The Buzz from Sweet Cozumel

This summer my wife’s family had a brief family reunion on a ship that went from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico. Though much of what we saw on land was quite touristy, I loved Cozumel for the diving it provided, including a dramatic drift dive where the current took us past beautiful corals and wildlife, including many large turtles. (Scuba Tony was the service we arranged to use based on my wife’s research and their decent price. Very happy with them.)

I wasn’t the only one who was impressed with their first visit to Cozumel. Exactly 500 years ago in 1517, when Cordoba came to the Yucatan, Cozumel also impressed the invaders. They used the Spanish word “miel” in naming it. “Miel” means honey, which was abundant there and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. I just learned that today in some reading that began with “Honey: Sweet Maya Legacy” by Karen Hursh Graber at, who discusses the ancient Mayan tradition of raising stingless honeybees. Trading honey from these bees was a part of their ancient economy. According to Graber,

When Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba arrived in the Yucatan from Cuba in
1517, he found bee yards with thousands of wooden hives, producing
enough honey to be traded all over Mesoamerica. Honey was of utmost
importance to the culture and economy of the Maya; this is reflected in
the fact that one of the four surviving Maya books, the Madrid Codex, is
devoted to bees and beekeeping.

This is interesting to me, of course, because a common misguided complaint about the Book of Mormon is that its reference to honey is anachronistic because honeybees did not exist in the Americas before the Spaniards came. It’s misguided on several counts, as I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about apparently anachronistic plants and animals in the Book of Mormon (just updated moments ago).

Curious about Graber’s statement, I soon found another useful source that led me back to Cozumel. The source is Marshall H. Saville, “The Discovery of Yucatan in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba,” Geographical Review, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Nov., 1918), pp. 436-448, available at and also at as plain text or as an image/PDF). Saville writes:

Cervantes de Salazar narrates that after leaving Cuba the expedition came into shallow water one night, and “at ten oclock in the morning with great joy they sighted land and came to the weather side of a small island that was called Cozumel on account of the great quantity of honey which was there.” [Cervantes de Salazar, Cronicá de la Nueve España, Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 60, as cited by Saville, p. 445]

For those tempted to reflexively say that Joseph Smith, the inveterate bookworm, could have and or maybe surely would have been aware of Cervantes de Salazar and the history he wrote, Mayan honey and all, Saville has a valuable observation in a footnote on p. 438:

The fact that Francisco Cervantes de Salazar had written a history of New Spain was known, but the whereabouts of the manuscript, if indeed it had been preserved, was unknown until the end of 1911, when it was seen by Mrs. Zelia Nuttall in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Mrs. Nuttall communicated.

Of course that doesn’t matter because the Book of Mormon doesn’t really require honey in the Americas and even if it did, Joseph could also have learned that there was pre-Colombian honey from the great European naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, were Joseph the consummate literati he seems to have become today in the eyes of some critics who try to explain away the miracle of the Book of Mormon as a product of knowledge from Joseph’s day. But Saville’s note on Salazar’s history is an interesting reminder of some of the limitations to knowledge that even avid bookworms faced in the 19th century. Not everything we can access from old sources was available in the 19th century, not even for those near the EIS (the Erie Information Supercanal) and especially not for those holed up in the information desert of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the Book of Mormon translation largely took place, far from libraries and bookstores and circles of elite literati buzzing with the latest data on Arabian Peninsula geography and Mesoamerican fauna.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

27 thoughts on “The Buzz from Sweet Cozumel

  1. So what happened to the Old World bee species supposedly brought to the New World by the Jaredites? Did those bees die out, leaving the Mayans to rely on a different species? I don't see how the presence of this different species of bee validates the historicity of the Book of Ether.

    Regardless of that, I continue to be amazed at LDS apologetics' simplistic understanding of the ways knowledge can circulate in a culture. I mean, c'mon, Jeff—lots of people know about gravity without having read Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In the same way, Joseph might have known about native beekeeping without having read Cronicá de la Nueve España. Knowledge quite routinely diffuses beyond the narrow circle of scholars who get it from original sources.

    — OK

  2. You want intellectual honesty from the critics and haters, yet you yourself are not intellectually honest.
    The hypocrisy, the bias and closed mindedness is astounding. A very good example of the "good ol boys club".

  3. Good ol' boys club, hypocrisy, and closed mindedness, all for sharing a couple miniature thoughts on bees? Thank goodness I wasn't sharing something more interesting.

    OK, when you say Joseph might have naturally known about Native American beekeeping, I should point out that as far as I know, Native Americans in Joseph's area were not noted for a long tradition of bee keeping. What some of them called "the white man's fly," the honeybee, was introduced by Europeans in 1622. Was there an active Iroquois or Mohawk tradition of beekeeping in Joseph's day? Not that I know of, but I am aware of probably relatively recent Native American stories discussing the bee and its mythical origins. But perhaps you mean that Joseph could naturally have been aware of pre-Columbian beekeeping by Native Americans in Mesoamerica, a factoid that could certainly have been useful for a studious fraudster.

    But if he were naturally aware of this, why is it that college graduates with the benefits of modern education and the Internet have repeatedly criticized the Book of Mormon for the "obvious" blunder of implying that honey and the bee were known to ancient Native Americans? If these college grads didn't know it, is it reasonable to expect Joseph to have known that? Our critics put a lot of faith into Joseph's vast knowledge of things many educated moderns don't have a clue about. Arabian issues in the Book of Mormon is a rich source of such examples.

    As for the possibility that Mayan stingless bees might be descended from Old World stingless bees brought over by the Jaredites, I am not aware of information that could support or rule out that hypothesis. We don't know if the Jaredite bees were put on the barges to come to the New World. They may only have been used during their years of journeying in the Old World before the crossing of the sea. But if they were brought over, you should know that it is common for species brought to a new land to die out due to a different climate, different pathogens, different ecosystem and new competitors, etc. Some flourish excessively, but many simply don't stay established even after efforts to keep them going. The Jaredits may have tried to introduce an Old World bee, but they could have perished or the Jaredites might have given up when then found good or even better honey already available from the New World species in Mesoamerica.

    For clues about the relationships between Old World and New World stingless bees, one place to look is the emerging data on the genetics of stingless bee species, though the focus appears to have been on Old World species. For starters (I have not done detailed inquiries here and would appreciate more leads!), see Claus Rasmussen and Sydney A. Cameron, "A molecular phylogeny of the Old World stingless bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Meliponini) and the non-monophyly of the large genus Trigona," Systematic Entomology 23 (2007):26-39.

    The article by Kris Hirst I link to on my LDSFAQ page states that the earliest evidence for New World stingless bees dates back to what I would call early Nephite days, but that may just be referring to fortunate finds of ancient remnants beyond the much old fossil evidence in the New World. Haven't dug into this yet. Leads are welcome!

  4. Wikipedia says the etymology is different: "The name Cozumel was derived from the Mayan "Cuzamil" or "Ah Cuzamil Peten" in full, which means the island of swallows (Spanish: Isla de las Golondrinas)"
    Doesn't mean they didn't have honey (because they obviously did, despite some scholars' earlier ignorance of it), just that the etymology appears to be disputed.

  5. Jeff asks, [W]hy is it that college graduates with the benefits of modern education and the Internet have repeatedly criticized the Book of Mormon for the "obvious" blunder of implying that honey and the bee were known to ancient Native Americans?

    It would be nice, Jeff, if you would actually name and quote these critics. Who are these people? What exactly have they said? Verbatim quotes would be helpful. But in any event the most obvious answer here is that people make mistakes because, well, people make mistakes. Even critics of the Book of Mormon. Imagine that!

    Pointing out that some nameless, unquoted critic of the BoM has made a mistake doesn't really prove much. I could easily dredge up something stupid said by some careless and under-informed apologist and then shoot it down, but what would that prove? Not much. Maybe that I like engaging with the weakest of my opponents.

    Jeff continues, If these college grads didn't know it, is it reasonable to expect Joseph to have known that?

    Yes! Perfectly reasonable. It's not as if we can separate the college educated and the non-college educated into two distinct groups and say that members of the one never know anything that is not also known by the other. That's silly, and you know it.

    More to the point, people's knowledge is highly contextual. It depends as much on their setting as on their formal education. For example, my mother never finished high school, yet she knows more about Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter than my college-educated nephew knows about them, for the simple reason that she's a curious and intelligent woman who lived through their presidential administrations and followed the news of the time. For her, their administrations were a live and engaging issue; for my nephew, not so much. What to her were matters of interest and importance seem to him to be mere historical arcana.

    Joseph lived at a time when the origin, destiny, folkways, etc. of Native Americans were very much a live and engaging issue. It's perfectly reasonable to think that today's college graduate, for whom these issues have long been settled and passe, might know less about them than a non-college grad of Smith's time. To one, the question of Indians and bees was of interest; to the other it's the most boring piece of minutiae imaginable. It's certainly not something that the university curriculum committee is going to insist on him knowing.

    The idea that An ignorant farmboy like Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon is a tired apologetics canard that is, as I keep saying, based on a ridiculously simplistic understanding of how knowledge circulates in a culture.

    — OK

  6. Also, Jeff, keep in mind the inclusion of bees and honey in the BoM exists outside of our knowledge of whether or not they existed anciently. Just because bees were or weren't present in the Americas doesn't prove anything. It's easily explainable that Joseph saw a symbol present in the Bible and used it in the BoM. I'm not sure he was concerned with whether or not they were or weren't present, so he wouldn't have needed to research it. The fact that bees were present could easily be a happy coincidence.

    Now if you found a reference to the term "deseret" describing honey or honeybees in one or several of the known ancient American languages, then you have something to hang your hat on.

  7. Here is the list of administrators over at Catohlic Answers:

    They include a Ph.D., a doctorate, a high school chaplain and other smart stuff.

    Here is what was once posted at Catholic Answers:

    “Another problem: Scientists have demonstrated that honey bees were first brought to the New World by Spanish explorers in the fifteenth century, but the Book of Mormon, in Ether 2:3, claims they were introduced around 2000 B.C.

    The problem was that Joseph Smith wasn’t a naturalist; he didn’t know anything about bees and where and when they might be found. He saw bees in America and threw them in the Book of Mormon as a little local color. He didn’t realize he’d get stung by them. “

    Quaint in that the Book of Mormon never says that honey bees were “introduced [to the Americas] around 2000 B.C.” Also, up until now I had no idea that the pre-Colombian Mayans were skilled at breeding stingless bees to produce honey. If true that’s one more element to support the authenticity of the Book of Mormon by showing the ignorance of some of its critics.

  8. I’m sorry to have to contact you this way, but I don’t know another way. Would you kindly release your claim on Ms. Pool’s web hosts so that we all can get back to the work of preparing for Christmas? I need to order products that have nothing to do with you and her site is shut down. I believe you and she are working through the process of her changing names, but is it really necessary to play hardball this way and add to the Christmas stress of many people who aren’t involved in your dispute?

  9. OK:
    The Book of Mormon doesn't ever say that the Jaredites took the honeybees with them on the barges. It just says that they took them through the valley in the Old World.

    The idea that "An ignorant farmboy like Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon" is… based on a ridiculously simplistic understanding of how knowledge circulates in a culture.
    I think the idea that Joseph Smith COULD have written the Book of Mormon based on circulating knowledge is just as much of an oversimplification.

  10. One bit of "circulating knowledge" I am reminded of was the very common knowledge in Joseph's day that Christ was born in Bethlehem. Who didn't/doesn't know that? Why then, the statement in Alma 7:10 that Christ would be born "at Jerusalem, which is the land of our forefathers?" How foolish could Joseph have been to make such a blunder?

    How many other little details like this have been considered "obvious mistakes" in the BoM text until the passage of time and the efforts of many have revealed that they have merit?

    How many of these "happy coincidences" will it take until critics of the BoM begin to appreciate that it might actually be what it claims to be?

    Now if you found a reference to the term "deseret" describing honey or honeybees in one or several of the known ancient American languages, then you have something to hang your hat on.

    Does the ancient word "NHM" allow us to hang a hat anywhere?

  11. One of these days, you guys will have to come to grips with the Texas sharpshooter fallacy that infects so many of your arguments. You can't demonstrate the Book of Mormon's historicity simply by rooting around in the vast universe of texts until you find a word or phrase or grammatical structure that also occurs in the BoM. LDS apologists engage in this bogus methodology all the time (NHM, "land of Jerusalem," "Abraam" in ancient Egyptian texts, Early Modern English, etc. etc.). It just makes you look like fools to the outside world. Fools for the Lord, if you wish, but fools all the same.

    — OK

    1. On the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:

      Just as a correct statistical estimate of the unconditional probability of a gunshot cluster (the chance that a random person can find a cluster among their shots) prevents the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, a correct estimation of the likelihood of extra-biblical Early Modern English markers being apparent in a random text is the key issue in linguistic studies of the Book of Mormon.

      Specifically, in the case of extra-biblical archaic English occurring in the Book of Mormon, we can of course check whether many of these features also occur in pseudo-biblical texts, especially those that have been mentioned by critics as having influenced Joseph Smith in his elaboration of the Book of Mormon text. These operate as a control.

    2. Mr Carmack,

      A better control seems to be to analyze other "translations" from the creator of the work. Since he (or she) is responsible for the grammatical constructions. Has this been done, and what are the results? Also, how do you account for the number of intermediaries possible as almost all we have of Joseph's "writing," scriptural or otherwise, was done by scribes.

  12. For what it's worth, I have never thought of LDS apologetic explanations as "straining or grasping" at anything. These things are interesting, to be sure, but not something on which one would want to build a testimony.

  13. You can't demonstrate the Book of Mormon's historicity simply by rooting around in the vast universe of texts until you find a word or phrase or grammatical structure that also occurs in the BoM.

    But wouldn't it be more strange if a book claiming such "historicity" as does the BoM didn't have any of the words, phrases, or grammatical structures from the period or places from which it claims to originate?

  14. So, when can we expect to see your groundbreaking findings in a peer-reviewed journal article, Mr. Carmack? We'd love to see what qualified, independent, non-LDS linguists think of your methodology.

    Think of what that kind of independent validation would do for the faith!

    — OK

  15. No, Ramer, not like those. I'm calling for peer review of Carmack's EModE claims.

    Also, FWIW, the examples of articles you linked to do not validate any claims for the Book of Mormon's historicity. Read the comments by James Anglin.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.

    — OK

  16. @ Anonymous 10:45 AM, December 22, 2017

    You mean like early modern English?

    Are we still talking about the BoM? As far as I know, it makes no claims of originating in the modern era, aside from the translation process.

    It is amazing how much discussion the Book has generated about its origins, when there are so many more interesting things to talk about regarding its teachings. Alas, even those are regarded by many as "foolishness," as spoken of in Alma 37:6. That's quite alright, of course – prophecy will be fulfilled one way or another.

    And, about that – I wonder why the great interest in portraying the BoM as foolishness. For those who regard it as fiction and spend hour after hour in discussing that line of thought (that of demonstrating that it is "obviously" fiction), are there any other volumes of fiction that they discuss in like manner and with similar intensity?

    And while gunshot clusters are interesting, I've never known them to improve over time in a given target.

  17. … are there any other volumes of fiction that they discuss in like manner and with similar intensity?

    Sure. Plenty of people are incredibly invested in some of the literary classics.

    — OK

  18. I'm sure there are, and I bet they discuss endlessly about how closely the themes and ideas in those fictional volumes mimic what actually happens in the real world. Ironic, huh?

    1. Literati also discuss how themes and terminology in the work are influenced by their time period and location–much like we do with the BoM. That's why most anyone who has a literary degree, and who is not willfully suspending their disbelief, will see the clear markings of 19th century America in the book.

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