Pre-Columbian Horses in the Americas, Again?

Pre-Columbian Horses in the Americas, Again? July 11, 2019


Little tapir guy
My wife recently took this nighttime photo of a baby tapir in the Peruvian Amazon. Presumably not a Baird’s tapir, which is quite large, this one is probably either a “Tapirus terrestris” (also variously known as a “South American tapir,” “Brazilian tapir,” “maned tapir,” “lowland tapir,” or “Amazonian tapir”) or a “Tapirus kabomani” (also known as the “little black tapir” or “kabomani tapir”).


One of the standard criticisms against the Book of Mormon, and one for which there have been decent responses but no definitive answer, stems from the eight episodes in the book that refer to New World horses before the arrival of Columbus.  These references range, chronologically, from Jaredite times (Ether 9:19) to approximately 20 AD, which falls squarely during the era of the Nephites (3 Nephi 6:1).


The problem, of course, is that the overwhelming consensus view among modern historians, archaeologists, and biologists has held, and continues to hold, that horses in the sense that we understand the term today were brought over to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores, who first arrived in the New World near the end of the fifteenth century AD, long after the destruction of the Nephites and the close of the Book of Mormon.  There have been one or two dissenting voices — notably M.F. Ashley Montagu, “Time, Morphology, and Neoteny in the Evolution of Man,” American Anthropologist 57/1 Part 1 (February 1955) and Yuri Kuchinsky, “Did Native Americans Really Have the Horse Before Columbus?” Science Archaeology — but they haven’t managed to dislodge the majority opinion.


Against that background, and largely accepting the consensus view that horses did not exist in the Americas in 1491, Latter-day Saint writers have commonly argued for one or two options without really settling exclusively on either one of them:


  1.  The Book of Mormon’s horses weren’t actually Equus ferus caballus, horses in the precise modern sense, but some other animal — e.g., perhaps Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) for which the compilers of the Book of Mormon simply used their equivalent of the word horse.  The hypothesis (which is often ignorantly credited to me) has drawn considerable mockery in certain quarters, but parallel examples are easily found in linguistic history and anthropology  — e.g., the Amazonian tapir shown above is known locally by the mixed Spanish and Quechua name sachavaca, which literally means “bush cow” — and it is both a reasonable and a plausible suggestion.
  2. Horses were indeed extinct in the Americas by 1492, when the Europeans arrived.  But they had survived into Jaredite and Nephite times in small geographical pockets.


Late last night, a kind reader whose name I probably shouldn’t cite here, lest he be dragged without his consent into the scorn, hate, and mockery that might well ensue — a nonmember of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, so far as I’m aware, someone whom I have never met — generously called my attention to an extremely interesting article on the topic of Pre-Columbian horses in the Americas:


“Yes world, there were horses in Native culture before the settlers came: Yvette Running Horse Collin’s recent dissertation, historical documents and oral histories present a compelling new story of the horse in the Americas”


I will be very interested to see informed reactions to Dr. Collin’s argument.


As matters currently stand, the article above should be read in conjunction with the information and links provided in “New Evidence for Horses in America,” a short summary published by Book of Mormon Central.


There is, incidentally, more in the works on this subject.  Stay tuned.



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