Total Pageviews

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Where are the Lamanites in Mesoamerica?

LDS beliefs about the historicity of the Book of Mormon were seriously challenged in 1921 when a non-Mormon scholar from Washington DC, named Mr Couch, raised several questions about the book in a letter to church leaders. Couch could not understand how the language spoken by Book of Mormon people in the fifth century AD could have so rapidly multiplied into the staggering diversity of languages observed among Native Americans one thousand years later. He was also perplexed by the mention of horses, steel, “cimeters” (Persian sabers from the 16th-18th centuries AD) and silk—all undetected in New World societies. B.H Roberts (a member of the Seventy) was charged with the responsibility of finding answers to Couch’s questions. While Roberts remained outwardly devout, he eventually conceded after several years of research that a nineteenth century origin for the Book of Mormon was quite plausible.

During the remainder of the 20th century LDS scholars have rallied to the defense of the book. This effort has been aimed largely at reinterpreting the book to align the narrative with a modern understanding of New World colonization. This has often required novel and frequently torturous reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon narrative.
“The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon ... 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
In the six decades since Nibley made these comments, Mormon scholars have indeed found a “staggering wealth of detail” in the Book of Mormon that “completely escapes the casual reader.” The result has been a steady contraction of the claims of LDS scholars regarding the scale and geographical footprint of the Israelite presence. Most Mormon academics now believe that the events of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. Only in Mesoamerica are there ruins of civilizations of the magnitude evident in the Book of Mormon. In spite of this scholarship, most lay Mormons still believe the Book of Mormon events were played out across both New World hemispheres.

The Limited Geography model was championed by BYU anthropology professor John L. Sorenson, who also put forward the idea that the Olmec civilization may be equated to the Jaredites and the Pre-Classic Mayans to the Lehites. Sorenson promoted these views in his 1996 book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. However, shrinking the geography to Mesoamerica has done little to reduce the gulf between mainstream archaeology and the views of LDS scholars. Mainstream Mesoamerican scholarship does not support the presence or influence of Old World cultures in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, nor has material evidence been found that would indicate contact between Mesoamerica and Old World cultures. If you are interested in reading more about the Limited Geography Model, there is a good wiki site that contains lots of information and links to lots more.

In Losing a Lost Tribe I presented a summary of the mtDNA lineages of Native Americans according to geographical regions (Table 2.1). This indicated that natives in Central American populations were essentially all descended from Asian ancestors. A small number of European or African DNA lineages were observed in Central America, but not at significantly higher levels than in other regions throughout the New World. 

Table 2.1

In the years since the publication of Losing a Lost Tribe other research groups have published research on more Mesoamerican populations. We now have the mtDNA lineages of almost two thousand Mesoamericans. These are summarized in Table 2.2 below. The mtDNA evidence suggests that Mesoamericans, like other Native Americans, are all descended from Asian ancestors. The very small number of non-Asian lineages are almost certainly the result of post-Columbus admixture as they belong to lineage families that are most common in Europe or Africa.

Table 2.2

n = number of individuals
* Other includes 9 European (6HV, J, 2T, U), 3 African ( L ) and 3 uncharacterised lineages.

References for Table 2.2
Bortolini MC et al. (1998) Diversity in protein, nuclear DNA, and mtDNA in South Amerinds - agreement or discrepancy? Ann. Hum. Gen. 62, 133-145.
Gonz├ílez-Oliver A et al. (2001) Founding Amerindian mitochondrial DNA lineages in ancient Maya from Xcaret, Quintana Roo Am. J Phys. Anthrop 116, 230–235.
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.
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.
Lorenz JG & Smith DG (1996). Distribution of four founding MtDNA haplogroups among native North Americans. Am. J Phys. Anthrop. 101, 307-23.
Merriwether DA et al. (1994) Genetic variation in the New World – ancient teeth, bone and tissue as sources of DNA. Experientia 50, 592-601.
Sandoval K et al. (2009) Linguistic and maternal genetic diversity are not correlated in Native Mexicans. Human Genetics 126, 521–531.
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.
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.
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.
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.0006882
Gorostiza et al. (2012) Reconstructing the history of Mesoamerican populations through the study of the mitochondrial DNA control region. PLoS ONE 10.1371/journal.pone.0044666
Only sixteen individuals among the Mesoamericans possess a mtDNA lineage that didn’t originate in Asia. 99% belong to the four major lineages (A, B, C or D) which are derived from Asia. Of the sixteen non-Asian lineages, three are clearly African L lineages, and three were not fully characterised. The remaining 10 lineages are all lineages found at high frequencies in European populations. There were 6 H lineages, one U, one J and two T lineages. These lineages are found in European populations in the following frequencies: lineage H/V (54%), lineage U (16%), lineage J (10%) and lineage T (8%). By comparing these lineages to the thousands of mtDNA sequences in global databases, the scientists found exact matches for the U and one T lineage among individuals from Western Europe, namely Spain, Portugal and Poland (Salas et al. 2009). Meanwhile, the most abundant female lineages in Middle Eastern populations are lineage K (32%) followed by lineage H (26%). 

Given that African lineages were detected as well, this strongly suggests that these “other” lineages originated from post Columbus admixture with African and European colonists. Higher levels of admixture have been observed in several other Native American populations, particularly in eastern North America, which was impacted more heavily after first contact. 

If, as the Book of Mormon claims, there were Israelite migrations to the New World or to Mesoamerica, they have left essentially no trace. The molecular research on Mesoamerican populations is in complete harmony with the Mesoamerican archaeological research. The lack of evidence of any Middle Eastern influence in Mesoamerica is telling given that brief visits to the New World by Vikings that took place not long after the Book of Mormon period have been detected in North America. 
“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, including metalwork, buildings, and Norse inscriptions. 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. No Semitic languages, no Israelites speaking these languages, no wheeled chariots or horses to pull them, no swords or steel to make them. They remain a great civilization vanished without a trace, the people along with their genes.” 
—Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe, 2004
LDS apologetic efforts to shrink the scale of the Israelite presence must now address the disappearance of Lehi’s DNA. This is no small task given the abundance of scriptural and prophetic support for the widespread belief that most Native Americans are descended from the Lamanites. Arguing that the Lehites joined the large adjoining native populations leaves many questions to be answered including:-

Where are the seed of Lehi who are to be restored to a knowledge of "their fathers" and to receive the Gospel? The Book of Mormon was specifically written to the Lamanites.
If the Nephites and Lamanites encountered large Native American populations wherever they went why didn’t they mention them once in the 1000-year narrative?
How could the Hebrew speaking Lehites take control of well established complex Native American civilizations and this leadership change leave no trace in the archaeological record? Why would the Native Americans let them take over in the first place?
If a handful of Lehites were absorbed into large existing Native American populations, why were the terms “Lamanite” and “Nephite” still used a thousand years later?
Why, after 1000 years of history, do the Nephite prophets keep referring to the Lamanites in familial terms such as their "brethren"?

Perhaps the most important question the apologists need to answer is why people should trust them over the prophets.


  1. Thank you Simon. I am very interested in and look forward to reading your book. Your scientific insight, as well as personal experiences expressed on other places on the internet have been very helpful during my own recovery from mormonism. Thank You!

  2. Thanks for your message David. All the best for your future beyond Mormonism.

  3. Simon, I recently read a sickening thing from an LDS member. I hope it is not a new direction to try to explain "Why would the Native Americans let them take over in the first place?"

    The LDS member said that people born before Adam and Eve (and those born outside of Adam's family such as people in America before the Book of Mormon people came) had spirits but not spirits that were children of God. I guess he or she was speculating that Native Americans had spirits more like animals have. He said this made them "lacking in brain power". I hope that LDS members don't try that reason to "explain" why Native Americans would allow themselves to be taken over by people from the Near East.

    Thanks again for helping to make the science understandable.

    1. I remember hearing similar repulsive logic when I was an active member. Sadly I didn't recoil at the time. Fortunately I think Mormons holding these disgusting views are in the minority.

  4. Simon, thank you for your clear and succinct explanations. Reading Dr. Sorenson's 1985 edition of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon was the last step in losing my belief in the Book of Mormon. I came away from Dr. Sorenson's book with many more doubts and questions than I started with. It became clear to me the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction with no connection to real history. With that, the last barrier to my resignation from the LDS Church had been removed.

    1. You guys are all so far off the mark when it comes to evidences for the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon peoples, their geography, and the many artifacts that offer overwhelming evidence of the Book of Mormon were never to be found in MesoAmerica. The people of the Book of Mormon are the Hopewell and Adena cultures found in North America and all the evidence one needs in right in the United States, just as Joseph Smith's writings have always stated. There are thousands of evidences of the Book of Mormon people and history, such as thousands of artifacts, carbon dating, similarities between the Native American language and ancient Hebrew and Egyptian, the oral and written traditions of the Native Americans of Eastern United States which describe the origin of their ancestors coming from the East, DNA evidence, giant burial grounds all over the country, and great earthen mounds all over the country, huge earthen fortresses just as the Book of Mormon describes, and even evidences of many of the animals that critics have claimed never populated North America are now surfacing, such as elephants, ass, cattle, horses and other animals described in the book. Also iron and copper swords, cinmeters, knives and spears have been found in North America which date back to Book of Mormon dates references in the Book of Mormon. Copper, iron and other mines have also been found. It is remarkable how many solid evidences support the Book of Mormon. Watch Wayne May's 4 videos on these evidences. There are so many evidences it is virtually impossible to refute. If you are intellectually as well as spiritually honest with yourselves, you will immediately realize how very wrong you have been.

    2. In reply to Anonymous above. The evidence is overwhelming that the Book of Mormon took place in the Andes. Read the book, Lehi Never Saw Mesoamerica. To consider DNA issues in connection with this model, do a search about DNA on the website This same blog has also addressed the innumerable problems with a North American geography. One problem with the DNA controversy from my point of view is that the Jews of today have intermixed over the centuries with many other people, and to compare their DNA to the present inhabitants of America, who also have intermixed with other people over the centuries does not seem like a very scientific method.