Nephi’s voyage to the promised land ranks among the best known Book of Mormon stories, perhaps partly because you’ll find it near the beginning of the book, early enough for most readers to make it to before losing interest, but it’s also a foundational piece of the Book of Mormon story. It’s the “creation myth” of the Book of Mormon, the event that sets up the story of the Nephites and the Lamanites and tries to explain the origin of the Native Americans. If you ask a mildly informed person what the Book of Mormon is about, you are likely to hear that it’s about “a group of Jews that sail to America.”
Critics tend to dwell on the broadest problems with the Book of Mormon as a literal history, such as the archaeological and DNA evidence contradicting its description of ancient America, and so the implausibilities of the story itself are sometimes missed in the larger discussion. I think this explains the popularity of the Mormon Expression Podcast episode: How to Build a Transoceanic Vessel, in which John Larsen’s panel picks apart the story of Nephi’s voyage and the utter impossibility that it is for Nephi to build an ocean-going ship from scratch in 600 BC on the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a story that’s crucial to the Book of Mormon, but also frequently overlooked.
However, the podcast is also based on an assumption: that the ship described by Nephi used the technology and design of a European voyaging ship, similar to the Santa Maria or the Black Pearl. I couldn’t begin to guess where such an assumption came from:
In fairness to John Larsen (and Arnold Friberg), there are clues in the text, which we’ll get to later, that suggest this kind of ship. In the meantime, allow me to recap, briefly, the logistical issues presented in the podcast:
- The Book of Mormon makes a point of showing that Nephi has to build everything – even his tools – from scratch. It begins by describing Nephi mining ore and smelting it with the aid of a bellows (that he also made). He describes building either a bloomery or a blast furnace. Either would require charcoal and metal/clay pipes, which Nephi would also have had to make from scratch somehow. The process is complex and difficult, and according to the Larsen podcast, would require you to deforest acres of trees just to produce the charcoal you need to to smelt the metal for his tools, leaving you to wonder how Nephi deforested so many trees before he’d even made his first tool.
- In addition to the iron tools, Nephi needs thousands of nails and a lot of metal strapping for the ship. Now you’re looking at even more acres of deforestation.
- Building a transoceanic vessel of this type requires the skill and labor of thousands of people and the collective support of thousands of years of civilization. Many details of the process require entire industries that typically would employ entire towns. One town may be built entirely around the industry of creating a usable keel, a difficult and time-intensive process that requires 40-50 men. Then you need to build a dry dock before you can even begin building the ship – a process that also requires an entire industry to support, that feat alone impossible for Nephi to reasonably accomplish on his own.
- In order to make the sail, Nephi would need hundreds and hundreds of sheep to fleece, so he needs people tending, feeding, protecting and watering the flocks.
- Nephi would have had to make an unreasonable amount of rope as well, not to mention pulleys to build a rudder, which hasn’t been invented yet, but would be crucial to transoceanic travel.
- Nephi would need to develop a pickling and food preservation industry, and a well in the ship to store fresh water.
- The sheer number of man-hours that go into building a ship could not possibly be done by Nephi and his family in their lifetime.
The podcast is actually quite fun, if irreverent, and my summary here actually undersells just how impossible the logistics are for Nephi. But regardless, the overall point the panelists make is that the writer of 1 Nephi vastly underestimates the amount of work and raw materials that go into making one of these vessels, and building one from scratch is simply not possible, no matter how much revelation you receive. At one point, panelist Randy described it as “Gilligan’s Island level of ridiculousness.” Larsen pointed out that there’s not a soul on earth who could walk into the wilderness and construct a skateboard from scratch, much less an ocean-going vessel. You can’t recreate thousands of years of civilization on a camping trip.
After listening to the podcast, however, I was left with a question. If transoceanic sailing was such an impossibility before the age of discovery, how did the Polynesians do it? And could they possibly provide a model for Nephi to cross the Pacific?
Lets talk about these people. The Polynesian people descend from early seafarers that traveled from eastern Melanesia to Tonga and Samoa between 1500 and 1000 BC. The Polynesian culture developed and flourished on these islands. Owing their existence to ancient mariners, sailing is deeply ingrained in them and their culture; it’s an inextricable part of who they are and it’s forged in their DNA. In fact, around the time of Christ, the Polynesians had their own age of exploration lasting about a millennium. They accomplished some truly impressive voyages of discovery, spreading first to the Marquesas and then the Society islands (which is where you find Tahiti). From there they spread southwest to New Zealand and then, in some truly impressive voyages, to Hawaii and Easter Island.
What makes this especially interesting to me, and especially relevant to the story of Nephi, is the possibility that the Polynesian voyagers actually made it all the way to South America. Although still under scientific debate, evidence is mounting to support South American contact. The sweet potato, that tuber that you sometimes pay an extra dollar for when you order french fries, was originally domesticated in Peru, but has shown up in pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the Pacific Islands, suggesting not just contact, but return trips, maybe even commerce, hundreds of years before Columbus arrived in the New World. And they did all of this without the aid of modern compasses or ships.
What makes these voyages especially impressive is that the trade winds in the Pacific Ocean generally blow east to west, meaning these sailors were not just getting carried along merrily by ocean currents, they had to have the skill and technology to sail windward. These voyages into the unknown were both deliberate and expertly done.
So I had to ask. What if Nephi didn’t build a European-style sailboat at all? What if he built a Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe? Could Lehi’s family have made their way to the New World in a Hawaiian Waʻa Kaulua? After all, even John Larsen described Nephi’s description of ship-building as if “they’re building a canoe.”
The Polynesian Double-Hulled Canoe
We don’t know a ton about these ancient vessels, but we have a few reference points. In 1976, a professor at the University of Hawaii, Ben R. Finney, oversaw the construction of a replica ancient sailing canoe and made a round trip from Hawaii to Fiji and back, using only traditional navigation instruments, in order to demonstrate how these ancient mariners could have deliberately colonized the Pacific Isles. He based the design on elements common among all sailing canoes in the Pacific Islands, with the rationale that local variations and more recent inventions would not be shared among the different cultures. Dr Finney had to rely purely on extant canoe-building cultures for his design, though now there are a few other sources to draw on. In 2012, New Zealand archaeologists discovered a section of a canoe dating from 1400AD. If you’re inclined to take a peek into the past, take a look at the care these ancient sailors put into their boat, right down to an ornamental sea turtle that was carved into the hull.
Archaeologists have also found this petroglyph which gives us a rough idea of what an ancient sailing canoe would have looked like:
If Nephi sailed in a double-hulled canoe, it obviates the need for him to build a keel, dry dock, nails, bindings…really, it greatly simplifies the task. The double-hulled canoe is built with two canoes bound together by wooden crossbeams to provide stability. Even though it lacks a keel, Dr. Finney proved that skilled sailors can sail them windward, though not as efficiently or as quickly as a keeled sailboat. The Polynesians didn’t need any advanced metallurgy for the task. The only tools they needed were a knife, a hatchet and an adze, all of which crude versions could be built without the need for smelting. Parts were lashed together, not nailed together. Logs could be carved out, rather than relying on steaming and bending large pieces of wood. Problem solved, right?
More problems for Nephi
An important thing to note is that, although the Polynesians made it potentially all the way across the Pacific, they did it in a series of shorter voyages over the span of over a thousand years. These sea-going canoes are not fast enough or large enough to make a single trip across the Pacific, much less all the way from the Arabian Peninsula. Modern catamarans are built on the same double-hulled principle and are both larger and faster, but the Polynesian design has limitations on its size. In order to be faster, the hulls need to be farther apart, but there is an upper limit to how far apart the hulls can be built using wood beams and lashings, or else the crossbeams will become too stressed and break. Catamarans use modern materials which are much stronger. In order to build a catamaran, Nephi is back to square one as far as far as needing metal nails, bindings and tools. Dr. Finney’s reconstructed canoe could travel 16-18 mph, and traveling between Tahiti and Hawaii (which, you’ll notice, is more of a North/South route as opposed to the difficult eastward route Nephi had to travel) averaged 236 kilometers a day. In order to make it to South America, Nephi would have had to make an Odyssey, stopping at several islands along the way to reconstruct lost or damaged materials and to restock food and fresh water. Recall that the Polynesians weren’t making multiple consecutive long voyages like this. They had generations, even centuries between each discovery to establish new colonies that could support more ship building and further exploration. Nephi, in a relatively short time period, needed to travel over 27,000 kilometers. Using the extremely generous estimate of 236 km a day, that’s at least 114 days just on the sea, not to mention all the time spent on the islands preparing for the next voyage. Any islands to the east of Tonga and Samoa were still uninhabited at the time, so Nephi would have had to build his repair materials from scratch over and over again in order to resupply his ship (and on any inhabited islands he landed on, which would have been many, he would have had to make contact with several indigenous tribes without mentioning it). The text strongly implies a single voyage, so it’s a little tough to justify this interpretation.
In addition to the problems with the speed and range of the boat, we have to consider its size. As I mentioned before, there’s an upper limit on the size of one of these boats before you have to resort to modern materials, in which case Nephi is back in John Larsen’s cross-hairs. The large reconstructed canoe that Dr. Finney built carried a crew of 12-15 people plus supplies. Keep in mind they only needed to carry enough supplies to survive the voyage. Nephi intended to colonize his destination, and the Book of Mormon tells us he was carrying stocks of honey, fruit and seeds to plant in the new world, plus all their tools and tents. Since just one of these canoes can’t possibly hold Lehi’s entire extended family (let alone supplies), it would require a fleet, not a single ship. We’ve now quadrupled or quintupled Nephi’s workload at least, and the text very specifically refers to a single ship, not a fleet. Adding to the complications is that these canoes require experienced sailors, and Nephi’s family weren’t all in the necessary physical condition to be useful as crew. Nephi describes his father and mother as “stricken in years.” They also had breast-feeding infants and their mothers aboard these vessels. This type of sailing is not conducive to physically vulnerable passengers. The storm that Nephi describes as lasting for three days and nearly taking his parent’s life would have been catastrophic to a crew of recent mothers, babies and the elderly aboard a voyaging canoe.
The difficulties for Nephi don’t end there either. While these kinds of boats were capable of island-hopping, that final push across the Pacific to America is tough. Although the Polynesian sailing canoes were capable of sailing windward, the distances from Tonga to the Marquesas or from Tuamotus to Easter Island are too far for them to have traveled using the methods Dr. Finney describes. The Polynesian seafarers would have had to wait for seasonal westerlies, or winds blowing from the west, that occurred during certain times of the year, and lasted usually a couple of days, maybe up to a week at best. They would have had to capitalize on these favorable winds and then resort to traditional Polynesian easting techniques to make it the rest of the way, using carefully planned routes. This means that Nephi would have had to wait for a favorable wind during the right season several times near the end of his voyage. Yet with all that being said, Nephi has a climate problem. There was a period of warming between 450 – 1300 AD that would have resulted in milder trade winds and more frequent westerlies, which would have made sailing east on the Pacific much easier. It’s notable that the bulk of Polynesian exploration happened during this warmer time period, and that long distance voyaging among the Polynesians ceased afterwards. Nephi didn’t travel during this time period and would have been sailing under harsher conditions.
Does the Book of Mormon text even support a voyaging canoe?
In a way, this thought experiment was dead from the get-go. Whether or not Nephi could have skipped the ore smelting from scratch, the book tells us he did, and the point stands that you can’t simply walk into your backyard empty-handed and build a working bloomery and produce smelted tools. Before you even get to the ship building, you have to have Nephi deforesting acres of trees just to produce the charcoal he’ll need to operate this bloomery.
In addition, I believe the text strongly implies a large sailboat. While it’s true that Nephi describes the boat as being built “after the manner which the Lord had shown,” which was “not after the manner of men,” he provides enough details to tell us that we’re dealing with a large passenger sailboat. He repeatedly refers to working with “timbers,” so we know we’re dealing with a wooden ship. The word “timbers” implies Nephi is producing lumber, rather than just hollowing out a couple of logs. He also references sails and bindings. During the storm, Nephi’s parents are laid in their “sick-beds.” This implies a ship with rooms or quarters in it, or at least a ship large enough to carry beds. And let us not forget the reason there was a storm to begin with: Laman, Lemuel, Ishmael’s sons and their wives started dancing and singing in a way that Nephi found offensive. There’s not a lot of room for bumping and grinding on a dance floor on one of these voyaging canoes. Dancing implies a ship with a large deck. The boat also apparently withstood a three-day storm without capsizing. These details are not consistent with a Polynesian voyaging canoe.
These kinds of thought experiments are fun, but probably futile. The majority of believers in the Book of Mormon aren’t interested in working through the logistics of Nephi’s voyage, or the many other improbable feats described in the Book of Mormon; but I though it could still be worth the conversation, first, because it interests me, and second, because I’ve been noticing a rise in “intellectual” Mormonism. This intellectual Mormonism is the domain of believers who want to go a step further than the usual hand-waving dismissals that your Sunday School teacher might conjure, and try and present a rational argument in support of Mormonism’s claims. The result of that paradigm is a version of the Book of Mormon in which the Lehites travel to the coast on a well-known spice trail, interact and trade with a lot of locals (and yet never light a fire in order to not be discovered), intermarry with Native-Americans that have Asian ancestry once they arrive in the new world (without mentioning it in the Book of Mormon), and perhaps island hop their way across the Pacific, making contact with various tribes along the way (also without a mention). It’s the version of Mormonism characterized by Hugh Nibley. It’s the version of Mormonism that I tried to embrace for a while, and it’s gaining traction among some members living in a modern world that values empiricism. It’s a version of Mormonism that seems more grounded in reality, that attempts to take the fantastical stories from the scriptures and place them in the world of historical reality. It’s meant to assuage the readers who want to believe in the face of contradictions that are staring them in the face. In my experience, this kind of Mormonism tells a quite different story than the Book of Mormon does, and it trades old contradictions for new ones. If I were trying to respond to John Larsen’s podcast as an apologist for the Book of Mormon, I would be mighty tempted to use the Polynesian voyaging paradigm as a rebuttal. Unfortunately, doing so only addresses some of his criticisms, and introduces new problems and contradictions. Ultimately, the story fails because the Book of Mormon insists on the premise of building advanced technology from scratch. Whether that’s a 16th century sail-ship, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe or a skateboard, you need the collective support of the history of civilization behind you to accomplish it.
But the real takeaway from my research into this topic has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon at all. The real treat in reading the scientific literature on this topic was learning about these amazing Polynesian sailors who accomplished unthinkable feats through ingenuity and skill. When one reads about their accomplishments in ship-building, navigating and exploration, it is impossible not to be inspired. If there’s something to be learned here, it’s not that the Book of Mormon has another historical problem. The true value here is in the story of these people – real flesh-and-blood people, not legends or tall-tales or myths – who tested and exceeded the limits of what humans can accomplish. And that’s something worth learning about.
Kane, Herb Kawainui. “In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe.” The Polynesian Voyaging Society, University of Hawaii, 1998. Retrieved June 1, 2016
Finney, Ben R. “Voyaging Canoes and the Settlement of Polynesia.” Science Vol. 196, No. 4296 (June 17, 1977), American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Finney, Ben R. “Hawai‘i to Tahiti and Back.” The Polynesian Voyaging Society, University of Hawaii, 1976. Retrieved June 1, 2016
Wyeth, Heu’ionalani Meph. “Vaka Taumako: The Art and Craft of a Polynesian Voyaging Canoe.” Pacific Arts, No. 19/20 (July 1999), pp 81-87. Pacfic Arts Association.
Lawler, Andrew. “Beyond Kon-Tiki: Did Polynesians Sail to South America?” Science Vol. 328, No. 5984 (July 11, 2010). American Association for the Advancement of Science.