Discuss this article or ask questions at the LDS.net Forums.
Book of Mormon DNA
The Book of Mormon vs. DNA controversy is an issue that most critics believe completely undermines Mormon beliefs in the truthfulness of the book. The controversy stems from DNA studies of Native American peoples. Critics claim that such studies prove conclusively that there is no evidence of a Middle Eastern strand within the Native American gene pool. Book of Mormon DNA research
Before We Start
Before we begin to discuss Book of Mormon DNA proofs and questions, here is an example that shows the difficulties in finding Lamanite DNA back to 600 B.C.
On Ancestry.com, a reader wrote in and complained that her Native American ancestry did not show up in her DNA test:
- I recently had my DNA analyzed and was surprised when the results did not show any evidence of my Cherokee connection.
My great-great-grandmother was one-fourth Cherokee (Tiptendille Tribe-TN). Would the traces of the Native American heritage be so minute that they would not be evident anymore?
Here was the reply from Ancestry.com:
- The short answer is yes, the traces of Native American DNA in your test may be too small to detect. Let’s look at why.
If your great-great-grandmother was ¼ Cherokee, then it was her grandparent that was 100% Native American. And that would be your 4th-great-grandparent. Now your great-great-grandmother would get 50% of her DNA from her mother and 50% from her father. To make this easy, let’s divide by 2 for every generation.
- So how much of your great-great-grandmother’s DNA are you likely to have? Probably around 1.5625%! And that may not be enough to detect Native American ethnicity.
- If you can find older generations on that line to test, I recommend that. Also, get brothers, sisters and cousins tested. You never know who might have enough DNA to be detected.
Another way of explaining how DNA presence diminishes quickly is the following:
- "Over just a few generations, potentially all of a couple’s genetic material will be diluted and lost, as they will represent an ever-smaller percentage of the ancestors contributing to the DNA of a single descendant. Simply stated, as with the previously-mentioned example of Ugo’s autosomal DNA, there is a considerable difference between being genealogically related and having a genetic inheritance.
- In fact, it is estimated that at the tenth generation level, and given an equal chance to propagate their autosomal DNA, a person would carry only 12% of his or her 1,024 ancestors’ DNA. This phenomenon can be observed in as few as a couple of generations at a family level, but the effects of genetic drift at the population level are even more drastic. Depending on the population size and the variety of DNA present in that population, over a time measured in generations, some of that variation will inevitably be lost due to chance."
- 12% is referred to the percentage of the 1024 ancestors that might be in the best scenario still minimally represented in a living descendants' genome and not to the total of the DNA. Therefore, out of 1024 ancestors (10 generation in the past = approximately 250-300 years ago), only approximately 100-120 of them might have any DNA at all survived in their descendants.
What does this claim have to do with the factuality of the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon is a religious record that was published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—or the Mormon Church, as it has been unofficially dubbed. The Book of Mormon professes a story which outlines three migrations from the Old World to the New, more specifically from regions of the Middle East over to the American continent. The most prominent migration begins with the family of a man named Lehi. It was about 600 B.C. when Lehi's group left Jerusalem and set sail for an unknown "promised land." Their ship landed somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, though the exact location is unknown.
Perhaps the controversy begins with an unofficial and individually assumed idea about the geographical location of the events portrayed in the Book of Mormon. Many Mormons and non-Mormons have read the book and assumed that no one else was on the American continent when Lehi and his company arrived. Since the book describes no encounters with any other people than the Jaredites and Mulekites, it would be easy to assume Lehi and his wife were the parents of all human inhabitants in North and South America. This idea was previously (1981-2006) alluded to in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. The high numbers of people mentioned in the book as well as the assertion in the Introduction make it easy to think that this group of people and their operations must have encompassed the whole of the western hemisphere. If these underlying assumptions were justifiable, then any ancient inhabitant of the Americas-–as well as their descendants–-should rightly have genetic tracings to the Middle Eastern world, since Lehi and his company originated there. The fact that DNA testing of Native Americans points to Asian roots has caused many critics to declare without reservation that the the Book of Mormon has been proven false.
However, since the notion of Lehi's group being the only one to discover and populate the entire Western Hemisphere and to cover all of South, Central, and North America is highly improbable, nor is it consistent with the book itself, we ought not assume that this is factual. According to experts, it is more likely that Lehi and his family were merely a limited, yet isolated addition to an extensive population already present in the Americas. It is believed, though not certain, that the Book of Mormon population was limited to Mesoamerica, ranging in the hundreds of miles, not thousands.
In light of these conclusions, it is important to note that the Book of Mormon was written to be a spiritual text, not a record of the geographical or demographical facts of the ancient American peoples. It is also important to remember that the bulk of the Book of Mormon covers a limited time period, from about 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. Understanding the location and the degree to which the Book of Mormon people populated the land is very difficult to surmise with certainty.
For more than fifty years, serious students of the Book of Mormon have read the book with an understanding of these limitations, though most Mormons merely read the book as the spiritual and doctrinal resource that it is, rather than extensively pondering the unspecific geographic implications of the prophetic writings. Moreover, speculative geographic musings promulgated extensively in print (Washburn, 1939; Cheesman, 1974; Cheesman, 1984)and film ("Ancient America Speaks") during the same years may have distracted people from this spiritual purpose while explicitly suggesting the plausibility of a location in Mesoamerica. Such materials suggest that archaeological and anthropological correlations to Book of Mormon events and persons should strengthen one's spiritual belief in the book, but this idea remains debatable.
Apologetics involving archeology and anthropology present an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, apologists can pursue actively the historicity of the Book of Mormon. As they do so, they are likely to be disappointed when current evidence contradicts or downplays specific avenues of study. For example, studies dating the construction of Machu Picchu to circa 1450 A.D. exclude this site from the time frame of the Book of Mormon. This has been a popular site for those interested in Book of Mormon geography. On the other hand, apologists can avoid the pursuit of historicity and base their faith solely on the gospel content of the book. As they do so, they are likely to be unprepared when people try to draw them away from the Church with persuasive research. Both paths suggest, however, that Church members would do well to know current research and issues in this area of study.
There is nothing about the Book of Mormon, other than the assertion in the Introduction, that is undermined by DNA studies. The translated ancient text of the book itself does not claim to stand in opposition to scientific theories that say most Native Americans migrated from northeast Asia over a land bridge. It merely claims to be the writings of a few specific groups of people who migrated and lived in the Western Hemisphere during a limited period of time. In order for DNA testing to have any hold on these assertions, it would be necessary to prove that never, at any point during the time period of 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. was there any group living in the Western Hemisphere who came from the Middle Eastern region, and that a migration into the mountains of Asia by a group of Israelites could not possibly explain the DNA similarities between the two populations. Obviously such assertions would be nearly impossible to justify without having their entire genealogical record.
And so we are left where the Book of Mormon authors intended us to be: in a realm of faith. Mormons believe that the book was written by ancient prophets who recorded their faith and the words of the Lord. They, like the prophets in the Old and New Testament, were given revelations and instructions directly from God. Those things were recorded for the benefit and learning of future generations, that their descendants, all the house of Israel, and all Gentiles seeking the gospel might believe in Jesus Christ as the living son of God and the Savior of the world. One Book of Mormon prophet writes, "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins." 2 Nephi 25:26
Reading the Book of Mormon and asking God if it is true is the only way to really know. Any other attempt will yield uncertain results. If God is the author of the book (through ancient prophets), then humble seekers will receive a confirmation from Him that the book is true. Request a Free Book of Mormon, no obligations.
- Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men. -Henry Eyring
Native Americans as Descendants of the Lamanites
- If we were able to do the genealogy for a modern Native American to Lehi’s generation, we would have approximately 90 to 100 generations (we’ll choose 90 to keep it conservative). This Native American would have over 1.2 octillion ancestral slots (that’s more than 1.2 trillion x 1 quadrillion). Now obviously she would not have 1.2 octillion ancestors (there haven’t been that many people in the entire history of the world) since the same ancestors would fill many of these slots. Nevertheless, on a giant genealogy chart, there would be 1.2 octillion ancestral slots. From how many slots would our Native American be descended? All of them.
- If Laman (or a descendant of Laman) was an ancestor in just one of these 1.2 octillion ancestral slots, then it can legitimately be claimed that our Native American is a descendant of Lamanite.
- Recent studies suggest that we are related in several ways, and that many large groups of humans are often related in distinct ways as well. Such studies indicate that a large percentage of all people may have traces of Israelite ancestry, and that most people may be descendants of Abraham (see Genesis 22:17). In regards to the Book of Mormon, one scholar who has studied this concept notes: “The numerical dynamics of population mixing make it easily feasible…that most Amerindians are descended from Book of Mormon peoples, even if Book of Mormon peoples were originally a minority of ancient American populations and are thus only a part of the ancestry of most individuals.”
- In summary, while there is no evidence for a genetic link between modern Native Americans and the Lehite/Lamanites (and there is no reason to suspect that Lehite DNA would be detectable in modern native peoples), LDS scriptures and prophets are justified in referring to them as “Lamanites” due to the likelihood of cultural and genealogical affiliations.
- Written by Michael R. Ash for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), Copyright © 2004. www.fairlds.org
As far as anti-Mormon claims are concerned, "the anti-Mormon critics had been jumping to conclusions based on low-resolution DNA tests that are used for population studies. When high-resolution tests (the type used by police forensics scientists to identify individuals, not large population groups) were done, genetic markers for Hebrew DNA showed up. LDS scientists accurately point out that this does not tell us how the DNA got there, whether by Lehi's descendants or by Spanish Conquistadores. It does indicate that Hebrew DNA is present, a possibility our critics ridiculed" (Greg West for Meridian Magazine).
New LDS.org Article on Book of Mormon DNA Evidence
In early 2014 LDS.org published a new article in its Topics section on the inability of DNA studies to either prove or disprove the Book of Mormon.  The article succinctly describes how genetic markers are passed from one generation to the next, and explains how genetic bottlenecks and genetic shifts can quickly obliterate genetic markers from populations, thus wiping out the ability of DNA testing to trace the origins and movements of various populations. (Read more...)
Wahsburn, J.N. (1939) Book of Mormon Geography. New Era Publishing Company, Provo, UT.
Cheesman, P.R. (1974)These early Americans;: External evidences of the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City.
Whittaker, S. (Director, 1974) "Ancient America Speaks." Brigham Young University.
Cheesman, P.R. (1984)The world of the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City.
For More Information
A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's "Galileo Event" by Kevin L. Barney
A Few Thoughts From a Believing DNA Scientist. John M. Butler. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Pp. 36–37
Detecting Lehi's Genetic Signature: Possible, Probable, or Not? Reviewed By: David A. McClellan. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Pp. 35â€“90
DNA and the Book of Mormon by David Stewart, M.D
Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations. Matthew Roper