Redaction: The fact that sowing and harvesting occur in the same verse clarifies that Nephi is indeed writing after the fact, summarizing the colony’s activities. It is not a diary. Nephi writes as he has time available, from his personal recollections or perhaps from a paper or other temporary document. However, this summary of the city of Nephi’s beginnings was certainly written at least a year, and likely more, after the separation.
History: The first harvest was significant in establishing evidence that the Nephites could thrive, continuing the agrarian model of the Old World. Had they been unable to plant and harvest, they would have been required to become a hunter-gatherer society, which is organized very differently from an agricultural society.
Hunting and gathering societies have smaller permanent groups, usually bands of twenty to thirty people. These may seasonally come together with other bands: but when the difficulty of finding food increases with leaner seasons, the band moves off on its own again to maximize the ability to find food for its own group. In such a small number of people, there is usually a “big man” who takes a leadership role, but that role is based on personality and leadership qualities, not election or heredity.
Agriculture allows for the support of a large, stable population. The group need not travel for food and indeed becomes tied to a location precisely because planted crops take time to grow and the harvest must be stored and protected. The dual ties of location and food create a greater sense of permanence. Combined with the larger populations, agricultural societies have tended to develop more complex political situations. The larger the population, the more complex its governmental structure. Perhaps the conceptual permanence of place combines with the perceived permanence of lineage to create governments that tend to be based on inheritance.
In the case of the Nephites, agriculture forms the backbone of their diet. They also successfully supplemented cereal and vegetable crops with localized sources of animal protein: “flocks” and “herds.” The diversity of their production organization is reflected in both their large numbers and in their desire to have a king. Kings are appropriate for larger groups based on agriculture, but not for the hunter-gatherer way of life. The later kings of the Lamanites are one of the best evidences we have that the continuing description of the Lamanites as wandering savages throughout the Book of Mormon is stereotypical rather than descriptive.
While the statements about agriculture are easy to understand in the context of Mesoamerican history, both this verse and the next introduce items in the Nephite cultural catalog for which there is currently no obvious archaeological support. In this verse the Nephites “began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind.” The current understanding of Mesoamerican cultures is that they had a few tamed animals they kept for food, but nothing that corresponds the Old World collectives that give us the words “flocks,” or “herds.” Our cultural experience with both “flocks” and “herds” suggests a particular relationship with a large number of animals that is not known for the New World. Similarly, in verse 15, Nephi speaks of working in iron and brass (as well as gold and silver). Work in these (or any other) metals is not currently attested in archaeological data for this time period.
It is possible that these specific words are not accurate translations of whatever was on the plates, but the ultimate answer is that there is currently no ultimate answer.
Linguistic: Nephi does not mention what kinds of animals were in these flocks or herds. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 18:25 for issues of linguistic labeling of unfamiliar animals.)
The phrase, “flocks and herds,” appears twelve times in the Book of Mormon. “Herds” never appears without “flocks,” but “flocks” appears forty-seven times without “herds.” For example, Alma 1:29 catalogues the Nephite wealth as consisting of “an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.”
In the Old Testament, for comparison purposes, the paired terms “flocks and herds” appears seven times with “flocks” appearing alone forty-six times; “herds” never appears alone. The Book of Mormon use of the terms follows that modeled by the KJV. Contrast the parallel use of “flocks and herds” or just “flocks” with the KJV and Book of Mormon use of “cattle.” The word “cattle” occurs over 140 times in the KJV. In the Book of Mormon, it occurs six times, two of which are quotations from the Old Testament.
This consistent pairing suggests an idiomatic usage perpetuated from the Old World to the New (or from the KJV model English to Joseph Smith’s English), such that mention of “herds” would automatically be followed by its pair, “flocks.” In the Old Testament, “flocks” usually means sheep, as in Genesis 29:2: “And he looked, and behold [sic] a well in the field, and, lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it.” Similarly, “herds” were typically associated with cattle in the Old Testament translation.
However, the King James Version sometimes uses “cattle” instead of “chattel,” to which it is closely related etymologically, for the Hebrew miqneh (“a possession, thing purchased”). This accounts for the apparent confusion of sheep and cattle in Jacob’s breeding program:
And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.
And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban’s cattle. (Gen. 30:39–40)
These translation models do not fit how the same terms are used in the Book of Mormon. Mesoamerica has no known indigenous sheep or cattle. Even though the animals themselves are not present, the terms also function in slightly different contexts that suggest that they describe something other than their more common association in English. In the Book of Mormon, “herds” are distinguished from “cattle” in two of the three verses where the terms herds and cattle appear:
And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses. (Enos 1:21; emphasis mine)
And it came to pass in the seventeenth year, in the latter end of the year, the proclamation of Lachoneus had gone forth throughout all the face of the land, and they had taken their horses, and their chariots, and their cattle, and all their flocks, and their herds, and their grain, and all their substance, and did march forth by thousands and by tens of thousands, until they had all gone forth to the place which had been appointed that they should gather themselves together, to defend themselves against their enemies. (3 Ne. 3:22; emphasis mine)
Sorenson reminds us that this is a problem of taxonomy, not necessarily zoology:
Some animals were included in the flocks and herds that the Nephites began to raise (2 Ne. 5:11). In fact, they had “flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind.” (Cattle in Hebrew means either large or small quadrupeds.) Still, goats, wild goats, and horses that the early Nephites were said to “raise” were not included in either the flocks or herds (Enos 1:21). Moreover, the Jaredites “had” animals in two categories, those “useful for the food of man” and others merely “useful unto man” (Ether 9:18–19). So far, not so good. The text does not clarify itself. Then when we read of “flocks of herds” (Enos 1:21), we almost despair of understanding the labeling system.
One thing is clear. The terminology the Nephite volume uses to discuss animals follows a different logic than the scheme familiar to most of us whose ancestors came out of western Europe. Anthropologists tell us that the world’s peoples have many different models for classifying animals or plants, as they do for labeling geographical directions or dividing up time. Hugh Nibley has made this point repeatedly. When the Spaniards reached the Americas, they had trouble labeling the native creatures systematically. Yet the Indians had an even harder time classifying the animals the Europeans brought along.
A good example of the confusion is with the coatimundi (Nasua narica). Landa, the padre who favored us with a detailed description of Yucatan, wrote of the beast, “There is an animal which they call chic, wonderfully active, as large as a small dog, with a snout like a sucking pig. The Indian women raise them, and they leave nothing which they do not root over and turn upside down; and it is an incredible thing how wonderfully fond they are of playing with the Indian women, and how they clean them from lice.” The flesh of the coati was also widely eaten, and the animal remains a pet today in some rural Mexican homes. Clearly this was a “useful animal,” but it would better be termed tamed than domesticated. (Incidentally, the Book of Mormon never uses a term anything like domesticated.) What ought the coati to be called in English? One common Spanish name is tejon. Unfortunately, tejon is also the Spanish name for badger as well as raccoon. Another name, from the Aztecs, is pisote (Nahuatl pezotli), which means basically glutton. Yet pisote is sometimes applied also to the peccary or wild pig. In regard to the peccary, the Nahuatl terms quauhcoyametl and quahpizotl [sic, ‘quauhpitzotl’ or ‘forest-pig,’ quauh- is the word for ‘wood’ or ‘tree’] were developed after the conquest to distinguish the native species from the introduced Castilian pig, so by extension the coati was sometimes termed quauhpezotli, tree-glutton, to distinguish it from the peccary, the ground-glutton. Finally, the Mayan languages labeled the coati for its playful aspect, hence chic, clown.
There is no way to attach known animals to the taxonomic system used in the Book of Mormon. That system uses words that are found in the Old Testament but does not use them in the same way. The best we can say is that the system appears to be describing something that is not indicated by those terms in Old World contexts. We cannot say what animals were in the herds, flocks, or particularly in Enos’s “flocks of herds.”
Variant: Skousen suggests that it is possible that the word again in the phrase “we did reap again in abundance” is the result of mishearing the word grain. The evidence in the text suggests that for Joseph and his scribes, the pronunciation of again rhymed with grain. Grain makes more sense here.