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  • Writer's picturestephenstrent7

Sheep and Goats in Pre-Columbian America


Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: June 10-16; Alma 5-7


We read in Alma 5:59-60, “For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him. And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.” Sheep also are mentioned several other times in the Book of Mormon: cf. 1 Nephi 22:25; Mosiah 14:7; 3 Nephi 15:17-34; 3 Nephi 16:1-3. In order for these references to make sense to the Nephites, it seems that they must have known something about herding sheep. But how did they know about sheep?

 

The story told in the book of Ether suggests that the Jaredites brought sheep with them on their barges. We are told in Ether 6:4, “And it came to pass that when they had prepared all manner of food, that thereby they might subsist upon the water, and also food for their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them—and it came to pass that when they had done all these things they got aboard of their vessels or barges, and set forth into the sea, commending themselves unto the Lord their God.” We also read in Ether 9:18, “And also 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.”

 

Although Nephi mentions finding goats and wild goats in the New World, he did not mention sheep. We are told in 1 Nephi 18:25, “And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, 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. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.” There is an implication that when the people of King Benjamin gathered to hear him speak, they had sheep and/or goats with them. We read in Mosiah 2:3, “And they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses…”

 

However, I can find no paleontological or anthropological evidence of pre-Columbian domestic sheep (Ovis aries) or goats (Capra hircus) in the Americas. It is possible that the terms “sheep,” “goats,” and “flocks” may have referred to some other animal/animals, or that Joseph Smith mis-interpreted some Reformed Egyptian word/words. To me, such possibly spurious words in the Book of Mormon do not negate the validity of the other 99.9% of the book. None-the-less, let’s look at what sheep and goats exited in the pre-Columbian Americas. The maps at the beginning of this essay show the extant distribution of Bighorn Sheep and Rocky Mountain Goats. The historic range for Bighorn Sheep was broader over the west, but neither extended much farther east than the western parts of North and South Dekota.3 

 

In a letter to the French naturalist Bernard Lacépède in July of 1808, Thomas Jefferson said that William Clark had recently dug up some fossilized Bighorn Sheep bones at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, he said he was sending to Lacépède the horns of an animal “called by the natives the Mountain ram, resembling the sheep by his head but more nearly the deer in his other parts.”4 Fossil Bighorn Sheep have been found in the animal’s extant range, such as Nevada.5


Before the mid to late 1800’s, Bighorn Sheep lived “…all over the Great Plains and deserts from Nebraska to California. Indiscriminate hunting and lack of immune response to domestic sheep diseases brought the wild herds down from millions to only a few thousand by 1900. Many thousands of wild sheep died as the result of pneumonia and scabies infestation when domestic sheep were brought into the West in the mid to late 1800’s. They had virtually no resistance to these Asian and European diseases.”6 


Bighorn Sheep horns, made into tools and ritual items, have been discovered in Hopewell mound sites. However, those finds have been attributed to long-distance trade; in the case of obsidian and the Bighorn Sheep horns — coming from the Yellowstone area.7 


Valerius Geist has stated, “It is hard to imagine a wild animal more readily tamed than mountain sheep.”8 I have found no other references to “domestication” of Bighorn Sheep.

If we equate Bighorn Sheep to the sheep and flocks mentioned in the Book of Mormon, those data (shown in the map at the beginning of this essay) would suggest a setting for the Book of Mormon somewhere in the western US, northern Mexico, and/or southwest Canada. The map of their distribution shows an unusually high concentration of Bighorn Sheep in the Baja Peninsula.

 

In 2023, Aaron Charlton, who studied “ancient military history and pre-history at BYU as an undergraduate” and later “served as an air defense officer and an infantry officer in the U.S. Army with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan,” wrote, “There are quite a few reasons I personally prefer the Baja Peninsula and Southern California for the Book of Mormon’s setting.” Among many citations Charlton listed, he quoted Alma 22:32, “And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.”9 


The distribution of Bighorn Sheep in Baja supports Charlton’s proposal. However, the distribution of Mountain Goats (see the map at the beginning of this essay) does not support such a Book of Mormon location. Indeed, that distribution would only support a location in the northern Rockies of the Western US, especially Idaho, and southwestern Rockies of Canada — a location not proposed by any Book of Mormon scholar.

 

It is likely that we will never know in this life what the Nephites thought when they were metaphorically referred to as sheep. However, as the Book of Mormon was mainly written for our day, it is easier for us to understand the metaphors.

 

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

References

 

1.     commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bighorn_Sheep_Ovis_canadensis_distribution_map_topo_2.png; The author of the workand the IUCN Red List spatial dataand GLOBE(see above and the Source section), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; see also Bighorn Sheep, Ovis canadensis, International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, iucnredlist.org/species/15735/22146699; retrieved 5 June 2024

2.     The distribution of the Rocky Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus); Wikipedia, as indicated in Shackleton, D. M. [Editor] and the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group. 1997. “Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives.” Status Survey and Action Plan for Caprinae. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK

6.     Mionczynski, John, nativememoryproject.org/animal/bighorn-sheep; retrieved 4 June 2024

7.     Hirst, K. Kris, thoughtco.com/hopewell-culture-north-americas-mound-building-170013; retrieved 4 June 2024

8.     Geist, Valerius, Mountain Sheep: A Study in Behavior and Evolution, University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 41; quoted in Miller, Wade, Animals in the Book of Mormon: Challenges and Perspectives, 2014; interpreterfoundation.org/blog-animals-in-the-book-of-mormon-challenges-and-perspectives; retrieved 4 June 2024

9.      Charlton, Aaron, Geographic context indicates a Baja/So Cal setting for the Book of Mormon’ 2023; aaronbcharlton.medium.com/geographic-context-indicates-a-baja-so-cal-setting-for-the-book-of-mormon-2cefb1a98849; retrieved 6 June 2024

 

 

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