DNA and the Book of Mormon

J. Cooper Johnson

DNA and the Book of Mormon

Have you ever tried to envision the big picture with a few pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle? Come on, you puzzle buffs; you know what I’m talking about. Say I were to give you five random pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle. Would you have any chance of identifying the picture that would result from all one thousand pieces put together, from just having those five pieces? No cheating; no peaking at the puzzle box to identify the picture.

It would be an impossible task, and of the thousands of people reading this article, I doubt I could find anyone who has even attempted this task. Why would anyone take five pieces and use that to guess the “big picture?” Silly, isn’t it?

Attempting to determine the validity of the Book of Mormon with current mitochondrial DNA (MDNA) studies of the Native American populations is equally as difficult, according to Scott Woodward, Professor of Microbiology at Brigham Young University, as he addressed the attendees at the FAIR Conference last year.

The focus of the 2001 FAIR Conference was the Book of Mormon, and with the rise of genetic studies of Native American MDNA that have been reported in various press and media outlets, Dr. Woodward’s presentation on the subject of DNA and the Book of Mormon was timely and extremely enlightening for those in attendance. My purpose in this article is to summarize and outline the findings and conclusions of Dr. Woodward as per his conference presentation. I hope this will help us understand the current state of DNA evidence as it relates to Native Americans and the Book of Mormon, ultimately providing all of us a sound basis with which to judge the genetic data being produced in this area.


DNA: A Simple Formula?

There are those who would advocate a simple formula for determining the validity of the Book of Mormon: Analyze Hebraic and Native American DNA and voila…we either have a match or not! Well, it is not that simple, especially considering only the genetic data that is available today. Let’s take a closer look.

There are, of course, different types of genetic analysis. Mitochondrial DNA analysis is the study of a small molecule inside our cells, which, according to Dr. Woodward, makes up 1/200,000th of our total genetic make-up. So, we are talking about a tremendously small contribution from MDNA.

So, why is it studied so extensively? Why are we seeing so many MDNA studies surfacing regarding the origins of specific populations of people? Dr. Woodward attributes this to how easy MDNA is to study. The genetic community knows quite a bit about this type of DNA, so re-creating the wheel isn’t necessary for those looking to use MDNA for these purposes.

MDNA has a specific characteristic about it that sets it apart from other genetic analyses. It has a specific inheritance: maternal. It can only be passed from a mother to children. Males can receive the MDNA, but not pass it on.

Another unique characteristic about MDNA is that, as opposed to Y Chromosomal DNA and Autosomal DNA, it is non-recombining, which is to say, it doesn’t get mixed-up as it is passed from generation to generation. Additionally, MDNA’s linkage disequalibrium, means all markers (parts) are inherited intact through a population’s history.

Y Chromosomal DNA, which is the most well-known DNA type to all of us who attended biology classes in Junior High and High School, is inherited in males from males. According to Dr. Woodward, this type of DNA doesn’t accomplish much other than determine one’s maleness (all you guys can stop grunting now).

The bulk of our genetic information, as it relates to linking us to specific populations, is Autosomal DNA. This DNA contains tens of thousands of independent loci (pieces of genetic information) whereas MDNA contains only a handful of loci, according to Dr. Woodward.


Problems Identifying Past Populations

Why go through all this genetic mumbo jumbo? Well, in order to understand what the genetic findings are all about, we must identify the actual type of DNA that is being used in the studies. Only in this way can one ascertain the significance of a study’s findings. With this in mind, let’s consider some of Dr. Woodward’s expressed limitations or concerns when using MDNA to identify the origins of the Native Americans or any population of people, for that matter.

  • Since MDNA is maternally inherited, one obvious limitation is in an instance when a mother bears no daughters. Her MDNA effectively comes to a screeching halt. This will complicate issues. Later generations will not have a trace of the former generation’s MDNA in this case. Autosomal DNA is inherited from both a mother and father (50/50), which makes it more reliable to track, as it recombines.
  • If we limit ourselves to using MDNA or Y Chromosomal DNA to identify a population’s genetic origins, we are omitting the bulk of the ancestral information. It is essential to keep this in mind when observing the DNA studies being released today. The picture we are seeing is only a few pieces of that thousand-piece puzzle. It is an extremely limited view. This is not to say we are unable to learn anything from MDNA. Indeed, Dr. Woodward makes it clear that valuable things can be learned, but we must understand what we are looking at: a very limited picture.
  • In addition to certain MDNA becoming extinct due to the lack of daughters, we must also consider new MDNA showing up due to new groups being introduced to a given population. This can also significantly skew any results.

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.

Some MDNA, which existed in, let’s say, the first generation may not be present (and likely won’t) in the current generation. And, on the other side of the coin, there will be MDNA information in the current generation that didn’t exist in the first or second generation, due to new populations integrating through marriage to other families.

Now, let’s say we not only look at the current generation (the 10th generation), but let us also include it’s parental generation (the 9th generation). Do we now have an adequate survey, using all MDNA in these two generations, of the ancient population? No, we do not, according to Dr. Woodward. Once again, we are observing a very limited amount of the genetic make-up of this population, because of extinct MDNA throughout it’s past, in addition to new MDNA inserting itself from other populations.


Finding Lehi’s DNA

We know, and the evidence is overwhelming, that when Lehi arrived in the Americas, there were populations already here. Lehi and his group were certainly not the first to arrive here. What effect would the integration of these two populations have on the passing of Lehi’s, or should we say Sariah’s, genetic makeup? Specifically on the mitochondrial DNA structure? Dr. Woodward informs us that although this depends on the size of the populations, among other factors, this would certainly have a great effect. For we know that Lehi’s group was very small.

The population that existed in the America’s prior to Lehi’s arrival certainly would have been much, much larger and dominated the genetic structure of later generations (i.e. current generations). This proves to be extremely important when looking at today’s Native American genetic information in an effort at determining the origins of this population.

In fact, Dr. Woodward concludes, with the above in mind, that we should not expect to find any MDNA from Lehi’s family in today’s generation. The introduction of the new MDNA from the larger population, preexistent in the Americas, would prevent such a trace.

Dr. Woodward also addressed the difficulty in recovering ancient DNA for these purposes. It can be done, but it is very difficult at this time. This means the large majority (Dr. Woodward estimates 99.5%) of all MDNA used for these types of studies is derived from current generations. This means our picture is even more limited.

One last statistic will help us understand the status of Native American genetic studies today and, once again, demonstrate our limited view of this populations genetic structure. Today, the number of those used in all the Native American genetic studies is less than five thousand, coming from seventy-five different populations. We know of five hundred populations that exist today in Native American culture, according to Dr. Woodward.



While MDNA can help us understand ancient populations, to test the validity of the Book of Mormon utilizing MDNA as some advocate is an unsound and unacceptable hypothesis. The hypothesis cannot be answered. This hypothesis begs the question: What did Lehi’s genetic make-up look like? This question cannot be answered today, nor is it likely to be answered in the near future.

We are indebted to Dr. Woodward for his tremendous insight that was shared with all those in attendance at the 2001 FAIR conference. We now have a realistic view of the state of Native American genetic studies and more specifically, mitochondrial DNA data. And most importantly, we now understand the tremendously limited and inadequate perspective that today’s MDNA information provides, as it relates to determining the origins of the current Native American population.

Today’s MDNA information gives us absolutely nothing with which to base our conclusions as to the validity of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps someday, we may gain a more complete view. But that day has certainly not arrived. We now have a few pieces of this puzzle. These pieces tell us that there is indeed a bigger picture. But as to what that picture is, we have along way and hundreds of puzzle pieces to go.

The Full Presentation

Dr. Woodward’s presentation at the 2001 FAIR Conference was truly fascinating. You can view a video of Dr. Woodward’s presentation by clicking here. If you are interested in owning a copy of the full presentation on audio CD, you can purchase it in the FAIR Store.


About Scott Woodward

Scott R. Woodward is currently a Professor of Microbiology and faculty member of the Molecular Biology Program at Brigham Young University. He is also head of the Molecular Genealogy Research Group at BYU. While completing his postdoctoral work in molecular genetics at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Utah, he discovered a genetic marker used for the identification of carriers and the eventual discovery of the gene for cystic fibrosis. He was also involved with the identification of other gene markers for colon cancer and neurofibromatiosis. He joined the faculty at BYU in 1989 and has been involved with several excavation teams in Seila, Egypt. While in Egypt, he directed the genetic and molecular analysis of Egyptian mummies, both from a commoners’ cemetery and from Egyptian Royal tombs. Dr. Woodward has been the Scholar in Residence at the BYU Center for Near Eastern Studies in Jerusalem and a visiting professor at Hebrew University. His work has been featured both nationally and internationally on numerous programs including Good Morning America and both the Discovery and Learning Channels.

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