Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bison, Buffalo, Corn and People – Part I

It is interesting how far afield people can go in trying to find a way to explain away what they do not understand but think are contrary comments in the scriptural record of the Book of Mormon. Over the past several months we have received numerous comments about an apologetic’s comments (Richard G. Grant on his website Come to Zarahemla) regarding some of these misunderstandings and the unwise approach taken in what the author must have felt was a way to explain away what he thought was damaging or misleading wordage in the scriptural record. 
    The problem is, as it often turns out, authors of such writing have a limited knowledge or understanding of the true meaning of the words that concern them. Consequently, a little research on their part could often help them better understand Nephi or Mormon’s meanings, and the words Joseph Smith used and what they meant in his translation. Often, with such additional knowledge, we find that what was written is accurate.
It originates in a lengthy article written by Grant, entitled “Lehi in the Promised Land: What did he Find?” As a sub-heading he writes: “When they arrived, what did they Find? Cows and horses? Were there others there?” Two specific areas have been singled out that we’ll take the time to respond to in a full article, since the concept involved is important to many another question or comment regarding the idea that Latter-day Saints need to “apologize” for what was written by Nephi, Mormon and the others or translated by Joseph Smith.
    Grant writes: “Another familiar example is the buffalo. When early explorers encountered a strange new animal on the North American plains, they didn't make up a new name. They called it a buffalo — the name of the animal back home, which this creature most resembled. The bison is, of course, not a buffalo and to my knowledge no one has ever charged that the early explores claim of buffalo was a lie, nor that the records of their explorations contain an anachronism. Even today, for most Americas, a buffalo is that strange animal that roamed the plains and fed the Indians. The name, bison, has just never caught on. "Bison Bill"? No! It just doesn't have the right ring to it. Of course, translators must do this same thing. Yet, the translator is even more restricted. The explorer may learn from the natives their word for an unfamiliar plant or animal and use that word. This information is generally not available to the translator of an ancient record. The translator must either leave the name untranslated or use some familiar name that seems appropriate. Looking at these specific animals named by Nephi, there has been found little evidence to suggest that the old world animals named were present on this continent prior to their introduction by the Europeans.”
Response: The American bison (Bison bison), also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison. The European bison (Bison bonasus) also called the Wisent or the European wood bison, is an Eurasian species of bison and one of two extant species of bison alongside the American bison. The name “bison” was borrowed in 1611 from the Latin bisōn, which referred to the animal’s musk (odor or smell). On the other hand, the word “buffalo” comes from 16th century Spanish or Portuguese búfalo. You might be surprised what both these words really mean translated into English.
    As for early explorers in the Americas, they were either Spanish, English or French. Back home to them would have been the bison of Europe. However, the word buffalo is known in Asia (water buffalo) and Africa (buffalo), neither of which would probably have been known to the early explorers mentioned who called the American plains animal a “buffalo”—and as mentioned above, the name came from early French fur trappers in America who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock, which is basically the meaning of the word “bison,” which is from the Greek word boubalos meaning wild ox, or ox-like animal—so both names, “bison” and “buffalo” have the same basic meaning.
    In fact, upon seeing both animals, it is no wonder they were called Buffalo by the French fur traders, since they are so close in appearance as to seem the same animal.
Left: American Buffalo; Right: European Bison
    The point is, the early explorers mentioned by Grant named the Buffalo exactly what it was, a bison, meaning ox-like animal, just as the ones they had known in Europe looked like and were called. Obviously, Grant’s “apologist” approach falls far short and makes the Latter-day Saints look pretty stupid, which they are not—the jury is still out on Grant, though.
    What I really find far more interesting, however, is that people like Grant, Sorenson, and others get concerned over the animals Nephi found, but neglect to recognize that he identified five things in the immediate area of their first landing far more important in identifying where he landed than the animals, which was: 1) a place (bay, inlet, etc.) where they could land (an act without wharfs, docks, etc., in a ship capable of sailing across the oceans would have been an extremely difficult and important matter); 2) an immediate place to pitch tents and settle down; 3) a climate where seeds from Jerusalem could grow exceedingly and provide an abundant crop; 4) a forest big enough where both domestic type and wild animals were found; and 5) all manner of ore, including gold, silver and copper. Naming the animals pales in insignificance as to finding an area where all five of these things existed in this immediate area.
The Landing of the Pilgrims, by Henry A. Bacon (1877) shows that the early pilgrims came ashore in rowboats manned by the Plymouth’s crew. Even assuming Nephi’s ship had rowboats, they would have needed a “sheltered inlet” or bay. As Bill Bryson in “Made in America,” wrote: “The one thing the Pilgrims certainly did not do was step ashore on Plymouth Rock…no prudent mariner would try to bring  a ship alongside a boulder on a heaving sea when a sheltered inlet beckoned from near by”
    Grant goes on to write: “when Nephi and his family arrived in this new world, wherever they landed, they were greeted by animals that they had never seen before…”
    Response: We have no reason to believe that these animals were not the same animals they knew before, especially since they gave them all names so readily “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” (1 Nephi 18:25). Since Lehi lived outside Jerusalem all his days (1 Nephi 1:4), it is most likely that he and his family had farm animals and were well acquainted with the type of animals they discovered. And, too, Lehi and at least Nephi, spoke and wrote two languages (Hebrew and Egyptian), and as a wealthy man, Lehi would have been knowledgeable and was obviously well known in his community. After all, we are not talking about the conquistadores, who were uneducated soldiers, explorers, mercenaries, and even slaves, the vast majority could not read or write, that did not know the difference between obvious things they saw in the New World--Lehi and Nephi were quite the opposite and did not need to make up names or would they likely have used names incorrectly.
(See the next post, “Bison, Buffalo, Corn and People – Part II, “ for the continuation of Grant’s comments and the misinterpretation of the words he describes and how that affects our understanding of Nephi’s descriptions of the Land of Promise)

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