The Results of the Translation Process

             So did the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon have horses as readers of today think of horses—the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus)? A legitimate individual response to that question is likely the following: “I don’t know—but I don’t think they did.” At that point, readers are pursuing an exercise in futility if they attempt to prove that the Nephites and Lamanites did indeed have horses as perceived by people of the twenty-first century. In that respect, the word horse in situations two, three, four, and five described earlier probably occurred as an outgrowth of the translation process. That is, Joseph looked at the symbols on the golden plates as a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions; and the connotation of the symbols in these instances suggested the word horse to him. As soon as readers divorce themselves from the thinking that an angel stood over Joseph and whispered horse into his ear, that conjecture becomes very plausible. What evidence is available in support of this rationale?

             In answering that question, readers should go to the Book of Mormon and analyze the context of situations two, three, four, and five.

             Situation two (1 Nephi 18:25; Enos 1:21). Situation two, as described earlier, involves 1 Nephi 18:25 in which the Nephites left the land of first inheritance and journeyed through the wilderness where they found beasts of every kind, including the horse. Then, Enos 1:21 reports the Nephites’ domestication of animals in the New World, including the horse.

             At this point, Nephi and Enos merely note the presence of and domestication of the horse and other mammals. In connection with the horse, the record is noticeably silent about its uses by the Nephites. What is not included about horses at this point may be more significant than what is included.25 That is, early in the history of the Nephites, the record itself says nothing about the horse as a beast of burden to carry riders, function as a draft animal for help in tilling the land, capitalize on for military purposes, or use in connection with the pulling of carts or wagons. Knowledgeable Book of Mormon readers should readily recognize, for example, the extent to which Captain Moroni in the first century BC would have utilized horses if he had had them during his military campaigns in the east wilderness and elsewhere. That Moroni did not have horses for his first-century military campaigns should be proof enough by itself that the Nephites did not have horses as they are known today.

             The situation two scriptures clearly are instances in which Joseph Smith may have translated the symbols on the plates by using the word horse as a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions. In the process, he apparently translated the symbols he was working with in these instances as horse, which is probably what the symbols seemed to suggest. At the same time, he said nothing in these instances about what the Nephites were doing with the horses. That is, he did not paint word pictures of the Nephites’ use of horses to carry riders, till the land, or pull things. Thus, what is not included may be more significant than what is included.

             Situation three (Alma 18:9, 10, 12 and 20:6). Several hundred years later, situation three involves the account of Ammon when he was serving Lamoni, a Lamanite king living in the land of Ishmael. The primary use of the word horse at this time deals with the preparation of Lamoni’s “horses and chariots” so he and his servants could be “conducted” to the land of Nephi.

             Before the account deals with Lamoni’s horses and chariots, it tells about the watering of Lamoni’s “flocks” at the waters of Sebus. Ammon becomes involved in defending Lamoni’s flocks and servants against marauding Lamanites, and he also helps in watering the flocks. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives one definition of flock as follows:

A company or collection; applied to sheep and other small animals. A flock of sheep answers to a herd of larger cattle. But the word may sometimes perhaps be applied to larger beasts, and in the plural, flocks may include all kinds of domesticated animals.26
             Thus, Joseph Smith’s translating at this point reflects the watering of flocks—with the potential connotation that Lamoni’s “flocks” may have included more than one kind of domesticated animals. Immediately thereafter, in Alma 18:9, Joseph’s translating reflects the feeding of “horses,” probably as a second stage in the care of Lamoni’s “flocks.” From a translation perspective, the question here is whether Ammon was feeding “flocks” or horses.

             As Royal Skousen points out as a result of his analysis of Oliver Cowdery’s “original manuscript,” written from Joseph Smith’s dictation, with Oliver’s copy of the original manuscript, known as the “printer’s manuscript,” “the original manuscript was written from dictation,” and “Joseph Smith was working with at least twenty to thirty words at a time.”27 Working with that many words at a time could explain why Joseph used the word horses rather than flocks in the first part of Alma 18:9 in which Ammon is pictured as feeding the horses of king Lamoni—because immediately thereafter, in the second part of the same verse, the servants were directed to prepare the king’s “horses and chariots” to “conduct him forth to the land of Nephi.” From the viewpoint of Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions, he easily could have anticipated the complete content of verse nine by dictating “horses” in the first part of Alma 18:9 in anticipation of the forthcoming journey involving “horses and chariots.”

            An analysis of what is meant by “horses and chariots” is even more intriguing. Clearly, as a reflection of Joseph Smith’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions, the account reads “horses and chariots.” Let’s assume that archaeological evidence is indeed correct in pointing out that the people of the New World around 90 BC did not have horses and did not make use of the wheel in the form of “chariots.” What do the words horses and chariots refer to in connection with Joseph’s translating?

            A careful reading of the verses in situation three suggests the possibility that the “chariots” were litters and the “horses” were servants or slaves functioning as litter bearers. Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives one definition of litter as follows: “A vehicle formed with shafts supporting a bed between them, in which a person may be borne by men or by a horse.”28

            Such reasoning could conceivably support the situation. Litters and litter bearers are commonly associated with royalty. In this case, king Lamoni and his royal entourage could have been the intended riders in the litters (chariots) with his servants or slaves laboring as litter bearers (horses). The connotations between horses/litter bearers and chariots/litters are clearly evident and seem to explain and support archaeological and historical claims that horses and chariots did not exist in the New World about 90 BC.

            In that respect, Frans Blom, in his epic historical book about the Maya, The Conquest of Yucatan, shows a drawing containing the detail from a clay vase located in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The drawing, which was based on the image below, depicts a Maya chieftain being carried in a litter by litter bearers.29 Similar pictures of litters and litter bearers have been found in other Mesoamerican instances, and most Mesoamericanists are well aware of the use of litters and litter bearers (probably slaves) among New World cultures.30

            Readers will find two casual hints in the Book of Mormon suggesting that the Nephites and Lamanites used such litters and litter bearers.

            The first instance is connected with the account alluded to previously in which Ammon embarked on his missionary endeavors among the Lamanites in the land of Ishmael. “And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king. . . . And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael” (Alma 17:20–21; emphasis added).

            The wording is descriptive of what probably happened. The Lamanites did not march Ammon before the king or put him on a horse so he could ride into the king’s presence. Rather, the Lamanites carried Ammon to the king—probably in a litter for which they were the litter bearers.

            The second instance is connected to Mormon as a youth when, in the book of Mormon, he talks about events that occurred early in his life: “And I, Mormon, being a descendant of Nephi, (and my father’s name was Mormon) I remembered the things which Ammaron commanded me. And it came to pass that I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla” (Mormon 1:5–6; emphasis added).

            The language of “carried by my father” is intriguing. Obviously, Mormon did not walk to the land of Zarahemla with his father, nor did Mormon ride to Zarahemla on a horse. As an eleven-year-old boy, was he carried in the arms of his father or on the back of his father? The answer is simple when readers consult the historical record of Mesoamerica and when they understand the custom of using litters (“chariots”?) and litter bearers (“horses”?) among the Nephites and Lamanites.

            In both the Ammon and the Mormon incidents, Joseph Smith clearly reflects the descriptive language of Mormon in reporting what happened. Joseph did not make a critical blunder by writing that Ammon and Mormon rode on horses. Rather, he translated the record by using the descriptive verb carried to describe what happened. Here’s another instance in which what is not included about horses may be more significant than what is included.

            Finally, according to the historical record of Mesoamerica, the Maya used human beings as “beasts of burden” out of necessity—because the Maya had no animals “large enough to carry cargo.”31 One reflection of that fact of the historical record is associated with the account in Mosiah when the Nephite people of Limhi lived near the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. At one point, the king of the Lamanites swore an oath that the Lamanites would not slay the Nephites. However:

            And it came to pass that after many days the Lamanites began again to be stirred up in anger against the Nephites, and they began to come into the borders of the land round about.

            Now they durst not slay them, because of the oath which their king had made unto Limhi; but they would smite them on their cheeks, and exercise authority over them; and began to put heavy burdens upon their backs, and drive them as they would a dumb ass. (Mosiah 21:2–3; emphasis added)

            Thus, both the historical record of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon record support the use of humans as “beasts of burden.” In both instances, these beasts of burden were not members of the ruling class. In both instances, in fact, the “beasts of burden” were often slaves—a reprehensible practice necessitated by the lack of horses or equivalent animals as beasts of burden. In that respect, King Benjamin would not permit his people to “make slaves of one another” (see Mosiah 2:13). Further, King Limhi and his people in the land of Nephi were willing to be slaves to the Nephites, “for it is better that we be slaves to the Nephites than to pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites” (see Mosiah 7:15; see also Alma 27:8–9 and 3 Nephi 3:7).

            In summary, the “beasts of burden” of the Nephites and Lamanites (the “horses” as a reflection of situation three) were their own people—especially lower-class people, including servants and slaves. In that respect, Frans Blom, in describing a typical market place of a Maya city, says, “Then they had also a slave market, where one could buy human beasts of burden, for one did not know of other beasts of burden than man at that time.”32 In a similar vein, the expression “worked like a horse” can be associated with individuals today functioning as human “beasts of burden.”

            Even today in some areas of Mesoamerica, such as the highlands of Guatemala or the Chiapas mountains, the people routinely carry heavy burdens on their backs—in spite of the theoretical thinking that they could use horses. They do not use horses but rather use humans as “beasts of burden” because horses are too expensive to feed and because adequate foraging is not available during the dry season. In these areas, if they were to raise horses, they would use them as a means of obtaining cash by selling them—just as they commonly do with pigs. The native Maya farmers in these areas do not raise pigs for their own eating purposes but rather raise them to sell as a “cash crop.”

            Situation four (3 Nephi 3:22, 4:4, 6:1). In situation four, Mormon describes the gathering of the Nephites and their provisions in Bountiful and Zarahemla as a defense against the Lamanites. Once again, what is not included about horses in this account may be more significant than what is included. That is, Mormon does not use the word horses in reference to the people’s riding them, using them to help fight battles, or employing them to pull carts or wagons to haul their provisions.

            The 3 Nephi 3:22 reference to horses and chariots could easily have reference to litters and litter bearers as discussed above under situation three. Or the symbols Joseph translated here could be the same symbols representing the same words but with different noun uses. For instance, Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary points out that the word dog refers to “A species of quadrupeds, belonging to the genus Canis” as well as to “A term of reproach or contempt given to a man.”33

            Moreover, a careful reading of the verses in situation four shows that the “horses” may have been part of the food supply the people intended to survive on while being isolated as a body in the geographic regions of Bountiful and Zarahemla. That is, the Nephites had “reserved for themselves provisions, and horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years, in the which time they did hope to destroy the robbers from off the face of the land” (3 Nephi 4:4).

            Once again, both students and scholars might be tempted to challenge Joseph’s translation of the symbols in 3 Nephi when he dictated the word horses to Oliver. Clearly, no reference is made in these verses to suggest what “horses” were or for what they were used. Reflected once again in the 3 Nephi verses is the possibility that Joseph was influenced by his vocabulary, environment, or perceptions. Nowhere in the 3 Nephi verses (or in any of the verses alluded to in situations two, three, four, or five) does Joseph reflect Noah Webster’s descriptive comment about horses in 1828: “The horse is a beautiful animal, and of great use for draught or conveyance on his back.”34

            Situation five (Ether 9:19). The reference to “horses” in Ether 9:19 is much different from references to horses in other parts of the Book of Mormon. The book of Ether deals with the Jaredites, and the reference could reflect a time period as early as 2500 BC. In the book of Ether, Joseph Smith is translating Moroni’s translation—in other words, a translation of a translation. Who knows what might have happened under those circumstances? The translation of a translation might have something to do with the mammals mentioned in this verse: horses, asses, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms. On the other hand, the translations could be entirely correct and go beyond Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.

            Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim in translating Ether 9:19? Some critics laugh openly at the possibility by pointing to the absence of horses, asses, and elephants in historical times or by ridiculing Joseph Smith for using the words cureloms and cumoms.

            Radiocarbon dating does not yet support the presence of such mammals in the New World during the Jaredite time period. However, refinements in radiocarbon dating may eventually bring the mammals and the Jaredites into the same time period. That such mammals as horses, asses, elephants, “cureloms,” “and cumoms” lived in the New World and could have existed among the Jaredite people is evidenced by such archaeologically associated comments as the following:

Certain finds tend to back up the “long chronology” for human entry into the hemisphere. At Valsequillo, near Puebla in southern Mexico, Cynthia Irwin-Williams found cultural remains associated with an extinct fauna which included mammoth, mastodon, horse, antelope, dire wolf, and small mammals. . . .The New World must have been an untouched paradise for the first hunting people. Extensive herds of large grazing animals such as mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and giant bison roamed through both subcontinents.35
Jeff Lindsay, in responding to one of his critics who disagreed with Lindsay’s comments about horses in the Book of Mormon, says:
           The Bible is true, we agree, but you may be surprised that many non-believers have ridiculed it for the same apparent problem that you think the Book of Mormon has. The King James Version, for example, mentions dragons, . . . unicorns, . . . fiery flying serpents, . . . and other strange creatures. Those who defend the Bible against the critics are quick to point out the difficulty of understanding and translating various terms for animals (especially for extinct or unfamiliar species) and indicate how it is unclear in many cases what actual creature is referred to. . . .

            It is easy to assume that a translated reference to a deer, horse, camel, or serpent was derived from a word that actually was intended to convey the species we think of, but it’s simply incorrect to say that what we picture is always what the original writer meant. What did the writer mean by the terms translated as unicorn, dragon, leviathan, satyr, or flying serpent? . . .

            Translation of ancient languages, as well as proper interpretation of details in even the most accurate translations, is a challenging task. Don’t expect assumptions based on your experiences as a [twenty-first] century North American to be reliable for accurately understanding a translated text from an ancient and very different culture. . . .

            Understanding what an ancient text actually meant to the writers may require dropping some easy assumptions based on our cultural and zoological experiences. Doing so is not unscientific—it’s demanded by the scientific process. We must beware the danger of clinging to the apparent “plain meaning of the text” without careful efforts to discern that meaning. To do otherwise is to ride the unicorn of foolishness into a dragon’s lair, so to speak.36

            As noted earlier, situation five involving Ether 9:19 reflects a translation of a translation because Moroni translated the multiple-symbol Jaredite words in the verse from the Jaredite record and Joseph Smith then translated Moroni’s multiple-symbol reformed Egyptian words—resulting in the words horses, asses, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms.

            Horses, asses, and elephants are in one category of animals, but cureloms and cumoms are in an altogether different and strange category of animal names. From what were probably multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in the Jaredite record, Moroni first had to figure out how to write phonetically the names of the animals as multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in reformed Egyptian. The process seems comparable to the game of “gossip” in which a message becomes slightly distorted each time it passes verbally from one player to the next. In transferring the phonetic multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words from the Jaredite language to the Nephite language and then writing the resultant phonetic multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in reformed Egyptian, Moroni could easily have written reformed Egyptian phonetic words that Joseph spelled out “c-u-r-e-l-o-m-s” and “c-u-m-o-m-s” either via his own translation expertise (Skousen’s “loose control”) or via the Urim and Thummim (Skousen’s “iron-clad control”).