Misreading Scripture as Literal History: Elephants in the Book of Mormon

Religious texts are most often not literal history. They are allegory, narrative, parable, metaphor, simile, symbol, poetry, story, visionary, and figurative. They are not relating precise word-for-word conversations of the past, nor are they detailing literal events that took place. Yes, the Bible talks about many people and places that may have really existed, and may even abstractly refer to events that really took place, but it is not a history book.

Religious texts are most often not literal history.

They are allegories, narratives, parables, metaphors, similes, symbols, poetry, stories, visions, and figurative language. They are not relating precise word-for-word conversations of the past, nor are they detailing literal events that took place. Yes, the Bible talks about many people and places that may have really existed in the past, and may even abstractly refer to events that really took place, but it is not a history book.

The writers of these texts had a very different goal in mind while writing them, and that was to relate deeply spiritual realities about the human experience and the human condition. These are realities that are discovered inwardly, realities that have to do with our mind and heart, and about humanity and life, that are difficult to put into words, and so the authors often used extensive symbolism to talk about them. And those who have their hearts and minds attuned to spiritual realities, through spiritual practices, will be able to understand what realities that symbolism points to (Matthew 13:10-17).

Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, is no exception. I perceive that his divination of the Book of Mormon was not of a historical text from ancient Mesoamerica, contrary to what he himself seemed to believe. Rather, I think it was a deeply spiritual autobiographical allegory of Joseph’s own life experience, his understandings and visions, particularly his mystical experiences in divine consciousness, and coming to know God within himself, even his own divine nature in God. I think he altered his consciousness into a trance-like state of mind, to a divine pure state of consciousness, using his seer stone as a kind of meditation object. In this state of mind I think a flood of creativity and insight was unleashed in him, and he wrote as the ancient prophets did, in allegory, about his deepest life experiences. This included perennial wisdom as is found in the minds of all humans, which has been written about by mystics throughout history, and in this way it seems ancient. This wisdom always leads us inward first, not outward, to encounter the deepest realities of our self first, which may also then reveal the nature of outer realities as well and how we should act in the world.

When we read scriptures such as this literally, as if it all happened in the past just as it is written, then we can be greatly misled, and focus on external things that distract us from the spiritual realities and practices that the text is trying to convey to us. Reading the Book of Mormon as ancient history of Mesoamerica, for example, I think it a great distraction from the spiritual message of the text, which leads us away from truth, and not towards it. Since God is Truth, those who are seeking God will not find God by such activities. As Jesus taught, quoting Isaiah, they will be ever hearing but not understanding, ever seeing but not perceiving (Matthew 13:13-14 NIV).

One recent example of this comes from a conversation in the comments from a previous article I wrote. It was referring to whether Mormon researchers are more knowledgeable than non-Mormon researchers when it comes to scholarship about Mesoamerica, and the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

A letter written by Mormon anthropologist John Sorenson to non-Mormon archaeologist and anthropologist Michael Coe attempted to show that Mormon researchers somehow know many things that non-Mormons do not, such as the existence of elephants in ancient America as noted in the Book of Mormon text. Coe stated that elephants went extinct long before the stated time period, while Sorenson cited several alleged examples of elephants around that time. Who should we believe?

Elephants are noted twice in the Book of Mormon, in Ether 9:19:

“And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.”

In his letter to Coe, John Sorenson claims that Coe simply hasn’t “checked the data,” and that mastodons (related to elephants) lived in North America during the time of the Jaredites (arriving between 2600-2100 BC). The current scientific consensus, however, is that mastodons and mammoths and all the rest of the elephant-like animals in the American mainland went extinct no later than about 8,500 BC, long before the alleged arrival of the Jaredites.

But you may ask, what about Sorenson’s citations, his sources, the radiocarbon dated remains that have been found much later? Is everyone else ignorant of these findings, including Coe?

Sorenson’s sources are dated 1974, 1975, 1957, 1960, and 1967. In other words, his latest source is 43 years old, and the oldest is 61 years old. Have no scientists studied this topic since then? No. They have. And the scientific consensus is that those late dates are most likely all wrong, due to contamination or context problems. They are anomalies that do not coincide with all other findings, and are therefore most likely mistakes and are not to be accepted as accurate or representing the actual presence of such animals at those times.

For example, a study published in 2009 looked into the question about the chronology of extinction of the megafauna (including mastodons) at the end of the Pleistocene, given all the evidence and fossil records we have thus far collected. This study notes that by 1969 it had been established that “mammoth, mastodont, camel, horse, tapir, and Shasta ground sloth became extinct between 12,000 and 10,000 BP [8,050 BC].” What about all those samples that Sorenson found that are dated long after this time period? This study notes:

“In the 1950s and 1960s, numerous Holocene-age dates from ca. 9,500 to as late as 5,000 BP [3,050 BC] were obtained for mastodont tusks and associated wood fragments from North American sites (see Dreimanis, 1968). A review of the dates compiled by R. Morlan in the online Canadian Radiocarbon Database reveals an astonishing number of post-10,000 BP proboscidean [elephant-like] dates. However, these dates have been simply dismissed as inaccurate (e.g., by Martin,1967); ‘They moulder in the graveyard of unverified measurements’ (Martin and Stuart, 1995:7).”

As an example of how later dates should be viewed with extreme skepticism, this study notes:

“R. Laub (2006, personal communication) submitted twigs from the Hiscock site in western New York, on the assumption that they represented mastodont digesta [food from the stomach]. Five dates came back in the range of ca. 9,500–9,000 BP [7,050 BC]. Laub is properly skeptical about the implications; no credible mastodont bone-derived date from Hiscock is later than 10,600 BP [8,650 BC]. Further, the vagaries of the dating process are illustrated by cases where radiocarbon dates from unimpeachable [entirely trustworthy] contexts turn out to be egregiously wrong. One glaring example is the date of 5,215 ± 90 BP [at latest 3,175 BC] (Beta-43663) for a tool made of proboscidean bone from the East Wenatchee Clovis cache [Washington state] (expected age ca. 11,100 BP [9,150 BC]) (Gramly, 2004). The sample may have been contaminated by organics sprayed on the orchard that surrounds the site.”

(Source: Fiedal, Stuart (2009). “Sudden Deaths: The Chronology of Terminal Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction”. In Haynes, Gary. American Megafaunal Extinctions at the End of the Pleistocene. Springer. pp. 21–37. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8793-6_2. ISBN 978-1-4020-8792-9.)

This isn’t a new consensus. Here is another older study that comes to the same conclusion:

Abstract: More than 375 14C [carbon-14] dates from 150 fossil sites in North America have been analyzed to evaluate the question of extinction of Late Pleistocene megafauna. When critically evaluated, no 14C ages for any extinct Pleistocene genera are younger than 10,000 yr B.P. [later than ~8,050 BC].

(Source: J. Meltzer, David & Mead, Jim. (1983). “The timing of Late Pleistocene mammalian extinctions in North America.” Quaternary Research. 19. 130-135. 10.1016/0033-5894(83)90032-7.)

Sorenson seems to be mistaken about his mastodon citations, and negligent in repeating these refuted claims, and ones similar to it as noted by FairMormon, and this is very misleading to Mormons. It does not bring us to truth, but takes us away from it. The scientific consensus is that there were no elephant-like animals that lived on the American mainland after about 10,500 years ago [8,500 BC]. So the Jaredites could not have had elephants with them, some six millennia later, being “useful unto man” (Ether 9:19). Non-LDS scientists do not need to know anything about the Book of Mormon to have studied this, researched it, and come to this general consensus about the extinction of elephants on the American mainland.

The presence of the “elephant” in the Book of Mormon text is just one example of anachronisms that do not fit the scientific consensus. Finding the rarest anomalies that don’t fit most of the data doesn’t change the consensus; it usually means that the anomalies are faulty. LDS researchers do not know more than non-LDS experts about these things, and to assume that they do is to disregard the rest of the academic community as ignorant.

If we want to come to the Truth of God, then holding onto pseudoscientific untruthful ideas such as this will not help. God is Truth.

Historical inquiries such as these unfortunately lead us down rabbit holes of investigation that have nothing to do with spirituality, coming to know our inner divine nature, and our Oneness with God, Life, Truth, and Love. They are distractions. It seems to me that Joseph wrote about many things in the Book of Mormon that may have little or nothing to do with our spiritual nature, but are imaginative visions of what he thought the ancient people of America were like, such as elephants among them (unless you go back over 10,000 years ago). But that doesn’t discount the deeper spiritual, allegorical, symbolic, mystical passages of this book, and many other religious texts like it.

The wisdom is hidden deeper than any literal historical reading of religious texts.

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4 thoughts on “Misreading Scripture as Literal History: Elephants in the Book of Mormon

  1. Well, OK, Sorenson could be wrong; he may need to update his research on that particular point. Still I find it interesting that elephants are mentioned only once–and in the Book of Ether. It’s possible that some might have survived among the Jaredites but were long gone by the time Lehi arrived.
    Even so, what about the rest of his letter to Dr. Coe?
    What about the many claims of the Book of Mormon that were once deemed ludicrous but are now accepted as fact?
    And what about Sorenson’s 400+ correspondences in Mormon’s Codex? Are they all just happy coincidences?
    The reality is, we’ve just barely scratched the surface:
    You might be interested in this, too (if you haven’t scene it already):
    That said, I may learn one day that Mesoamerica is the wrong setting–and I’d be OK with that. Even so, I take the Book of Mormon at it’s word–it might have occurred on Mars for all I know. But it happened somewhere.

    1. Yes, it seems Sorenson is mistaken. He uses sources which have been dismissed by scientists as faulty, and then says that those scientists are ignorant of these sources. This gives the impression to people that Sorenson knows far more than people like Coe. Is this good? No, I think it is not good. It leads us away from truth, not toward it. That which is good and true comes from God and leads us to God; that which is not good or true leads elsewhere.

      It is very improbable that “some” elephants lived anywhere on the American mainland after about 8500 BC. The Jaredites are alleged to have arrived in America in about 2500 BC. That is a difference of six millennia. It’s not likely, and there is no fossil evidence for that which has consensus agreement among scientists. You may have noted in the article from National Geographic that you shared that the Mayans did not use any “beasts of burden” to help them in their work, which is just one more problem in saying that the Jaredites had elephants and horses and other animals that were “useful unto man” (Ether 9:19). This doesn’t fit who the Mesoamericans were.

      The rest of the letter you may investigate if you wish. I’ve shown an example of the kind of errors that Sorenson makes, and I don’t think this is unique. I perceive that Sorenson’s 400+ “correspondences” in Mormon’s Codex are similar to the subject of elephants. They are unfortunate examples of “evidence,” and do not establish the Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican document. His work may be classified as pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology:

      Do we know everything about the ancient Mesoamericans? No. We are learning more about them all the time. But I think we know enough to know that the Book of Mormon does not originate there. It is a wholly different environment. The scientific consensus is that it is very far removed from anything genuinely Mesoamerican.

      I think that considering the book in any geography or ancient history is a fallacy, and won’t lead us to God. Myths are mythological, symbolic, allegorical, and are not to be taken as literal history in any time or any place. Doing so misses their message. The only place the book happened, I perceive, was in Joseph, in his mind and consciousness that was at-one in God. It was visionary, it was creative, it was mystical, it reveals the depths of the human soul, of human life, even perennial wisdom which has been written about in all cultures, times, peoples, and places. It is the universal gospel. God speaks to all people, all the nations of the Earth, and they have written it (2 Nephi 29:7, 12). Joseph wrote it too.

  2. Bryce, let’s keep this in perspective. Coe went on and on, drawing conclusions about things that were way beyond the purview of his expertise. And yet you seem offended at the fact that Sorenson was wrong on one point merely because of outdated sources. And then, because of that one oversight, you believe that his 400+ correspondences must be the result of some wacky pseudoscience–that he’s nothing more than a crank.

    As I’ve said before, I may learn one day that Mesoamerica is the wrong setting for the BoM. And if that happens, it will be because we will have found a better setting which, at this point, I can’t imagine happening. There are just too many things about that region that work, IMO. In fact, it works so well, IMO, that I’d be genuinely surprised if it turned out to be the wrong locale.

    That said, it seems to me that your reason for disagreeing with that particular setting — or any real world setting — has more to do with the way you view scripture and less to do with scientific consensus. And if that’s the case, then we can do little better than talk past each other. Because, IMO, while the BoM certainly has mythical elements in its construct, narrative, and prose, it is, general speaking, grounded in real history.

    And, so, our biases are diametrically opposed. You’ll tend to see all of the reasons why the BoM cannot be historical, whilst, on the other hand, I’ll see all the reasons why it must be historical.

    1. Why would Sorenson know better the things that you feel were way beyond the purview of Coe’s expertise? Why would Sorenson be more of an expert in these things than Coe?

      I’m not offended by Sorenson. I’m showing where he is mistaken. His methods are similar as other Mormon researchers. They find a few rare anomalies, which are often quite incongruous with other scholarship, and use them to illustrate that ancient conditions were just as the Book of Mormon describes. I used to do this myself. But this is not good science or methodology, and unfortunately doesn’t help us come to truth. Sorenson is not a crank, but he does not seem to be using good scientific methods or procedures in these particular subjects, which is perhaps why few, if any, non-Mormon experts have endorsed this work. There may be some valid correspondences in his 400+, yes, but they are not enough to substantiate a Mesoamerican source for the Book of Mormon. Many of his “correspondences” are more likely coincidences (concurrence circumstances without apparent causal connection), as described in this video:

      I perceive that as long as we look outwardly in the world for the source and setting of the Book of Mormon, we will not find it. Ever. Because I think ultimately it is not found anywhere “out there,” but “in here,” inside us. Joseph found it inside him, in his mind and consciousness, which is why he used a seer stone to alter his consciousness to retrieve it (he never looked at the “plates” during the translation, according to witnesses). I think the mind is the book’s true setting. It is “buried” in the “ground” of our being, our own being, even yours and mine. It is grounded in us, in humanity, in our mind, spirit, and soul. It is only grounded in real history insofar as humans have existed throughout all of history, and mystics, prophets, and sages have uncovered this same perennial wisdom throughout history and written about it using a host of different symbols. I think Joseph was allegorizing his own history and experiences, and there are many passages in the book which seem to parallel his own life story. But more generally, he was allegorizing the human experience, the human condition, the deepest intuitions of human Life itself as he perceived them deep within his mind.

      The reason I disagree with any historical world setting for the Book of Mormon goes far beyond science. It is because I have personally experienced the depths of consciousness, I have tasted of that spirit and that oneness, I have witnessed visions like Joseph, and I have known God within me. I know what is possible in divine consciousness from personal experience, and it far exceeds our typical daily experience. No one can know this for themself until they experience it for themself in deep meditation and contemplation (the highest forms of prayer). This is what the whole of the gospel is pointing us towards, but we often ignore it, refuse it, and reject it. The Kingdom of God is not “here” or “there” or anywhere external out in the world, but it is found first within you (Luke 17:21). Look for it inside, and you will not be disappointed. You will be filled to overflowing, and the revelations of God will be unfolded to your view, just as they were for Joseph and every other mystic the world has ever known.

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