Populations in the Book of Mormon

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Foreward: This topic has been addressed by others (e.g., [1-3]). I only looked up and started skimming through the other essays or articles on this topic after writing most of this post. I’m not trying to offer anything new. This is merely my own non-specific commentary (meaning I’m not replying to anyone specifically) on Book of Mormon populations.

In the Book of Mormon we read of three groups of people: Nephites, Mulekites, and Jaredites. The Jaredites left what is now called the Middle East somewhere around 2000 BC (there’s uncertainty around that timing — they realistically could have left as late as 1000 BC but 2000 BC is likely closer to the truth). They travelled an unknown direction to what we now call the Americas. Where they landed and lived is unknown but the best speculation is in the Mesoamerican area. Wherever they were in the Americas, they would have lived with others who peopled the Americas. 

Side note: The first people who lived in the Americas started arriving about 20 thousand years ago (this date is controversial). There was recent evidence suggesting people might have arrived here 130,000 thousand years ago but it’s been heavily criticized (e.g., [4,5]). Dating the arrival of ancient people into other locations is challenging. There is considerable uncertainty when “modern humans” were first living outside Africa. A 2018 paper in Science provided evidence modern humans were living outside Africa about 180,000 years ago, which is much earlier than previously believed [6]. This uncertainty about dates doesn’t mean what we know is widely wrong, it just means there is a lot we do not know about early human history. There’s a lot we don’t know about modern human history, for that matter.

Eventually the Jaredite people collapsed as a civilization due to political in-fighting, wars, and natural events. It’s possible they were also at least partially culturally integrated into surrounding civilizations, thus ending as a people. There is some speculation by members of The Church of Latter-day Saints that the Jaredites were or were at least affiliated with what we call the Olmec people, in part because the dates of the civilization match the timeline of the Jaredites (starting circa 1600 BC [again, there are many unknowns about when ancient civilizations started] and collapsing around 400 BC) as well as the scope of the Jaredites (they were “a great nation”, Ether 1:43). Who they were or where they lived is less important than the spiritual lessons offered by their brief history we have (that was interpreted with editorial commentary by men who lived at least 1000 years later).

Remnants of the Jaredite civilization were found by the other main group of individuals recorded in the Book of Mormon — the Mulekites. The Mulekites left Jerusalem around the time of its seige in 589 BC and its destruction around 587/586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar II. At least portions of the Mulekites merged with the Nephites and Lamanites years after they reached the Americas.

All of this leads to the purpose of this post. Lehi lived circa 645 – 575 BC (we don’t know how old he was when he left Jerusalem and don’t know how old he was when he died). While we don’t know how large his group was when they reached the Americas, we can estimate it was likely in the range of 25-50 people (Lehi’s family plus Ishmael’s family). For our purposes we’ll assume 30 people. From that group we read this account: “And now, behold, two hundred years had passed away, and the people of Nephi had waxed strong in the land…. And they were scattered upon much of the face of the land, and the Lamanites also. And they were exceedingly more numerous than were they of the Nephites;… And it came to pass that they came many times against us, the Nephites, to battle…. And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land, and became exceedingly rich.” (Jarom 1:5-8). What little record we have about the early years of the Nephite people come from a record focused almost exclusively on prophesyings and revelations. (Words of Mormon 1:6) This makes estimating population sizes challenging.

Populations generally grow exponentially. This can account for rapid growth over generations. Limiting factors include food supply, land supply, water supply, disease, conflict, technological limitations, and natural disasters. As such, the carrying capacity of an area is generally larger than the current population in an area. This is because societal effects limit potential growth. The general upper limit of potential human population exponential growth is about 0.1 (that’s a gross 10% rate of change per year; [7]) That’s clearly not realistic with human populations but is an estimated upper limit. The reality of net population growth is discussed more below. Here’s an example of exponential growth before we get into data about growth rates.

An exponential growth formula looks like this: y = a(1 + r)x. With 30 people reaching the Americas, 200 years later with a 10% rate of change, there would be 5,697,158,294 Nephites and Lamanites. That’s obviously not feasible. In modern industrial times the population of the earth has had growth rates as high as 2-3% [8]. Rates that high during Nephite times with an ideal set of circumstances would be conceivable but unlikely. Our world currently has just over a 1% growth rate. This is largely because families are smaller than they were 60 years ago.

3% growth would be about 11,000 descendents of Lehi in 200 years, 2% growth would yield about 1600, and 1% would be about 220. In Jarom we read about the Nephites being “scattered upon much of the face of the land”. That doesn’t mean there were a lot of Nephites, it just means they had spread out. We don’t know how large an area is “much of the face of the land.” Assuming it means large geographic areas is reading more into the record than what it says. The Nephites continued to multiply (that’s exponential growth). There were, however, “exceedingly more [Lamanites] than…Nephites”. Let’s go over ancient population growth rates before cycling back to the Book of Mormon people.

Estimates put growth rates in ancient prehistoric Australia at 0.04% [9,10]. That rate would result in about 33 Nephites and Lamanites 200 years later. That’s not a likely number given the record in the Book of Mormon. In fact, while that is true as an average over thousands of years, growth accelerated starting about 5000 years ago, likely tied to climate changes [9]. In ancient prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, the growth rate has been estimated to be as high as 0.4% for short periods of time [11]. Again, the 0.04% rate is true over thousands of years. There will be considerable variation within shorter time epochs [11] and within localized regions and peoples. Applying large-scale population growth rates to an individual family (that becomes a small society) is invalid. I will, however, continue down this path as we work nearer the truth.

If we look at ancient Greece, we see rates around 0.25 to 0.45% during the centuries before Christ [12]. Similar rates around 0.4% are reported for ancient Palestine [13]. Using a 0.4% growth rate, we have 67 Nephites and Lamanites after 200 years. Even by the end of the Book of Mormon 1000 years later, there would only be about 1,600 Nephites and Lamanites. Again, that’s net population growth including loss to war, famine, political turmoil, and catastrophic events. That’s also applying population-level statistics to individual families and groups of people. It’s like assuming an individual’s (or family’s intelligence) based on the average. That person might have average intelligence but she might have superior or limited intelligence. Group level statistics do not tell us about individuals. This can be true for societies. In essence, the peak population can be drastically higher than predicted. All this being said, we see something supporting population level growth rates in the Book of Mormon — higher peak population but then after a societal collapse, essentially no Nephites. We could run the statistical model for the Nephites or the Jaredites and maybe get a result matching the 0.4% expected growth rate. However, some people dismiss the Book of Mormon as having unrealistic populations, in part because it doesn’t seem to match what they believe population growth rates should be. Therefore, they believe it’s not true. However, whatever we think about it, the Book of Mormon is true. Its veracity is independent from our beliefs about it; meaning, whether or not we have a witness of the truth of the Book of Mormon, it is true regardless. It is our responsibility to receive a witness of its truth. This is something I’ve received from God. Given this, there are three explanations for Book of Mormon population growth: 1) the descendants of Lehi had higher population growth rates than the expected 0.4%, 2) there were other unnamed people (but hinted at) the Lamanites and Nephites merged with, or 3) a combination of those points.

I already mentioned applying population-level growth rates to individuals, families, and even cultures can be misleading or invalid. Here’s why. Lehi and Sariah had at least 8 children who lived to adulthood (Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, plus “sisters”). Add in potential others from Ishmael’s family who were not the daughters marrying Lehi’s sons, and we have the 30 people I used as an estimate. We know a number of Book of Mormon people over the years had multiple children (e.g., Mosiah). This is in part because they were descendents of Israel. They placed great value on children. Because of this, it’s highly likely this small group of people had a higher fertility rate than broader societies at the time. We see this within modern times. In the U.S. the average number of children per family with children is about 1.9 [14]. However, Utah, a state with a high percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was an outlier at 2.2 in the 2000 Census. If we look at Latter-day Saints, we see an average of 3.4 children per family [15]. That number is lower than it used to be. There were higher infant mortality rates in the past but it’s possible for families and societies to have high fertility rates for extended periods (“extended” being up to hundreds of years). What would the population of the U.S. be if its fertility and growth rates were as high as than among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Higher than it is now.

We don’t know how large the Nephite population was 200 years after Lehi left Jerusalem or really at any point in the Book of Mormon. We have some counts of groups (armies) but don’t know if those are exact numbers, estimates, or exaggerations. Nephite and Lamanite population likely wasn’t large after 200 years (e.g., 11,000 with a high 3% growth rate), at least according to a limited definition as direct descendents of Lehi and relative to populations today. Additionally, we know the terms Nephites and Lamanites were cultural, religious, and political terms (see 2 Nephi 5:9; Doctrine & Covenants 10:48) and thus often did not constitute genealogy (some discussion in [16]). Essentially anyone who wasn’t a Nephite was a Lamanite. People could become Nephites or Lamanites. Sometimes there was distinction (e.g., Anti-Nephi-Lehies) but it wasn’t always that clear. There are hints there were others (e.g., many more Lamanites than Nephites) but we also need to understand the purpose of the Book of Mormon.

It is a history of a people (with commentary about some other groups) but it’s primarily a sacred record that testifies of Jesus Christ. This is an unsatisfactory answer to many people but it’s the reality of the situation. This does not mean there is no utility of the Book of Mormon outside spiritual matters but we can’t get hung up on what we think should be in the Book of Mormon. We also shouldn’t get hung up on perceived discrepancies between what we know or think we know through current scientific methods and what we think we know about the Book of Mormon.

Again, the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to invite people to Christ. Discussions about population, such as this one, are not ultimately important (but can be interesting). What’s ultimately important are the covenants we make with our Heavenly Father, our faithfulness to those covenants, and the manifestations of the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives.

So how do we explain Book of Mormon populations? This is a challenge because we never know populations in the Book of Mormon. However, what is most likely is high growth rate plus mixing with existing groups in the Americas.

References

  1. Nephi’s Descendants? Historical Demography and the Book of Mormon
  2. Question: Are the large population counts described in the Book of Mormon during the final battle at the Hill Cumorah accurate?
  3. How Could So Many People Have Died at the Battle of Cumorah?
  4. Critics attack study that rewrote human arrival in Americas
  5. A New Study Says Humans Were in America 130,000 Years Ago
  6. Hershkovitz, I., Weber, G. W., Quam, R., Duval, M., Grün, R., Kinsley, L., … & Arsuaga, J. L. (2018). The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, 359(6374), 456-459.
  7. Stutz, A. J. (2014). Modeling the pre-industrial roots of modern super-exponential population growth. PloS one, 9(8).
  8. World Population Growth
  9. Johnson, C. N., & Brook, B. W. (2011). Reconstructing the dynamics of ancient human populations from radiocarbon dates: 10000 years of population growth in Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1725), 3748-3754
  10. Zahid, H. J., Robinson, E., & Kelly, R. L. (2016). Agriculture, population growth, and statistical analysis of the radiocarbon record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(4), 931-935.
  11. Bettinger, R. L. (2016). Prehistoric hunter–gatherer population growth rates rival those of agriculturalists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(4), 812-814.
  12. Scheidel, W. (2003). The Greek Demographic Expansion: Models and Comparisons. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 123, 120-140. Retrieved March 29, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3246263
  13. Pastor, Jack (2013). Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine. Routledge. p. 7
  14. Table ST-F1-2000. Average Number of Children Per Family and Per Family With Children, by State: 2000 Census
  15. Mormons more likely to marry, have more children than other U.S. religious groups
  16. Book of Mormon Peoples
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