Ancient Horses and the Book of Mormon

Ancient Horses and the Book of Mormon
by Daniel Johnson
Adapted from his forthcoming book An LDS Guide to the Yucatan
(with reader comments at the end)

In 1895, Henry Mercer explored 29 caves in the Yucatán looking for evidence of prehistoric habitation. In the Loltún Cave and others he found the bones of many ancient animals, but no fossils. Between this dig and 1977, ancient horse bones have been found in the Huechil Grotto at Loltún . Exactly how they got there is unknown, but it is probable that they were brought there by ancient inhabitants, since it is believed that early man hunted native horses. Because these bones are not fossilized, there is a limit to how old they might be. A tantalizing (but rarely mentioned) sidenote is that the horse remains in some caves were found alongside potsherds and other man-made artifacts.

It should be recognized that on the subject of horses, the Book of Mormon was actually ahead of its time. If it had been written according to the knowledge of the day, horses would not have appeared within its pages at all. From time to time, apparently ancient horse teeth or bones had been found in North America, but they were usually dismissed or ignored. The existence of ancient, indigenous horses on the American continent was only first accepted in 1848, when Richard Owen described a fossil horse from South America. The first scientific paper on ancient horses in the Americas was published that same year by Joseph Leidy. But now, horse fossils, bones, and teeth have been found in North, Central, and South America. Many varieties of ancient American horse are known, including the Western Horse (Equus occidentalis), the Mexican Horse (Equus conversidens), the Yukon Horse (Equus lambei), Scott’s Horse (Equus scotti), and the Complex-tooth Horse (Equus complicatus). Some of these varieties were quite large, growing to the size of modern species. The remains found in the Yucatán have been classified as E. occidentalis and E. conversidens. All of these horses are now extinct, but the question of when and why they became extinct remains. It is now believed that horses, elephants, and other large animals evolved in the Americas first before migrating over the Bering Land Bridge to Asia long ago. Why they flourished there and died out here is still a mystery, especially for horses, which have thrived in the wilds of North and South America since being re-introduced by Europeans.

The bones and artifacts found in 1977 in two lateral extensions of the Huechil Grotto in the Loltún Cave, known as El Túnel and El Toro, have been described by Dr. Peter Schmidt of INAH as ‘problematic’ and ‘complicated.’ Unfortunately, very few details about the findings have been published. Most of the data come from stratigraphic excavations in El Toro. Labeled I to XVI, the levels represent the caves’ chronology, with I being the most recent and XVI the most ancient. Bones and bony fragments of Pleistocene megafauna have been found in most of El Toro’s levels, but the only published radiocarbon dating comes from levels VII and VIII. Taken from various pieces of charcoal, the date is 1805 bc, with an error of +/- 150 years, well after the Ice Age. But this is not all. ‘Sadly,’ as Dr. Schmidt laments, 44 horse bone fragments have been recovered from levels VII to II, all supposedly from earlier time periods and also containing Maya Classic and Preclassic ceramics! His article exclaims that something has happened in Loltún that is still hard to explain: The survival of extinct animals like the Mexican Horse may need to be extended to the beginnings of the ceramic era, which would not please paleontologists.

This and other hard evidence of pre-Columbian horses means that we should not be too apologetic about their appearance in the Book of Mormon, nor do we have to go to extraordinary lengths to explain them. There are still some controversial elements in the scriptural record that we may never be able to explain, but the existence of horses in Ancient America is not one of them.

Read additional material by Daniel M. Johnson.... Indigenous Horses  at

Comment by BMAF member David Swingler  

This is a wonderful article. My father was a science teacher who worked at the La Brea Tar pits in Los Angeles, thus by the time I was introduced to the Church and to The Book of Mormon at age 18, the existence of elephants and horses in the Americas was no surprise to me. All LDS must remember: very few animal bones fall in places wherethey can ever become fossilized. Virtually all bones fall in places where conditions never preserve the bones - which decay into dust within short decades. The fossilization process is very rarely created on land and it is numerically miraculous that anyss bones are ever preserved. Regarding the actual date of the final extinction of the horse, elephant and other large species in the Americas, we must remember: only animals whose bones landed in a "fossilization-friendly" environment such as asphalt pits or other perfect water-soil conditions capable of preserving the bones, ever are preserved. Bones decay on the surface within years; even burial in most soils they decay within a few centuries. Today we see this in India and in Africa where quickly, an entire elephant skeleton can disintegrate when left on the surface. We see this with surface horse bones in America. Thus we as Latter-day Saints must further remember: fossil-preserving sites only are reliable for dating the presence of animals up to the last specimens captured in the fossilizing tar or soil of each site; the day that site venue clogs up, is filled in or otherwise conditions change so that no more bones are "collected" and preserved by the site, that site's history ends. Animals in the area continue to survive, only they are no longer "collected" by the closed fossilizing site. Paleontologists persistently ignore that this does not mean there were no more animals alive surviving for even thousands of years: it only means that fossil-gathering site filled in and stopped processing fossils. Paleontologists persistently refute the reality that natural closure of a fossil-preserving site (or change of habitat range of animals taking them away from such rare fossil-preserving sites) does not in any way signal the extinction of a species, which may survive for extensive periods with all dying animals bones' falling in non-preserving conditions - i.e. almost everywhere. Thus evidences such as the cave floors mentioned in this article may be, in future, the only sites where evidences of the horse and elephant's continued survival and existence into almost-modern time may be preserved to us. These reported findings are wonderful. Hopefully future cave-floor digs will more carefully catalog and keep such remains for full study and analysis. As for the final extinction of these species, the most probable cause of these large animal's extinction is man, needing them for food. Our history of exterminations is catastrophic in historic time, continuing today. To site as example the extinction of the once profusely abundant Passenger Pigeon is a very recent page in United States history of our great-great-great grandparents.

David Swingler

Johnson, Daniel