A recently published book claims that DNA evidence proves the Book of Mormon, one of the books of scripture used by the Mormon Church, incorrect. The Book of Mormon claims that the Native American peoples are descended from the House of Israel, but the DNA evidence, according to this book, points to an Asiatic origin for the American continents’ native people.
Now, geneticists have done about 100 genetic studies on about 75 of the 500 known Native American groups. Their results show that those 75 Native American populations do have genetic signatures that closely resemble modern-day Asians. Again, this book claims that this disproves the Book of Mormon.
This assumes, however, that Mormons believe that the House of Israel contains the only ancestors of the Native Americans. Even the prophet Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, did not discount that other races and peoples might’ve lived on the American continents alongside the groups covered in the Book of Mormon – as well as before and after them. And especially after the fall of the Nephite civilization (maybe the major group covered in the Book of Mormon), intermarriage may have been a strong possibility. We don’t know how large the Book of Mormon populations were and after wars depleted those populations, there may not have been many left. Other populations on the American continent, maybe larger, may have assimilated them and, through intermarriage, the Jewish, Middle Eastern DNA may have been almost eliminated over the following centuries. Thus, the DNA of modern Native Americans could easily appear, or very well be, more Asiatic than Middle Eastern.
Also, other geneticists have remarked that discovering ancestry by DNA is not an exact science and that the outcome can be affected or changed by many variables.
Official Statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
“The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is exactly what it claims to be — a record of God’s dealings with peoples of ancient America and a second witness of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The strongest witness of the Book of Mormon is to be obtained by living the Christ-centered principles contained in its pages and by praying about its truthfulness.
Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered. Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin…”1
Latter-day Saints See the Possibility of Other Groups
Especially in light of these recent DNA studies, Book of Mormon critics have leapt on the idea that Joseph Smith (and Mormons) believed Abraham is the only ancestor of the Native Americans. However, nothing Joseph Smith said would necessarily exclude the idea of any other ancestors. (After all, no one can have only one ancestor.)
“In a statement made in 1835, Joseph Smith described the visit of an angel to him twelve years earlier: ‘He told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold. I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited. He said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.’
In response to the prophet’s comment Mathew Roper, a sociologist at BYU, says, “My great-great-grandfather is John Whetten, but it would not be reasonable to assume that in making this statement I am declaring that I have no other ancestors. Joseph Smith’s statement plainly allows for Abraham to be one ancestor among many others.” 2
And although the following was reported by a Mormon publication, it does represent a possibility that Mormons were not the only ones who saw the connection between Israel and Native American peoples. The Times and Seasons, edited by Joseph Smith and John Taylor (a future president of the Church), cited an account by Don Juan Torres, grandson of the last king of the Maya, which stated that “the Toltecas themselves descended from the house of Israel, who were released by Moses from the tyranny of Pharaoh, and after crossing the Red Sea, fell into Idolatry. To avoid the reproofs of Moses, or from fear of his inflicting upon them some chastisement, they separated from him and his brethren… passed from one continent to the other, to a place which they called the seven caverns, a part of the kingdom of Mexico.” 3
Hugh Nibley, renowned LDS historian, found this further significant. Although the account also claims Israelite ancestry, it represents a completely different group than that mentioned in the Book of Mormon, traveling by a completely different route. And Joseph Smith and John Taylor were open enough to the account to publish it in the Times and Seasons.
In 1909, B.H. Roberts, a member of the Seventy, believed that Norsemen could well have visited the American coast, and that a migration of Asian groups over the Bering Straight was very probable. He further said, “The records now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories of these people. Thus, even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known.” 4
Hugh Nibley, renowned LDS historian, believed God led other peoples to the Americas. He says, “Now there is a great deal said in the Book of Mormon about the past and future of the promised land, but never is it described as an empty land. The descendants of Lehi were never the only people on the continent, and the Jaredites never claimed to be.” 5
Other scholars note that, like the Bible, the Book of Mormon records the doings of a small group of people in a specific area. It is not meant to be a complete history of all the American peoples. The Bible is concerned with the Israelites and the nations they were in contact with, their friends, neighbors, and enemies. It does not mention groups outside of their immediate knowledge. Neither does the Book of Mormon.
In 1961, Ariel Crowley, a Book of Mormon scholar stated, “The Book of Mormon is no more the history of all peoples and doings of past ages on the American continents than the Bible is a history of all the peoples and nations of the East. Each covers its own time and provenance and makes no pretense beyond that… The Book of Mormon attests the presence of the blood of Israel. It is not in the least impugned by extraneous proof that other blood, by other migrations, found this land and mingled with the peoples there.”6
Also, the Book of Mormon itself is not a complete historical record, even of the Book of Mormon peoples. It is an abridged record, covering centuries, which was compiled by Mormon in the last years of his civilization. He drew from many different records and many different plates, which we do not have access to, distilling only the essential (and largely religious) information into the book we have today. In the many plates he drew from, there may have been record of other groups, but these records were not abridged into the final work.
Book of Mormon May Reference Other Groups
Nonetheless, the Book of Mormon is not without evidence that other people lived in the Americas at the same time as the Book of Mormon group. The Book of Mormon follows the story of Lehi’s family and their descendents and, even from the landing of Lehi’s family on the American coast, may point to contact with other peoples. At one point, Nephi, son of Lehi, flees into the wilderness, because his older brothers were plotting his death, and says, “I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words.” 7
Nephi carefully specifies who of his immediate and extended family flees with him. Who is included in “all those who would go with me?” It’s possible that these may have been people who already lived on the continent, who believed and followed Nephi. At this time, Lehi’s family is divided into two separate groups. Nephi refers to his group as the “people of Nephi,” 8 “a term that may be suggestive of a larger society including more than his immediate family.”9
Later, the Lord speaks to Nephi as such, “Wherefore, I will consecrate this land unto thy seed, and them who shall be numbered among thy seed, forever, for the land of their inheritance; for it is a choice land, saith God unto me, above all other lands, wherefore I will have all men that dwell thereon that they shall worship me, saith God.” 10
While “them who shall be numbered among thy seed” is not detailed, it, again, seems odd that people outside Nephi’s family should be hinted at if there were no others. In any case, the Americas do not seem to be meant only for Nephi’s direct descendants.
Matthew Roper shares other Book of Mormon evidences in his review of Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations.
DNA Testing Not Completely Accurate
DNA testing a modern population, to determine their ancestry, is a fairly new science – still changing, still under development. As state by geneticist John Relethford, “Although working in such a young and developing field is exciting, it is also frightening because the knowledge base changes so rapidly”.11
As yet, a DNA test can’t determine all previous genetic lineages. Only a small fraction of someone’s ancestry can be tracked by current procedure – which involves testing the Y-chromosome, passed on by the males, and the mitochondrial DNA, passed on by the females.
In Iceland, geneticist did a good number of DNA tests that “traced the matrilineal and patrilineal ancestry of all 131,060 Icelanders born after 1972 back to two cohorts of ancestors, one born between 1848 and 1892 and the other between 1798 and 1742.” 12 The study showed that the sheer number of descendents coming from those ancestors was skewed, “with the vast majority of potential ancestors contributing one or no descendants and a minority of ancestors contributing large numbers of descendants.”13
Even after only 150 years, DNA tests could not accurately trace the ancestry of these 131, 060 Icelanders. The tests gave every one of them one of two common ancestors. Based on these results, it’s not impossible to believe that the DNA Lehi and his descendants passed to the Native Americans would be completely unfindable.
Another modern day geneticist explains the limitations of using mitochondrial DNA (MDNA) to identify the origins of any population:
- MDNA is passed on from mother to child. However, if a woman had no daughters, she would not pass on her MDNA, which is passed entirely through the maternal line. Later generations would have no genetic markers from this maternal ancestor at all.
- Regular DNA combines both maternal and paternal DNA. MDNA alone carries only a small portion. Mind, MDNA doesn’t change from generation to generation, which makes it relatively constant across centuries and, so, potentially very useful. But MDNA can only give a limited view of an individual’s or group’s complete genetic make up, since it lacks the bulk of their genetic information.
- If a woman marries into a new group, she introduces her MDNA into the population and changes the gene structure of future generations.
“With this in mind, let’s imagine we have ten generations of a family tree in front of us, beginning from the top down to the bottom, over the ten generations. If we are only considering MDNA, as we look at any individual in the 10th generation at the bottom of the chart (which, let’s say, represents the current generation), because of the above limitations, we, by no means, have an accurate understanding of the original genetics of this population.” 14
(1) DNA and the Book of Mormon Los Angeles Times, 16 February 2006
(2) Roper, MatthewReview of Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Pp. 91–128
(3) “Facts Are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons 3 (15 September 1842): 922.
(4) B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God. 2:356-57
(5) Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 218–19.
(6) Ibid., 145.
(7) 2 Nephi 5:5–6
(8) 2 Nephi 5:9
(9) Roper, MatthewReview of Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Pp. 91–128
(10) 2 Nephi 10:18–19
(11) Relethford, J.H. Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins. Wiley-Liss: New York (2001); quotation from p. 205.
(12) Butler, John. “Addressing Questions Surrounding The Book of Mormon and DNA Research”. FARMS. February 2006.
(13) Helgason, A., Hrafnkelsson, B., Gulcher, J.R., Ward, R., Stefansson, K. “A population-wide coalescent analysis of Icelandic matrilineal and patrilineal genealogies: evidence for a faster evolutionary rate of mtDNA lineages than Y chromosomes.” American Journal of Human Genetics 72: 1370-1388 (2003).
(14) Johnson, Cooper. DNA and the Book of Mormon. FAIR – Defending Mormonism.