The 20th century saw an explosion in scientific understanding of the prehistoric colonisation of the Americas. There is now broad scientific agreement Native Americans essentially all descend from Siberian big game hunters who walked to the New World over 15,000 years ago. Coincidentally, as the science blossomed, LDS scholars have steadily shrunk claims about the footprint of Book of Mormon peoples. First they acknowledged the presence of "other" native people in the Americas who probably arrived after the Book of Mormon period. They then conceded native people probably arrived first. Recently, apologists have begun incorporating large numbers of native people into the scriptural history. These dwindling apologetic claims have mostly centred on Mesoamerica, in particular the complex civilisations of the Maya. Their populations were large, they lived at the right time, and most importantly, they were the only New World culture with a system of writing.
Scientists have failed to uncover genetic links to the Middle East among Native Americans in general and Mesoamericans specifically. The latest whole genome marker studies have revealed in high resolution the complete absence of Semitic DNA in the Maya. At least 99.99% of the pre-Columbian DNA of the Maya is of Siberian origin. The same technology, now accessible from Ancestry.com, allows ordinary Mormons to explore their ethnic origins. Many Native American and Polynesian Mormons will soon be wondering where their Semitic DNA has gone. Its time that these futile, damaging and untrue ethnic claims were laid to rest. The Maya, just like other Native Americans, are unrelated to Semitic peoples and their cultures and major civilisations owe nothing to the Old World.
The shrinking geographyThe most substantive response to my book Losing a Lost Tribe (2004), and the DNA issue in general, is The Book of Mormon and DNA Research (2008), a collection of essays previously published in The Farms Review and The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. The editor of the volume is non-scientist Daniel Peterson, a once prominent Mesoamerican apologist who is Professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University. Peterson was removed from his position as editor of The FARMS Review within the Maxwell Institute in June 2012 and now runs an independent online apologetic journal known as Interpreter.
"In a very real sense, this debate is (or should be) over. Just two or three years ago, the Signature Books Web page still featured an admission from Simon Southerton, an Australian plant geneticist and former Latter-day Saint who is now the most vocal critic of the Book of Mormon on DNA grounds, that "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." This confession effectively concedes a major portion of what several in this volume argue regarding Amerindian DNA and the Book of Mormon."
– Daniel Peterson, Introduction, The Book of Mormon and DNA Research, 2008
Peterson is particularly selective with his quotations. In order to keep up the pretence that I don't address the limited geography (which I did in 2004 and 2006) he has consistently avoided mentioning what I said in the remainder of the paragraph.
"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)." (http://archive.is/yphHS)
DNA vs the Mesoamerican Limited Geography
"The broad consensus of serious Book of Mormon researchers, however, remains today what it has been for many decades: Book of Mormon events took place chiefly within a relatively small area in Mesoamerica. This consensus, reflected in a large number of scholarly publications, is scarcely to be overturned by the appearance of a handful of self-produced books and videos or an engaging fireside speaker or two."
|Figure 1. Adapted from John L. Sorenson |
An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon p 37.
For decades "serious" or "careful" or "diligent" Book of Mormon researchers have devoted almost all of their attention on Mesoamerica, the relatively small region encompassing southern Mexico and northern Guatemala and Honduras. Numerous scriptural contortions are required to fit this geography with the narrative of the Book of Mormon, which I review in another post on my blog. However, shrinking the geography to Mesoamerica has done nothing to reduce the gulf between mainstream archaeology and the views of LDS scholars. Non-Mormon scholars have found no material evidence of pre-Columbian contact between Mesoamerica and Old World cultures.
A limited geography isn't the magic cure-all for the DNA problem as the apologists have loudly proclaimed. By shrinking the geography the apologists also shrink the size of the indigenous population the Lehites/Mulekites allegedly entered. They merely increase the proportion of Semitic DNA one would expect to find in the smaller territory. You can't have it both ways. So it is perfectly reasonable to expect genetic studies in Mesoamerica to reveal some evidence of pre-Columbian migrations from the Middle East...if they occurred.
In this post I focus on DNA research on Mesoamerican populations. There are two key factors to consider when looking for the presence of Semitic DNA. First, what percentage of Mesamerican DNA is not derived from Asians? This is DNA that arose from "admixture" or by mixing with other non-Asian populations. This is the only putative Semitic DNA. Second, what percentage of that admixed DNA is likely to have originated in the Middle East?
Admixture in Mesoamerican DNAMitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies have proven to be particularly useful for revealing where pre-Columbian Native American DNA originated. MtDNA genealogies have been preferred to Y-DNA studies for ancestry studies because they largely avoid the confounding admixture due to the male-dominated early colonial parties. Additionally, the people who donated blood for these studies were interviewed to exclude people who are close relatives and those with non-native ancestors. When I published Losing a Lost Tribe in 2004, mtDNA lineages had been determined for just over 500 Central Americans. Just 4 individuals had a mtDNA lineage that didn't belong to the Asian A, B, C, D and X lineage families. Clearly, essentially all natives in Central American populations are descended from Asian ancestors.
In the years since the publication of Losing a Lost Tribe 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.
The next question is what proportion of admixed DNA present in Mesoamericans could possibly be derived from Middle Eastern populations.
Origin of Mayan admixtureIf we assume 0.9% admixed DNA in Mesoamericans, is it possible to estimate what percentage of this admixed DNA could come from the Middle East? That question was answered in a paper published in the February issue of Science (Hellenthal et al. 2014), which outlines sophisticated methods for identifying evidence of historical interbreeding between populations. In contrast to mtDNA studies, which trace maternal lineages using a few dozen markers, the Hellenthal study examined over 400,000 DNA markers on 22 pairs of chromosomes. This is almost the entire human genome.
Fig 2. Admixture results in reshuffling of donor
DNA and a reduction in the size of segments
derived from each donor.
For the Maya, Hellenthal et al. (2014) observed two "donor populations" that participated in an admixture event that occurred in the Maya between 1642CE and 1726CE (see Fig 3). For convenience they called the recent admixture donor "Spanish-like" and the other "Pima-like" to reflect the largest contributing population. The Spanish-like donors (orange circles) largely comprised Western European and African populations. The Pima-like donors (blue circles) largely comprised closely related Native American populations and more distantly related Eurasian populations. No donor DNA originated in any Middle Eastern populations.
Interestingly, small proportions of some East Asian populations (Daur and Yakut from northern China and Siberia) appeared as "Spanish-like" recent donors to the Mayan population. If this genuinely reflects post-Columbus admixture it may be linked to the importation of Asian slaves during the early Spanish colonial period. It is also possible that it came across the Bering Strait in the last 4-7 thousand years with the Eskimos. The Apache and Navajo Indians are closely related to Eskimo populations in Canada and Alaska and are known to have migrated as far south as northern Mexico by about 1400CE. More detailed admixture studies on more Native American populations may shed more light on this.
If we exclude the putative East Asian admixture, the level of admixture in the Maya is about 16% (see Table). The largest proportion of the admixture (88%) is derived from European and North African populations. The remaining 12% of donor DNA among the Maya is derived from Sub-Saharan African populations. It is probable that most of the Africans were imported as slaves by early Spanish colonists to use as labourers in New World plantations. Most of these African slaves were likely to have been purchased in North Africa by the Spanish from Arab slave traders.
Has Semitic DNA been overlooked?One thing that makes the detection of Semitic DNA in the Maya particularly straightforward is the fact that Native American and Semitic populations are very distantly related. In fact they have been completely separated from each other for close to 30,000 years. This means that there are many thousands of DNA markers that can be used to distinguish each group. The same is true for African and European populations. We can estimate the maximal proportion of Semitic admixture that may have escaped detection in the admixed DNA. It is somewhere between zero (what was observed) and 0.6 percent; the lowest amount of donor admixture detected in the Maya (the African San Kohomani). We can estimate this by multiplying the observed level of admixture (0.9%) by the lowest detected proportion within that admixture (0.6%). By my calculations the maximal proportion of Semitic DNA that may be present in the Maya, but escaped detection, is 0.009 x 0.0062 = 0.000056, or 0.0056 percent.
In the past some LDS scholars have attempted to downplay the contribution the Lehites and Mulekites made to Native American populations. Some have argued the two parties may only have comprised 50 people at most and their DNA would be impossible to detect after being diluted in the large native populations. But even if small Semitic groups arrived 3000 years ago their genes would have spread widely through adjacent populations, and it would be almost impossible for their Semitic DNA markers to disappear.
Contrast this with what the Book of Mormon says about the Semitic people who arrived in the Americas. Their crops thrived and wildlife (cow, ox, ass, horse, goat, wild goat) were found in abundance (1 Ne. 18:24-25). In 588 BC the Lehite populations were prospering “exceedingly” and “multiplying” in the land (2 Ne. 5:13) and by 399 BC they had “multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land” (Jarom 1:8). In about 120 BC the “exceedingly numerous” descendants of Mulek (who had also sailed from Israel) joined the Nephites (Omni 1:17). At this time there were so many people in the Book of Mormon civilisations that they couldn’t number them because they had “multiplied exceedingly and waxed great in the land” (Mosiah 2:2). By 46 BC they had spread 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).
Clearly, if the events described in the Book of Mormon took place anywhere, they did not take place in Mesoamerica.
Let's lose the Limited Geography Model
"... given the present state of science, such an experiment is impossible to design and would not be taken seriously by the scientific community." – Michael F. Whiting
"...although it may be possible to recover the genetic signature of a few migrating families from 2,600 years ago, it is not probable. However, the data suggest that there has been a trickle of gene flow to the Americas from non-Asiatic source populations. Though far from verifying or proving the Book of Mormon, these data do allow for the plausibility of its story line." – David A. McClellan
"... the insurmountable difficulties in identifying the genetic heritage of the chief ancestors of the Lehite peoples." – John M. Butler
"...the chance of scientifically tracing a person's genetic heritage by DNA alone is highly remote." – D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens
"Given...the extremely limited picture that contemporary genetics offers of our distant ancestral tree, it is unreasonable to insist that DNA studies alone can prove or disprove an Israelite connection." – Matthew Roper
To be fair to these apologists, their negative (albeit unjustified) comments, were primarily directed at the mtDNA and Y-chromosome research published before 2008. They would have been largely unaware of the whole genome marker research described above. But they will be sorely disappointed if they think sniping about the limited power of DNA technology will buy them much time. For just $99 Ancestry.com (Provo, Utah) will now test your autosomal DNA at 700,000 markers, almost twice the number of markers used in the Hellenthal study. Ancestry.com will then compare your DNA to samples from around the world to reveal your genetic background and ethnic history. Using the methods published in the Hellenthal study they could tell you exactly where your ancestors lived during the past 4000 years. The power of DNA to reveal human genealogies will be glaringly obvious to thousands of ordinary Mormons, and many Mormons who believe they are descended from the Lamanites are going to be in for a big surprise.
|For $99 Ancestry.com will generate an estimate of your |
ethnicity based on 700,000 markers
LDS apologists will have few other options but to assume what should be the prophet's role and reinterpret scripture. And based on past performances we are in for some painful scripture twisting in the coming years. All bets will be off. Most of the apologists have grown to adulthood worshipping at the feet of Hugh Nibley, and as far as Nibley is concerned, the Book of Mormon is begging for some serious reading between the lines.
"The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon or any other ancient text 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
Here is a small taste of the "cunning inferences" that Nibley-inspired apologists have already dredged from scripture (see Peterson, 2008).
Everybody is a Lamanite!
Lamanites are like leaven
According to Meldrum and Stephens, genetic traces of the House of Israel could be thought of as leaven in bread. Since too much leaven can be tasted in bread and decreases its quality, one should not expect to find genetic markers for the children of Lehi or even for the children of Abraham.
Lamanites are unmentionable
In 1992 Sorenson argued that references to Native Americans are vague because they were outside the focus of the Book of Mormon and because the Nephite record keepers thought them too insignificant to mention. As they were not Lehi’s descendants, they were beneath mention in a book devoted to a favoured branch of the House of Israel. Sorenson speculates that acknowledging them would have been seen by Nephite chroniclers as a waste of space on their precious plates.
Interestingly, Roper (Peterson, 2008) argues the complete opposite of Nibley! He believes that the scriptural evidence for Native American “others” being present when the Lehites arrived, is “abundant,” while evidence against the presence of others is “sparse and unimpressive”. Yet since the book was published virtually all of its readers have missed any reference to these "others". One has to wonder if Roper has even read the Book of Mormon or if he has only searched it for evidence to back up his pre-conceived ideas.
Native Americans didn't have real “nations”
Roper also twists references to an unpopulated New World, “kept from the knowledge of other nations (2 Nephi 1:8–9).” According to Roper, Indian tribes “did not yet merit the description 'nations.'” Ouch.
Peterson, D (2008) The Book of Mormon and DNA Research: Essays from The FARMS Review and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
References to Mesoamerican mtDNA table
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Lorenz JG & Smith DG (1996). Distribution of four founding MtDNA haplogroups among native North Americans. Am. J Phys. Anthrop. 101, 307-23.
6. Merriwether DA et al. (1994) Genetic variation in the New World – ancient teeth, bone and tissue as sources of DNA. Experientia 50, 592-601.
7. Sandoval K et al. (2009) Linguistic and maternal genetic diversity are not correlated in Native Mexicans. Human Genetics 126, 521–531.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.00068
12. Gorostiza et al. (2012) Reconstructing the history of Mesoamerican populations through the study of the mitochondrial DNA control region. PLoS ONE10.1371/journal.pone.0044666