Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Food Plants in the Book of Mormon

As languages evolved, and words used are translated, they can often be misunderstood. This was demonstrated in the previous blog with linen and silk. One food item that can be misunderstood in English is “corn.” Corn is strictly a New World plant. Yet it is mentioned in the Bible. Joseph, son of Jacob who was sold into Egypt by his brothers, was the overseer of gathering and storing “corn” by the Pharaoh (Genesis 41). However, the term “corn” as used here was meant to designate a grain or grains other than New World corn. It is usually assumed that this grain was wheat. So, too much emphasis should not be placed on a specific type of grain, food, or other materials when translations from one language to another are involved.
In Mosiah (9:9) the following seeds are listed: corn, wheat, barley, neas and sheum. The first three might be the same as we know these plants to be now. Corn as a native American grain was apparently cultivated in Mexico by 3000 B.C. from the "teosinte" plant. Wheat being native to the Old World could present a problem.

Field of Domestic Wheat
Smithsonian Institution archaeologists stated that there was no wheat in America before 1492. However, as a very useful grain, it seems more than likely that both Jaredites and Nephites would have brought seeds of true wheat with them. There is a record in addition to the one in the Book of Mormon that mentions wheat in America before Columbus’ time. About 1000 A.D. Leif Ericson led a voyage to eastern North America that he called Vinland, or Vineland, the Good. In a report made of his voyage it is stated, “On his voyage, Leif was cast on the shores of a hitherto unknown land where he found the vine and wheat [emphasis added] in a natural state…”  While it is possible that the “wheat” written here was another grain, the name given was indeed wheat. The wheat mentioned in the Book of Mormon is of course much older. And if wheat was in America before the time of Leif Ericson, it could have been an introduced grain growing here since Book of Mormon time.

Barley, too, can be explained as being in America for millennia even though it is a grain native to the Old World. Despite many archaeological studies, barley was unknown in America until recently. In fact this grain was not thought present here before Columbus and subsequent peoples came to America. It was, however, found at an archaeological site in Arizona in 1983. Since then other findings of Pre-columbian barley have been discovered in America.

Grains of Domestic Barley

Although it appears that “neas” listed in Mosiah (9:9) is still an unidentified food item, probably a grain, “sheum,” another food listed with it has been identified. It was reported that "še’um" (or "sheum") is a grain. This word appears in ancient Akkadian and Assyrian records, and represents a cereal, often barley or a barley-like grain. “Sheum” was a food not known by that name to the world at the time of Joseph Smith. It was only well after he translated the Plates containing the Book of Mormon that archaeological research  uncovered the word “sheum” in old Assyrian texts.

Regarding highly domesticated plants in general, without careful cultivation they usually revert back to a natural state that does not closely resemble the cultivated condition. After many generations of neglect, these types of plants could easily go undetected today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Linen and Silk in the Book of Mormon

Linen and Silk
The Smithsonian Institution and others have declared that linen and silk were not present in the Americas prior to 1492. True linen is derived from flax which is native only to the Old World. Its uses were known in Egypt well before the beginning of Jaredite history. Linen was a common material used for many purposes including the wrapping of mummies. It has been claimed that linen was used by Egyptians dating back to 4000 B.C., and possibly earlier. Examples of this material being used by the Jaredites are found in Ether (10:24), and by the Nephites as found in Alma (1:29). A statement was made that both the Jaredites and Nephites, “…in all probability brought flax seeds with them on their trek to the promised land.”This is a reasonable assumption as seeds of every kind were brought with them to the New World. Although flax is a plant native to the Old World, it has grown well in many places in the Americas. Flax seeds are also useful as a source for linseed oil, another reason for their being transported. Even if flax seeds were never brought to the New World by Book of Mormon peoples, the references to linen by both Jaredites and Nephites can be explained. Today when the term “linen” is used, people commonly are referring to sheets and pillow cases. Yet in most instances these items are actually made from cotton – a native plant in the New World. Obviously some other cloth could have been used when reference was made to “linen.” It should be kept in mind when translating from one language to another, that meanings might not be the same when using a given word.
Silk, too, is another cloth that critics claim could not have been known to Book of Mormon people. But again, these people came from the Old World where this fabric was probably something with which they were familiar. It’s also possible that their “silk” might have been something different than what we regard as silk. “True” silk, known from China since nearly 3000 B.C., is produced from the mulberry silkworm (caterpillar), the larval form of the Bombyx mori moth. It is native to the Old World and apparently not present in the New World. However, a number of different kinds of moths have larvae capable of making cocoons from which silk can then be produced. Many of these are native to the Americas. It is also possible that the “silk” mentioned in the Book of Mormon is another material entirely. Many materials can be considered “silk like.” John L. Sorenson discussed this issue, and stated that fiber from the Ceiba (Kapok) tree of Mesoamerica can be woven into a silk-like material. He also reported that fine fur from the belly of rabbits can also be woven into a cloth which Spanish Conquistadors considered equal in finish and texture to silk. It should, therefore, not cause concern that silk was a fabric used by both Jaredites (Ether 10:24) and Nephites (Alma 4:6). In fact with the mention of “silks” in each of these scriptures, there is a possibility there was more than one type involved.   

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Iron, Steel and Glass in the Book of Mormon

In my first blog relating to criticisms leveled against the Book of Mormon by Smithsonian archaeologists and others, it was indicated that a number of items mentioned in this Book were not in America before     being brought in by Columbus and those that followed him. The Smithsonian statement regarding this was, "Iron, steel, and glass were not used in the New World before 1492 (except for occasional use of unsmelted meteoric iron)."

The above statement was in response to the fact that items made of these materials are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. It has long been accepted, though, that these materials were possessed and had been used by Egyptians and a few other Old World cultures for several thousands of years. Since there was close contact between the Egyptians and the neighboring peoples of the Palestine region for much of this time, it stands to reason that there would have been interactions which included the trading of goods and technologies. Nephi’s bow of steel is something to which many object. But he was in the Old World when this bow was made. It was while Lehi and his party were near the Red Sea when Nephi’s bow of “fine steel” was broken.  

Philistine steel sword from near Jerusalem > 600 B.C.

Iron and steel are of course mentioned a few times when Book of Mormon peoples were in the New World.

Iron, from which steel is produced, is the fourth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Its ores are present in every continent. Therefore, its mention in the Book of Mormon should not be a surprise. The ability to make steel from iron has been known since very ancient times, and in different cultures. A low grade of steel can be produced from molten iron by mixing it with the coals of a fire. After all, steel is the result of combining iron and carbon. It no doubt was independently discovered by accident in ancient cultures. With time refinements would have produced higher grades of steel. Some items of steel, including ones with a surprising degree of hardness on the Rockwell scale, date to at least 1000 B.C. Others of equally ancient date are known from Egypt. The fact that items of iron and steel have not been discovered in America during Book of Mormon times should not be taken as evidence they didn’t exist then. If Mesoamerica were the land of Book of Mormon peoples, the warm, humid conditions there would have long since destroyed any iron and steel. Even in the Middle East, with its very arid conditions, discoveries of ancient iron and steel artifacts are extremely rare. There is certainly no good reason for not believing that the Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites did in fact possess iron and steel.

Egyptian glass beads c. 3100 B.C.

The objection to the mention of glass in the Book of Mormon is in fact a bogus one. In the very few instances where glass is cited, it relates to items in the Old World. Concerning the Jaredites, it is stated in Ether 3:1 that the brother of Jared, “…did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass.” Actually these stones were not turned into glass (as we understand glass), but just had a glassy texture. Also in the Book of Ether, when the Jaredites were preparing vessels to cross the ocean, the Lord said, “For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed to pieces …” (2:23). The assumption could be made that glass is inferred here. But other materials, such as isinglass, a clear, transparent 
 variety of the mineral mica, have also been used as windows. Even so, this event took place in the Old World.The only other reference to glass is found in 2nd Nephi where Isaiah is quoted. “The glasses and fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails.” (Isaiah 3:23; 2nd Nephi 13:23). So nowhere in the Book of Mormon is it indicated that the people produced glass. Nonetheless, there is no reason they could not have done so. 

It is known that the Egyptian people had the ability to manufacture glass since at least 3000 B.C. With close contact between Egypt and neighboring Palestine, peoples in what is now Israel would certainly have known about glass and how to produce it. This technology could have been brought to the New World well before the time of Columbus.