How Can Barley in the Book of Mormon Feed Faith?
April 27, 2016
KnoWhy #87
Stalk of Barley via Wikimedia commons.
Stalk of Barley via Wikimedia commons.
“And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits”

Mosiah 9:9

The Know

When Zeniff takes a group of Nephites back up to the land of Nephi, seeking to reclaim “the land of [their] fathers’ first inheritance,” they “began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds” (Mosiah 9:1, 9; cf. Mosiah 7:22). Included in their list of crops are wheat and barley, two Old World grains long believed to be absent in the pre-Columbian New World. Yet, for barley at least, this assumption is mistaken.

There are actually three types of wild barley native to the Americas, something scientists have been aware of for a long time. In wasn’t until 1983, however, that archaeologists first uncovered a domesticated form of barley native to the Americas in Arizona in a pre-Columbian (ca. AD 900) context.1

Neolithic Farming. Image via emaze.com

“Little barley,” as scientists call it, has since been found throughout the Mississippi River valley,2 where it was a major staple during the Middle (ca. 200 BC–AD 500) and Late Woodland (ca. AD 500–1000) periods,3 though “likely cultivated specimens” have also been found dating to as early as 800 BC in Iowa.4 According to two non-LDS scholars, “extensive archaeological evidence also points to the cultivation of little barley in the Southwest and parts of Mexico.”5

The Why

Over time, more and more evidence for domestication of little barley in the Americas has emerged over an increasingly wider span of both time and geography. Little barley may have diffused to other regions of the Americas which were known to trade with the southwest and eastern United States, including the exchange of crops.6 In any case, evidence demonstrates that in at least some parts of the Americas, a type of barley was a highly important crop during Book of Mormon times. 

Lib by James Fullmer

This has important implications for the Book of Mormon. In the second and first centuries BC, barley played a significant role in Nephite society, not only as food, but as a measurement of exchange (Alma 11:1–19), just as it did in ancient Near Eastern economic systems.7 Evidence from what is often called archaeobotany (the study of plants remains at archaeological sites) now confirms that a species of barley was highly important to some cultures in the Americas at this time. 

This is another example that illustrates the benefits that come with patience in archaeology.8 John L. Sorenson commented, “That such an important crop could have gone undetected for so long by archaeologists justifies the thought that wheat might also be found in ancient [American] sites.”9 Questions remain about Nephite crops, animals, and material culture, but discoveries like little barley illustrate the wisdom in keeping an open mind and avoiding hasty judgments while considering and exploring what the Book of Mormon says about Nephite life.

Further Reading

Tyler Livingston, “Barley and the Book of Mormon: New Evidence,” Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (2010).

John L. Sorenson and Robert F. Smith, “Barley in Ancient America,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 130–132.