Horses and Chariots in the Book of Mormons: Red Herring?

The Book of Mormon mentions chariots and horses, which King Lamoni orders to be prepared for a journey:


6 Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots.

7 And he said unto Ammon: Come, I will go with thee down to the land of Middoni, and there I will plead with the king that he will cast thy brethren out of prison.

8 And it came to pass that as Ammon and Lamoni were journeying thither, they met the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land. (Alma 20:6-8)

Apologetic answers have been very interesting regarding this description (Mike Ash provides a good summary of the reponses).

1. Loan-shift words. Some apologists argue that the words “chariots” and “horses” don’t mean what we naïve fundamentalists think they do. Brant Gardner, for example, suggests that chariots are probably the litters that Mayan kings used for conveyance, and the horses are ceremonial “battle beasts” associated with the king. Curiously, such apologists also insist that the Book of Mormon does not associate horse and chariots with transportation, though the above passage clearly associates them with Lamoni’s impending journey. Is this possible? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not plausible and requires doing significant violence to the text.

2. Mesoamerican evidence for horses and chariots. Others believe that there really were chariot-like wheeled conveyances, but they were pulled by animals such as deer or tapir (in another fun loan-shift approach), or possibly now-extinct equine animals. They tell us that American horses may have died out long ago, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we just didn’t find any (as an analogy he repeats the debunked claim by John Tvedtnes that no lion remains have been found in Palestine and the also bogus claim from Bill Hamblin that no horse remains have been found among ancient Hun artifacts).

Some apologists also point out that the wheel was known in Mesoamerica, as it appears on small ceremonial items and toys. Obviously, they tell us, if they had wheels for such small objects, they must have had larger wheeled conveyances, such as chariots. Game, set, and match, right?

Not so fast. There is an important reason that the wheel was not used in conveyances: there were no suitable beasts of burden to pull them. The tapir, often cited by apologists, is a largely nocturnal animal that spends most of the daytime sleeping. At night, they forage in muddy places or graze from river bottoms. Here’s a description from a University of Texas tapir conservation web site:

During the day you will find Sirena tapirs sleeping in mud holes. They have even been seen sleeping with caymans in some of the very wet mud pits! Sleeping in these holes is much cooler and keeps some of the bugs down. Tapirs wake up and start moving around 4 PM. They are most active from 4PM to 5AM. The tapirs will visit the beach at least once a day. A reason for this beach visit may be to obtain salt and minerals from the ocean.

The tapir have four splayed soft toes on their front feet and three on their rear feet, which are suited for the water and mud they live in. However, their feet are not suited at all for travel or transporting materials and people. Andean peoples had llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, but there is no similar animal among the Mesoamericans. Deer were domesticated for meat, but not as beasts of burden.

Thus, the real reason the wheel was not used except in small items is that there were no draft animals to take advantage of the technology. In societies where the wheel is introduced for conveyance, its use spreads quickly to other uses, such as pulleys, mills, and pottery wheels. In Mesoamerica, none of these were used.

The Maya understood the rotation principle of the wheel–they used it in spinning thread and drilling stone–and they actually made wheeled toys. They rolled quarried stone over logs and used rope and wooden levers to lift heavy objects. But the Maya never built wheeled transport or employed pulleys. (Foster, Lynn V. and Matthews, Peter, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, Oxford UP, 2002, p. 314).

In short, there were no beasts of burden in Mesoamerica, nor was the wheel used in transportation. This makes the description of horses and chariots completely anachronistic, unless you accept that Mormon originally wrote, “Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his ceremonial battle beasts and his wheel-less litter.”


One Response to Horses and Chariots in the Book of Mormons: Red Herring?

  1. jeanikins says:

    It is an interesting fact that Joseph Smith used the word chariot in his ‘of the day’ writings. When did chariot cease to become a word associated with non-motorized vehicles?
    Why would he talk about taking chariots in his own time? Weren’t they called wagons or carriages?

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