Mormon Scientist Concedes Native American Origins
Salt Lake City—A noted Mormon DNA researcher associated with the Mormon defense league known as the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) has posted a concession on the FAIR blog site regarding Native American origins, traditionally a central tenet of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church has long taught that Native Americans derive from the Middle East and were Jewish in origin.
Geneticist Ugo A. Perego writes in a blog posting under the heading “Misquoting Science” that he cannot “clearly discern any non-Asian-like genetic signals in the New World that would have resulted from migrations that took place in the last couple thousands of years.” According to the Book of Mormon, migrations to the New World occurred 4,000 and 2,600 years ago. Scientists today think the Americas were settled about 15,000 years ago.
Perego is currently the Coordinator of Seminaries and Institutes for the Latter-day Saint Church in Rome (Italy), but until recently was a senior researcher for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Salt Lake City. He holds a doctorate in genetics and biomolecular science from the University of Pavia in Italy.
While at the Sorenson labs, Perego also researched possible descendants of Joseph Smith’s thirty-three secret plural wives, ruling out genetic ties to Smith in five cases and admitting the results were inconclusive in other instances. He summarized his findings in a chapter of the 2010 book, The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy.
“I am convinced,” Perego writes in his article about Native American origins, “that experts in the field will continue” to document the migration from Asia “at the end of the last Ice Age” and that the Siberian settlers in the New World “contributed to the main DNA landscape of America’s double continent.” However, “when it comes to determining the Book of Mormon’s historicity,” he continues, “too many variables are missing and too many factors are playing a limiting role in allowing the formulation of a research design that would satisfactorily prove or disprove the existence of the people mentioned in its pages.”
Perego’s comments came in response to a letter to the editor in Sunstone magazine by Tom Kimball of Signature Books. Kimball proposed that the Book of Mormon is better understood as myth rather than a literal history of the settling of the Americas. Perego dismissed Kimball as a non-scientist who made factual mistakes in his letter. “No doubt,” says Kimball. “I follow the general findings in this area but I’m not a geneticist. However, as Perego confirms, the handwriting is on the wall. He wants to have it both ways: a literal Book of Mormon history of America settled by Jews and, in the scientific realm, a literal founding of the Americas by Siberians.”
Perego’s former professors in Italy recently completed DNA tests that showed a Turkish origin for the Etruscan people who settled Italy before the Romans. Someone asked Perego on the online blog, “Joseph Smith DNA,” “why science works in Italy but not in America.” Evidently taking offense, Perego responded: “How dare I say anything on this very subject, having a PhD in population genetics, with a dissertation on Native American DNA, and having researched extensively about the origin of Native Americans through DNA, publishing the results with international collaborators in a peer-reviewed journal with a considerable high impact factor.”
Perego’s explained that the “small size of the migrant group” described in the Book of Mormon and absence of a “genetic profile” of the Jewish immigrants make it scientifically impossible to test for Jews in ancient America. He believes they did exist but that their DNA has disappeared.
Perego also believes that pre-human hominids existed before Adam and Eve. “We became children of God in the moment God decided to put the spirit of man inside the physical bodies that have a different evolutionary path” than near-relatives in the animal world, he explained in a lecture, “DNA, Genealogy, and Spiritual Identity,” available online at YouTube.
Contrary to Perego’s statements, LDS church authorities in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries consistently taught that all Native Americans in both North and South America were the descendants of an Israelite migration from Jerusalem around 600 BC and from the Tower of Babel around 2000 BC, as documented on the FAIR website.
However, in 2007 the church changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon to read that the ancient Mormon settlers of the Americas were “among the ancestors of the American Indians” rather than the “principal ancestors” of the Indians, as the introduction previously read. Genetic evidence shows that at least 96% of Native Americans have Siberian ancestry, even given the introduction of European genes after the arrival of Columbus.
For lay Mormons, Dr. Perego’s statements may be jarring, even though they are in keeping with the church’s change regarding Indian origins. Perego’s admission represents an important milestone in how Mormons respond to this difficult issue.
“Dr. Perego and I agree on the value of the Book of Mormon as scripture, just not as history,” says Kimball.
Acclaimed molecular anthropologist Theodore Schurr of the University of Pennsylvania disagrees in part with Perego’s conclusions about the remaining 4 percent of Native American DNA. “Given all of the linguistic, ethnographic, archeological, osteological, and genetic information that we have for Native American populations at this time,” Schurr said, “I would be extremely skeptical of any claim of pre-Columbian genetic contributions to indigenous communities of the Americas by Near Eastern populations of any kind.”
However, Schurr is quick to add that surprises may be in store for researchers investigating Native American origins, just like those exploring Etruscan origins which were veiled in mystery until recently.
For more information on the debate regarding Native American origins, see the introduction to the topic by Australian geneticist Simon Southerton in Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church, published by Signature Books in 2004.