Another look at Barley in The Book of Mormon

Posted on by

Since the discovery among the Hohokam archaeological sites in Arizona in 1983, it has been discovered that little barley (Hordeum pussilum) is native to the Americas. It was first discovered in the “Midwest during the Middle Archaic period, at two locationally close sites. The earliest record came from the Koster North site in central west Illinois, dating to 7,300 B.P. Hordeum pusillum also occurred at the Napoleon Hollow site, beginning at 6,800 B.P.” 1

Archaeologists are now finding barley in several sites all over North America. Barley has now been discovered in archaeological sites in the following places: Arkansas 2, Iowa 3, Illinois 4, Missouri 5, North Carolina 6, Oklahoma 7, Wisconsin 8, and Mexico 9

Since most scholars place Book of Mormon events in Central America, many of these sites and cultures would show that barley was native to the Americas, but outside of Book of Mormon parameters. However, since it is now being found in Mexico and the Southwest, it is becoming more likely that Book of Mormon cultures were in contact with cultures from the North, and may have possessed barley. The Hohokam who lived in Arizona, where domesticated barley was first found in 1983, are thought to have been in trade with those in “middle America”.

“As evidenced by an abundance of ball courts and platform mounds, cultures reigning far to the south clearly influenced the Hohokam. Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that middle America was the source for their principal crops: several varieties of corn, two kinds of squash, bottle gourds, and cotton…All these cultigens originally had worked their way north over time from places like the Valley of Mexico to the peoples of the Sonoran Desert, as had two kinds of grain amaranths and probably cultivated tobacco…they [the Hohokam] may have been the only culture to have cultivated little barley…Hohokam, like virtually all prehistoric dwellers of northern Mexico…” 10

While the connection between Mesoamerica and Barley is not made 11, it would seem odd that trade of “principal crops” would take place without the trade of barley. Whether the trade came from Mesoamerica to Arizona, or the other way around, it would make sense that barley was part of the crop trade between the cultures. Why make a trade of major crops and not trade barley? They very well may have. But, because of the moisture content and acidity of the soil in Mesoamerica, it may be difficult to find “little barley” in archaeological digs in Central America.

However, the trade did not stop in Arizona. We have evidence of trade from Mesoamerica all the way up the Mississippi River. The Smithsonian states:

“The Maya forged strong political and commercial alliances with the civilizations of central Mexico. Through long-distance trade, luxury goods as well as pan-Mesoamerican beliefs eventually reached the Anasazi people of the American Southwest and Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River…For a thousand years, Mesoamerican merchants traded ritual objects like macaw feathers and copper bells for precious turquoise mined by the Anasazi and Hohokam of the American Southwest…Social and religious ideas from Mesoamerica eventually reached Native American cultures east of the Mississippi River.” 12

As shown previously, most of the cultures of the Midwest eventually cultivated little barley for food. And we now know that food was part of the trade between Mesoamerica and “Eastern North America”. A recent study tells us that

“Maize (Zea mays), the first Mesoamerican domesticate to reach ENA (Eastern North America), did not arrive [until] ≈200 B.C.” 13

Again, how could there have been trade of crops between Mesoamerica and so many other cultures who used barley as a staple in their diet, and not have barley part of that trade, at least temporarily, among those people? 14


1. Hunter, Andrea A. dissertation “Utilization of Hordeum pusillum (little barley) in the Midwest United States: Applying Rindos’ co-evolutionary model of domestication” University of Missouri-Columbia 1992, pg 138.

2. Ibid, pg 141

3. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology , “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland plant use at the Gast Spring site (13LA152), southeast Iowa” Spring 1998 by Dunne, Michael T, Green, William, pg. 8

4. Nancy B. Asch and David L. Asch, “Archeobotany,” in Deer Track: A Late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley, ed. Charles R. McGimsey and Michael D. Conner (Kampsville, Ill.: Center for American Archeology, 1985), 44; see p. 78

5. Hunter, Andrea A. dissertation “Utilization of Hordeum pusillum (little barley) in the Midwest United States: Applying Rindos’ co-evolutionary model of domestication” University of Missouri-Columbia 1992, pg 173,

6. Scarry, John F. and C. Margaret Scarry 1997 Subsistence Remains from Prehistoric North Carolina Archaeological Sites. Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Electronic document last accessed May 15, 2009 at:

7. Nancy B. Asch and David L. Asch, “Archeobotany,” in Deer Track: A Late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley, ed. Charles R. McGimsey and Michael D. Conner (Kampsville, Ill.: Center for American Archeology, 1985), 44; see p. 78,

8. Hunter, Andrea A. dissertation “Utilization of Hordeum pusillum (little barley) in the Midwest United States: Applying Rindos’ co-evolutionary model of domestication” University of Missouri-Columbia 1992, pg 142]]]

9. “…extensive archaeological evidence also points to the cultivation of little barley in the Southwest and parts of Mexico.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology , “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland plant use at the Gast Spring site (13LA152), southeast Iowa” Spring 1998 by Dunne, Michael T, Green, William, pg. 8,

10. William W. Dunmire, Gardens of New Spain: how Mediterranean plants and foods changed America, , (University of Texas Press, 2004 )pg. 62-63

11. This author is not accurate in saying the Hohokam is the only culture to have cultivated barley. See previous references.

12. “Unmasking the Maya: The Story of Sna Jtz’ibajom,” Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology. On-line at (last accessed 30 May 2008).

13. Bruce D. Smith et. Al., Initial formation of an indigenous crop complex in eastern North America at 3800 B.P PNAS 2009 106:6561-6566

14. See also John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America” in John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book ofMormon: The F.A.R.M.S. Updates (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: Deseret Book Company and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 218-220.

26 thoughts on “Another look at Barley in The Book of Mormon

  1. Stan

    This point may not deal directly with your post, since it is about trade of Barley between Mexico and Norther tribes. Is this little barley native to the America’s? Was it domesticated here? If so, that seems to beg more questions regarding Book of Mormon grains and archaeological evidence. If Lehi and his family brought seeds of domesticated cereals with them from the old world, why would anyone bother going though the effort of domesticating a whole new cereal similar to one available to Lehi in the old world? If little barley was already domesticated by other native peoples before Lehi arrived, why didn’t the old world cereals, which I believe are higher in nutritional value, not supplant any old world cereals? I would hope that Lehi, his family and descendants would have shared their old world cereals with other native North Americans and the usage of these old world foods would spread through trade as you have described. It seems that finding native North American barley that is genetically different than old world barley still leaves the apparent anachronism of old world grains in the Book of Mormon unsolved. In fact it appears to me to make it worse. If barley was used in the new world and we assume Lehi would likely have brought barley seeds with him, which is logical, we should expect to see barely in North America that is genetically related to old world barley. This, of course, is assuming that Lehi would have brought barley with him, which is logical, but is not mentioned specifically.

  2. Theodore Brandley


    This evidence of long distance trade between Mesoamerica and the Mississippi basin ties in with our previous discussion on your topic, “Book of Mormon Geography in Joseph Smith’s day.” The archaeological site of Poverty Point, near the lower end of the Mississippi, was the hub of trade throughout the basin and its tributaries. “Long distance trade was the hallmark of Poverty Point culture” (Jon L. Gibson, Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley). This long distance trade was by water transportation which connected the Gulf of Mexico to the interior heartland of North America. It brings to mind the following quote:

    But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites…and their shipping and their building of ships… (Helaman 3:14)

    Trade also requires a common understanding of language. It brings about culture exchanges, marriage exchanges, and a linkage and intertwining of peoples. These facts do not correlate with the concept of the people of the Book of Mormon remaining isolated in a small area of Mesoamerica for a thousand years. “Their shipping and building of ships” alone is evidence of their long distance travel and trade.


  3. Christopher Smith


    I’m glancing through the BoM references to barley, and none of them indicate that this was a grain imported from the old world. Certainly the Lehites are said to have brought seeds, but this wasn’t necessarily one of them.


    Isn’t the problem with barley not just its geography, but also its timeframe of domestication? I seem to recall reading that barley was not domesticated even in North America until the early centuries A.D., whereas the BoM dates its cultivation to the first centuries B.C. What’s your take on the timeframe problem?



  4. Theodore Brandley


    Little Barley (Hordeum pusillum) is related to the Eurasian Hordeum vulgare (Cultivated Barley). Did Little Barley develop, or rather deteriorate, from cultivated barley when it grew wild? Perhaps.

    It is also interesting that the almond is thought to be indigenous to Costa Rica, but it is known that the almond is indigenous to the Levant.


  5. Stan

    Tying in the ship building comment and domesticated plants, I find it fascinating that the sweet potato was domesticated in South America but was in common use on Polynesian islands when Magellan reached them.

  6. Christopher Smith


    You’d probably have to look at the genetic distances between the two plants (European and Little Barley, I mean) to determine how long ago they’re thought to have diverged. If it wasn’t in the last couple millennia then your theory doesn’t work.



  7. Don Neighbors

    If I am reading Tyler’s article correctly, Hordeum pussilum has been in use since well before the time of the Lehite colony, whether it was first gathered as a wild grain – as would be expected in a hunter-gatherer society – or later as a domestic grain as found at the later Hohokam sites. I would say this is very strong evidence that Hordeum pussilum is NOT a degraded Hordeum vulgare.

    Skimming over the Book of Mormon I see that barley is already domesticated by the time it is mentioned in Alma and Mosiah. The earliest date barley is mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 9) overlaps the time period in which the Hohokam culture is believed to have begun. I think the evidence is good that the Book of Mormon is speaking of domesticated Hordeum pussilum, since their use of it seems to coincide with its use by other cultures. I strongly suspect, given the rather matter-of-fact way that barley is mentioned in the Book of Mormon that its cultivation had been underway for some time before it first appears in the BoM. I think Mosiah and Alma both infer the crop is important at the time they are writing.

    It would be interesting to see if there are areas where barley cultivation and use was more dominant than maize cultivation in ancient times.

  8. Don Neighbors

    I just discovered I’ve been misspelling Hordeum pussilum. “Pussilum” should be spelled “pussillum.”

  9. Stan

    “It would be interesting to see if there are areas where barley cultivation and use was more dominant than maize cultivation in ancient times.”

    What do we know from lake bed pollen core samples? Is there any good literature on domesticated Mesoamerican plants?

  10. Tyler

    If I remember correctly, Hordeum pusillum is thought to have first been domesticated in Illinois, and spreading from there. Some of the oldest findings of little barley have been found there, starting in the Middle Archaic period in the Koster North site in Illinois. The specimens there date from 7,300 to 6,850 B.P. So it had been around for millenia before the Lehites ever made it to the Americas.
    You can speculate that the Lehites brought Hordeum vulgare, but there is no evidence of that in The Book of Mormon. Perhaps even if they did, it did not survive.

  11. Tyler

    As always, I enjoyed your comments. I never saw the verse in Helaman you quoted before. I believe that is a strong evidence of long distance trade in The Book of Mormon, and strengthens the argument that Timothy Pauketat about Mesoamericans using a riverine highway. I am sure we will learn much more about the contact between cultures as more is discovered.

  12. Tyler

    Excellent points Don. If little barley came from the Hohokam, the dates would match up. But, if they came from woodland cultures, the dates match up. Either way, I see this as an evidence of The Book of Mormon.

  13. Ed Goble

    The principal claim in my book Resurrecting Cumorah is that the cultures of the North are a mix of “others” as well as migrations from the south, and that this is actually in support of a New York Cumorah. It is further evidence that the heartland model for Book of Mormon Geography (something I abandoned long ago) does not work, because the cultures of the north are pricipally dependent for their culture on Mesoamerica. Furthermore, there is now no significant barrier to Cumorah having been in the Great Lakes region, since this means Desolation most certainly could have extended up that far. Although Mesoamerican advocates remain particularly adverse to that suggestion, though I don’t know why they should be. My goal is to establish the New York Cumorah once again as a rational theory.

    See my site for the current manuscript of the book:

  14. Theodore Brandley


    The Ohio/Allegheny branch of the Mississippi River comes within 100 miles of the hill Cumorah. The Mississippi was an ancient supper highway that linked the Gulf of Mexico to North Eastern America.


  15. Theodore Brandley

    Author John Gunther wrote:

    The Mississippi River remains what it always was—a kind of huge rope…tying the United States together. It is the Nile of the Western Hemisphere.

    The River Sidon was the Nile of The Book Of Mormon.


  16. Ed Goble


    I am a Mesoamerican theorist when it comes to the Land Southward and a Great Lakes theorist when it comes to the Land Northward, a synergy between the two going back to a more traditional model, not entirely hemispheric. I used to think the Sidon was the Mississippi, but it simply doesn’t fit the text of the Book of Mormon. See the site for good rebuttals to the US Heartland Theory. The Sidon went northward not southward. There is too much intellectual gymnatistics to make any Heartland model work. I know that you love the poverty point culture. I congratulate you for your steadfastness in what you believe to be true. I believe differently. The Nile of the western hemisphere is the Amazon, not the Mississippi. Neither of these were the Sidon. The sidon was the principal river in the Nephite Land Southward, which only fits in Mesoamerica.

  17. Ed Goble

    Oh Theodore, there is one more thing. The fact that the Mississippi was the major highway in the great lakes region is a very important point for the issue of travel between the great lakes region and Mesoamerica. But that really is about the supposed impossibility of travelling between the two. This is not a question about the issue of the Sidon river. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon is primarily the record of the ancient inhabitants of the Land Southward, and is only incidentally now and again a record of a few things that happened in the Land Northward.

  18. Chris Watkins

    As pleased as I am to see my beloved Hohokam mentioned here, I am unclear as to a few points of this post.

    First, “But, because of the moisture content and acidity of the soil in Mesoamerica, it may be difficult to find “little barley” in archaeological digs in Central America.”

    Upon what are you basing this assumption? Is there something about the composition of little barley seeds, plants, pollen, or phytoliths that makes it prone to poor preservation? Mesoamerica is a big place, are the soil conditions across such a huge region really so uniformly high in acid and moisture as to prohibit the preservation of this specific species, particularly when maize and other domesticates do preserve in the form of carbonized remains, pollen, and phytoliths?

    I’m also unclear as to the broad point of this post. The suggestion seems to be hat little barley was a widespread, but minor component of Precolumbian agricultural suites across large portions of the Western Hemisphere, and that domesticates likely moved across the region from group to group. Is this correct?

    I’d also encourage you to track down the primary source for the occurrence of little barley in Precolumbian Mesoamerica. Citing the Dunmire overview is a good first step, but finding references that indicate the discovery of this species at specific sites would cement what I think you are trying to do.

    I did enjoy reading this. Let me know if you need any more information on the Hohokam literature. A friend recently published a paper on domestic amaranth discovered in the Phoenix Basin, and I’ve been thinking about crop suites somewhat lately.

  19. Tyler

    I believe phytoliths will be the best way to find little barley in Mesoamerica, if it existed there. I don’t believe there has been any extensive phytolith samples taken from Mesoamerica, but haven’t followed it all that much recently. Last I heard, Professor Ball at BYU was going to be doing some phitolyth studies in Mesoamerica. I am not sure how many samples he was taking, or where exactly in Mesoamerica he was taking them from, but haven’t heard of any published studies as of yet.

    I think you are correct in what the article was trying to convey. Domesticated barley was, first, found in pre-Columbian America. Second, that it was widespread, and found in many more cultures and geographical areas than previously thought. And third, through trade, it is very possible that it existed in Mesoamerica, a candidate for The Book of Mormon.

    Because of school and lack of time, I settled for the Mexico citation. I’ll go back and see if I can find anything else. I did put quite a bit of effort into tracking it down, but it has been a while since I’ve done that. Perhaps more has been published since then.

    I do recall that you are an expert in the Hohokam, and I would be happy to hear your thoughts on trade with them and Mesoamerica. As I said, it’s been a while since I wrote this, but at the time, I noted that there had been quite some Mesoamerican influence on the Hohokam, and many Mesoamerican items had been found there. I recall copper bells, macaw feathers, jade, etc… had been found there. I also recall that some Hohokam architecture had been patterned after Mesoamerican architecture. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  20. Theodore Brandley


    The assumed south to north direction of flow of the Sidon is probably the main factor that has hidden the geography of the Book of Mormon for 180 years. Let’s examine the text more carefully:

    “…a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla…” (Alma 22:27)

    The narrow strip of wilderness ran east and west “round about on the borders of the seashore.” Please notice that the narrow strip of wilderness is running along the seashore, so this seashore is also running east and west.

    Also notice that the Land of Zarahemla borders on the north side of the strip of wilderness. Therefore, the seashore is on the south side of the east-west narrow strip of wilderness.

    The north-south oriented River Sidon was running through the land of Zarahemla and flowing to the sea.

    You tell me, which direction does the Sidon River Sidon flow?


  21. Theodore Brandley


    Sometimes the Land of Zarahemla was referred to as the land north:

    Now the land south was called Lehi, and the land north was called Mulek, which was after the son of Zedekiah; for the Lord did bring Mulek into the land north, and Lehi into the land south. (Helaman 6:10)

    I think you would agree that the land of Zarahemla was north of the land of Lehi and south of the land of Desolation. Also, we know that Zarahemla was twenty one days traveling distance from the north border of the land of Lehi (Mosiah 23:3, 24:20, 24:25).

    You are right that we don’t have much of the record of the Nephites who lived in the land of Desolation, although there were large records kept about them (Helaman 3:13). Nephites started moving into the land desolation about 50 BC (Alma 63:4; Helaman 3:3-4) and lived there for the next 400 years, and covered the land. We have very little narrative of any Nephite location after the visitation of Christ until the time of Mormon. Mormon was born in the land Desolation and in his day the entire Nephite Civilization was driven there (Mormon 2:29). All of the narrative after that takes place in the land Desolation. Also, most of the book of Ether takes place in the land Desolation.

    It is true that the Amazon is a larger river than the Mississippi but the Amazon basin is sparsely inhabited. I think what author John Gunther meant by labeling the Mississippi “The Nile of the Western Hemisphere,” is that the Nile was the life blood, the center, and the linkage of the Egyptian Civilization. He believed that the Mississippi served the same purpose in America.


  22. Ed Goble


    On those terms, the Mississippi was the “Nile” of North America, while the Amazon was the “Nile” of South America, but the Sidon was simply the central river of the Nephite Lands in the Land Southward. That doesn’t make either of these the Sidon.

    Unfortunately, I’m kind of burned out on Land Southward issues, and I’m long since settled on Mesoamerica as my land southward. I’m actually taking Resurrecting Cumorah down from my site now because I’m in talks with a reasonable Mesoamerican scholar finally on it, and have finally got some reasonable feedback with real in-depth answers to my contentions. So based on this dialogue, I will either rewrite it or put it in the trash bin. On Land Southward issues, it is non-negotiable for me that it is Mesoamerica, and I’m not real interested in re-hashing the same old stuff.

    In other words Theodore, I’m once again in a transition period in my thinking where I’m ready to let go of previously held beliefs if they turn out to be wrong. I’ve done this many times before on many issues. I’ve done it on Book of Mormon Geography before.

    But any North American setting for a Land Southward is off the table for me having been long since left behind by me, both emotionally and mentally. Not interested in it. It is not supportable by the text of the Book of Mormon, nor by archaeology. I’m only interested in what is reasonable and rational. That is not a slam on what you think. It is only a subjective judgment based on where I’m at in my personal thinking.

  23. Theodore Brandley

    OK Ed,

    I don’t want to stress you out on North American Geography but will leave you with one more thought on the subject.

    The many limited Mesoamerica theories all require that the Jaredites also landed in Mesoamerica. However, a careful reading of the Journey of the Jaredites shows that they would have landed on the eastern shore of North America. According to the text they travelled northward from Babel where they built ships on the shore of an inland sea, in which ships they “crossed many waters” (Ether 2:6). They crossed “many waters” in these barges (oared or paddled), and there is no more mention of going overland after they built these ships.

    They eventually came to the shore of the “raging deep” where they built other ships. The inland sea can only be the Caspian. An interesting thing about the Caspian is that the largest, longest and slowest river in Europe, the Volga, empties into its north end. The headwater of the Volga is only 200 miles from the Baltic Sea, which is reached via a 15 mile portage into the Western Dvina River. The Vikings portaged their longships (that were also “light upon the water like a foul” – Ether 2:16) between these two rivers for several centuries. This would bring the Jaredites to the western shores of Norway where there are several exceedingly high mountains on the edge of the North Atlantic, which more than any other sea deserves the name “raging deep” (Ether 3:3). Crossing the North Atlantic would bring them to the eastern shores of North America. It is contrary to the evidence in the text of the Book of Mormon that the Jaredites traveled overland all the way across Asia to reach the Pacific and Mesoamerica.


  24. Ed Goble

    Theodore, everybody pulls any kind of detail they can out of the Book of Mormon and calls it significant, when the text really says no such thing and it is all contrived. I can show you laundry lists of stuff that all kinds of theorists have supposedly pulled out of the Book of Mormon, including the laundry lists of those who propose the book is ahistorical. To me, there is nothing to show any kind of geographical setting to where the Jaredites would have launched from into the sea except for where they started from. And my attitude is, wherever they launched from into the sea is irrelevent to where they ended up. And as for me, they ended up where they first landed, Tehuantepec, because that is the seat of the oldest high culture in the Americas, and their heartland is concentrated around that neck on the east side. I don’t care what current took them there. Poverty point and Adena cultures of the Land Northward are simply outlier cultures that have more or less to do with the Jaredites (Olmecs) in their more northerly sphere of influence.

  25. Theodore Brandley


    Mormon gave a great deal of geographical information throughout the text, which indicates he wanted us to know where the events occurred. In my opinion, trusting in Mormon’s description, and matching his text to the facts on the ground is the best way to discover what Mormon was trying to tell to us.

    Trying to match someone’s subjective, imaginative, cultural interpretation of artifacts to the text may be of value for secondary confirmation, but may also be a diversion from the truth.

    Jon L. Gibson, preeminent archaeologist at Poverty Point, wrote these words at the end of his booklet, “Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley:”

    The preceding view of Poverty Point is a patchwork of facts, hypotheses, guesses, and speculations. Many equally sound interpretations can be drawn from the same data. This is the nature of archaeology. Trying to describe an extinct culture, especially its social and political organizations and its religion by means of artifacts is not an exact science…

    All the best, Theodore

Comments are closed.