Book of Mormon defenders and enthusiasts have a lot to be excited about. From the discovery of carefully crafted chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to the discovery of intricate details in the Arabian Peninsula that add plausibility and insight to First Nephi, the march of time has resulted in many advances in our appreciation of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. That enthusiasm sometimes gets out of hand as Mormons sometimes fail to remember just how much faith is still required to accept the Book of Mormon (or the Bible). Regarding the mention of “horse” in the Book of Mormon, it’s fair to recognize that we have a genuine trouble spot. In light of some glimpses of possible evidence pointing to late pockets of horses that survived long past the generally assumed New World horse extinction date of around 11,000 B.C. into pre-Columbian times, some LDS folks argue that there is no serious problem with accepting mentions of “horses” in the Book of Mormon as genuine horses as opposed to perhaps some other species. Unfortunately, the scant evidence that is often cited has some problems. Some finds of bones or teeth in the Yucatan in recent layers may have been due to disturbances from digging caused by animals or humans, or may have been curious humans transported from other locations. There is no clear evidence of horses being present among the early Mayans, for example.
There remains the possibility that horses persisted much later than the last ancient bones that have been found. Finding remnants is a rare thing, especially when they need to be found by someone able and willing to recognizing their importance and pay for the testing needed. Intriguing evidence that groups of horses may have persisted much later than the apparent extinction date comes from recent analysis of DNA preserved deep in permafrost in Alaska. See “Mammoths Hung On Longer? Late-Surviving Megafauna Exposed by Ancient DNA in Frozen Soil” (American Museum of Natural History, Dec. 15, 2009, ScienceDaily, accessed December 15, 2012). This is far from Book of Mormon territory, but it makes a relevant point. Researchers examining the soil and its DNA fragments found fairly clear evidence that horses were present in the New World as much as 5,000 years later than previously assumed. Moving the extinction date from 11,000 B.C. to 6,000 B.C. in this initial forensic effort doesn’t solve the puzzle for the Book of Mormon, but if we can have that big of a surprise in Alaska, could there be even later dates that will surprise us in Mesoamerica? Well, maybe, and maybe not. This issue is far from a slam dunk for the Book of Mormon and still needs to be considered a genuine issue for further research.
I wish I could report that Mesoamerican documents have now been unearthed that confirm the existence of pre-Columbian horses, and, while we are at it, Nephites. Give us some slam dunk evidence to end the debate and convert the critics, eh? There is abundant evidence to strengthen the case for plausibility, or rather, to strengthen faith once exercised or to overcome some common objections that might be total roadblocks to faith. But I actually think it would frustrate the nature of faith and religion and God’s desires for us if we could simply take Michael Coe or any other top scholar to a site in Mesoamerica, point to a carved monument, and say, “See? This city was named Zarahemla, its people were named Nephites, its enemies were called Lamanites, the worshipped the Messiah named Jesus, and here is the entire text of Mosiah 2 and 3 Nephi 12 inscribed on this wall from 75 A.D. So when would you like to be baptized? We’ve got an open slot on Tuesday night, right after we finish the mass baptisms of that tour group from Harvard.” But when everything is that crystal clear, it might just be too a little too late.
In our zeal to overcome objections and point to evidence for plausibility, we sometimes need to add a little skeptical “neigh, neigh” to our “yay, yay.” Yay for the evidences that are authentic, but a firm nay when the evidence proves to be completely worthless or occasionally, even fraudulent. That appears to be the case with a commonly cited bit of pro-horse evidence from Wisconsin, where a horse skull was found in a pre-Columbian mound. It’s in many books and some of these are cited by Mormon defenders who probably haven’t yet learned the humorous story behind that skull. The story of a prank. See “There Were No Ancient Vikings in Wisconsin? Prank at Spencer Lake Mounds” by K. Kris Hirs at About.com. Some of us were pretty intrigued when we first heard of this find. But there is compelling and credible evidence from a reliable source that the skull was planted there as a prank. Radiocarbon dating apparently confirms that. Kiss that evidence good-bye, folks. That’s definitely a neigh, neigh sound I’m hearing.
Patience. For now.