The rapidly growing body of evidence from molecular anthropology has fatally undermined certain teachings of Mormon (LDS) scripture and founding prophet Joseph Smith. This calls the rest of LDS doctrine into question, as the Book of Mormon is touted by Mormons as the most correct text in existence and is the keystone of their faith.
According to LDS teaching, an ancient Hebrew family fled, by boat, to an uninhabited land in Central America in 589 B.C. The father of this family, Lehi, had two sons, Nephi and Laman. A division occurred between the two brothers, and a battle between them, along with their respective supporters, ensued. Jesus Christ allegedly appeared to them, bringing 200 years of peace. After that period, the Lamanites, a people described as being idle, full of mischief, and having black skin, destroyed the Nephites, a sophisticated people with light skin. The Lamanites, a remnant of the house of Israel, ultimately became the principal ancestors of Native Americans. This account is taught as church doctrine by the Mormon church and is considered factual history.
This LDS model of North American population origins suffers from serious problems whenever scientific data is taken into consideration. Genetic fingerprinting, carried out through techniques such as Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis, can show the genetic relationship between different groups of people by detecting common ancestry and approximate divergence dates. The conclusion of extensive research in this field, known as molecular anthropology, is that Native American populations show no evidence of having a Hebrew origin. DNA analysis has revealed that 99.4% of the Native American tribes scattered throughout North and South America have mtDNAand Y chromosome DNA from the northern part of East Asia, in the vicinity of Siberia. The other 0.6% of Native Americans show European or African mtDNA lineage, most of which came after Christopher Columbus (1492). Randall Shortridge, a molecular biologist at the University at Buffalo (NY) says, “The overwhelming evidence negates the Book of Mormon claim that the American Indian represents a genealogical descendant from Israel.” Thomas Murphy, a Mormon Scholar and Anthropologist, agrees. He says, “We are in a dilemma now. The genetic evidence shows clearly that American Indians are not Hebrews; they are not Israelites.”
The problem with the LDS teaching does not stop with the genetic data. Archaeology has revealed no evidence of an ancient migration of Jews to the Americas. There are no artifacts that link the New World with ancient Israel. Furthermore, linguistic studies point to Asian descent of Native Americans, not to Hebrew descent. Dr. David Glenn Smith, a molecular anthropologist at the University of California, Davis declares, “There is a widespread consensus among anthropologists today, from all sub-disciplines of anthropology, that the homeland of Native Americans is East Asia.”
The LDS community has responded to the damaging scientific evidence in a few different ways. Some have explained the disconnect between the data and the Book of Mormon’s claims by restricting the Nephites and Lamanites to a small region in Central America and claiming that all traces of Israelite DNA was lost through intermarriage with other people groups. Others have largely discounted the conclusions drawn from the genetic studies, citing inadequacy of the mtDNA studies for establishing ancestry with any certainty. Still another response has been to take the Book of Mormon by blind faith and assume that the current data is not comprehensive enough to destroy the plausibility of the LDS model for human migration.
Like other historical sciences, molecular anthropology has its limitations, and analysis of the data involves a measure of human interpretation. The conclusions offered by this discipline should indeed be viewed with this in mind. However, the broad skepticism expressed by the LDS community is not justified. It is not only molecular anthropology that attests to the complete implausibility of an ancient Hebrew migration to the New World and the idea that Native Americans are their descendants. Archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic studies all corroborate the molecular findings to an impressive extent. We would not expect this harmony of multi-disciplinary conclusions to occur if the molecular data was not reasonably reliable.
As for the hypothesis that the Lamanites stayed in Central America as a small population, this is highly unlikely. There should be at least a detectable trace of even a small population’s contribution to the gene pool of that region. Besides, the hypothesis of a small Central American population requires a rejection of the direct teachings of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, the very thing the LDS community is trying to avoid. It is also interesting to note that the LDS church trusts the findings of DNA analysis for their genealogy projects but not for determining the truth about Native American ancestry. Thomas Murphy says, “There’s an inconsistency here. If we accept the validity of genetic research for our genealogical programs why can we accept it for what it tells us about Native American origins?”
In contrast with the LDS model, the biblical model for human migratory history does not include the claim that ancient Hebrews journeyed to the Americas. Rather, the Bible gives a history of the Israelite people (some of whom still live in their ancestral homeland), a history that is not threatened by the data from molecular anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic studies. The Out of Africa model of human origins and dispersal, which is the model best supported by the various sub-disciplines of anthropology, indicates a recent origin of humanity in or near the Middle East and a rapid dispersal of humans from that region to the rest of the world. This fits extremely well within the biblical model, which tells of a relatively recent origin of man in a single location and a rapid scattering of humankind from the Tower of Babel.
Consistently, the historical claims of the Bible are validated by external evidence. Not so with Mormonism. According to Murphy: “With the Book of Mormon, we don’t have a single, not one source, from ancient America, outside of the Book of Mormon, validating a single place, a single person, a single event.”
Having a human origins model that is scientifically plausible is immensely valuable in evangelistic situations. By demonstrating that the biblical account is not damaged by the broadly accepted conclusions of anthropology–that it is even supported by them–we show the world that Christianity is an intellectually responsible belief system, one that deserves to be seriously considered. The LDS model, however, is contradicted by significant scientific findings and does not enjoy the credibility conferred by extra-textual evidence.