Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The missing links

Let's go back to my favorite childhood depiction of a scene from The Book of Mormon: Arnold Friberg's Abinadai and King Noah. It just so happens that my favorite part of that painting - the jaguars chained up at Noah's feet - cannot be found anywhere in The Book of Mormon. Neither can any of the other distinctly New World animals you would expect the Jaredites and Lehites to run into and describe. (As a quick note, The Book of Mormon does use lions in a few similes which might suggest they were calling jaguars or pumas "lions" out of ignorance, an ignorance God perpetuates in the translation he gives to Joseph Smith, but isn't it just as likely that Joseph included only Old World animals because those are the ones found in and copied from the Bible?)

Regardless of where in the New World you think the events of The Book of Mormon took place, there are a number of animals you would expect to see showing up in the text under a more specific term than "beasts." Where are the pumas, the deer, the alligators, the foxes, the wolves, the coyotes, the racoons, the peccaries, the bison, the elk, the moose, the beaver, the turkeys, the manatees, the dolphins, the skunks, the antelope, the bears, the squirrels, the otters, the porcupine?

Or the jaguars, the monkeys, the parrots, the opossums, the sloths, the armadillos, the ocelots, coati, the tapirs, the iguanas, the geckos, the egrets?

Or the llamas, the toucans, the capybaras, the giant tortoises, the river dolphins, the giant constrictors, the anteaters, the howler monkeys, the tamarin, the spider monkeys, the uakari, the chinchillas, the jaguarundis? Including a few of these animals in text would have really helped link it to reality.

What about flora? Where are the New World crops? Maize, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, cacao, vanilla, squash, sweet potatoes, peanuts, pineapple, avacado, peppers, agave, beans, strawberries, amaranth, papaya? An occasional description of some new and exciting crop would make a lot of sense in The Book of Mormon, and yet there's nothing mentioned other than Old World grains that have no evidence of cultivation in the New World. Now that's a gigantic hole!

What about other culturally significant information like how homes were built? What materials were used? How big were they typically? Who lived in a single house? What were families like? What were neighborhoods like? How were cities laid out? Where did people recreate? Did they make sports a priority at all? Why are we making assumptions that things looked like this?

Or this?

If I had to guess, I'd say Joseph Smith thought they were living in something like this:

But for all The Book of Mormon tells us, the Nephites' prosperity looked just like this:

I'm curious, if you were going to write an adventure story set in a the Pre-Columbian Americas, what sorts of details would you rely on to paint the scene for your readers? How would you describe a flourishing, prosperous people living in that context? Would you rely heavily on sheep, cattle, and horses to represent wealth? Would you talk a lot about finding gold in abundance and wearing fine linen? What does your Nephite society look like?

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