DNA and the Book of Mormon
condensed from
Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) Journal of Book of Mormon Studies,
Volume:12 Issue:1

The question whether DNA studies can illuminate Book of Mormon origins has become a storm center in recent years and months.

We hear a growing chorus of voices claiming that DNA studies prove conclusively that there is no evidence of a Middle Eastern strand within the Native American gene pool.

In recent years critics who question that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document have made noisy claims that "facts" from the science of molecular biology contradict what the Nephite record says about the peoples it describes.

Critics of the Book of Mormon frequently take the position that the New World events related in the Nephite record must be read as taking place on a stage consisting of the entire Western Hemisphere. This allows them to treat the scripture as though it purported to be a history of the American Indian.

But what the book actually says contradicts the idea that two entire continents were involved in the story. Although early Latter-day Saints assumed a hemispheric setting (and some church members today still hold that view), the record actually describes a setting where the people were limited in numbers and the lands they occupied were restricted in scale.

Yet the issue touches more than geography alone; the question is one of demography and descent. Were there other populations present in the Americas who were not exclusively descended from Lehi's party?

A responsible approach to the scripture requires getting clear about the actual geographic and demographic scale on which its events were played out, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks has pointed out. He recalled taking a class as a student at Brigham Young University in which
“I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.

“In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument [about its historical accuracy] changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise. One does not prevail on that proposition by proving that a particular . . . culture represents migrations from [eastern] Asia. The opponents of historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas.”
[“The Historicity of the Book of Mormon” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (BYU Religious Studies, 2001)]
Furthermore, DNA scientists have to answer the questions of location and scale if they are to know from where to draw data appropriate for historical analysis of the Book of Mormon. Our questions assist in that task.

1. How does the Book of Mormon characterize the geographical scene in the American "promised land" where the events the book relates took place?

Hundreds of passages in the Book of Mormon either tell us directly about or imply spatial relationships and other geographical parameters that characterized the setting.

As the primary author and editor of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Mormon evidently had his own mental map of Nephite lands, which made it possible for the total body of geographical information that he employed to be remarkably consistent. This is not surprising, because from his own account we know that he had personally traveled over a great deal of Nephite territory (see Mormon 1:6, 10-6:6).

The geographical data in the book lead to the following salient points:
  • When mapped, the outline of lands familiar to the Nephites appears to have been more or less in the shape of an hourglass but with the nature of the northward and southward extremities being left unclear.

  • What the Nephites considered their "east sea" in all likelihood was the Atlantic Ocean.

  • The Nephites' "west sea" was part of the Pacific Ocean. Lehi's party landed on the west sea coast at the extreme south of the territory they knew as "the promised land."

  • The two crucial landmasses were called the land southward and the land northward. They were connected by an isthmus described as "narrow." The Nephites thought of their land as "nearly surrounded by water" and, at least in their early days, as an "isle of the sea" (Alma 22:32; 2 Nephi 10:20).

  • The southern portion of the land southward, called the land of Nephi, was mostly elevated and mountainous (it included the headwaters of the principal river); the territory closer to the isthmus, called the land of Zarahemla, lay at an intermediate elevation.

  • Based chiefly on the travel times required to go between various points, we can confidently infer that the land southward was on the order of only a few hundred miles in length (northward-southward). At one point the land southward was plausibly about 200 miles wide. The distance across the narrowest part of the narrow neck, or isthmus, is left vague but might have been on the order of 100 miles.

  • The dimensions of the land northward are also unclear, but the implication is that the size of that area was of the same order of magnitude as the land southward.

  • Topographically the land northward consisted of lowlands (and drainage) toward the east sea, while westward the land was more elevated.

  • The climate throughout the entire territory was relatively warm, at least as far as the text indicates. While we read of extreme heat, there is no hint of cold weather or snow.

  • The groups occupying most of this territory at times reached a civilized level of development and at one point constituted a population of more than two million. At their greatest the inhabitants occupied numerous cities with extensive public buildings, kept many written records, fought in large-scale wars, and carried on extensive trade. In short, they were in a civilized condition.

All of these features (and many more) must characterize that part of the Americas where the events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place. It is not enough that just arbitrarily selected features from Mormon's record be made to match up with today's map.

2. Do all of the geographical facts sketched in the Nephite account agree with any actual location in the Americas? With more than one?

That the inhabitants of Book of Mormon lands knew and used formal writing systems and compiled numerous books (see Helaman 3:15) restricts the possible real-world location to Mesoamerica (central and southern Mexico and northern Central America).

In Mesoamerica there were thousands of books in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest, but nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere is there convincing evidence for genuine writing being used on a consistent basis.

In addition to writing, other social and cultural conditions required by the scriptural text to be present in the Nephite homeland area confirm Mesoamerica as the only plausible location of Book of Mormon lands.

In addition to the cultural criteria, only in that area can all of the geographical requirements be met. For example, only in Mesoamerica are there lands of appropriate scale (that is, several hundreds, but not thousands, of miles) that can appropriately be said to be "nearly surrounded by water" (Alma 22:32), as well as an isthmus bounded by Pacific and Atlantic waters.

DNA scientists can be confident that all or part of Mesoamerica was where the Nephite and Lamanite peoples took on their historical identities and where their history recorded in the Book of Mormon was played out, although their descendants might have spread into other New World zones and additional peoples might have migrated to Mesoamerica from other regions.

3. What does the Nephite scripture tell us about the meanings of the terms Nephite and Lamanite?

At many points Mormon's record states or clearly implies that the terms Nephite and Lamanite bore multiple meanings during the Book of Mormon period.

Lehi saw from the beginning that Nephites and Lamanites were labels that would include a variety of groups that could have differing biological origins, cultures, and ethnic heritages. The generic term Lamanite was applied by Moroni to all the amalgamated groups whose descendants would survive right down to Restoration times as "the [American] remnant of the house of Israel." There is no indication anywhere in the Book of Mormon that "the Lamanites" were to be a genetically exclusive line descending only from the two oldest sons in Lehi's family.

4. Have leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided definitive answers to questions about the origin, composition, and geography of the Nephites and Lamanites and about the possibility that other peoples were present in the land?

Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical authorities have never claimed that revelation has settled where the lands of the Book of Mormon were located.

In regard to the origins and ethnic composition of the ancient inhabitants of America in relation to the Book of Mormon, opinions among the leaders have varied. Again no definitive or "orthodox" viewpoint has claimed to provide "the" answer.

Hugh Nibley observed, "There is not a word in the Book of Mormon to prevent the coming to this hemisphere of any number of people from any part of the world at any time.”

In the April 1929 general conference, Anthony W. Ivins, first counselor in the First Presidency, urged: "The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples . . . It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. . . . We do believe that other people came to this continent."

Elder Widtsoe added in 1937, "There may also have been others [in ancient America] not recorded in the Book or not known to the ancient authors."

Obviously there is no accepted or orthodox church position that only Book of Mormon peoples were present in the land.

That being so, there is no reason why DNA analysts need to be constrained by the idea that all American Indians are Lamanites in a strict genetic sense.

5. Does the Nephite record allow or indicate the presence of other peoples in America who are not specifically named?

Several lines of evidence in the Book of Mormon point directly to the presence of other peoples in the land from the very beginning of Nephite colonization.

One of the most telling passages in the record of Nephi relates the confrontation of Sherem and Jacob. By the time Sherem showed up in the first Nephite settlement, the maximum population that could have resulted from the most rapid conceivable natural descent from Nephi1 and his fellow settlers would not have exceeded a few dozen adults. Yet Sherem had never met Jacob, the chief Nephite priest (see Jacob 7:1-26), and he had come from some other settlement.

Questions about population actually arise still earlier in the story. We find Nephi setting out to build a temple when his adult male relatives in the little colony in the land of Nephi apparently would have numbered only three: Nephi, Sam, and Zoram (plus Jacob and Joseph if they were old enough). So few men could not have put up much of a temple.

Furthermore, what kind of wars could the group have fought against the Lamanites with the minuscule "army" that the handful of immigrants could have mustered at the end of 25 years in the land? (see 2 Nephi 5:34).

Without increases in the early population of the two factions that can only be explained by the accretion of people from a resident population, reference to "wars" could not be a significant reality. We who are confident of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are assured from these incidents and other textual references that substantial numbers of local "native" residents had joined the immigrant parties.

Other statements also indicate that the writers were familiar with, rather than surprised by, the idea of non-Israelites living among the Nephites. The only example we will cite is when Alma visited the city of Ammonihah and Amulek introduced himself with the words, "I am a Nephite" (Alma 8:20).

Since the city was nominally under Nephite rule (see Alma 8:11-12, 24) and was a part of the land of Zarahemla at the time, Amulek's statement seems nonsensical, unless many, perhaps most, of the people in the land of Ammonihah did not consider themselves to be Nephites, by whatever criteria.

The familiarity of Lehi's people with the words of Old Testament prophets should have led them to expect to be placed in their new land in the midst of other people. The prophets in old Israel had often announced that the tribes of Israel would be "scattered among all people," would be "removed into all the kingdoms of the earth," and would become "wanderers among the nations." Further, "the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you" (Deuteronomy 4:27).

These prophecies made plain that the whole house of Israel was subject to being scattered among non-Israelite peoples who would be more numerous than they.

The people of Lehi were explicitly told that they would suffer this scattering: “Yea, even my father spake much concerning … the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive tree, whose branches should be broken off and should be scattered upon all the face of the earth.” (1 Nephi 10:12)

The allegory of the olive tree spelled their fate out even more plainly. Branches broken off the tame tree, which represented historical Israel (see Jacob 5:3), were to be grafted onto the roots of "wild" olive trees, meaning non-Israelite groups. That is, there was to be a demographic union between two groups, "young and tender branches" from the original tree, Israel, represented as being grafted onto wild rootstock in various parts of the vineyard or earth (see Jacob 5:8-9). Jacob 5:25 and 43 clearly speak of Lehi's people being represented by such a broken-off branch.

That branch was to be planted in "the choicest spot" of the vineyard. In that prime location, the Lord had already cut down "that which cumbered this spot of ground," clearly a reference to the elimination of the Jaredites. In addition, the statement that one part of the new hybrid tree brought forth good fruit while the other portion "brought forth wild fruit" is an obvious reference to the Nephites and the Lamanites respectively (v.45).

So the Lehite "tree" of the allegory was a geographically transplanted population from the original Israelite promised land "grafted" onto a wild root--joined with a non-Israelite people. This allegorical description requires that a non-Israelite "root"-- "other peoples" in terms of this paper--already be present on the scene where the "young and tender branch," Lehi's group, would be amalgamated with them.

DNA analysts should expect that the immigrants, Lehi's party and Mulek's group too, would immediately begin to incorporate and hybridize with New World "native" populations.

6. What do Mesoamerican native traditions suggest about immigrant groups arriving by sea?

Traditions are not to be believed as completely historical reports, but when the core of a tradition is reported numerous times and in disparate sources, it is likely that there was a factual basis behind it.

Mesoamerican traditions that report ancient arrivals by sea are found recorded in early Spanish sources. Most of them were of pre-Columbian vintage, not simply words put in the mouths of natives by Spanish recorders. And many are supported by traditions from other areas. Their consistency and distribution make it plausible that there were at least two and possibly three or more "families" of such stories of an arrival of ancestors from across the ocean.

The chief ruler at the great Aztec center, Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (popularly known as Montezuma), greeted Hernán CortTs with these words:
For a long time and by means of writings, we have possessed a knowledge, transmitted from our ancestors, that neither I nor any of us who inhabit this land are of native origin. We are foreigners and came here from very remote parts. We possess information that our lineage was led to this land by a lord to whom we all owed [allegiance]. He afterward left this for his native country. . . . But we have ever believed that his descendants would surely come here to subjugate this land and us who are, by rights, their vassals. Because of what you say concerning the region whence you came, which is where the sun rises . . . we believe and hold as certain that he [the Spanish king] must be our rightful [natural] lord.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún gathered a huge collection of materials from the best native Mexican informants available to him in the middle of the 16th century. One thing he reported being told was this:
Concerning the origin of this people, the account which the old people give is that they came by sea from toward the north [from the direction of Florida, he adds], and it is certain that they came in some vessels of wood, but it is not known how they were built; but it is conjectured by one report which there is among all these natives, that they came out of seven caves and that these seven caves are the seven ships or galleys in which the first settlers of this land came . . . they came along the coast and disembarked at the Port of Pánuco, which they call Panco [near Tampico, Veracruz], which means, place where those who crossed the water arrived. These people came looking for a terrestrial paradise.
Still today, reported Lorenzo Ochoa in 1979, in certain places near Tampico, traditions exist paralleling Sahagún's to the effect that ancestors arrived by sea navigating in "turtle shells." Other traditional accounts could be cited, but they are generally parallel to those above.

7. What languages were spoken in the Western Hemisphere? Is it known that Hebrew was in use in ancient America? What do these facts mean for the Book of Mormon?

The number of Native American languages spoken at the time European conquerors arrived is not known for sure, but a current best estimate is around 1,000 from Alaska to Argentina.

Mesoamerican languages fit into perhaps 14 families, with upwards of 200 separate tongues having once existed in the area. Latter-day Saint students of the Book of Mormon should understand that long prior to Lehi's day, Mesoamerica was already linguistically complex.

All this means that the old supposition by some Latter-day Saints that the Hebrew tongue used by Lehi's and Mulek's immigrant parties became foundational for all ancient American languages is impossible.

When we examine the social and cultural implications of what the Book of Mormon record tells us, we discover that it cannot possibly be a "history of the American Indians."

Mormon's book was never meant to serve as a history of an entire territory but is what has been termed a "lineage history." It relates certain events and interpretations of those events that relate to a fairly small number of people, chiefly the descendants of Nephi.

These serve the same purpose as most of the historical books of the Bible, like Genesis and Exodus. Those records focus on stories about Abraham and those of his descendants who became the founders of the house of Israel.

For example, the Old Testament source only briefly mentions Ishmael and his clan, let alone more distant ethnic entities like the Canaanites, and then only as far as the events involving those outsiders impinged on the key descent line.

In short, a lineage history is a partial record of historical events, emphasizing what happened to one group of people, phrased in the recorders' ethnocentric terms. The lineage histories of other groups on the scene, if they were kept, would report different versions of what was going on.

Knowing that the Nephite record is of this limited sort, we can appreciate why, for example, their story gives a total of only 100 words or so to the "people of Zarahemla," although that group was much more numerous than ethnic Nephites (see Mosiah 25:1).

The upshot is that we need to think of the Nephite record keepers as a minority - an elite minority at that - who, like most ruling minorities, tended to have their speech and customs eventually smothered by the speech and lifeways of the majority population (think of the Norman conquerors of England, whose French language did not last long on the island).

So it makes sense when Moroni reports, after nearly 1,000 years of his people's history, that by then "no other people knoweth our language" (Moroni 9:34).

Still, we may find remnants of Hebrew in Mesoamerican languages when we look carefully, just as English vocabulary reveals traces of Norman French. Little looking has yet been done by qualified scholars, yet the slim efforts have turned up interesting results.

The prominent Mexican linguist Maurice Swadesh had student P. Agrinier search Zapotec and related languages in south-central Mexico for Hebrew words. They identified a significant number of Hebrew parallels, which Robert F. Smith later more than doubled. Swadesh said of that project, "I was surprised at the number and closeness of the parallels" between the languages compared.

More pointedly, linguist Brian Stubbs has identified more than one thousand Hebrew and/or Arabic forms in tongues of the Uto-Aztecan family, which stretches from Central Mexico to Utah.

Mary LeCron Foster, a mature linguist long at the University of California, independently concluded that "Quechua [the language of the Incas of Peru] shows "extensive borrowing from a Semitic language, seemingly Arabic."

Much more work must be done, but the evidence so far is promising and new studies are under way.

8. Has research in hard science supported the claim that a variety of Old World peoples came to live in the Americas?

One of the key arguments against the proposition that people anciently settled the Americas from Eurasia, Oceania, or Africa has been the assertion by biologists throughout the 20th century that no cultivated plants (of any consequence, at least) were shared on both sides of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans before Columbus's day.

This conservative view has been progressively weakening for years. In 2002 a paper was presented that tackled the issue on an unprecedented scale. The study documents that more than 80 species of plants had crossed all or part of the ocean to or from the Americas before A.D. 1500. The list includes amaranth grains, the cashew nut, pineapple, the peanut, hashish, tobacco, coca, two species of chili pepper, the kapok tree, various squashes and pumpkin, at least six species of cotton, bananas, the prickly pear, the guava, several grasses and (human-dependent) weeds, corn, and two kinds of marigolds.

Decisive evidence consists, for example, of clear representations of a plant in ancient art. Investigators had earlier found and photographed hundreds of images of maize ears (maize is, of course, an American native plant) held in the hands of sacred beings in scenes carved on the walls of temples of medieval age in southern India. More art now shows corn that dates to B.C. times.

In other Indian art we see sunflowers, the annona fruit, cashew nuts, and other plants of American origin. In fact, at least two dozen American species were in India before Columbus, which means that a great deal of two-way sailing must have taken place.

The evidence on plant sharing across the ocean has been buttressed by data regarding fauna. The opinion has prevailed generally among the experts that America anciently was a virtual diseaseless paradise. Nevertheless, John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen have shown that a surprising number of disease organisms were present in the New World, as much as they were in the Old World. The key point, however, is that it is necessary to determine how the two hemispheres could have shared so many "bugs." The causes of 14 ailments have been conclusively found in both hemispheres - two species of hookworms, the roundworm, the tuberculosis bacteria, lice, ringworm, a leukemia virus, and others.

Furthermore, several larger faunal species also crossed the ocean. For instance, the turkey, that thoroughly American fowl, appears in art in Europe by the 13th century A.D., and its bones have turned up in Hungarian and Swiss ruins of that time.

In regard to all the species mentioned above, only voyages by humans provide a suitable explanation. Those trips--and floral and faunal data--point to the transoceanic passage of perhaps hundreds of boats between 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1500. Voyages were certainly not routine, but neither were they unknown.

9. Have races or ethnically distinct populations that exhibit non-Amerindian characteristics been revealed in ancient Mesoamerican art?

The answer to this question is unequivocally "Yes!"

The concept that all American Indians formed a monolithic "race" whose ancestors came from northern Asia was a part of early 20th-century physical anthropology. That extreme view is no longer held, yet intellectual inertia seems to prevent many anthropologists from acknowledging that substantial variation exists among so-called Native Americans.

Nowhere is this variability shown more clearly than in the modeled clay figurines and other representations of humans in art. They show up in considerable numbers in Mesoamerica. Heads and skin shades that would be at home on all of the different continents are seen. Specific ethnicities are obvious in some of the representations: African blacks, Southeast Asians, Chinese, perhaps Koreans, possibly Japanese, and Mediterranean people are commonly encountered. Of special interest is a whole class of "Semitic" or "Jewish" or "Uncle Sam" faces, so called by some archaeologists or art historians because of the large aquiline noses and beards.

Another physiological anomaly confirms what we have just discussed. Students of ancient voyaging have commented on the presence of beards on male figures in Mesoamerican art. Inasmuch as nearly all Amerindians seem predisposed to producing only meager beards, it is reasonable to take that condition as the genetic norm. So when fulsome whiskers and mustaches are found on ancient figures, a genetic explanation is called for. The frequency of beards proved highest in objects of Pre-Classic age (before A.D. 300), when the proportion of abundant beards was also highest. Beardedness was also found to decrease as one moved outward from central Mesoamerica.

Some critics claim that there is no reason to think that such bearded people represented descendants of Old World immigrants. Nevertheless, the world center of the growth of heavy beards is the Near East.

Furthermore, critics also point out that some of the beards seen in Mesoamerican art appear to be artificial. We agree. But then we wonder where the preference for a full beard would have come from. Obviously, the notion came from persons with beards. Or why would sparsely bearded native Amerindians have adopted artificial beards to be worn by their societies' leaders?

Overall, the scenario that makes most sense is that Old World immigrants to Mesoamerica from the Eurasiatic homeland where heavy beards appear in art set a standard of elite appearance that was watered down as the responsible genes were submerged in a pool of Mongoloid DNA.

10. What are some limits of DNA research in clarifying historical and genealogical relationships among the "native" inhabitants of the Americas?

There is reason to think that some scientists and also consumers of information from DNA studies have unrealistic interpretations of what such studies have accomplished.

Quite aside from the quality of the specimens, the analytical models used are only a tiny sample of the methods that ultimately would be significant. We have, as it were, a net of very coarse weave that lets most of the fish escape.

One set of concerns stems from the fact that, as a person's genealogical lines go back in time, the number of his or her ancestors obviously multiplies. Within a few centuries all of us have thousands of forebears. Ultimately or theoretically our foreparents could number in the millions. Yet there is a paradox here. Beyond a certain point in time the theoretical number of one's ancestors exceeds the number of persons who were actually alive then! The truth is that our genealogical lines eventually converge on a restricted set of people.

Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale, in a 1999 article showed that there is a high probability that every European alive today shares at least one common ancestor who lived only about 600 years ago. Science writer Steve Olson, who has explained this principle in greater detail in his superlative new book, Mapping Human History, observes:
The forces of genetic mixing are so powerful that everyone in the world has [for example] Jewish ancestors, though the amount of DNA from those ancestors in a given individual may be small. In fact, everyone on earth is by now a descendant of Abraham, Moses, and Aaron - if indeed they existed.
In parallel, if one assumes that Lehi was a real figure, Chang's or Olson's model would argue that all Amerindians today are likely to be his descendants. But would present-day DNA research indicate anything of the kind? Actually, it would be virtually impossible via today's DNA procedures to document such slender genealogical links.
The next time you hear someone boasting of being descended from royalty, take heart: There is a very good probability that you have noble ancestors too. The rapid mixing of genealogical branches, within only a few tens of generations, almost guarantees it.
(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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