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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Response to the claim 1/3 of Native American DNA came from the Middle East - now that would be a Great Surprise

During the last couple of years I have been asked several times to respond to claims by Mormons that recent human genomics research offers support for the belief that Native Americans have Jewish ancestors. The paper causing the excitement was published in the Jan 2013 issue of Natureone of the most prestigious scientific journals. The article in question was written by Raghavan et al. and entitled “Upper Palaeolithic Siberian Genome Reveals Dual Ancestry of Native Americans.”  The paper would have gone unnoticed by Mormons had a National Geographic journalist not sensationalised it with the following hyperbole.

"Great Surprise"—Native Americans Have West Eurasian Origins.

Oldest human genome reveals less of an East Asian ancestry than thought.
Nearly one-third of Native American genes come from west Eurasian people linked to the
 Middle East and Europe, rather than entirely from East Asians as previously thought, according to a newly sequenced genome.

Not surprisingly some Mormons reading these headlines have seized upon this research as conclusive proof that Native Americans have Middle Eastern, and thus potentially Jewish, DNA (1, 2, 3, 4). Even President Newsroom cited Raghavan's research in the Church's official "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" essay, claiming it challenges previous conclusions and proves the picture isn't clear. But the conclusions being challenged have nothing to do with recent Hebrew migrations. The Raghaven study is focussed on a 25,000-year-old paleolithic DNA sample which tells us something about major human migration events that took place over 20,000 years ago. There is nothing in the Raghavan research that supports the Book of Mormon or challenges the mainstream scientific views about the colonization of the New World. Native Americans are still all descended from ancient Asian ancestors.

The Context of the Research 

Raghavan's research adds another detail to a broad scientific understanding of the timing and route our ancestors took as they colonised the globe. The common ancestors of all humans lived in sub-Saharan Africa. They began migrating "out of Africa" about 80,000 years ago and by about 50,000 years ago had colonized Western Asia, India and Southeast Asia and Australia (Fig.1). Eastern Asia was colonised by people derived from this southern migration event. By about 40,000 years ago people arrived in Europe and Central Asia via a northern route, finally reaching the Americas between 15 and 25,000 years ago.

Fig.1.   Major routes and timing of human colonisation of the world 
(Wellcome Trust,

Scientists have found no evidence that we all descend from a single man and women (Adam and Eve) who lived on the earth about 6,000 years ago. This is simply not what happened. The volumes of evidence in support of the mainstream scientific views are vast and span numerous disciplines. It is the truth and Mormons should face it. When the individual Raghavan's team studied was alive, humans had not even reached the Americas so it is difficult to comprehend how it tells us anything about mythical Jewish migrations in the last few thousand years. 

Fig. 2.  The extent of human colonization of the world 25,000 years ago 
and the location of Raghavan's Siberian sample.

The 2014 Raghavan Study 

Raghavan's team isolated DNA from the bones of a 24,000-year-old individual and sequenced its entire genome. They then examined 156,000 DNA markers (SNPs) to reveal how closely related this individual is to hundreds of other people from contemporary populations (Fig. 3). The more DNA markers two individuals share the more closely related they are. 

Fig. 3.  Heat map of relatedness between the Siberian (MA-1) and individuals from numerous 
geographical locations around the world. The graded heat key on the left indicates the 
degree of relatedness with red indicating high relationship and black low relationship. 
(See Raghavan et al. 2014)

The major finding of the study is that the Siberian individual (MA-1) is not closely related to other Central and Eastern Asians (dark blue dots) and much more closely related to Native Americans (red dots). In addition, this Siberian appears to be related to people now living in Europe and Western Asia (yellow, light blue-green dots). This suggests that this Siberian individual's ancestors had migrated from Western Eurasia into Siberia, but when they arrived they did not mix very much with Asian populations living further east. Consequently, when some of this Siberian's descendants migrated on to the Americas, they didn't carry many DNA markers found in East Asian populations.

Another way of illustrating the results of the study is shown in Fig. 4 below. All Eurasians and Native Americans descend from people who lived in West Asia (near modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan) about 50,000 years ago (see also Fig. 1.). These people carried with them large numbers of DNA markers that can be defined as West Asian. When the ancestors of the Siberians and Europeans/Middle Easterners migrated away from each other, both groups carried the same set of West Asian (blue) DNA markers with them. This is why the Siberian individual carried DNA markers also found in Europeans and Middle Easterners. They shared common ancestors about 15,000 years earlier (50,000 years ago).   

However, once they became separated from each other, each group began to accumulate DNA markers that were unique to each group. This is indicated by the green (Eur/ME) and purple (Siberian) shading on the tree (Fig. 4). Once the Siberian groups encountered East Asians some of their DNA lineages (red) also entered Siberian populations, and some of these DNA markers found their way to the Americas.

Fig. 4.  Origin of DNA markers in Native Americans and some Eurasian populations 
and the approximate timing of their occurrence 


Virtually all Eurasian and New World populations descend from populations that migrated out of Africa and colonised West Asia about 50,000 years ago. Eastern Asia is likely to have been first colonised by populations that split away from a southern migration through India that ended in Australia. The Raghavan study tells us that Siberians are mostly derived from people who migrated into Central Asia via a northern route that resulted in little admixture with Eastern Asian populations. The research paper is focussed on very ancient migrations and tells us nothing about the likelihood or occurrence of recent Jewish migrations to the pre-Columbian New World.