In response to an article that The Millennial Star recently posted on our behalf, a reader recently pointed out that The Book of Mormon mentions a lot of “Flocks and fields, but few fish”.
Although this is probably not the first article ever written on this subject, the idea that fish are hardly even mentioned in the text is such an interesting and thought-provoking observation that I think the response deserves an article of its own.
The Book of Mormon contains many references to agriculture and animal husbandry, but it also has numerous references to nearby seas. Why does the text of the Book of Mormon make it seem like the Nephites subsisted on a terrestrial diet when they had such immediate access to marine resources?
This can be asked with or without reference to any particular real-world geographical setting, but it seems particularly relevant to any model that is as completely surrounded by water as the Baja peninsula is.
There are numerous references to Nephite cities near the seashore:
Alma 56:31 – “And we were to march near the city of Antiparah, as if we were going to the city beyond, in the borders by the seashore.”
Mormon 4:3 – “the city Teancum lay in the borders by the seashore”
Alma 51:22 – “the Lamanites had come into the land of Moroni, which was in the borders by the seashore.”
Alma 51:25-26 – “Amalickiah would not suffer the Lamanites to go against the city of Nephihah to battle, but kept them down by the seashore, leaving men in every city to maintain and defend it. And thus he went on, taking possession of many cities, the city of Nephihah, and the city of Lehi, and the city of Morianton, and the city of Omner, and the city of Gid, and the city of Mulek, all of which were on the east borders by the seashore.”
One might speculate that the seas that are mentioned must not have been very productive or that the Book of Mormon authors simply forgot to mention that a marine diet was readily available. It’s possible that one or both of these answers is correct, but I want to dig a little deeper and throw some more light on the subject before we abandon the fish in the sea.
Please take a moment and notice something about the scriptural references mentioned above and about other references to Nephite cities near seashores: All of these references occur AFTER Moroni intentionally altered the political boundaries between the Nephites and the Lamanites.
Let’s start by noticing how clearly we are told that “the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” based on a detailed description of the political boundaries separating the two nations preceding Moroni’s changes:
Alma 22:28-29: “Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore. And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites”
The Nephites lived near seas but were cut off from those seas by political boundaries on almost all sides, but these political borders were changed intentionally and dramatically by Moroni just a few years later:
Alma 50:7-11 – “And it came to pass that Moroni caused that his armies should go forth into the east wilderness; yea, and they went forth and drove all the Lamanites who were in the east wilderness into their own lands, which were south of the land of Zarahemla. And the land of Nephi did run in a straight course from the east sea to the west. And…he caused that the inhabitants who were in the land of Zarahemla and in the land round about should go forth into the east wilderness, even to the borders by the seashore, and possess the land. And he also placed armies on the south, in the borders of their possessions…And thus he cut off all the strongholds of the Lamanites in the east wilderness, yea, and also on the west, fortifying the line between the Nephites and the Lamanites, between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi, from the west sea, running by the head of the river Sidon—the Nephites possessing all the land northward, yea, even all the land which was northward of the land Bountiful, according to their pleasure.”
After this change took place, references to Nephite cities located near seashores in the lands surrounding Zarahemla become numerous very quickly.
The text tells us that Lehi’s party brought “seeds of every kind” with them and tells us explicitly that the Nephites practiced agriculture when they arrived in the promised land.
On the other hand, Alma 22 (quoted above) paints a picture of the Lamanites that contrasts sharply with the Nephite agriculturalists. It tells us that there was a “more idle part of the Lamanites” that lived in the wilderness and particular mention was made to wildernesses near seashores.
What were the Lamanites living like in the wildernesses and in the borders by the seashore?
Enos 1:20 – “the Lamanites…were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat”
Although Enos tells us that the Lamanites fed on beasts of prey, I find it unlikely that he is trying to say that they subsisted on “nothing save it was raw meat” of beasts of prey. So what were the sources of all this “raw meat” that Enos is describing?
Certainly a significant component of it could have been terrestrial hunting like he mentions, but remember, we have been told clearly that the Lamanites are the ones occupying all the seashores, so the question should not be “Why didn’t the Book of Mormon authors tell us about Nephites eating fish?”. Instead, we should ask ourselves “If the Nephites weren’t eating fish, who was?”.
The answer to that question is quite simple. It was “The more idle part of the Lamanites” who lived down by the seashore and who survived on almost nothing other than raw meat.
That shouldn’t be too shocking for us to get our minds around. Mormon didn’t forget to tell us about Nephite fish. Other than the verses quoted above, the text is nearly silent about the diet of this “more idle part” of the Lamanites.
With these things in mind, I’ll summarize my thoughts on the subject at this point:
- The Nephite culture started off practicing agriculture and this terrestrial lifestyle was perpetuated by the fact that political boundaries kept them somewhat isolated from marine resources.
- The Lamanites, or at least a large part of the Lamanites, occupied nearly all of the seashores and consumed raw meat continually.
The shorelines of the Baja peninsula are host to some very impressive archaeological seashell middens. The peninsular natives discarded piles of shells after eating tasty things like clams and oysters. These middens are HUGE. They are often many meters deep and cover areas the size of many football fields. One thing that is clear about prehistoric Baja is that there was a coastal culture that seemed to “eat nothing save it was raw meat” in the borders of the wilderness by the seashore.
…sounds like Lamanites to me.
Now that we’ve established this background setting with oyster-eating Lamanites occupying most of the seashores until they were driven out of some areas by Moroni’s efforts, please consider this as well:
Modern archaeologists have noticed that, although this seashell midden-producing culture existed, there was also a separate culture living primarily off of terrestrial resources in the areas that our model identifies as the Nephite lands around Zarahemla:
“In the Bahia de la Concepcion region, Ritter (1979:426; Chapter 7) saw evidence for the existence of separate coastal and inland permanent populations. He suggested that a similar pattern was present at Bahia de Los Angeles(Ritter 1995; Chapter 11)”
…By contrast, in the areas east of Baja’s “Zarahemla” where the Nephites built many cities, archaeologists expected to find similar indications of heavy exploitation of marine resources, but instead they unexpectedly found strong evidence of a terrestrial diet:
“The high prevalence of Metates across the PARSSF project area was one of the most intriguing observations resulting from the survey program. A total of 351 metates was recorded at 97 locations during the systematic survey. What was unexpected was that the metates and associated manos were the only cultural materials present at 51 of these locations…These milling stations were common in every survey sector, and in a wide variety of environmental settings…The large number of metates found throughout the PARSSF project area testifies to the importance of milling for aboriginal subsistence……If a population increase occurred during the first few centuries A.D., this may have caused a diet expansion to include small grass and other annual seeds that generally involve higher collection and processing costs. This may account for both the large number of stations accross all terrain categories in the PARSSF project area and their occurrence away from leguminous and cactus resources. The overall impression given by the milling evidence is of the intensive exploitation of all available seed resources, an observation reported in the ethnohistoric records (Aschmann 1959:62).”
-(The Prehistory of Baja California, Advances in the Archaeology of the Forgotten Peninsula; Edited by Don Laylander and Jerry D. Moore; University Press of Florida; 2006; p130-132; this chapter written by Justin R. Hyland)”
…Notice that he postulates that a “population increase occurred during the first few centuries A.D.” tied to the appearance of these grain-processing sites. This seems very consistent with Moroni’s change in political boundaries and subsequent Nephite settlements East of Zarahemla.
In the end, the more that we learn about the diet and settlement practices of the ancient inhabitants of the peninsula, the more it seems to line up with the details described in the Book of Mormon.
…and we even get to keep fish in our Book of Mormon Seas. Yummy!