Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Thursday, November 5, 2015

BYU Studies, too? Seriously?

Today I received the latest edition of BYU Studies (Vol 54, no. 3, 2015). It includes an article titled "'Hard' Evidence of Ancient American Horses," by Daniel Johnson. It's a high-quality article, but the focus on Mesoamerica is tragic.

On the first page (p. 149), we find this:

"The topic of horses in the Book of Mormon's depiction of the ancient New World is undoubtedly a controversial one. Although hard evidence is available to consider, so far no incontrovertible proof of Book of Mormon horses exists--that is to say, physical remains conclusively dated to around 500 BC (and earlier) from supposed Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica are yet to be found. Because of this, more than any other criticism of the Book of Mormon, its inclusion of horses has generated greater accusation of its supposedly fraudulent nature."

I'd be interested in any reference to a quantification of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon that puts horses at number one, but there are no footnotes in this passage. What the author doesn't understand--a fundamental point also overlooked by the editors and peer reviewers, if any--is that the horse issue is a subset of the Mesoamerican theory itself! Critics have long had a field day with the Mesoamerican theory, for more reasons than I've taken the time to mention. Compared with problems of cardinal directions, "narrow" necks that are 140 miles wide, mythological seas, and a complete absence of Mayan culture in the text matched by a complete absence of Hebrew influence in the field, horses are among the least of the problems.

The article contains a spark of hope that, given some oxygen, might have developed into the bonfire BYU Studies needs to get rid of the underbrush of the Meosamerican theory. On page 152, we read "Culturally and chronologically (perhaps even geographically), Nephites are not the Maya, Aztecs, or Inca." If only Brother Johnson had recognized how true that statement is, he could have used the excellent evidence he has accumulated about horses to substantiate the North American setting (for Dan Peterson, this means north of the Rio Grande). He could have avoided spending time explaining the futile justification of the "horse=tapir" meme, but at least Brother Johnson acknowledges that futility: "All in all, this explanation may make some sense, but it does not win over many opponents of the Book of Mormon."

To that I would add, it does not win over many believers of the Book of Mormon, either.

The Mesoamerican lenses through which Brother Johnson and BYU Studies look at this issue does not detract from the outstanding research in the article regarding horses in North America. The article points out that the Spanish accounted for their horses as carefully as they accounted for their soldiers. Brother Johnson concludes, "Researchers used to believe that horses discarded by Hernando de Soto's men in 1541 were the ancestors of all American horses west of the lower Mississippi. That assertion now rests firmly in the realm of fiction." The reason? All of de Soto's horses were accounted for, and only four or five were left behind when the Spanish sailed away. All of these were stallions--and they were promptly killed by the Indians.

Brother Johnson points out that there are no good explanations for the Indian pony or Pinto, which is unlikely to have descended from Spanish horses. He also points out that the Spanish conquest ended after reaching Texas, largely because the Plains Indians already had horses, thereby offsetting the advantages the Spanish enjoyed when they were the only ones with horses.

Overall, Brother Johnson provides much more evidence of ancient horses in North America than in Mesoamerica (where a few ancient horse teeth and bones have been found in caves in Yucatan). He writes, "As the change in attitude since the 1840s is considered, analysts will recognize that on the subject of horses, the Book of Mormon was actually ahead of its time. If it had been written according to the knowledge of the day, horses would not have appeared within its pages. But now horse fossils, as well as unfossilized bones and teeth, have been found in North, Central, and South America. In North America alone, up to nine varieties of ancient horse are known."

Had Brother Johnson not been so focused on Mesoamerica, he may have found even more evidence of horses in North America--right where Nephi said they were.

(BTW, the receipt of this issue of BYU Studies couldn't have been more timely. I had just written a paragraph about the horse issue and was trying to decide on a citation. Brother Johnson's article will be cited in my next book. I can only hope he revisits the issue from a North American perspective at some point.)