Book of Mormon/DNA evidence/Geography issues

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Geographical issues related to DNA and the Book of Mormon

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Question: What are the geographical assumptions upon which DNA-based attacks on the Book of Mormon are based?

Some geographical models pose problems for the DNA attacks which other models do not

It is important, as when setting out to answer any scientific question, to define the question which DNA-based attacks are attempting to answer. This requires that we establish a Book of Mormon model for potential testing. Any Book of Mormon model based in real history must address the issue of geographic scope.

The Book of Mormon account has been understood by the LDS in at least two broad geographical contexts:

  1. A limited geography model known as the Limited Geographical Theory (LGT).
  2. A hemispheric geography model known as the Hemispheric Geography Theory (HGT).

Details on these models are available in the links above; it is assumed that the reader of this article is familiar with these concepts, and they will not be elaborated on here.

DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon are arguably futile, regardless of which geographical model one adopts. However, some geographical models pose problems for the DNA attacks which other models do not, and so these issues are considered here.

Limited geography models predate issues of DNA and genetics by decades

Many Book of Mormon readers, especially during the last sixty years, have read the Book of Mormon text as requiring a relatively small geographic area within the Americas. Such readings predate issues of DNA and genetics by decades, and are not (as the critics sometimes claim) desperate "rear-guard" actions to defend the Book of Mormon against the awesome onslaught of DNA science! Such claims are ridiculous, as a review of the history of such ideas shows.[1]

Those who accept a limited geography model for the Book of Mormon would find it unsurprising that the majority of Amerindian DNA does not match purported "Lehite" DNA

LDS readers who accept a limited geography model would find it unsurprising (and even expected) that the majority of Amerindian DNA does not match purported "Lehite" DNA. Under the limited geography model, a relatively small number of Lehites landed in the Americas. This small initial population eventually intermarried with other populations in the hemisphere. Over a period of 2600 years, any initial Lehite "signature" would be hopelessly 'swamped' by other peoples' genetic markers. Just as a drop of red dye will not turn a whole swimming pool red (though the red is still "in" the swimming pool), a few Lehites added to a limited geography model's hemisphere of inhabitants will have little or no detectable genetic influence today, except by the greatest coincidence.

In 2002, anthropologist Thomas Murphy published an essay in which he argued that DNA evidence points to native Americans being related to Asians, and therefore this disproves the Book of Mormon. In 2004, plant biologist Simon Southerton published a book that made a similar argument. (Both were inactive Mormons who no longer believed the Book of Mormon was divinely revealed scripture.)

Unfortunately, neither of these men acknowledged the current state of LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon before writing. They imagined Lehi arriving in an empty continent, and concluded that all Native Americans must therefore have a genetic inheritance solely from him. They clearly assumed, and in fact insisted, that all Mormons believed the HGT without reservation, and so were caught off guard when Mormon scholars didn't surrender to their arguments. Murphy and Southerton were addressing a straw man and didn't even realize it; they simply didn't do their homework on the LDS side of things. (This fact alone should demonstrate how out of touch they were with active Saints' thoughts on the issue when they wrote their articles.)

Critics who present the DNA criticism concede that the key assumption of that a "hemisperic" Book of Mormon geography must be made

In their more candid moments, those who present this criticism concede that the key assumption of "only Lehi" must be made. Simon Southerton writes of how some Mormons have argued that

Bottleneck effect, genetic drift, Hardy-Weinberg violations and other technical problems would prevent us from detecting Israelite genes [in Amerindians].

This is a technical way of explaining a relatively simple fact: if a small group is placed in contact with a larger group and allowed to intermarry, it becomes harder to detect the small group’s “genetic signature.”

Southerton then goes on to say:

I agree entirely. [!] In 600 BC there were probably several million American Indians living in the Americas. If a small group of Israelites entered such a massive native population it would be very, very hard to detect their genes 200, 2000 or even 20,000 years later. But does such a scenario fit with what the Book of Mormon plainly states or what the prophets have taught for 175 years? Short answer. No![2]

This is really quite astonishing. Southerton has obliged us by shooting himself in the foot. He admits that there are many genetic objections to his attack, unless we accept that the Book of Mormon requires that American Indians only be descendants of Lehi and Mulek.

Since realizing that LDS thought on this point is much more involved, those who present this criticism have been playing catch up, trying to argue (as Southerton does above) that Mormons are required to accept the HGT because most LDS leaders in the past believed it and LDS leaders are never wrong.

However, this is a fundamentalist view of our religion that students of Mormonism reject. Furthermore, some claim that this reading is the only one permitted by the Book of Mormon, while over a century of LDS writing on the subject demonstrates that this claim is false too.

A limited geography for the Book of Mormon means that the critics are reduced to making a religious argument rather than a scientific one

So Murphy and Southerton are reduced to making a religious argument, not a scientific one. And their religious argument is incorrect.

Many articles have discussed the DNA issue from this perspective, including the following:

  • Kevin Barney, "A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's 'Galileo Event' (Review of Thomas W. Murphy and Simon G. Southerton, "Genetic Research a 'Galileo Event' for Mormons," Anthropology News 44/2 (February 2003): 20)," FAIR. FairMormon link
  • David A. McClellan, "Detecting Lehi's Genetic Signature: Possible, Probable, or Not?," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 35–90. off-site
  • D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens, "Who Are the Children of Lehi?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 38–51. off-site wiki
  • Matthew Roper, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 91–128. off-site
  • Matthew Roper, "Swimming the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations, Genes, and Genealogy," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 129–164. off-site
  • John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, "Before DNA," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 6–23. off-site wiki  (Key source)
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "Reinventing the Book of Mormon (Review of: “Reinventing Lamanite Identity,” Sunstone, March 2004, 20–25)," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 91–106. off-site
  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki  (Key source)

Hemispheric geography model, type 1

Other Latter-day Saints have understood—and continue to understand—the Book of Mormon on a more "hemispheric" scale, with the "narrow neck of land" being in Panama, and the final battle site being located in New York, in the hill in which Joseph Smith recovered the plates.

Thus, this model anticipates that Book of Mormon history played out over much of the continent. However, it is here labeled as a "type 1" model, because it does not require that Lehi be the sole "source" of population for the Americas. Jaredite remnants may have intermarried with Lehite/Mulekite peoples, contributing foreign DNA markers. Other peoples unmentioned in the Book of Mormon may have immigrated to the hemisphere before, during, and/or after the Book of Mormon time frame, and provided DNA foreign to Lehi's group. These additions could have played a major, even dominant role in the genetic history of the continent (in which case the DNA attacks can be answered in a fashion similar to the 'limited geography model' as above) or they may have provided a more modest contribution which is nevertheless sufficient to "muddy the waters" when the other uncertainties of assigning DNA origins to mixed populations come into play (see below).

Articles which discuss LDS views on "other Americans" being added to the mix of Book of Mormon peoples (which do not require a limited geography model to maintain their force) include:

  • John M. Butler, "Addressing Questions surrounding the Book of Mormon and DNA Research," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 101–108. off-site wiki
  • Matthew Roper, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 91–128. off-site
  • Matthew Roper, "Swimming the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations, Genes, and Genealogy," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 129–164. off-site

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:

Hemispheric geography model, type 2

Under this model, the American continent was completely empty of any human inhabitants prior to the Jaredites (though previous to the Jaredites, other peoples could have been present who were subsequently eradicated, leaving no genetic contribution to subsequent populations.) The Jaredites were then utterly and completely destroyed (except Coriantumr—see Omni 1:21, whose contribution to the Mulekite gene pool was either negligible or non-existent) and replaced by Lehite/Mulekite immigrants, who were likewise the only source of humans in the Americas, giving rise to all (or nearly all) of the present Amerindian population.

Of all the models discussed thus far, this is the only variant to which the DNA data poses any significant challenge at all, though many of the issues discussed below also apply to DNA testing the Book of Mormon's claims with this model.

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:

Hemispheric geography model, type 3

This model could be a labeled as "empty continent, all-Lehi." Under this model, the Americas have had no inhabitants except those mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Thus, Jaredites, Mulekites, and Lehites are the only inhabitants the New World has seen before Columbus, and the Jaredites left no genetic remnants in the Lehite/Mulekite mix.

A larger problem for this model than DNA evidence is archaeological evidence of human habitation thousands of years prior to the Nephites (which would have to be explained by either appealing to dating errors, or ascribing all such remains to Jaredites). This model is arguably the most challenged by current DNA science—and science in general—but it is also the least likely model supported by the Book of Mormon text itself. Ironically, it is to this model that Murphy and Southerton seem to have addressed most of their efforts.

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:


Question: Is DNA Haplogroup X2a proof that the Book of Mormon fits best in a geography located in the Great Lakes region?

It does not seem that haplogroup X can serve as good evidence of the Book of Mormon's antiquity

Some claim that the Book of Mormon fits best in a geography located around the Great Lakes, and that this is supported by a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) group called Haplogroup X2a.

While interesting, at present it does not seem that haplogroup X can serve as good evidence of the Book of Mormon's antiquity given the problems of dating and the failure of the model to come to grips with textual issues from the Book of Mormon. Doing so would require us to misrepresent the current state of scientific evidence. This claim also fails to interact responsibly with a fairly large body of literature which has led most LDS scholars to reject the Great Lakes region as a feasible match to the Book of Mormon's requirements.

This conclusion will, of course, need to be revised if further information comes to light.

An additional argument for a Great Lakes setting is made on textual grounds.

While FairMormon applauds the efforts of Latter-day Saints to defend the Book of Mormon against critics' attacks, at present we feel unable to endorse this idea as persuasive evidence for the Book of Mormon's antiquity.

FairMormon and outside experts have examined the views of some enthusiasts on this point. The proponents' goal is to support the Book of Mormon with DNA by tracking mtDNA haplogroup X among native Americans.

The theory postulates that haplogroup X comes from the Levant (i.e., Israel/Palestine), and then reaches Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Western New York with the Lehi colony. Proponents of this model argue, then, that this group actually sailed around Africa and up through the South Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico. They then have them landing in what is now Louisiana.

But when Nephi's group fled from Laman's faction, advocates of this model have both the Nephi and Laman factions migrating north to the area designated above. There is no textual evidence in the Book of Mormon to support this, or an Atlantic crossing for the Lehi colony.

As LDS geneticist Ugo Perego put the matter:

  • "Does [haplogroup x] provide evidence to support a pre-Columbian Israelite migration to Western hemisphere? – No."
  • "Some argue that X shows arrival of Lehi, etc. but this is too easy an explanation. The data seems to indicate it was from an ancient group 12,000 years ago, and Lehi's mtDNA has disappeared."[3]

A major difficulty with this speculation is the problem of dating

Haplogroup X, which is centered in Europe and the Levant is thought to have reached North America much earlier than the Lehi party, and to have brought the distinctive Clovis culture to the Americas (which dates from before 12,000 years ago). This culture involves what is often called the Clovis Point tools—that is, pressure flaked tools (arrow heads and so forth), which are not found in Alaska and Asia. This has led some revisionists to advance what has been called the Solutrean Hypothesis—that is, that haplogroup X got to North America (and specifically to the northeast) by people migrating from Europe on tiny skin boats along the edge of ice flows. Even if true, what exactly any of this has to do with the Book of Mormon is not clear, since such immigration would precede Lehi by thousands of years according the current scientific understanding.

Thus, even if haplogroup X2a has its origins on the Middle East, if those origins are thousands of years before the Book of Mormon timeframe, it is difficult to use them as strong evidence for the Book of Mormon account. At best, this demonstrates that the Bering land bridge is not the only source of the pre-Columbian American Indians.

In addition, many of these proponents have not addressed the sophisticated literature already published on the Book of Mormon by believing scholars. For example, they have not come to grips with archaeologist John Clark's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a Great Lakes model.

Haplogroup X before Lehi

A paleo-Indian burial site in Windover, Florida has been carbon-dated to between 6980–8120 ± 100 years ago. Human brain tissue was extracted from mummified remains, and mtDNA was sequenced. It found haplogroups A, B, C, and D—and some unidentified haplogroups. This was in 1994, and so haplogroup X had not been named and characterized. But, later reports indicate that haplogroup X was found in the sample—demonstrating that (barring modern contamination) Lehi's migration 2,600 years ago cannot be the sole original source of haplogroup X in the Americas, if it is such a source at all.[4] This means that haplogroup X cannot tell us anything about Lehi, since other sources for haplogroup X in the Americas exist.

New data casts multiple founding theory in question

A February 2008 genetics study on American population migration states:

...the differential pattern of distribution and frequency of haplogroup X led some to suggest that it may represent an independent migration to the Americas. Here we show, by using 86 complete mitochondrial genomes, that all Native American haplogroups, including haplogroup X, were part of a single founding population, thereby refuting multiple-migration models.
Our results strongly support the hypothesis that haplogroup X, together with the other four main mtDNA haplogroups, was part of the gene pool of a single Native American founding population; therefore they do not support models that propose haplogroup-independent migrations, such as the migration from Europe posed by the Solutrean hypothesis. (emphasis added)[5]

This remains an active area of research, but it would not be accurate to claim that current science provides a model of these matters which allows haplogroup X to support the Book of Mormon.

Best articles to read next

The best article(s) to read next on this topic is/are:

  1. FAIR's reviews of Rod Meldrum's DVD, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography. FAIRWiki link
  2. Ugo A. Perego, "The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint," FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 191–227. off-site wiki
  3. Gregory L. Smith, "Often in Error, Seldom in Doubt: Rod Meldrum and Book of Mormon DNA (A review of "Rediscovering the Book of Mormon Remnant through DNA" by: Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 17–161. off-site wiki
  4. Matthew Roper, "Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography (A review of "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" by: Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15–85. off-site wiki
  5. Matthew Roper, "Losing the Remnant: The New Exclusivist "Movement" and the Book of Mormon (A review of "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" by: Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 87–124. off-site wiki
  6. Brant Gradner, "This Idea: The "This Land" Series and the U.S.-Centric Reading of the Book of Mormon (A review of "This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation; This Land: Only One Cumorah!; and This Land: They Came from the East" by: Edwin G. Goble and Wayne N. May; Wayne N. May; and Wayne N. May)," FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 141–162. off-site wiki
  7. John E. Clark, "Evaluating the Case for a Limited Great Lakes Setting," FARMS Review of Books 14/1 (2002): 9–78. off-site
  8. John Clark, "The Final Battle for Cumorah (Review of Christ in North America by Delbert W. Curtis)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 79–113. off-site
  9. John E. Clark, "Two Points of Book of Mormon Geography: A Review (Review of The Land of Lehi by Paul Hedengren)," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 1–24. off-site
  10. Steven L. Olsen, "The Covenant of the Promised Land: Territorial Symbolism in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 137–154. off-site wiki


Gospel Topics: "These events may severely reduce or totally eliminate certain genetic profiles"

"Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

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.

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.”[6]


Question: What effect did the 90% death rate in the New World after European contact have on genetics and its relationship to the Book of Mormon?

Approximately ninety percent of the Amerindian population died out following contact with the Europeans

Approximately ninety percent of the Amerindian population died out following contact with the Europeans; most of this was due to infectious disease against which they had no defense. [7]

It may be that eliminating 90% of the pre-contact gene pool has significantly distorted the true genetic picture of Lehi's descendants

Since different genes likely provide different resistances to infectious disease, it may be that eliminating 90% of the pre-contact gene pool has significantly distorted the true genetic picture of Lehi's descendants. Studies of pre-Columbian human remains have not shown any extinct haplotypes—as one would expect given the small contribution made by a Lehite colony. Gene frequency, however, could well have been altered by such a dramatic die-off, suggesting that caution should be used in assuming that modern Amerindian populations are an identical match for pre-Columbian gene frequencies.


Question: What influence might the Jaredites have had on New World DNA?

The Jaredites are complete genetic unknowns: They cannot be Israelites, since they pre-date Israel

The potential influence of the Jaredites on Nephite and Lamanite DNA is often overlooked. Most assume (as in the hemispheric models type 2 and type 3) that the Jaredites can have contributed nothing of consequence to the Lehite DNA picture.

Some LDS have believed in a total eradication of the Jaredites, others have argued that Jaredite remnants survived and mixed with the Lehites

But, it is not clear that this must be the case. Some LDS scholars have believed in a total eradication of the Jaredites, others have argued that Jaredite remnants survived and mixed with the Lehites. Bruce R. McConkie, while believing that the majority of Amerindian descent was from Israel (i.e. Lehi, Ishmael, and Mulek) nevertheless wrote:

The American Indians, however, as Columbus found them also had other blood than that of Israel in their veins. It is possible that isolated remnants of the Jaredites may have lived through the period of destruction in which millions of their fellows perished. It is quite apparent that groups of orientals found their way over the Bering Strait and gradually moved southward to mix with the Indian peoples. We have records of a colony of Scandinavians attempting to set up a settlement in America some 500 years before Columbus. There are archeological indications that an unspecified number of groups of people probably found their way from the old to the new world in pre-Columbian times. Out of all these groups would have come the American Indians as they were discovered in the 15th century. [8]

The Jaredites are complete genetic unknowns. They cannot be Israelites, since they pre-date Israel. Some authors, such as Hugh Nibley, long ago argued that they were of Asian origin. [9]
  1. For the history of the LGT, see Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–276. off-site
  2. Simon Southerton, e-mail, “Answering the DNA apologetics,” 15 February 2005, 18h42 (copy in editors' possession).
  3. Ugo Perego, "Haplogroup X in Light of Recent Book of Mormon Claims," 2009 FAIR Conference, Sandy, Utah (6 August 2009); notes in author's possession; off-site (last accessed 2 December 2009). See a published article dealing with the same material: Ugo A. Perego, "The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint," FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 191–227. off-site wiki
  4. WW Hauswirth et al., "Inter-and Intrapopulation Studies of Ancient Humans," Experientia 50 (1994): 585–591; Peter Forster et al., "Origin and Evolution of Native American mtDNA Variation: A Reappraisal," American Journal of Human Genetics 59/4 (October 1996): 939; Jason A. Eshleman et al., "Mitochondrial DNA Studies of Native Americans: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Population Prehistory of the Americas," Evolutionary Anthropology 12 (2003): 13.
  5. Nelson J.R. Fagundes, Ricardo Kanitz, et al., "Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas," The American Journal of Human Genetics 82/3 (28 February 2008): 583-592.
  6. "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (31 January 2014)
  7. Suzanne Austin Alchon, 'A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective,' Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, c2003.
  8. Bruce R. McConkie, "American Indians," in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 33. GL direct linkGL direct link
  9. See, for example, Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthew and Stephen R. Callister, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988),153–following. GL direct link