Is Beekeeping an Anachronism in the Book of Mormon?

The Mormon Stories essay on “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” argues that the mentioning of Jaredite beekeeping is anachronistic:

“The Jaradites are described in Ether as having carried honey bees to the New World, while ignoring the improbability of transporting bees in a totally enclosed submarine for a year. The honey bee is not native to North America.”

Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” accessed February 12, 2019.

To support this claim, the article hyperlinks to a 2006 article from ScienceDaily.

The only reference to honeybees in the Book of Mormon is in the book of Ether:

“And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind.”

Ether 2:3

Ignoring for now the arguably ancient etymology of deseret, it must be pointed out that the text actually does not describe the Jaredites taking honeybees with them across the ocean. It rather describes them carrying honeybees before they cross the ocean in the “valley of Nimrod” as they went “forth into the wilderness” (Ether 2:4–5). It might be assumed that the Jaredites took honeybees with them to the New World, but when the text catalogues New World Jaredite fauna (Ether 9:18–19), honeybees are absent.

Apiculture in ancient Egypt is documented as early as the third millennium BC.1 It is striking that the Jaredite word for honeybee, deseret, has a plausible Egyptian etymology (dšrt).2 It seems probable that Jaredite apiculture was imported from ancient Egypt, since evidence for beekeeping in Mesopotamia (the supposed homeland of the Jaredites) is scant, with the clearest data for Mesopotamian apiculture coming long after Jaredite times.3 A plausible reading of the Book of Mormon text could argue that the Jaredite honeybees did not survive the group’s pan-Mesopotamian (and pan-Eurasian?) migration.4

The claim made by Dehlin that there is no native pre-Columbian apiculture is demonstrably wrong. “Yucatan was a thriving center of apiculture from pre-Columbian times, persisting, little changed, to the present,” and there are several known native North American honeybee species.5 The Spanish described native honey-producing beekeeping upon their arrival in the Yucatan,6 and Michael D. Coe, whom Dehlin has interviewed and often cites as an authority on Book of Mormon archaeology, has discussed native Mesoamerican apiculture and specifically speaks of the “stingless honeybee” as a domesticated New World animal.7 Other scholars have also discussed the significance of apiculture in ancient Mesoamerican history and culture.8

Most recently, an article published in the journal Latin American Antiquity in June 2018 documents the existence of pre-Columbian beekeeping among the pre-Classic Maya.

While the Jaredites are usually associated by Book of Mormon scholars with Olmec culture,9 which is older than Maya culture, the attestation of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican apiculture refutes Dehlin’s sweeping claim that “the honey bee is not native to North America.”10 In fact, the species Melipona beecheii is native to Mesoamerica, and was used for collecting honey. As were the species Partamona bilineata and Tetragonisca angustula, to name just two others. The “honey bee . . . not native to North America” spoken of in the ScienceDaily article cited by Dehlin is referring to is a different, more common species (the European honeybee or Apis mellifera).

So even if the Jaredites did manage to bring honeybees to the New World (which the Book of Mormon never actually explicitly claims happened), there is abundant archaeological and zoological evidence for their domestication and use in pre-Columbian North America.

As in most matters related to archaeology and the Book of Mormon, Dehlin is out of date, uninformed, and demonstrably wrong.

Endnotes

  1. Gene Kritsky, The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2015), 8–21.
  2. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 5 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 189–194.
  3. As discussed in Ronan James Head, “A Brief Survey of Ancient Near Eastern Beekeeping,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 57–66, esp. 62–63.
  4. On such, consult Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites.
  5. Herbert F. Schwarz, “Stingless bees (Meliponidae) of the Western Hemisphere,” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 90 (1948), quote at 154.
  6. Friar Diego de Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, trans. William Gates (New York, N.Y.: Dover, 1978), 101.
  7. Michael D. Coe, America’s First Civilization (Princeton, N.J.: American Heritage, 1968), 26; Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 4th ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 16, 175.
  8. See John Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 152–153, 276–280.
  9. John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 508–527.
  10. At least one authority believes it is possible that New World apiculture is as ancient as the Olmec. Ignacio Bernal, The Olmec World, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1969), 20.