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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Could Lamanite DNA Just Disappear?

The lack of molecular ties between Native Americans and ancient Israelites has forced many Mormon apologists to resolve their cognitive dissonance by a change of tack. If you can't make the facts fit with scripture then make scripture fit with the facts. It is an uncomfortable fact for Mormons that American Indian DNA is of Asian origin and if there were any Israelites among their ancestors then their Israelite genes appear to have disappeared. Some LDS apologists, desperate to salvage faith at any cost, are arguing that the Lamanite DNA has indeed disappeared. Putting aside the testimony-shattering reinterpretations of scripture this requires, is it true that Lamanite DNA could so easily be lost?

Human population geneticists have made tremendous progress in unravelling the origins of the human family and the routes our ancestors followed as they colonized the globe. Most of this progress has been made by studying the simple genetic configurations of Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. Until now scientists have largely ignored the DNA that comprises the vast majority of our genome.  This is the DNA that resides within our remaining 22 pairs of chromosomes, known as the autosomes. Together with the X and Y chromosomes it is known as genomic DNA.  

Whole genome studies 
Studying our genomic DNA is enormously challenging.  Firstly, there is so much of it.  The human genome contains three billion base pairs of DNA.  Secondly, the pattern of inheritance of genomic DNA is less straightforward.  Unlike Y chromosome DNA, which is passed from generation to generation largely unchanged from father to son, and mitochondrial DNA, which is passed largely unchanged from mothers to daughters, most of our genomic DNA gets shuffled every generation in a process called recombination. 

Recombination shuffles genomic DNA in every generation

Note how the father has a blue and a red copy of each chromosome, one derived from each of his parents. Similarly, the mothers chromosomes are derived from each of her parents. But the parents don’t pass on chromosomes that came from only one of their parents. Each of the 22 chromosomes they pass on will contain fragments derived from each of their parents. This happens in every generation, consequently the chromosomes that we inherit from our parents contain fragments of DNA from a vast number of our paternal and maternal ancestors. This is illustrated in the four generation pedigree chart below. Note that the son carries the blue Y chromosome of only one of his four great grandfathers and the red mitochondrial DNA of only one of his four great grandmothers. Yet he carries fragments of chromosomal DNA from all eight of his great grandparents.   

Tremendous advances in DNA technology in the last decade are now making it feasible for scientists to look much further into the human genome to unlock some of the deepest secrets of our ancestors. Most of those secrets are buried in the 3 billion base pairs of DNA in our genome.  But how is it possible to make sense of this vast amount of DNA sequence data? Most scientists studying the human genome focus their attention on what's different between genomes rather than what's the same. That reduces the information they have to deal with by roughly a thousand-fold. By far the most common difference observed when the entire genome sequence of two different people are compared, are single base pair substitutions known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced SNiPs). The word "polymorphism" simply means different forms. The figure below illustrates a G/T SNP.    

SNPs are random variations that have arisen in a single human genome in the past and then subsequently passed on to future generations (we typically pass on about 50 or so new mutations to our children). Since mutations are arising all the time human tribes that become separated soon begin to accumulate large numbers of SNPs that are unique to their population.   

SNPs have revealed some surprises in our family tree

Several ground-breaking discoveries using whole genome SNP analysis have been made in the last few years. It has long been known that humans co-existed in Europe with the closely related Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) about 30-40,000 years ago. Scientists have speculated for many years that humans and Neanderthals may have interbred but the evidence was largely inconclusive. In 2010 German scientists succeeded in isolating DNA from Neanderthal bones and sequencing some of the Neanderthal genome. (The team that made the original discovery has recently published the full genome sequencemaking it freely available to the scientific community).

The first things scientists did after sequencing the Neanderthal genome was to look for differences between the Neanderthal and human genomes. This study revealed many thousands of DNA sequence differences, or SNPs, between the two species. They also found that every human who is descended from "non-Africans" has a little Neanderthal in them - between 1 and 4 per cent of their genome. Its now clear that humans and Neanderthals interbred and had healthy offspring. Neanderthals never lived in Africa, which may explain why contemporary sub-Saharan Africans have no trace of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

Neanderthals - more than just neighbours

The surprises in our family tree don't stop there. Scientists now believe that our ancestors fraternised with other distant relatives. In 2012 scientists sequenced DNA recovered from a bone fragment found in a cave in the Altai region of Siberia. They discovered the bone belonged to a new species, Denisovans, which are more closely related to Neanderthals than humans. Remarkably, when the Denisovan genome sequence was compared to the genomes of humans from all around the world, it was found that Papua New Guinea highlanders, Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals shared a little (~5%) Denisovan DNA.

The growing human family tree

The Denisovan discovery fits neatly with widely accepted views of human colonisation of the world. The very first humans to migrate out of Africa travelled around the coast of India, reaching New Guinea and Australia about 50,000 years ago. The two groups are likely to have interbred when they first met and the Denisovans subsequently died out. Who knows what other genealogical surprises are contained within our genomes.   

Lamanite DNA: nowhere to hide 

The research on Neanderthals and Denisovans clearly illustrates that if ancestors of other ethnic backgrounds are hiding unnoticed in our family trees, traces of their DNA can be found in our genomes; even after tens of thousands of years. It is no longer reasonable to claim that Lamanite DNA cannot be found. The recent advances in whole genome sequencing and analysis have changed the research landscape. Genetic tests are now so sensitive, that it is possible to detect a tiny fraction of a percent of mixed ancestry in a person’s DNA.

Scientists are beginning to explore the origins of Native Americans using what they call Ancestry Informative Markers or AIMs. These are SNPs that have been shown to be specific to a particular indigenous group. In 2007 scientists identified 8,144 AIMs found only in the genomes of the Pima and Maya. They demonstrated that their panel of AIMs can distinguish between chromosomal segments of Amerindian or European ancestry. The goal of their study was to determine the ancestral origins of indigenous diseases, but their conclusions have profound implications for those interested in Book of Mormon studies.

Using ancestry informative SNPs it is possible to estimate how long ago foreign DNA entered a population. You will recall that most of our genome gets shuffled every generation as sister chromosomes undergo recombination. After foreign DNA enters a population random recombination events that occur every generation fragment the foreign DNA. The longer the DNA has been in a population the shorter the fragments of foreign DNA become. The AIMs SNPs can be used to determine the average length of the fragments of foreign (e.g. European) DNA.

Using this approach scientists were able to determine quite accurately the number of generations since European DNA entered Mexican American populations. In the table below you will observe the estimates they obtained for all 22 chromosomes using two methods (STRUCTURE and ADMIXMAP). They were able to determine that the European DNA in 24 Mexican Americans originated within the last 10-25 generations. The average for all the chromosomes was 16 generations using the STRUCTURE method and 13 using the ADMIXMAP approach. These estimates align well with the known history of European admixture with Native American populations within the last 500 years. 

Middle Eastern DNA is relatively closely related to European DNA and they are likely to share many AIMs. Consequently if there was Middle Eastern DNA it would have been possible to detected it with the European AIMs. If these individuals had Middle Eastern DNA in their genomes that arrived over the last 2-3,000 years, the scientists would have noticed something unexpected in the results. Having been through up to 6 times as many generations of recombination this DNA would have caused the estimates of the number of generations since admixture to be larger.   

About a decade ago I made the following observation. 

"In 600 BC there were probably several million American Indians living in the Americas. If a small group of Israelites, say less than thirty, entered such a massive native population, it would be very hard to detect their genes today. However, such a scenario does not square with what the Book of Mormon plainly states and with what the prophets have taught for 175 years. The Book of Mormon records that soon after their arrival in the Americas, the descendants of Lehi “multiplied exceedingly and spread upon the face of the land” (Jarom 1:8). By about 46 BC, after which time they had joined with the Mulekites, they had multiplied until they “covered the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east (Hel. 3:8). By the time of the final conflagrations around 400 AD, the Israelite populations numbered in the many hundreds of thousands if not millions. There is not a single mention in the text of groups of people living in ancient America, other than the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites. All three population groups had very large populations. It is hardly surprising then that Joseph Smith and all other church leaders have regarded Native Americans to be the descendants of the Lamanites. The God speaking to Joseph Smith in 1830-31 referred to the “borders of the Lamanites” when talking about missionaries being sent to teach Native Americans who had been relocated to Missouri (D&C 28: 9; 54: 8).
-- Simon Southerton.
Mesoamerican apologist Daniel Peterson immediately seized on the bolded portion of my statement, proclaiming widely in apologetic circles that Southerton has conceded that DNA is unlikely to ever be able to detect Lehite DNA. My comment was a reasonable observation at the time (2006) given the limitations of the mitochondrial and Y-DNA studies, but it is no longer correct. 

Let's suspend disbelief for a moment and consider that the apologist are on to something, and all the prophets have been misguided. Lehi and his small band colonize a restricted region of the Americas. The Book of Mormon records that  Lehi's descendants multiplied exceedingly and spread upon the face of the land. Their Middle Eastern nuclear DNA would have spread, over the last 3,000 years, throughout adjacent populations like a drop of ink in a bucket of water. At the very least their genes would have spread over many hundreds of kilometres. It would be exceedingly unlikely that their genomic DNA would go extinct and scientists exploring the genomes of Native Americans would stumble on it if it was there
. But apparently the Lamanite generation, along with their genes, are nowhere to be found beyond the pages of the Book of Mormon.   

Friday, 17 May 2013

A House Divided - Book of Mormon Apologetics in the 21st Century

The emergence of molecular research on the ancestry of American Indians in the last two decades has sparked a flurry of activity in the LDS apologetic community. It has been unsettling for scholars to learn the DNA of living American Indians is similar to the DNA of populations living in the vicinity of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. If there were any Middle Eastern groups who entered the New World as recently as 2500 years ago and built large civilizations, their DNA has disappeared and their civilizations have vanished without a trace. 

The mainstream academic community has been far less surprised by the DNA research. There has long been a scientific consensus that American Indian civilizations arose independently of any Old World influences or contributions and that the principal ancestors of the American Indians began entering the continent via the Bering land bridge about 15,000 years ago. Sadly, Mormons are still expected to believe things about American Indians which are not true.

The arrival of the DNA research has split the Book of Mormon apologetic community. One group twists scripture to fit the science while the other twists science to fit scripture. The first camp, largely composed of church-sponsored BYU academics, has dominated LDS apologetics for the latter half of the last century. They have basically accepted the science and instead invented a new Book of Mormon narrative to fit. In response to the growing archaeological evidence (or lack of it) these apologists had steadily shrunk the Hebrew incursion to a region within Central America known as Mesoamerica. DNA accelerated this retreat, forcing some of the most strained reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon text we have ever seen. 

The other camp chooses to cherry pick the science for evidence that aligns with traditional interpretations of scripture. For these folk the strained scholarly reinterpretations of the academic in crowd went too far. A 21st century apologetic movement has emerged that argues that the Promised Land inhabited by these maritime Hebrews is contained within the heartland of the United States of America. In contrast to the church-sponsored academics, the heartland movement is anti-intellectual, anti-evolution and anti-science, especially when it doesn't fit with their fixed interpretation of scripture. And fitting the science is not easy. Because of their young earth creationist viewpoint, the science needs to be squared with a 6,000 year old earth.

LDS beliefs arising from the Book of Mormon
Latter-day Saints believe that in about A.D. 385, somewhere in the Americas, there was a massive battle between the last great army of a people known as the Nephites and their rivals the Lamanites. Both groups are believed to have been the descendants of Nephi and Laman, two sons of an Israelite man named Lehi who sailed to the Americas in about 600 B.C. One millennium later the conflict in question ended with the entire destruction of the Nephite army. 

Historical details of the Lehites and two other Middle Eastern groups (Mulekites and Jaredites) that migrated to the New World are described in the Book of Mormon, considered by Mormons to be a volume of sacred scripture. Based on their understanding of the book Latter-day Saints have long believed that the indigenous peoples found in the Americas and the Pacific are the direct descendants of the Lamanites.

Joseph Smith, the founding LDS prophet who produced the Book of Mormon, believed that native North Americans were a remnant of the Lamanites. The terms Indian and Lamanite were used interchangeably in his personal writings. When John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, enquired about the rise of Mormonism, Smith included in his reply a candid outline of the racial history of the Americas as revealed within the pages of the Book of Mormon.

In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell into battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.  
-  Joseph Smith, 1842 
As a direct consequence of the Book of Mormon, most Latter-day Saints of native descent in the Americas and Polynesia consider the Israelite Lehi a blood relative. These beliefs have been affirmed over many decades in Sunday School, institute and seminary classes, conference sermons, temple dedicatory prayers, patriarchal blessings, magazines, lesson manuals, and books.  
The Lord said that when his coming was near, the Lamanites would become a righteous and respected people. He said, “Before the great day of the Lord shall come, ... the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose” (D&C 49:24). Great numbers of Lamanites in North and South America and the South Pacific are now receiving the blessings of the gospel.” 
Gospel Principles 1997, page 268. 
Faith clashes with science
For over a century there has been widespread scientific agreement that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated into the Americas over 13,000 years ago  across a frozen Beringian land bridge that joined what is now eastern Siberia and Alaska. No credible archaeological evidence has been found to suggest that any Old World peoples migrated to the Americas after the initial incursion from Siberia, apart from minor Norse encounters beginning around 1000 AD and occasional contacts between arctic populations. A very telling fact is the discovery of clear evidence of small Viking settlements that existed in the New World soon after the Nephite-Lamanite battle described above.
"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. 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. How is it that they remain a great civilization vanished without a trace, the people along with their genes?" 
- Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe, 2004 page 199
A small army of largely self-appointed Mormon scholars (trained and untrained) now defends the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the face of the science. In spite of decades of LDS archaeological research and dozens of articles by LDS scholars defending the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, most LDS apologists now concede that most of the ancestors of American Indians are derived from Asia. The evolution of these apologetic views accelerated dramatically around the turn of the century when molecular genetic studies revealed that virtually all living native peoples from North, Central and South America had DNA that originated in Asia. The church was so dangerously exposed by this research that the leadership were forced to revise the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. Since 1981, it had stated that the Lamanites "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." The text was revised in 2007 and now says that the Lamanites "are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

This unpublicised revision is about as far as church leaders have gone in acknowledging the scientific challenges now facing the Book of Mormon or the extent to which LDS scholars are reinterpreting the Book of Mormon. The church's public relations department now handles this and other challenges to church doctrine via the church's website. People are directed to various apologetic work, however, the church does not officially endorse any of the opinions they hold. In what is a form of plausible deniability; the responsibility for responding to difficult questions raised by science is handed to people with no authority to speak on behalf of the church. Senior leaders don't take responsibility for any of the answers given. Why is it that after a lifetime of commitment to the church, when a member is sincerely troubled they are left with apologists rather than pastors? 

The problem is compounded further by the fact that the apologists frequently disagree with each other. Mormons may be excused for thinking that LDS scholars speak with one voice in defence of the Book of Mormon. However, LDS apologists come in all stripes, and deep and often bitter divisions exist between rival camps. The arrival of the DNA research has had a deeply polarizing impact on the Latter-day Saint apologetic community.

Most scholars connected with Brigham Young University hold the view that the Book of Mormon events occurred in a limited region of Mesoamerica (Limited Geography Theory or LGT). The major competing model that has emerged post-DNA is the Heartland Geography, a revitalised model that has been vigorously promoted by Rodney Meldrum.  This model, which has a rapidly growing army of largely non-scholarly proponents argues that the Lehite and Jaredite civilizations were located in the vicinity of New York State in North America. Other scholars refuse to concede any ground to DNA, holding fast to the widely held traditional view that the Lehites colonised both hemispheres. Yet others go to another extreme, claiming that the Lehites did not even reach the Americas, but rather colonized other lands such as the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. 

A common theme running through most apologetic theories is that New World civilizations arose through the "diffusion" of cultural ideas and inventions from the Old World. Diffusionists, as they are called, are scholars who believe that the most important inventions and technologies developed in human civilizations emerged just once and were spread around the globe from a common source.  Virtually all New World anthropologists utterly reject diffusionism. 

Arguably the most passionate and persistent diffusionist scholar in the United States is Book of Mormon apologist John Sorenson. The earliest signs of Sorenson's emerging diffusionist views of the settlement of Polynesia can be seen in his recollections from his missionary days in the Cook Islands. He was clearly heavily influenced by the even more famous diffusionist named Thor Heyerdahl, who was catapulted to fame by his remarkable voyage from South America to the Society Islands (after being towed 50 miles into the west flowing Humboldt Current!) aboard the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki, in 1947. In 2002 Sorenson recalled when he first began to take the Book of Mormon seriously. 

"I had no special interest in the Book of Mormon before going on my mission. Then I imbibed the living waters of Polynesian tradition—about Hagoth. In New Zealand, members had been taught by generations of mission presidents and missionaries that they descend from Hagoth. Everyone pointed to the Book of Mormon. In the Cook Islands, where I was assigned, people were so new in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1947 that they didn't really know enough to think any complicated thoughts, and the Book of Mormon wasn't translated into their language. So we had to answer their questions at a basic level. I guess that activity made me somewhat interested. Furthermore, while I was there, Thor Heyerdahl was on his raft Kon-Tiki going from Peru to the Society Islands. As a matter of fact, where I was serving there was a very odd American who was a ham radio operator. He invited us once to come to his home while he was trying to make radio contact with the raft Kon-Tiki. He was unsuccessful that night, but for me it was a moment of contemplation about oceanic crossings."

- John Sorenson, 2002

Mesoamerican apologetics
Mesoamerican (or limited geography) apologists shun popular LDS views of the scale of the Book of Mormon story in New World prehistory. Overwhelming scientific evidence that American Indians are essentially all descended from Siberian ancestors and have lived in the Americas for over 15,000 years has led many apologists to shrink the Book of Mormon geography to limited territories in Mesoamerica. In this theory, championed by John Sorenson and his followers at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, the small band of Lehite colonists encountered and then assumed leadership over native populations immediately after their arrival in the New World. Consequently, they now argue that the Lehites and Mulekites made an undetectable contribution to the American Indian gene pool, or what genes they did contribute have been diluted away.  

The limited geography model creates acute challenges for Mormons who understand the Book of Mormon as it is plainly written, a problem exacerbated  by the fact that other LDS scripture supports this plain understanding. The God speaking to Joseph Smith in LDS scripture frequently referred to American Indians in North America as the Lamanites (See Doctrine and Covenants 28:8-9, 14; 30:6; 32:2; 54:8). The model raises some immediately obvious questions. If the book's narrative took place in Mesoamerica how did the plates get to the Hill Cumorah which lies 3,000km to the north in New York state? Why does the Book of Mormon never mention the multitudes of indigenous people who inhabited Mesoamerican civilisations that greeted the Lehites? Surely they must have almost immediately encountered them. 

Arguably, the most significant challenge created by the DNA evidence is that it has placed severe limits on the scale of any Lehite infusion into Mesoamerica. The most we can say about the Lehites (and Mulekites and Jaredites) is that they left essentially no genetic trace. Despite DNA testing of almost two thousand Mesoamericans, Israelite DNA has escaped detection. Some limited geography apologists have now conceded that the DNA of Native Americans is overwhelming Asian and that Israelite DNA hasn't been found in the New World

The admission that the Lehites were vastly outnumbered by surrounding Native Americans flies in the face of widely held views about the Book of Mormon. Since there is no mention of any people in the Book of Mormon who's origin isn't the Middle East, most Mormons have assumed that the continent was vacant when Lehi arrived. 
Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord. 
Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever. 

And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance. 

Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever. 
(2 Nephi 1: 6-9)

The dissappearing Lamanite apologetics that has appeared post DNA is the most desperate apologetics we have seen. It relies on testimony-shattering reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon history and the arrogant dismissal of almost two centuries of prophetic declarations.

Mormons accepting a Mesoamerican model must now believe that:

  • The Lehites met vast numbers of Native Americans when they arrived in the Promised Land but chose to never mention them in their records 
  • The Lehites joined and assumed leadership of large New World civilizations soon after their arrival 
  • Native Mesoamericans handed control of their civilizations with minimal resistance to a small band of displaced Hebrews 
  • The term Lamanite is largely a cultural term (the baddies) 
  • The genetic Lamanites have essentially been wiped out 
  • Book of Mormon civilizations were located in Mesoamerica, not in North America 
  • There are two Hill Cumorah’s where the gold plates were stored. One in Mesoamerica mentioned in Book of Mormon and one in New York, mistakenly thought to be the Book of Mormon Cumorah by every Mormon prophet and the vast majority of Mormons throughout history 
  • The narrow (1 1/2 day walk) neck of land separating a western and eastern sea is the (not so narrow) Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico that separates a northern and southern sea 
  • Moroni carried the 60-80lb gold plates from Mexico to New York so that the plates were conveniently located near Joseph Smith's home 
  • Anything Joseph Smith said that connects North America with the Book of Mormon civilizations is just his opinion 
  • When God refers to Indians in the Western United States as Lamanites in the D&C, it is Joseph Smith’s personal opinion influencing scripture 
  • Anything any prophet said that implies there are millions of Lamanites across North and South America is just personal opinion and not doctrine
Faithful Mormons are expected to accept all of this without flinching. However, many Mormons have grown uncomfortable with the degree to which the limited geography model contradicts a plain reading of the Book of Mormon and the words of all Mormon prophets since Joseph Smith. 

The Mesoamerican apologists were dealt a critical blow in June 2012 when Gerald Bradford, the Executive Director of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, fired Daniel Peterson, a founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and editor of the FARMS Review. Peterson and most of his colleagues were long-time advocates of Mesoamerican theories and the previously close ties between FARMS and BYU lent considerable authority to Mesoamerican apologetics. Peterson, and many of his editorial board with Mesoamercian sympathies have been openly critical of their ousting and have established an "off campus" apologetic activity known as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

Heartland apologetics
A rapidly growing group of apologists is breathing new life into a once discarded geography theory that argues that Book of Mormon events took place in eastern North America in the vicinity of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes. The effort is spearheaded by Rodney Meldrum, a charismatic non-scientist with a marketing background. He is accompanied by Wayne May, editor and publisher of Ancient American, a magazine produced largely by Mormons (the editorial position of the journal is that it “stands firmly on behalf of evidence for the arrival of overseas visitors to the Americas hundreds and even thousands of years before Columbus.”). 

Meldrum is now heavily promoting his Heartland views via books, DVDs and large (regularly 400+) sellout half-yearly conferences. The vast majority of attendees at these conferences are older members (over 95% over the age of 45). In light of this Meldrum is supporting a new Mormon Evidence campaign targeting younger members via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube). Numerous Mormon celebrities have been recruited to promote the heartland "movement' including controversial talk show host Glenn Beck, former LDS General Authority Hartman Rector Jr. and former Relief Society General President Mary Ellen Smoot, singing star Alex Boye', filmaker Kieth Merrill, several Osmonds and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Steven E. Jones. Heartland apologists now brazenly claim that Latter-day Saints have been led astray by the Mesoamerican apologists and are even blaming them for the recent increased rate of apostasy among the youth. Meldrum has interpreted the demise of FARMS and the ousting of Daniel Peterson as a sign that the church is attempting to distance itself from Mesoamerican theories and consequently more open to his heartland ideas. Its more likely that the Brethren are trying to distance themselves from awkward Book of Mormon apologetics, period.

DNA lineage X marks the spot where the heartland theory first arose. A key piece of evidence Meldrum has used from the outset to sell his heartland model is mitochondrial DNA lineage X. The X lineage occurs at its highest frequency in North American tribes, and Meldrum is convinced it originated in Israel. Meldrum's first apologetic publication was a DVD entitled DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography - the DVD that "started it all". One of his followers recently claimed on the Mormon Evidence Facebook page that the Native American X lineage "is only found in one other location on the planet: Among Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East", a claim that is demonstrably false. None of the scientists who have published the X lineage research would agree with Meldrum's interpretation of their research. I review Meldrum's X lineage claims elsewhere on my blog

Among Meldrum's more controversial claims is his belief that there has been a racist scientific conspiracy to hide evidence of the magnitude of North American civilizations. Here he draws unfortunate parallels with deeply racist 19th century myths more at home in Joseph Smith's day. For most of the 19th century most Americans believed that the hated Red Man (contemporary Native Americans) were guilty of genocide, wiping out a superior white race that had built the thousands of mounds early settlers discovered when they colonized the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Acceptance of this myth made it a bit easier for early colonists to justify the genocide they were involved in and the misappropriation of Native American lands as they moved west. Interestingly, the Mound Builder myth shares unsettling similarities with an event central to the Book of Mormon narrative. Towards the end of the Book of Mormon we read about the annihilation of a once highly civilised white race (Nephites) by dark-skinned barbarians (Lamanites). The origin and demise of the Mound Builder myth is described in Robert Silverberg's famous book Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth (Ohio University Press). Somewhat ironically, you can purchase a copy of this book from Rodney Meldrum's online bookstore.

In 2010 Rodney Meldrum appeared in a DVD documentary "Lost Civilizations of North America" where he promoted his flawed X lineage theories and advanced his conspiracy theory that scientists have deliberately covered up evidence of the magnitude of North American civilizations. The documentary was produced by Mormons and was intended to lend scientific credibility to Meldrum's theories. Regrettably, it included several short interviews with respected scientists who have studied North American Indian tribes, and gave the distinct impression that they were supporters of his theories. Four of the scientists who were interviewed were so upset by the way they were portrayed in the documentary that they published a three part series of critiques of the DVD.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The four scientists conclude their responses with this devastating critique of Meldrum's Heartland ideas.

"In the past, many scholars have pointed to a sometimes explicitly racist agenda behind the claims of diffusionists who argue that the glories of Native American civilizations were achieved only through borrowing from various Old World groups. The producers of the Lost Civilizations of North America and the diffusionists they feature in their documentary turn this argument on its head by suggesting that it is instead those “mainstream” scholars who are the real racists because they deny Native Americans their role in an already globalized world of the early centuries of the Common Era. However, the only support for this picture of Native American–Old World interactions two thousand years ago comes from resurrected frauds and distorted history. 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."

- Bradley T. Lepper, Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, Deborah A. Bolnick, 2012
When the scientists who have provided much of the evidence upon which the Heartland theory is based, object so strongly to Meldrum's interpretation of their work, you would think this would temper the Heartland rhetoric. It appears to have had the opposite effect. If it hasn't already, the heartland movement will soon capture the hearts and minds of most Mormons desperate for solid evidence that the Book of Mormon isn't just 19th century mythology.