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.


  1. Very informative article on ancient grains!

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