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Thanks for a balanced review of the book. I also read 1491, and found it fascinating.

I am not Mormon, but was raised as one - I take no satisfaction in refuting BofM historicity, but the issue that gets me most is that the historical record unfolding in books like 1491 is so much more interesting, complex, and fertile than BofM orthodoxy.

What? Quetzlcoatl isn't Jesus? Dave, say it ain't so!

I saw the book yesterday and was going to comment on it, but I see you've beat me to it and done a better job.

"orthodox LDS scholars ...almost expect no evidence of Nephites in the natural record (the real-world evidence scholars base their theories on)"

I'd clarify this. The problem is probably less one of finding evidence as it is identifying it. How does one distinguish a Nephite pot from another pot? A Lamanite wall from a non-Lamanite wall? I can't see a cogent argument that Nephites (or other BoM cultures) would have been distinct in an archaeologicaly identifiable way.

Sounds interesting though, I'll put it on my list of stuff to read after exams.

Sounds very interesting, Dave.

Does the book have a take on why the American civilizations were so easilly overwhelmed by a few Europeans, despite their huge cities and advanced civilizations? I imagine disease had something to do with it, but I would think it has to be more than that.

Ben, one thing the book does bring out (which traditional archeologists view as an unfortunate development) is that right now, all bets are off. That is, a lot of theories that the old consensus view ruled out completely now can't be so easily ruled out. If serious scholars now propose that Siberians, for example, could float their way to the New World in small skin-covered rafts, then proponents of a variety of more speculative theories (could the Irish have floated over? The Iberians? Maybe a stray Israelite family or two?) don't seem so outlandish anymore.

Ed, the book focuses on pre-Columbian America. For the role of post-Columbian disease weakening the Indian civilizations and decimating their populations, see Crosby's The Columbian Exchange. For a more general treatment of disease and history (aimed at a general audience), see Plagues and Peoples, by the famed U. of Chicago historian William McNeill -- it is much better than Guns, Germs, and Steel.

The problem with BenS's analysis is that it skips a step. If the statements in the BofM regarding the Jaredites' material culture are taken at face value, for example, there is a fundamental disconnect with that so far discovered regarding the Olmec. Only when the numerous problematic elements such as the Jaredite use of metals and domestic animals are explained away as "translation artifacts" (or in some other manner) do you arrive at a situation where archaeological evidence for their existence would be "unidentifiable." The same is true, to a lesser degree, regarding the Lehites and the ancient Maya. The latter didn't possess or use any large land mammal as a beast of burden, let alone the "horses" and "asses" possessed by the Nephites and Lamanites. The same is true (during BoM times) for most of the precious and ferrous metals attributed to the Nephite material culture.

I ran across this book several months ago in an airport book store, and sat done and read it for about an hour. Absolutely fascinating stuff. He'd written an Atlantic Monthly article on this topic a few years back, and that (because he'd cited the work of John L. Sorenson) made a small splash among the FARMS crowd, if I recall correctly. Anyway, thanks for the review; I wish I knew more about anthropology, and had a better grasp of the arguments he's rebutting. I think I'll put this book on my Christmas list.

John W. raises a valid point, but I don't think it's as strong an argument as he thinks. I was specifically referring to material culture. Finding an unambiguously datable horse bone wouldn't prove anything but the presence of Equus at the right time. We still would not be able to distinguish a Nephite city from a non-Nephite city.

Further, I don't see generalized use of the term "ass" in the BoM (its presence is mentioned all of 6 times in the BoM, but they never do anything, and twice the reference is metaphorical), nor the horse.

Nor do I see actual attempts at understanding the translation as "explaining away" anything.

The only reason to assume that animal/plant/metal words must mean in the BoM what they mean in modern English is the assumption that a)God is completely responsible for the English of the BoM and b) God would be exactly and technically precise in using these terms.

I don't think either of these assumptions can be supported.

In response to BenS's comments:

I don't think anybody needs to or should make assumptions about what animal/plant/metals words in the BoM "must mean." The issue sometimes up for grabs is what they do mean. What we might call the initial rule of thumb is that when the BoM text says "horse" or "ass" or "corn" or "gold" or "throne" the words have their ordinary or normal 1830 English meaning. You appear to be following that rule of thumb in your comments on the two animals.

It's ok to depart from the initial rule of thumb by explaining the reason for the departure, and then using or applying the reason consistently, and in a principled manner. For example, it can be argued that when Nephi refers to "steel" he is actually referring to bronze, pointing out that the KJV reflects a similar translation error. That analysis isn't helpful, however, when a whole list of metals is provided (iron, steel, copper, brass, gold and silver, as at II Ne 5:15)and the issue is whether and when the Maya mined and/or "worked in" any of such metals. If all the words don't have their ordinary English meaning, then what seven metals was Nephi actually referring to? And based upon what consistent criteria do we conclude that some words have their ordinary English meaning and others not?

Clearly we can't decide that "brass" doesn't mean "brass" simply because its existence or use is unattested or problematic in the relevant space and time depth. It's that sort of unprincipled analysis that I call "explaining away" the disconnect in material cultures. The same thing happens when someone like Sorenson assumes that "corn" means "corn" (attested use) but assumes or infers that "wheat" does not or cannot mean "wheat," or "silk" cannot mean "silk," simply because their ancient Mesoamerican use is unattested.

In my view, btw, Ben's last three paragraphs involve an even worse type of avoiding (of "explaining away") the merits of all instances of an alleged disconnect in material cultures. It's inaccurate and pointless to respond to the merits of an individual alleged disconnect like the Nephite use of "brass" by claiming that anyone raising it is assuming God guaranteed the accuracy of any or all such material referents in the text. Again, as noted above no one needs to or should simply assume that "brass" must mean "brass" or that "corn" must mean "corn." The task when we depart from the initial rule of thumb, rather, is to justify the departure in a principled and non-circular way.

Finally, in referring to "asses" I had in mind the passages at Mosaiah 12:5 and 21:3 which refer to and assume familiarity with the use of asses as beasts of burden, used to carry loads on their backs. The term is used in a similie with respect to people, but it doesn't make sense absent the underlying practice on which it is based. The disconnect with the Maya is that the existence or use of asses or any other large land mammal to carry loads is thus far unsupported, and inconsistent with their technological profile.

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