The essay raises many difficult questions for Mormons, not the least being the admission by the church there were many Native Americans in the New World thousands of years before the arrival of Book of Mormon people. Some Mormons may wonder how these people avoided the Flood or how they fit with other Biblical events such as the Tower of Babel. Were they even Pre-Adamites?
In this post I consider the evolution of Mormon beliefs linked to the ancestry of Book of Mormon people; at some of the science driving that evolution, and then respond more specifically to the DNA essay.
"I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today.... The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl--sixteen--sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents--on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather....These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness."
-- Spencer W. Kimball, LDS General Conference, 1960
"Not until the revelations of Joseph Smith, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, did any one know of these migrants. It was not known before, but now the question is fully answered. Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. The Church is deeply interested in all Lamanites because of these revelations and because of this great Book of Mormon, their history that was written on plates of gold and deposited in the hill. The translation by the Prophet Joseph Smith revealed a running history for one thousand years-six hundred years before Christ until four hundred after Christ-a history of these great people who occupied this land for that thousand years. Then for the next fourteen hundred years, they lost much of their high culture. The descendants of this mighty people were called Indians by Columbus in 1492 when he found them here."
-- Spencer W. Kimball, "Of Royal Blood," Ensign, July 1971
Mainstream scientific viewsBefore responding to some of the claims made in the DNA essay I'd like to very briefly review some of the understanding that decades of thorough scientific research has uncovered about the origins of Native Americans. In sharp contrast to changing LDS views about the colonization of the Americas, there has been a century-long scientific consensus about where the ancestors of Native Americans came from and approximately when they arrived in the New World. DNA is not significantly altering the consensus. It is just helping to refine our understanding.
Locations where 13,500-year-old Clovis points have been found in the United States and Canada. Source: The Paleoindian Database of the Americas. http://pidba.org/images.html
The two major routes of migration into the Americas. Note: Eskimos have migrated all over sub-Arctic regions over the last 7-8000 years. These migrations are rarely mentioned in the broader debate but they are relevant.
Some responses to President NewsroomLDS.org
The conclusions of genetics, like those of any science, are tentative, and much work remains to be done to fully understand the origins of the native populations of the Americas.
The DNA science is neither tentative or inconclusive. It is consistent with scientific conclusions about Native American origins from numerous other scientific disciplines. While nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples, a lot is known about the DNA of Native Americans.
Scientists theorize that in an era predating Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. These people, scientists say, spread rapidly to fill North and South America and were likely the primary ancestors of modern American Indians.
Native Americans have occupied the New World for at least ten thousand years before the Book of Mormon period. For over a century mainstream archaeologists, geneticists and anthropologists studying Native Americans have believed their ancestors migrated from Asia across dry land (Beringia) exposed during the last ice age. The DNA evidence suggests a slightly earlier date of arrival in North America about 16,000 years ago.
The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups.
The claim in the first sentence is contradicted by the book itself.
2 Nephi 1:8-9 "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."
The essay claims there are cultural and demographic "clues" in the text that support the existence of other people. Scriptures like those above, and many others in the Book of Mormon and D&C, need to be overlooked in favour of clues. There are also numerous statements by prophets and apostles which depict the New World as an empty land prior to the arrival of the Jaredites and Lehites. These are the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, a current apostle.
“Holy scripture records that “after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof.” (Ether 13:2.)
Such a special place needed now to be kept apart from other regions, free from the indiscriminate traveler as well as the soldier of fortune. To guarantee such sanctity the very surface of the earth was rent. In response to God’s decree, the great continents separated and the ocean rushed in to surround them. The promised place was set apart. Without habitation it waited for the fulfilment of God’s special purposes.
With care and selectivity, the Lord began almost at once to repeople the promised land. The Jaredites came first, with stories of the great flood fresh in their memories and the Lord’s solemn declaration ringing in their ears: “Whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fullness of his wrath should come upon them.” (Ether 2:8.)
A Promised Land - Jeffrey R. Holland, The Ensign, June 1976
At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”
It is hard to take seriously the words of a member of the First Presidency from 85 years ago while the words of many, more recent, prophets are ringing in our ears. If current church leaders believe the words of President Ivins then they need to be repeated in an equally public forum today.
It also appears that President Ivin's words have been taken out of context. Bear in mind that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and that prior to the global Flood all continents were joined together. It's very likely that the non-Book of Mormon people Ivin's had in mind were people who arrived after the close of the Book of Mormon period. Here is the full quote of President Ivin's words.
"We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two people and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent. A thousand years had elapsed from the time the Book of Mormon closed until the discovery of America, and we know that other people came to America during that period."
At the present time, scientific consensus holds that the vast majority of Native Americans belong to sub-branches of the Y-chromosome haplogroups C and Q and the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X, all of which are predominantly East Asian. But the picture is not entirely clear. Continuing studies provide new insights, and some challenge previous conclusions. For example, a 2013 study states that as much as one-third of Native American DNA originated anciently in Europe or West Asia and was likely introduced into the gene pool before the earliest migration to the Americas. This study paints a more complex picture than is suggested by the prevailing opinion that all Native American DNA is essentially East Asian.
This is a very confusing paragraph. The authors jump from talking about Native American mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA (~100% Asian origin) to a 2013 study on autosomal DNA of a 24,000-year-old Siberian who shared one-third of his autosomal DNA mutations with European or West Asian populations. Many readers could easily conclude that the earlier mitochondrial and Y-chromosome studies were faulty. Conflating the two types of analysis is confusing.
DNA mutations that can be used to distinguish Native American DNA arose after their ancestors separated from their Asian neighbours about 18,000 years ago. They are new mutations that occurred on the way to, or in the New World. The Siberian study is about mutations that arose before 24,000 years ago. They are earlier mutations that occurred during the 10s of thousands of years that humans spent migrating across Eurasia before reaching Siberia.
It's a bit like looking at a 1975 Ford and concluding it is a Hyundai because it has 4 wheels. The idea to use four wheels arose early in the evolution of the car and most cars around the world now have 4 wheels. But just because two different cars have four wheels doesn't mean they are built in the same factory or country. Yes, Native American autosomal DNA carries vast numbers of mutations that arose 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, when their ancestors were in Eurasia. These mutations are shared by numerous populations spread over vast areas because humans have migrated over vast areas of the globe. Mutations that arose 5,000 or 15,000 years ago have a more restricted distribution, exclusively in the Americas. But these are the most informative mutations for ancestry studies.
The 2013 study is not relevant to the conclusions derived from mitochondrial or Y-chromosome DNA. Its about an individual who lived 24,000 years ago, long before the first Native America set foot in the Americas. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of the 2013 study (by Raghavan and others) feel free to visit my blog post "The Great DNA Surprise".
Also, I hate to be picky but Native American DNA is essentially Siberian, not East Asian. East Asia includes the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans who are not direct ancestors of Native Americans.
While Near Eastern DNA markers do exist in the DNA of modern native populations, it is difficult to determine whether they are the result of migrations that predated Columbus, such as those described in the Book of Mormon, or whether they stem from genetic mixing that occurred after the European conquest. This is due in part to the fact that the “molecular clock” used by scientists to date the appearance of genetic markers is not always accurate enough to pinpoint the timing of migrations that occurred as recently as a few hundred or even a few thousand years ago.
In the early years of dating using DNA there was considerable debate about which method was the most accurate. The debate has been resolved for about the last 15 years but LDS apologists, like Rodney Meldrum, insists on referring to papers from 1997, the peak of the debate, and using it as evidence that dating is unreliable.
The “Near Eastern DNA” being referred to here is the Native American mitochondrial X lineage. This lineage is not derived from Israel. LDS scientist Ugo Perego has dated Native American X lineages using robust modern methods, and he concluded it arrived in the New World about 15,000 years ago, essentially the same time as the A, B, C and D lineages arrived. The X lineage has recently been found in Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington. For more information see my Kennewick Man blog post).
Scientists do not rule out the possibility of additional, small-scale migrations to the Americas. For example, a 2010 genetic analysis of a well-preserved 4,000-year-old Paleo-Eskimo in Greenland led scientists to hypothesize that a group of people besides those from East Asia had migrated to the Americas.
Scientists are well aware that many small-scale migrations have occurred among sub-Arctic populations. The Bering Strait is not a complete barrier to migration by sea kayak and Eskimo/Inuit groups have crossed in both directions over recent millenia. This is what the 2010 Paleo-Eskimo paper was about and that is the context of Marcus Feldman’s comments. He wasn’t talking about Amerindian migrations into North and South America.
Why can't we detect Book of Mormon DNA?
1. We don't know what the founding DNA (Lehite, Jaredite) looks like
2. It entered large populations and got diluted away
3. It was unlucky DNA and faired worse in New World pandemics
One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.
The problem is not knowing what Lehite DNA looked like. The problem is Native American DNA is over 99.5% Asian and it arrived in the Americas in excess of 15,000 years ago. The only non-Asian DNA (0.5%) is either western European or African and derived from post-Columbus admixture. It is also untrue to say we know nothing about the likely DNA lineages of the Book of Mormon founders. They came from the Middle East and most were genealogically Hebrew. They would have carried Middle Eastern or Hebrew DNA lineages, which are extensively characterised.
In addition to the catastrophic war at the end of the Book of Mormon, the European conquest of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries touched off just such a cataclysmic chain of events. As a result of war and the spread of disease, many Native American groups experienced devastating population losses. One molecular anthropologist observed that the conquest “squeezed the entire Amerindian population through a genetic bottleneck.” He concluded, “This population reduction has forever altered the genetics of the surviving groups, thus complicating any attempts at reconstructing the pre-Columbian genetic structure of most New World groups.”
Yes, the genetic landscape has changed but why would the descendants of Middle Eastern Jews die out at a vastly higher rate than Native Americans? Over a thousand maternal DNA lineages have been determined from pre-Columbian ancient remains. They all belong to one of the five major mitochondrial DNA haplogroups (A, B, C, D, and X), all of which are derived from Asia. No Middle Eastern DNA has been found.
It could be argued that the descendants of Book of Mormon people would be expected to carry more resistance to Old World infectious diseases because their ancestors had lived with these diseases for thousands of years. Smallpox, one of the major killers in Post-Columbus pandemics, has been present in the Old World for as long as 10,000 years. Middle Eastern populations would be expected to carry higher proportions of alleles conferring resistance to the disease.
Moreover, the shuffling and recombination of autosomal DNA from generation to generation produces new combinations of markers in which the predominant genetic signal comes from the larger original population. This can make the combinations of markers characteristic of the smaller group so diluted that they cannot be reliably identified.
If Middle Eastern DNA entered Native American populations in the last 3 thousand years there is no reason to believe it would disappear completely. Scientists recently discovered that people in non-African populations have a small percentage (1-4%) of Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Then more recently it was discovered that Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry a small proportion of DNA from Denisovans, a related hominid species that lived in Asia. These small proportions of “foreign” DNA entered our lineage 30-40 thousand years ago but that DNA was very easy to detect. A simple DNA test can reveal exactly how much Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA we each carry. A similar test could reveal pre-Columbian Jewish DNA in Native Americans but none has been found.
Genetic profiles may be entirely lost, and combinations that once existed may become so diluted that they are difficult to detect. Thus, portions of a population may in fact be related genealogically to an individual or group but not have DNA that can be identified as belonging to those ancestors. In other words, Native Americans whose ancestors include Book of Mormon peoples may not be able to confirm that relationship using their DNA.
This is confusing. If people are genealogically related they must share genetic material, especially autosomal DNA.
As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
Then why the essay?