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Post-Pleistocene, Pre-Columbian Horses in America



Equus conversidens; a medium to small-sized (just slightly larger than a Welsh Pony) extinct horse from America1

 

Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: April 15-21; Enos-Words of Mormon


We read in Enos 1:21, “And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses.”


In a previous post, published on my website (trentdeestephens.com) 2 February 2024, entitled “The Promised Land,” subheading, “Cows and Horses,” I stated, “Is it possible that in the reformed Egyptian, Nephi wrote a list in 1 Nephi 18:25 of some animals they encountered in the New World? Is it possible that whatever Joseph saw in the ‘interpreters,’ he already knew what animals lived here on the American continent — so why ask if the list in his mind was correct? Is it possible that Joseph was not aware that the animals he took for granted as being indigenous to the Americas were not here until after the Spaniards brought them in the sixteenth century? Perhaps Joseph listed the ‘cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat’ because he was not aware that those animals were not indigenous to the Americas — except the ‘wild goat’ whose range is confined to the Rocky Mountains of the US and Canada, and which neither Nephi nor Joseph Smith probably ever encountered.”


I also presented the explanation posted on the Church’s website stating that, “Some accounts indicate Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the interpreters or the seer stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”2


After that post, I received feedback from some of my friends, most importantly, my wife, Kathleen, stating that they preferred the explanation that Joseph was reading word for word from the seer stone. Therefore, when I encountered the reference to horses again in Enos 1:21, I started an entirely new enquiry into the basis of that scripture. I pray every day for guidance in writing my blogs, but this week I have prayed extra fervently for guidance in writing this essay.


I began anew by typing in a Google search for “horses Book of Mormon.” One of the citations, which I had not previously encountered, was to a paper presented at a FAIR conference in 2018 by Wade Miller, an Emeritus Professor of Geology at BYU (who passed away just last July 4, 2023, at age 90). Wade’s slides from his presentation are included in the copy of his talk on the FAIR website. He stated, “…most scholars continue to believe that horses became extinct at the end of the…Pleistocene epic...in the last several years, I’ve noted that there’s a change. I’ve worked with fossils now for several decades back to the 1960s and I’ve got a lot of friends who are paleontologists, a number of whom have worked on horses and more and more, beginning to realize that, ‘Yeah, certainly it’s possible that they did survive beyond the ice age or the Pleistocene.’” 3 He stated, “…I’ve done a lot of study in Mexico, in this area with this horse called Dinohippus. We’ve got one that we can’t tell if it’s Dinohippus or Equus and so felt not only by us, but other researchers that this was the ancestor, the genus ancestor of Equus, and it seems like this happened in Mexico…At least that’s where we have the first evidence.”4


Miller then quoted Craig Downer, an ecologist, environmentalist, and activist for preserving wild horses, burros and Tapirs, “I realize that there is considerable debate among Mormons and ex Mormons about whether the horse was or was not present during the time period covered by the Book of Mormon…I believe that horses never went totally extinct in North, Central and South America.”5


Miller showed a table apparently constructed in 2011 by Downer, and possibly Steven Jones. The table listed fourteen horse “fossils” discovered at Shield Trap, Carbon County, Montana, primarily Carbon 14 dated from bone collagen, and currently housed at the Illinois State Museum, Springfield; dating from 1270 to 9230 years before present;6 that is from 7206 BC to 754 AD — considerably after the apparent Pleistocene extinction around 12,000 BC and considerably before the introduction of horses in America by the Spaniards around 1519. There was no citation for the material at the Illinois State Museum having been published, so I Googled horse and the Shield Trap site in Montana, and an obscure book chapter came up: Analogues and site context: bone damages from Shield Trap Cave (24CB91), Carbon County, Montana, USA, by James S. Oliver, of the Illinois State Museum, In, Bone Modification, R. Bonnichsen and M.H. Sorg, editors, 1989.7


The strata in the Shield Trap Cave was Carbon 14 dated from bison bones to 12,750 ± to 5480 ± 75 years before present (his Table 2), that is, dated to around 3456 BC to 754 AD. The same strata also yielded 34 horse specimens, representing at least two separate individuals (Equus caballus; Table 3; Equus ferus caballus is the “modern, domesticated” horse).8 According to the Downer table, those specimens from the cave, now in the Illinois State Museum, were also radiocarbon dated to the same time period. In my opinion, these findings leave no doubt that there were horses in what is now Montana during Book of Mormon times.


Oliver went into detail of one horse radius with “two temporally distinct fracture events (Figure 15)…The incomplete nature of the two horse skeletons and the sun-bleached color of the bones…suggest that this animal died on the ridge-top and was later deposited in the trap.” The Shield Trap Cave is a 14 m-deep, bell-shaped, natural animal pit cave in a Madison Limestone Formation, with a surface opening where animals either fall in or were washed in by heavy rain water, “during the last 5,500 years,” and then were trapped in the bottom, unable to escape, even if they were alive at the time they fell in.9 Oliver also stated, “Mapped charcoal suggest that fires swept this ridge during the mid-Holocene [around 5850 years ago]. Burning of the shrubs and trees apparently reduced the ground cover and permitted an increase in erosion and transport of ridge-top sediments into the trap.”10 A lot of bison and other animals, including horses, fell into the trap between 3456 BC and 754 AD.


In 2022, Wade Miller and colleagues from Mexico and Arizona published a paper on an excavation site in Rancho Carabanchel, México. They discovered 26 horse bones or bone fragments in layers ranging from the surface to 4.9 meters below the surface (their Table 1). Of those 26 specimens, 4 at the surface were from modern horse species (Equus caballus) and modern times (80 ± 30 to 350 ± 30 years ago). Another 6 were not found associated with datable material, and were, therefore, excluded from their data set. The remaining 16 specimens formed an assemblage from 0.7 meters to 4.9 meters below the surface, and ranging from 930 ± 30 to 41,000 ± 1,300 years ago. There was a gap of 580 years between the oldest surface specimens and the youngest sub-surface specimens (the gap was from 1094 to 1674 AD). There was another time gap of 717 years between the youngest sub-surface specimen (930 ± 30 years ago; 1094 AD) and the next youngest sub-surface specimen (1647 ± 57 years ago; 377 AD). Then there was a range of 1663 years (1647 ± 57 to 3310 ± 30 years ago; 377 AD to 1286 BC) into which several of the specimens fell. There also were significant gaps in the lower strata of the site between specimens, ranging from 6880 years to 15,170 years. Those gaps also exhibited major geological changes within the strata. The bone specimens were from Equus species, Equus mexicanus, and Equus conversidens.11 The latter two being extinct horse species. The latter of those being slightly larger than a Welsh Pony and the former being nearly the size of a full-sized modern horse. 

 

Unfortunately, the bones, although not fossilized, did not contain enough organic material (collagen) to be directly radiocarbon dated. Therefore, organic material (mostly charcoal) in the same layers was used for Carbon 14 dating. Those are the dates given above. Because carbonic acid, bought in by rainwater, can percolate down into the soil and contaminate charcoal with younger Carbon 14 from the surface than existed in the original wood samples, such samples are less ideal than would be radiocarbon dating from the bones themselves.12 However, if such contamination created a 10% error in the Carbon 14 age determination, then the 377 AD to 1286 BC age range for the central part of the assemblage would change to 340 AD to 1157 BC, still bracketing Book of Mormon history. Furthermore, the stratigraphy of the deposit suggests a uniform deposit over a very long time range. Miller et al. did point out that, “The seven samples from Units II and III [1094 AD to 1286 BC] imply a fairly consistent series of dates in stratigraphic order except for the sample AA-111334 (Table 1Fig. 3; 1647 YBP [; 377 AD]) that appears to be out of stratigraphic order by two to three hundred years.”13 That specimen may be out of sequence because of contamination or some ground disturbance, such as an earthquake, at some time after its deposition.

 

Miller et al. concluded, “For more than a century most paleontologists, biologists, and archaeologists have contended that Equus became extinct on the North American continent by about 13,000 [years ago]…or even roughly 8,000 [years ago]…Many authors, however, do not attempt to list a Last Appearance Date in years for Equus in North America, but only indicate that they became extinct at the conclusion of the Pleistocene Epoch…~12,000 years ago. A small contingent of researchers has held the opinion that Equus survived well beyond the close of the Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) in North America. Our paleontological project that focused on horses from RC [Rancho Carabanchel] became chronologically interesting to us in having Equus radiometrically dating well into the Holocene so our approach was to conduct successive radiocarbon dates tied as closely as possible to fossil remains and to stratigraphic units (Table 1; Fig. 3)…The remains of Equus that we recovered from RC…imply that horses may have persisted in this region of México well after the classical late Pleistocene extinction time…our data…appear to be adding to a growing set of data that the late Pleistocene extinction was more a process (over many thousands of years) rather than the typically-accepted and presumed extinction event.”14  

 

For nearly 196 years, almost from the time when the Book of Mormon was first published in March 1830, believers have been looking for the horses mentioned several times in its pages. For almost as long, detractors have been pointing to the lack of horse remains in the Americas between the end of the Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago, and the time when modern horses were introduced in around 1519 by the Spaniards, as some of the most vital evidence against the historicity of the Book. Now, two scientific investigations have discovered the remains of horses dating from 3456 BC to 754 AD in Montana and 1286 BC to 377 AD in Mexico — bracketing Book of Mormon times — one of those studies, although published in 1989, has remained so obscure that it has hardly seen the light of day until now.

 

Belief in the Book of Mormon does not depend upon scientific evidence such as the discovery of horse remains in Montana and Mexico, but, rather, is based on the formula given in Moroni 10:4. None-the-less, such scientific evidence removes arguments made by detractors, some of whom have left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allegedly because of the lack of historicity in the Book of Mormon.        

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

References

 

1.     this file is licensed under the Creative Commons; Attribution: 3.0 Unported license

2.     churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng; retrieved 28 January 2024; Ref. 26 states, “See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii”

4.     Ibid

5.     Ibid

6.     Ibid

7.     Oliver, James S., Analogues and site context: bone damages from Shield Trap Cave (24CB91), Carbon County, Montana, USA, by James S. Oliver, In, R. Bonnichsen and M.H. Sorg, editors, Bone Modification, , Center for the Study of the First Americans, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, 1989 researchgate.net/publication/283644595_Oliver_JS_1989_Analogues_and_site_context_bone_damages_from_Shield_Trap_Cave_24CB91_Carbon_County_Montana_USA_In_Eds_ME_pp_73-98

8.     Ibid

9.     Ibid

10.  Ibid

11.  Miller, Wade, et al., Post-Pleistocene Horses (Equus) from México, The Texas Journal of Science 74 (1): Article 5, 2022

12.  Aitken, M.J., Science-based Dating in Archaeology, Longman, London, 1990; having to use other material in dating bones is a common challenge when dealing with ancient animal remains; see O’Connor, Terry, The Archaeology of Animal Bones, Sutton Publishing, Thrupp, UK, 2000, pp 23–24

13.  Ibid

14.  Miller et al., 2022

 

 

 

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