Some evidence for recent Pre-Columbian Horses exists
Steven E. Jones has compiled a list of horse bones and data which suggest the existence of some pre-Columbian horses and his work has been amplified by Craig Downer here. A skeptical view of these findings is presented by a person with some significant archeological training and practice at Archaeological Fantasies in this post.
Book of Mormon Central points to a later fossil (~2540 YBP) discovered and dated by Wade Miller. This find has been published in BYU Studies, but not in a scientific journal, yet.
In addition, Yvette Running Horse Collin has documented oral traditions among several native American tribes indicating pre-Columbian horse use, as well as highlighting archeological and dating research that might point to recent Pre-Columbian horse use. She then points out many areas where additional research is needed to decisively resolve the question (see her 2017 dissertation: The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth). An informal critique of claims that the Native Americans had horse populations before New World contact may be found here.
Taken collectively, these findings suggest the possibility that horses may have existed on the American continent close to or during Book of Mormon times. It is safe to say that the overwhelming scientific consensus remains that horses did not exist in the Americas during this time, but consenses tend to track orthogonal, well-validated data. Only time and additional scrutiny will bring full resolution to this question.
Absence of cultural integration
Even if we grant that wild horses were around a given culture, the use of horses and chariots (or large wheeled vehicles of any kind) in the manner implied by Alma 18 and 20 is undocumented among any pre-Columbian Americans. The fallback apologetic model is that the chariot was more of a human-powered litter and the horses merely accompanied the kingly procession in order to provide food for the journey (there is some support for this in the text). Still, we expect that such a program of domestication (for food or otherwise) would have left marks in a culture’s iconography and dramatically increased the odds that horse remains would be associated with archaeological digs (see, for instance, the cultural evidence left behind as an artifact of Mongolian horse domestication and the kinds of fossil and cultural entanglement that can occur). As it stands, there is no record of horses being domesticated for food by any pre-Columbian American culture of which I am aware.
Tapirs, alpacas, and llamas
Word “loan-shifting” has also been suggested as a way of dealing with the horse problem (so, perhaps “horse” meant tapir). The difficulty here is that tapir are not fully domesticable, so it is difficult to imagine any of these being used as described in the fallback model for Alma 18 and 20. In addition, we have no evidence that these animals were used in that fashion among any pre-Columbian American culture. Alpacas and llamas were used as beasts of burden (and perhaps to some much lesser extent for food?) among some ancient Americans, but it is hard to imagine these not being described as camels instead of horses in the Book of Mormon text (i.e., describing these as “horses” seems silly when a “camel” would have been well-known to Middle Easterners and Joseph Smith).
Travois as the “chariot”?
- The word “chariot” seems to imply carrying a human. It seems like a different word (e.g., “sled”?) would have been used to convey the idea of a travois?
- The word chariot comes from the latin “carrus” which means “wheeled vehicle”. That doesn’t mean that a word might have been mistakenly used in translation, but the point is, again, that chariot also seems to imply “wheel”.
So, a travois fails in both of the ways we think about what a “chariot” means.
First of all, the manner in which the Maya were taming deer seems at least somewhat orthogonal to the BoM account—it was the women who tamed the deer (by letting them suck on their breasts) and they would “carry them through the woods” and raise them “in the woods”. So, we can maybe imagine these deer being used for food, but then less-so as pack animals (which these deer were not).
Regardless, the idea that Joseph would have shifted the concept of deer to horse seems implausible for the following reasons:
- Middle Easterners would have been familiar with both deer and horses, so we can’t pin this on them.
- Joseph Smith would have been familiar with both deer and horses, so we can’t really pin this on him, either.
- Finally, I’m unaware of any loan-shifting (ever) from “deer” to “horse”. We have American Indians which called “horses” “deer”, but that’s because they likely did not have any words for or experience with horses.
Linguistically, then, the most improbable loan shift seems to be from “deer” to “horse”. None of the preconditions are present which would make this a viable solution.
Joseph Smith’s milieu?
The prevailing thought in Joseph Smith’s time was that horses were brought to the Americas by the Europeans. However, the popular book “The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee” published in 1823 interprets horse tracks as potentially ancient. These potentially ancient horse tracks were found:
- In association with human foot prints
- related to some gathering associated with some great calamity (reminiscent of 3 Nephi 4:4)
- along with “wheel carriage” tracks (which calls to mind the episode with horses and chariots in Alma 18 and later).
So, while the book affirms the presupposition that the Europeans introduced horses it frequently presents evidence favoring the existence of pre-Columbian horses, and it does so in ways which parallel the usage of horses in the Book of Mormon. Of course, if these various tracks of ancient appearance could be validated to the right time-frame then they could be used as evidence of a historical Book of Mormon, but as it stands these stories seem to lend greater plausibility to the modern origin model over the historical one.
acknowledgements: /u/JohnH2 offered useful critiques