Oxen in the New World
When Nephi states that he and his family journeyed in an uninhabited region (“wilderness”), how was it possible for them to find oxen roaming in the wilds (1 Nephi 18:25; see also 2 Nephi 21:7; Ether 9:18)? Did the author of the Book of Mormon fail to realize that an ox is in fact a castrated bull? If nobody was inhabiting the land, who castrated the bulls?
There is plenty of evidence for others living in the land when Lehi arrived. But that point is minor compared to the fact that those who raise this question are wrong about the meaning of the term “ox.” Here is the entry for “ox” in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which reflects usage in American English in Joseph Smith’s time:
The male of the bovine genus of quadrupeds, castrated and grown to his size or nearly so. The young male is called in America a steer. The same animal not castrated is called a bull. These distinctions are well established with us in regard to domestic animals of this genus. When we speak of wild animals of this kind, ox is sometimes applied both to the male and female, and in zoology, the same practice exists in regard to the domestic animals. So in common usage, a pair of bulls yoked may be sometimes called oxen. We never apply the name ox to the cow or female of the domestic kind. Oxen in the plural may comprehend both the male and female.
A number of wild bovines are native to the New World. Garcilasso Inca de la Vega, writing in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, noted that there were small hornless animals like cows in the Andes mountains. Richard Shutler found at Falcon Hill, Nevada, bones of the so-called shrub ox (euceratherium), in association with manmade baskets. The bones were found beneath items belonging to the Lovelock culture of 2000-500 B.C. Similar bones found in New Mexico were dated to 5470 B.C. +370.
The most common bovine (ox/cow) found in the New World is the bison (mistakenly called “buffalo” by most Americans). In light of the evidence for late survival of the bison as far south as Nicaragua into recent historical times, there is no reason to doubt the late and limited survival of some of the species down to the sixth century B.C. Bison were still present in northern Mexico into the eighteenth century and were still present in Michoacán, Mexico, until a few centuries before the Conquest. Lord Kingsborough wrote that “In Sibola, a large territory to the north of Mexico, where buffalo were domesticated by Indians, milk was their common diet.”
Garcilasso Inca de la Vega, Royal Commentaries, Sir Clements Markham, transl. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1871), 2:386. Even if these were not real bovines, the fact that he called them “cows” is significant. The Miami Indians, who encountered imported Spanish cows before leaving Florida, when they came west and encountered the bison, called it a “wild cow.” When Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca, Hernando de Soto, and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado first encountered American bison they called them “cows,” “cattle” and termed the Indians who hunted them “cow people.” Other European witnesses described them as “oxen.”