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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Rodney Meldrum: Cherry Picking the X lineage

Rodney Meldrum recently published a book Rediscovering the Book of Mormon Remnant through DNA. In this book he promotes the idea that the X haplogroup, a rare DNA lineage found among Native Americans, may be evidence of Israelite DNA in New World populations, a claim that supports the Book of Mormon. Rodney's book can be purchased at his website. Accompanying the book are these especially bold claims:
"Not since the long-lost Joseph Smith papyri burst upon the scene in 1967 has there been news of this magnitude and import regarding the physical corroboration of Latter-day Saint doctrine and scripture." said Ed Lauritsen, Ph.D. This is the book that many have been awaiting for their further study of the genetic evidences that supports the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and the prophetic calling of the Joseph Smith.”
—The Firm Foundation

Jake Hilton, the Youth Educational Instructor of the FIRM Foundation, recently stated "What makes Haplogroup X2 DNA so significant is that it is only found in one other location on the planet: Among Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East". 

Attempts to link New World X lineages with Israelite populations that existed just 2,600 years ago are problematic. They miss the mark by about 30,000 years. The source of the X lineages found among Native Americans is most likely Asia, just like the four major female DNA lineages.

Not long after scientists first began studying the DNA lineages on Native Americans it was observed that a significant number of individuals in populations in Alaska, Canada, and northeastern North America, had female DNA lineages that are distantly related to the four main founding lineages (A, B, C & D). Originally it was thought that these new lineages might have been introduced after the arrival of Columbus, but when researchers looked closer, they found that most of them came from a fifth, though minor, founding line now known as the X lineage. It occurs at the highest frequency (about 25%) in several tribes in the northeastern part of North America (Brown et al. 1998) and at lower frequencies throughout the remainder of North America (Smith et al. 1999). About 2.5 percent of New World Native Americans have a mitochondrial DNA belonging to the X lineage family. 

Several LDS scholars have claimed that the presence of the X lineage among Native Americans suggests a recent genetic link with the Middle East. Michael Quinn claimed in Sunstone Magazine that 7% of the DNA collected from indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere matched DNA collected from North Africa and the Middle East. FARMS apologist John Tvedtnes has also claimed the X lineage is evidence on a Middle Eastern connection, however FAIR and other writers for the Maxwell Institute at BYU have distanced themselves from this claim.

There are several problems associated with attempting to link the X lineage to Book of Mormon peoples. Currently the major challenge is the considerable degree of genetic variation that has been observed among New World X lineages (Brown et al. 1998). This would not be expected if the lineage family had arrived as recently as 2,600 years ago. Scientists can use the amount of variation in a DNA lineage family to estimate the time to the most recent common ancestor of that family. They are able to do this because new DNA mutations in individuals in large populations tend to occur at a relatively constant rate. By counting the number of new mutations in a lineage family scientists can estimate how long the lineage family has existed. The table below shows the age estimates for the 5 founding lineages of Native Americans.

                                                  Table 3.1

The degree of variation in the X lineage family is about the same as the other 4 lineages, strongly suggesting that the X lineage was present in the first Americans and accompanied the other four founding lineages across the ancient land bridge. The data strongly suggests that all Native American mtDNA lineages have a most recent common ancestor that lived at, or soon after, the last glacial maximum (Figure 3.1). This is also strong evidence that all five Native American mtDNA lineages arrived in the New World at the same time. The separation between New World and European X lineages is estimated to have taken place even farther back in time, over 22,000 years ago (Reidla et al. 2003).

Figure 3.1.

The confusion over the X lineage has arisen because in contrast to the other four founding lineages of Native Americans, it is an ancient and highly diverged mtDNA lineage family. It has recently been divided into two sub-groups, X1 and X2, which diverged about 30,000 years ago. Sub-group X1 is rare, and restricted to North and East Africa, and the Near East. Sub-group X2 appears to have expanded its distribution soon after the last glacial maximum (LGM) about 21,000 years ago, reaching far into Eurasia and the New World. It is more common in the Near East, the Caucasus, and Mediterranean Europe; and somewhat less common in the rest of Europe. Within each sub group there are distinct sub-clades that are found in particular populations. Subclades X2a and X2g are found in North America, but are not present in Eurasia, Mesoamerica or South America (See Table 3.2).

Table 3.2

The highest frequency of the X lineage has been found in the Israeli Druze community (27%). LDS apologist Rodney Meldrum has claimed that this is evidence that Israelites (close relatives of the Druze) may be ancestors of American Indians from eastern North America. However, the X2a lineage is not found in the Druze population. 

Figure 3.2

I recently questioned Rodney Meldrum’s claims that the presence of the X lineage in Native Americans represents a genetic link with Israel in light of the evidence I described above. He responded saying:

“…I have read Ugo Perego's paper in Current Biology … and understand where he is coming from, although when it comes to the dating, I am in disagreement with him based on scriptural timelines as I understand them.”
 “My impression is that you believe I am 'cherry-picking' evidence I like and rejecting out of hand all other information. Simon, this is not the case. I am rejecting portions of theories that I feel cannot be reconsiled (sic) with the revealed word of the Lord in the scriptures.” 
— Rodney Meldrum 
Ugo Perego is a Mormon scientist who has published several important papers on the molecular genealogy of Native Americans. Perego disagrees with the way Meldrum has interpreted his research findings. Like all other experts in the field Perego doesn't believe that the X lineage arrived recently in the Americas. In spite of his claim that he isn’t, Rodney Meldrum (who is not a scientist) is most definitely cherry picking the scientific evidence. Consider these words in the introduction to Rodney's book.

"My position as the author of this work is that when there is an inferred conflict between scientific theories and scriptural truths, the scriptures will always be demonstrated true, and the theories of men, put forward through science, will eventually conform to the truths of the gospel, not the other way around. Of course error can be made in the interpretation of scripture; however when they (the Scriptures) are clear and supported by prophetic or revelatory understanding, and if they cannot be reconciled with the current theories of science, then it should be understood that eventually the scientific theories will be altered to comply with God’s truth, even if that means waiting until the next life. The theories (beliefs) of men that don’t harmonize with the truths (facts) of God are in error and are subject to alteration."  
— Rodney Meldrum, 2009
Here, Meldrum admits that his conclusion is fixed from the outset. He is merely gathering facts that suite his purposes. Anyone with these views in mind will think they have full license to dismiss out of hand any scientific ideas that challenge their beliefs. Meldrum uses DNA evidence he likes (X lineage present in Old and New World) and ignores evidence he dislikes (New World X2a lineages pre-date the existence of Israel by about 25,000 years) because it doesn’t fit his already fixed faith-based views.

Further evidence that New World X lineages are not derived from Israel comes from studies of ancient DNA. Currently, the earliest confirmed discovery of the X lineage in pre-Columbian Native American remains comes from a 1,340-year-old burial site on the Columbia River near Vantage, Washington (Malhi and Smith 2002). There are reports of the presence of the X lineage in more ancient remains but to date these are not conclusive. However there is considerable work being done on ancient remains at present and it is only a matter of time before the X lineage will be confirmed to have been present in America before the Book of Mormon period. 

In 2010 Rodney Meldrum appeared in a new DVD documentary Lost Civilizations of North America where he promoted his flawed X lineage theories. The documentary was produced by Mormons and is clearly intended to give scientific credibility to Meldrum's theories by including several short interviews with respected scientists who have studied North American Indian tribes. Four scientists were so upset by the way they were portrayed in the DVD that they published a three part series of critiques of the DVD. 

Volume 35.5, September/October 2011
Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part One: An Alternate Reality

Volume 35.6, November/December 2011
Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part Two: False Messages in Stone

Volume 36.1, January/February 2012
Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part Three: Real Messages in DNA

The third in the series focusses on the DNA evidence and gives an excellent critique of Meldrum's X lineage claims. The scientists conclude that "there is no credible archaeological or genetic evidence to suggest that any Old World peoples migrated to the Americas after the initial incursion from Siberia prior to the tentative forays of the Norse beginning at around 1000 CE other than limited contacts between Siberia and the American arctic".


Brown, M. D., Hosseini, S. H. and Torroni, A et al. 1998. MtDNA haplogroup X: an ancient link between Europe/Western Asia and North America? American Journal of Human Genetics 63:1852-61.

Malhi, R. S. and Smith, D. G. (2002) Brief Communication: Haplogroup X Confirmed in Prehistoric North America, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119, 84–86.

Quinn M. (2005) The Ancient Book of Mormon as Tribal Narrative Sunstone 137:67.

Reidla, et al. (2003) "Origin and Diffusion of mtDNA Haplogroup X," American Journal of Human Genetics 73, 1178-90.

Smith, D. G., Malhi, R. S., Eshleman, J. et al. 1999. Distribution of MtDNA Haplogroup X among Native North Americans, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 110, 271-84.

Shlush, L. I. et al (2008) The Druze: A population genetic refugium of the Near East. PLoS ONE, 3 , p. e2105.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Where are the Lamanites in Mesoamerica?

LDS beliefs about the historicity of the Book of Mormon were seriously challenged in 1921 when a non-Mormon scholar from Washington DC, named Mr Couch, raised several questions about the book in a letter to church leaders. Couch could not understand how the language spoken by Book of Mormon people in the fifth century AD could have so rapidly multiplied into the staggering diversity of languages observed among Native Americans one thousand years later. He was also perplexed by the mention of horses, steel, “cimeters” (Persian sabers from the 16th-18th centuries AD) and silk—all undetected in New World societies. B.H Roberts (a member of the Seventy) was charged with the responsibility of finding answers to Couch’s questions. While Roberts remained outwardly devout, he eventually conceded after several years of research that a nineteenth century origin for the Book of Mormon was quite plausible.

During the remainder of the 20th century LDS scholars have rallied to the defense of the book. This effort has been aimed largely at reinterpreting the book to align the narrative with a modern understanding of New World colonization. This has often required novel and frequently torturous reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon narrative.
“The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon ... is, never oversimplify. For all its simple and straightforward narrative style, this history is packed as few others are with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. The whole Book of Mormon is a condensation, and a masterly one; it will take years simply to unravel the thousands of cunning inferences and implications that are wound around its most matter-of-fact statements. Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.”
— Hugh Nibley, 1952
In the six decades since Nibley made these comments, Mormon scholars have indeed found a “staggering wealth of detail” in the Book of Mormon that “completely escapes the casual reader.” The result has been a steady contraction of the claims of LDS scholars regarding the scale and geographical footprint of the Israelite presence. Most Mormon academics now believe that the events of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. Only in Mesoamerica are there ruins of civilizations of the magnitude evident in the Book of Mormon. In spite of this scholarship, most lay Mormons still believe the Book of Mormon events were played out across both New World hemispheres.

The Limited Geography model was championed by BYU anthropology professor John L. Sorenson, who also put forward the idea that the Olmec civilization may be equated to the Jaredites and the Pre-Classic Mayans to the Lehites. Sorenson promoted these views in his 1996 book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. However, shrinking the geography to Mesoamerica has done little to reduce the gulf between mainstream archaeology and the views of LDS scholars. Mainstream Mesoamerican scholarship does not support the presence or influence of Old World cultures in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, nor has material evidence been found that would indicate contact between Mesoamerica and Old World cultures. If you are interested in reading more about the Limited Geography Model, there is a good wiki site that contains lots of information and links to lots more.

In Losing a Lost Tribe I presented a summary of the mtDNA lineages of Native Americans according to geographical regions (Table 2.1). This indicated that natives in Central American populations were essentially all descended from Asian ancestors. A small number of European or African DNA lineages were observed in Central America, but not at significantly higher levels than in other regions throughout the New World. 

Table 2.1

In the years since the publication of Losing a Lost Tribe other research groups have published research on more Mesoamerican populations. We now have the mtDNA lineages of almost two thousand Mesoamericans. These are summarized in Table 2.2 below. The mtDNA evidence suggests that Mesoamericans, like other Native Americans, are all descended from Asian ancestors. The very small number of non-Asian lineages are almost certainly the result of post-Columbus admixture as they belong to lineage families that are most common in Europe or Africa.

Table 2.2

n = number of individuals
* Other includes 9 European (6HV, J, 2T, U), 3 African ( L ) and 3 uncharacterised lineages.

References for Table 2.2
Bortolini MC et al. (1998) Diversity in protein, nuclear DNA, and mtDNA in South Amerinds - agreement or discrepancy? Ann. Hum. Gen. 62, 133-145.
González-Oliver A et al. (2001) Founding Amerindian mitochondrial DNA lineages in ancient Maya from Xcaret, Quintana Roo Am. J Phys. Anthrop 116, 230–235.
Kemp, B. M. et al. (2005) An analysis of ancient Aztec mtDNA from Tlatelolco: Pre-Columbian relations and the spread of Uto-Aztecan. Biomolecular Archaeology: Genetic Approaches to the Past, ed Reed DM (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL), pp 22–46.
Kemp BM et al.(2010) Evaluating the farming/language dispersal hypothesis with genetic variation exhibited by populations in the Southwest and Mesoamerica. PNAS USA 107, 6759-6764.
Lorenz JG & Smith DG (1996). Distribution of four founding MtDNA haplogroups among native North Americans. Am. J Phys. Anthrop. 101, 307-23.
Merriwether DA et al. (1994) Genetic variation in the New World – ancient teeth, bone and tissue as sources of DNA. Experientia 50, 592-601.
Sandoval K et al. (2009) Linguistic and maternal genetic diversity are not correlated in Native Mexicans. Human Genetics 126, 521–531.
Schurr TG et al. (1990) Amerindian mitochondrial DNAs have rare Asian mutations at high frequencies, suggesting they are derived from 4 primary maternal lineages. Am. J Hum. Gen. 46, 613–623.
Torroni A et al. (1994a) Mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome polymorphisms in 4 Native American populations from Southern Mexico. Am. J Hum. Gen. 54, 303-18.
Torroni A et al. (1994b). Mitochondrial DNA 'Clock' for the Amerinds and its Implications for Timing Their Entry into North America. PNAS USA 91, 1158-62.
Salas A et al. (2009) Mitochondrial echoes of first settlement and genetic continuity in El Salvador. PLoS ONE 4(9): e6882. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006882
Gorostiza et al. (2012) Reconstructing the history of Mesoamerican populations through the study of the mitochondrial DNA control region. PLoS ONE 10.1371/journal.pone.0044666
Only sixteen individuals among the Mesoamericans possess a mtDNA lineage that didn’t originate in Asia. 99% belong to the four major lineages (A, B, C or D) which are derived from Asia. Of the sixteen non-Asian lineages, three are clearly African L lineages, and three were not fully characterised. The remaining 10 lineages are all lineages found at high frequencies in European populations. There were 6 H lineages, one U, one J and two T lineages. These lineages are found in European populations in the following frequencies: lineage H/V (54%), lineage U (16%), lineage J (10%) and lineage T (8%). By comparing these lineages to the thousands of mtDNA sequences in global databases, the scientists found exact matches for the U and one T lineage among individuals from Western Europe, namely Spain, Portugal and Poland (Salas et al. 2009). Meanwhile, the most abundant female lineages in Middle Eastern populations are lineage K (32%) followed by lineage H (26%). 

Given that African lineages were detected as well, this strongly suggests that these “other” lineages originated from post Columbus admixture with African and European colonists. Higher levels of admixture have been observed in several other Native American populations, particularly in eastern North America, which was impacted more heavily after first contact. 

If, as the Book of Mormon claims, there were Israelite migrations to the New World or to Mesoamerica, they have left essentially no trace. The molecular research on Mesoamerican populations is in complete harmony with the Mesoamerican archaeological research. The lack of evidence of any Middle Eastern influence in Mesoamerica is telling given that brief visits to the New World by Vikings that took place not long after the Book of Mormon period have been detected in North America. 
“Ten centuries ago a handful of Norse sailors slipped into Newfoundland, established small colonies, traded with local natives, then sailed back into the fog of history. In spite of the small scale of their settlements and the brevity of their stay, unequivocal evidence of their presence has been found, including metalwork, buildings, and Norse inscriptions. Just six centuries earlier, the Book of Mormon tells us, a climactic battle between fair-skinned Nephites and dark-skinned Lamanites ended a millennial dominion by a literate, Christian, Bronze Age civilization with a population numbering in the millions. Decades of serious and honest scholarship have failed to uncover credible evidence that these Book of Mormon civilizations ever existed. No Semitic languages, no Israelites speaking these languages, no wheeled chariots or horses to pull them, no swords or steel to make them. They remain a great civilization vanished without a trace, the people along with their genes.” 
—Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe, 2004
LDS apologetic efforts to shrink the scale of the Israelite presence must now address the disappearance of Lehi’s DNA. This is no small task given the abundance of scriptural and prophetic support for the widespread belief that most Native Americans are descended from the Lamanites. Arguing that the Lehites joined the large adjoining native populations leaves many questions to be answered including:-

Where are the seed of Lehi who are to be restored to a knowledge of "their fathers" and to receive the Gospel? The Book of Mormon was specifically written to the Lamanites.
If the Nephites and Lamanites encountered large Native American populations wherever they went why didn’t they mention them once in the 1000-year narrative?
How could the Hebrew speaking Lehites take control of well established complex Native American civilizations and this leadership change leave no trace in the archaeological record? Why would the Native Americans let them take over in the first place?
If a handful of Lehites were absorbed into large existing Native American populations, why were the terms “Lamanite” and “Nephite” still used a thousand years later?
Why, after 1000 years of history, do the Nephite prophets keep referring to the Lamanites in familial terms such as their "brethren"?

Perhaps the most important question the apologists need to answer is why people should trust them over the prophets.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Native American DNA reveals they are descended from Asian ancestors

The Americas were the last continents colonized by humans and the nature and timing of this colonization has been the subject of intense scientific research for over a century. The Mormon Church claims special knowledge within this field of scientific research. Most Mormons believe that native people in the Americas and Polynesia are largely (or at least partly) descended from Israelites. These views are largely based on the sacred writings Mormons possess, in particular the Book of Mormon, and numerous statements by church leaders, including all of its prophets, over many decades. As recently as March 2013 native Central American Mormons from Honduras were reassured by an apostle that they are the descendants of father Lehi, an Israelite who the Book of Mormon claims sailed to the Americas in 600BC.

Scientists studying Native American populations see no cultural or genetic connection between Old and New World populations. There is a broad consensus view among archaeologists, geologists and biologists, based on more than a century of excavating thousands of archaeological sites, that the New World was first populated at least fifteen thousand years ago, and possibly as early as twenty thousand years ago, by migrants from Asia. These people entered the Americas via a wide expanse of land—called Beringia—which connected northeastern Asia with northwestern North America during ice ages when sea levels were lower. These small groups of migrants soon exploited the richness of the “new world,” and their populations grew quickly and expanded across the North and South American continents over a few thousand years. There is widespread agreement among archaeologists that there is no evidence that the cultural developments unveiled in the archaeological record in the New World were in any way inspired by visitors or migrants from Africa, Europe, or Asia.

The Asian origin of essentially all Native Americans was firmly established by the middle of the 20th century, using classical genetic markers such as blood groups and variation in other proteins (enzymes). During the last two decades, much higher resolution molecular studies have confirmed the Asian origin of Native Americans, the timing of migrations into the Americas and the routes these people took as they entered North and South America.

Scientists carrying out molecular studies have focused on two portions of human DNA that have simple patterns of inheritance.  The majority of our DNA (carried on our chromosomes) is passed from generation to generation as complex rearrangements of parental DNA. In contrast mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed along maternal lines from mothers to their offspring, while Y chromosome DNA (YDNA) is passed from father to son (Figure 1.1).  These uni-parentally inherited DNAs have been used extensively to build maternal or paternal links between related populations and to study the movement of human populations throughout the world.

Figure 1.1

The earliest immigrants to the Americas brought with them a subset of the maternal and paternal DNA lineages present in their Asian source populations. An excellent summary of the distribution of global mtDNA and YDNA lineages can be found here.

Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA variation in the Americas indicates unambiguously that the ancestors of Native Americans originated in Asia. Virtually all modern Native Americans possess an mtDNA lineage that belongs to one of five founding lineage families (haplogroups), which are all present among native populations of Siberia. These maternal lineages have now been designated A, B, C, D and X (Figure 1.2; Brown et al. 1998; Schurr et al. 1990). Of these haplogroups, only X is present in both central Asian and European populations; however, the X haplogroup is large and diverse, and the particular X lineage (X2a) found in Native American populations represents a distinct branch on the Eurasian X lineage tree (Reidla et al. 2003).

Figure 1.2

The four major Native American founding lineages have been renamed A2, B2, C1, and D1 to distinguish them from closely related lineages in Asia.

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 (Figure 1.3.). The most common mtDNA lineage among Ashkenazi Jews is lineage K (Behar et al. 2004). Lineage L is the most common lineage in African populations.

Figure 1.3


Behar, D. M., Hammer, M. F. Garrigan, D., et al. (2004) MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population. European Journal of Human Genetics. 12, 355-364.
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 ChurchSalt Lake City, Signature Books.