John L. Sorenson discusses animals in Mesamerica (e.g., peccary [wild pig]); proposes that some animals in the Book of Mormon are New World animals with Old World terms applied to them.

John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998), 46-47

Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
John L. Sorenson
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Animal Use

The practical uses of animals in Mesoamerica were somewhat limited. The number of potentially valuable species was fairly small, and then for unknown reasons the people failed to show much interest in their utility. A few species were kept for food (domesticated, or at least tamed). Flocks of turkeys were common, and occasionally quail, doves, one kind of duck, a kind of pheasant, and grouse were maintained in flocks. A small hairless dog was fattened and eaten; the Spaniards referred to these dogs as being kept in herds. Certain other animals were kept somewhat incidentally without their meat ever more than lightly supplementing the vital vegetable foods. Several types of wild fowl were hunted and their eggs were gathered to be eaten. Game animals, particularly deer, were hunted regularly, but of course whenever the human population increased and cultivated areas became extensive, it disrupted wild habitats, so the yield from hunting near population centers declined.

Among certain groups, attention to animal husbandry was common enough to show that overall, Mesoamericans could have done more had they chosen to. Animals occasionally tamed included the tapir the peccary (wild pig), the guinea pig, the paca (a large rodent), rabbits, and deer; they even kept some of these in penned enclosures. Yet these societies chose to make a point about not exploiting nature practically. This reluctance was somewhat like their determined refusal to use complex technology, as noted earlier; they managed well enough without going to the trouble of elaborating their tools or doing much with the fauna.

“Impractical” uses of animals were numerous. For instance, a wide variety of fowls were kept tied or penned so that their feathers, which were valued decoratively and ceremonially and were widely traded, could be collected. Many animal species—coatimundi, deer, and pigs, for instance—were kept as pets, especially by women and children, and pets were not eaten. Animals were also important in ritual and myth. All the common species were considered sacred in some context or other, which may have been a reason that they were infrequently exploited as mere meat. Several types were sacrificed. An Asiatic type of chicken was present that was used only in divination ceremonies. Furthermore, there was curiosity about animals; the Aztec emperor had a large zoo, aviary, and aquarium adjacent to his palace, where three hundred men worked full-time caring for the caged birds alone; others tended jaguars and other wild felines, deer, wolves, foxes, and even a buffalo.

There was an incidental benefit of great significance in the fact that these people did not dwell amidst large numbers of animals, as was the case in many Old World communities. Scholars concerned with medical history in America now believe tat this lack of animal hosts for diseases was an important reason for the lack of epidemic disease here as compared with the central Old World.

Visualizing Book of Mormon Life

The flocks and herds of the Nephites (only sheep are mentioned for the Lamanites) presumably included several sorts of fowls. Turkeys are native to the New World, and flocks of them would have been valuable possessions. The Book of Mormon account refers to people who “tend,” “raise,” and “have” useful animals, but the words domesticated or tame are not used (see Enos 1:21; Mosiah 20:21; Helaman 6:12; Ether 9:17-19). Some of the names applied by the Nephite record keeps to the native beasts they found on the land when they arrived (they brought none themselves) probably were applied to broadly similar species, just as the Spaniards did when they arrived (for example, the Spaniards called the bison or buffalo a cow). Deer were the most numerous large mammals in Mesoamerica. Artists depicted deer in sacred scenes and even being ridden. The failure of the Book of Mormon to mention deer may mean that it was one of the animals for which the record in English uses a name of what we consider some domestic beast, perhaps the Nephite “horse.” All told, the record of the Nephites is notable for its emphasis on crop agriculture rather than animal husbandry as central to their culture, considering that their tradition originated in Palestine where animals had been so vital.

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