“What do we know about the numbers of Nephites and Lamanites?” Ensign, Sept. 1992, 27–28
John L. Sorenson, professor of anthropology, emeritus, Brigham Young University, and Gospel Doctrine teacher, Edgemont Seventh Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake. Discussions of this topic tend to one extreme or the other. Some people have made invalid assumptions about possible rates of natural increase among Lehi’s descendants. For example, growth rates derived from modern population studies are useless if they refer to conditions unlike those prevailing in Book of Mormon times. We have no way of knowing whether the newcomers had trouble adapting to the climate and new foods. Nor do we know what diseases afflicted the people at that time. On the other hand, we get nowhere by speculating on unknowable things like a doubling of population every generation among the early immigrants.
Although the Book of Mormon is silent on population growth and decline as such, it does provide glimpses of how the numbers were growing. For example, the data on armies and battle casualties indicate quite consistent growth.
An obvious puzzle is how the Lamanites could have become so much more numerous than the Nephites. The early Lamanites are pictured as being dependent on hunting; the Nephites, on farming. (See 2 Ne. 5:11, 24.) Although it is a certain rule in population studies that hunting groups cannot support nearly as many people as can farmers, more than two hundred years later the Nephite record says the Lamanites were “exceedingly more numerous” (Jarom 1:6) than the Nephites, and that pattern continues all along. Simple natural increase by births cannot account for this difference.
The same problem surfaces in Alma 43:14 where we learn that the Amulonites were “as numerous, nearly, as were the Nephites.” And yet the Amulonites had begun less than seventy years earlier when Noah’s priests carried off Lamanite women to be their wives. (See Mosiah 20.)
The answers to such puzzles must lie in situations beyond normal population growth. In this regard, the case of the early Nephites is helpful. Mosiah, father of Benjamin, fled the land of Nephi sometime before 200 B.C. with “as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord.” (Omni 1:13.) The record implies that only a part of the Nephites existing at that time went with Mosiah to Zarahemla.
Jarom 1:13 had already mentioned dissensions from the Nephites, no later than 360 B.C. The dissenters, like later ones, could have settled among the Lamanites, swelling their numbers while reducing the size of the Nephite group. Also, after Mosiah’s refugees went to Zarahemla, some of the Nephites left behind may have joined the Lamanites, for no further mention is made of them (unless they became the Amalekites, referred to in Alma 43:13 as dissenters but having an unexplained origin).
Archaeological evidence from all New World areas where the early Nephites and Lamanites could have lived makes clear that peoples who descended from the Jaredite era also lived during the time of Lehi’s descendants. Given Laman and Lemuel’s ambition to rule, perhaps they or their descendants ruled over and absorbed such “natives.” Nephite record keepers perhaps did not know the details of that process, but that is the best explanation that I know of for the remarkable growth in the number of Lamanites.
The case of the numerous Amulonites can be explained on similar grounds—taking control over a resident population.
An interesting note is that some such natives might have lived with or near the early Nephites. Notice that when Sherem “came … among the people of Nephi” (within the lifetime of Jacob, Lehi’s son), he “sought much opportunity” to meet Jacob. (See Jacob 7:1–3.) Yet, the entire population descended from the original Nephites could not have exceeded a hundred adults by that time. In such a tiny tribe, why had Sherem not already met Jacob—unless he was from a foreign group that had come under the rule of the Nephite king?
These cases teach us that there is simply not enough information in the scriptural record to construct a clear picture of Nephite and Lamanite population sizes over time. Nor can we estimate with surety how war, famine, dissensions, contentions, and other factors affected population growth. In short, our presently limited record discourages any attempt to interpret Nephite or Lamanite population history.
Yet there is no reason to question the population numbers in the Book of Mormon. They are all believable once we recognize some of the historical and biological factors that could have been involved.