For a long time now, one of my biggest interests in all of Book of Mormon research has been the correlation of the place called Nahom in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Nephi 16:34) and the tribal territory known as Nihm. In the late 1990s some altars verifying the existence of the Nihm tribe and territory in Lehi’s day were brought to the attention of LDS scholars. Many Latter-day Saints consider this the best evidence for the Book of Mormon to date.
So, as you might imagine, I was quite excited to see that the BYU Studies Quarterly published an article last month by Warren P. Aston – the first Latter-day Saint to do in-depth research on the history of the Nihm tribal territory – providing a summary of the previous research and some updates. Aston may be more than just the LDS authority on Nihm – he is, arguably, the world authority on the tribal name and territory. In the past (1995), Aston presented on the tribal origins of Nihm at the Seminar for Arabian Studies, held at Cambridge University, Eng. This isn’t all that surprising, since the tribe has been of little interest to non-LDS scholars, but it is worth recognizing Aston’s level of expertise. With that, I thought I would share a few of the more interesting updates here:
- The dating of the altars was originally believed to be the end of the seventh-century beginning of the sixth-century BC. As recently as 2008, Aston himself wrote “all the altars date between the seventh and sixth centuries BC.” More specifically, the altars were believed to date to between 630-580 BC. Clearer translations of the altars and better identification of the rulers mentioned in the inscriptions has pushed the dating back to between 800-700 BC. This removes any potential question that the existence of Nihm pre-dates Lehi’s journey into Arabia. (Any doubt before was slim.)
- The catalyst for research on Nihm was the discovery of the tribal name (spelled Nehhm) on an eighteenth-century map. Overtime, more and more of these maps were discovered. In 2008, James Gee published an article – which included full-color photographs – documenting 10 such maps. According to Aston, now 20 such maps are known. Since these maps pre-date the Book of Mormon, some people point to them as Joseph Smith’s source. This is problematic for several reasons (which I have articulated elsewhere), but a few that Aston identifies are: (a) Nehhm/Nehem is only one of hundreds of names on these maps, and it doesn’t stand-out amongst the other names; (b) None of the maps indicate the eastward travel-ablity from the Nihm tribal area, something unique to that location and clearly indicated in the Book of Mormon; and (c) Aston notes that documenting a tribal name and territory back three-thousand years is rare, and “likely unprecedented” in Arabian archeology – this means that some critics would have us believe that Joseph Smith looked at a map with hundreds of place-names and arbitrarily selected the one name that we now know existed when Lehi was supposed to have traveled there (and is in the one place that we now know they could travel east, as the text says). A statistical improbability, to say the least.
- Most interesting, Aston has tracked down additional inscriptions that feature the tribal and/or territorial name Nihm. Aston does not provide a lot of detail regarding the dating of these inscriptions, but he notes that some of them may be older than the altars, and mentions that two palm leave stalks date to at least the fourth-century BC.
Aston has a forthcoming book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon, that may provide more information on Nihm and other aspects of Lehi’s journey, like the “Bountiful” land where Nephi and his brothers built the ship they sailed to the promised land in.