DNA Evidence and the Book of Mormon

 

Much has been made of DNA evidence with regard to the Book of Mormon.  The concepts are fairly simple but are easily lost in the details (forrest for the trees).  The basic idea is that if we look at DNA of Native American people we find that it is more similar to Asian people than to Middle Eastern or Jewish people.  This is consistent with mainstream archeological information that suggests that the ancestors of the Native American populations came across a land bridge at the Bearing Strait from Asia 25,000-30,000 years ago.  Case closed?  Not really.

The case is not closed because the question is not whether the Native Americans are descended from Mongols or not (that is well established), it is whether the Book of Mormon is true.  That question is a little harder to answer from the DNA data.  The fact that Asian-origin people populated the Americas from 25,000 BCE does not mean that Lehi didn’t come with his family in 600 BCE.  Furthermore, the fact that Jewish DNA markers are hard to find in modern Native American populations does not mean they were not there at one time.

Most of the problem comes from assumptions that we have that may not be valid.

Assumption #1:  DNA samples that we collect today are a reflection of DNA samples from 2,000 years ago.  This is not really a safe assumption.  Many of the markers that may have made clear the origins of Lehi’s family would be expected to be well diluted by now through mixing of populations.  Genetic markers change over time both within and between populations.  Mixing of DNA lines confounds this even more. 

Assumption #2:  The Book of Mormon family lines were the only lines on the American Continent.  Many LDS scholars believe that the Nephite/Lamanite populations were only a small part of much larger populations that predated their arrival in 600BCE (see BOM Archeology).  After the destruction of the Jeredites and the Nephites, and the mixing of the Lamanites with other indigenous peoples over the last 1,500 years, it would be very difficult to identify any Jewish DNA markers in modern populations.  If there is any DNA evidence that would support a Hebrew origin of any indigenous people, it would likely be in the smaller Mayan populations of Central America (Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize).

Assumption #3:  The Book of Mormon claims that all Native Americans are descended from Lehi.  This is not true.  The Book of Mormon makes no such claim.  The LDS Church, including Joseph Smith made that claim even to the point of labeling all Native North American people “Lamanites”.  But that claim is clearly false. 

Assumption #4:  If a subset of Native American populations were of Middle Eastern Origin, this would be easily detected with DNA research.  Not so.  There are basically three types of DNA that can be studied;  autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and Y-linked DNA.  Each of these types of DNA have their advantages and disadvantages for answering certain questions.  None of them is good at detecting signs of a small population mixed into a larger one.  For a concise discussion of these limitations, visit:

http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/DNA_and_the_Book_of_Mormon.html

For a more involved, technical discussion, visit:

http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/DNA_and_the_Book_of_Mormon_2.html


Conclusion:  There is very little in DNA evidence that helps us sort this question out conclusively.  The fact, however, remains that the only real data that we have is that Native American populations find their origins primarily in Central Asia and not the Middle east.  As with many anti-mormon arguments, this data has been called “conclusive” evidence that the Book of Mormon is untrue.  I think such a stance is not supported by the data.  But on the other side, apologists have NO data to prove that the Book of Mormon is true (DNA or otherwise).  So far, DNA evidence does not seem to confirm or deny the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or the existence of God.