Part 3: CES Letter Book of Mormon Questions [Section B]
by Sarah Allen
Now that we’re getting deeper into the content of the CES Letter itself, you’re all going to start to see the way that I research the answers to my questions. I draw from a lot of different sources, and each one is like a different puzzle piece. I start adding the pieces to the board and slowly start to fill in the image, but there are gaps I don’t have pieces to fill yet. As I go on, more and more of the picture is revealed until the missing pieces are so small, they don’t really matter. Eventually, for some things, the puzzle gets fully complete. For other questions, some holes still remain. But in every case, no puzzle is finished just by looking at one single piece of it.
That’s something many people don’t fully grasp, that sometimes, getting answers takes real work. I hope, by the time we’re done with this thing, you guys can start to realize how many different sources are out there that you can turn to for your own answers. That said, let’s get on with the questions/concerns.
DNA analysis has concluded that Native American Indians do not originate from the Middle East or from Israelites but rather from Asia. Why did the Church change the following section of the introduction page in the 2006 edition Book of Mormon, shortly after the DNA results were released?
It’s always confused me why this is an issue, and I’ll explain why. We don’t have any idea what Jaredite DNA would have looked like. We don’t know where they came from, who they mixed with along their journey, or where they ended up, or if any of that DNA spread to existing populations. We don’t have any idea what Sariah’s lineage was, or Zoram’s, or Ishmael’s wife’s. All we know is that Lehi is from the tribe of Manasseh and, as explained by Don Bradley, Ishmael was from the tribe of Ephraim. We don’t know what Mulekite DNA would have looked like, as we have no idea who helped him escape Jerusalem or what route they took along the way, or who may have been added to their group during their travels. We have no idea which native populations any of them intermingled with, or to what extent. And that’s even assuming his story in the Book of Mormon is an accurate description of what really happened to him and wasn’t distorted over the centuries before his people were discovered by the Nephites. Given all of that, we have absolutely no idea what the genetic makeup of the groups in the Book of Mormon even looked like to begin with, let alone what it might look like when it’s mixed with existing Native populations.
As the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on DNA says, “It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions. In this case, their descendants might inherit a genetic profile that would be unexpected given their family’s place of origin. This phenomenon is called the founder effect.”
Beyond that, their civilizations were subjected to frequent wars, disease, intermixing with the locals, and much later, their ancestors would have been decimated by colonialization, which killed tens of millions of Native Americans. There are countless lost tribes and lost languages over the past 10 centuries or so, and we have no idea what their DNA might have looked like, either.
We also don’t know where to look. The distances in the Book of Mormon indicate it took place in a small area roughly the size of the state of Oregon. We don’t know for certain where in all of North and South America that small area was located.
However, even if we somehow did know exactly what we were looking for and exactly where to look, it’s likely we wouldn’t be able to detect anything, anyway.
Did you know that, while we have historical records detailing Vikings visiting North America, and we have Native American DNA in Iceland, showing that they took some of that Native population back with them, we have no Viking DNA detectable in our Native American population? We know what their DNA looked like and we know some of the areas where they landed, and we all know that Vikings liked to collect slaves and concubines, and engage in certain non-consensual sexual activity whenever they raided a new area. But despite all of that, we can’t find any biological trace of them among Native Americans.
In one study, they studied different genomes in South American skeletons ranging from 8600 years ago to just 500 years ago. They determined that, “All of the ancient mitochondrial lineages detected in this study were absent from modern data sets, suggesting a high extinction rate.” Every single one of the new mitochondrial DNA lineages they found are now extinct, even from as recently as 1500 AD.
This is because, as the Gospel Topics essay goes on to say:
The difficulties do not end with the founder effect. Even if it were known with a high degree of certainty that the emigrants described in the Book of Mormon had what might be considered typically Near Eastern DNA, it is quite possible that their DNA markers did not survive the intervening centuries. Principles well known to scientists, including population bottleneck and genetic drift, often lead to the loss of genetic markers or make those markers nearly impossible to detect.
Population bottleneck is the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a natural disaster, epidemic disease, massive war, or other calamity results in the death of a substantial part of a population. … In addition to the catastrophic war at the end of the Book of Mormon, the European conquest of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries touched off just such a cataclysmic chain of events. As a result of war and the spread of disease, many Native American groups experienced devastating population losses. One molecular anthropologist observed that the conquest “squeezed the entire Amerindian population through a genetic bottleneck.” He concluded, “This population reduction has forever altered the genetics of the surviving groups, thus complicating any attempts at reconstructing the pre-Columbian genetic structure of most New World groups.
Genetic drift is the gradual loss of genetic markers in small populations due to random events. … The effect of drift is especially pronounced in small, isolated populations or in cases where a small group carrying a distinct genetic profile intermingles with a much larger population of a different lineage.
Genetic drift particularly affects mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA, but it also leads to the loss of variation in autosomal DNA. When a small population mixes with a large one, combinations of autosomal markers typical of the smaller group become rapidly overwhelmed or swamped by those of the larger. The smaller group’s markers soon become rare in the combined population and may go extinct due to the effects of genetic drift and bottlenecks as described above. Moreover, the shuffling and recombination of autosomal DNA from generation to generation produces new combinations of markers in which the predominant genetic signal comes from the larger original population. This can make the combinations of markers characteristic of the smaller group so diluted that they cannot be reliably identified.
Small groups introduced into large populations have DNA that’s virtually undetectable a few thousand years later, particularly when that small group was subjected to forced migration and numerous wars, then driven nearly to extinction. Shocking, right? Who knew?
Why did the Church change the following section of the introduction page in the 2006 edition Book of Mormon, shortly after the DNA results were released?
The introduction to the Book of Mormon was first included in 1981. It wasn’t on the plates and wasn’t a part of the Book of Mormon for well over a century after it was written. (The Title Page was on the plates, but not the Introduction.) It was added about the same time that Bruce R. McConkie wrote the chapter headings for the Book of Mormon. It’s unknown to the public who wrote that introduction, but according to Dan Peterson, it was not unanimously approved. In fact, there were some strong objections to its wording, because it was making claims that the Book of Mormon itself did not make. They were overruled by someone with authority, presumably on the Scripture Publication Committee. No names are named, so I won’t even begin to hazard a guess as to who that was or why they made that decision, but it was not a unanimous one.
This wasn’t even an original point of opposition in 1981. Prominent leaders of the Church had been making the same argument for decades. As the Gospel Topics essay also says:
At the April 1929 General Conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”
So, if it’s not an original part of the Book of Mormon, and there were objections to its wording all along, and that point had been reiterated by various other prominent Church leaders for decades, why wouldn’t the Church change it after new information came to light validating those objections? That seems like the responsible thing to do to me. Why is it a problem for Jeremy Runnells?
The CES Letter reiterates this point again in another paragraph:
UPDATE: The Church conceded in its January 2014 Book of Mormon and DNA Studies essay that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA. The Church, through this essay, makes a major shift in narrative from its past dominant narrative and claims of the origins of the Native American Indians.
Okay? Why is that a bad thing? Like I said above, as new information came to light, Church leaders amended their opinions to include that new information. That’s exactly what they should have done. Should they have rejected it?
As Michael Ash says in his piece, Bamboozled By the CES Letter:
Better education overthrows false assumptions (thank goodness) and with a closer reading of the Book of Mormon in light of what we know about the history of the Americas, we can see that the Lamanites could only have been “among” the ancestors of the American Indians. Why do critics get their knickers in a knot whenever the Church tries to fix past errors? You’d think that those same critics who claim foul—that the Church has lied to us, deceives us, and isn’t transparent—would be happy when errors are corrected.
Why aren’t they happy? Because they want there to be problems. They’re not interested in truth, they’re interested in destroying Mormonism. They are not interested in the fact that very few things spoken by LDS leaders carry the same weight as what we find in the Standard Works, they are interested in making prophets and Church leaders look bad. And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Exactly right. It’s intellectually dishonest. They cry foul when the Church commits an error, and then they cry foul again when the Church corrects the error.
Anachronisms: Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheels, chariots, wheat, silk, steel, and iron did not exist in pre-Columbian America during Book of Mormon times. Why are these things mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being made available in the Americas between 2200 BC – 421 AD?
This list is outdated, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Huns were well-known for traveling and attacking on horseback, for example. It was very well-documented that horses were a major part of their lifestyle. They used them as pack animals, transportation, and a tool of war. They had packs supposedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But despite this, archeologists can barely find any evidence of them having horses at all, and even those discoveries are fairly recent.
Beyond this, I don’t think it’s any secret that the most recent scholarship being done on Book of Mormon geography is taking place in Mesoamerica. That region is humid and tropical. It’s not a desert, it’s a jungle. Clothing, bodies, metal, etc., all disintegrate fairly rapidly in those conditions. It’s only very recently, like in the past few years, that LIDAR imagery has shown exactly how big the cities and populations were in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. They didn’t discover that by looking at the burial sites. They didn’t discover it during their archeological digs (and the amount of excavation done in the area is tiny to begin with). They didn’t discover it by hiking through the area and stumbling across old battle sites. They discovered it with lasers, computers, and 3-D rendering that wasn’t possible until now.
And, of course, one idea that gets mocked pretty roundly by the ex-Mormon crowd and other critics of the Church’s truth claims is the idea that some of those labels may have been “loan-shifted.” It’s worth mentioning, though, because it does happen pretty regularly throughout history. American buffalos, for example, are not buffalos at all, but bison. They were simply called “buffalos” because European settlers thought they looked similar. Others called them “wild cows.” The word “hippopotamus” translates to “river horse” in Greek, despite hippos looking nothing like horses. The Spanish called badgers, raccoons, and cotamundis all by the same word, “tejon.” The Aztecs called European horses “deer,” while that was what the Maya called the Spanish goats and the Delaware Indians called cows. The Spanish referred to tapirs as “donkeys,” while some of the Maya similarly called horses and donkeys “tapirs.” There is also a report of at least one Spaniard describing a tapir as, “Without doubt, it is an elephant.” The most common Amerindian word for Spanish horses was, believe it or not, “dog.” Alpacas were described as “sheep” by Europeans seeing them for the first time. The Hebrew word for “deer” was also used for rams, ibexes, and mountain goats, depending on the context. In Sweden and Finland, some people referred to a reindeer as a “cow” or “ox.” “Wild ox” in the Bible usually meant an antelope or gazelle. The Miami Indians named sheep a word that translated to “looks-like-a-cow.” Etc. There are countless examples of this happening all over the world.
Imagine what Nephi would call a llama or alpaca when he’d never encountered one before. What would he call an armadillo? A tapir? We have no idea, and neither do those critics. It’s possible they called them by the names of animals they were familiar with that looked somewhat similar, and it’s possible they didn’t. We simply don’t know. As Neal Rappleye said:
This important point has long been derided by critics of Mormonism on the Internet, but I’ve yet to see anyone else explain just what Nephi, with his Hebrew or Egyptian language, was supposed to call a tapir or any other species discovered in his new environment for which his native language had no words.
So, having said all that, let’s look at that list a little more closely. Some of them aren’t anachronisms at all, and others have some obvious answers. Only a few of them are still up for debate.
- Swine? Look at the peccary/javelina, which is native to the Southern US, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. Looks like a small, hairy pig to me.
- Wheat? Google pictures of amaranth. It looks like red wheat, and functions similarly when it’s ground into flour. It’s also native to Mesoamerica and was a staple grain of the Aztecs.
- Wheels? Wheels are only ever mentioned in the Book of Mormon when quoting Isaiah. They’re not described as being used by the Nephites, Lamanites, or the Jaredites. Having said that, wheeled toys were excavated in Mesoamerica dating from Nephite times. You can see a picture of one here.
- Chariots? The Bible describes several types of chariots, not just the wheeled ones pulled by horses, including one in the Song of Solomon that’s actually a palanquin/carried litter. Guess what were common in Mesoamerica during Nephite times? Covered litters for tribal leaders carried by servants.
- Silk? The Spanish reported seeing several different types of silk in the New World when they came over. One type came from the ceiba/kapok tree, another from the fur of a rabbit’s belly, and others were “wild silk,” from certain types of silk worms, moths, and butterflies in the Oaxaca area of Mexico.
- No iron in the Pre-Columbian Americas? Really? Tell that to the Olmecs, who made iron mirrors during the Jaredite era. Ten tons of excavated iron was found in San Lorenzo, dating to Olmec times, which was done in a manner similar to that described in Ether 10:23.
- What about steel? Well, this one takes a little bit of explanation. In the Bible, “steel” refers to bronze/copper/brass alloys that were heated and hammered into something resembling modern steel. That’s what the Vered Jericho Sword is made out of, an Israeli steel sword dating from 700-600 BC…or right about when Nephi was leaving Jerusalem with his own steel sword. There are five mentions of steel in the Book of Mormon. Two were referring to items made in Israel, the sword and Nephi’s bow (which is likely a similar weapon to the steel bows described in the Bible):
The phrase “bow of steel” occurs three times in the KJV: 2 Sam 22.35, Job 20.24, and Ps 18.34. In all cases it translates the Hebrew phrase qeshet nechushah, which modern translations consistently, and correctly, translate as “bronze.” There is one other reference to “steel” in the KJV at Jer 15.12, also referring to bronze. The metal is apparently called “steel” in the KJV because bronze is “steeled” (strengthened) copper through alloying it with tin or through some other process.
Another of those mentions of steel in the Book of Mormon is Ether 7:9, where Shule arms some of his followers with swords and they go and attack Corihor. It doesn’t say how large that group was, so for all we know, there could have only been a handful of them. As steel had been known in the Old World since the 10th Century BC, it’s not terribly surprising that some of the Jaredites would have known how to make it. This is the only point in their record where steel is mentioned, so it’s doubtful that the armies fighting to the death at the end of the record were all armed with steel swords.
Notice that these two texts are what is called a “literary topos,” meaning a stylized literary description which repeats the same ideas, events, or items in a standardized way in the same order and form.
- Nephi: “wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel”
- Jarom: “wood, …iron and copper, and brass and steel”
The use of literary topoi is a fairly common ancient literary device found extensively in the Book of Mormon (and, incidentally, an evidence for the antiquity of the text). Scholars are often skeptical about the actuality behind a literary topos; it is often unclear if it is merely a literary device or is intended to describe specific unique circumstances.
Note, also, that although Jarom mentions a number of “weapons of war,” this list notably leaves off swords. Rather, it includes “arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin.” If iron/steel swords were extensively used by Book of Mormon armies, why are they notably absent from this list of weapons, the only weapon-list that specifically mentions steel?
- And elephants? Mammoth bones have been dated to as recently as 3,700 years ago, which puts them squarely in the middle of the Jaredite timeline. The Jaredites were the only ones who ever mentioned elephants being in the Americas, and even that was early on in their record. There’s no mention of them in Nephite times. The Columbian mammoth was not hairy like the woolly mammoth was, and lived as far south as Costa Rica. It certainly resembled the modern elephant we’re all familiar with today. Gomphotheres were known to inhabit South/Central America, while the American Mastodon inhabited North America, from Alaska down to about central Mexico. Extinction dates puts them past the close of the Pleistocene Era, about 9,000 years ago, and small pockets of them supposedly survived even longer than that. Each of those resembled a small elephant, as well. There are numerous legends of native tribes encountering elephant-like creatures, too, some dating to approximately 3,000 years ago, roughly 1000 BC, which would have put them squarely in Jaredite times.
- Cattle and oxen? The text doesn’t detail what their herds and flocks consisted of, so it’s entirely possible that some of these animals were brought over with the Jaredites. It’s also entirely possible that they weren’t. I mentioned instances above where bison, deer, and antelopes were referred to as cows and oxen. The American bison had a range as far south as Nicaragua. The shrub ox and southern woodland muskox were both native to the Americas, and while they’re both extinct now, they may not have been fully gone during the time period in question. Domesticated cattle and horse bones from an extinct species (Equus conversidens) have been found in caves in the Yucatan Peninsula alongside human artifacts dating from well before the time of Columbus. It’s possible we just haven’t discovered enough fossils yet to be able to say that there were definitely cattle in Mexico. Another odd possibility is that the Spanish also noted that natives kept herds of domesticated deer that were kept in pens and milked like cattle. The natives would make cheese out of deer milk. The Spanish reported being able to slaughter them wholesale even in the wild, because they weren’t afraid of humans and would run up to greet them. So, several possibilities, though this is one where there isn’t a clear answer yet.
- Sheep and goats? Some types of sheep are native to the Americas, in addition to whatever sheep were brought here by the Jaredites. Mountain sheep, for one. They found sheep’s wool in a pre-Columbian burial site in Mexico, and there are petroglyphs depicting sheep all over the southern US and down into Mesoamerica. And, again, even though it might be a stretch, European settlers also described alpacas as sheep.
Those Yucatan caves also held evidence of goats in pre-Columbian Mexico. There are a few types of goat native to the Americas, such as the mountain goat, that are possibilities.
It’s also possible it’s referring to something else, but similar, such as the red brocket deer. This deer has two stubby, short antlers that look like goat horns and they’re of a similar size as goats. They’re also found in Mesoamerica, and Diego de Landa, the man infamous for destroying nearly all written Mayan records while simultaneously creating one of his own, described them as goats:
There are wild goats which the Indians call yuc. They have only two horns like goats and are not as large as deer. … a certain kind of little wild goats, small and very active and of darkish color.
Additionally, Mayans who saw European goats gave them incredible similar names. The brocket deer were called tamazatl in the Nahuatl language, while European goats were referred to as temazate.
There’s also the American Pronghorn, whose scientific name, Antilocapra, means “antelope-goat.”
- And, lastly, horses. I saved this one till the end because it’s such a complicated subject. There’s a lot to talk about with this one. First of all, could it have been another animal that served a similar function to a horse? Yes. They’ve found figurines of alpacas as far north as Costa Rica, and multiple ancient artifacts from Mesoamerica show people riding on deer like you would a horse. There are also petroglyphs showing people riding animals that look like horses, though, despite the fact that horses are never ridden in the Book of Mormon. They seemed primarily to be used as a food source or to pull/carry things, which may suggest that they were they smaller than European horses, more like the extinct pre-Columbian horses we have numerous fossils of.
To me, though, the more likely answer is that yes, horses were already here before the Spanish arrived. There are numerous horse bones that have been dated to the right time period in North America, though they’ve been discarded as contamination by most of the paleontological community thus far. One fossil was dated to ~500 BC, shortly after Nephi and his family arrived in the New World. Paleontologists are starting to shift their opinions to support this burgeoning information as more and more of it comes to light. This paper goes through various theories and evidences, and it was an interesting read, in my opinion.
My favorite work in this area, though, was done by Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin for her PhD dissertation. She’s a Native American, and she goes through all of the evidence that Native Americans were in fact extremely familiar with horses before the Europeans ever arrived. They were a large part of their culture from the beginning. If you don’t want to read the entire paper, this article gives a good overview of her research and findings. It’s fascinating stuff to me, and it represents a solid theory worth considering.
Anyway, like I said, for a lot of these, calling them anachronisms isn’t accurate. Some, sure, for now, but not the majority of items on that list. The thing is, no one can prove that the Book of Mormon is true. Only the Spirit can convince you of that. But there is certainly evidence, a lot of it and more coming all the time, that supports it being true. That list of anachronisms is growing smaller all the time. Some things that were considered absolutely absurd even a few decades ago are now accepted as fact today. Give it a few more decades, and I expect to see even more items crossed off that list.
Think about this: if Joseph Smith was a fraud, why are his pronouncements being proven more true as time goes on, instead of more false? It usually works the other way around, but not in this case. As time has passed, the wins are now far outnumbering the losses when it comes to supposed anachronisms and absurdities in the Book of Mormon. I haven’t heard anyone give me a convincing argument as to why that’s true, other than that this book genuinely is from God.
Sources in this entry: