The Book of Mormon makes clear that both Jaredites and Nephites who lived in ancient times on this continent had domestic animals of various kinds. The earlier people, the Jaredites (c. 2000-300 B.C.), are reported to have had
all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cumoms. (Ether 9:18-19)
The Nephites (c. 600 B.C. – 400 A.D.) on the other hand tell us
that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. (1 Nephi 18: 25; cf. Enos 21; Alma 5:59)
It is notable that the Nephites never speak of having or using the elephant; nor are swine spoken of by them except metaphorically (3 Nephi 7:8, “sow”) and in connection with their equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. (3 Nephi 14:6) We do not know what animals are meant by cureloms and cumoms in the Jaredite record. Apparently Moroni, the Nephite commentator, didn’t either, because he seems to have transliterated the words, which course of action was followed also by the prophet Joseph Smith when he translated the Book of Mormon. The dog is mentioned in the Nephite account, but no mention is made of it in the Jaredite record.
It is not necessary for our purposes here to give a detailed account of domestic
animals as used by the Jaredites and Nephites. Suffice it to say that the following representative domesticated animals were used by one or other of these peoples sometime during the period 2000 B. C. 400 A. D.: oxen, cows, sheep, swine, goats, asses, horses, elephants, cureloms, cumoms, and dogs. It would appear that the ancient American peoples used most all of the common domestic animals known among civilized peoples the world over. The use of the elephant by the Jaredites is a little unusual, but let us keep in mind that this large and noble animal is still domesticated in India and some other parts of Asia.
Now, what is the problem raised by the mention of the domestic animals noted
above in the Book of Mormon? The problem is that modern scholars believe that most of
the domestic animals (we except cureloms and cumoms because they are, as yet,
unidentified) mentioned by the Nephite record did not exist in America during historic
times, but were introduced on this continent (the elephants excepted) by Europeans after
the advent of Columbus. That is to say, scientists have not as yet found the material
remains or art representations of domestic animals which our Book of Mormon assumes
were existent during historic periods. For examples of the views taken by recognized
scientific authorities we may turn to the writings of Dr. William Berryman Scott, one of the
foremost scientists in the field of the history of land mammals in the Western Hemisphere.
In relation to swine and oxen he says:
No member of the civets, hyenas, hippopotamuses, true swine,
giraffes, or oxen (as distinguished from bisons) has ever been found in the
There are several existing families . . which have never found their
way to the Americas, such as true swine, . . . true oxen and giraffes.1
Dr. Scott says that “the only members of the ox-tribe which ever reached America
are the various species of bison, which in this country are so generally misnamed
‘buffaloes.’ “2 He admits the presence on this continent of four or five species of sheep
(Ovis), i.e. wild sheep, and the “Rocky Mountain Goat,” which he says is in reality a true
antelope and a late migrant from Asia.3 He obviously does not mean that it came in
historic times. Speaking of wild asses Scott reports that
No native members of the family are now found anywhere in the
Western Hemisphere, but they were abundant in both northern and southern
continents until the end of the Pleistocene.4
As for the horse, in which we are especially interested, Dr. Scott says:
The Pleistocene horses of North America all belonged to the genus
Equus, but the True Horse, in the restricted sense, that is Equus caballus,
has not been found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere….
Though it can hardly be doubted that the horse family passed through
the greater part of its development in North America, yet the immediate
ancestry of all existing species is to be sought in the Old World as the
Pleistocene species of North and South America, all became extinct, leaving
no descendants behind them. In the Pleistocene, every continent except
Australia had its horses and it was only in the Western Hemisphere that they
Dr. Scott, palaeontologist that he is, also admits the presence of true elephants in
North and South America,6 but fossil evidence does not necessarily prove their presence
in historic times. But Scott tells of the finding in 1929 of the skeleton of a mastodont in
Ecuador which had probably been killed by Indians; indeed, they had seemingly roasted
the flesh, making fires within the body-cavity of the large animal. The site, with its painted
pottery, stone implements, and the skeleton, was dated by Dr. Spillman of Quito as being near the time of Christ.7
Students of the Book of Mormon don’t need to account to critics for the mention of
dogs in its text for the very good reason that when the white man explored this continent
after its discovery, he found that every Indian tribe had them. It is estimated that at least
twenty distinct breeds were present in North and South America.8
Inasmuch as scientists have not found many material remains of domestic animals
which are spoken of in the Book of Mormon and which would be expected to exist in
historic times (2000 B.C. – 400 A.D.), one wonders when their prehistoric types met
extinction. In a recent article, Jim J. Hester has provided convenient tables with
radiocarbon dating for the probable time of extinction of many animals, but unfortunately
these tables do not provide data on most of the specific animals in which we are here
interested. He says:
Most herding animals, such as the Columbian mammoth, horse,
camel, and bison, as well as the dire wolf rapidly became extinct about 8,000
years ago. The dates suggest a southward withdrawal from the Great Plains
by the mammoth and a partial contemporaneity of Clovis elephant hunters
[note!] in southern Arizona with Folsom bison hunters on the Plains.9
From what has been said thus far, the student of the Book of Mormon has probably
gathered, at least in part, the nature of the problem involving domestic animals mentioned
in its text. We simply do not have at present much solid scientific evidence to back up
what is said about the existence of such animals in historic times. But let it be emphasized
that the problem is complex, and negative evidence is not necessarily fatal to Book of
Mormon claims. We shall have to wait patiently for the evidence. Truth can always afford
to wait its vindication. And let us keep in mind that archaeologists have not yet excavated
many true Book of Mormon sites. Moreover, who knows what kind of evidence regarding the use of domestic animals may turn up in such places? And who knows what evidence might
turn up if scientists would only “excavate” amongst the huge stores of materials yet
awaiting careful investigation in the musty old storerooms in our great museums in this and
Now, in spite of the paucity of evidence relating to the presence of domestic animals
on the Western Hemisphere during historic times, the fact remains that Book of Mormon
students have some reasons to rejoice over future prospects of scientific investigation in
this field. Not too many years ago few scientists thought that early man on this
hemisphere could really be proved contemporaneous with the horse, mammoth, mastodon
and elephant. But today few scientists would question the association of early man with
these animals. Anyone who will take the trouble to investigate the literature as we have
will be convinced of the fact. Our good friend and colleague on the Improvement Era staff,
Dr. Franklin S. Harris, Jr., has done an effective job of documenting the evidence in his
handy brochure, The Book of Mormon Message and Evidences.10 A. L. Kroeber even goes
so far as to suggest that Indian tribes, when better equipped and organized, may have put
an end to horses, mastodons, camels, and mammoths. In a given terrain they may have
brought this about in a few centuries.11 It has been pointed out by Kirk Bryan that “most
vertebrate paleontologists concede that the now extinct vertebrates may have survived to
within a very short time ago.”12 Dr. Harris cites the zoologist, Ivan T. Sanderson, as
There is a body of evidence both from the mainland of Central
America and even from rock drawings in Haiti itself tending to show that the
horse may have been known to man in the Americas before the coming of
M. F. Ashley Montagu relates some traditions about the mammoth and then says:
There is even a possibility that in certain parts of the country the
mammoth may have lingered on up to as recently as five hundred years ago.
In several conversations with the writer, Professor William Berryman Scott,
the doyen of American paleontologists, has given it as his opinion that, had
the first of the Spanish discoverers of America penetrated into the interior,
it is quite possible that they might have met with the living mammoth.
Another distinguished American paleontologist, whose special interest is the
horse, is, I understand, of the opinion that the horse never became extinct
Studies undertaken by our graduate students of pictographs of horses drawn by
Indians on cliffs in remote areas give some reason to believe that proof may shortly be
forthcoming showing that the horse existed in the United States, if in small numbers,
before the coming of Columbus. But such pictograph material has to be studied with great
caution and conclusions drawn with extreme care. Latter-day Saint scholars, above all,
must not be hasty in drawing conclusions without ample proofs.
As may be surmised, the problem of demonstrating the use of domestic animals
among ancient American peoples is the most difficult scientific problem faced by Book of
Mormon scholars at the present time. But offhand, it seems incredible to believe that
thousands or millions of these civilized peoples would live without the use of ordinary
1 A History of Land Mammals in the Western Hemisphere (Revised Ed.), pp. 128, 302
italics ours. New York. The Macmillan Co., 1937.
2 Ibid., p. 308.
3 Ibid, pp. 309, 312.
4 Ibid., p. 398. By Pleistocene is meant the geological age just prior to our own.
5 Ibid., pp. 403-404.
6 Ibid., pp. 236, 274.
7 Ibid., p. 261.
8 See Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 7, p. 542. 1963.
9 “Late Pleistocene Extinction and Radiocarbon Dating,” American Antiquity, Vol. 26, No.
1 (July, 1960), p. 58.
10 Second Edition, 1961. See discussion and extensive footnotes, pages 87-92. We are
indebted to Dr. Harris for permission to cite his material.
11 Harris, op. cit., p. 89.
12 Science, 93, 507 (May 30, 1941). As quoted by Harris, p. 89.
13 Op. cit., p. 91.
14 As quoted by Harris, op. cit., p. 92