Searching for Pearls in the Book of Mormon

My family read 4th Nephi the other night, where I noted the brief mention of pearls. Around 200 AD, following the abundant golden era of the Nephites, the people began to forget the Gospel of Jesus Christ and focus instead on materialism. Some were “lifted up in pride” and began wearing “costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls. . . .” This hints at an established pearl harvesting business with extensive trade to bring these marine products into the heart of Nephite society. When I read that, I wondered if pearls were known to be important elements for the wealthy in ancient Mesoamerica.

After a few minutes on Google (that’s all the education anyone needs, right?), I found that pearls were used in ancient Mesoamerica. The Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn V. Foster (Cambridge, Mass.: Oxford University Press US, 2005) tells us that pearls were among the items considered precious enough to be buried with wealthy Mayans (p. 10). When Cortes met Montezuma, the Aztec king was wearing a cloak and sandals that were “sprinkled with pearls and precious stones” (William Hickling Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico, A. and W. Galignani and Co., 1844, p. 47).

Thomas Francis Gordon in The History of Ancient Mexico: From the Foundation of that Empire to Its Destruction by the Spaniards (published by the author, 1832) provides a list of some of the gifts Cortes sent to Charles V, where we see pearls prominently and repeatedly mentioned (p. 342-343).

In fact, it turns out that the many varieties of pearls available in ancient Mexico — as in “all manner of fine pearls” — were of great interest to Cortes and the leaders of Europe. An article at explains:

It is fitting that Mexico’s most successful cultured pearl farm ever should be located in the Sea of Cortez. There in 1533, Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who 13 years earlier had defeated the Aztec nation and claimed Mexico for the Spanish Crown, launched the first of three pearl expeditions–the last, in 1536, led by Cortez himself.

The Spaniard wasn’t looking for the white pearls found by the ton off of Venezuela. Nor was he looking for the pretty pink conch pearls of the Caribbean. He was looking for a unique variety of dark gray pearl-many with purple, green and blue overtones-that he had often seen worn by the natives of Mexico.

Cortez had an inspired hunch that Mexico’s black pearls would add wide diversity to the then rather limited color spectrum of this gem. Most pearls were white, cream or yellow. Mexican pearls often boasted striking eggplant-purple, sky-blue and peacock-green colors in addition to the pewter-grey or jet-black varieties. Cortez gambled that shipments of black pearls would be just as welcome by his royal sponsors as shipments of white pearls.

[new page] Black pearls have never been found in the quantities of white pearls. Nevertheless, for centuries Mexico was a prodigious supplier of this variety. Cortez, the first Westerner to hunt for black pearls with systematic determination, had two species of pearl oyster to choose from: the Pinctada mazatlanica (La Paz black-lipped pearl oyster) and the smaller but more colorful Ptenia sterna (Western Winged rainbow-lipped pearl oyster). Not only were these mollusks plentiful, they prolifically produced pearls, often as many as 14 out of every 100 shucked oysters.

Because of its oyster plentitude, Mexico was known for nearly four centuries as the world’s sole and then later primary source of black pearls-gradually giving way to Tahiti after 1850.

Further north, freshwater pearls were known among ancient Native Americans and many have been found in sites built by the ancient mound builders. See The Mound Builders of Ancient North America by E. Barrie Kavasch, p. 407.

Searching for pearls in ancient Mexico, Google initially led me to the fascinating writings of Zelia Nuttall (Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall, 1857-1933). Zelia was an American archaeologist and anthropologist who studied in Europe, managed to learn Nahuatl, and focused on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts and the Aztecs and their predecessors. She was made wrote several acclaimed scholarly works, became an honorary assistant of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and was named honorary professor of the National Museum of Mexico. Not bad in light of the obsidian ceiling for that age. I’ll have a few things to say about her writings in a subsequent post. Stay tuned, seerstone fans!


Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “Searching for Pearls in the Book of Mormon

  1. I’m sure Joseph Smith just figured this out from reading “The Pearl” in junior high, and added the info to the Book of Mormon on a whim.

  2. Wow– very interesting Jeff!!!
    I can always count on you for new insights and info!

    MarkS– you’re killing me! What a crack u! And undoubtedly, Joseph’s revelations on The Garden of Eden and Adam-ondi-Ahman came after he read “East of Eden”. He must have been one of those big 1800’s Steinbeck followers. 🙂 Steinbeck follower

  3. Hi Tracey,

    While I think you’re just being sarcastistic, you might not know that there is a school of thought out there that JS got his inspirations not from God but from other fiction writers at the time. I wish I could remember who the author was, but there were some fantasy books written at the time of JS’s alleged revelations that have a striking similarity to JS’s revelations. Just something to consider.

  4. @ Anonymous 8:06 AM –

    Nice post and I can’t resist this jab…. “I remember hearing something that someone in the 1800’s wrote that JS took from and the stuff JS wrote sounded a lot like all this stuff that I have no idea how to reference. I don’t even know which stuff JS wrote that sounded a lot like all this other stuff.”

    Time to remove my name….

  5. Yes, Anonymous, I’m very aware.
    And there’s a school of thought that Mormons worship the devil and file down the horns that grow on their heads.
    It wouldn’t be such a problem for me to reach up and file mine down had I not lost my arms during the attempt on my life, when I was offered as a virginal sacrifice on the altar of the temple. Luckily I was able to escape when a little white salamander climbed up and chewed through the cording binding my hands.

  6. Jeff, Is there an apologetic purpose for this post? If so, I don’t get it.

    Apparently documentation of the pearls was passed down, as evidenced by inclusion of the information in those history books published in 1832 and 1844.

    You didn’t actually say it, but the unspoken implication (or at least your critics will likely claim that your implication) is that “Joseph Smith couldn’t have known about the pearls.”

    But you don’t offer enough tidbits to actually come to that conclusion.

    My understanding is that the general history of the conquistadors and Native American Indians was pretty much common knowledge among Caucasian Americans in the 1800’s, as evidenced by a relative fascination with the American Indian.

    The issue about pearls isn’t a “new” discovery. It’s always been known that the conquistadors got (stole) pearls from the natives.

    Or as Brant Gardner might say, it’s just a parallel, not a convergence.

    If I were a dis-believer in the Book of Mormon, my bets would be on Oliver Cowdery as co-author with Joseph, with some sort of collusion with Sidney Rigdon. Oliver and Sidney had the education and exposure to literature and history to get so many things correct.

    But I do believe in the Book of Mormon, and I know that it is what it presents itself to be.

  7. On the subject of horns, Tracy, I once had a person I found while tracting that they understood Mormons had horns. I said, “would you like to fell them?” They said yes, so I pointed to a spot on my head, and they touched the area.

    I asked, “Can you feel anything yet?”


    “Not even a little foolish?”

    Or maybe that’s just what I wish I’d said…

  8. I didn’t say Joseph couldn’t have known about pearls and Native Americans because that’s not what I meant. He could have. He may have known of freshwater pearls found in ancient mounds or may have even heard of Montezuma’s pearls, for all I know. I don’t think he knew anything notable about Mesoamerica and don’t think he had Mesoamerica in mind as he was translating the text (or fabricating it, if you prefer), but whether he knew of Mesoamerica or not, that’s not really the point here for this post.

    The interesting thing is that pearls, in many varieties, used for costly apparel, are indeed a notable element of Mesoamerica, the place where the Book of Mormon best fits. The reference to pearls in 4th Nephi is not necessarily a blunder, just in case anyone was wondering, and has a little depth behind it that I think adds richness and luster to one particular verse.

  9. Silly. Mesoamerica is NOT the best fit for the Book of Mormon.

    The Nephite culture was destroyed. Their "cities, villages and towns" were burned with fire. Morm 5:5

    So why are you looking among stone pyramids? For the tax-deductible expense? [grin]

    A string of pearls were found in Ohio – if this URL to its image works:–%20Antiquities&ID=7559

    The same site shows inlaid pearls in bear canines. Both found among the Hopewell culture which ended 400 A.D.

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