Reviews – Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church

Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon ChurchThe Salt Lake Tribune, Martin Naparsteck
Science and religion have long been at war. One seeks to discover the truth by careful observation, and the other believes the truth is already known and must be carefully taught.

Simon Southerton, an Australian scientist who specializes in plant DNA and a former Mormon bishop, provides us with one more salvo in that war, Losing a Lost Tribe, a provocative and convincing study of the scientific implications of the Book of Mormon. His essential argument is that the Book of Mormon is bad science.

At the heart of his argument are the mountains of scientific evidence that American Indians are descendents of Asians and not a lost tribe of Israel, as the Book of Mormon claims. Prior to DNA evidence, cultural and linguistic evidence led most scientists to the same conclusion.

In the 17th century, Galileo was charged with heresy by the Roman Catholic Church for daring to teach that the Earth was not the stationary center of the universe but rather revolved around the sun. Playwright Barrie Stavis, in his 1947 play, Lamp at Midnight, has Galileo say, “You can destroy every telescope, smash every lens, burn every book; you can command the race of man to lower his eyes to the earth like the lowest animal, you can tear out the eyes of every offender who dares lift his head to the heavens to study the skies—you have the power to do all this, but you cannot change the fact, nor the truth of the fact … [that the earth] does move!”

In the argument addressed by Southerton, this translates into: Regardless of what LDS Church leaders say and regardless of what the Book of Mormon says, American Indians descended from Asians.

Losing a Lost Tribe shares an essential element with Bertrand Russell’s 1935 Religion and Science, in which the British mathematician/philosopher surveys hundreds of years of conflict between European Christian churches and science and concludes that science is more often right and that religious leaders are slow to recognize that. The closing sentence of Russell’s book is: “New truth is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.”

Anyone uncomfortable with the inconsistency of what is taught by science and what is taught by religion has three choices: reject one and accept the other; reconcile the two; insist that each stick to its own sphere.

We live in an age where, in most Western cultures, those who use science to challenge religion are respected for their intellect, whereas those who reject science because it differs from religion are often subjected to ridicule. For example, in Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, the character Matthew Harrison Brady, prosecuting a high school teacher for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, says “I do not think about things I do not think about,” and the defense attorney, Henry Drummond, asks him, “Do you ever think about the things you do think about?” Fairly or unfairly, those who automatically choose religion whenever it is in conflict with science are seen as anti-intellectual.

Some Mormon scientists at Brigham Young University, by contrast, have tried to reconcile DNA and other evidence with the Book of Mormon. They refuse to ignore the science and have developed a revisionist interpretation of the Book of Mormon. Essentially, they argue that most American Indians descended from Asians but that a lost tribe of Israelis arrived separately and constituted a very small part of the population of the Americas. The fact that no DNA evidence supports this view, they argue, is not surprising, since their numbers were too small to show up in typical DNA studies or because they mixed so thoroughly with non-Israel populations.

Put another way, the argument is that the lack of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon view of American Indians doesn’t prove it isn’t true. Southerton’s common sense rebuttal amounts to noting that an inability to prove something is not true is not the same as proving it is true. If science cannot prove that ghosts do not exist, that does not mean science has proven the ghosts do exist.

The third choice, expecting science and religion to stick to their own spheres, brings us back to Galileo. In 1614, the great Italian scientist wrote an open letter suggesting that the Catholic Church never make any scientific interpretation an article of faith. Of course, the letter got him in trouble with church leaders. Southerton, without ever mentioning Galileo, accepts that view. At the heart of Losing a Lost Tribe is a belief that the Book of Mormon should never be read as a work of science.

Journal of the West, Earl H. Elam
Written by an ex-Mormon research biologist, this book comprehensively summarizes Mormon beliefs about the origin of Native Americans, the challenges to those beliefs posed by DNA research, the ways in which Mormon leaders ignored or rationalized research that differs from Mormon dogma, and the efforts of Mormon scholars to deal with the problem.

According to the Book of Mormon, Israelite descendants of Noah traveled across (or underneath) the Atlantic to Central America in the three millennia before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Jaredites, the earliest of the groups, self-destructed in internal battles, and survivors of the other two groups, known as Lamanites and Nephites, after massive internecine warfare, migrated into North America, where Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. They practiced Christianity until renewed warfare resulted in the annihilation of the Nephites. Remnants of the Lamanites scattered throughout the continent, becoming the American Indians encountered by European explorers and colonizers.

Genetic research asserts that Native Americans are descendants of an Asian branch of the human family that existed thousands of years before the Israelite branch came into being. The research confirms more than a century of archaeological, anthropological, ethnohistorical, and sociological studies among American Indian tribes, which concluded that their ancestors crossed Beringia in multiple waves more than 14,000 years ago. The detailed, analytical work is well organized, clearly written, and well documented. It will edify readers looking for provable truth, challenge believers whose minds are not open to its assertions, and may stimulate some to re-examine the tenets of their faith that defy the findings of science.

John Whitmer Journal, Thomas W. Murphy
Joseph Smith boldly claimed to tell the history of ancient Native America through the translation of a set of gold plates purportedly containing the history of ancient Semitic migrations to the Americas. The Book of Mormon, the product of Smith’s translation, has spawned its detractors from its initial publication in 1830. Yet, the most profound evidence challenging the scripture’s claims of an Israelite origin for the American Indians began appearing in scientific journals after 1985. Simon Southerton, a former Latter-day Saint bishop and an Australian scientist specializing in molecular biology, offers the reading public the first book-length summary of the challenge DNA research poses for historicity of the Book of Mormon.

The accessibility of Southerton’s narrative, his commitment to the scientific method, the breadth and depth of the data he summarizes, and his forthright portrayal of the difficulties this new science is posing for his own faith community is a refreshing contrast to the poorly argued, intellectually dishonest, ahistorical, and scientifically unsound apologetics that have emerged from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University since the publication of my article, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics” in 2002.1 Southerton compiles genetic profiles from more than 7,300 indigenous individuals from throughout the Americas to demonstrate that it is no longer tenable to claim that Lamanites are the “principal ancestors of the American Indians,” a proposition that appears in the current LDS introduction to the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, though, Southerton’s honesty would contribute to his excommunication from the LDS Church in July of 2005.

Southerton begins by placing the Book of Mormon’s claims within the historical context of race relations in colonial and antebellum America. He moves from the Americas to the Polynesian Islands, following the development of Latter-day Saint folklore linking Polynesians to descent from the scripture’s patriarch Lehi. He follows his historical summary with an accessible description of the science and research methods unveiling human molecular genealogies. He focuses on the value of the Y chromosome as an indicator of paternal lineage and mitochondrial DNA as an indicator of maternal lineage, outlining the geographic spread of these genetic markers and their human hosts out of Africa within the last 100,000 years and across the world and into the Americas with the last 20,000 years. The last third of his book outlines the “troubled interface between Mormonism and science” through an examination of the LDS Church’s overwhelming restraint on scholarship and academic freedom at Brigham Young University, the rising influence of new limited geographic interpretations of the Book of Mormon, and a critique of the most recent apologetic literature.

Southerton critically evaluates the apologists’ proposal that the events described in the Book of Mormon occurred only in a limited geographic region in Mesoamerica. “In fact,” he counters, “the DNA lineages of Central America resemble those of other Native American tribes throughout the two continents. Over 99 percent of the lineages found among native groups from this region are clearly of Asian descent” (191). He reminds readers that the source of the apologists’ certainty comes not from science, but from feelings they have experienced while praying about the text.

Most Latter-day Saints have accepted the Book of Mormon based on what they feel about its message. Some now question the book because of what they know about its historical claims. Many are unsettled by the book’s portrayal of a dark, corrupted race and the doctrine that America is God’s promised land, issues that are reminiscent of the widespread prejudices of Joseph Smith’s time. After decades of Mormon and non-Mormon academic research and LDS apologetics, the rank-and-file are beginning to find themselves faced with the fact that these Israelites made no discernable contribution to the gene pool of native peoples, either on the continent or across the expanse of Polynesia. Many Latter-day Saints, discovering this for the first time, are disquieted by how far the Book of Mormon is from reality, as well as by how far the apologists have strayed from traditional Mormon beliefs. (200)

Southerton offers the approach of the Community of Christ to the Book of Mormon as a contrast to the intolerance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Community of Christ, he writes, “tolerates a range of opinions concerning the Book of Mormon.” He further explains:

The Community of Christ discarded the problematic Book of Abraham when the papyri Joseph Smith used to “translate” the record were discovered and studied. Some of the Missouri church’s senior leadership consider the Book of Mormon to be inspired historical fiction. For leaders of the Utah church, this is still out of the question. The Brethren, and most Mormons, believe that the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon is what shores up Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and the divine authenticity of the Utah church. (201)

While Southerton’s honesty ultimately cost him his membership in the LDS Church, his book should make a lasting impact on the debates about the historicity of Latter-day scriptures within and beyond restoration communities. It is unfortunate when communities proclaiming to represent Christ cannot muster the courage to tell the truth about their own histories. Southerton’s book is a reminder, though, that some among Latter-day Saint scientists and local leadership are willing to acknowledge past failings, discard unnecessary prejudices, and hold their church to a higher standard. His book is a necessary addition to the library of anyone studying the Book of Mormon in the twenty-first century.

1Thomas Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, eds. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 47-77.

The Logan Herald Journal, Richard S. Criddle
Note from the Herald Journal: Two recent commentaries on this page presented opposing sides in the controversy over DNA evidence as it relates to the Book of Mormon. This third offering, written by an individual who is both a scientist and a life-time member of the LDS Church, offers a third perspective that editors judged as relevant to the debate. Dr. Criddle is a resident of Logan and former professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, Davis

The recent book “Losing a Lost Tribe” by S. G. Southerton, raises DNA-based questions regarding the relation of Native Americans to the Lamanites described in the Book of Mormon. The book, and associated rhetoric, is generating considerable interest and no little controversy in (and beyond) Cache Valley. Much of this controversy stems from a lack of understanding of what DNA studies have or can yet reveal about human migration. Most people participating publicly in the controversy have obviously not endeavored to become familiar with the nature, extent, and meaning of available data. It should be recognized that the factual information in Southerton’s book regarding DNA and its uses in identifying people and tracing ancestries is fundamentally correct. He accurately summarizes findings from research efforts conducted in many laboratories around the world over the past 40 years. The studies cited by Southerton employ precisely the same methods used in forensic analyses, paternity questions, medical investigations, and hundreds of other applications that all of us accept and rely on daily. Southerton cites a large body of DNA data that provide information on early migration patterns into the Americas. His conclusions, simply stated, are that DNA data (and much data from other sources) show the migrations of a majority of Native Americans into the Americas came from Northeastern Asia. No data has surfaced indicating a pre-Columbian migration into the Americas of people with Middle Eastern origins.

The data and the logic supporting this conclusion may be simply outlined. Each human has a unique DNA composition. Expression of genes coded as sequences of DNA nucleotides determines our individual personal characteristics. Children acquire a genetic makeup that is a unique combination of DNA segments from each parent. Thus, a child’s DNA, though not identical to that from either parent, has segments that are identical in sequence to those of each parent. Examination of DNA sequence data can identify regions of common sequences and establish family relationships.

Siblings in a family have many genes in common because they are derived from the same parents, but also have differences because of variability in the way DNAs from the parents are recombined in each child. Some offspring may have their “father’s nose” and their “mother’s hair color” while in others it could be the reverse. Cousins also share many common gene structures but have more differences between DNA patterns than siblings. Non-related individuals have much larger differences in their DNA sequences. Thus, it is possible to map family relationships from analysis of DNA sequence data.

The recombination of parental genes in progeny makes it increasingly difficult to trace family relationships from DNA analyses as relationships become more distant. Fortunately, there are some classes of DNA that do not undergo recombination. For example, the maternal parent is the sole supplier of mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) to the offspring. All offspring, whether male or female have MtDNA identical to that of their mother (and siblings) and also identical to that of their grandmother, great-grandmother, etc. The only differences across generations arise from slow, random, mutation. MtDNA affects cellular energy processes, not skin color. Some other classes of DNA do not segregate during a sexual cross and can also be used to study family relations, but MtDNA is most commonly used for analysis of human migration patterns and origins and will be the only DNA considered further here.

To examine how MtDNA can be used in tracing human migrations, consider colonization and population of an area by one, or a small group of related families. If this group lives in semi-isolation over many generations, inbreeding within the group will generate and maintain a population with recognizable commonalities among MtDNA sequences as mothers pass their MtDNA to children and grandchildren. Individual and familial differences among DNA sequences persist over time, and overall group similarities are maintained generation after generation.

MtDNA samples analyzed from individuals from such groups at locations around the world have shown many local populations with distinctly identifiable DNA patterns. This allows categorization of location-specific and/or ethnic-specific MtDNA patterns. When a portion of the people in one of these genetically-inbred groups migrates to another land, their DNA goes with them. Even thousands of years later, similarities in the MtDNA sequences from descendants of the stay-at-homes and the migrants continue to demonstrate their common origins.

Here is an example of what DNA migration has shown. The Polynesians of the South Pacific have distinctly recognizable DNA sequence patterns. World-wide DNA studies reveal there are similar patterns among natives in Southeast Asia. Further analyses led to conclusions that human settlement of many South Pacific islands occurred via migrations from Southeast Asia. DNA studies also provide information about who did not as well as who did migrate between given areas. For example, examination of MtDNAs among the Alaskan Eskimos shows large differences from the Polynesian MtDNA and reveals no subpopulations of Eskimos with Polynesian-type DNAs. These data negate any hypothesis postulating that Alaska was settled by migrant groups from Southeast Asia.

Another identifiable category of MtDNA sequence patterns is that associated with individuals with family roots in the Middle East. I will refer to these DNAs as “Israelite DNA”. These make it possible to examine MtDNA from groups currently existing at locations around the world for similarities with Israelite MtDNA. If families of Israelite origin migrated to and begat a large population in the new world, the existence of Israelite MtDNA sequence patterns would be expected in the genes of their New World descendants, the current-day Native Americans. Over 7,000 DNAs from more than 150 Native American tribes or groups in North, Central, and South America have been studied. No groups with DNA sequences consistent with a pre-Columbian migration from the Middle East have yet been identified. Early links to native people in Northeast Asia are evident, but not to the Middle East.

Not all cultural and ethnic groups in the Americas have been subjected to DNA analysis. So, unambiguous conclusions about the absence of Israelite DNA await analysis of the remaining groups. However, Southerton cites credible studies suggesting that about 99.6 percent of Native American lineages fall into classes that are not candidates for Israelite origin. The probability of unambiguously demonstrating pre-Columbian, Israelite MtDNA in the remaining 0.4 percent is small. An overwhelming number of LDS as well as non-LDS scientists support these conclusions.

These data, whether or not they suit any particular religious expectations, accurately identify source DNA populations. The question then becomes, what is the correct interpretation of the data? Southerton proposes one logical explanation for the (apparently) missing DNA. He concludes that claims of Israelites establishing large pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas are not correct. Other explanations are possible.

Explanations for a lack of Israelite DNA in current Native American populations that are both plausible and consistent with claims of an Israelite colonization of the Americas center mostly on numbers. If Israelite colonizers (termed Lamanites in LDS Church accounts) remained small in number in lands also inhabited by numerous non-Lamanites, various scenarios can be postulated to explain the absence of Lamanite DNAs in the current gene pool. Several BYU professors, recognizing the obvious absence of Israelite DNAs, have advanced explanations of this sort. When the hypothesis that Israelite colonizers remained small in numbers among other large populations is invoked, the use of DNA studies to unambiguously prove or disprove a pre-Columbian, Middle Eastern origin for some Native Americans becomes virtually impossible. Southerton notes, however, that the small population hypothesis is not consistent with some widely expressed LDS Church teachings.

Will diligent further search for Lamanite DNA eliminate the ambiguities in data interpretation? Probably not. Any DNA evidence found to support the existence of Israelite DNA within the unaccounted for 0.4 percent of DNA sources will prove to be as ambiguous to interpret as is the current lack of evidence. Accurate genealogical records would have to be found to rule out post-Columbian immigration of such small groups of individuals. Moreover, even should DNA analysis of some remote subpopulation of Native Americans show striking similarities to Israelite DNA, and should this group be able to trace its distinct origins to pre-Columbian times, the Book of Mormon claims would only be supported, not proven. The jury is likely to be out on this argument for a long time.

Some conclusions outlined in Southerton’s book are far less ambiguous. He notes that LDS Church leaders, from Joseph Smith on have referred to specific Indian groups in the Midwestern and Western U.S. as Lamanites. DNA evidence now clearly shows Asian origins for members of these tribes. Some Mormon apologists, recognizing that the term Lamanite has been frequently misapplied, now proclaim that many “modern-day” references to Lamanites refer to patterns of religious belief and behavior rather than to genetic origins, i.e. people may be defined as Lamanites by non-genetic means. Each reference should be evaluated to decide whether this interpretation can be applied.

All-in-all, Southerton should probably be thanked for a book which, though overtly anti-Mormon, brings to the attention of many Church members for the first time some topics that have been a focus of interest among scientists, including LDS scientists, for decades. The book probably will change few opinions in the short run, but does present many valid points, and raises timely, provocative questions that will not go away in pro- and anti-LDS circles until they are fully addressed. Facts ought to be faced, whether we like them or not. Attempts to explain away good scientific data with the irrational hyperbole of “Letters to the Editor” only bring well deserved criticism. If truth contradicts ones religion, there is a problem. Truth is not something to be afraid of and reconstructed, but to relish and build on.

Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, Gwynne Spencer
The Mormon establishment will not be happy with this book because it demands an answer: If the so-called “Lamanites” (Native Americans) were spawned from an escaped tribe of Israelites, why does their DNA show a 98.6 percent Asian connection and 0 percent Middle Eastern?

If the “Lamanites” built huge cities and had steel swords and chariots and written language and brought down the white-faced civilized tribe of Mormon, where are the ruins? Where are the artifacts? Where are the DNA markers?

In answer, Simon G. Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia and a respected molecular biologist, says it’s all mythology. Historical fiction.

Southerton includes a rather dispassionate explanation of why Mormon spokesmen will dispute research that doesn’t align itself with their world view, and then he goes on to lay out the research. It’s not difficult to follow, a bit technically overwhelming at times, but in the end, well presented. It will undoubtedly inspire counter research.

Simon’s Blog