The Book of Mormon and DNA, Appendix One: Book of Mormon Teachings
This page is an appendix to DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Mormon Answers Resource. I argue that DNA testing challenges some common faulty assumptions some people have made about the Book of Mormon, but does not attack the text itself. On this page, I explore details of what the Book of Mormon actually teaches, including its limited geographic scope. As always, this work is my responsibility and does not necessarily reflect official views of the Church. Copyright © 2002-2012 by Jeff Lindsay.
Dr. Michael F. Whiting, a prominent geneticist whose work has received widespread attention (it was featured as the cover story in cover article in Nature in mid-January 2003), recently gave a lecture at BYU entitled, "Does DNA Evidence Refute the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon?: Responding to the Critics." Please watch the video presentation.
He also has an excellent article, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective" in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Nov. 2003.)
You can order a free copy of the Book of Mormon at Mormon.org.
Some Mormons have been intrigued by recent news about the discovery of pre-Columbian chickens in the Americas (the peer-reviewed scientific article in is also available online). While it isn't directly related to the Book of Mormon, there are some interesting implications, as I discuss in a post at Mormanity. While there is strong evidence for significant ancient contact between Polynesia and the Americas, DNA studies of Native Americans do not (yet) show evidence of such contact. That may help us better appreciate the limitations of DNA analysis.
The biggest problem with most anti-Mormon attacks involving DNA and the Book of Mormon is not so much the lack of scholarship about DNA as it is the lack of scholarship concerning the Book of Mormon. The critics are using tentative scientific findings to discredit common misconceptions about the Book of Mormon, not what the text actually teaches. Abandoning errant interpretations of the text is a healthy process, not one that requires changing denominations or becoming an atheist.
Sadly, purported scholars who attack the Book of Mormon have often failed to study the text seriously, and thus typically reach unjustified and even silly conclusions. For example, Thomas Murphy, in his much publicized article, "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics" in American Apocrypha (ed. Dan Vogel and Brent L. Metcalfe, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), argues that essentially all LDS scholars "reject a literal reading [of the Book of Mormon] and agree that Nephites and Lamanites never actually rode horses, traveled in chariots, used steel swords, raised cattle, or ate wheat and oats" (pp. 61-62). This statement shows remarkable ignorance of what serious LDS scholars have written and what the Book of Mormon says. Nowhere does the text say that Nephites rode horses (but it does say they had horses), nor does "oats" ever even appear in the text. And serious LDS scholars have explained that the elements Murphy finds to be silly are actually plausible, if we seek to understand what the translated words may actually mean: "chariot" need not refer to a wheeled vehicle; "steel" may refer to meteoric iron-nickel steel alloys ("steel" is the term metallurgists use to describe some of these meteoric materials) that were available for ancient use in Mesoamerica; there is evidence of pre-Columbian horses but the word "horse" could refer to other species; and "wheat" poses no particular problem (it may be a reasonable term for one or more Mesoamerican grains such as amaranth, huauzontle, or chia). See, for example, my LDSFAQ page on "Problematic Plants and Animals" in the Book of Mormon. The point is, if a purported scholar attacks the Book of Mormon for elements that are actually not even present in the text, one may freely question the scholarly merits of the attack in other areas that demand a serious knowledge of the text. And again, one will quickly see that what is being attacked is not the text itself, but someone's misunderstanding of it.
More egregious is the assumption of Murphy and others that the Book of Mormon teaches that the New World was settled only by Hebrews and their descendants--a claim that the Book of Mormon definitely does not make. That misconception has been rejected for decades by some LDS leaders and scholars, though it has still become part of popular LDS culture. It is this popular misunderstanding that Murphy mistakes for the teachings of the text itself--a sign of poor scholarship, as far as I am concerned. Murphy seems to think that evidence of dominant (but not necessarily exclusive) Asian origins for Native Americans rules out the Book of Mormon. This is a serious error on his part.
So what does the Book of Mormon teach that might be relevant to modern DNA studies?
The Book of Mormon speaks of three migrations to the New World. The first one is described in the Book of Ether. A group called the Jaredites were led by the Lord after the time of the tower of Babel. They founded a civilization, perhaps around 3000 B.C. or later, which collapsed in civil war around the time that Lehi and his family (Nephi, Laman, and others) arrived around 590 B.C. Lehi's group would split into the Nephites and Lamanites, both of whom would form societies that frequently would be at war with each other. A third migration involved a group of refugees from Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian conquest, including Mulek, said to be a son of King Zedekiah. At least some of the descendants of Mulek's group would later be assimilated by the Nephites.
Of all the people brought to the New World in these three migrations, we can only specify the ancestry of a small handful. Details compiled by Woody Brison are given on the page, "Why Should We Expect to Find Jewish DNA in Native Americans?." Lehi and his sons were of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh (part of the tribe of Joseph), being descended from Manasseh (Alma 10:3)--not necessarily along a purely paternal line. Knowing that Lehi was from Manasseh tells us nothing about his Y chromosome. A Hebrew tribal affiliation does not rule out the presence of non-Hebrew haplotypes in his DNA. We do know that the Jews were scattered to many parts of Europe and Asia. What about the lost tribe of Joseph? Did some of its members later settle in Asia, bringing their Y haplotype 1C and mtDNA haplotype X with them?
Mulek was almost certainly Jewish (of the tribe of Judah), but we know nothing about the genetics of others that came with him. The bottom line is that of the 32 individuals specifically named in the three migrations to the New World reported in the Book of Mormon, all we know for sure about their genetic origins is that one male was Jewish. Others may have been Jewish or at least largely Hebrew in their genetic constitutions, but we don't know for sure. It is simply sloppy thinking to reject the Book of Mormon based on the relative lack of "Jewish DNA" in the Americas, when the Book of Mormon itself doesn't even teach that the Nephites had DNA that we would recognize as Jewish. One Jewish male is identified, and there is no need to assume that his DNA survived among the later Nephites.
As for the mtDNA, we know nothing about the genetic make-up of Ishmael's wife, who would be the source of mtDNA for the children of Lehi (e.g., Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel). We know nothing about the DNA of Lehi's wife, Sariah, who would pass her mtDNA to Nephi's sisters. And we know nothing about the mtDNA of whatever locals Lehi's descendants encountered and married. If we could show that a portion of the women in ancient Jerusalem had mtDNA haplotypes A, B, C, or D, would our critics admit that the DNA evidence adds plausibility to the Book of Mormon? Not a chance. The uncertainty in the genetic composition of Lehi's group makes it impossible to use DNA data to evaluate the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and makes the attacks of publicity-seeking Book of Mormon critics ring hollow.
Step back for a moment and recall what the Book of Mormon is. The Book of Mormon is primarily a record of the Nephite line (founded by males from the tribe of Manasseh, with uncertain genetic features, and then greatly augmented by the larger group we call the Mulekites, who very likely had mixed with local natives, resulting in a rapid loss of their Hebrew language). The book records their prophecies, their wars and struggles, and events of religious significance, particularly the ministry of Christ after His Resurrection. The focus is on the Nephites and their story. The record depicts the tragic collapse of the Nephites and their destruction as a people in war against the Lamanites 400 years after the ministry of Christ.
Based on analysis of the text and the geography of the Americas, the best candidate for the location of the peoples and civilizations described is Mesoamerica, including southern Mexico and Guatemala, as described by John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Sorenson, 1985). The Book of Mormon provides a remarkably self-consistent description of the locations of the many places mentioned in the text, a description which can fit with great plausibility upon actual maps of Mesoamerica. And the plausibility is provided not just by the existence of hills, rivers, narrow necks of land, and so forth where they need to be, but there is also a cultural fit and specific candidates for cities that can be correlated with ancient sites in the Americas. Many questions remain, but some exciting insight into the reality and plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient record is provided by Sorenson's work.
According to the critics, the Book of Mormon claims that all Native Americans should be direct descendants from Lehi and thus show only Hebraic genes, which is not the case. Evidence of Siberian origins are said to refute Book of Mormon claims. But the critics misunderstand the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon text DOES NOT claim to explain the origins of all Native Americans. It is an incorrect and unfortunate assumption by early Mormons and many still living that the Americas were peopled by descendants of Lehi's group alone. No such claim is made in the text. And in spite of the modern foreword in the book, there is no claim that the Lamanites were somehow the "principal founders of the American Indians" (I have read that Bruce R. McConkie, who oversaw the editing of the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, inserted that phrase in the foreword, apparently on his own and without consulting with others). In reality, there is no clear reason to exclude Siberian migration or other migrations to the New World. There is no reason to assume the Americas were unpopulated when Lehi arrived. In fact, based on information from the text itself, LDS scholars have long recognized that other groups must have been present. Population growth, the persistence of Jaredite names, competing social and religious systems, and other factors point to the existence of other groups, including remnants of the Jaredites (who may have been tied to the Olmec civilization).
An excellent source on this topic is Dr. John Sorenson's 1992 article, "When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?" (J. of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1992). Key points from his article include the following:
One interesting point that I wish to add concerns the term "Amalickiahites" in Alma 49:9. Amalickiah was a Nephite dissenter who used murder, deception, and great cleverness to become a Lamanite king and wage war against the Nephites. Verse 9 says "the Lamanites, or the Amalickiahites, were exceedingly astonished" at the Nephite defensive preparations. In this passage, the Amalickiahites are referred to as if they were a subset of the Lamanites. The term "Amalickiahites," describing the combination of Nephite dissenters and Lamanite warriors following king Amalickiah, clearly indicates a political, not genetic, relationship, and strengthens the concept that the term "Lamanite" also is not a purely genetic adjective.
In reviewing a work of John Sorenson (Nephite Culture and Society: Selected Papers, Salt Lake City: New Sage Books, 1997), Brant A. Gardner notes additional factors that point to the presence of others that Lehi and his group almost certainly encountered upon coming to the Americas (Gardner, 2001; see also Brant Gardner's online article, "A Social History of the Early Nephites"). For example, 2 Nephi 5:5,6 lists people in Lehi's group who went with Nephi as he split from Laman and Lemuel and their followers. Nephi lists his family, Sam and his family, Zoram and his family, Jacob and Joseph, his sisters, "and all those who would go with me." He then explains that "all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words" (2 Nephi 5:6). It appears that Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, who had been antagonistic to Nephi, are those left behind. The group of unnamed "others" seems by necessity to have included people other than those who came with Nephi from Jerusalem. If there were only one or two others, we would expect Nephi to list them. It's hard to say how many there might have been, but perhaps members of a local hamlet or group of hamlets may have allied with the technologically superior Old World group, helping the latter to learn how to survive in the New World while benefiting from their technology (particularly knowledge of metals).
Significant numbers of "others" is again implied when Nephi wrote that his people wanted him to be made their king (2 Nephi 5:18)--a silly gesture if there are only a couple dozen people, but logical if there is a sizable group. Further, Nephi wrote that Jacob and Joseph were made priests and teachers "over the land of my people" (2 Nephi 5:26), which would make no sense if there were only a couple of families besides Jacob's and Joseph's.
Gardner also points to economic indications that the Nephites quickly became part of an economy that involved multiple villages of "others." In addition to Sorenson's above-mentioned analysis of Jacob's encounter with Sherem, Jacob's writings also suggest that Nephites were part of an economic system in which abundant local gold and silver were being traded for precious items elsewhere. Jacob 2:12,13 refers to abundant local ores that are resulting in riches for some. For an early Nephite culture, what would an easily obtained local resource be worth? Gardner's analysis of this passage points to commerce with others to whom the metals were precious and could be used for trade. Similar implications are found in Jacob's condemnation of those who are acquiring "costly apparel." If the Nephites are a small isolated group, making their own clothing, Gardner asks where "costly apparel" would come from? Members of the group could simply copy the patterns of the best looking goods if everyone was making their own materials from the same basic raw materials. The presence of "costly apparel" again points to active commerce with others from other communities that comprise a large population base.
On the other hand, several verses in 2 Nephi 1 are often interpreted to support that idea that the Book of Mormon claimed the hemisphere was empty:
5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.
6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.
7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever. . . .
11 Yea, he will bring other nations unto them, and he will give unto them power, and he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten.
Lehi speaks of a promised land for his posterity in 2 Nephi 1. Is "this land" just his local area in Mesoamerica or a much broader territory? In the context of related passages about the promised land, such as Ether 2, I think Lehi is probably talking about more than just the limited region where Book of Mormon events take place (a portion of Mesoamerica). But Lehi does not say that there was nobody else in the land (whether it be a limited region of Mesoamerica, a continent, or a hemisphere). In fact, he implies that "other nations" are available to threaten his descendants if they become wicked. Nephites became wicked within a couple hundred years of Nephi's arrival and had to flee north from their first inheritance, where they met the people of Zarahemla. Laman's group became wicked right away. And by 400 A.D., everyone was wicked. Must we assume that the only other nations that would come and affect life for Lehi's descendants would be the Gentiles who would not come until 1492 A.D.? Lehi's prophecy makes little sense unless there were other nations already on hand--as we surely know from archaeology and linguistic studies of the Americas.
Now it may be that there were other people upon the land, whose ancestors had been brought to the continent by the Lord (even across the Bering Strait, for all we know), but they were not powerful or organized enough--at least in Mesoamerica--to pose any sort of threat to Lehi's descendants. When verse 9 speaks of the land being kept from other nations, what is meant by "other nations"? Does this phrase mean that no one was on the continent, or that no other group had ever set foot on the continent? No. After all, the Jaredites had already been here and probably still had scattered remnants upon the land, and the Mulekites had probably just landed. And Lehi had already referred to this as a land of promise for other peoples who would come or had come (like the Jaredites) from "other countries" in verse 5. Verse 9 cannot exclude those whom the Lord had already brought to that sparsely populated continent, where there was plenty of space for an inheritance. I think it means being kept from common knowledge of other Old World nations who might invade and take over the place. Those who were already here had not given away the secret of the promised land to other nations. There may have been many on the continent who had been led from "other countries," yet the knowledge of the land had still been kept from "other nations"--such that the only ones here were those whom the Lord had originally led (not kings or military leaders), and such that there was adequate place and reasonable security for Lehi's descendants, if they would be righteous.
We should also realize that collections of small hamlets and villages--the type of population groups Lehi's family probably encountered upon coming to the New World--might not even be considered as "nations."
in "DNA Strands in the Book of Mormon," Blake Ostler (2005) explains that the Book of Mormon also indicates that other non-Nephite, non-Lamanite people were in the land north:
There is another strong indication that there were indigenous others present in the Book of Mormon area, though it requires a careful reading to detect them. In Helaman 5, Mormon notes that "the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of [the truth] because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received." (Helaman 5:50) As a result, "the Lamanites had become the more righteous part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites, because of their firmness and their steadfastness in faith" (Helaman 6:1). The Lamanites began to move freely among the Nephites, traveling to the Nephite city of Zarahemla so that "the Lamanites did also go withersoever they would, whether it were among the Lamanites or among the Nephites, and thus they did have free intercourse one with another" (Helaman 6:8).
In the midst of this openness among the Lamanites and Nephites, Nephi, the son of Helaman, goes northward among an unnamed people to preach to them. Indeed, not only Nephi but also the Lamanites go to the "people in the land northward" to preach: "And it came to pass that many of the Lamanites did go into the land northward; and also Nephi and Lehi went into the land northward, to preach to the people" (Helaman 6:6). However, these "people in the land northward" are so wicked that Nephi cannot remain among them.
There are two crucial points about Nephi's missionary activities: (1) the text does not name the people to whom he preached but was rejected; and (2) these people are neither Nephites nor Lamanites because the Lamanites had become righteous and willingly accepted the gospel and went to preach to these people also. While the Nephites and Lamanites move freely through each other's lands in a climate of peace, the people to whom Nephi goes are so antagonistic that he cannot remain among them:Now it came to pass in the sixty and ninth year of the reign of the judges over the people of the Nephites, that Nephi, the son of Helaman, returned to the land of Zarahemla from the land northward. For he had been forth among the people who were in the land northward, and did preach the word of God unto them, and did prophecy many things unto them; And they did reject all his words, insomuch that he could not stay among them, but returned again unto the land of his nativity. (Helaman 7:1-3, emphasis added)
The text twice refers to those to whom Nephi and the Lamanites preached not as Lamanites but as "the people in the land northward." Why doesn't the text just say that Nephi went to the Lamanites and that the Lamanites rejected him as it does virtually every other time that a Nephite goes to preach to Lamanites? It is fairly clear that in this instance, "the people who were in the land northward" are not Lamanites. We know this because the text states that the Lamanites had become righteous and many had accepted the gospel, and the Nephites had great missionary success among them. So who are these "other" people in the land northward who had rejected Nephi and the Lamanites? The text doesn't say--but because those who rejected Nephi are neither Nephites nor Lamanites, it has to be a third group of people that remains unnamed in the text.
Interesting. In the same article, Ostler reviews a variety of evidences from the Book of Mormon pointing to others in the land, including a clear discussion of Sherem, the outsider who apparently is neither Nephite nor Lamanite.
While Bruce R. McConkie apparently believed that Hebraic ancestry was highly significant among Native Americans, he also recognized that they shared non-Hebraic ancestry, according to his personal views offered in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973, p. 33):
"The American Indians . . . as Columbus found them also had other blood than that of Israel in their veins. It is possible that isolated remnants of the Jaredites may have lived through the period of destruction in which millions of their fellows perished. It is quite apparent that groups of orientals found their way over the Bering Strait and gradually moved southward to mix with the Indian peoples. We have records of a colony of Scandinavians attempting to set up a settlement in America some 500 years before Columbus. There are archeological indications that an unspecified number of groups of people probably found their way from the old to the new world in pre-Columbian times. Out of all these groups would have come the American Indians as they were discovered in the 15th century."
Critics charge that the "others were here, too" view of the Book of Mormon and the limited geography view of most LDS scholars are desperate reversals of official LDS positions that have been made in an attempt to deal with recent scientific evidence about the Americas. This is far from true. While many LDS people have incorrectly assumed and taught that the Book of Mormon describes events across the entire hemisphere, there was never any official position on these issues, and plenty of room for other views, and for other migrations. John Sorenson, in his article on the presence of others when Lehi landed (Sorenson, 1992) was just one of many LDS voices who observed, before DNA evidence became a concern, that the Book of Mormon does not claim to explain the sole origins of all Native Americans, and that others could have been on the continent when Lehi or the Jaredites arrived. (Thomas Murphy has claimed that Ether 2:5 in the Book of Mormon says the Jaredites came to an unpopulated land, "where never man had been." But that description refers to their travels in the Old World, not the New--Murphy demonstrates a general lack of scholarship when it comes to the Book of Mormon.) And such views were being taught and understood by significant figures in the Church. For example, in 1929 Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency told Latter-day Saints:
We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent. (Ivins, 1929, p. 15)
Two years earlier, LDS scholar Janne Sjodahl wrote that "students should be cautioned against the error of supposing that all the American Indians are the descendants of Lehi, Mulek, and their companions" (Sjodahl, 1927, p. 435). He said it was "not improbable that America has received other immigrants from Asia and other parts of the globe" (ibid., p. 436). In 1938, William Berrett and Milton Hunter, with others, produced A Guide to the Study of the Book of Mormon as a study guide for the Church Department of Education. This book indicated that "the Book of Mormon deals only with the history and expansion of three small colonies which came to America and it does not deny or disprove the possibility of other immigrations, which probably would be unknown to its writers" (Berrett et al., 1938, p. 48).
Back in 1952, still long before the DNA controversy arose, Hugh Nibley wrote about Joseph Smith's apparent endorsement of migrations to the New World other than those of the Book of Mormon:
Long after the Book of Mormon appeared Joseph Smith quoted with approval from the pulpit reports of certain Toltec legends which would make it appear that those people had come originally from the Near East in the time of Moses [see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 267]; whether such a migration ever took place or not, it is significant that the Prophet was not reluctant to recognize the possibility of other migrations than those mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
The argument of silence bears some weight in considering the possibility of "other sheep." When the Jaredites journey into a land "where there never had man been," [Ether 2:5, referring to a portion of their journey in the Old World] our history finds the fact worthy of note, even though the part was only passing through. Now there is a great deal said in the Book of Mormon about the past and future of the promised land, but never is it described as an empty land. The descendents of Lehi were never the only people on the continent, and the Jaredites never claimed to be."
(Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites, originally published 1952, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), p. 250.)
The above passage was also printed in an article by Hugh Nibley, "The World of the Jaredites," in the May 1952 issue of the official Church periodical, The Improvement Era. Nibley's work was more than just the random thoughts of an isolated scholar: his views were given extremely high visibility by the Church through publication in the official Church magazine. That does not mean that Nibley's views were endorsed by the First Presidency or given any kind of official status, but it devastates the absurd argument that the Church has always taught that all Native Americans are descended solely from Jews.
Further, in 1967, Nibley stated that "the Book of Mormon . . . presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge" (Nibley, 1967a, p. 249; pp. 218-219 in the 2nd edition).
In a 1967 essay for non-LDS scholars that was later published in a 1978 book aimed at LDS audiences, Nibley wrote that the Book of Mormon dealt with a small, local geography that left plenty of room for other migrations and for a vast continent filled with people who had come from other places, including Asia via the Bering Strait (Nibley, 1967b):
Throughout this big and complex volume, we are aware of much shuffling and winnowing of documents and are informed from time to time of the method used by an editor distilling the contents of a large library into edifying lessons for the dedicated and pious minority among the people. The overall picture reflects before all a limited geographical and cultural point of view--small localized operations, with only occasional flights and expeditions into the wilderness; one might almost be moving in the cultural circuit of the Hopi villages. The focusing of the whole account on religious themes as well as the limited cultural scope leaves all the rest of the stage clear for any other activities that might have been going on in the vast reaches of the New World, including the hypothetical Norsemen, Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans, or prehistoric infiltrations via the Bering Straits. Indeed, the more varied the ancient American scene becomes, as newly discovered artifacts and even inscriptions hint at local populations of Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and European origin, the more hospitable it is to the activities of one tragically short-lived religious civilization that once flourished in Mesoamerica and then vanished toward the northeast in the course of a series of confused tribal wars that was one long, drawn-out retreat into oblivion. Such considerations would now have to be included in any "minimal statement" this reader would make about the Book of Mormon.
In the Dec. 1975 Ensign publication of the Church, Lane Johnson, Assistant Editor, prepared a short article entitled "Who and Where Are the Lamanites?" (p. 15). In this article, he explains that the term "Lamanite" initially referred to the descendants of Laman, but shortly afterwards took on a broader term in which "the name Lamanite referred to a religious/political faction whose distinguishing feature was its opposition to the church. (See Jacob 1:13-14.)" He continues:
Lineage became an increasingly minor factor, and later there are many examples of Lamanites becoming Nephites and Nephites becoming Lamanites.
For nearly 200 years after the coming of Christ to the Americas, there were no Lamanites "nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God." (4 Nephi 1:17.) Soon, however, a part of the people fell away and took upon them the name of Lamanites; "therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land." (4 Nephi 1:20.) Clearly, Lamanite in this case again refers to the state of righteousness of a political/religious group, presumably a composite of the descendants of many of the original colonists in the New World. The Lamanites of this definition survived beyond the close of the Book of Mormon record, and it is these people from whom the Lamanites of today descended. That is to say, they are the descendants of Lehi, Ishmael, and Zoram (see D&C 3:17-18); they are the descendants of Mulek and the others of his colony (see Hel. 6:10; Omni 1:14, 15); and they may also be descended from other groups of whom we have no record. Certainly they have mixed with many other lineages at the far reaches of their dispersal in the Americas and most of the islands of the Pacific since the time when Moroni bade them farewell in A.D. 421. (emphasis mine)
In 1960s, the First Presidency allowed the Church to publish a widely distributed pamphlet, "These Are The Mormons," by Richard L. Evans, reprinted from The Christian Herald (Nov. 1960), which made this statement about Book of Mormon peoples:
As the Bible is to ancient Israel, so the Book of Mormon is to ancient America. It is part of a sacred and secular record of prophets and people who were among the ancestors of the American "Indians," and covers principally the period from about 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. These peoples were of Asiatic origin, of the House of Israel, and brought with them certain Old Testament texts. [emphasis mine]
Book of Mormon peoples were not said to be the sole ancestors, but were among the ancestors of the American Indians, leaving open the possibility of other ancestors as well.
When John Sorenson of BYU published his paper in 1992 about others being on the continent, he argued convincingly that it is:
. . . inescapable that there were substantial populations in the "promised land" throughout the period of the Nephite record, and probably in the Jaredite era also. The status and origin of these peoples is never made clear because the writers never set out to do any such thing; they had other purposes. Yet we cannot understand the demographic or cultural history of Lehi's literal descendants without taking into account those other groups, too. (Sorenson, 1992)
Now, years later, some critics would have others believe that the Book of Mormon requires that all Indians descend solely from Jewish founders, and that this is the official teaching of the Church. It is a classic straw man argument.
For more information on the limited geography of the Book of Mormon being appreciated by LDS scholars and leaders decades ago, see the article "Unanswered Mormon Scholars" by Matthew Roper (1997, pp. 122-132). See also "The Historicity of the Book of Mormon" by Elder Dallin H. Oaks.
Past LDS teachings about "others in the land": Matthew Roper has published an excellent article, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. 91-128, which is available online for FARMS members. Here I quote a portion of his section entitled, "Latter-day Saint Views on Other Pre-Columbians":
Latter-day Saints have long been open to the idea that peoples not mentioned in the Book of Mormon may have migrated to the Americas either before, during, or after the events described in the Book of Mormon and that these various peoples intermingled with those of Israelite or Jaredite descent. The idea of other pre-Columbian migrations to the Americas has a long history and can be traced back to the earliest Latter-day Saints. . . . [Here is he discusses Joseph Smith's speculations on another possible Old World migration accounting for the origins of the Toltecs.]
Interest in the possibility of additional migrations to the Americas seems to have persisted among Latter-day Saints. In 1852, the Deseret News cited with interest an account of a purported Welsh migration to America "three hundred yeeres before Columbus." ["Discovery of America, above three hundred yeeres before Columbus, by Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth," Deseret News, 3 April 1852, p. 44.] Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles interpreted the promises found in the book of Ether regarding other nations inheriting the land as referring to pre-Columbian migrants to the Americas after the Nephite destruction at Cumorah.
Now, these same decrees, which God made in relation to the former nations that inhabited this country, extend to us. "Whatever nation," the Lord said, "shall possess this land, from this time henceforth and forever, shall serve the only true and living God, or they shall be swept off when the fullness of his wrath shall come upon them." Since this ancient decree there are many nations who have come here. And lastly Europeans have come from what is termed the old world across the Atlantic.
[Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 12:343 (27 December 1868), emphasis added.]
It is significant that Pratt, one of the earliest converts to Mormonism, who did much to popularize the hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography in the nineteenth century, apparently had no difficulty simultaneously asserting that many other nations came to the Americas in the interval between the Nephites' destruction and the European arrival.
Other Latter-day Saints of the time agreed with Elder Pratt. In an article published in 1875, George M. Ottinger, a faculty member at the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah), explored the idea advanced by some scholars of the day suggesting that the Phoenicians may have helped to colonize the Americas in pre-Columbian times. After surveying this literature, he concluded "that the Phoenicians at one time held intercourse with Jared's people." [George M. Ottinger, "Old America: The Phoenicians," Juvenile Instructor 10 (6 February 1875): 33.] Another Latter-day Saint author, in or about 1887, surmised that Lehi's people and the Jaredites "were contemporary co-workers in the work of civilizing the aborigines of the promise[d] land." ["Plain Facts for Students of the Book of Mormon, with a Map of the Promised Land" (n.p., [ca. 1887]), 3.] He viewed the account of Mosiah's union with the people of Zarahemla as evidence for the existence of indigenous peoples already in the land when they arrived. Mosiah "had to teach the Nephite language to the Zarahemlans, for though the parents of both people had come from Jerusalem at about the same time, and must have then the same verbiage, their off-spring took rather to their mothers, as it was but natural. Probably those Aborigines mothers were more numerous and influential, than their Hebrew husbands." Such intermarriages may not have been confined to the Mulekites. "Were most of those who helped Nephi to build that great temple Hebrews, and the many wives and concubines who caused the reprimand of Jacob from within the walls of the very same temple, aborigines?" [Ibid., 4n.] He argued the need for Latter-day Saints to preach the gospel among the Maya and other peoples of the region since, in his view, "most of the descendants of the genuine race of Lamanites, possibly live in Yucatan and Central America." [Ibid., 4.]
Thus, the sentiments of B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy, expressed in 1909, were not entirely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints: "It cannot possibly be in conflict with the Book of Mormon to concede that the northeastern coast of America may have been visited by Norsemen in the tenth century; or that Celtic adventurers even at an earlier date, but subsequent to the close of the Nephite period, may have found their way to America. It might even be possible that migrations came by way of the Pacific Islands to the western shores of America." He also thought it "indisputable" that there have been at least some migrations from northeast Asia to North America over the Bering Strait. [B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1909), 2:356.] He continued, "It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of the extended coasts of the western world, and such events receive no mention in the Jaredite or Nephite records known to us." While the Book of Mormon text does not specifically mention such migrations, Roberts conceded that "the records now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories of these people." Transoceanic contacts may in fact have gone both ways: "It is not impossible that between the close of the Nephite period and the discovery of the western world by Columbus, American craft made their way to European shores." [Ibid., 2:357.] Thus, "even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known." [Ibid., 2:359.]
In 1902, Anthony W. Ivins, then president of the Juarez Stake in Mexico, suggested in an article published in the Improvement Era that Coriantumr may have taken wives and fathered children before his death among the Mulekites, a position with which Roberts was inclined to agree. [Anthony W. Ivins, "Are the Jaredites an Extinct People?" Improvement Era, November 1902, 44; Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:137-38 note k.] One of the most influential writers on the Book of Mormon in the early twentieth century, Janne M. Sjodahl, went even further; in 1927 he asked, "Have the Lamanites Jaredite blood in their veins?" and answered the question in the affirmative. [Janne M. Sjodahl, "Have the Lamanites Jaredite Blood in Their Veins?" Improvement Era, November 1927, 56-57.] Sjodahl interpreted the account in the book of Ether as "an epitome principally of the history of [the land of] Moron, where the Jaredites first established themselves." He postulated that, over time, "the Jaredites gradually settled in favorable localities all over the American continents, and that both Nephites and Lamanites came in contact with them, and that an amalgamation took place everywhere as in the case of the Nephites and Mulekites in Zarahemla." [Janne M. Sjodahl, "Suggested Key to Book of Mormon Geography," Improvement Era, September 1927, 986-87.] During their long history, descendants of the original Jaredite colony, according to Sjodahl, could have become widely dispersed throughout the Americas at various times and would not have been directly involved in events associated with Coriantumr, Shiz, and their people. Under this interpretation, Ether's prophecy of Jaredite destruction (Ether 13:20-21) concerned only those associated with Coriantumr's kingdom near the narrow neck of land and not the entire northern hemisphere. [Janne M. Sjodahl, "The Jaredite Lands," Improvement Era, June 1939, 371; Sjodahl, "Have the Lamanites Jaredite Blood in Their Veins?" 57. Roper provides additional examples from other writers in footnote 27 of his article.]
Critics often refer to the mention of "Lamanites" in the Doctrine and Covenants, a term used to refer to the American Indians to whom the Gospel was to be preached. Is it a fatal error to use this term if some or most American Indians are not direct descendants of Laman? It's important to note that the Book of Mormon uses the term "Lamanite" in more than one sense, as I already noted above in summarizing the work of Sorenson (1992). It can have a genetic meaning, referring to a descendant of Laman, but it can also have a sociopolitical meaning, referring to non-Nephites or former enemies of the Nephites in general, without specific genetic requirements. Thus, Nephites who dissent and team up with Lamanite forces are said to be Lamanites. In the book of Fourth Nephi, after the golden era of Nephite history following the ministry of the Lord, when Nephites and Lamanites lived in harmony (and presumably intermarried) without being called "ites" of any kind, an era began in which there was rebellion against the Church and apparently the government of the people. Those who rejected the Gospel "were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites," while the believers were called Nephites (4 Nephi 1:37,38). These labels seem to be religious and sociopolitical labels more than genealogical markers, consistent with Jacob's use in Jacob 1:11. This is also consistent with the Lord's use of the term Lamanite in Doctrine and Covenants 10:48, referring to the preaching of the Gospel to "the Lamanites, and also all that had become Lamanites because of their dissensions."
A hint about the non-genetic distinction between Lamanites and Nephites in at least some is found in 3 Nephi 6:3, where former robbers who "who were desirous to remain Lamanites" were granted separate lands for their use, rather than being forced to live under Nephite rule. Here it appears that being a Lamanite was a choice.
A related thought is found in Alma 45:13,14, where Alma prophesies that after the Nephites become wicked and are destroyed as a people, then the descendants of the Nephites will be "numbered among the Lamanites." It's not that there are no more Nephites left, but, as I see it, their government, religion, and way of life will have perished, and those who are left "shall become like" the Lamanites (v. 14), and thus no longer carry the Nephite label.
Political or religious dissent made one a Lamanite, as well as descent from Laman (or the other rebels in Lehi's group). In its cultural, religious, or political sense, all Native Americans may be termed Lamanites. Nevertheless, given the wide intermixing that appears to have occurred in North America, I would not be surprised if there is not at least one "genetic Lamanite" ancestor in the heritage of most Native Americans. One does not have to be primarily descended from Lehi's group to be a Lamanite by blood as well as by culture. I am clearly Caucasian, yet am proud to have Native American blood. How much? One part in 512 is Mohawk. Not enough to qualify as an official tribal member, but a portion of my genes are still Native American. Unfortunately, those genes won't show up in mtDNA or Y-chromosome work. My descent from a Mohawk woman was not along purely maternal lines.
As Hugh Nibley explained in 1952, in an article printed in the official publication of the Church at the time, the Book of Mormon identified Asia as a source for ancient Native Americans long before anthropologists did. The essay was "The World of the Jaredites," Improvement Era, Vol. 55, June 1952, from which I quote:
That account [the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon] tells us that at the very dawn of history, many thousands of years ago, a party of nomad hunters and stock raisers from west central Asia crossed the water--very probably the North Pacific--to the New World, where they preserved the ways of their ancestors, including certain savage and degenerate practices, and carried on a free and open type of steppe warfare with true Asiatic cruelty and ferocity; it tells us that these people moved about much in the wilderness, for all they built imposing cities, and that they produced a steady trickle of "outcasts" through the centuries. A careful study of the motions of the Jaredites, Mulekites, Nephites, and Lamanites should correct the absurd oversimplification by which the Book of Mormon as a history is always judged. It will show as plain as day that the Book of Mormon itself first suggests the Asiatic origin of some elements at least of the Indian race and culture long before the anthropologists got around to it. The scientists no longer hold that one migration and one route can explain everything about the Indians. The Book of Mormon never did propound a doctrine so naive. Though it comes to us as a digest and an abridgment, stripped and streamlined, it is still as intricate and complex a history as you can find; and in its involved and tragic pages nothing is more challenging than the sinister presence of those fierce and bloody-minded "Men out of Asia" known in their day as Jaredites....
I think by now it should be apparent that the Book of Mormon account is not as simple as it seems. Ether alone introduces a formidable list of possibilities, few of which have ever been seriously considered. Foremost among these is the probability, amounting almost to certainty, that numerous Jaredites survived in out-of-the-way places of the north to perpetuate a strong Asiatic element in the culture and blood of the American Indian.[emphasis mine]
Thus, given that the apparently Asiatic Jaredites were on the continent long before the Nephites, and given that other migrations from Asia are permitted by the Book of Mormon, finding evidence of mostly Asiatic genes in the Americas does not necessarily pose a problem for the Book of Mormon. This understanding of the Book of Mormon (the Jaredites as an Asiatic migration, and the possibility of other migrations from Asia being allowed by the Book of Mormon) is not one just recently concocted to deal with recent DNA evidence--it was printed in the official Church periodical decades before critics used DNA evidence to attack a common misreading of the Book of Mormon. In fact, even if we were to erroneously conclude that the ONLY ancient migrations to the New World are those described in the Book of Mormon, the heavy presence of Asian genes in Native Americans could still be compatible with the apparently Asian origins of the ancient Jaredites, whose descendants may have spread across the continent and obviously were present in Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica even after Ether saw their central groups wiped out in a bloody civil war.
Finally, don't overlook the most basic resource on this topic, The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. It is available online at lds.org, or you can obtain a free copy at www.mormon.org or by calling 877-537-0003 (US only). After withstanding more than 170 years of hostile attacks, it is truer than ever, and vitally relevant for our day. Yes, the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, a true book, and the word of God. But don't take my word for it: study it yourself, ponder it, apply any tests you like, and seek guidance from God to know for yourself if it is true.