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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Elephants in America

Critics of the Book of Mormon often point out the verse, Ether 9:19, which mentions that the Jaredites used Elephants, presumably as beasts of burden, in about 2500 BC. However, Mammoths and Mastadons are thought to have gone extinct 11,000 years ago. Mammoths are said to have died 4,500 years ago, which actually puts them in the right timeframe for the Jaredite civilization, but the remote, distant location of these last populations (Wrangel Island, Russia), exclude them. Wooly Mammoths allegedly died much earlier, about 10,000 years ago. Critics once assured that the “elephant is not a native of America and never was its inhabitant”, but scientists now affirm that mammoths and mastadons inhabited the ancient Americas at one time.

Now, discoveries in the Americas are forcing some scientists to reevaluate the extinction date of the elephant (or an elephantine animal) in America.

Many images of art depicting the elephant have been found all over North and South America. These first two examples come from the Crespi Artifact collection. Father Carlo Crespi, who comes from Milan, has lived in the small town of Cuenca, Ecuador, for more than 50 years. He is a priest of the Church of Maria Auxiliadora. Crespi was accepted by the indians as a real friend. They used to bring him presents from their hiding places. Finally the father had so many precious objects stored in his house and the church that one day he received permission from the Vatican to open a museum. This museum in the Salesian School at Cuenca grew and grew until, in 1960, it was one of the biggest museums in Ecuador, and Crespi was recognized as an archaeological authority.

Elephant engraved on artifact
From Crespi Collection Cuenca Ecuador.

Crespi gold plates with elephants (bottom corners) and Paleo-Hebrew characters. From Crespi Artifact Collection, Ecuador

Yalloch, Guatemala, Late Classic, 600-900 A.D.

Drawing of a mesoamerican sculpture depicting elephants. These are sometimes said to be macaws.

Photograph of the original statue.

Pictures of other macaw statues found in the Americas. Admittedly, there is some resemblance with the one on the top right, but not much.

The mystery of America's Elephant plates
Harris, Neil J.; Science Digest, 69:74-77, March 1971

Oaxaca, Mexico


While these finds are strong evidence for the existence of elephants in America, they do not tell us when those elephants were there. These images could be the result of stories passed down to each generation. Because of the shape of the elephants skulls, I do not believe they could have gotten these images from remains they found, unless these remains still retained some flesh, such as those rare examples in the far north.

It would be much more convincing if some elephant remains had been found that could be dated, since the ideas contained in art could be much older than the artwork. The following are a few example of archeological and historical evidence for the existence of elephants in America much more recently than commonly thought.

Near Concordia, Columbia, a complete skeleton of a mastodon was found in an artificial salt pond, which had been constructed by Indians. The pond, with its bottom of paved stones together with the animal, had been entombed by a sudden landslide (Victoria Institute,1886, 22:151).

Rock carvings of the mastodon was found in Hava Supai Canyon, Arizona, and were believed to date back to 10,000 B.C. In the same location, however, utensils were found made out of live, not fossil, ivory, which could lower the date considerably (Santesson, 1970, p.39).

“From the City of Mexico comes a statement bearing the signature of Dr. Nicholas Leon, archaeologist of the National Museum of Mexico. The signature would justify the belief that proper investigation of the facts related has been made. The one great fact is that an ancient city, which was located near the present town of Paredon, in the state of Coahuila, some 500 miles north of the City of Mexico, was suddenly destroyed in some past age by an overflow of water and mud, and that its remains are still existent on the spot. Many massive walls have been found, but they are covered with a mass of deposited earth, sixty feet in thickness. And mingled in this earth are human skeletons, the tusks of elephants, etc. , are distributed in a way which indicates that the overflow of water and mud was sudden, giving no time for escape...

“According to the estimates of the scientists under whose directions the excavations are now being made, the city in question had a population of least 50, 000. The destruction which was brought by the flood was complete. All the inhabitants of the cities were killed, as well as all the animals. Skeletons of the human inhabitants of the cities and of the animals are strewn all through the debris, from a depth of three feet from the surface to a depth of sixty feet, showing that all the debris was deposited almost at once. Measurements show that the debris is on an average, sixty feet deep where the largest of the cities stood.

“Most remarkable of the minor finds that have been made at Paredon is that of the remains of elephants. Never before in the history of Mexico has it been ascertained positively that elephants were ever in the service of the ancient inhabitants. The remains of the elephants that have been found in Paredon show plainly that the inhabitants of the buried cities made elephants work for them. Elephants were as much in evidence in cities as horses. Upon many of the tusks that have been found were rings of silver. Most of the tusks encountered so far have an average length for grown elephants, of three feet, and an average diameter at the roots of six inches. Judging from the remains of the elephants so far unearthed, the animals were about ten feet in height and sixteen to eighteen feet in length, differing very little from those at present in existence. ( Elephant Remains In Mexico; American Antiquarian, 25:395-397, 1903)

In 1929 the skeleton of a mastodon was found in Ecuador. Evidently killed by Indians, a circle of fires had been built around the body for convenient roasting of the flesh. A landslide covered the site, which also included broken painted pottery and artifacts. This remarkable find was dated at the beginning of the Christian era (Scott, 1962, p.261).

In 1928 a Mayan workshop was uncovered in Central America. The archaeologist concluded that the owner of the shop, dated from the second to the fourth century A.D., must have kept a mastodon, for the bones of the animal were found among smashed bowls and jars (Wendt, 1956, p.524-525).

One paleontologist believed that mammoths still lived in the interior of the American continent at the time of the first Spanish explorers. He supported his belief by the fact that such bones are found under a few inches of peat. Many accurate descriptions of the elephant have been collected from various Indian tribes in America and Canada (Scientific Monthly, 75 [Oct. 1952], 215-221).

Even as late as 1560 “the Italian cartographer Paula de Furlani drew a map, which is preserved in the British Museum, depicting elephants in the region of the Mississippi Valley.... On the way to the New World, Columbus stopped at the Canary Islands and observed: ‘Other Canarieans also inhabit the wild regions extending from Mount Atlas through the sands of Lybia, places covered with black dust and filled with serpents and elephants’” (Cheesman, 1984, 55).


Some scholars have suggested that the elephant (mammoth or mastodon) lived later than hitherto believed. Ludwell Johnson, in an article entitled “Men and Elephants in America” published in Scientific Monthly, wrote that “Discoveries of associations of human and proboscidean remains [Elephantine mammals, including, elephants, mammoths, and mastodons] are by no means uncommon. As of 1950, MacCowan listed no less than twenty-seven” including, as noted by Hugo Gross, a “partly burned mastodon skeleton and numerous potsherds at Alangasi, Ecuador” (Johnson, 1).

Johnson goes on to explain that “There can no longer be any doubt that man and elephant coexisted in America.... Probably it is safe to say that American Proboscidea have been extinct for a minimum of 3000 years” (Johnson, 2). If the elephants had died off at least 3000 years ago, they would still have been well within range of the Jaredite era. And as noted above, some evidence indicates that the elephant may have survived in limited numbers for centuries later.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Argument from Non-Belief

Also called the Argument from Divine Hiddenness, this is one of the most frequent arguments against God, though I've never heard it as a syllogism. Most often, I hear, “If there is a God, why doesn't He just show himself to us?” According to this argument, a personal, perfectly loving God would want all of His children to know that he exists, so the fact that people have reasonable reasons to disbelieve means there can't be a personal, perfectly loving God. This argument is similar to the problem of evil because it claims the idea of God is inconsistent with what we observe in the world. In fact, since ignorance of God would seem to be a natural evil, many say that the problem of divine hiddenness is an instance of the problem of evil.

As a syllogism, it looks like this:

1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
3. Reasonable non-belief occurs.
4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

If a perfectly loving God exists...

Not many theists would argue against the first premise. Many theists describe the God of the Bible as a personal God of unconditional love. In addition, no objective person would deny the existence of reasonable non-belief. Theists may not agree with atheists, but one must admit that some of their arguments are, at least, well thought out.

However, there is a good amount of controversy over the second premise; If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur. This is allegedly because a perfectly loving God would want everyone to know he exists, in order to be saved, and would also have the power to bring about a situation in which everyone knew he existed.

Schellenberg, a major proponent of this argument, says, “The perfectly loving parent, for example, from the time the child can first respond to her at all until death separates them, will, insofar as she can help it, see to it that nothing she does ever puts relationship with herself out of reach for her child.”

The Unknown Purpose Defense

Normally, I'm opposed to the idea that “there are certain things we weren't meant to know,” but this one makes a fairly decent point. Alvin Plantinga, who is also known for responding to the Problem of Evil, writes that the statement "We can see no good reason for God to do X" only implies "There is no good reason for God to do X" on the assumption that "If there were a good reason for God to do X, we would be able to see it," which he suggests is absurd. It would be like saying, “We fully understand the mind of God.” If God does exist, then that clearly is not the case.

I find this idea a little more tolerable because it does not say that we can't know why God hasn't appeared, only that we currently don't.

The Soul-Making Theodicy

This defense is employed by Michael Murray, who explains why divine hiddeness is essential to soul-making. While based on the accounts of religious individuals, it isn't hard to imagine a world where God is known, and yet believers act freely with ample opportunities for spiritual development, Murray gives a deep and careful analysis of the argument, concluding that if God's existence were revealed in such a way as to remove reasonable non-belief, then "any desire that we might have to believe or act in ways contrary to that which has been revealed would be overwhelmed." That knowledge would then affect our choices in such a way as to infringe on our free agency, because it would cause us to act in a way that we otherwise would not, for fear of divine consequences.

Personal Appearance

As I mentioned before, many people ask, “If He does exist, why not just show himself to us?” I think the biggest reason is because it probably wouldn't help at all. After all, Cain walked and spoke with God, but that experience did not produce the faith necessary for salvation. Also, many of the Pharisees at the time of Christ saw God himself walking the streets working miracles, but they rationalized what they saw and chose not to accept it.

Of course, personal manifestations have been instrumental in the conversion of some pretty significant figures in Christian history. Paul, the Apostle, for example, brutally persecuted the early church members until Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. However, accounts where such manifestations lead to successful spiritual conversion, versus accounts where it had no effect, or ultimately damned the individual who was then held accountable for that knowledge, are rare enough to show that even if God Himself appeared to the world, a significant portion of the world's population, including many Christians, would remain unconvinced. In other words, even if God did want to make us know for sure that He exists, this would not be an effective method to do it.


If the God of the Bible actually exists, and He made himself absolutely known to the entire world, then the entire world would then be held accountable for that knowledge. The idea that we are only accountable for knowledge we possess is shown in Jesus' saying to the Pharisees, in John 9:41, “... If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”

If the Biblical account is true, then the Christian God is a reality. The ineffectivity of a personal appearance is then an indication that some people are prepared to accept this reality, and some, for whatever reason, are not. Those who are not able to accept this truth would then be subject to judgements that would not be just, or which could have been avoided if they had been allowed more time to prepare.

The Lord, then, would need to use a more selective method of conversion than to expose everyone to this knowledge, since it could ultimately damn them. He would need a method which would only reveal Him to those who were ready to live a lifestyle that would turn that knowledge into a blessing, rather than a curse.

The Lord did propose a more effective method just before He ascended to Heaven. In Matt. 28:19, Jesus says, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Missionary Work

All over the world, many Christian denominations send out individuals for the specific purpose of fulfilling the Lord's command to teach all nations. The Prophet Joseph Smith once declared that all things “which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In like manner and for the same reasons, every truth that a missionary or member teaches is only an appendage to the central message of all time—that Jesus is the Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, the Holy Messiah, the Promised One, the Savior and Redeemer of the world; that He alone burst the bands of death and triumphed over the captivity of hell; that no one of us could ever have those same blessings without His intervention in our behalf; and that there never shall be any “other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, [except] in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.”

So to those who wonder why a perfectly loving, personal God does not make Himself known to us, I say that He is, though perhaps not in the way we might expect.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Noah's Ark

Of all the stories in the Bible, Noah's Ark possibly poses the most scientific concerns. Where did all that water come from? Where did it go? Why are there records of civilizations both before and after this time, and why don't they record this event? Each of these questions is complex enough that they deserve their own posts. Here, I address only one of these issues. Could Noah have possibly fit two of each animal (seven, in some cases) on the ark? There had to be enough room to store enough food to last Noah and his family (8 individuals), plus the animals, at least a year and maybe more, depending on how long it took for vegetation to grow back. That’s a lot of food! What about drinking water? Is it realistic to believe that Noah’s boat was big enough to store all of these animals and all of this food and water for over a year?

How big was the Ark?

The size of the Ark is described in Genesis 6:15. 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is the length of the forearm from the elbow to the longest finger. In fact, the term “cubit” comes from the Latin word “cubitum” which means “elbow.” Since everybody’s arms are different lengths, this unit is a little vague, but scholars generally agree that it represents somewhere between 17 and 22 inches (43-56 centimeters). I'm going to use the ancient Egyptian cubit, though, since it is known to have been 21.888 inches, and falls within the range of the Hebrew cubit. Therefore,

300 (# of cubits) x 22 in. = 6,600
50 x 22 in. = 1,100
30 x 22 in. = 660

6,600/12 (inches) = 550 ft.
1100/12 = 91.7 ft.
660/12 = 55 ft.

So Noah's Ark could have been up to 550 feet long, 91.7 feet wide and 55 feet high. That means that the total volume of the Ark was about 2,773,925 cubic feet. The Ark was not hollow, though, so the volume is not all storage space. Gen. 6:14-16 say that there were three floors with several rooms. A little more than half (54.75%) of the 2,773,925 cubic feet could store 125,000 sheep-sized animals, leaving over 1.5 million cubic feet of free space. John Woodmorappe, author of the definitive Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study, estimated that only about 15% of the animals on the ark would have been larger than a sheep, making sheep a fair way to judge the number of animals that could fit.

How many animals were there?

So how many animals were on the Ark? There are somewhere between 3 and 30 million species of animal in the world.

Animals: estimated 3-30 million species

Invertebrates: 97% of all known species
--Sponges: 10,000 species
--Cnidarians: 8,000-9,000 species
--Molluscs: 100,000 species
--Platyhelminths: 13,000 species
--Nematodes: 20,000+ species
--Annelida: 12,000 species

--Crustaceans: 40,000 species
--Insects: 1-30 million+ species
--Arachnids: 75,500 species

Vertebrates: 3% of all known species
--Reptiles: 7,984 species
--Amphibians: 5,400 species
--Birds: 9,000-10,000 species
--Mammals: 4,475-5,000 species
--Ray-Finned Fishes: 23,500 species

However, not all of these would need to be kept on the Ark. Sponges, molluscs, many crustaceans and certain members of every other major group could have survived the flood off the Ark. Not even all of the birds would have needed to be held on the Ark, and many who did would not have required constant housing. The leading systematic biologist, Ernst Mayr, gives the number as 17,600. Allowing for two of each species on the ark, plus seven of the few so-called “clean” kinds of animals, plus a reasonable increment for known extinct species, it is obvious that not more than, say, 50,000 animals were on the ark” (Morris, 1987).

Some say that there were as many as 25,000 kinds of animals represented on the ark. This is a high-end estimation. With two of each kind and seven of some, the number of animals would exceed 50,000, though not by very much, relatively speaking. Regardless, whether there were 16,000 or 25,000 kinds of animals, even with two of each and seven of some, the number would have fallen well below the 125,000 animal limit which already had taken into account space needed for food and supplies.


Speaking only of the size and capacity of the Ark to carry a certain number of animals, it is obvious that at least this part of the story is not only plausible, but but entirely reasonable, assuming the dimensions given in Genesis are accurate. Again, we are not discussing how the animals got there or why they didn't eat each other, etc. These issues are problematic enough that they deserve their own posts, but there is no good argument against the carrying capacity of the Ark.
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