Beasts in the Forest

by Reynolds and Sjodahl

 

Nephi informs us: "There were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals."

This is one of the passages in the Book of Mormon, which has very generally been relied on by adverse critics to prove that the volume is but clumsy fiction. Even as painstaking an historian and keen reasoner as John Fiske pauses long enough in his masterly review of the story of the discovery of America, to give vent to his sentiment in a cynical sneer at Nephi–"the veracious chronicler"; thereby justifying the doubtful compliment paid to himself, among others, by Dr. W. H. Holmes in the following line: "The compilations of a Bancroft, a Winsor, or a Fiske, illumined as they are by exceptional genius, could not always rise above the vitiated records upon which they drew." But notwithstanding the cocksure criticism of the passage in the record of Nephi, I consider it one of the strong, irrefutable proofs of the authenticity of that book.

Let us remember that, when Lehi and those with him came to this side of the world, no matter where they landed, they saw here animals unlike any they had ever seen before, and yet bearing some resemblance to creatures familiar to them. If they landed in South America–and we may, for the time being, take that for granted for the sake of this argument–they saw, probably, the ancestor of the llama, an animal resembling the camel but smaller and without the hump. They saw the alpaca, an animal so closely related to the llama, that some have regarded the two as variations of the same species. Both bear a strong resemblance to sheep. The llama is about three feet high at the shoulder. It is not found wild any more.

They must have seen the huanacu, which some have classed as a variety of the llama, but which Dr. von Tschudi regards as an entirely different animal. The huanacus are about the same size as the llamas. They live in small herds and are very shy. They saw, probably, the vicuña, an animal somewhat smaller than the llama, being about two and a half feet high at the shoulder, and having a long, slender neck. Then they must have seen the tapir, an animal that has been compared to a pig, and also to a rhinoceros, although it has no horn.

It must also be remembered that none of the strange animals, peculiar to this continent, when first seen by the colonists of Lehi, had a name, known to them. How, then, was Nephi to mention them in his record? To be sure, he could have given them arbitrary names, but what useful purpose would that have served? He did exactly what any historian would have done in his place. He compared the strange animals he saw with animals he had known in his homeland, and gave to them familiar names, expressive of the peculiar qualities for which those names stood in his day. And that is the obvious reason why he called them "cows," "oxen," "asses," "horses," "goats," and "wild goats." The names were not meant to express "blood relationship" with the old-world animals known by these names, but resemblance in some characteristic or other.

The Spaniards, on their arrival here, encountered a difficulty similar to that which Nephi must have experienced. "The resemblance," says Prescott, "of the different species to those in the Old World, with which no one of them, however, was identical, led to a perpetual confusion in the nomenclature of the Spaniards, as it has since done in that of better instructed naturalists." And yet, the Spaniards had one advantage. When they arrived on the scene, all the animals had names, and they could learn these of the Indians, as they, of course, did, when they were able to make themselves understood.

Garcilasso Inca de la Vega, who wrote his delightful Royal Commentaries in the 16th or beginning of the 17th century, uses almost the same phraseology as Nephi, although he was a native of Peru and knew the Indian names for all the animals. He says: "There are other animals in the Antis, which are like cows. They are the size of a very small cow, and have no horns."

He refers to the tapir, which is so much like a cow that when European cattle were introduced into Brazil, the natives called them "tapyra." It is an animal about four feet from nose to tail, and the Spaniards used to call it gran bestia. But hear Garcilasso again:

"The male huanacu is always on the watch on some high hill, while the females browse in the low ground, and when he sees any man, he gives a neigh like that of a horse, to warn the others. The vicuna stands higher than the highest goat. They are swift, and a greyhound cannot come near them."

In addition to the animals mentioned, the colonists must have seen deer and stags, the roe and the fallow deer, and such "wild animals" as foxes, lions, tigers, rabbits, etc. But the point to note is that the Inca, when describing the strange animals to his Spanish readers, compares them with "horses," "cows," "goats," just as the Prophet did twenty centuries before him, in his record. That I take to be a strong proof of its authenticity.

Hebrew Classification of Animals. Nephi was a Hebrew, and the expression of his thoughts, naturally, conformed to the idioms of his mother tongue. The Hebrews did not always classify objects as we do. For instance, observing that the animal we call "horse" had a peculiar way of "leaping" or galloping, they gave him a name expressive of that characteristic and called him sus, from a root, meaning "to leap." The horse was the "leaper." But presently they noticed the flight of a certain bird and fancied there was some resemblance between that mode of traveling and the leaping of a horse. Then they called the bird also sus or sis, and the swallow, as far as the name was concerned, was put in one class with the horse. For the same reason of classification a moth was called sas from the same root as the horse and the swallow. Again, they had at least six words for "ox." One of them was aluph, from a root meaning to be "tame," "gentle." It was used for both "ox" and "cow," because either could be "tame." For the same reason it might mean a "friend," and sometimes it meant the "head" of a family, or a tribe. Another word for "ox" was teo, translated "wild ox" on account of its swiftness, but the word also stands for a species of gazelle.

The enumeration by Nephi of "cow" and "ox," "ass," and "horse," "goat" and "wild goat," and all manner of "wild animals," meaning the strange specimens met with in the New World, conforms strictly to what might be expected of a Hebrew. The passage, therefore, as has already been said, is a strong proof of the truth of the record.

This method of naming strange objects was not confined to the Hebrews alone. It seems that all people entering a strange land adopted the same practice.

The English when they first came to America found the aborigines growing and cultivating a strange plant. They had never seen it before. It resembled, most closely, a plant familiar to them, which was corn. Now corn to them is what we, in America, call wheat. But it was not (wheat) corn, it was a plant indigenous to America. However, we would not think their historian false, let alone a liar, when he says that they found the Indians growing corn. This same procedure was characteristic of the Scandinavians and of other races.

Reynolds and Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1., p. 190-192