Evidence #243 | May 2, 2022

Horse and Elephant

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Scripture Central


Native American traditions which describe animals resembling the elephant and the horse provide one class of evidence suggesting that such animals were known to the peoples of the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon indicates that the elephant and the horse were known to the peoples mentioned in its text. Ether’s account of the Jaredites mentions the horse and the elephant during the reign of the house of Emer, a descendant of Jared (Ether 9:19). Horses are also mentioned among the Nephites and Lamanites before the death of Christ (1 Nephi 18:25; Enos 1:21; Alma 18:9–10; 3 Nephi 3:22; 6:1). Based upon current archaeological evidence, the American mammoth, the mastodon, and horses are not generally thought to have survived the end of the Late Pleistocene Period (9,000 BC).1

Mesoamerican ruler being carried in a litter. Illustration by Jody Livingston.

The Book of Mormon suggests that this current picture is incomplete and that at least some of these pre-Columbian species may have survived, perhaps in limited numbers and locations, into recent historical times. Native American myths and traditions which seem to describe elephants and horses constitute one class of evidence supporting the scenario of later survival.

Native American Traditions of the Elephant

Some First Nations peoples have preserved traditions that describe animals with elephant-like characteristics. Scholars believe that some of these myths may be based on past discoveries of the remains of extinct fauna, while other traditions seem to be founded on actual encounters with living species. One tradition, for instance, describes creatures with notable, elephantine-like long noses that could sometimes trample and uproot trees.2The Abenaki describe a great “elk” that could easily walk through more than eight feet of snow, whose skin was tough and had “a kind of arm which grows out of his shoulder, which he makes use of as we do ours.”3

The Naskapi tell of a large monster that once trampled on people and left deep round tracks in the snow, had large ears and a long nose with which he hit people. Another tale relates that Snowy Owl, a Penobscot culture hero, while searching for a wife and traveling to a far valley, encountered what appeared at first to be hills without vegetation moving slowly about. Upon closer inspection, he found these were the backs of huge animals with long teeth who drank water for half a day at a time and when they laid down could not get up. The hero was able to trap the large beasts by making them fall on sharpened stakes where he was able to shoot them.4

Depiction of the Columbian Mammoth. Image via dino.wikia.org. 

Similar traditions have been documented for native American groups from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, persuading some scholars that they are based upon a core memory of actual historical encounters with elephant-like beasts that may have survived in these regions, perhaps as late as 3,000 years ago.5
Pre-Columbian Mexican traditions also speak of ogre-like giant peoples who inhabited central Mexico and were killed off after the arrival of Aztec ancestors. These tales attribute seemingly human characteristics to these legendary giants but also describe them as having long, tapering arms and with the ability to tear up trees. In a discussion of these legends, Adrienne Mayor notes,

The giants fled to the mountains and forests where they “pulled down trees as if they had been stalks of lettuces.” This remarkable image brings to mind the behavior of elephants. Other traditional accounts said that the giants had a horrible appearance but lived on acorns and grasses. These details suggest that some aspects of the legendary giant-ogres may have originated in ancestral memories of Columbian mammoths and may have been later confirmed by discoveries of fossils.6

According to Mayor, these stories reflect “a vague memory of prehensile trunks, something like the ‘extra arm’ of the Giant Elk in Abenaki and Iroquios myth”7 and suggest that “localized mammoth species (and other large Pleistocene animals and birds) may have survived to later dates in the Valley of Mexico and the Southwestern United States.”8

Native American Traditions of the Horse

According to the Chronicles of Michoacan, Montezuma sent messengers to Cazonci, the Tarascan king, informing him of the coming of the Spanish and asking for help. When the ambassadors delivered their message, the king was troubled. He was puzzled by their claim that the newcomers rode on “deer.” The messengers explained that the animals resembled a creature in one of their legends that “turned into a deer with a mane on his neck and a long tail like those that come with the strange people.”9

Michoacán codex from the mid-16th century. Image via facsimiles.com.

This same account also reports that when the Spanish arrived in central Mexico, “Some called the horses deer, others tuycen, which were something like horses which the Indians made from pigweed bread for use in the feast of Cuingo and to which they fastened manes of false hair.”10 Historian Hugh Thomas notes, “The Mexicans may have continued to think of these animals as deer. But perhaps some folk memory may have reminded them that there had once been horses in the Americas.”11


Native American traditions suggesting a pre-Columbian knowledge of the elephant and the horse point to the possible survival of small pockets of those species into recent historical times. This picture is consistent with that described in the Book of Mormon. Of course, additional evidence of an archaeological nature would likely be needed to persuade current and future scholars that late survival of these species did indeed occur. Nevertheless, evidence from such traditions provides a good reason to be patient as the faunal history of the Americas continues to unfold. 

Wade E. Miller and Matthew Roper, “Animals in the Book of Mormon: Challenges and Perspectives,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 4 (2017): 133–175.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Are Horses Mentioned in the Book of Mormon? (Enos 1:21),” KnoWhy 75 (April 11, 2016).

Daniel Johnson, “‘Hard’ Evidence of Ancient American Horses,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2015): 149–179.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 309–321.

Wade E. Miller, Science and the Book of Mormon: Cureloms, Cumoms, Horses & More (Laguna Niguel, CA: KCT & Associates, 2010).

1 Nephi 18:25Enos 1:21Alma 18:9–103 Nephi 3:223 Nephi 6:1Ether 9:19

1 Nephi 18:25

Enos 1:21

Alma 18:9–10

3 Nephi 3:22

3 Nephi 6:1

Ether 9:19

  • 1Note, however, recent DNA evidence indicates that at least small pockets of mammoths and horses may have survived until about 5700 BP (3700 BC). See Tyler J. Murchie, Alistair J. Monteath, Matthew E. Mahony, et al., “Collapse of the Mammoth-Steppe in Central Yukon as Revealed by Ancient Environmental DNA,” Nature Communications 12, no. 7120 (2021): 5, 10.
  • 2 John R. Swanton, Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Washington, DC: Government printing Office, 1911), 355.
  • 3 Pierre-Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, A Voyage to North America Undertaken by Command of the Present King of France: Containing the Geographical Descriptions and Natural History of Canada and Louisiana, with the Customs, Manners, Trade and Religion of the Inhabitants, A Description of the Lakes and Rivers, with the Navigation and Manner of Passing the Great Cataracts, 2 vols. (Dublin: J. Exshaw and J. Potts, 1766), 1:88.
  • 4 W. D. Strong, “North American Indian traditions suggesting a knowledge of the mammoth,” American Anthropologist 36 (1934): 81–88.
  • 5 Ludwell H. Johnson, “Men and Elephants in America,” Scientific American 75 (1952): 220–221.
  • 6 Adrienne Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), 77.
  • 7 Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, 97.
  • 8 Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, 97.
  • 9 Eugene R. Crane and Reginald C. Reindorp, trans., The Chronicles of Michoacan (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 63–64; emphasis added.
  • 10 Crane and Reindorp, trans., The Chronicles of Michoacan, 87; emphasis added.
  • 11 Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 178; emphasis added.
Horse and Elephant
Book of Mormon

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