Many Book of Mormon critics try to show issues or anachronisms with the lists of animals found in its narrative; for example the wikipedia articles on Book of Mormon Archaeology and Book of Mormon Anachronisms. The Book of Mormon certainly has its issues.. but reading these attacks always seems strangely biased to me. In fact articles like this have so many blatant falsities that they’re a bit difficult for a well-read person to stomach. Debunked statements on their being no evidence of the domestication of certain animals, or no evidence of the ancient use of metal plates, or no evidence of certain animals in the new world are peppered throughout many similar critical articles. I have huge problems with many of Mormonism’s exclusivist truth claims; and the Book of Mormon has a lot of other problems to overcome; however, regardless of whether you believe the Book of Mormon narrative or not you have to consider the fact that the mention its assorted animals is not a deal breaker for its validity. Especially when one considers the possibility of a very “loose translation” (dynamic equivalence instead of formal equivalence) in the channeling process of the book.
The Book of Mormon makes clear that both Jaredites and Nephites who lived in ancient times on this continent had domestic animals of various kinds. They also speak of wild varieties of presently domesticated animals. The earlier people, the Jaredites (unknown beginning to ~300 B.C.), are reported to have had,
all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cumoms. (Ether 9:18–19)
The Nephites (c. 600 B.C. – 400 A.D.) on the other hand tell us,
that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. (1 Nephi 18:25; cf. Mosiah 5:14; Enos 1:12; Alma 5:59; Alma 17)
Note that Elephants are in the list for animals useful for the early Jaredites. Evidence for the extinction of all North American Elephants (Mammoth & Mastodon) by carbon dates of 7,000 BC is overwhelmingly conclusive. This requires that the early Jaredite record was older than most people (including possibly the Book of Mormon authors themselves) believed. Unless carbon dates are somehow wrong, it seems likely that the Jaredite record (much like the Biblical & Babylonian records) may have presented a somewhat condensed version of cultural histories leading back to the ancient Babel tower myth. The mention of elephants and other extinct animals, along with the obvious fact that the Book of Mormon tells us the Jaredites were the first inhabitants of this continent is the most striking evidence for our correlated timeline which correlates the early pre-dearth Jaredites with North American paleo Indians living prior to the end of the ice age. (The “dearth” in Ether 9:30 being a massive episode of climate change ending the last ice age cycle) Because of the mention of elephants, correlating the paleoindian with the archaic cultures of North America is THE ONLY plausible correlation. (see this article which covers date discrepancies). This is certainly plausible since the record itself does not give any concrete dates for the Jaredite culture (only a genealogy table). There are literally thousands of archeological sites showing that the clovis and paleoindians lived on diets rich in megafauna. Many archaeologists have in fact suggested that these native american groups may have been responsible for hunting many of these animals to extinction. This highly debated theory gives a lot of weight to the idea given in the book of Ether where it states,
30 And it came to pass that there began to be a great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast because of the dearth, for there was no rain upon the face of the earth.
31 …And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee… towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla…
34 And it came to pass that the people did follow the course of the beasts, and did devour the carcasses of them which fell by the way, until they had devoured them all.
Cureloms and Cumoms
Many other extinct Pleistocene megafauna fit the description of Jaredite animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Paleo Indians were known to interact with and eat animals such as giant sloths; short-faced bears; several species of tapirs; saber-toothed cats like Smilodon; dire wolves; saiga; camelids such as two species of now extinct llamas and Camelops. Since it is generally accepted that “cureloms and cumoms” were especially “useful” to man (Ether 9:18–19), and unknown to Mormon in translation (not necessarily Joseph Smith), I think the most likely candidates are the giant sloth, wooly rhino and camelids.
Cattle, Oxen, and Cows
Concerning the Jaredite “cattle, of oxen, and cows” mentioned in Ether 9:18, likely matches would have to be American Bison (subfamily Bovinae/bovine), shrub ox (family Bovidae: went extinct with other megafauna); Harlan’s muskox (family: bovidae, subfamily: caprinae), Moose (family Cervidae, could have been classified as either cow or horse by Mormon/Ether depending on their cultural classification system) and for Mesoamerica and 1 Nephi 18:25, Baird’s Tapir which is locally known as the “Mountain Cow”. Each of these species ranged far south of their current habitat during the last Ice Age. There is of course no evidence for moose or shrub ox in Mexico, so the only option for the Nephite list is Bison as an Ox, which historical accounts put as far south as Zacatecas (Lst et. al 2007); and Tapir as a cow.
Possibilities include North American Mountain Goats. (Our current scientific classification system does not include this animal in the Capra genus with most goats, but Joseph or Mormon could have very well have been referring to this type of animal).
The Nephite animal list differentiates between “goats and wild goats”. Although modern botanists classify North American antelope into a different family than goats (Antiloocapridae vs. Bovidae), you can see how similar the the two animals look. Antelope were known to be a major food staple of assorted Mesoamerican groups like the early Zapotecs ranging as far south as Oaxaca. This may very well be the wild and non-wild goat that the Nephites were referring to.
Many species of wild sheep are indigenous to north america. Including Rocky Mountain big horn, Dall Ram, Desert big horn. See wild sheep of north america for details. Note that sheep are not mentioned in the Nephite animal lists, only the Jaredite. This is fitting since, unlike antelope (goats) and bison (cows), no North American sheep are known to have ranged very far south into Mexico.
Note this is not mentioned in the Nephite list of animals, only the Jaredite list.. Perhaps because many of the larger ranging North American peccaries (Including the long nosed and flat-headed peccaries) went extinct with other megafauna. Pigs (family Suidae) are not native to the Americas, however peccaries, which are native to the Americas (family Tayassuidae) have roamed limited parts of the continent since the demise of their relatives at the end of the ice age. Tapirs are also somewhat reminiscent of pigs. They are prevalent in central america and grow to be six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. Many zoologists and anthropologists have compared the tapir’s features to those of a cross between a pig and a cow.
Ass & the Horse
Horses aren’t specifically mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being the type of animal that carried people. In fact in the instances that they are mentioned in relation to “chariots”, the wording could easily be referring to some type of supply slay (3 Nephi 3:22; Alma 18:9–12). So its actually pretty plausible that the Book of Mormon translators used the biblical/European word “horse” to refer to a different type of native animal. Just as Reindeer are the “horse” of Norse peoples, it seems fairly possible that Mormon and/or Joseph Smith may have been translating words for White-tale and Mule Deer (or even Elk, North American caribou or moose for those living farther north) in instances it was used. Both elk and deer have been readily domesticated in modern times. Elk farming in North America has become increasingly popular in recent years and Siberian natives have been domesticating elk and deer for thousands of years. Europeans also have occasionally domesticated deer for hundreds of years. Deer in most national parks and many urban settings as well as Elk in National Parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone have become so docile as to cause problems by their constant interaction with people. There are even numerous historic images of old cowboys riding elk. It seems logical that if many Nordic cultures could get a caribou to pull a sleigh then it is certainly plausible that some talented ‘deer whisperers’ could train a deer to pull a ceremonial ‘chariot’ as mentioned in Alma 18:9–12. I also find it interesting that settlers named the deer species O. hemionus “Mule Deer” because the animals large ears reminded them so much of a Mule or Ass. Deer are incredibly common in Mexico and even provided a main source of food for cultures as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala.
The idea that Book of Mormon references to “horses” refereed to tapirs, is a bit of a stretch in my opinion.
Flocks & Herds
The Book of Mormon makes frequent mention of “flocks and herds”. In addition to the animals mentioned above it is relevant to note that archeological evidence shows that many mesoamerican peoples bred, raised and subsisted on animals such as dog, turkey, rabbit and deer. Archaeological evidence indicates dogs and deer were a substantial part of the Maya diet. In fact, at the Colha site, white-tailed deer accounted for up to fifty percent of the Maya meat source. Likewise, Zapotec cultures relied heavily on domesticated dog and turkey. It makes sense that, many of the references to “flocks and herds” may be referring primarily to these animals. Early Zapotec peoples are also known to have subsisted on antelope— of which similar species have been readily domesticated in various areas of Asia and Africa. Peccary and tapir are also well known indigenous animals which could have been primary components of Book of Mormon “flocks and herds”. Although evidence for animal domestication in Mesoamerica is hard to come by, this may well be because it is often difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between a wild animal and a domesticated animal from archaeological remains. Below is an example from Nara deer park in Japan, of how easy it is to domesticate wild animals… you simply need to give them a reliable food source.
Although it is certainly possible that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith or one of his contemporaries, instead of being channeled from heaven or translated from an ancient record–the supposed animal “anachronisms” are not a very solid argument against its authenticity. In fact, by adding animals like swine, sheep and elephants to the pre-dearth Jaredite record and omitting them from the Nephite record; the animals in the Book of Mormon may actually be a proof of possible validity.
Domesticating Deer. Nora Deer Park, Japan
A little detail behind why the only animals that Native American’s had much success Domesticating were, turkey, dog, and possibly deer & bison on a more limited basis.