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Symbolism or Science: A Preliminary Look at Ether 2:3

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by Raymond Hurst, Ed.D


I have long been fascinated by this passage from the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon;

And they did also lay snares and catch fowls of the air; and they did also prepare a vessel, in which they did carry with them the fish of the waters.

This fascination comes not only from my love of seafood, but from the Book of Ether itself. Within the Book of Mormon, the Book of Ether takes the reader far back to ancient pre-history. And while the spiritual content is profound, I found myself interested in the technical content as well.

Having tried (and failed) to maintain a home aquarium, I have often wondered if this passage about the Jaredites was symbolic or literal. Some writers have concluded that it is the former. According to Brant Gardner,

The logistics of moving a breeding population of multiple live fish is tremendous. There is little chance that the Jaredites could have arranged such a wondrous feat, nor that there would be a real necessity for it. It is most probable that this is not really a historical statement, but rather a symbolic one that continues to connect the Jaredites to the story of Noah and the ark.


Based on my home aquarium experiences, Gardner is absolutely right; the logistics are tremendous. But are they possible? Could this passage in the Book of Ether be the record of an actual event? Since the verse indicates that the fowl were captured alive, is the same true for the “fish of the waters”?

The questions I will attempt to answer through this preliminary study are these;

  1. Is there any evidence of the raising and transporting of live fish in ancient cultures?
  2. Hugh Nibley has indicated that central Asia (the likely route of the Jaredites) was much wetter in antiquity. Is it possible to find modern examples of fish transportation “vessels” in the region?

The Historical Setting

Unlike the rest of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Ether contains no chronological notations. It has been assumed by some that this book traces its beginnings to near the time of Abraham ---approximately 2000 B.C.--- although the church has made no official statement about this date. For the purposes of this study, it will be assumed that the Book of Ether dates to sometime between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C.

According to one of the world’s preeminent experts on aquaculture (defined as the raising and husbandry of aquatic plants and animals),

As soon as plant fibers began to be spun and knots to be devised, fishnets were possible. They existed in Sumer and in ancient China, and are probably far older than the arts of writing and carving.

~John Bardach, “Harvest of the Sea”, p. 120

How old? According to one researcher,

Aquaculture in the Mediterranean region is an activity which began many centuries ago. It is possible to find signs of aquaculture from Egyptian civilization. Ancient Egyptian friezes on the tomb of Aktihetep (2500 BC) show what appears to be men removing tilapia from a pond.

~Bernardo Bascuro, “Mediterranean Aquaculture”, p. 1

LaDon Swann of Purdue University states, “…fish farming was first practiced as long ago as 2000 B.C. in China.” He expands on this by referring to a passage in the Bible which mentions fish ponds (Isaiah 19:10), and “…in paintings from ancient Egypt.” (Swann, p. 2). He may be referring to the previously mentioned tomb painting.

In a later text, Dr. Bardach cites this tomb frieze as well;

Members of the genus tilapia (family Cichlidae) have been important sources of food for man for at least since recorded history began. The fish Saint Peter caught in the Sea of Galilee and those with which Christ fed the multitudes were tilapia. An Egyptian tomb frieze, dated to 2500 B.C., illustrates the harvest of tilapia and suggests they may have been cultured.”

~John Bardach, et. Al, “Aquaculture”, p. 351

Not only is there evidence of the raising of fish for consumption during a time period contemporary with the Book of Ether, both researchers actually name the species of fish!

There is evidence of the raising of other species of fish as well. Bardach mentions the raising of carp (Cyprinus carpio) in ancient China, although the first written documentation of this practice, by Fan-Li, dates only to 475 B.C. (“Aquaculture”, pp. 1, 29).

While we often associate carp and koi with Chinese culture, an interesting observation has been made in research conducted for Integrated Aquaculture, Inc. of Waimanalo, HI. Dr. Barry Costa-Pierce points out that carp were introduced from elsewhere to China prior to 2000 B.C. He states that common carp “came from the rivers of Central Asia that drain into the Black and Caspian Seas.” (Costa-Pierce, p. 321). Given that one of the possible routes of the Jaredites goes through this area, it is not implausible that perhaps they had something to do with carp appearing in China prior to 2000 B.C. (It should be noted that some researchers do not agree with Dr. Costa-Pierce’s position on the origin of carp.)

Costa-Pierce also refers to another Egyptian tomb scene;

This illustration indicates that fish culture in artificial ponds was used in conjunction with agriculture before 2000 B.C. in Egypt, and the system provides a remarkable parallel to ancient Chinese integrated systems.”

~Costa-Pierce, p. 322

Based on this evidence, it would appear that the culturing of fish for human consumption started prior to 2000 B.C. in both Egypt and China.

Transportation Methods

Having established that fish farming could have occurred anciently, the next question becomes, “Is there any evidence of the transport of live fish?” While the research found no ancient evidence of this, Dr. Bardach has an answer from a modern perspective;

Where it is necessary to transport the fish to market tanks mounted on vehicles are used. Although carp are not as resistant to crowding as certain Asian fish which have accessory breathing organs, they are hardier than most fish and may be transported in closed containers under semi-crowded conditions. In Israel, it is recommended that adult carp be shipped in a tank trucks in a 1:1 ratio of carp to water. Up to four times as much water may be required at high temperatures. { } In regions which have extensive inland waterway systems, oxygen problems are solved by transporting carp in streamline shaped cages suspended over the side of boats, thus providing constant exchange of water as long as the boat is in motion. { } At the market, carp are usually kept in cement cisterns about 1 m deep, which may be supplied with a crude running water system. A 3-m x 2-m cistern with running water is satisfactory for up to 300 kg of carp.”

~John Bardach, “Aquaculture”, pp. 68-69

Southeast Asian cultures are currently transporting fish fry to market using non-technological means. While the Jaredites were not transporting fish to market, the fact that the transport of live fish can be undertaken successfully in a region where technological advances were at least a generation away is the first step in answering our question.

Bardach also notes that Indian carp fry (small, hatched fish usually less than 2 cm in length) are often transported to market in open earthen vessels called “hundi”. His research indicates a mortality rate of 2-10% among the fry, and a transport time of up to 30 hours. (“Aquaculture”, pp. 130-131). He goes on to note that the water must be constantly agitated, and that oxygen depletion in the hundies was prevented by the addition of colloidal earth.

The fry of another species, Indonesian Milkfish (Chanos chanos), are also transported initially in earthenware jars. (“Aquaculture”, p. 315). This species is not a freshwater fish, and yet they can be transported safely. Bamboo baskets are apparently used to transport these fry for longer periods of time;

Flat, water tight 15 liter baskets made of interwoven strips of bamboo coated on the inside with cement or tar are used for long-distance transport of (Indonesian milkfish) fry. { } Generally, the baskets are filled with dilute seawater to a depth of a few centimeters and fry are stocked in densities varying with the length of the journey, but averaging 20,000 to 40,000/basket. No artificial aeration is used, but the water is changed every other day. When traveling away from the sea, salinity is maintained by adding unrefined sea salt in amounts determined by taste. On long journeys and during storage the fry are fed on rice flour, which may be slightly roasted, or finely mashed hard boiled egg yolk.”

~John Bardach, “Aquaculture”, p. 316

While the author does not define “long journeys”, it is probably safe to assume that it is in excess of the 30 hour maximum mentioned earlier. It is also interesting to note that the successful transport of milkfish fry was a closely guarded secret: “More than a little art is involved in supplying fry of high quality, and some dealers are more successful than others. Their methods are understandably not publicized, but they involve storage and transport at low densities and special diets.” (“Aquaculture”, p. 317).

Ancient Climatic Conditions

The final component for answering the second question has to do with the ancient central Asian climate. The region is a desert today, but a number of studies have cited major climatic changes in central Asia during the time frame begin examined. Boroffka and his colleagues (Boroffka, 2005) suggest that, beginning about 2000 B.C., the climate near the Aral Sea was more humid than today. (p. 77)

Similarly, both Hu (1944) and Zhu (1973) have indicated that China was both warmer and wetter about 4000 years ago. A team lead by Jule Xiao (Xiao, 2001) found a warm humid climate in central China beginning about 3500 B.C. A long term study of Asian climate variability (Pant), postulates “wide variations” in monsoonal activity, leading to the “appearance and disappearance of human civilizations” (Pant, p. 126) In addition, American researchers found “The geography of Neolithic China was different from today. It was much wetter, with most of northern China being lakes and marshes and central China covered in an enormous lake.” (Minnesota State University)

Yu and his team cite “…higher sea levels resulting from a warm and humid climate…” and “A flood-induced lake expansion…” at about 2200 B.C. in the Yangtze River delta. (Yu)

Alenderfer and Zhang note “wet pulses” in the usually arid climate of western Tibet , the most recent in about 4300 B.C. (Alendefer)


From this preliminary look at the research, it appears that both questions can be answered positively. In both China and Egypt, the practice of aquaculture seems to have been extant as early as 2000 B.C. In addition, the modern day transport of fish fry by rural fish farmers in southeastern Asia non-technological means could be representative of ancient practices in what many researchers feel was a much wetter environment.


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  • Bardach, John E., Ryther, John H., and McLarney, William O., “Aquaculture; The Farming and Husbandry of Freshwater and Marine Organisms”. Wiley Interscience, a division of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York. 1972
  • Bardach, John E., “Harvest of the Sea”. Harper and Row, New York. 1968
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