Book of Mormon: DNA and the Lamanites
Ever since the Book of Mormon was published, it was the teaching of the church that the Native Americans (Indians) were the literal descendants of the Lamanites. This was confirmed not just through the Book of Mormon’s texts, but revelations that Joseph Smith claimed were from God as well.
The Book of Mormon story begins as Lehi leaves Jerusalem and lands in the unpopulated Americas with his family. Lehi’s descendents then become the two civilizations in this promised land: the Nephites and the Lamanites.
These two populations were numbered in the millions, and the other two groups in the Book of Mormon, the Jaredites and the Mulekites, also originate specifically from Israel. What that means is that everyone that was indigenous to the Americans must be descendents of these Book of Mormon people, which means they would show DNA that matches the Middle East.
The introduction of the Book of Mormon, added by Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, stated clearly that:
"After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."
Unfortunately for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, advances in DNA studies have been numerous and vast since 1981, and the results have been overwhelmingly conclusive that Native Americans originated from Asia, not the Middle East.
The DNA studies have been so conclusive that the church itself made a change to the introduction of the Book of Mormon in 2006 to the following:
“After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
That one word change might seem small, but it is a massive acknowledgement by the church that their claims regarding the Lamanites are at direct odds not just with studies in migration and archaeology, but with the wide ranging scientific advancements in DNA. Changing that one word changes the entire premise and meaning of the Book of Mormon.
Before we get started, I wanted to warn you in advance this might be our longest overview topic, but it’s because I want to be thorough here so you can understand not just the problem that DNA presents for the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, but why the apologetics that the church uses are simply untenable given both the DNA evidence and the text from both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s claimed revelations from God.
The Book of Mormon and the Lamanites
In the church’s Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon, they begin with a fairly large admission in the first paragraph:
“Some have contended that the migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon did not occur because the majority of DNA identified to date in modern native peoples most closely resembles that of eastern Asian populations.”
What this first paragraph tells us is that even the church now realizes that the Native Americans descend from Asian populations. The Native Americans are not Lamanites, which goes against everything we’ve been taught in the church from Joseph Smith through the current generation of leaders.
The problem is that not only did the Book of Mormon make clear that the Americas were the promised land for Lehi and his descendents, but there is no mention anywhere of another population that could have originated from an Asian population.
Spencer W. Kimball said the following in a 1967 BYU devotional called “The Lamanite: Their Burden, Our Burden:”
“They are not orientals. They are from the Near East… it is not impossible that there could have seeped across the Bering Strait a little oriental blood as claimed by some people, but basically these Lamanites, including the Indian ARE the descendants of Lehi, who left Jerusalem 600 years BC.” (BYU devotional, The Lamanite: Their Burden, Our Burden, February 6, 1967)
What is important to note is that scientists have known that the Americas originated from Asia since the mid 1900s, which was then confirmed by the DNA. That is why Kimball is saying in 1967 that the Native Americans are not “orientals” – because at the time it was easier to dispute the growing theory of the Bering Land Bridge. However, the church’s essay then continues to concede that the science is clear that Native Americans carry Asian DNA:
“The evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA. Scientists theorize that in an era that predated Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska.”
First I want to point out the wording that the church uses early in their essay to cast doubt on the findings. They say that the evidence “suggests” Asian DNA and that scientists “theorize” that the first inhabitants of the Americans came from the Bering Land Bridge. The DNA is not suggesting that Native Americans originated from Asia – it is flat out telling us that. The church is using these words to slowly build doubt throughout the essay in what science can tell us.
This is a problem because the Book of Mormon is told to be a literal, historical account of how the Americas were populated, and not only is the DNA very clear that the Native Americans originated from Asia, but that they arrived tens of thousands of years before the Book of Mormon is claimed to take place.
As we discussed in the previous sections on biblical scholarship, this presents problems not just for the Book of Mormon, but for any Bible stories that are pulled into the Book of Mormon as literal history. Three examples of what DNA has helped us learn about the earliest inhabitants of the Americas:
The DNA of an Ancient Alaskan infant called Xach'itee'aanenh t'eede gaay (Sunrise child-girl) tells us that the first Americans arrived at least 20,000 years ago, which is 14,000 years before the biblical fall of Adam and Eve and 17,000 years before the Book of Mormon narrative. (UAF News and Information, Jan 3, 2018)
A teenage girl known as Naia whose skeleton, along with 8 others, was found preserved underwater in a cave on the Yucatan peninsula. Collagen from her bones was securely dated to ~13000 years ago. Her DNA has been sequenced and it is fully Native American, directly ancestral to modern Native Americans and descended from Sunrise child-girl’s people. (Science,16 May, 2014). Naia’s dating and genetic makeup is also consistent with the recent discovery in Montana of the remains of a 12,700 year old boy known as the Anzick Child (Science, Feb. 12, 2014.)
In May of 2020 DNA from the remains of Siberian man who died about 14,000 years ago revealed him to be the earliest known person in the world to have the specific mix of genes seen in people with Native American ancestry (Paleolithic to Bronze Age Siberians Reveal Connections with First Americans and across Eurasia, Cell, May 20, 2020).
This really should be the end of the discussion, as the entire premise of the Book of Mormon is that it contains a history of the Lamanites, but now we know that the people that God labeled the Lamanites through revelations to Joseph Smith are not Lamanites, but originated in Asia long before the Book of Mormon is supposed to have taken place.
To be clear, the Book of Mormon tells us that the Americas were not populated and had been preserved for these chosen people. God tells Nephi the following:
"it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance...and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves" (2 Nephi 1:8-9)
God told the Jaredites that he would send them to “that quarter where there never had man been,” to a land of promise “reserved for a righteous people.” (Ether 2:5-7). As a small aside, here Ether is actually referencing the apocryphal book of II Esdras, written about 2000 years after the Jaredite story, which used this phrase to describe the destination of the Ten Tribes. (2 Esdras 13:41) The book of Esdras was in the 1769 version of the King James Bible, which also happens to be the version that Joseph Smith owned when producing the Book of Mormon.
Helaman makes it even more clear, telling us that the original population was responsible for populating the entire Americas:
“And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east” (Helaman 3:8)
It becomes quite inescapable when reading these passages that they are intentionally not leaving any room for additional, larger populations that would be responsible for effectively negating the DNA of Lehi and his descendents.
Let’s go a bit further in looking at what the Book of Mormon does tell us. From 1 Nephi:
“And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men.” (1 Nephi 18:25)
Again, if there were established civilizations in the Americas, they would mention them. Ignoring the anachronisms in the animals that the Book of Mormon lists here for now, if there were buildings, structures, or roads, the Book of Mormon would mention them. The only reason to argue otherwise is out of necessity to find a way to make the Book of Mormon’s problems go away.
Looking beyond the Book of Mormon, here is Joseph Smith’s description of how the Americas were populated in the Wentworth Letter:
“In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.” (The Wentworth Letter, Ensign, July, 2002)
That is incredibly straightforward and matches the Book of Mormon exactly as you would expect it to. I am just not sure how else to put it – the Book of Mormon and the prophets who claimed to receive revelation from God all tell us that the Native Americans were the descendents of the Lamanites. Here are just a few examples that Joseph Smith recorded as revelation from God:
D&C 54:8 And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites.
D&C 19:27 Which is my word to the Gentile, that soon it may go to the Jew, of whom the Lamanites are a remnant, that they may believe the gospel, and look not for a Messiah to come who has already come.
D&C 3:18 And this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites, who dwindle in unbelief because of the iniquity of their fathers
D&C 28:8 And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them
When you read these revelations (and there are others beyond these four examples that we will cover below), it becomes clear that Joseph Smith was being told by God that the Lamanites were the Native Americans in Missouri. This is inescapable, and we now know those Native Americans have absolutely nothing to do with Book of Mormon lineage. It simply does not get much clearer than this – the revelations that Joseph Smith claimed were from God are wrong.
The church has released videos telling Native Americans and Polynesians that they are Lamanites such as the video called People of Destiny released in 1988, which is stealing their actual, rich history from them, and even told them their skin will turn “white and delightsome” if they join the church and remain faithful. We will cover the issue of racism later in these overviews, but it just further shows that the church’s prophets believed without hesitation that God revealed to them who the descendents of the Lamanites are.
But don’t take my word for it. From Apostle Mark E. Petersen:
"If there had been large numbers of other peoples here when the Jaredites came, or when Lehi arrived, certainly the Book of Mormon would have said so. The land was reserved for the Lord’s purposes and for His peoples, and the Book of Mormon provides their histories." (Children of Promise, Bookcraft, 1981).
This is a claim that both the Book of Mormon and all of the church’s prophets, seers, and revelators have made, and we are now able to test this theory using archaeology, migration studies, and DNA. It is undeniable that the Book of Mormon’s claims are simply not true. Not only are the Native Americans completely unrelated to the story of the Lamanites, but they arrived tens of thousands of years prior to the Book of Mormon.
As we talked about in the biblical scholarship sections, not only does the Book of Mormon’s claims of being a historical record fall apart when we look at the Tower of Babel or global flood stories, but the Book of Mormon’s own claims simply cannot hold up to the evidence we now have.
Apologetic Response to the DNA Problem:
Because I believe this is such a cut and dry problem that completely undercuts the entire premise of the Book of Mormon, I want to spend more time on the apologetic responses because I want to show that they simply do not hold up to scrutiny. While many want you to believe that you can’t possibly understand DNA and therefore shouldn’t worry about it, I want to show you that our brains can understand it, and can understand why it shows that the Book of Mormon is not a true, historical record.
I want to focus mainly on the church’s essay on DNA, because that was approved by the First Presidency, but I’ll also briefly cover another commonly cited response as well at the end.
What the church has done in the last few decades is to effectively rewrite the Book of Mormon, telling members that the science is tentative and that there were other populations when Lehi arrived. Both of these do not hold up to the evidence, and that’s what we want to cover here.
From the church’s essay:
“Basic principles of population genetics suggest the need for a more careful approach to the data. The conclusions of genetics, like those of any science, are tentative, and much work remains to be done to fully understand the origins of the native populations of the Americas. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples”
First, as I mentioned above the essay continues to use words that are designed to put doubt into the reader with regards to what science can tell us. In this section they tell the member that they need a “more careful approach” that aligns with the church’s views, and that the science is “tentative” about what it can and cannot tell us. This goes against what any non-LDS geneticist will tell you. The idea that DNA is a settled science is of course never going to be 100% true, but as geneticist Jamie Hanis Handy, a member of the church, said:
“If you're looking at DNA and Book of Mormon and the ethnic long term history of indigenous populations, the picture is just like watching a photo load, right? It starts blurry, it starts to get clearer, it starts to get clearer, and we are just getting clearer and it [the church’s claim about Lamanites] is still not jiving.” (Mormon Stories, Three Geneticists Respond to DNA Essay)
This is the problem for the apologetic claims seeking to push aside DNA evidence – the technology is getting better every day, and as the picture becomes more clear there is not only no major changes in the current views, but the new evidence is further pushing out any possibility of the Book of Mormon as a historical text.
Other People Living Alongside the Book of Mormon Populations
The most common apologetic as scientific advances have made clear that the Native Americans and Polynesians have no connection to the Book of Mormon narrative is to state that there were other populations that lived alongside the Book of Mormon populations. From their essay:
“The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby. Consequently, most early Latter-day Saints assumed that Near Easterners or West Asians like Jared, Lehi, Mulek, and their companions were the first or the largest or even the only groups to settle the Americas. Building upon this assumption, critics insist that the Book of Mormon does not allow for the presence of other large populations in the Americas and that, therefore, Near Eastern DNA should be easily identifiable among modern native groups.”
The reason that the Book of Mormon provides “little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby” is because there is none. Any why would anyone expect there to be any information such as that when it was meant to be clear that the Book of Mormon’s Lamanites were the ancestors of the Native Americans.
Understanding the Basics of DNA
First I want to state that I highly recommend listening to the Mormon Stories episode called “Three Geneticists Respond to the LDS Essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon,” because it is a discussion between three geneticists with one of them being a former member and another a current member.
The reason that podcast is so important is because they both understand and can explain what the church states in their essay, which is to imply that DNA is just too confusing and difficult for members to understand, so that it’s not something we should be worried about. It is about 90 minutes long, and if you listen to it at 1.5x it will just be an hour that you’ll be glad you spent understanding this topic.
From the church’s essay:
“A brief review of the basic principles of genetics will help explain how scientists use DNA to study ancient populations. It will also highlight the difficulty of drawing conclusions about the Book of Mormon from the study of genetics.”
Right away the church is telling you that DNA is too complicated to be able to draw conclusions about the implications for the Book of Mormon. Much of their essay about DNA itself is well written, but is framed as an overview for members to give reasons why there’s still an outside chance the Book of Mormon can still be historical.
Our annotated essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon includes the following example, which is exaggerated and silly on purpose:
“Let’s imagine that the senior director of NASA once claimed that the moon is made of green cheese, but when astronauts landed they found none. The obvious conclusion would be that the moon is not, nor ever was made of green cheese. Now suppose NASA hired some lunar apologists to write an essay to explain away the embarrassing discrepancy.
This essay would consist of a series of convoluted explanations and arguments about how, although today we know the moon is made of minerals, we should nevertheless give credence to the director’s authoritative claim that the moon’s chemistry was once predominated by dairy products. They would then proceed to give you several hypotheses about how the cheese might have transmuted into something else or otherwise disappeared.
They would use some sciency talk to help you feel comfortable that people smarter than you are on top of the cheese problem and that, if you just change your expectations about what the NASA director actually meant by “green” and “cheese” you will be able to satisfy yourself that the complete absence of cheese is somehow just what the really smart people should have been expecting all along, and that you should let your personal feelings inform your belief about the long ago presence of moon cheese. You might even be shamed for naively expecting to find cheese on the moon today, and criticized for lacking the faith to believe it really was there when the director made the claim.”
Again, this example is meant to be over the top, but it is exactly what the church does with their essays, because they are aware enough that the evidence is so overwhelmingly against them that they changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon.
From the essay:
“At the present time, scientific consensus holds that the vast majority of Native Americans belong to sub-branches of the Y-chromosome haplogroups C and Q14 and the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X, all of which are predominantly East Asian.15 [This endnote merely confirms that Native Americans arrived from Siberia and populated the New World long before Book of Mormon times] But the picture is not entirely clear. Continuing studies provide new insights, and some challenge previous conclusions. For example, a 2013 study states that as much as one-third of Native American DNA originated anciently in Europe or West Asia and was likely introduced into the gene pool before the earliest migration to the Americas. This study paints a more complex picture than is suggested by the prevailing opinion that all Native American DNA is essentially East Asian."
This one is easy to respond to, and the church gives you the answer in the paragraph. When they say “before the earliest migration to the Americas,” they are admitting that these people came to America long before the Book of Mormon times and then somehow survived the global flood and were already a large, widespread population when Lehi arrived.
Furthermore, full disclosure in this essay would have revealed that this same DNA is shared with ancient Siberians, and that much of this DNA is also shared with all humans, regardless of where they live. Again, this example has been used to reassure LDS people that there really is Western Eurasian DNA in the Americas, but it really works against the Book of Mormon’s narrative because it predates both the Jaredites and Nephites.
Back to the church’s essay:
“While Near Eastern DNA markers do exist in the DNA of modern native populations, it is difficult to determine whether they are the result of migrations that predated Columbus, such as those described in the Book of Mormon, or whether they stem from genetic mixing that occurred after the European conquest.”
According to geneticist Simon Southerton, who discovered this information while serving as a believing bishop in the church, Native American DNA is 99.6% ancient Asian. The remaining 0.4% has been determined to be Spanish and African post-colonization admixture. (Mormon Stories, Three Geneticists Respond to DNA Essay)
More from the church’s essay:
“This is due in part to the fact that the “molecular clock” used by scientists to date the appearance of genetic markers is not always accurate enough to pinpoint the timing of migrations that occurred as recently as a few hundred or even a few thousand years ago.”
Again, this is a very straightforward declaration that simply does not hold up. From Eric Fairfield , who has a Ph.D. in moleular biology:
“There are thousands of studies showing exactly how accurate it [the molecular clock] is and where it goes slightly faster and slightly slower. You can calibrate the mitochondrial clock for probably all animals on the planet, so it doesn't say down to the second. But it has it within a couple hundred years all the time and sometimes much closer than that.” (Mormon Stories, Three Geneticists Respond to DNA Essay)
The church is trying to use the fact that there is not 100% settled information to cast doubt on everything we do know. This is similar to the approach they take with Joseph Smith’s incorrect translation of the Book of Abraham papyri, when they cite differences in non-LDS scholars while not acknowledging that every single non-LDS scholar says that Joseph Smith unquestionably got the translations wrong.
Back to the essay:
“Scientists do not rule out the possibility of additional, small-scale migrations to the Americas.”
As we said above, what the church is citing here is an article to the remains of the 24,000 year old Mal’ta boy in Siberia, whose DNA indicates that not only was he ancestral to Native Americans, but that his ancestors have roots in the Near East. This is actually further evidence against the Book of Mormon as it dates the Western Eurasian DNA of ancient Amerians to 20,000 years before Book of Mormon times, so it could not possibly have come from Jaredites or Lehites, and would also imply that the global flood never occurred if that DNA continued through the populations until modern times. This is the problem the church has in this essay – every time they answer a problem, if you look at the citations they are making you can see that it only further disproves the Book of Mormon’s claims of being historical.
This article is also one that is commonly sent by the church’s apologists as proof of the Book of Mormon as it was covered by the National Geographic. The problem is that when members/apologists cite this article, they do not understand that it actually disproves the Book of Mormon in that it happened long before not just the Book of Mormon, but the Adam and Eve story as well.
Back to the essay:
“For example, a 2010 genetic analysis of a well-preserved 4,000-year-old Paleo-Eskimo in Greenland led scientists to hypothesize that a group of people besides those from East Asia had migrated to the Americas.”
This is actually a great attestation of the power of population genetics. This Paleo-Eskimo individual dates to Jaredite times but their DNA leaves no mystery about where they came from. What would be amazing, in contrast, would be if we had a Mesoamerican skeleton from Jaredite times with genetic material of Middle Eastern origin, but that has not happened. It appears that the opposite is true, which makes you wonder why the church included this in their essay until you realize that they are hoping that members do not look at the citations they use to make these points.
Back to the essay:
“Commenting on this study, population geneticist Marcus Feldman of Stanford University said: “Models that suggest a single one-time migration are generally regarded as idealized systems. … There may have been small amounts of migrations going on for millennia.”
Marcus Feldman was speaking specifically about Eskimo/Inuit migrations, which can be clearly seen in the DNA of their remains. Again, this is the opposite of what this essay claims about Book of Mormon peoples from the same time period whose specific genetic markers, it claims, were somehow lost. In other words, the church wants you to believe that scientists can show all of these different migrations from DNA, but then also want you to believe that the DNA from Book of Mormon populations simply was lost or vanished.
The Church’s Essay and the Founder Effect:
“One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas. Even if geneticists had a database of the DNA that now exists among all modern American Indian groups, it would be impossible to know exactly what to search for. It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions. In this case, their descendants might inherit a genetic profile that would be unexpected given their family’s place of origin. This phenomenon is called the founder effect.”
This one again is really easy if you’re not trying to fit a square peg in a circle hole. It is absolutely not true that “nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.”
The Book of Mormon clearly tells us that Lehi’s family were Israelites from Jerusalem. Is this essay asking us to consider that the Lehites might have actually been the descendants of Siberians who had relocated temporarily to Jerusalem before they built a ship and came to America? An article on LDS.org titled Who and Where are the Lamanites? explains:
“In this composite group is the blood of Israel, for we know that Lehi was of the tribe of Manasseh (see Alma 10:3), that Ishmael was of Ephraim (see JD 3:184), and that Mulek was of Judah, being a descendant of King David through Zedekiah.” (Who and Where Were the Lamanites?, Ensign,1975)
Please don’t get sidetracked by the red herring that we don’t have DNA from any individuals from Nephi’s boat. We are not using DNA profiling to identify individuals, but rather looking at population genetics. If we believe the Book of Mormon’s account of its own origins, we know that one of the Book of Mormon founders, Mulek, was the son of King Zedekiah of Jerusalem, a lineage that is well known. What more could you ask for? Joseph Smith told us that the Lamanites “were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph.” (The Wentworth Letter, Ensign, July, 2002). We also know that one of the reasons Lehi needed the Brass Plates was that they contained his genealogy. The Book of Mormon tells us that he was a descendent of Joseph, so there is no reason for the church to propose the idea that we’re trying to find some weird, foreign DNA.
Sure, we don’t have the exact remains of Lehi’s family to compare to, but that’s a diversion because we know where Lehi’s family came from. That’s the whole reason that for $99 “23 and Me” can use your DNA to show where your ancestors came from – not because they dug up your great-great-great grandmother’s family, but because of the advancements in population genetics that tell us about their migrations going back to the Neanderthals.
I’m not trying to be harsh here, but I do want to push back strongly here because the authors of this essay are being intentionally misleading in saying that nothing is known. We are specifically given more than enough information by the scriptures to know quite a lot about what we should see in the Native Americans if they are descendents of the Lamanites.
I know this is a long overview, but this next section is important to highlight how unhelpful these apologetic arguments are:
“Consider the case of Dr. Ugo A. Perego [likely the author of this essay], a Latter-day Saint population geneticist. His genealogy confirms that he is a multigeneration Italian, but the DNA of his paternal genetic lineage is from a branch of the Asian/Native American haplogroup C. This likely means that, somewhere along the line, a migratory event from Asia to Europe led to the introduction of DNA atypical of Perego’s place of origin.21 If Perego and his family were to colonize an isolated landmass, future geneticists conducting a study of his descendants’ Y chromosomes might conclude that the original settlers of that landmass were from Asia rather than Italy.”
This example is actually counterproductive for the church, because they would also see the Italian component of his DNA. This is a funny illustration because it is the exact opposite of what this essay is claiming about DNA and Book of Mormon peoples. It turns out that Dr. Perego really does have Asian markers in his paternal line, even though his ancestors arrived in Italy many generations ago.
Dr. Perego was originally laboring under a misconception that he had purely Italian ancestry until genetic testing set him straight. He didn’t need a tissue sample from a distant ancestor to answer the question for him. Why is it that he trusts the science in his own case, and has changed his mind about his ancestry accordingly, but is unwilling to do the same with the Book of Mormon? His previous belief has been shown to be false and he now accepts the new scientific evidence, just as we do for anything that is not conflicting with a deeply held belief.
Back to the essay to sum up the example from Uro Perego:
“This hypothetical story shows that conclusions about the genetics of a population must be informed by a clear understanding of the DNA of the population’s founders. In the case of the Book of Mormon, clear information of that kind is unavailable.”
The first sentence is absolutely correct, and it underscores the fact that DNA can clarify the question of who founded a population despite what we have always believed or wish to be the case. As we said above, this problem is simply one that the church cannot move away from in a manner that is reconcilable with their own scriptures because they give such specific information as to where Lehi and all Book of Mormon groups originated from.
The book’s title page, penned by Moroni, tells us that it is “written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel.” This title page was said by Joseph Smith to be a direct translation off the gold plates, which means that this is not Joseph Smith’s thoughts, but the word of God.
If the Book of Mormon was written for the Lamanites, then clearly they must still exist. And not only does the Book of Mormon give clues that they are the Native Americans because of their dark skin, but God confirms it in revelations to Joseph Smith.
We highlighted some of these above, but here are a few more just to drive this point home:
D&C 49:24 But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.
D&C 28:14 And thou shalt assist to settle all these things, according to the covenants of the church, before thou shalt take thy journey among the Lamanites.
D&C 30:6 ...for I have given unto him power to build up my church among the Lamanites.
D&C 28:9 ...and no man knoweth where the city of Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites.
Again, we are told by God that Joseph Smith needs to preach to the Lamanites and where does he go? They go into Missouri, which is where there were Native American settlements. The writings of all church leaders at the time were clear that these were the Lamanites, and they were identified as Lamanites because of the dark skin that the Book of Mormon tells us that they possess. We will get more into the dark skin issue later, but this is how prophets of God identified Lamanites through the history of the church.
Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley confirmed the identity of the native people of the Americas as Lamanites in his dedication of the Ciudad Juarez Temple when he said, “May the sons and daughters of Father Lehi grow in strength and fulfillment of the ancient promises made concerning them.” (LDS Church News, 13 Mar, 1999)
Elder James E. Faust confirmed the identities of the native people when he dedicated the Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico temple: “We invoke thy blessings upon this nation of Mexico where so many of the sons and daughters of Father Lehi dwell.” (LDS Church News, 18 Mar. 2000)
Even President Thomas S. Monson referred to attendees at the Villahermosa, Mexico temple dedication as “children of Lehi” (LDS Church News, 27 May 2000) and President Hinkley said of the members attending the Guayaquil Ecuador Temple that they “have the blood of Lehi in their veins.” (LDS Church News 7 Aug 1999).
President Kimball spearheaded the Indian Placement Program with the intention that the Lamanites among us could have their curse removed and once again become “white and delightsome.” Of this program he said, “The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome,” and “The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.” (The Improvement Era, December 1960, 922-23)
All of this gets even more complicated when you factor in the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, who our prophets and apostles have also claimed to be the descendents of Lehi. This is confirmed by many statements, such as the dedicatory prayer for the New Zealand temple given by President David O. McKay: “We express gratitude that to these fertile Islands Thou didst guide descendents of Father Lehi.”
This opens an entirely different can of DNA worms, one that throws the thesis of this essay entirely out the window. Official church manuals have consistently taught that the native peoples of the Americas and the Pacific Islands are Lamanites: “Great numbers of Lamanites in North and South America and the South Pacific are now receiving the blessings of the gospel” (Gospel Principles 1997, 268). To lump the Polynesians and Native Americans into a single lineage completely destroys any attempts of this essay to explain away the specific DNA problems concerning Native Americans.
The DNA of the Pacific Islanders tells us that they come from an entirely different part of Asia than the American Indians (Nature, 03 October 2016). Additionally, the islands specifically identified by modern prophets and apostles as being populated by Hagoth and his descendants were actually settled long AFTER Book of Mormon times. Humans made their debut in New Zealand in the 14th century AD, that’s 800 years after Moroni buried the gold plates. We must not assume that this is merely an error of misguided church manual writers; it is established doctrine, beginning with Brigham Young who said, “Those islanders and the natives of this country (United States) are of the House of Israel, of the seed of Abraham,” (Journals of Religious History 8:90-104) and many other leaders have reiterated this idea.
I know this overview is getting long, but it is so important because I want to outline just how problematic the apologetics from the church are regarding DNA and the Lamanites, and to make sure I am clear that there is simply no way around the problems that DNA presents for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text and, by way of incorrect revelations regarding the Native Americans being Lamanites, Joseph Smith being a prophet of God.
The entire premise of the Book of Mormon is to bring Lamanites to God, yet the church has no idea who the Lamanites are now that DNA has shown what they previously taught is simply incorrect.
The Church’s Essay on Population Bottleneck:
“Population bottleneck is the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a natural disaster, epidemic disease, massive war, or other calamity results in the death of a substantial part of a population. These events may severely reduce or totally eliminate certain genetic profiles. In such cases, a population may regain genetic diversity over time through mutation, but much of the diversity that previously existed is irretrievably lost.
Due to a dramatic reduction in population, some genetic profiles (represented here by the yellow, orange, green, and purple circles), are lost. Subsequent generations inherit only the DNA of the survivors.”
This is an interesting argument to make because the arrival of the first Americans from Asia is a textbook example of a genetic bottleneck. It is commonly accepted that a small group of people either passed through a briefly open corridor between ice sheets or followed a coastal route by boat, and then spread rapidly throughout the Americas over a period of about 2,000 years, where they continued to flourish until the arrival of European conquerors.
If a bottleneck really is such a dire genetic problem their DNA should be a complete mystery because of mutations in the intervening millennia, yet we are still able to easily trace their genetic lineage directly back to Siberia and to that Mal’ta skeleton from 24,000 years ago, despite the founder effect, despite the bottleneck, and despite a timescale that is vastly deeper than that of the Book of Mormon.
If the consequences of bottleneck and founder effect are so severe, the greatest mystery in genetic science today would be where any of the people of the Americas come from, but it’s not a mystery. Yes, mutations can cause the loss of individual genetic base pairs, specifically those that don’t contribute to the survival of the organism, but the vast majority of the genetic material is passed on from generation to generation
Back to the essay:
“In addition to the catastrophic war at the end of the Book of Mormon, the European conquest of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries touched off just such a cataclysmic chain of events. As a result of war and the spread of disease, many Native American groups experienced devastating population losses.22 One molecular anthropologist observed that the conquest “squeezed the entire Amerindian population through a genetic bottleneck.” He concluded, “This population reduction has forever altered the genetics of the surviving groups, thus complicating any attempts at reconstructing the pre-Columbian genetic structure of most New World groups.”
First, we must remember that the “catastrophic war at the end of the Book of Mormon” left the Lamanites alive and well, which is why we were taught that Native Americans are the direct descendents of them. This is not a catastrophic war that left 1 or 2 people alive, but a race that we are told continued to populate the Americas in the time after the Book of Mormon.
Second, the author quoted and cited here is the aforementioned LDS geneticist Ugo Perego, the probable but uncredited author of this essay, almost certainly quoting himself.
Yes, the genetic pressure on the ancient Americans did alter their genetic structure, but in a measurable and understandable way. Are we expected to believe that European diseases and warfare specifically and exclusively “squeezed” out only the Nephite, Lamanite, Jaredite and Mulekite elements while leaving ample evidence, many thousands of years older, of only the “other” lineages? That is a truly impressive leap of logic.
But even that assumption falls flat. DNA has been sequenced from many ancient archaeological remains of individuals predating these wars, including the 8500-year old Kennewick Man from the American Northwest and some 12,000-13,000 year old individuals from Montana and the Yucatan as well as many people from the timespan and assumed locations of the Book of Mormon. It turns out that they all present a unified picture of a continuous presence of Siberian-descended ancient peoples throughout the Americas right up to modern times with no hint of Middle Eastern intrusion. If that’s not enough, we can still measure the amount of Neanderthal DNA in Native Americans from over 40,000 years ago in a $99 DNA test from 23 and Me.
The Church’s Essay on Genetic Drift:
“Genetic drift is the gradual loss of genetic markers in small populations due to random events. A simple illustration is often used to teach this concept:
Fill a jar with 20 marbles—10 red, 10 blue. The jar represents a population, and the marbles represent people with different genetic profiles. Draw a marble at random from this population, record its color, and place it back in the jar. Each draw represents the birth of a child. Draw 20 times to simulate a new generation within the population. The second generation could have an equal number of each color, but more likely it will have an uneven number of the two colors.
Before you draw a third generation, adjust the proportion of each color in the jar to reflect the new mix of genetic profiles in the gene pool. As you continue drawing, the now-uneven mix will lead to ever more frequent draws of the dominant color. Over several generations, this “drift” toward one color will almost certainly result in the disappearance of the other color.”
After being just told in the population bottleneck section above that the Book of Mormon people were wiped out by war, we are now told that it could also be genetic drift that just takes their DNA out of existence.
The problem here is that this is a deceptively oversimplified illustration. It is fairly easy to imagine how ten marbles can be removed from a jar of 20 by random extraction. In fact, I tried a variation of this experiment and here’s what I learned. If you assume that each marble pulled from the jar counts as one generation, it takes about 50 generations to eliminate the red marbles. That seems to support their case, right? But what if you double the number of marbles? If you use 20 of each color it turns out that it doesn’t take twice as many generations but four times as many. It appears to increase geometrically. It turns out that this marble illustration is a grotesquely oversimplified cartoon of the real problem, because the human genome contains not 20 base pairs, but 30 *billion.*
Imagine doing this experiment with a jar the size of Texas that contains 30 billion marbles. After a few centuries you would see that you have made little headway toward removing more marbles of either color, and this assumes there are no red marble-people contributing DNA at all, only blue-marble people. The odds of this illustration working on that scale are astronomical to the point that it simply could not happen in anything like the time frame of human descent. One geneticist described this scenario as being as likely as “throwing a pizza against a wall and having it emerge intact on the other side.” (Eric Fairfield, Mormon Stories Podcast, episode 571).
As with bottlenecks and the founder effect, the peopling of the Americas is a perfect laboratory for studying genetic drift. Genetic drift did happen, which is why Native Americans have a unique set of haplotypes and different skull morphology than their ancient Siberian forebears. But even so, 15,000 years was not enough time for their DNA to mutate sufficiently that there is even the slightest question about their origin as the descendents of Bering Land Bridge pedestrians as already acknowledged by this essay. Consider the DNA of that 24,000 year old Siberian child mentioned in the footnotes whose genetic lineage can be directly linked to modern Native Americans. The Lehites arrived a mere 2600 years ago by comparison. Why should we suppose that the Nephite/Lamanite DNA would have mutated ten times faster, or been “squeezed” out at ten times the rate of the older peoples?
Back to the essay:
“A study in Iceland combining both genetic and genealogical data demonstrates that the majority of people living in that country today inherited mitochondrial DNA from just a small percentage of the people who lived there only 300 years ago.24 The mitochondrial DNA of the majority of Icelanders living at that time simply did not survive the random effects of drift. It is conceivable that much of the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples did not survive for the same reason.”
Even in this scenario, genetic drift has not been significant enough that there is the least bit of contention about where the Icelanders came from and when they arrived. What they’re saying is that it can be difficult to determine the exact relationships of modern Icelanders to each other via specific ancient ancestors. But they are all still genetically Icelandic. Also, Iceland is the exact opposite of the case of what they are arguing here. Iceland was a very isolated population that did NOT interbreed with a larger population. Interestingly enough, Iceland is a pretty good example of what the Book of Mormon says about itself, but this essay tries to make the opposite case.
Now try to imagine that someone claimed that Iceland was once settled by Israelites who originated in Jerusalem and eventually populated the island from coast to coast, but now all genetic evidence of that lineage had been specifically and completely “squeezed” out, leaving only that of Scandinavians who also happened to be living there. Just as startling, these Israelites are not mentioned in the histories and sagas of the Icelanders, nor did they leave any archaeological, linguistic or other evidence of their existence, or of the domesticated animals, crops, and metallurgy, writing, etc, even though all of the Scandanavian artifacts and domestic plants and animals continued to exist uninterrupted. That would be a better analog to the Book of Mormon problem
Back to the essay:
“Genetic drift particularly affects mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA, but it also leads to the loss of variation in autosomal DNA. When a small population mixes with a large one, combinations of autosomal markers typical of the smaller group become rapidly overwhelmed or swamped by those of the larger. The smaller group’s markers soon become rare in the combined population and may go extinct due to the effects of genetic drift and bottlenecks as described above.”
Again, this is a scenario that has been invented by the church and its apologists as advances in science have proven the existing beliefs incorrect. The Book of Mormon never once suggests that its peoples were a small group among a much larger population, nor do any revelations from God to Joseph Smith or any prophets since. There is simply no mention of other civilizations in the Book of Mormon, and every character that recites their lineage goes back through Israel. It just is not there, and if there was a verse that backed up this case, it would be cited in this essay.
One final section from the church’s essay:
“The authors of a 2008 paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology summarized the impact of these forces succinctly: “Genetic drift has been a significant force [on Native American genetics], and together with a major population crash after European contact, has altered haplogroup frequencies and caused the loss of many haplotypes.” Genetic profiles may be entirely lost, and combinations that once existed may become so diluted that they are difficult to detect. Thus, portions of a population may in fact be related genealogically to an individual or group but not have DNA that can be identified as belonging to those (specific individual) ancestors. In other words, Native Americans whose ancestors include Book of Mormon peoples may not be able to confirm that relationship using their DNA.”
The problem for the church’s argument here is that a newer 2017 study clarifies that all American natives came from small shared community of pre-Book of Mormon ancestors. From that study:
“Nowadays, we see lower levels of genetic diversity in modern Native Americans—derived from just those original 15—than in the rest of the world. Again, this supports the idea of a single, small population seeding the continents, and—unlike in Europe or Asia—these people being cut off, with little admixture from new populations for thousands of years, at least until Columbus.” (A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas)
Again, it shows that the arguments being made by the church are being disproven time after time, sometimes with misleading examples and sometimes because the science continues to become clearer.
To quote geneticist Jamie Hanis Handy from their Mormon Stories episode on the DNA essay:
“I feel like it's just intellectually dishonest. It says genetic profiles may be entirely lost, and combinations that once existed may become so diluted that they're difficult to detect. And I just again want to emphasize that with computers that can handle 3 billion nucleotide pairs, ‘difficult to detect’ is not true anymore. Our ability to detect even the very smallest [data] is growing with every day that these computers are running data analysis.” (Mormon Stories, Three Geneticists Respond to DNA Essay)
The Conclusion of the Church’s Essay:
I know this is long, but I want to quickly cover the church’s conclusion in their essay:
“Much as critics and defenders of the Book of Mormon would like to use DNA studies to support their views, the evidence is simply inconclusive.”
This is simply untrue. The evidence supports the “critics,” which is why the church has been forced to change the introduction to the Book of Mormon. It’s why we no longer hear the prophets of God telling us that the “Lamanites” will become “white and delightsome” as they join the church and obey the leaders and commandments.
Saying that DNA is inconclusive would be saying that our understanding of any scientific area is inconclusive. Of course we will continue to learn as time goes on, but as we noted before the picture keeps getting clearer, but it’s not changing. Another quote from geneticist Jamie Hanis Handy sums it up really nicely:
“It's not that, as as our ability to test DNA data for ancestry markers increases that we're getting any kind of new picture, we are just honing in. It's almost like initially we started with a three megapixel picture. Um, and there was certainly maybe some darker areas in some lighter areas. And the more we get it, we're getting a much more higher resolution photo with passing time. There hasn't been anything that is drastically altering the the photo and the narrative and the story off the origins of indigenous populations. Instead, it is honing in and redefining and making more clear the picture that we already had understood.” (Mormon Stories, Three Geneticists Respond to DNA Essay)
I realize I am citing the geneticists from the Mormon Stories response to the church's essay a lot, but they are so important to understanding the issues because not only do they understand DNA studies as geneticists, but they understand how those studies apply to the Book of Mormon as well.
Back to the essay:
“Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples. Even if such information were known, processes such as population bottleneck, genetic drift, and post-Columbian immigration from West Eurasia make it unlikely that their DNA could be detected today. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (speaking as a lawyer, not an expert on the topic) observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
We’ve covered the DNA of Book of Mormon populations, so we don’t have to rehash that the statement is demonstrably false. Elder Oaks, a lawyer, knows full well that the Book of Mormon can be proven true if the evidence supported it, and can be proven false if the evidence disproves it. This statement is a very generic statement to be sure, but it is simply untrue that you can’t prove the Book of Mormon’s authenticity false, because as we’ve shown through these overviews, the evidence is quite clear that the Book of Mormon simply could not have happened in any historical way.
Another Apologetic Approach to DNA and the Book of Mormon:
I know at this point you’re starting to drift off into a deep sleep, so I want to keep this brief. Here are a few common apologetic responses that I want to very quickly respond to.
From LDS apologist Michael Ash’s article “The DNA Challenge to the Book of Mormon that Fizzled”:
“I was surprised to read that you have some real concerns regarding the supposed DNA evidence against the Book of Mormon until I remembered that these things are all new to you—you’re reading about them for the first time.”
Right off the bat, Michael Ash is setting the stage that if you are troubled by DNA it’s a character flaw in you, because why else would he be surprised to read that someone is concerned by what we’ve discussed here for almost 10,000 words?
Back to Ash’s article:
“You see, a decade ago the DNA issue caused a lot of waves. It was the “hero” of the LDS-critical movement. It was the silver bullet that was going to destroy Mormonism—except it didn’t. Instead of creating a big explosion, it fizzled like an old bottle rocket.”
This again is trying to state up front that DNA is not a problem, but as we discussed above the scientific community not only begs to differ, but can back up those claims with study after study to show that DNA is a problem for the Book of Mormon.
You can read the whole article for yourself, but I just want to highlight one more paragraph from it:
“It sounds like a good argument but it falls apart when we recognize one tiny little detail—that the Lehites were a small group who migrated into a land full of already existing populations. When the Lehites intermingled with these larger populations, their DNA disappeared.”
Michael Ash is now telling us that the Book of Mormon doesn’t say what it says, but it actually includes a large, already existing population that somehow was never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Effectively, you do not have to fear DNA if you are only willing to rewrite the Book of Mormon to make it work.
His entire article is based on a rewriting of the Book of Mormon that goes against not just the Book of Mormon, but Joseph Smith’s revelations from God. This is similar to the Book of Abraham argument, when once we found out that Joseph Smith’s translations were incorrect, apologists then turned to the “lost scroll” or “catalyst theory” that completely rewrote the history and text of the Book of Abraham.
If you want to believe that the Book of Mormon people were actually just a small group that was swallowed up into a large, already existing population, then of course DNA is not a problem. But as we’ve shown above, that’s not a position that can exist within the text of the Book of Mormon or the claimed revelations from God.
This has been a long overview and I apologize for that, but it has to be thorough in order to cut through the common apologetics that are still being used today.
The advances in DNA have forced the church to shift the focus away from the larger population genomics to smaller scale individual kinship. But does the Book of Mormon really even say the Lehites, Jaredites and Mulekites were just a tiny handful of people who were quickly absorbed into another ethnicity, or does it say they filled the land, built great cities and fought wars that involved hundreds of thousands, even millions of combatants?
We have God literally introducing a curse of dark skin specifically so that they would not intermingle with each other.
2 Nephi 5:21: “And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
We offer a lot of examples in our annotated Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon of real world examples that refute the claims of the essay, and I think they’re worth looking at because it really makes the apologetics over DNA seem not just unreasonable, but ridiculous when you understand what they are trying to claim against the Book of Mormon’s text and Joseph Smith’s revelations.
Until DNA science confirmed what scientists had long believed about how the Americas were populated, the prophets of this church were clear that Native Americans were the direct descendents of the Lamanites. The video we highlighted above, People of Destiny, was released in 1988 and is literally released to who the church calls “Lamanites.”
At the end of the video they have testimonies from members, and here is one quote that makes me feel uncomfortable to hear:
"We have learned about a man named Lehi, about his son Nephi, and Jacob. We have grown to love these men very much and learn from the Book of Mormon that we are their descendents. That we come from them. And because we loved them so much we have named our sons after them.”
This is simply untrue, and the Book of Mormon is taking the identity of both Native Americans and Polynesians and replacing it with a story that is not true or real. Imagine being told that your ancestors were so wicked that their skin turned a darker color, and that’s how you know that you’re descended from them. Then imagine that this is used to get your to join a church that takes our time, money, and identity from you only to find out that the very basic premise of the Book of Mormon is not true.
These overview topics are meant to weave the various problems with Mormonism together, so that you can see that they are not in isolation, but consistent throughout. The DNA problem really illustrates and highlights this problem because it is tangible proof that the Book of Mormon’s entire premise is wrong, and that Joseph Smith’s revelations from God were wrong.
The only way to make this even plausible is to pretend that the Jaredites, Mulekites, and Lehites all arrived in the Americas, which we are told is the “that quarter where there never had man been,” and were promptly swallowed up by existing civilizations.
It simply does not work, and it shouldn’t take over 10,000 words to really explain that, but the apologetics about DNA and the Book of Mormon try to make a very simple problem so complex that you will give up on fact checking what they’re telling you.
Thank you for hanging in there with me on this overview, and I hope I covered all of the common apologetics enough to where you can see that they simply do not stand up to the text of the Book of Mormon, the evidence of DNA, and Joseph Smith’s claimed revelations from God.
Our next overview topic will cover the Book of Mormon and the surrounding ideas that influences Joseph Smith.
Next section: Surrounding Influences and the Book of Mormon