“Those who do not know the Sonoran Desert may find it inhospitable, but the people who lived here had vast knowledge of the land and its plants and animals…its vascular plant flora consists of about 2,500 species…People had knowledge and names for most of the plants…their folk classification often approximates modern concepts of genera and species. About 20 percent of the plant species probably were used for medicinal purposes and about 18 percent for food…Hence, across the entire Sonoran Desert, about 375 species of plants have been used for food.” -Global Deserts Outlook; People and Deserts
Can all the plant life mentioned or suggested in the Book of Mormon be accounted for in this model?
No. A strict comparison of the known native cultigens does not align with the specific old-world cultigens specified in the text of the Book of Mormon. This absence of direct evidence for Book of Mormon cultigens is not evidence that those cultigens aren’t or weren’t there, it just means that we do not have evidence for it yet. For instance, father Piccolo tells us the following about grains and other plants native to the peninsula, but we do not know the particular species of grains and other plants that he is referring to:
“California is no less prolific in grain than in fruit; and there are fourteen sorts of the former, which the natives feed upon. They likewise use the roots of trees and plants” (An Account of the State of the Missions; Piccolo; 1702; from Travels of the Jesuits p400)
In addition, a reasonable reading of the text may allow room for some references (but not all references, such as the first plantings made by Lehi’s party) to refer to similar native rather than old-world species, we present the following as possible candidates for the references related to cultigens in the text of The Book of Mormon.
All of the following are documented references to plant use among the indigenous peoples of Baja California, Southern California, and Southern Arizona:
- Wheat (Mosiah 9:9, 3 Nephi 18:18) – “Although Sonoran Desert peoples harvested hundreds of species of plants, a few dozen formed the primary resources. One unique major wild crop was the grain of nipa, a salt grass (Distichlis palmeri), harvested by the Cocopahs at the delta of the Colorado River (Castetter and Bell 1951). Nipa is a word derived from the Cocopah name for this grass, which is wholly endemic to the intertidal regions of the upper Gulf of California. It thrives on pure seawater as well as brackish water, producing large yields of a grain about the size of wheat. It is a strong candidate for a major global food crop and could become this desert’s greatest gift to the world (Felger 2006).” -Global Deserts Outlook; People and Deserts
- Barley (Mosiah 7:22, Mosiah 9:9, Alma 11:7, Alma 11:15) – Hordeum jubatum Pomo, Kashaya Food, Seeds used in pinole (Goodrich, Jennie and Claudia Lawson 1980 Kashaya Pomo Plants. Los Angeles. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles). Also, Hordeum pusillum “seeds were stored during the fall and winter, planted during the spring, and harvested during the summer as a grain crop” (http://www.
illinoiswildflowers.info/ grasses/plants/little_barley. htm)
- Corn (Mosiah 9:9, Mosiah 9:14, Mosiah 7:22) – To borrow from Wikipedia: “the first evidence of maize cultivation in the Southwest dates from about 2100 B.C. Small, primitive maize cobs have been found at five different sites in New Mexico and Arizona. The climatic range of the sites is wide as they range from the Tucson basin in the Arizona desert, at an elevation of 700 mts (2300 ft), to a rocky cave on the Colorado plateau at 2200 mts (7200 ft). That suggests that the primitive maize they grew was already adapted to being grown in both hot and dry and short-season climates”. (Merrill, William L. et al, “The Diffusion of Maize to the Southwestern United States and its Impact.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 106, No. 50 (Dec 15, 2009), pp. 21019-21020)
- Figs (3 Nephi 14:16) – Ficus Palmeri, also known as the wild fig or zolate, was a noted food which Jarome Hardy King describes as being of occasional importance to the indigenous inhabitants of Baja at the time of Spanish contact (See: Prehistoric diet in Central Baja California, Mexico)
- Grapes (2 Nephi 15:2, 2 Nephi 15:4, 3 Nephi 14:16, Mosiah 11:15) – Modern inhabitants of the cape region of the peninsula continue to practice an ancient tradition of making wine from the wild grapes that grow in the area (ref p:180). In addition, the species Vitis girdiana Munson, also known as “Valley Grape”, is a fruit that was eaten fresh among the Diegueno (Hedges, Ken 1986 Santa Ysabel Ethnobotany. San Diego Museum of Man Ethnic Technology Notes, No. 20 p:43) and were also used used to make wine among the Cahuilla tribes of Southern California.
- Neas (Mosiah 9:9) – Bromus marginatus Nees, – Mendocino, California Indian Food (Staple), Seeds formerly used for pinole. Also a Gosiute Food, Seeds formerly eaten. (Chamberlin, Ralph V. 1911 The Ethno-Botany of the Gosiute Indians of Utah. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 2(5):331-405)
- Sheum (Mosiah 9:9) – “Sheum” is now known to be an Assyrian or Akkadian word to denote barley and other types of grain. There were many grains that were common staples among the indigenous inhabitants of Baja California including various Amaranth seeds. (See: Prehistoric diet in Central Baja California, Mexico). The term “Sheum” was untranslated and unknown to scholars when the Book of Mormon was first published, but would have been known to Nephi whose education consisted of “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptions” before migrating to the Americas.
Other plants that make intersting candidates for the plants mentioned in The Book of Mormon:
- On the opposite shoreline from Baja California, the Seri’s “harvested eelgrass (Zostera marina) as one of their staples—the only known case of people using a grain from the sea as a major food (Felger and Moser 1985)”. -Global Deserts Outlook; People and Deserts
- Distichlis bajaensis is a recently-discovered species native to Baja California and is closely related to Distichlis palmeri mentioned above.
Phalaris caroliniana seeds were parched and eaten by the Pima’s of the Gila River. (Rea, Amadeo M. 1991 Gila River Pima Dietary Reconstruction. Arid Lands Newsletter 31:3-10; p. 7)