Simon Southerton
October 2020

Introduction

In July 1996, the skeleton of an ancient Native American washed out of the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick Washington. Radiocarbon dating of a finger bone revealed the remains, now known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One, were over 8,000 years old. When Kennewick Man’s genome was published in 2015, it was revealed he carried a version of the mitochondrial X2a lineage from which all modern Native American X2a lineages descend.

Rodney Meldrum is the founder of the Heartlanders, a collection of pseudoscientists and young earth creationists who argue the events of the Book of Mormon took place in the heartland of North America. For the last 15 years Meldrum has been peddling the fallacy that mtDNA X2a, found in some indigenous tribes of North America, was brought to the New World 2,600 years ago by the Israelite sailor Lehi. Its now Heartland dogma that Kennewick Man cannot be 8,000 years old because he was carrying Israelite DNA.

Critics, LDS apologists and even an LDS scientist who has published research on the X2a lineage (Ugo Perego), have all pointed out Meldrum’s mistakes to him personally. But he has steadfastly refused to respond. He is a perfect example of the dangers of starting out your research with a fixed conclusion. Meldrum views scientific research as a cherry-picking venture and he doesn’t look seriously at evidence that challenges his fixed opinion.

The continual misrepresentation of the X2a science (described below) by Heartland apologists has now escalated to bald-faced “lying for the Heartland”. Digital Legends Press, the major publisher of Heartland books and videos, is now selling a book that grossly distorts the research on Kennewick Man in order to force it to align with Heartland ideas. In Face of a Nephite, patent attorney David Read, misrepresents critical aspects of the scientific research on Kennewick Man in order to defend Meldrum’s X lineage claims (Figure 1). He even continued these lies after they were pointed out to him by the scientist who did the work. In Face of a Nephite, David Read claims the team of 50 highly-trained specialists who studied Kennewick Man made a series of blunders and that he alone, has discovered the real secrets in the bones.

Figure 1. Clay reconstruction of the face of Kennewick Man on the cover of Face of a Nephite (Digital Legends Press). Scientists who created the clay model were unable to prevent its use because of Smithsonian Institute policy.

David Read’s brazen dishonesty prompted me to take a closer look at the research on Kennewick Man. His story provides a fascinating insight into the life of a stone age Native American. The implications for Rodney Meldrum’s Heartland movement are more profound than I could have imagined.  

Scientific analysis of Kennewick Man

Kennewick Man not only caused trouble for Team Heartland; he sparked a national controversy from day one. Soon after his discovery, considerable tension arose between scientists, eager to learn more about the past by studying his well-preserved skeleton, and indigenous groups who felt his bones should be reburied to show proper respect for their ancestors. After a protracted legal battle, scientists were eventually permitted to study the skeleton and a team of highly skilled scientists was assembled. Led by Douglas Owsley, head of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, this team carried out a detailed forensic analysis of the remains[1]

Because Kennewick Man’s bones had been washed out of the soil profile, painstaking forensic analysis was required to determine the context of his burial. The study included detailed analysis of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in the bones, examination of skeletal morphology, matching the soil attached to the bones with the nearby soil profile, and eventually the sequencing of Kennewick Man’s genome. Most of this research was published in the book Kennewick Man, but recent studies have shed further lightBelow is a brief summary of the astonishing details we now know about Kennewick Man’s life and burial.

Kennewick Man lived about 9,000 years ago. This date is an average of the twelve most reliable radiocarbon dates on bone collagen (the gold standard) purified from his well-preserved bones (Figure 2). Kennewick Man’s age includes a correction to account for the impact of his marine diet on the amount of radiocarbon deposited in his bones while he was living.

Figure 2. Radiocarbon age of collagen and carbonates from Kennewick Man (Figure 3.12 from Owsley and Jantz 2014)

Analysis of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes in Kennewick Man’s bones revealed that he obtained most of his dietary protein from marine animals. Initially it was thought he was a seal hunter, but closer analysis revealed he ate a diet rich in salmon. However, Kennewick Man’s isotope profile was different to all other more recent Pacific Northwest populations. It suggested he experienced frequent, probably annual, shortages of protein in his diet, most likely caused by the changing seasonal availability of salmon [2]. Its probable Kennewick Man lived before indigenous groups developed techniques for storage of salmon, which accompanied the rise of large human settlements in the Pacific Northwest roughly 5,000 years ago[3]. In other words he was a true hunter-gatherer.  

While superficially Kennewick Man’s skull looked European, it was later found to resemble many of the earliest Native American skulls. He was wide-bodied and strong, taller than average at 5 feet 7 inches tall, and he used his right hand to throw an atlatl. Kennewick Man had two small depression fractures in his skull, most likely self-inflicted by stones that slipped out of a bola he swirled over his head to capture birds. He had fractured his scapula and experienced blunt force trauma to his chest which broke numerous ribs, some of which did not reunite during recovery; however, he had never broken his major limbs.

Most significantly, when he was a young man, Kennewick Man was struck by a spear, leaving a stone point embedded in his pelvis, where it remained until his death many years later. The stone point is a classic Cascade point, found in coastal Washington before 7,600 years ago[2]. This indicates that Kennewick Man was most likely wounded by someone from west of the Cascade Range early in his life. He was probably aged about 40 when he died and was buried by other people in a shallow grave in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Columbia River. He had been laid on his back with his hands palm down at his side, parallel with the river, and his head most likely downstream[2]

About 850 years after his burial, Mt Mazama (now Crater Lake, Oregon) erupted, blanketing eastern Oregon and Washington and parts of Canada with a thick layer of volcanic ash (Figure 3). Several inches of ash settled over the burial site at Kennewick. Over the next 7,700 years wind-blown (aeolian) soil built up over Kennewick Man’s grave to a depth of about a metre. Several thousand years after his burial, rainwater carrying weak carbonic acid, deposited a distinct layer of solid calcium carbonate in the soil at the same depth as the skeleton. Some of these carbonates formed within and on the underside of Kennewick Man’s bones. Carbon-dating of these carbonates suggested they were deposited roughly 2,500 years ago (See Figure 1). As rainwater passed through the Mazama ash layer it also washed fine particles of allophane (clay) from the ash layer and deposited it in the carbonate layer and on Kennewick Man’s bones. 

Figure 3. Distribution of volcanic ash from the Mt Mazama eruption 7,700 years ago.

In 2015 the genome of Kennewick Man was sequenced from DNA isolated from his hand bone. It revealed he was more closely related to Native Americans than any other population on earth. He was most closely related to the local Coleville indigenous tribe. Sequencing also revealed that Kennewick Man carried an X2a mitochondrial DNA lineage which was ancestral to all X2a lineages found in modern Native Americans.

The study of Kennewick Man is the most comprehensive forensic analysis of an ancient skeleton in American history. Inadvertently, this research has provided conclusive evidence that the Book of Mormon Heartland movement is based on falsehoods. Clearly, Kennewick Man lived well over 8,000 years ago. This research provides irrefutable evidence the X2a lineage was not brought to the Americas by Hebrew sailors in 600BC. It was brought into the Americas at the same time as the A, B, C and D lineages arrived, over 16,000 years ago by the original founders. To understand why Rodney Meldrum is still refusing to acknowledge his X2a mistake, we need to go back and look at how it all started.

Rodney Meldrum’s Heartland Movement

In 2007, Rodney Meldrum, a salesman with no scientific training, encountered DNA evidence that revealed Indigenous Americans were largely descended from Asians. This discovery deeply challenged Meldrum’s belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But he was in for a far greater shock. He soon became aware that Mormon scholars at BYU had accepted the DNA findings; that virtually all Native American DNA arrived in the Americas over 15,000 year ago. Meldrum knew this could not be true and he decided to find evidence that supported his beliefs.

Soon after setting out on his quest, Meldrum received a blessing from Hartman Rector Jr, an Emeritus General Authority of the Church. From that moment on, Rodney Meldrum has been convinced God wants him to save the Book of Mormon from the assault of DNA. With his conclusions already set in stone, Meldrum went on a hunt for DNA evidence that looked like it supported the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t long before he fixated on the mitochondrial X lineage and he has remained firmly wedded to it ever since.

Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited and relatively simple to study. Until about 10 years ago it was the DNA most scientists used to study human ancestry. Human mitochondrial DNAs can be grouped into different lineages that have inherited distinct mutations from their ancestors. Native Americans carry one of five different mitochondrial lineages, known by the letters A, B, C, D and X. The first four lineages have close relatives in Asia, but no direct ancestor has yet been identified in Asia for the X lineage. This is not all that surprising given the X lineage is relatively rare. The most likely explanation for the absence of an ancestral X lineage in Asia is either extinction or insufficient testing in the right population.

All five Native American mitochondrial DNA lineages emerged in the earliest human settlements in a region encompassing central Asia and the Middle East up to 50,000 years ago. About 30,000 years ago the A, B, C and D lineages became more common in eastern Asia. The X lineage, however, became more common in Europe and the Middle East. Native American X lineages, which belong to the sub-group X2a, are distantly related to all other X lineages from the Middle East, sharing a common ancestor over 20,000 years ago. All scientists, including LDS scientist Ugo Perego, believe the lineage entered the Americas at about the same time as the other four ancestral lineages. 

I corresponded with Rodney Meldrum almost 15 years ago when he was starting out on his X-lineage inspired crusade. I politely pointed out the ancient links to the Middle East, the absence of the X2a lineage outside of North America and the fact that the X2a lineage family is just as old as the other four lineage families. Since then Ugo Perego has repeatedly pointed out to Meldrum the errors in his claims. If anything, this criticism has only hardened his resolve. That’s probably because Meldrum now makes a living from his false X-lineage claims. Meldrum is now surrounded by other Mormon snake oil salesmen including Wayne May, Dean Sessions, Jonathan Neville and now David Read, who are all convinced the Native American X lineage is derived from the Middle East and was brought to the Americas by Lehi.

Pretending Kennewick Man is a Nephite

The discovery of Kennewick Man has provided the latest and most compelling evidence that Rodney Meldrum’s claims cannot be trusted. You would think, faced with such comprehensive evidence, the Heartland team would withdraw its claims, but alas, the blizzard of falsehoods has escalated. In Face of a Nephite, David Read takes Heartland pseudoscience to the next level. With his conclusions locked in, Read attempts to undermine the research on Kennewick Man based on two key falsehoods.

In Face of a Nephite, David Read claims:

  1. Mazama ash was attached to Kennewick Man’s bones and this proves he was buried after the Mazama eruption.
  2. The carbonate dates (@ 2000 years ago) are the more reliable estimates of Kennewick Man’s age.

To understand how David Read could misrepresent the Kennewick Man research so badly, I contacted the scientists who did the original work. I was disturbed to discover that Jim Chatters, the forensic scientist who collected Kennewick Man’s remains, had already pointed out these exact same mistakes to David Read. Chatters was intimately involved in the soil analysis and collection of samples for radiocarbon analysis; however, Read chose to completely ignore Chatters’ criticism. I will respond in detail to both of Read’s claims with reference to quotes from Jim Chatters’ emails to David Read (used with permission).

False claim 1: Mazama ash attached to bones

“No Mazama ash was found in sediment around the skeleton, and believe me it is ubiquitous in younger sediments.  Therefore, the skeleton if buried, went into a pit dug before the ash fell.” — Jim Chatters, June 10, 2020  

It is hard not to believe that Read is deliberately confusing Mazama ash with allophane, the weathered products of the ash which had washed down the soil profile (See Figure 4). Chatters’ clearly told Read Mazama ash was not attached to the bones. Allophane, a clay breakdown product derived from the weathering of Mazama ash, had washed down the soil profile from the Mazama layer and was found in the carbonate soil layer and some was still attached to the bones. However, this type of weathering happens wherever Mazama ash is found. It is a normal weathering process that occurs during soil formation the world over. It’s the reason why the clay content in soil goes up the deeper you dig. The presence of allophane attached to the skeleton, but not Mazama ash, confirms, yet again, the skeleton was buried before the Mazama eruption 7,700 years ago.

Figure 4. Profile of the soil at the site of the discovery of Kennewick Man as drawn by James Chaffey (Adapted from Figure 2.4 in Owsley and Jantz, 2014)

David Read almost certainly makes this mistake because he had already concluded Kennewick Man was a Nephite. It was therefore essential to prove Kennewick Man and his X2a lineage were young enough to fit within the Book of Mormon time period, and that meant he could not have been buried before the Mazama eruption.

The date of the Mazama eruption has been as firmly established as the year Columbus set foot in the New World. It has been confirmed in hundreds of locations using many different techniques, including dendrochronology, radioisotopes and thermoluminescence. It has even been observed in the annual rings of the Greenland ice core. Read likely knows the date of the Mazama eruption is a firmly established fact. But Read was building a case to support his prior conclusion that Kennewick Man was buried after the Mazama eruption. He also needed to find a way to eliminate the twelve devastating collagen radiocarbon dates which are tightly clustered around 8,500 years ago.

Read also fails to deal with the obvious consequences of his Mazama ash claim. Why would the people who dug Kennewick Man’s grave dig a hole almost a metre deep? This would have been extremely difficult given they only had stone tools. All the evidence suggests he was buried in a shallow pit and covered by about 10cm of alluvial soil and Mount Mazama erupted about 850 years after his burial.

False claim 2: The carbonate dates are reliable estimates of Kennewick Man’s age.

“The ca. 2000 year dates you cling to are actually dates on soil carbonate, which deposits continuously from water percolating down from the surface.  They are not dates on the skeleton at all.” — Jim Chatters, June 10, 2020  

In a follow-up email Jim Chatters again stressed the unreliability of Kennewick Man’s carbonate dates. 

“Bottom line: The carbonate dates from K-man’s bone are not reliable.  There was really no research reason to do them…  The reliable radiocarbon age of K-man, based on both the projectile point in his pelvis and the protein in his bones is around 8400 BP.  Again, the embedded point is not of the western stemmed tradition or any exotic form.  It is a classic Cascade point of the Olcott form, which dates older than 7600 years in western Washington.” — Jim Chatters, June 12, 2020

You can appreciate why the carbonate dates would be less reliable by examining this image from Owsley and Jantz’s book (Figure 5). They are all measurements from regions of the bone most exposed to deposition of calcium carbonate from water percolating through the soil. The collagen, however, was extracted from the interior of the most well-preserved portions of the bones.

Figure 5. Locations and radiocarbon ages of collagen (bottom left) and carbonate samples in bones of Kennewick Man.  (drawn from Figure 3.8 in Owsley and Jantz, 2014)

In Face of a Nephite David Read also makes further outrageous claims about the mitochondrial X2a lineage. On page 29 Read claims:

“… as few as four DNA mutations have occurred for mitochondrial DNA haplogroup X between some of the occurrences in the New World and the Old World,”

By the time of the most recent Heartland conference in September 2020, the number of mutations had dropped even further:

“Indeed, one recent study found a variety of haplogroup X in Egypt that is just one mutation away from the type found in Native Americans, which undermines the critics’ previous claims that Native American haplotype X2a has “too many mutations” from the haplogroup X haplotypes found in the Middle East to fit a Book of Mormon timeframe for a migration from the Middle East to the Americas.”

Read does not understand the science he is writing about. The lowest number of DNA mutation differences between an Old World X lineage (X2j) and modern New World X2a lineages, is 15 and the average is about 19. Figure 6 uses data taken from the Rasmussen paper on Kennewick Man’s genome. The Egyptian haplogroup X David Read is referring to is the X2j lineage found in Arabs from the el-Hayez oasis in western Egypt.

Figure 5. Family tree of Native American mitochondrial X2a lineages, including their closest relative in the Middle East, the X2j lineage. Modern X2a lineages in Native Americans are all descended from the X2a lineage possessed by Kennewick Man. Redrawn from Rasmussen et al. (2017) The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man. Nature doi:10.1038/nature14625

Conclusion

Kennewick Man’s geological, archaeological and molecular timestamps are impeccable. There can be no doubt Kennewick Man lived about 6,000 years before the Book of Mormon claims Nephites existed. The following evidences, both independently and collectively, prove this is the case.

  1. Twelve highly accurate radiocarbon dates on Kennewick Man’s well-preserved bone collagen revealed he lived almost 9,000 years ago.  
  2. Kennewick Man does not carry any recent Middle Eastern DNA in his genome. He is closely related to nearby indigenous tribes.
  3. All Native American mitochondrial X2a lineages (ancient and contemporary) are descended from the ancestral X2a lineage possessed by Kennewick Man.
  4. The Cascade spearpoint in Kennewick Man’s pelvis is over 7,600 years old.
  5. The absence of Mazama ash and presence of allophane (weathered Mazama ash) attached to his bones, proves Kennewick Man was buried before the well documented Mazama eruption 7,700 years ago.
  6. Stable N and C isotope analysis revealed Kennewick Man was a hunter-gatherer and lived before Pacific Northwest cultures developed techniques for long term storage of salmon about 5,000 years ago.

David Read’s Face of a Nephite, is a textbook example of cherry-picking. Read is so focussed on looking for evidence that supports his views he misinterprets the science. He also deliberately hides facts that challenge his fixed beliefs. He is building a case to defend a fixed position, rather than weighing the evidence to find the truth. This, combined with his high school level understanding of science is a perfect recipe for the disaster that is, Face of a Nephite.  

Further reading: The Sacred Curse (2020) contains a comprehensive summary of the latest mitochondrial and whole genome DNA research on Native Americans and Polynesians and discusses how DNA research has helped expose the nineteenth century origin of Book of Mormon racism.


[1] In 2017, Kennewick Man’s bones were returned to local indigenous groups and buried in a secret location.

[2] Chatters, James C. (2017) Making Archaeological Sense of Kennewick Man.  Quaternary International 444:83-97.

[3] Campbell, Sarah K., and Virginia L. Butler. “Archaeological Evidence for Resilience of Pacific Northwest Salmon Populations and the Socioecological System over the Last ~7,500 Years.” Ecology and Society 15, no. 1 (2010). Accessed October 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26268107.

[4] Rasmussen et al. 2017. The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man. Nature doi:10.1038/nature14625).