon to say that metal was used among the Nephites and Jaredites (Helaman 6:9; Ether 10:23). The mention of iron (2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:8; Ether 10:23) is anachronistic, for iron technology was unknown in America during Nephite and Jaredite times.
Recent discoveries indicate that metallurgy has been in the Americas for thousands of years. In January 2008, a team of archaeologists led by Kevin J. Vaughn of Purdue University announced the discovery of an ancient Nazca iron mine in the Ingenio Valley, located in the Andes mountains in southern Peru. They estimated that some 3,710 metric tons of iron ore had been removed from the mine from about the time of Christ until ca. AD 1400. The following April, archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer of the University of Arizona announced the discovery of a 4,000-year-old gold necklace, also found in Peru. As for Mesoamerica, where most serious Book of Mormon scholars place the homeland of Book of Mormon peoples, it has long been known that the Olmec (who may have been the Jaredites) possessed polished iron mirrors, of which many examples have been found.
Metallurgical skills may have been rare in Book of Mormon times, confined to a small group, as was often the case in the Old World. During the Nephite period, iron is only mentioned in the land of Nephi, never in the land of Zarahemla. Nephi had some skill in iron-working (2 Nephi 5:15), yet it was considered “precious” by the time of Jarom (Jarom 1:8), and King Noah (Mosiah 11:8), when it was last mentioned.[i] This may indicate that the knowledge of iron technology was only limited to the Nephites in this region at an early period. The only reference to working iron outside the land of Nephi is in Jaredite times in the land northward, where it is thought noteworthy enough to be given special mention by Moroni (Ether 10:23), so we need not expect anything like a smelting industry or even widespread use. Whatever knowledge of iron craft was known to Book of Mormon peoples could have been passed on through a few skilled craftsmen and could in fact have been totally lost after the time of King Noah.
Examples of technologies being once known and then lost, only to be rediscovered later are known to historians.[ii]Moreover, although iron technology may have been known to early Book of Mormon peoples, that knowledge may not have been transmitted to other Mesomaerican cultures or only in a very limited way. During five centuries of Norse exploration of eastern Canada and the northeastern United States (tenth to fifteenth centuries), with colonies lasting at least several decades in Labrador and quite probably elsewhere in North America, they did not spread metalworking to the native Americans. That these Vikings brought iron smelting technology to North America by about AD 1000, is indicated by the discovery of a smithy and iron slag at the Viking site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Labrador.
Objects of meteoritic (rather than smelted) iron have, in fact, been found in a number of Mesoamerican sites. In 1992, FARMS issued a preliminary paper by John L. Sorenson, “Metals and Metallurgy Relating to the Book of Mormon Text,” discussing specimens of metal from about forty sites that predate the AD 900 “metal curtain” claimed by archeologists, as far back as 100 BC. Pictographic evidence also supports the idea that metal was used much earlier than is generally thought. Mesoamerican works of art such as human figures carved on stone or in ceramic frequently show metal objects such as bells, chains and other items. Some of these date to as early as 300 BC.
Even more compelling is linguistic evidence for metal use. Based on words that are similar in different Mesoamerican languages current in recent centuries, linguists have reconstructed “proto-languages” that consist of words that apparently were in use centuries ago. Differences between similar terms in present-day languages are understandable to linguistic scientists if there was a word in the proto-language from which the present terms descended, but such variations are puzzling if there was not. Linguists can also make reasonable estimates of the time it took for these variations to develop. As John L. Sorenson has pointed out, at least three major language families of Mexico and Guatemala, terms for metal have been reconstructed, and in each case the date given to account for the divergences in the daughter languages exceeds 1000 BC. For example, Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil which dates to the sixth century AD., had a term for metal, while a similar and related term is also found in Huastecan, a language thought to be the first to split off from the basic Maya stem around 2200 BC. Proto-Mixe Zoquean had a word for metal by at least 1500 BC. Further occurances of words for metal occur in Proto-Mayan, Proto-Huavean, and Proto-Otomanguean. This argues strongly for pre-Columbian knowledge of metal technology at least as early as the Jaredite period in Mesoamerica. That these Mesoamerican peoples would all have had a word for metal without having any is highly unlikely.
Most of the information presented here was compiled by Matthew Roper and John L. Sorenson.
For a discussion of Nephi’s metallurgical skills, see “Was Lehi a Caravaneer,” chapter 10 in John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights From a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999, later reissued by Horizon).
See the discussion by John L. Sorenson, “Lost Arts,” in John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1992).
John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret, 1985), 279-80.
See also Steel Older Than Previously Thought