Bows, Arrows & the Book of Mormon

This is just a “holder” post for a discussion I was having over whether references to “bows and arrows” in the Book of Mormon should be considered atlals or actual bows. The main argument is over whether there are bows and arrows in the pre-classical period of mesoamerica. A lot of apologetic works have quoted a few articles saying they were. Most of these end up going back to Bill Hamblin’s article “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon” from the 90’s.

I brought this up in a discussion primarily due to a Book of Mormon Central article on weapons in early Nephite times. While I really like the Book of Mormon Central stuff I was much more mixed about this article due to using art from centuries after the period of the Book of Mormon in question. I think that bows and arrows in pre-Christian Nephite society is perhaps at best controversial. (Roughly 400 BC – 40 BC) As such I think good apologetics should engage with the mainstream views of the data. There was some pushback to this view, mainly based upon a debate over whether there was consensus over the period of the introduction of the bow and arrow in mesoAmerica.

Let me say up front that I don’t think it matters whether there were bows and arrows in the relevant period. The Book of Mormon appears to be a loose translation that uses KJV quotes, paraphrases or at least idioms to loosely represent whatever was on the underlying plates. In mesoamerica atlatls (spear throwers) were commonly used but were not in the middle east during the Israelite era, as best as I could find. Thus there’s no word for them in Hebrew nor in the Bible. If Nephites who had bows during their voyage encountered atlatls it’d make sense that they’d use the closest word they had to represent them: bow and arrow. So this to me is ultimately not a terribly strong argument against Book of Mormon historicity.

Now to be fair to the BMC article, they do note the following in a footnote.

The exact timing of when the bow was introduced into Mesoamerican warfare is a matter of continued debate. However, in a recent and comprehensive assessment of Maya weaponry, especially chipped-stone weaponry, Dr. Kazuo Aoyama has noted: “Although spear or dart points were more important than the bow and arrow in Classic Maya warfare, both notched and unnotched obsidian prismatic blade points were present in the Copan Valley during the Early and Late Classic periods … The result of high-power microwear analysis indicate that these points were main used as arrowheads. The bow and arrow was present in the Maya lowlands earlier than has been previously suggested.” Kazuo Aoyama, “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons: Spear, Dart, and Arrow Points of Aguateca and Copan,” Ancient Mesoamerica 16, no. 2 (2005): 291–304, quote on 301, emphasis added. See also William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 379–392; 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), 413–415.

The problem with that footnote is that of course the main Book of Mormon narrative that mentions bows post-Nephi is in the preclassical era (1800 BC – 200 AD). The relevant Book of Mormon era is roughly 400 BC – 33 AD or the period from Enos to 3 Nephi.

I tried to find as many of these articles as I could. Most of them are not nearly as clear as people quoting them often make them out to be. Most go back to Paul Tolstory’s 1971 “Utilitarian Artifacts of Central America” (I’ve linked to Amazon or Google sources for the books’ text where possible) While Tolstory clearly favors the identification of early arrowheads as tied to bows rather than atlatls, even he seems to acknowledge it is unclear.


The main overview of the bow most archaeological or anthropological articles link to is John Blitz’ “Adoption of the Bow in Prehistoric North America.” He presents what appears to the mainstream view of diffusion of the technology from the north southward over time. It starts moving southward from 3000 BC. The bow appears in the plains by 200 AD or slightly earlier. It then moves south to Mexico.

Now I’m not an archaeologist to say the least. So I’ve no easy way to tell what are or aren’t mainstream views. However there was a recent thesis that discussed the atlatl and bow from 2012. I figured that it being a defended thesis that it’d probably give a good view. It’s “Maya Use and Prevalence of the Atlatl: Projectile Point Classification Function Analysis from Chichen Itza, Tikal and Caracol.” Quoting from the relevant section (page 30).

In the Maya region, there is still a debate regarding when the bow-and-arrow complex made its first appearance (see Aoyama 2005:300; Hassig 1992:162). The technique of complex arguments based on iconographic representations and archaeological evidence, which includes classification function analysis of projectile points, have been applied to the bow-and-arrow (Aoyama 2005). There is certainty that the bow was used during the Late Postclassic (Hassig 1992:162; Porter 1981:407; Rice 1986:340) (and probably before); yet, interestingly, iconography of this period still depicts the atlatl (LeBlanc 2003:283). The lack of bow-and-arrow iconography confirms that elite Maya warriors of the Postclassic never accepted the bow-and- arrow as a symbolic weapon of power. Even the conquering Spaniards feared the atlatl more than the bow because of the prevailing force and kinetic energy of the atlatl that could easily pierce Spanish armor (Raymond 1986:173).

Evidence of small projectile points possibly indicate that the bow was around in the Middle Preclassic Period in Mesoamerica, but there is no substantial evidence of iconography or artifacts (other than small projectile points) to confirm this idea (Hassig 1992:197). There are however, depictions of atlatls, spears, clubs, and slings in sculptures, murals, and on ceramics (Hassig 1992:197).

Classic Period Maya art is virtually absent of bow or arrow depictions (Aoyama 2005:294). Prismatic blade points account for a very small portion of obsidian assemblages in the Classic Maya Lowland sites; instead, spear or dart points seem to have been more integral to Classic Maya warfare (Aoyama 2005:294). A Terminal Classic Period introduction of the bow by the Chontal Maya (Rice 1986:340) or by Mexican mercenaries from Tabasco (Porter 1981:407) has been assumed.

With other Maya sites, such as Santa Rita Corozal, evincing a prevalent occurrence of small projectile points (D. Chase and A. Chase 2002:35), it is hard to deny the bow was a large part of increased militarization after the Terminal Classic Period. Winning and losing a war was shared by not only the elite but also the general populace as well (A. Chase and D. Chase 1989:16). The bow could have changed military strategies by requiring defensive walls; its use could have also decreased the power of the elite, partially explaining the destabilization of elite control systems that is seen in the archaeological record at the end of the Terminal Classic period (LeBlanc 2003:283). Either new sophisticated military strategies involving the atlatl or the introduction of the bow could have been key reasons for a restructuring of Maya centralized elite control. Regardless of the key weapon causing political change, effects of warfare seem to have been more extensive than previously believed (A. Chase and D. Chase 1989:16).

Kazuo Aoyam appears to be the main source everyone appeals to from recent years. It’s in the footnote for the Book of Mormon Central article as well. His paper is “Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons: Spear, dart, and arrow points of Aguateca and Copan” Unfortunately most of his discussion is classic and post-classic eras. However he says (page 298) that there’s no evidence in the preclassical period. Admittedly he’s not covering the whole region though. But it is odd he gets appealed to.

The other common source is Steven LeBlanc in Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare

Again this is not exactly a strong argument for Book of Mormon bows and arrows. He refers to two papers making claims for an earlier date than the standard 600 AD date.

Mabry is Jonathan B Mabry’s Archaelogical Investigations of Early Village Sites in the Middle Santa Cruz Valley. Unfortunately there don’t appear to be any non-paywalled versions of the paper. Judging by what I could see though this seems more talking about Arizona and is not talking about the pre-classical mesoamerican area or era. I’m still trying to see if I can find a copy from a non-paywalled site to check.

Nassaney and Pyle’s “The Adoption of the Bow and Arrow in Eastern North America: A View from Central Arkansas” fortunately is available on JSTOR.  They do put an earlier date for the bow but not one into the pre-classical era of Mexico. That said they do suggest extremely early bows in the Ohio region and the eastern US although they don’t see them as diffusing. Most of the article is discussing finds from from after 100 AD (these are the “much earlier” finds most were discussing). They also provide a handy spreadsheet of the data which I’ll quote since it clarifies what they’re talking about. (Click on each table for a larger version)

I think the evidence against there being bows in the relevant preclassical era from Enos to Helaman is quite strong. There is one remaining question of language. One of the stronger points that people like Sorenson or Gardner have brought up is that we can find examples of Spanish or others using old world names for new world animals like horse for tapir. These aren’t apologetic inventions but can be found in the relevant texts. One criticism against the atlatl as bow is that there is no existing use. We thus only have theoretic example of linguistic drift such as with the tapir or other examples.

I did a bit of research along these lines and while the Spanish appear to have primarily called them javelins, arrows or spears with throwers occasionally they related them to bow like implements. Zella Nuttall in The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans give a few examples of early Spanish conquerers and others giving their descriptions.

The first example is from the famous western historian of the 19th century H. H. Bancroft who speaking of his sources said that although “some writers mention a bellesta, a sort of cross-bow, to launch the javelin, he had not found any description of its form or the manner of using it.” (174, quoting Bancroft, Native Races, vol. 2  p. 410 emphasis mine) On page 182 they note that in a plate of images of atlatls one is described as a bow. (Pages to follow)

An other example is on page 177. There the atlatls are described as throwers throwing spears and arrows. “The Anonymous Conqueror describes “spears thrown by a cross-bow made of an other piece of wood. These spears were tipped with obsidian or with very sharp, strong fish bones”

My point is just to note that there is evidence of calling these crossbows or bows. So the Book of Mormon use of bow could easily be seen as falling into that tradition.

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