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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Keith Crandall's Claims

In 2013 the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) published a video entitled DNA and the Book of Mormon Explained. The DVD is aimed at defending the flagging Mesoamerican Limited Geography Theory and contains amazing claims by a number of LDS scientists and apologists. The boldest claims in the video are those of Keith Crandall, who joined BYU in 1996 and was baptised in 2004. Crandall was Chair of the BYU Department of Integrative Biology from 2006 until 2012 when he resigned to take up a position at George Washington University in Washington D.C.   

Three times in the video Keith Crandall claims Middle Eastern DNA has been found in the Maya.

28 seconds 
“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.”

25 minutes 07 seconds  
"…the fact is, based on this paper by Noah Rosenberg from the University of Michigan that there are in fact Middle Eastern haplotypes in where we as Latter-day Saints would expect them to be; in the Mayan population, as opposed to across all North and South America.  

37 minutes 37 seconds 
"…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." 

Crandall also tells viewers the DNA studies are very difficult to understand, and because the critics are not population geneticists like himself, they couldn’t understand the research.

3 minutes 25 seconds 
“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 it's there.” 

The truth is these studies are now routine and they are done in hundreds of plant and animal populations. I have been actively engaged in forest tree population genomics research for well over a decade and have published research in the field. I am very familiar with the population genomics research that Keith Crandall cites because we did identical types of analyses in trees. 

A tricky kind of data

When asked for references to his claims Crandall directs people to two published papers, Li et al. 2008 and Rosenberg et al. 2005). In contrast to earlier studies on mitochondrial DNA, this research was focussed on nuclear DNA variation. In the paper by Li et al. (2008) they studied the nuclear DNA of 938 unrelated individuals from 51 global populations at 650,000 common single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs are points in the genome where single base differences occur in the human population.

   A SNP is a single-letter change in DNA
  Image courtesy of Lauren Solomon, the Broad Institute

SNPs are part of the natural genetic variation found within all human populations. In Li's research they  showed that global populations can be clearly distinguished on the basis of the hundreds of thousands of SNPs they carry. This is illustrated in the figure below

In the above diagram the information from 650,000 SNPs is condensed into a single thin vertical line for each individual. This line has coloured segments whose length corresponds to the proportion of their DNA derived from particular global regions. Individuals are then grouped with other individuals who share similar DNA. 

If you focus on the data for the Mayan population, which is expanded in the figure below, you will notice that their ancestry also includes DNA likely to have originated in East Asia (orange) and Europe (green). This is the DNA Crandall interprets as "Middle Eastern genotypes". However, this claim is incorrect, and none of the authors of the papers Crandall cites conclude, as he suggested, that Middle Eastern DNA was found in the Maya.

If we look at more Native American populations we see exactly the same sort of thing. European and African admixture is found in many Native American populations (Figure 3). 

The most likely origin for the European DNA in the Maya is post-Columbus admixture. After Columbus, large numbers of Europeans and Africans migrated to the Americas and many of these early colonists intermarried with indigenous Native Americans. Scientists try to avoid including individuals with this mixed ancestry, but it is especially hard to do this in populations that mixed very early with European and African colonizers. 

Post-Columbus admixture confirmed

Admixture in the Maya has since been examined in much more detail in a paper by Hellenthal et al. 2014. Hellenthal tracked the geographical origin of post-Columbian DNA admixture in the Maya to Europe and Africa (see figure below). None of the admixture came from Middle Eastern populations which were included in his study. What is especially telling is the DNA data Hellenthal used was obtained from the same individuals used in the Li et al. (2008) research. This report confirms that Crandall's "Middle Eastern genotypes" are in fact European and African admixture. See my Mesoamerican DNA post for more details on the Hellenthal study.

Figure 4. Geographical origins of Maya DNA. The orange circles represent post-Columbus admixture (European and African) that entered Mayan populations about 350 years ago. The blue circles represent much older ancestral links to other Native American, East and Central Asian populations. The area of each circle reflects the proportion of the donor population's contribution to the DNA of the Maya. Source: Chromosome Painting Collective / February 18, 2014

It appears that in his eagerness to please his FAIR colleagues Keith Crandall saw things in the research that are simply not there. The truth is that scientific research has consistently failed to uncover reliable evidence for the presence of any ancient Hebrews, or their genes, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica or throughout the New World.


  1. Thank you Simon.

    Ancient American human remains radiocarbon dated to Book of Mormon times DO NOT HAVE these post-Columbian admixtures.

    No Mesoamerican human remains radiocarbon dated to before Columbus have any European and/or African DNA admixtures identified in the Hellenthal et al. 2014. study.

    Do apologists really want us to assume that DNA in living Mayan peoples today was the same 2,000 years ago even though no evidence supports that?

    1. It's interesting that you only allow comments that support your view. It costs you credibility as a truly scientific source for unbiased information. Makes you worse than the things you accuse of Crandall, who is at least a POPULATION geneticist... Dealing with real humans and not plant life. When I have questions about plant DNA, I will not seek input from him. Fair enough.

    2. You are a plant geneticist. Crandall is a population geneticist. No offense, but as a former journalist in a matter of record I would trust his expertise on human DNA over one who deals with plants. Your argument seems to insinuate that LDS beliefs assert that only Hebrews inhabited the continent, but there is no such claim and never has been. There is a significant sample of Hebrew DNA showing up Mayan lines. The fact the Book of Mormon records only the journey of about 30 people from
      Jerusalem would support the fact that Hebrew DNA is minimal in that line. That reflects that those people mixed with others who were already in the land, which is a fact supported by non-LDS sources. The Incas (Peru) have Asian DNA mixed in, as well as similar features. The Book of Mormon is a record of a people, not EVERY tribe that existed on the continent. Non-LDS research indicates that the continent was populated in three waves, which is allegedly supported by DNA proof. The fact that 3% of a tribe of Algonquin Indians... Known for their blue-eye trait also carries DNA and retained Hebrew beliefs over the centuries... Therefore, also supports the pre-Columbian Native American grave site in Ohio where a clay tablet was found bearing the Ten Commandments in reformed Egyptian... Which also is evident in the writing of the Mic Mac tribe. All of which comes from non-LDS scholars. So refute those instead of making arguments against claims that never existed in the first place.

    3. Lives to learn, how about you read what I wrote instead of regurgitating what other apologists write. I study tree genetics and they live in populations and yes, I have published scientific papers in the field of POPULATION genetics. But I don't expect you to believe me because your views appear to be a carbon copy of the usual apologetic dross. It is also untrue that I only allow comments that support my view. I only remove comments that are rude or offensive. Occasionally people delete their own comments. I'm happy for your comments to remain in all their glory.

  2. I want you to know Simon that your work has contributed greatly to the freedom my family now enjoys. Thank you for taking the time to lend your expertise to this subject.

  3. Simon,

    Very well written and referenced, and clearly illustrated as well. Looks as though Dr. Crandall is taking a big chance with his professional reputation here in order to render an apologetic favor to the LDS Church.

    Thank you for bringing this to the public's attention. If enough people see and comment on his misstatements, perhaps he will decide that his professional reputation is more valuable to him than his Mormon reputation and do the right thing. Although "Lying for the Lord" is well accepted in Mormon culture, it doesn't play so well in science.

  4. Very well written, Simon. Keep up the good fight!

  5. Thank you Simon. These conversations are very helpful for intellectual honesty. I am surprised at Dr Crandall's assertion. I hope he will engage you with sincerity and honesty. Thanks for all the work and courage you have shown.

  6. What about the guys now claiming that the bofm story happened in north American and not mesoamerica and these north american native Americans do have dna and stories in their cultures about coming over on boats to america etc. Does any of this hold water what do you think about this? I think they are abandoning meso america and switching to a north american story...

    1. Click on the 2013 links over on the right side to see some discussion of Rodney Meldrum's "Heartland Model" for a possible BOM location. Mr. Meldrum's junk science hasn't fared any better under the cold light of modern science than any other apologist's work. He does have the support of some such as Hartman Rector, Jr., Alan Osmond, and apparently even Senator Orrin Hatch.

      To Alan Osmond's credit, he didn't censor some of our replies to Meldrum on his blogsite.

  7. No true Scotsman. The evidence continues to limit apologetic answers that fit their beliefs. They are painting themselves into an evermore tightening corner.

  8. Sloppy apologetic research smacks of desperation.

  9. The interesting thing about DNA science and the Book of Mormon is that even if we found Middle Eastern SNPs in Native American DNA, by itself that discovery wouldn't count as evidence supporting the Book of Mormon as an authentic history. We would need corroborating cultural, linguistic, or other anthropological evidence to indicate exactly which Middle Easterners migrated (was it Lehi? or some other group of Arabian explorers?). But the ABSENCE of Middle Eastern SNPs is strong evidence (some would go so far as to call it "solid proof") that the Book of Mormon is not authentic. Middle Eastern SNPs in Native American DNA is NECESSARY but NOT SUFFICIENT evidence of Book of Mormon authenticity.

    The Book of Mormon doesn't claim a small group of Middle Easterners co-mingled with the existing populations of the Americas. The Book of Mormon claims there were at least THREE significant migrations that grew into massive populations in Ancient America. That kind of mix would look more like the Cree DNA, only with the Siberian DNA (red) replaced with "Middle Eastern" DNA (brown). Claiming that the Mayan SNPs support Book of Mormon authenticity is like finding a Canadian penny in my pocket and claiming I had recently visited France.

    But this myopic focus on the Maya completely ignores Joseph Smith's explicit teachings that Adam and Eve lived in Daviess County, Missouri, and populated the Earth from that location until circa 2350 BC, when the Great Flood brought Noah from America to the Middle East to repopulate the planet, and then brought the Jaredites back to America to repopulate the Western Hemisphere.

    How can anyone even begin to explore the possibility of tiny "clues" of a Lehite migration before they first establish evidence that ALL DNA originated in Daviess County, Missouri circa 3,980 BC? The burden of proof for Book or Mormon authenticity requires more than just finding a few traces of Middle Eastern DNA in a remote Native American community. It requires an explanation as to how Egyptian pyramid builders began building pyramids 250 years before the Great Flood, and kept on building right through the Great Flood that delivered Noah from America to their shores. It requires an explanation as to how the Tower of Babel was built just 100 years after the Great Flood, and how Mahonri Moriancumr's small group survived for a year in primitive wooden submarines to return to America and repopulate both continents. The Book of Mormon doesn't require a few Middle Eastern SNPs to be found in America, it requires the DNA evidence to show that ALL DNA SNPs originated with Adam, through Noah and his family, and subsequently spread from the Tower of Babel across the Earth.

    The Book of Mormon records the Tower of Babel as an actual, factual event. Any application of DNA evidence toward establishing The Book of Mormon as an authentic history needs to begin with the Tower of Babel at the center of human history.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Thought you all might be interested in this short-lived exchange between Dr. Crandall and me.

    ***** From me on 28 May 2014 *****
    "I read an article by Simon Southerton claiming you had incorrectly asserted that there is Hebrew DNA in the Maya people, and I wondered if his article is accurate, but I don't have the scientific background to know if what he says is true. So, I was hoping you could help out. Is his article accurate, or did he misrepresent the facts?"

    ***** From Dr. Crandall on 28 May 2014 *****
    "If you look at what constitutes “Mid.East” genotypes, that is exactly what is seen in the Mayan population. Components are also seen in the European and CSAsian populations. The fact is that human DNA is a mix and you can emphasize different components of that mix to tell different stories. Everyone agrees on post-columbus admixture. If this is the explanation for the unique Mayan signature, then why isn’t it seen in the Columbian population (I’m pretty sure they met Spaniards too!)."

    ***** From me on 30 May 2014 *****
    "Thanks for going to the trouble to respond. You asked if the explanation for the unique Mayan signature is due to post-Columbus admixture, then why wouldn't the same signature be seen in the Columbian population? I'm not a scientist, but a couple of things stand out to me as likely.
    1. The Mayan sample size is small (21 individuals if I understand Southerton correctly).
    2. I can only guess how many Colombians were sampled; if it's similar to the Mayan representation, then it's small.
    3. The Asian/European admixture is small even in the Maya.
    4. The European genetic influence wasn't necessarily distributed evenly.
    "In addition, according to Southerton (and please correct him if he's wrong on this), "Hellenthal was able to track the geographical origin of post-Columbian DNA admixture in the Maya to Europe and Africa (see figure below). None of the admixture came from the Middle East." Googling Garrett Hellenthal, it seems he's a Research Fellow at UCL Genetics Institute and publishes in the field. Do you think Hellenthal got it wrong? Or, that Southerton misrepresents Hellenthal's work?"

    ***** From me on 3 June 2014 *****
    "It looks like Southerton has updated the article in question on 5/31. There's actually a new image that's big enough that even my old eyes can see the results from Colombia. It appears the sample from Colombia is even smaller than the Mayan sample (maybe 4 or 5 individuals) and that there is some Asian and European admixture in the Colombian sample set too. The admixture seems to be a smaller proportion of the Colombian genetic material analyzed. But even if the proportions of admixture were identical between the Colombian and Mayan populations, wouldn't it be likely for the samples from these two populations to not reflect these matching proportions of admixture given the small sample sizes?"
    "Any thoughts on Southerton's claims about Hellental's conclusions that the admixture is not of Middle East origin?"

    Doctor Crandall has not responded to my follow-up notes, so I wonder if Dr. Southerton would share any thoughts he might have on what Dr. Crandall wrote. Did Dr. Crandall nail this one, did Zack (the non-scientist) get it right, or does the truth of the matter fall somewhere in between?

    My best,
    Zack Tacorin

  12. Crandall
    "If you look at what constitutes “Mid.East” genotypes, that is exactly what is seen in the Mayan population. Components are also seen in the European and CSAsian populations. The fact is that human DNA is a mix and you can emphasize different components of that mix to tell different stories. Everyone agrees on post-columbus admixture. If this is the explanation for the unique Mayan signature, then why isn’t it seen in the Columbian population (I’m pretty sure they met Spaniards too!)."

    The Middle East is situated between Europe, Asia and Africa, the crossroads of human civilization. That's why Middle Eastern DNA has ties to Europe, Africa and Central Asia. However, these ties are ancient, stretching back over 10-30,000 years. The majority of Middle Eastern DNA in Figure 1 is colored brown. This is DNA that is unique to the Middle East. If the admixture in the Maya is Middle Eastern DNA, as Crandall claims, why don’t we see any uniquely Middle Eastern DNA (colored brown) in the Maya? We only see European and East Asian DNA (green and orange) in the Maya. This strongly suggests that the admixed DNA is largely derived from Europe. The Hellenthal study, which Crandall does not address, conclusively shows that the admixture is European and African and not derived from the Middle East. This is entirely consistent with the known colonization history of the New World after Columbus.

    Admixture rates vary greatly in Native American populations. The large civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs were heavily impacted by the early Spanish conquistadors because they were close to the site of initial colonization and they were more attractive to the Spanish because they were more wealthy. It’s not surprising that the more isolated South American populations (Columbians, Karitiana and Surui) have little or no evidence of admixture. Some of these populations had very little contact with early Europeans.

  13. Simon,

    Thanks for your thoughts on Crandall's comments!

    Zack Tacorin