I met with my stake president in the first week of August 1998 and asked to be released as bishop. I was not angry with the Church and had not spoken to anyone, apart from my wife, about my loss of faith. After one meeting with my stake president I was introduced to Warren Aston, who I was told was a Book of Mormon scholar who may be able to help me. Months later I learned that Aston was a well-known Book of Mormon apologist who had discovered the NHM evidence in Yemen. He is also an internationally famous UFO expert.

Days after meeting Aston I received a copy of a fax sent to my stake president from FARMS at BYU (below). The document had the appearance of a published article on DNA and the Book of Mormon. I was so alarmed by the tone of this document I contacted Scott Woodward to ask about its origin. Scott and I had just been corresponding about the evidence and our correspondence had been very cordial. While Scott had spoken to John Tvedtnes months earlier he had not been involved in the document’s production. Clearly, Tvedtnes had hastily written this document in preparation for the anticipated problems that DNA would cause and had put Woodward’s name on it without his permission.

Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah

DNA Studies and the Book of Mormon

Scott Woodward, BYU
John Tvedtnes, FARMS, BYU

In recent times, some critics have suggested that there is a simple way to determine the validity of the Book of Mormon by the analysis and comparison of Hebrew and Amerindian DNA.  Some have even suggested that such studies have already been done and that they showed no genetic relationship between the two peoples.  Those who make the latter claim indicate that Brigham Young University and the LDS Church are hiding the “facts” on the matter.  None of these assertions are true.  This paper briefly discusses some of the issues involved in DNA studies in order to demonstrate the difficulty in making determinations such as those the critics have suggested.

Identifying Hebrews and Lehites

The first and most obvious difficulty is in defining who is a Hebrew and who is a descendant of Lehi.  Most people would think of Jews as being Hebrews, but the difficulty with this is at least twofold.  First is the question of intermarriage, which has been widespread at times.  Second is that Judaism has almost always been open to converts.  In the tenth century, for example, the king of the Khazars, a people living in Central Asia, converted to Judaism and was followed by his people.  So an entire nation with no Israelite genetic inheritance suddenly became “Jews.”  At least one Jewish writer, Arthur Koestler, has suggested that the Ashkenazi (European) Jews are descended from the Khazars rather from ancient Israel. 1

While some critics would like to consider any and all Amerindian groups for testing as descendants of Lehi, this is unrealistic.  Serious Book of Mormon scholars tend to believe that Lehi’s people lived only in Mesoamerica, not all over the Americas.  Moreover, it is likely that there were other peoples living in the New World when Lehi arrived, 2 hence intermarriage and the resultant admixture of DNA would complicate the interpretation of DNA sequence data.

Mitochondrial DNA Analysis

Intermarriage also becomes an issue when one considers that most of the tests that have been performed on Amerindian DNA involve examination of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited maternally, i.e., the mother is the source of her children’s mitochondrial DNA and there is effectively no paternal influence.  Thus, for example, none of Lehi’s descendants would have Lehi’s mtDNA, but rather would have received it from his wife Sarai, whose ancestry is unknown.  Even if Sarai was, as some have suggested, of the tribe of Ephraim, she would have inherited her mtDNA from her mother, not from her patrilineal tribe.  But this becomes irrelevant when we consider that Lehi’s sons married the daughters of Ishmael and that each of their male descendants would have married still other women, some of them perhaps from other groups that had emigrated to the New World from Asia.  This makes it very difficult to predict what the mtDNA sequence of Lehi’s descendants should look like.

The same situation would exist among Old World Israelites.  Even if one could determine that a Jewish individual, for example, is really a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and one of the sons of Jacob, such as Judah, his mtDNA would not come from any of these men, but from his own mother.  Assuming that all of his female ancestors were of Israelite origin, this, too, would not be useful information, because at some point, we will still encounter a non-Israelite woman who passed on that mtDNA to her descendants.  Though two of Jacob’s four wives were cousins, neither of them descended from Abraham or Isaac.  Their father, Laban was the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebecca, but the mtDNA these two shared came not from their father, who was a cousin to Abraham, but from their mother, whose origin is unknown.

Analysis of mtDNA among American natives suggests that they descend from four major mtDNA lineages that had emigrated to the New World from Asia. There are indications of other minor mtDNA types found in native American populations.  One of these, lineage X, has been found in non-Asian Old World populations, indication that it is possible that not all Amerindians derive from Asian populations.

Other Considerations

The prospect of performing more thorough DNA analysis is daunting at best.  A thorough analysis of the Amerindian population would require not only extensive mtDNA typing, but also work with nuclear genes.  It would be necessary to investigate a large number of inherited genes and include samples from a wide variety of native peoples.  In the case of Lehi’s descendants, these samples should ideally come from the geographical region where one suspects they lived. 

Various factors make such work difficult.  One of these is the influx of new genetic material into the gene pool by outside marriages, known as admixture.  Populations only remain unique or distinct if they are different to begin with and remain so through isolation.  For example, it has been demonstrated that two hundred years after slaves were no longer being imported into what became the United States, the level of Caucasian admixture into the African American gene pool in the northern states approaches 30%. 4  This need not happen through constant intermarriage with others; a few interpopulational marriages in the beginning can have such an effect after several generations.  If this be true of relatively recent immigrants from Africa, there would be very little chance of finding genetic evidence of Israelite origins from 2600 years ago, when Lehi and his small group came to the New World, unless they have remained isolated and distinct.

Factors other than migration involved in unraveling the genetics of ancient and modern populations are selection, drift and mutation.  All of these complicate the analysis of DNA.  The rate that mutations occur in mitochondrial DNA is still being investigated.  In light of all these factors, it is likely that changes in DNA sequences have occurred in both Lehi’s descendants and in the descendants of Lehi’s neighbors in the Old World.  It will be very difficult to draw strong conclusions from comparisons of DNA sequence polymorphisms between modern Native Americans and the current population of the Middle East without much additional work. Aspects of this work have been and are continuing at Brigham Young University.

August 1998

1.            Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe  (New York:  Random House, 1976).
2.            See John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?”  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies  1/1 (Fall 1992), 1-34.
3.            Peter Forster, Rosalind Harding, Antonio Torroni and Han-Jurgen Bandelt, “Origin and Evolution of Native American mtDNA Variation:  A Reappraisal, ”  American Journal of Human Genetics  59:935-945. 1996.
4.            L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, P. Menozzi, and Alberto Prazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes  (Princeton:  Princeton University, 1994), 54.