15. Genetic Evidence Discounts that Native Americans Descended from Jews

The LDS church claims that the ancient inhabitants of the Americas descended from the Jews.

"[The angel] said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham…" (Joseph Smith, Journal, 9 November 1835. See Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1987), p. 51; Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2-Journal, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), p. 70; Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:44.

"After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." (Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 1991 edition)

"With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem some 600 years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea, for in the middle of their history there were those who left America in ships of their making and went to the islands of the sea.

"Not until the revelations of Joseph Smith, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, did any one know of these migrants. It was not known before, but now the question is fully answered. Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. The Church is deeply interested in all Lamanites because of these revelations and because of this great Book of Mormon, their history that was written on plates of gold and deposited in the hill. The translation by the Prophet Joseph Smith revealed a running history for one thousand years-six hundred years before Christ until four hundred after Christ-a history of these great people who occupied this land for that thousand years. Then for the next fourteen hundred years, they lost much of their high culture. The descendants of this mighty people were called Indians by Columbus in 1492 when he found them here." (Spencer W. Kimball, "Of Royal Blood," Ensign, July 1971, p. 7)

Apologists sometimes claim that the Nephites and Lamanites shared their land with other inhabitants not from Jerusalem. However, this does not appear to be the case:

"8. And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.

9. Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of the land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever." (2 Nephi 1:8-9)

Despite claims by LDS prophets to the contrary, science does not support the view that Native Americans are of Jewish stock. For example, there is no blood antigen evidence for native Americans being related to the Jews. Natives of North and South America (and Pacific Islanders) have genetic alleles that can be traced exclusively to Asia. Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted unilineally, and is therefore not watered down by intermarriage-even the mitochondria of a single remote ancestor of a group would likely show up at least occasionally in tests.

As noted by geneticist Simon Southerton:

"I began searching for research papers having some connection with American Indians or Polynesians. Because I was familiar with plant genetics I became interested in recent research on the DNA of American Indians. The principles of DNA analysis are applicable to all living things so it was relatively easy to jump from the plant to the animal kingdom. I rapidly accumulated many scientific papers comparing the mitochondrial DNA of American Indians from numerous tribes with the mitochondrial DNA of other populations around the world. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child each generation. It is essentially a female genealogical lineage, or a maiden name if you like, stored in the mitochondrial DNA sequence. This part of the total DNA genome is used for population studies in many animal species. It is very simple to study because the mitochondrial genes don't get rearranged each generation like most genes, which are inherited as a mixed bag from previous generations. I was equally interested in more recent Y-chromosome DNA studies. Male lineages, much like DNA surnames, are passed from father to son and clearly reveal male genealogical lineages.

"In the last decade scientists from several research groups had tested the mitochondrial DNA of over 2000 American Indians from about a hundred tribes scattered over the length of the Americas. It soon became apparent to me that about 99% of their female lineages were brought into the Americas in excess of 12,000 years ago. Almost all of these lineages are most closely related to those of people in Asia, particularly in southern Siberia near Mongolia. Several tribes in Mesoamerica (which included Aztecs and Mayans) had been tested and all but a couple of individuals out of about 500 had mitochondrial DNA of Asian origin. The small fraction of Native American lineages that were not from Asia appeared to originate in Europe, most likely Spain. DNA studies also showed that the female ancestors of the Polynesians came from South East Asia and not the Americas. Y-chromosome studies, which trace male migrations, strongly support the mitochondrial work, except that the European influence is higher (about 10% in the Americas).

"For two weeks I wrestled with the research. I collected more and more research papers but failed to find anything that supported migration of Jewish people before Columbus. Enough is known about the DNA lineages of Jews to be very confident that they are clearly distinguishable from Asian lineages. They would also be easily identifiable if they were present in the Americas in significant numbers. I struggled with the complete discrepancy between the research and my understanding of the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of the Lamanites. The Book of Mormon describes the occurrence of Hebrew civilizations in the Americas numbering in the millions. It is clear that the victorious Lamanites would have numbered in the millions in about 400 AD. I could not understand how such large numbers of people could have escaped detection…

"Soon after I came to the realization that the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, I became deeply upset. I had firmly believed that it was true. I had not been looking for evidence to prove it wrong. I had been looking for research that could be viewed as supportive. It was a shock to have my belief shattered so quickly…

"I corresponded with this BYU professor on about four occasions until I became even more convinced of the seriousness of the situation. He was a very nice man and he was very honest with me. In the midst of his lengthy defenses of the Church he acknowledged that greater than 98% of American Indians came from Asia and that this conflicts with current thinking in the church regarding the whereabouts of the Lamanites today. Not only did he confirm my conclusions, he strengthened them even further. He confirmed that scientists at BYU had tested 3000 American Indians from Peru and they came up with the same problem of virtually all the female DNA lineages coming from Asia. Now I knew that all three major civilizations in the Americas the Aztecs, Maya and Incas were comprised of people who trace their genealogy back to Siberia. Data from Peru had been conspicuously lacking in my research." (Simon Southerton, DNA genealogies of American Indians and the Book of Mormon, March 17, 2000)

Consider also this recent conclusion (May, 2002) by Thomas Murphy that genetic research fails to show any connection between Native Americans and Israelite DNA:

"Some Latter-day Saints have expressed optimism that DNA research would lead to a vindication of the Book of Mormon as a translation of a genuine ancient document. The hope is that DNA research would link Native Americans to ancient Israelites, buttressing LDS beliefs in a way that has not been forthcoming from archaeological, linguistic, historical, or morphological research. The results, though, have been disappointing. So far, DNA research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans. Genetic data repeatedly point to migrations from Asia between 7,000 and 50,000 years ago as the primary source of Native American origins. DNA research has substantiated the archaeological, cultural, linguistic, and biological evidence that also points overwhelmingly to an Asian origin for Native Americans. While DNA evidence shows that ultimately all human populations are rather closely related, to date no intimate genetic link has been found between ancient Israelites and the indigenous peoples of the Americas-much less within the time frame suggested by the Book of Mormon. After considering recent research in molecular anthropology, summarized here, I have concluded that Latter-day Saints should not expect to find validation for the Book of Mormon in genetics. My assessment echoes that of geneticist and former LDS Bishop Simon Southerton whose survey of the literature on Native American DNA also "failed to find anything that supported migration of Jewish people before Columbus." He concluded "the truth is that there is no reliable scientific evidence supporting migrations from the Middle East to the New World." (Thomas W. Murphy, "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics", American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon)

Apologist Response

Hugh Nibley argued that the Nephites and Lamanites were not the only inhabitants of ancient America:

"The book describes the doings of "a lonesome and solemn people" who do not claim for a moment to be the sole inhabitants of the hemisphere. When Brodie talks of Mound-builders and Mongolians she is not talking about the Book of Mormon at all; she is setting up a straw-man for her 'science' to 'disembowel'…The Moundbuilders actually resemble the Book of Mormon people not at all. Who said they did? The Book of Mormon tells of a people ages removed from the Moundbuilders and very far away. Yet Brodie insinuates that because the Moundbuilders (of all people) do not resemble the Nephites the Book of Mormon is a fraud." (Hugh Nibley, No Ma'am, That's Not History)

President Gordon B. Hinckley said in a January, 2002 interview that the DNA evidence is inconclusive:

"HN: Now, Mr. President, one question which is a little bit complicated for me to understand, but I heard it and one colleague asked me to ask you. What will be your position when DNA analysis shows that in history there never had been an immigration from Israel to North America? Could it be that scientists will find out?

"GBH: It hasn't happened. That hasn't been determined yet. All I can say is that's speculative. No one really knows that, the answer to that. Not at this point." (Gordon B. Hinckley Interview, ZDF German Television, Salt Lake City, Utah, January 29, 2002, Conducted by Helmut Nemetschek)

On January 29, 2003 the following explanation was offered by Michael Whiting:

"Genetic drift and the Founder's Effect, two theories that can account for the loss of genetic markers within a population, were probably at work over the last 1,600 years since Lehi and his family came to the American continent."

For more information, an interesting RadioWest interview between Scott Woodward, Terryl Givens, and Tom Murphy is available.