Evidence #208 | June 28, 2021


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Due to their Israelite heritage, it is likely that males among the people of Lehi and Mulek were able to grow beards. Bearded figures also show up in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art.

The people of Nephi in the Book of Mormon claimed ancestral heritage from ancient Israel. Lehi, Ishmael, their families, and Mulek, the only surviving son of King Zedekiah of Judah, all came from Jerusalem where beards were common. While beards as such are never specifically mentioned by Nephite prophets in the land of promise, they are referenced in scriptures they brought with them, such as the prophecies of Isaiah, making it likely that they carried this cultural affectation favoring beards with them to the New World (Isaiah 3:24; 7:20; 2 Nephi 13:24; 17:20).1

Jewish delegation to Shalmaneser III depicted on panels from the Black Obelisk (ca. 840 BC). Illustration below by Gary Todd (1906). Image and info via Wikimedia Commons. 

Some readers of the Book of Mormon have considered the rarity of beards among people of Native American descent to be problematic for the Book of Mormon.2 Evidence from pre-Columbian art, however, provides abundant evidence that beards were known and valued in pre-Columbian times.3 While representations of beards may be found in the pre-Columbian art throughout Mesoamerica, two regions are representative of the broader evidence and are notable because they also appear from the middle Preclassic and early Classic, the time period of the Book of Mormon.

Pre-Columbian Bearded Figures in Guatemala

Bearded figure on what may be an image of a scepter that was sculpted during the Late Preclassic. Image via Vilma Fialko, “Archaeological Research and Rescue Project at Naranjo: Emerging Documentation in Naranjo’s Palacio de la Realeza, Peten, Guatemala,” FAMSI Report 2009, 32, Figure 39.

Bearded figures are found on Preclassic Maya pottery from Highland Guatemala. These include male figurines dating to the Las Charcas period which were recovered from the site of Naranjo three kilometers north of the site of Kaminaljuyu and are considered “chronological markers for the Middle formative and, diagnostics of the Charcas phase.”4 A radiocarbon sample dated the deposit where they were found to 790–420 BC.5 Examples of bearded faces, including goatee-like beards, are also shown on the horns of incense burners at Kaminaljuyu, which date to the Middle Preclassic.6 Another specimen described as “almost Biblical in character” comes from Iximche and dates to the Early Classic.7 Archaeologists working at the lowland Maya site of Naranjo (not to be confused with the Naranjo site near Kaminaljuyu) recovered a fragment of a stone sculpture showing what may have been a scepter. It shows the image of a bearded figure which may date to the Late Preclassic.8

Pre-Columbian Bearded Figures in Veracruz, Mexico

Stone monuments from the Middle Preclassic in southern Veracruz, Mexico, also portray bearded figures. La Venta Monument 3 shows two prominent figures facing each other. The one on the left bears a resemblance to other figures portrayed on Olmec monuments, while the one on the right is “a bearded man with a conspicuously aquiline nose”9 and “distinctive Semitic features.”10 Some scholars interpret the monument as a meeting between a native individual and a bearded foreigner.11 Tres Zapotes Stela D also shows a bearded figure, and the Alvarado Stela shows “a dominant, bearded figure at the right, facing a kneeling figure that usually has an ‘Olmecoid’ face.”12

La Venta Stela 3 in 1943, Then Newly-Excavated. Image via bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com. 

Survey of Bearded Figures in Pre-Columbian Art.

Kirk Magleby, in an important survey of bearded figures shown in Mesoamerican art, identified several hundred bearded figures found throughout most regions of ancient Mesoamerica.13 Examples show a variety of beards, including heavy beards. Examples come from nearly all pre-Columbian time periods and seem to be a feature of elite individuals in most representations. Some examples found in his survey appear to have been artificial beards, a practice known to the Aztecs, but many other examples appear to have been actual beards. The practice of donning artificial beards suggests that, at least during some times and in some locations, actual beards must have been valued as an elite trait.

Bearded figure wearing a headress in Stela 10 at Kaminaljuyu, dating to ca. 200 BC. Photo taken by Javier Tovar. Image and caption info via bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com. 

Magleby found that beards “were relatively much more frequent during the pre-classic and their frequency diminished gradually until by Aztec times they were relatively rare.”14 Based upon the evidence collected in his survey, Magleby surmised that Mesoamerica likely experienced at least one injection of bearded groups into its population which at one time was part of a ruling elite. This would help explain the widespread evidence for beards in the earlier period and why this fashion continued to be associated with elite status in some of the art. Presumably, the bearded trait became less common over time due to the annihilation or assimilation of the descendants of bearded individuals, until by Aztec times the trait was relatively rare.15 While this theory remains tentative, it is consistent with the evidence for beards being more common at an early period and less common later.


Contrary to the expectation of some readers, beards were known in ancient Mesoamerica and appear to have been more prominent during the time period in which the events in the Book of Mormon took place (the Preclassic and Early Classic). Additionally, the evidence that beards became less common after this time period is intriguing in light of the Book of Mormon’s account of the destruction of the Nephites in the late fourth century AD.

No early nineteenth century writer, much less an unlearned man such as Joseph Smith, could have been aware of the evidence for beards in ancient Mesoamerican art, most of which was not accessible until the Twentieth Century.16 The available evidence pertaining to bearded figures is thus consistent with the Book of Mormon’s claim that the ancestry of native Americans included an infusion of ancient Near Eastern settlers.

Kirk Magleby, “Light from Guatemala,” Book of Mormon Resources, March 3, 2019, online at bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 242–245m, Figure 12.1.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 18–23, 192, 212, 225.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985). 81–91, 119–121.

Kirk A. Magleby, “A Survey of Mesoamerican Bearded Figures” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1979.

Isaiah 3:24Isaiah 7:202 Nephi 13:242 Nephi 17:20Enos 1:20Mosiah 10:8Alma 3:4Alma 3:5Alma 11:44Alma 40:23

Isaiah 3:24

Isaiah 7:20

2 Nephi 13:24

2 Nephi 17:20

Enos 1:20

Mosiah 10:8

Alma 3:4

Alma 3:5

Alma 11:44

Alma 40:23

  • 1 It is interesting that after the people of Nephi separated themselves from the Lamanites, the Lamanites were said to shave their heads of hair (Enos 1:20; Mosiah 10:8; Alma 3:5), while Nephite dissidents (and presumably other male Nephites) did not (Alma 3:4; 44:13–14). This could suggest that hair and perhaps beards were considered an important ethnic marker among those of Nephite descent.
  • 2 “Mongoloids, including American Indians, are characterized by a lack of or sparseness of facial or body hair. A few individuals have a tendency toward scanty beards and moustaches, but these are the exceptions and can be accounted for by their contact with bearded or mustached peoples in their migrations. Many tribes will pull out what few facial hairs occur, and others will try to cultivate their beards and moustaches but will be able to raise only a few inches of length of beard in a lifetime. Some of these individuals are portrayed in the ancient carvings of Mid-America, and the Mormons make much of these in their attempt to support a Semite origin for the American Indians. A moment’s reflection will remind us that the Semites, particularly the Jews, are a hairy people. They have much facial and body hair, and their luxurious beards have a characteristic shape, usually coming to two points, and are carefully tended by possessors.” Gordon H. Fraser, Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates: A Close Look at the Book of Mormon (Eugene, OR: Industrial Litho, 1978). 39–40; “It is now an accepted fact of anthropology that the American Indian has the prominent features of the typical Mongoloid: sparse facial and body hair; head hair that is course in texture and is black and straight.” Latayne Colvette Scott, The Mormon Mirage (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 69.
  • 3 John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 18–23, 192, 212, 225.
  • 4 Barbara Arroyo, “The Naranjo Rescue Project: New Data from the Preclassic Guatemala,” FAMSI Report, 2007, 14.
  • 5 Arroyo, “The Naranjo Rescue Project: New Data from the Preclassic Guatemala,”14.
  • 6 Jurado Duarte and Luis Gustavo, Piezas Maestras: Patrimonio del Museo de Arqueologia ye Etnologia de Guatemala (Guatemala City, Guatemala: Fundacion G & T, 1996), 67; Alfred Kidder and Carlos Samayoa Chinchilla, The Art of the Ancient Maya (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1959), 41; Alfred Kidder, “Preclassic Pottery Figurines of the Guatemala Highlands,” Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols., ed. Gordon R. Wiley (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 2:153; Stephen F. De Borhegyi, “Archaeological Synthesis of the Guatemalan Highlands,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 2:10n.6; Borhegyi, “A Study of Three-Pronged Incense Burners from Guatemala and Adjacent Areas,” in The Carnegie Maya III: Carnegie Institution of Washington Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1940–1957, ed. John M. Weeks (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2011), 425;  Stephen F. De Borhegyi, “Rim-Head Vessels and Cone-Shaped Effigy Prongs of the Pre-Classic Period at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala,” Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Enthnology 97 (July 28, 1950): 64; Stephen F. De Borhegyi, “‘Loop Nose’ Incense Burners in the Guatemala National Museum,” in The Carnegie Maya III, Figures 103.4c and 103.4d, 445; Stephen F. De Borhegyi, “Further Notes on Three-Pronged Incense Burners and Rim-Head Vessels in Guatemala,” Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Enthnology 105 (December 1, 1951): 163, 170; Robert L. Rands, “Appendix. Outline of Guatemalan Highland Preclassic Figurine Traits by Phase,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 2:153.
  • 7 Alexander Von Wuthenau, The Art of Terracotta Pottery in Pre-Columbian Central and South America (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1965), 162, 164–165.
  • 8 Vilma Fialko, “Archaeological Research and Rescue Project at Naranjo: Emerging Documentation in Naranjo’s Palacio de la Realeza, Peten, Guatemala,” FAMSI Report 2009, 32, Figure 39.
  • 9 Tatiana Proskouriakoff, “Olmec and Maya Art: Problems of Their Stylistic Relation,” in Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec, October 28th and 29th, 1967, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington DC: Trustees for Harvard University, 1968), 112.
  • 10 Ignacio Bernal, The Olmec World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969), 59.
  • 11 Philip Drucker, “On the Nature of the Olmec Polity,” in The Olmec and Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington DC: Trustees for Harvard University, 1981), 44–45; Proskouriakoff, “Olmec and Maya Art: Problems of Their Stylistic Relation,” 112.
  • 12 Elizabeth P. Benson, “Some Olmec Objects in the Robert Woods Bliss Collection at Dumbarton Oaks,” in The Olmec and Their Neighbors, 97.
  • 13 Kirk A. Magleby, “A Survey of Mesoamerican Bearded Figures” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1979).
  • 14 Magleby, “A Survey of Mesoamerican Bearded Figures” 35.
  • 15 Magleby, “A Survey of Mesoamerican Bearded Figures” 35–37.
  • 16 Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith, Central American Ruins, and the Book of Mormon,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2015), 141–162.
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