Updates on DNA and the Book of Mormon

It’s been a few years since I talked about DNA and the Book of Mormon. Since 2014—which was the last time I discussed Lehi’s “missing” DNA—there’s been a few articles of interest that I thought I would mention and comment on. This post is somewhat long, but the tl; dr is simply that recent studies further illustrate that DNA does not disprove the Book of Mormon’s historicity. You can skip to the final section of “main take aways” if you want a bit more than that but still don’t want to read through the whole thing.  

The Myth of “Pure” Genetic Heritage

First, in May 2017, Ann Gibbons, a correspondent for Science magazine, discussed the myth of “pure” genetic heritage in light of the influx of Syrian refugees to places throughout Europe. Some neo-Nazi’s in Germany were concerned about “the destruction of our genetic heritage.” According to Gibbons, however, “the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect.” Clearly, Germans exist, and like most nationalities and ethnicities, have their own unique cultural heritage, and stories of national origin. But while those origin stories do, indeed, have some grounding in real historical events, they are both an exaggeration and an oversimplification of the people’s collective origins. In reality, all peoples are, genetically speaking, “a mishmash.”

Gibbons goes through a variety of different European cultures and ethnicities to further illustrate the point. The 11th century Book of Invasions recounts the story of the Sons of Míl Espáine, wanderers from Spain who created “a modern Irish people distinct from the British—and linked to the Spanish.” Yet, according geneticist Walter Bodmer (as cited by Gibbons), only “a very small ancient Spanish contribution” has been found in British and Irish DNA. The Celtic roots of the Irish, Scots, and Welsh (drawn from the Book of Invasions and other medieval texts), also lack DNA corroboration. “Try as they might,” explains Gibbons, “researchers so far haven’t found anyone, living or dead, with a distinct Celtic genome.”

The Angle-Saxon Chronicle recounts “fierce conflict” between the invading Angles and Saxons and the native Britons in southeast England in the 5th century AD.  While such violence between native and invading peoples was likely real, studies on ancient DNA in the same region from the 5th and 6th century reveals that Angles, Saxons, and Britons also lived side-by-side and even interbred. 

The point is that, as Lynn Jorde, a population geneticist from the University of Utah, puts it, “We can falsify this notion that anyone is pure” (as quoted by Gibbons). After discussing the case of the Philistines (see below), Gibbons also quotes Israeli archaeologist Aren Maeir: “Ethnic groups in the past and present create an ‘imagined past’ of the longtime and ‘pure’ origins of their group,” but the group's actual history is always more complicated than their origin stories.

Like the Germans, Irish, Celts, and others discussed in the article, the actual history of the Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites is going to be a lot more complicated than their oversimplified lineage histories recorded in the Book of Mormon would suggest. This would include genetic admixture from indigenous populations which goes unmentioned (or is merely hinted at) in the text.

It is revealing that some ethnic and cultural groups—such as the Germans and the Celts, as mentioned above—evidently have no distinctive genetic heritage to speak of. Yet Germans and Celts obviously still exist. Thus, lack of identifiable “Lamanite” DNA does not prove that people with a “Lamanite” cultural identity (and origin story tracing their lineage simplistically back to Laman and Lemuel) never existed.

Of course, the premise of the genetic studies discussed above is that they are detecting lots and lots of migrations and population shifts that more simplified national origin myths do not account for. This may lead some to think that even if the history of the Nephites and Lamanites is more complicated than that presented in the Book of Mormon, surely their migrations should be detectable too, right? For this, we turn to another article that came out in 2017.

Africans in Roman-era Britain

In August 2017, there was a big controversy over the portrayal of a Roman officer in Britain as being black in a BBC cartoon. To me, honestly, it seems silly, but some people were really upset about this because, they claimed, a black Roman officer was anachronistic. Classicist Mary Beard defended the cartoon as “pretty accurate,” noting that there was evidence for black Roman officers in Britain. Those who insisted it was inaccurate pointed to the lack of African DNA in the British genome.

Jennifer Raff, a population geneticist, responded to these arguments, and she did so using essentially the same arguments Ugo Perego and others (including the official essay on ChurchOfJesusChrist.org) have used for explaining the lack of DNA evidence for Book of Mormon migrations.

Raff notes that “the genetic makeup of a region often changes over time” due to factors like genetic drift. “Uniparental markers, like mitochondrial (only maternally inherited) and Y chromosome (only paternally inherited) DNA are particularly affected by genetic drift. If a mitochondrial or Y chromosome lineage was rare in a population, it’s likely that it would have disappeared from the population over time and not be seen in contemporary inhabitants of the region.” This is exactly what Latter-day Saint geneticists have been saying about the DNA of founders such as Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, Mulek, and Jared, whose mtDNA and YcDNA would naturally be only a small drop in the bucket compared the larger indigenous populations that would already be here.

Quoting from British geneticist Adam Rutherford, Raff points out another example of a people who have left no genetic trace in Britain, despite a known history of migration and invasion: “there is virtually no trace of the Danes in the British genome. … there’s an absence of Danish DNA despite a long adventure here.” Raff goes on, “There are similar cases all over the world, including from my own area of research, the Americas.” She talks about the Vikings known to occupy a site in Newfoundland ca. AD 1000, “yet no genetic traces of the Norse can be found in either contemporary or ancient Native American populations. That may mean that there was no admixture (mating) taking place between Norse and indigenous populations, or perhaps that it was on such a small scale that traces were erased over time.”

Raff also stressed the inadequacy of our current knowledge. “If ancient DNA has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot universally reconstruct population histories on the basis of contemporary patterns of genetic diversity.” We need to study samples of ancient genetic data to get a fuller picture of the genetic diversity in antiquity. In order to achieve this, testing and sampling of ancient DNA “will need to be done on a much wider scale than present, across both time and space, and we will need to target specific individuals suspected of being non-local in order to observe lineages present in the past at rare frequencies.” She warns that this can’t be done with selective sampling of elites; “one has to be very careful about designing a study intended to accurately characterize genetic variation in an entire population.” In Britain—and, I suspect, most other parts of the world, “these types of ancient DNA surveys are being done,” but “aren’t comprehensive and much more work remains to be done by future investigators.”

All of these factors are relevant to claims about DNA and the Book of Mormon. In particular, it seems worth noting that to date, no formal DNA study has been carefully designed to specifically look for the unique, non-local DNA potentially brought to the Americas by the small migrations reported in the Book of Mormon. As one Latter-day Saint geneticist pointed out some years ago, it is doubtful such a study could actually be done.

Rapid Disappearance of Philistine DNA

As noted, Raff talked about the need for more comprehensive studies of ancient DNA across time and space, with targeted focus on likely non-local individuals in order to better understand the genetic history of a region. In July 2019, Michal Feldman and Johannes Krause, both from the archaeogenetics department at the Max Planck Institute, published just such a study in the journal Science Advances, with the help of other archaeologists and geneticists. Their study focused on ancient biblical site of Ashkelon, one of five cities linked to the “Philistines”—part of the migratory “Sea People” who came from somewhere across the Mediterranean. The Philistines are typically thought to come from the Aegean (i.e., Greek) region around the 13th–12th century BC.

Sure enough, Feldman and Krause et al. found “a European-related gene flow introduced in Ashkelon during either the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age. This timing is in accord with estimates of the Philistines arrival to the coast of the Levant, based on archaeological and textual records.” This success was made possible by highly ideal circumstances. Researchers knew exactly where and when to look for non-local gene flow, and had a pretty good idea of what they should be looking for, too. In addition, the Levant is a relatively ideal place for DNA preservation (yet they still had to go through 108 samples to find 10 with usable DNA), and migration of the “Sea Peoples” represents a fairly sizable influx of foreign peoples—they had enough people to mount military campaigns against Egyptian and Israelites, according historical sources.

Despite all of that, however, the Philistines had no lasting impact on the genetic make up of the Levant. Feldman and Krause et al. found that “within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine-related gene pool.” This is not because Philistines themselves disappeared. Ann Gibbons talks about the Philistines in her 2017 Science article (see above), noting that archaeologist Aren Maeir “thinks that the Philistines soon intermarried with people already living in Canaan instead of going extinct.” According to Lawrence A. Sinclair, “The history of the Philistines can be traced from the period of the judges to the fall of Jerusalem” using Biblical, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian records.[1]  

So while the Philistines persisted as a people until the ca. late 7th–6th century BC, they quickly became genetically indistinguishable from the others around them. This is consistent with the previous findings of Richard Green et al. (which also lists Johannes Krause as a contributor), that “detectable gene flow is predicted to almost always be from the resident population into the colonizing population, even if gene flow also occurred in the other direction.”  In other words, when a group of people settles into a new territory and integrates themselves into the existing population, their genes disappear, and they disappear quite quickly.

The application to the Book of Mormon here should be obvious. Lehi and his family, the group that came with Mulek, and the brother of Jared and his people were all colonizing populations, and comparatively small ones, at that. If Philistine DNA disappeared within two centuries, then whatever limited gene flow might have happened with the arrivals of Lehi, Mulek, Jared and their respective groups would almost certainly be indiscernible within a few generations—despite the fact that cultural groups known as Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites not only survived but even thrived in the region for a considerable span of time.

According to Feldman and Krause et al., this rapid disappearance of Philistine DNA underscores several of the limitations Raff (and Latter-day Saint geneticists) have alluded to:

The relatively rapid disappearance of this signal stresses the value of temporally dense genetic sampling for addressing historical questions. Transient gene flows, such as the one detected here, might be overlooked because of a lack of representative samples, potentially leading to erroneous conclusions. In geographic regions unfavorable to DNA preservation, obtaining such datasets requires exhaustive sampling and the utilization and further development of advanced technologies such as DNA enrichment techniques and targeted sampling strategies.

Once again, nothing like this has been done to try and identify DNA potentially relevant to the Book of Mormon, and it is unlikely it even could be. Lehi and his family, as well as the Mulekites and the Jaredites, are very small groups, and we cannot pinpoint an exact place to look for their genes. Furthermore, Mesoamerica—the most likely location of their landing—is a much less ideal place for preservation of genetic samples.

Main Take Aways

I know this article has been a bit long. I’ve sprinkled insights into the Book of Mormon DNA issue throughout, but for the sake clarity and convenience I wanted to summarize some of the main “take aways” from all of this. This does not include all insights and applications to the Book of Mormon discussed above, but these are the key issues that I think are most important here:

1. The notion of a “pure” Nationality, Ethnicity, or Culture Group is nonsense. If genetic studies have complicated superficial readings of the Book of Mormon, and assumptions of Nephites, Lamanites, etc. as “pure” descendants of their founding groups, then the Book of Mormon is hardly alone in this matter. Gibbons shows that stories of national origins, founding migrations, and group exclusivity the world over are being shown by genetic studies to be exaggerated and oversimplified. All peoples are more genetically diverse and mixed than such stories tend to account for. If we are going to take the Book of Mormon seriously as history, then we cannot assume that Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites, etc. are somehow exempt from this universal truth.

2. Genetic studies do not tell the whole story of migration history. Even as studies in population genetics reveal evermore about the complicated history of human movement, Raff shows that these studies have their limitations and cannot ultimately detect every incursion of different peoples into broader populations, as illustrated by the lack of African DNA in British genetics. Issues like genetic drift are legitimate obstacles to detecting small gene flows into a larger population. Again, if we are going to take the Book of Mormon seriously as history, then we cannot dismiss or ignore these issues as “apologetic excuses.”

3. Detecting minor influxes of DNA require highly specific data. Both Raff and Feldman and Krause et al. make the point that if we are ultimately going to detect even small genetic influxes into a population, then we need highly specific data. We need to be studying DNA from ancient remains, not just modern populations, and we need to know where (specific archaeological sites) and when (chronological time period) to look to find likely samples of non-local DNA, and then we need to know what (the outside genetic population to compare with) to look for. Nothing like this has been done to test for the migrations hypothesized by the Book of Mormon, and given various limitations and uncertainties, it is unlikely such a hypothesis could be tested.

4. Genetic admixture from colonizing populations disappears quickly from the gene pool. Even when an ancient migration is found under highly ideal circumstances for detecting non-local genetic contributions, the evidence indicates that these foreign genes disappear quickly.  Feldman and Krause et al. found that it took no more than 200 years for Philistine DNA to become indistinguishable from the broader Iron Age Levant population. All the migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon are much smaller than the Philistine migrations, and demographer James E. Smith estimated that the Nephites would have only numbered around 1000–2000 people after about 200 years. This means that by the time Nephites and Lamanites had built up sizable populations, traces of their Near Eastern DNA were probably already lost.

All together, these observations mean that it is unsurprising that the migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon are undetectable by means of genetic analysis. Based on present knowledge, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.



[1] Lawrence A. Sinclair, “Philistines,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1050.


Comments

  1. I've long wondered how the Nephites could have had plural wives and concubines in such a short time after arrival in the land of Nephi--as in the book of Jacob. The extra women must have been from local populations.

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