Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Looking my Christmas Gift Horse in the Mouth

About a week ago in the comments on my post about horses in the Book of Mormon which was inspired by my earlier review of the generally excellent book, An LDS Guide to the Yucatan, I noted that the issue of Book of Mormon horses remains problematic. Then I shared my main wish for Christmas, a horse. Specifically, an ancient American horse that might help clarify this scientific challenge for the Book of Mormon. Here's what I asked for on Dec. 21:
Christmas gift idea for your humble blogger here: This Christmas, I'd like a horse. A Mesoamerican one, preferably. Doesn't have to be in working condition and can be decrepit and rather old, but not too old--about 2000 years old will do just fine. Should be free of problems caused by tunneling cave rats and overly eager apologists. If you find one that meets these simple criteria, it will be an even merrier Christmas than normal.
The comment about tunneling cave rats refers to the possible cause for apparently very old horse bones being found in newer pre-Columbian layers of a Mesoamerican cave. It is entirely possible that some of the scant apparent evidence for horses in Mesoamerica in Book of Mormon times is due to disturbances that brought older remains into new layers, and tunneling cave rats is one possible cause.

While struggling with the various issues related to horses and hoping for some new Mesoamerican finds, I dug into a new gift book that I received recently which provides some valuable new information on horses. The book is Science and the Book of Mormon: Cureloms, Cumoms, Horses, and More (KCT & Associates: Laguna Niguel, CA, 2010) by Dr. Wade E. Miller, a retired professor of geology at Brigham Young University who has done 40 years of research in geology and paleontology, and he continues to be actively involved in multiple field projects in Mexico and the U.S. As an expert on paleontology and dinosaurs, he's been on a variety of TV shows and documentaries, in addition to serving as an advisor to several museums and to the US Bureau of Land Management.

This softbound volume has some hard-hitting information with good documentation. In the course of this book, Dr. Miller explores candidates for what the Book of Mormon calls elephants, cureloms, cumoms, and, of courses, horses. He observes that the latest dated remains of a species need not correspond with the actual extinction date, since pockets of the animals may have survived for centuries or thousands of years without leaving remains that we have found so far.

Dr. Miller proposes that the "elephants" mentioned in the ancient Book of Ether (Ether 9:19) could have been the Columbian mammoth. Based on the research he has done in Mexico, it is the most numerous of late Pleistocene fossils in some area. Evidence from many sources confirms that humans interacted with mammoths in North America. As early as 1952, one scientist concluded that, "There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that man and elephant coexisted in America." (L.H. Johnson, "Men and Elephants in America," Scientific Monthly, 75 (1952): 215-221.) Many more finds since that time confirm that humans associated with mammoths, and increasing evidence points to the survival of some mammoths in some regions past the end of the Pleistocene, with dates later than 3,000 B.C. reported by one source. An even later report of about 2,000 years ago in Florida is interesting, but other scientists feel that the Florida data is invalid.

Dr. Miller's pick for one of the curelom and cumom is the llama, for which fossils in North America allow the llama to have existed in Mesoamerica in Jaredite times in the Book of Mormon. Dr. Miller gets into some of those details and provides references. Interesting.

As for my hoped-for Christmas gift horse, Miller's book provides more details than I have previously encountered from LDS scholars, enough to possibly count as the Christmas gift I was looking for in this book that I received as a gift. Here are some relevant excerpts from page 80:
During the Pleistocene epoch there were many species of horses and a few asses. It is accepted by all paleontologists that these animals existed in North America until the end of this time, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Along with other Ice Age mammals listed above, evidences demonstrate that both the horse and ass survived for an appreciable time later. Some paleontologists are reluctant to accept this, though.

It's hard to change old ideas once they become ingrained. However, more and more paleontologists, as well as archeologists, do accept some younger dates for the last native horses in America. A number of Carbon-14 dates on horse fossils, especially in the United States, show ages extending well past the close of the Pleistocene.

Ages obtained from a variety of locations are as follows (these are all in years before the present): 8,240 (Mead and Meltzer, 1984, p. 446); 7,000; 8,000 (Hester, 1960 p. 70); 6,160 (Marcus and Berger, 1984, p. 171); ~5,000 (Martin and Webb, 1974, p. 144); 3,800 (Schmidt, 1988, p. 253). A date of 2,167 B.C. was obtained based on horse bones from the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula according to John Sorenson (Pers. Comm.).
Miller then proposes that small scattered populations of horses and asses, especially in remote areas, could have survived until shortly before they were reintroduced by the Spaniards. This hypothesis is based in part on some recent Carbon-14 measurements, mostly unpublished, from work tied to a controversial former physics professor at BYU, Dr. Steven E. Jones (Jones is controversial to some people for his conclusions about 9-11 based on his interpretation of the physics of the building collapse that led him to conclude that the factors beyond jet fuel fires and airplane impact must have been at play to bring the buildings down). However, Miller does not appear to be merely relying on Steve Jones alone, but says, "I later worked with him on these" (p. 82).

These unpublished dates for horse fossils include 5,890 B.C. from Pratt Cave in Texas; 830 B.C. from southern Saskatchewan, Canada; 815 A.D. from Ontario, Canada; and 1,260-1,400 A.D. from Wolf Spider Cave, Colorado. There is also a specimen from Horsethief Cave in Wyoming that was dated using a thermoluminescence method to 1,120 B.C.

Miller notes that young dates for horse fossils are not yet common. However, reports of primitive man in association with the horse are common, he feels, citing authors from the 1800s such as Heilprin and Mercer, and more recent reports for various species of Equus associated with humans reported by Mexican paleontologists Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales and Oscar Polaco from several Yucatan caves, along with several other reports. In light of this growing body of evidence, Miller feels that there is evidence to show that the horse and the ox were in the Americas at the time they were said to be here in the Book of Mormon.

I have some more exploring to do in sorting through the evidence cited by Miller, but feel like the case for actual horses in the Book of Mormon (as opposed to, say, tasty tapir flocks) may be stronger that I previously supposed, though it's a gift horse that we should look squarely in the mouth. Evidence for late pockets of actual horses won't resolve a variety of other questions that can then be asked, but certainly the challenge to the Book of Mormon has become much different than it was in Joseph's day, when it wasn't yet even known that horses (as well as elephants) had been on the continent anciently. After all, if Joseph were fabricating the Book of Mormon based on what was known in his day, why mention ancient horses at all when they were widely understood to have been introduced recently by Europeans coming to the New World? Why take the risk of mentioning them in Jaredite times and beyond?

I especially look forward to more published information on the radiocarbon dating results that he and Steven Jones have worked on. I also look forward to further finds that will might us understand these issues more accurately.

Finally, on Christmas day, I also ran into this interesting video from one of the authors of the LDS Guide to the Yucatan, with some other information relevant to the horse in the Americas. Interesting.

5 comments:

Ben said...

We'll figure it out eventually. :)

Daniel Johnson said...

Merry Christmas. Sometimes, you do get what you asked for - Daniel Johnson

Jeff Lindsay said...

So what happens of we do find incontrovertible evidence for Mesoamerican horses during Book of Mormon times? The same thing we do when we find good candidates for Nahom, Bountiful, the River Laman and the Valley Lemuel: talk about something else. I hope that in 20 years we'll be able to talk about something else. Some would say it's time for that already, but I think a lot of discussion and investigation is still needed.

Anonymous Bosch said...

Finding fossils that date living horses to Book of Mormon times is just part of the problem for Book of Mormon historicity enthusiasts. Why is there no depiction of horses in Mesoamerican art from Book of Mormon times? Plenty of other animals are depicted in Mesoamerican art. If horses were domesticated and used by Mesoamericans, their numbers would be artificially enhanced relative to non-domesticated animals from the same period, and so fossil evidence, if there is any, shouldn't be so hard to find.

As for cureloms and cumoms, don't these pose a challenge to the idea that when Joseph Smith encountered words in the Book of Mormon for which there is no English word, he translated them using English words denoting similar but different things? If a curelom or a cumom were a llama, hypothetically speaking, not only could he have translated using the word "llama", he could have translated as "camel" if "llama" were unfamiliar to him.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, When he talks about horses is he talking about what we think of when we mean horse or is he talking about a smaller North American species? The problem I see with full sized horses in the BOM is that horses are never used in battle in the BOM. In the Bible horses were synonymous with military strength. The BOM gives detailed descriptions of their battles but never mentions horses being used in battle. Because of the details about war preparations and battles, I think horses would have been mentioned if the horses were similar in size and function to horses in the Old world.