Are Pre-Columbian Horses in Book of Mormon Problematic? Not Necessarily.


Scientists believe that the horse originated in the Americas and spread across land bridges to Asia, eventually migrating into Africa and Europe. Over the course of millions of years the horse evolved from a smaller breed to the larger horses of today. About 10,000 years ago several large American mammals—including mammoths, camels, and the smaller horses—became extinct due, in part, to over-hunting as well as environmental changes brought on by climate changes. When the Spaniards came to the New World in the early sixteenth century, they brought the new larger horses. Some horses eventually escaped and multiplied in the wild. Since horses were supposedly extinct in the Americas during Book of Mormon times, the mention of horses is seen to be anachronistic.

When most of us recontextualize Book of Mormon horses, we tend to envision Nephites riding traditional horses into battle or using them to pull chariots. The Book of Mormon, however, never says horses were ridden (a curious thing if Joseph was the author of the Book of Mormon) or that they pulled chariots. In fact, Book of Mormon horses are never mentioned in a combat narrative. Book of Mormon horses do not function anything like nineteenth-century farm or field horses, nor are they utilized by either the Nephites or Lamanites as were the horses belonging to the farmers, explorers, or Native Americans in Joseph Smith’s milieu. Understanding these differences is a clue to helping us realize that Book of Mormon horses refers to something different than what we intuitively envision. There are at least two possible resolutions to the “horse” problem in the Book of Mormon: (1) definitions were expanded to include new meanings and (2) horses were present but their remains have not been found.

Limited Vocabulary

The Book of Mormon authors tell us that reformed Egyptian (their written language) was different than their spoken language. The Nephites would have liked to write in Hebrew but they used reformed Egyptian instead because it took up less space on the plates (Mormon 9:32–33). Reformed Egyptian was probably a more compact script than Hebrew and possibly consisted of a more limited vocabulary. Moroni tells us that if they could have written in Hebrew instead of reformed Egyptian there would have been fewer mistakes. Maybe he understood that at least some reformed Egyptian characters only approximated a concept or that some words had expanded meanings. As we examine the Book of Mormon text we discover that, indeed, reformed Egyptian appears to have had a very limited vocabulary. LDS researcher Benjamin McGuire notes that while the Book of Mormon is roughly 270,000 words long, it has a vocabulary of only about 5,500 words. If we compare this to contemporary books of Joseph Smith’s day we find that Warren Ramsey’s The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution had roughly as many words as the Book of Mormon but had a vocabulary 2.5 times greater than the Book of Mormon. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days has only one third as many words as the Book of Mormon, but has a vocabulary nearly 25% larger. Solomon Spalding wrote a novel that some critics claim was the original source for the Book of Mormon. That claim has been soundly refuted (see Chapter 12), but it is interesting that Spalding’s manuscript, which is just under 15% the length of the Book of Mormon, has about the same size vocabulary. The limited Book of Mormon vocabulary becomes even smaller when we remove the unique Book of Mormon names.i Some might suggest that the Book of Mormon’s vocabulary was limited because Joseph Smith’s vocabulary was limited. The evidence, however, contradicts such a theory. Of the animals listed in the New World portions of the Book of Mormon, thirteen are physical creatures, whereas the remaining animals are figurative and may have been borrowed from Joseph’s language to express common ideas. Two of the thirteen physical creatures are cumoms and cureloms from Jaredite times (for which we have no Nephite or modern translation). Of the eleven remaining physical creatures we find cow, ox, ass, horse, goat, wild goat, dog, sheep, swine, serpents, and elephant. In the Bible we find the same animals as listed in the Book of Mormon (with the exception of the “elephant”) along with the lion, bear, ape, ostrich, hare, bat, badger, greyhound, ram, ferret, lizard, chameleon, snail, mole, spider, stork, mouse, weasel, tortoise, vulture, frog, crow, camel, and many more. While “fowl” are said to exist in Book of Mormon lands, no specific bird (nor even the word “bird”) is ever mentioned other than figuratively. In the Bible, however, we read not only of birds and fowls but we find the hawk, dove, quail, owl, pigeon, partridge, swan, swallow, and crane. It quickly becomes apparent that reformed Egyptian had a small vocabulary.


What does one do with a small vocabulary when there is a need to include a variety of new and unfamiliar items? The solution is to intuitively expand the definition of existing words. When translators run into the problem of untranslatable words, they resolve the issue by way of several options—such as adaptation, paraphrasing, borrowing, and other options.ii The same thing happens when people find it necessary to label new and unfamiliar items, they often instinctively “loanshift” words or expand familiar terms to include unfamiliar items.iii Non-LDS linguist Dr. Joel Hoffman likewise explains, “Words can mean more than one thing, …the meaning of a word can be extended…. [and]…words change meaning when they travel (“get borrowed”) from one language to another.”iv While the Nephites may have used familiar names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, or weapons, Joseph Smith may have struggled to translate foreign items by using words from his vocabulary that approximated concepts or ideas. It is an indisputable fact that loan-shifting can happen during the translation of one language to anotherv and two languages need not resemble each other phonetically in order for loan-shifting to Instead of creating entirely new words for unfamiliar things, sometimes people tend to “translate” new things into their own language by expanding their current words to include the new item.


The Quiché languages of highland Guatemala have expressions like keh, which means both deer and horse, and the cognitive keheh, which means mount or ride.vii An early pre-Spanish incense burner discovered in Guatemala shows a man riding on the back of a deer, and a stone monument dating to 700 A.D. shows a woman riding a deer. Until recently, many people in Siberia rode on the backs of deer. In such cases the deer served as horses.viii When the conquistadors arrived in the New World both the natives and the Spaniards had problems classifying new animals. The lowland Maya called the European goat a “short-horned deer”ix and some of the Amerindians referred to the newly introduced horse simply as “deer.”x If early Native Americans had no problem expanding their definition of “deer” to include horses, why could not the Nephites expand their definition of “horse” to include deer if the American genus of deer in some ways acted like horses? It is not only possible, but virtually mandatory that the same phenomenon would be found in the Book of Mormon if it really derived from an ancient culture that intermingled with another foreign culture.


In my opinion, a more likely candidate for the Nephite loan-shift “horse” would have been the Central American tapir. The Spaniards called the native tapir (which is related to the horse) an “ass,”xi and some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys “tapirs” because, at least according to one observer, they looked so similar.xii Tapirs are one of only a few odd-toed ungulates—a family that includes the horse, zebra, donkey, onager, and the rhinoceros. These large grazing animals have common traits, including an odd number of toes on each hoof, a large middle toe, and a relatively simple stomach (as compared to other grazing animals like cows who regurgitate their cud for digestion).xiii While some species of tapir are rather small and look like pigs, the Mesoamerican variety—Baird’s Tapir—can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. A modern government report indicates that, The tapir is docile toward man and hence management of the animal is relatively easy. An indigenous person describes the tapir as follows: “The animal is very sociable. Taken as a pup, one can easily tame it; it knows how to behave near the house; it goes to eat in the mountain and then returns to sleep near the house.”xiv Tapirs were frequently eatenxv and, because of their strength, they may have been used as beasts of burden on a small scale.

Ancient Horses?

Pockets of Ancient Horses In prehistoric times miniature horses lived in the Americas. Current studies suggest that these animals (which were generally under five feet high at the shoulder) were hunted for their meat. In fact, they may have become extinct in some parts of the New World due to over hunting.xvi Some scholars believe that small pockets of these diminutive horses survived until Book of Mormon timesxviiand ongoing research on several ancient American horse bones may support such a theory.xviii At least a few non-Mormon scholars believe that real horses (of a stature smaller than modern horses) may have survived New World extinction. The late British anthropologist, M.F. Ashley Montague, a non-LDS scholar who taught at Harvard, suggested that the horse never became extinct in America. According to Montague, the size of post-Columbian horses provides evidence that the European horses bred with early American horses.xix Non-LDS Canadian researcher, Yuri Kuchinsky, also believes that there were pre-Columbian horses. Kuchinsky, however, believes that horses (smaller than our modern horses) were reintroduced to the west coast of the Americas about 2,000 years ago by Asians who came on boats. Among Kuchinsky’s evidences for pre-Columbian horses are (1) horse traditions among the Indians that may pre-date the arrival of the Spaniards, (2) supposedly pre-Columbian petroglyphs that appear to depict horses, and (3) noticeable differences between the typical Spanish horse and the much smaller Indian ponies.xx

Unfortunately, however, such theories are typically seen as fringe among mainstream scholars. Due to the dearth of archaeological support, most scholars continue to believe that horses became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene period. Is it possible that real horses lived in the Americas during Book of Mormon times? And if so, why does there seem to be no archaeological support? First, it is important to recognize that the Book of Mormon never states or implies that horses roamed the New World in large numbers—in fact, horses are mentioned very infrequently. If small pockets of horses lived in pre-Columbian America, it is possible that they would have left little if any trace in the archaeological record. We know, for example, that the Norsemen probably introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs into Eastern North America in the eleventh century A.D., yet these animals did not spread throughout the continent and they left no archeological remains.xxi According to one non-LDS authority on ancient American, the Olmecs had domesticated dogs and turkeys but the damp acidic Mesoamerican soil would have destroyed any remains and any archaeological evidence of such animal domestication.xxii

Archaeological Evidence

The fact is, however, that there does appear to be archaeological support that horses existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In 1957, for instance, at Mayapan (a site corresponding to Book of Mormon lands/times) horse remains were discovered at a depth considered to be pre-Columbian. Likewise, in southwest Yucatan, a non-Mormon archaeologist found what may likely be pre-Columbian horse remains in three caves. Excavations in a cave in the Mayan lowlands in 1978 also turned up horse remains.xxiii Why haven’t pre-Columbian horse remains received greater attention from other scientists? As an article for the Academy of Natural Science explains, such discoveries are typically “either dismissed or ignored by the European scientific community.”xxiv The problem may be one of pre-conceived paradigms. Dr. Sorenson relates the story of a non-LDS archaeologist colleague who was digging at an archaeological dig in Tula and discovered a horse tooth. He took it to his supervisor—the chief archaeologist—who said, “Oh, that’s a modern horse, throw it away” (which he did). It was never dated.xxv Dr. John Clark, director of the New World Archaeological Foundation has expressed similar concerns: The problem is archaeologists get in the same hole that everybody else gets in. If you find a horse—if I’m digging a site and I find a horse bone—if I actually know enough to know that it is a horse bone, because that takes some expertise—my assumption would be that there’s something wrong with my site. And so archaeologists who find a horse bone and say, “Ah! Somebody’s screwing around with my archaeology.” So we would never date it. Why am I going to throw away $600 to date the horse bone when I already know [that it’s modern]? …I think that hole’s screwed up. If I dig a hole and I find plastic in the bottom, I’m not going to run the [radio]carbon, that’s all there is to it. Because …I don’t want to waste the money.xxvi A few years ago FARMS began a project to date the horse remains discovered at digs that date to pre-Columbian times. Acquiring the remains was an extensive job in itself. Some of the reported remains had disappeared, and some of the owners of the remains did not want FARMS taking them for dating purposes. Of the remains that FARMS was able to acquire it appears that at least a few date to pre-Columbian times. Retired professor of geology and paleontology Dr. Wade Miller did some preliminary work on dating some of the horse remains. He notes: Some of the unpublished dates run on horse fossils that appear to be valid are: 5,890 B.C. (Pratt Cave in Texas); 830 B.C. southern Saskatchewan, Canada); 815 A.D. (Ontario Canada); 1,260–1,400 A.D. (Wolf Spider Cave, Colorado). A date of about 1,120 B.C. was determined using a thermoluminescence method on a horse bone from Horsethief Cave in Wyoming.xxvii The standard scientific view is that New World horses became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Any horse bones dated after this time demonstrate that at least some pockets of horses survived the mass extinction and that small pockets could have survived to Book of Mormon times. Although the work is not yet complete, the prospects look promising.


iBenjamin McGuire, posted 3 April 2006 at (accessed 27 January 2008).

ii“Untranslatability,” at (accessed 17 December 2012).

iiiMatthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review (1997) 9:1, 132–133; see also Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 93: Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationships: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996), 289; parts available online at (accessed 17 December 2012).

ivHoffman, And God Said, 42, 35.

vEffects of the Second Language on the First, ed. Vivian Cook (Dublin, Ireland: Trinity College, 2003) 40–41; parts available online at (accessed 17 December 2012).

viUlrich Ammon, Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language, (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 50–51; parts available online at (accessed 18 January 2008).

viiSorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 295–296.

viii Ibid.

ix Ibid., 293-294

xJohn A. Tvedtnes “A Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology,” in FARMS Review 6:1, 10.

xiSorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 293–294.

xiiRoper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” 134.

xiii“Odd-toed Ungulate,” at (accessed 13 September 2012).

xiv“Book of Mormon Anachronisms: Animals,” at (accessed 17 December 2012).

xvElyse M. Anderson, “Exploring Maya Ritual Fauna: Caves and The Proposed Link With Contemporary Hunting Ceremonialism,” Master’s Thesis (University of Florida, 2009), 20.

xvi Hillary Mayell, “Remains Show Ancient Horses Were Hunted for Their Meat,” National Geographic News (11 May 2001), at (accessed 4 December 2012).

xvii “Out of the Dust: Were Ancient Americans Familiar with Real Horses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (2001), 10:1, 76–77.

xviii John L. Sorenson, “Once More: The Horse,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed., John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 99.

xixPaul R. Cheesman, The World of the Book of Mormon (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1984), 194, 181.

xxYuri Kuchinsky, “Indian Pony Mystery,” North American BioFortean Review, (December 2000) 2:3, #15, at (accessed 18 September 2012).

xxiBennett, “Horses in the Book of Mormon”; William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993) 2:1, 193.

xxiiBennett, “Horses in the Book of Mormon.”

xxiii Clay E. Ray, “Pre-Columbian Horses from Yucatan,” Journal of Mammalogy 38:2 (1957), 278.

xxiv “Ancient American Horses,” The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, at (accessed 4 December 2012).

xxv This story was told at the Q&A session following Dr. Sorenson’s presentation, “The Trajectory of Book of Mormon Studies,” 2 August 2007, at the 2007 FAIR Conference; audio and video in author’s possession.

xxvi John Clark during Q&A session following Dr. Clark’s presentation, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” 25 May 2004 at BYU; audio of Q&A in author’s possession.

xxvii Wade E. Miller, Science and the Book of Mormon: Cureloms, Cumoms, Horses & More (Laguna Niguel, CA: 2009), 77.

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  1. Klint Stander Reply

    Charles Darwin reported finding fossils of modern horse in digs in South America. (Voyage of the Beagle p. 126,163.) He also reported that other naturalists had found similar modern horse fossils in digs in North America. He says it is impossible to tell when they became extinct; but that they were there is without doubt.

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