For almost 180 years most Mormons have believed that native people in the Americas and Polynesia are largely descended from Israelites. These views are primarily based on the Book of Mormon and they have been sustained over many decades by numerous statements by church leaders, including all of its prophets. Many Mormons think the large civilisations described in the Book of Mormon were located in a region now known as Mesoamerica. As recently as 2013 Mesoamerican Latter Day Saints were reassured by an apostle they are descended from Lehi, an Israelite who sailed to the Americas in 600BC.
DNA studiesDNA is a long chain-like polymer comprised of four repeating units called bases, represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. Hereditary information is stored in coded form in the order of these lettered bases. There are roughly 3,000 million bases in the human genome, and every cell in our body contains an identical copy. The molecular library with the complete set of instructions for constructing the human body comes in forty-six volumes called chromosomes—twenty-three inherited from our mothers and twenty-three from our fathers.
The first studies of Native American DNA were published in the 1990s. Back then, methods for analysing DNA were not well developed, making it difficult to study the large amounts of nuclear DNA. Consequently, the early research was largely focussed on mitochondrial DNA. An excellent summary of the distribution of global mtDNA and YDNA lineages can be found here.
Native American mitochondrial DNA
A small proportion of mtDNA lineages found in indigenous peoples (<1%) are derived from recent non-native (European or African) admixture (Gonzales et al. 2003; Richards et al. 1996). The majority of these mtDNAs belong to lineage H, the most common mtDNA lineage family in European populations such as Spain and the United Kingdom (Table below). The most common mtDNA lineage among Ashkenazi Jews is lineage K (Behar et al. 2004) while lineage L is the most common lineage in African populations.
In the years since the publication of Losing a Lost Tribe (Southerton 2004) much more research has been published specifically on Mesoamerican populations, which are a subset of Central American populations. We now know the mtDNA lineages of over 1700 Mesoamericans (see table below). The mtDNA evidence suggests that Native Mesoamericans, like all other Native Americans, are largely descended from Asian ancestors. The very small number of non-Asian lineages that are found are almost certainly the result of post-Columbus admixture as they belong to lineage families that are most common in Europe or Africa.
Only sixteen out of 1727 Mesoamericans (about 0.9%) possess a mtDNA lineage that didn’t originate in Asia. Of the non-Asian lineages, three have been found to be African L lineages, and two match mtDNA lineages found in Spain and Portugal. The remaining 11 lineages are either insufficiently characterised or most likely European lineages as the lineage family they belong to is found at high frequencies in Western European populations.
Native American Nuclear DNA studies
Brown, M. D., Hosseini, S. H., Torroni, A. et al. (1998) MtDNA haplogroup X: An ancient link between Europe western Asia and North America? American Journal of Human Genetics 63, 1852–1861.
Gonzales, A. M., Brehm, A., Perez, J. A., et al. (2003) Mitochondrial DNA affinities at the Atlantic fringe of Europe. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 120, 391-404.
Reidla, M., Kivisild, T. Metspalu, E. et al. (2003) Origin and diffusion of mtDNA haplogroup X. American Journal of Human Genetics 73, 1178–1190.
Richards, M., Côrte-Real, M. Forster, P. et al. (1996). "Paleolithic and Neolithic lineages in the European mitochondrial gene pool," American Journal of Human Genetics 59, 185-203.
Schurr, T. G., Ballinger, S. W. Gan, Y. Y. et al. (1990) Amerindian mitochondrial DNAs have rare Asian mutations at high frequencies, suggesting they are derived from 4 primary maternal lineages. American Journal of Human Genetics 46, 613–623.
Southerton, S. G. (2004) Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church. Salt Lake City, Signature Books.