Ugo Perego reviews DNA and BOM question, concludes DNA science cannot settle the issue.

Ugo Perego

Ugo A. Perego, “The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 171–217

BYU Religious Studies Center
Ugo Perego
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The consensus among scholars is that America’s double continent was the last of the world’s landmasses to be colonized by modern humans, probably by crossing the massive Beringian land bridge that once connected Northern Asia to Alaska. However, the Book of Mormon tells that through divine guidance, relatively small groups of Old World migrants were led to the Western Hemisphere from time to time. Critics argue that since the DNA of Native Americans shares Asian rather than Middle Eastern affinities, the Book of Mormon is fictional and not historical in nature.

Where did Native Americans come from? When did they arrive in the Western Hemisphere? Which route(s) did they follow? How many colonization events were there? These and other fascinating questions have been at the center of the debate among scholars from different disciplines since the rediscovery of the New World by Europeans more than five hundred years ago. Archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and geneticists are still investigating the processes that took place through the millennia that led to the peopling of America’s double continent. The considerable number of scholarly papers that have been published on DNA and Amerindians is a demonstration that “despite the 80-year history of genetic studies in the Americas, the real work is now [only] beginning to fully elucidate the genetic history of [the] two continents.”

At first, Europeans believed that the New World inhabitants were somehow connected with the biblical account of the lost ten tribes (see 2 Kings 17:6), leading them to look for cultural and linguistic similarities between contemporary Jews and Native Americans. The evidence amassed to this point indicates that although sporadic pre-Columbian contacts with the Old World cannot be completely ruled out, the majority of Native Americans share a genetic affinity with Asian populations.

The notion that some, or all, American Indians are of Hebrew descent is still popular among Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon tells of three relatively small parties (the Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites) that left their native homeland in the Old World at different times and through divine guidance traveled to a new promised land, on the American continent. The Book of Mormon contains only marginal information about the demographic dynamics and the geography of the land occupied by the people it describes. Instead, the volume claims to be an abridgment of thousands of years of mostly spiritual and religious history and not a full account of the people. For example, the text does not give direct information about whether other populations were already established in the land at the time of the migrants’ arrival. This lack of information leaves many open questions that have profound implications for the genetic characteristics that we would expect to find in present-day Native American populations. The extent to which these Old World groups expanded and colonized their new habitat, the level of admixture they may have experienced with local indigenous populations (if any were present), and the locations of their settlements would all influence the genetic landscape we would observe in Native Americans today. Furthermore, it is implausible that ancient record keepers would have had a comprehensive knowledge of all the goings-on of the entire vast landmass of the Americas, considering that the distance from northern Canada to southern Patagonia is about 8,700 miles, a greater distance than that from Portugal to Japan! Despite these many complex factors, since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Mormons and non-Mormons alike have resorted to speculation in an attempt to fill in the historical and geographical details that are either completely missing or only briefly alluded to in the Book of Mormon text.

Even in light of statements by individual Latter-day Saint Church leaders and scholars on this topic through the years, the Church advocates no official position on the subjects of Book of Mormon geography and the origins of Amerindian populations. Together with all other members, Latter-day Saint Church leaders are entitled to their own opinions and reasoning on this subject, as demonstrated by “pre-DNA” comments such as that of President Anthony W. Ivins, a member of the First Presidency, at the April 1929 general conference: The Book of Mormon “does not tell us that there was no one here before” the Book of Mormon peoples. “It does not tell us that people did not come after.” Others have expressed similar opinions more recently.

Over the past decade, critics of the Book of Mormon have promoted the idea that since the majority of Amerindian DNA lineages are closely related to Asian populations, and since no perfect genetic affinity to the Middle East has been found, it must be concluded that the Book of Mormon account is fictional. This argument is sometimes bolstered in part by a common sentiment among Latter-day Saints generally that all Native Americans are descendants of the Old World migrants described in the Book of Mormon text, particularly Lehi’s colony. To contend with these arguments, some Mormons dismiss DNA studies as being unreliable for reconstructing history, while others are quick to embrace any news of possible Middle Eastern DNA in the Americas as conclusive proof that the migrations to America described in the Book of Mormon are real.

In this article, I will provide an updated review on the properties of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and explain how these pertain to the study of ancient population expansions, specifically focusing on the origin of Native Americans. This topic is especially relevant to the current debate on the applicability of DNA evidence to the question of Book of Mormon historicity, as such evidence is based mostly on mtDNA data published during the past two decades. The major arguments in this debate have been presented at length in previous publications and will not be restated herein. The most pertinent supporting material that follows will provide a foundation to the reader regarding the basics of mtDNA heredity, a review and update on the most recent mtDNA data available pertaining to the origins of Native American populations, and a summary of how this information relates to the larger DNA and Book of Mormon discussion. It is important for readers to understand that while mtDNA and other genetic motifs are useful in elucidating some historical questions, it may not be possible to achieve a full resolution of questions arising between secular and religious history.

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