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Friday, 2 March 2012

Has Middle Eastern DNA Been Found in Mesoamerica as BYU Scientists Claim?

In 2008 the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) published a DVD entitled The Book of Mormon and New World DNA. The DVD is an assortment of interviews with several LDS scholars and scientists. It contains the usual claims that the critics' conclusions and methods are flawed, but it also contains very surprising claims that there is credible DNA evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon. Portions of the DVD are available in three parts; part 1, part 2 and part 3 on youtube. You can also purchase a copy of the full DNA from the FAIR Bookstore here

Undoubtedly, the most prominent scientist featured on the DVD is Professor Keith Crandall, a highly regarded evolutionary biologist formerly at Brigham Young University, but now at George Washington University. There are also contributions from two other scientists, including Jeffrey Meldrum, an anthropologist from Idaho State University famous for his Sasquatch (Bigfoot) research and Ryan Parr who has a PhD in human anthropology from the University of Utah. Other contributions come from Brian Stubbs, who teaches English and linguistics at the College of Eastern Utah. [Stubbs describes his own unpublished research where he claims to have found “considerable evidence” of Hebrew and Egyptian in a least one Mesoamerican language.] and FAIR apologists John Tvedtnes, Allen Wyatt and Michael Ash. 
Claims of Middle Eastern DNA in the Americas
Two participants interviewed on the DVD make the claim that evidence of Middle Eastern DNA has been found in Mesoamercia

Keith Crandall
The most striking claim on the DVD is made by Keith Crandall. He even claims that the authors of some recent DNA studies have identified Middle Eastern haplotypes (DNA) in Mayan peoples. Not surprisingly, these amazing claims are featured right at the beginning of the DVD. 

The Book of Mormon and New World DNA Part 1: 0.03 – 0.25min.  

 “The most recent DNA evidence that I’ve seen, in terms of peopling of the Americas, shows this Middle Eastern haplotype at greatest frequencies in the Mayan people; so if that’s your perception of where Lehi and company set up shop then the DNA evidence would be consistent with that.”
 Keith Crandall, 2008

Later in the DVD Crandall tells us a little more about this amazing discovery.

The Book of Mormon and New World DNA Part 3:  2.11 – 2.39 min.

"…there is an interesting bit of data that probably only an LDS scientist would pick up…[chuckle]…which shows for the Mayan people and maybe one or two other cultures close geographically to the Yucatan area…there’s actually a nice infusion of Middle Eastern…what they call Middle Eastern genotypes in those populations."
 Keith Crandall, 2008
If these finding were true then why hasn't the media got hold of this story yet? If scientists really did find evidence that the genes of Middle Eastern groups had been found in Native Americans I would imagine that they would be very excited about that discovery and would want the world to know. But there have been no reports of such a finding. Crandall also goes on to reassure listeners that the DNA studies are very difficult to understand, and that because the critics are not population geneticists like him, they couldn’t understand the research.

The Book of Mormon and New World DNA Part 1: 1:20. – 1:37min.

“The real issue is that these guys don’t actually look at the population genetic literature, they don’t understand the population genetic literature because they’re not population geneticists…so they couldn’t interpret these kinds of data. It's a very tricky kind of literature and a tricky kind of data to wrap your brain around. But it’s pretty patently obvious when you look at their data in this one figure in particular.  If that's what you’re looking for its there.”
 Keith Crandall, 2008
Several Mormons who have watched the DVD have contacted Keith Crandall to ask for references for his claims. He has typically referred them to two scientific research papers; one published by Jun Li in 2008 entitled “Worldwide human relationships inferredfrom genome-wide patterns of variation” and one authored by Noah Rosenberg in 2005 entitled “Clines, clusters, and the effect of study design on the inference of human population structure. Crandall directs them to figures (see below) within these papers that compare the ancestry of the nuclear DNA of individuals in worldwide populations. The figure below is drawn from the paper of Li et al. A similar figure appears in the paper by Rosenberg.

If you look closely at the data for the Mayan population, you will notice that their ancestry includes DNA likely to have originated in Asia (orange) and Europe (green). This is the DNA Crandall claims came from the Middle East. By far the most likely origin for this DNA is post-Columbus admixture, a common problem scientists encounter when studying the ancestry of Native Americans. Males introduced most of this admixed DNA. To avoid this confounding DNA most population geneticists studying Native American ancestry focus on a maternally inherited portion of our DNA known as mitochondrial DNA.

Admixture in mitochondrial DNA lineages can be avoided by ensuring that no European or African females occur in an individuals direct maternal lineage (their mother’s, mother’s, mother etc). Admixture is much more difficult to avoid when studying nuclear (chromosomal) DNA. Nuclear DNA is passed from both parents to their offspring as complex rearrangements of their ancestors DNA. To avoid admixed nuclear DNA you would need to ensure that none of the ancestors in a Native Americans family tree were European or African.  

Most of the admixed DNA was most likely derived from Europe as most of the admixed DNA was green, matching the European DNA. This is entirely consistent with the findings of mitochondrial DNA studies which have shown that the very small number of mtDNA lineages in Mesoamericans are derived from Europe or Africa (see my blog post "Where are the Lamanites in Mesoamerica?"). 

Could it be possible that Crandall has misinterpreted the research and not the critics? One thing is certain, his insinuation that the research papers state there are Middle Eastern genotypes in the Maya is incorrect.  Neither paper makes that claims. None of the authors of the papers Crandall cites conclude, as he suggested, that Middle Eastern DNA was found in the Maya. That is his interpretation of their research. Crandall also chooses to overlook a much more comprehensive study published by Wang et al. in 2007 that examined 499 individuals from 29 Native American populations (see figure below from Wang et al. 2007). This oversight is particularly glaring because Wang’s study was specifically focussed on Native American ancestry, whereas the studies by Li and Rosenberg were clearly global in scope.

The figure shown below is from Wang's study. The first thing that you will notice is that the level of admixture in the Maya is similar to the levels seen in many other Native American populations. There is also no evidence of any specific connection between the Maya and Middle Eastern groups. If you look closely at the Maya data in the expanded section you will see that the admixture includes Siberian (red) and Asian (pink) DNA (due to their ancient connection to these regions) and European (blue) and African (orange) DNA. The latter DNA almost certainly arrived after Columbus as we can see it cropping up in numerous North, Central and South American populations.

I have contacted Keith Crandall on several occasions and drawn attention to all of the things I discussed above.  He has shown no interest in correcting his claims, unlike John Tvedtnes, the other apologist in the DVD who makes similarly bold claims about DNA links to the Middle East.

John Tvedtnes (MA in Linguistics and MA in Middle East Studies (Hebrew) was a senior scholar (now retired) with the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts at Brigham Young University. Tvedtnes has published over 300 articles on a broad range of apologetic topics and has been particular outspoken in the DNA debate despite having no scientific training.

In the full FAIR DVD Tvedtnes claims that the Native American mtDNA X lineage had been found in Mesoamerica, adding support to the Limited Geography apologetic arguments that link the Lamanites with Mesoamerican civilizations (These claims don't appear in the three parts available on Youtube). He also claims that a DNA lineage named “N” found in Great Basin tribes was related to N lineages found in Europeans. The X and N lineage claims of Tvedtnes are both wrong and I drew these to his attention via email. After several months of corresponding with John I was able to convince him that his statements were incorrect and to his credit he requested that FAIR edit the DVD to remove the problematic comments. FAIR took the easy option and chose not to edit the DVD, but rather they added an obscure link to an errata page at the bottom of the DVDs home page, where Tvedtnes’ “corrections” can be found. They are quite comfortable to continue selling a DVD that contains several false and misleading claims.
“FAIR Errata
FAIR DVD: DNA and the Book of Mormon
John Tvedtnes was kind enough to revisit our interview with him, and made the following clarification. His remarks should be considered with these caveats in mind: 
I acknowledge that there are two parts of my interview that are problematic. The first is that, at the beginning, I said that haplogroup X is found in Mesoamerica, which is incorrect. Later on the DVD, I note that it is found in the eastern USA (and Canada, BTW), but "Mesoamerica" was incorrect. Also, the way I worded things made it sound like this was evidence for the Book of Mormon. It is, of course, not direct evidence, though it is true that the "brand" (as I put it) of X found in the New World is closer to that found in Europe and in the Middle East, where X is thought to have originated. Still, as I indicated in my later comments on the DVD, the likelihood is that the X of eastern North America came from Europe.

I also made an inadvertent mistake in assuming that the haplogroup labeled "N" for remains of Great Basin Natives was also found in Europe. As it turns out, the Great Basin studies used "N" to denote samples of mitochondrial DNA that did not fall into the ABCD haplogroups and was intended to mean "none." The real importance of these and X in general is that more haplogroups have been discovered since the original ABC (which expanded to ABCD, then added X, with others unclassified and usually labeled "other"). This suggests that one cannot close the door on more such discoveries, as some of the critics suggest.”
Even in his corrections Tvedtnes continues to get it wrong. There is no evidence that the X lineage found among Native Americans is more closely related to X lineages found in Europe and the Middle East. The relationship is very ancient. He also cannot help but try to turn his N lineage gaffe to his advantage. All Tvedtnes needed to do to avoid the N lineage blunder was to talk to the author of the research, Ryan Parr, who also appeared on the FAIR DVD!! We can safely assume that there is nothing in Parr’s research that supports the Book of Mormon because he didn’t talk about it on the DVD.

Why do I bother?
As a BYU professor Keith Crandall is in a position of trust. Many Mormons, including active members in my own family, place considerable confidence in the words of a BYU professor. Many trusting Mormons hearing his comments in the FAIR DVD could be excused for believing that scientists have found a firm genetic connection between the Maya and Middle Eastern peoples. This is simply not true. It would be particularly painful for me to hear that members of my extended family were reassured by Crandall’s words and as a consequence think that I am ignoring crucial evidence.

If any readers share my concerns please feel free to email Keith to see if he still stands by his position.  He doesn't seem to be listening to me. You can find his email address by searching for his name at BYU. Please try to be polite if you choose to contact him. I would certainly be interested in hearing if he has revised his thinking since the publication of the FAIR DVD.


Li, J. Absher, D.M. et al. (2008) Worldwide human relationships inferred from genome-wide patterns of variation. Science 319:1100-1104.

Rosenberg, N.A., Mahajan, S. et al. (2005) Clines, clusters, and the effect of study design on the inference of human population structure. PLos Genetics 1,660-671. 

Wang, S., C. M. Lewis, et al. (2007) Genetic variation and population structure in Native Americans, PLoS Genetics 3: 2049-2067.