Because the Book of Mormon mentions chariots, most people immediately imagine that such a device was wheeled. The wheel, however, is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon other than figuratively in the Isaiah passages (see 2 Nephi 15:28). Two different questions are at issue: (1) could the ancient Americans have known about the wheel but lost the knowledge? (2) must a chariot have wheels? Could the wheel be Lost?
When the Spaniards arrived, the Native Americans seemed unfamiliar with the wheel. Archaeologists, however, have found over one hundred examples of wheeled artifacts in the Americas, most of which are pre-Columbian wheeled toys from Central America. Many of these wheels were attached to the toys in different ways. This would suggest that the early Mesoamericans had some experience with axles and wheels. If small toy-like objects had been fitted with wheels, it is impossible to think that the early Americans would not have understood the benefit of larger wheeled items such as carts. In all cultures toys are models of larger objects that work on the same principles. For instance, one recently discovered wheeled figure from the Americas is that of a man astride a platform with wheels. This implies that the Mesoamericans understood that wheels could be used to move a person. Dr. Sorenson notes that “when the Spaniards invaded Guatemala, they reported that the Quiché Indians used ‘military machines’ consisting of wooden platforms mounted on ‘little rollers’ to haul weapons around one battlefield to resupply their soldiers.”
But if the wheel was known in ancient American (and it may not have been) why would its utilization disappear? After the Spanish introduced (or re-introduced) the wheel to Native Americans, some groups refused to use the wheel because it was not practical in the Mesoamerican jungle terrain. Many of the Mayas of Guatemala still walk today with loads on their backs, centuries after the Europeans exposed them to the wheel. Frances Gibson, who lived among the Maya and studied their ways, also found that the Mayas did not wish to use the wheel due to religious beliefs. The wheeled figurines have been called “toys” for lack of a better description. Generally, however, these toys were not used for children (as is evidenced by minimal wheel wear and their lack of smooth motion) but rather they had religious significance for adults. Not only did the wheel represent the sun, but the commonly portrayed dog, often carried on wheels, was also a symbol of the sun and was intimately associated with the underworld. The wheel was linked to the Mesoamerican belief that the sun died each night when setting and was reborn through an Aztec goddess the following morning. Thus the wheels on a figurine connected it symbolically to the sun. This same connection between a wheeled dog and the concept of death and rebirth is found in the Old World and in Old World burials.
The use of the wheel among early Americans may have disappeared due to changes in religious beliefs. Unfortunately, larger vehicles would most likely have been constructed of wood, and wood deteriorates with time. Such disappearances are not unusual. According to the Bible, the Philistines in Saul’s time had 30,000 chariots (1 Samuel 13:5), yet as far as I know not a single fragment of a chariot has ever been uncovered in the Holy Land. In the humid Mesoamerican climate, would we really expect the survival of two-thousand year-old wooden wheels (the last mention of Nephite chariots dates to about 20 A.D.)?
Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt