Los Lunas Decalogue Stone: Questioning Evidence of Ancient Hebrews in the American Southwest
Lost civilizations, mysterious artifacts, and vanished peoples have always fascinated those with an interest in antiquity. However, the first archaeologists were little more than glorified treasure hunters. It was only later that the scientific method and rigorous systems of recording and excavating archaeological sites were established in the field by people like C.J. Thomsen, Jen Jacobsen Asmussen Warsaae, and Flinders Petrie.
Scientifically-minded archaeologists tend to treat claims of the ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ with much more skepticism than their treasure-hunting predecessors. Yet, extraordinary claims about archaeological finds still occur in archaeology. An example of this is the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. It is a stone found southwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico with the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) described in Exodus 20:1-17 of the Hebrew Old Testament written on it. Some people say the stone pre-dates Christopher Columbus’ voyage to Hispaniola by as much as 1500 years. This is an interesting possibility, but how does it stand up to scrutiny?
Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. Photograph taken in January 1997 by Brian Haines. (Public Domain)
Studying the Stone
Los Lunas Decalogue Stone is a slab of basalt which appears to have the Ten Commandments written on it in Paleo-Hebrew script. Paleo-Hebrew is an early form of the Hebrew alphabet and is similar to the Phoenician alphabet. The earliest known use of Paleo-Hebrew is the Gezer calendar dating to the 10th century BC.
A reproduction of the Gezer calendar - an ancient agricultural calendar written in Paleo-Hebrew and found in Tel Gezer, Israel. (Ian Scott/ CC BY SA 2.0)
The Los Lunas Decalogue stone was discovered by the archaeologist Frank Hibben, who said that he was brought to the site by a guide who discovered the stone in the 1880s. In 1985, George Morehouse, a mineralogist and a member of the Epigraphic Society, examined the stone and said it was 500-2000 years old (after comparing it to graffiti dating to the 1930s.) He estimated the age based on how much the rock had been weathered by windblown sand.
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Over the years, several language and religious scholars have examined the script, including Professors James Tabor, Cyrus Gordon, Reinhard Pummer, and Skupin. The text has some interesting characteristics. For example, although it is an early form of Hebrew, it also shows Hellenistic influence. In some areas, Greek letters are substituted for Hebrew letters. However, it also uses an archaic form of the Hebrew letter aleph (roughly equivalent to the Latin letter A).
The Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet. (Public Domain)
There are symbols included in the text which were not used in Hebrew until the Middle Ages - which presents a problem in dating it before that time. Critics of the text’s authenticity also take issue with the presence of orthographic errors. For example, the author treated aleph as a vowel, when in ancient Hebrew it was a consonant. The text’s creator also made mistakes with other letters, such as treating two letters representing distinct sounds as if they were the same sound (kaph and qoph which are rendered as K in English transliteration).
Is the Stone Authentic?
Skeptics point to these orthographic errors as evidence against the authenticity of the stone. They say that the ancient Hebrews would not have made such elementary mistakes with a sacred text. However, defenders of the stone’s authenticity contend that the mistakes simply suggest that it was written by someone who did not speak Hebrew as a first language - perhaps a native Greek speaker instead.
Skupin and Cyrus Gordon, for example, suggest that whoever made the inscription lived in the Byzantine Period. Their hypothesis is based on word order, and they note similarities between spelling in Hebrew and conventions used in Greek (at that time). While this is plausible, the text also contains conventions that were not added until well after the Byzantine period - such as symbols used to indicate a letter that is missing from a word. This makes a Medieval or post-Medieval date more likely.
Bifolium from a Children's Alphabet Primer, 11th–12th century. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Linguist Cyrus Gordon suggests that the stone was a Samaritan mezuzah (stone slab bearing the Decalogue placed at the entrance of a property or synagogue) and that the style reflects a Samaritan source rather than a Paleo-Hebrew one. The problem with this hypothesis is that although the style may look Samaritan, the text itself does not follow Samaritan wording, but uses ancient Jewish Masoretic words. For example, the stone has the Masoretic form “Remember the Sabbath Day” while the Samaritan version uses “Preserve the Sabbath Day.”
The Nash papyrus containing the Ten Commandments in the Masoretic form. 2nd Century AD. (Public Domain)
While it may be that the ancient writer was unfamiliar with Hebrew sources and confused the styles out of ignorance, this does not explain why those who commissioned the stone would have allowed the mistakes to go uncorrected.
On the other hand, critics of the stone’s authenticity such as the archaeologist Keith Fitzpatrick Matthews argue that the stylistic inconsistencies combined with the use of conventions that date to the Middle Ages (later than the supposed date) make it more likely that the inscription was created later.
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Another question about the stone’s authenticity is the absence of archaeological evidence for ancient Hebrew populations in the southwestern United States. As archaeologist Kenneth Feder points out, artifacts don’t occur in a vacuum, but have contexts and are associated with other aspects of an archaeological site. He argues that if there were ancient Hebrews who went to North America and traveled that far inland, that they would have also left behind other evidence of Hebrew material culture such as iron-working, remains of Middle Eastern livestock such as sheep and goats pre-dating the coming of the Spaniards or the Norse, and more instances of Hebrew writing.
Sheep grazing in Tel Yodfat, Israel. (Noa Steiner Pikiwiki Israel/CC BY 2.5)
If there were ancient Hebrews in New Mexico thousands of years ago, the Las Lunas Decalogue Stone is the only evidence for them found so far. Nomadic ancient Hebrews who left barely any evidence could have been present in New Mexico as nomadic peoples do not leave much behind. The Scythians, for example, are only known to have existed because of the burial mounds they created. However, even nomads leave behind more than a single object. They often leave bones, campsites, and graves. So far, no Middle-Eastern animal remains, Hebrew-style graves, or Hebrew campsites have been found in the American southwest.
More Data is Needed
In addition to problems with the stone itself, it has been questioned if Frank Hibben was a reliable source. Over the course of his career he was accused of fabricating archaeological evidence to support his theory on how humans arrived in the Americas. Furthermore, George Morehouse was a mineralogist, not an expert on weathered inscriptions. This does not necessarily mean that they were dishonest in this case, but it does suggest that anything that Hibben and Morehouse said may need further investigation.
It is possible that the Los Lunas Decalogue stone could be evidence of an ancient Jewish arrival in North America, but the elementary mistakes in the text, conventions that appear too modern for a Paleo-Hebrew inscription, the lack of reliable archaeological evidence for a Hebrew culture in North America before 1500, and the unreliability of the discoverer make it increasingly unlikely that the artifact is genuine. At the very least, more data is needed before concluding the existence of a pre-Columbian Hebrew settlement in the American southwest.
The stone after the first line was vandalized. Photo taken in 2006. (HuMcCulloch/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top Image: Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. Source: Dan Raber, Loudon TN
By Caleb Strom
Dalton, Rex. "University buildings named on shaky ground." Nature 426.6965 (2003): 374-374.
Feder, Kenneth L. Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, K. (2011) ‘A clumsy hoax still promoted as evidence for Hebrews in North America.’ Available at: http://www.badarchaeology.com/out-of-place-artefacts/petroglyphs-inscriptions-and-reliefs/the-los-lunas-inscription/
Huston McCulloch, J. (2008) ‘The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone.’ Available at: http://www.econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/arch/loslunas.html
Jewish Virtual Library (2016) ‘History of the Aleph-Bet.’ Available at: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/hebrewhistory.html