s Why Should We Expect to Find Jewish DNA in Native Americans?

Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #13:
What Nephite DNA?

I have written a lengthy article on the relationship of modern DNA studies to the Book of Mormon, available at http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/DNA.shtml. I argue that the critics who are attacking the Book of Mormon rely on outdated and untenable assumptions about what the Book of Mormon actually says to create a straw man argument. One point I make is that since the Book of Mormon allows for and implies the presence of many others in the land when Lehi's small boat load of people landed in the Americas, we need not expect that genes from Lehi and Sariah should dominate the genetic makeup of Native Americans. But even if the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon were the sole ancestors the Native Americans, just exactly what DNA haplotypes should we expect to find? The Book of Mormon does not indicate what the genetic makeup of the settlers was, and does not say that all or even most of the settlers had Jewish ancestry. A useful post on this topic was offered by Woody Brison on Dec. 13, 2002 on the USENET group alt.religion.mormon, which is quoted in part below:

To test the Book of Mormon's claim that Israelite colonists arrived in America anciently, flourished as nations, and their descendants survived in the people without a name, generally called the Indians or native Americans, it is proposed that we could just check the DNA of some of the local tribes that still exist in out-of-the-way places, and compare them to samples of DNA from modern Jews, and see if the Book's true or not. Simple, eh? Yes, the essence of an experiment designed by a grade school child. But as with many things in life, the real situation is just a bit more complex.

Let's consider exactly what the Book of Mormon says in terms of DNA contributors, male and female. I mention this because, as unbelievable as it is, some "scientific" [discussions] flatly ignore this little datum.

Following is a little worksheet listing the genetic contributors of the Lamanites. I will note the racial origin of all those we can identify [in square brackets], the rest I will indicate with three question marks [???]

The Jared party -- Book of Ether:
[???] Jared
[???] The Brother of Jared
[???] Other individuals of the Jared party, about 22 ( Ether 6:16)

All we know about the Jaredites comes to us from the record left by the Nephites, their successors.

Some will object that according to the Book of Ether, all the Jaredites were killed but two (Ether 15), but this is the understanding of the author of the Book of Ether, who could not have known everything that happened on the entire continent. [Webmaster's note: There is no reason why many others could not have fled, and we later find many Jaredite names still cropping up in later Book of Mormon times, showing that Jaredite influence survived.]

The Nephite records say specifically that between the time of Nephi and the time of Mosiah, individuals entered the Nephite community from outside, such as Sherem (Jacob 7) and Korihor (Alma 30). Where they came from we are not told, but their names are Jaredite names (Ether 7:3 and Ether 13:17, long before any finding of plates from the Jaredites, a possible source of Jaredite names among the Nephites.

The Book of Mormon has a long stretch where it's just a sketch -- the early Nephite period, with all those little books detailing little but the handoff of the plates, but there are Jaredite names there, such as Jarom, Amaron, Chemish, Zeniff.

It was later, during Mosiah's and Benjamin's and Mosiah's reigns that the Nephites found the plates of the Jaredites, and their surviving king had been found by the people of Zarahemla, and Zarahemla was a descendant of Mulek. The Lamanites, whose doings are not in the Nephite records but who arrived before Mulek, were therefore contemporary with the Jaredites and may have mixed with them. If there were survivors of the Jaredite holocaust they almost certainly mixed with the Lamanites, and the record of the last battles of the Jaredites shows that they were trampling cities and people everywhere they went -- others of their nation who had NOT been gathered for the war. The Jaredites inhabited mostly the north country, but they did get into the south part and even built a city there.

Note that modern archaeology finds that there were in North America two distinct cultures: one preceding the other, being replaced a couple of centuries before the time of Christ, exactly as the Book of Mormon says. The earlier culture is today called the Clovis people; the later, the Mississippian culture (continuous with natives present at the time of Columbus.)

The Lehi party -- book of First Nephi:

[???] Lehi (some of his fathers were of the tribe of Manassah, but we don't know the genetic composition of the Tribe of Manassah in BC 600. The Israelites accepted strangers, even had laws to adopt them; for example Ezekiel 47:21-23. What were the characteristics of Lehi's genes?

[???] Sariah

[???] Ishmael

[???] Wife of Ishmael

[???] Wife of oldest son of Ishmael

[???] Wife of second son of Ishmael

[???] Zoram

[???] Other individuals picked up by the Lehi party on the way thru Arabia and past Asia (not mentioned, but possible)

The Mulek party -- the people of Zarahemla in the Book of Omni:

[Jewish] Mulek, son(?) of Mattaniah aka Zedekiah (installed) king of Judah. We don't know the genetic composition of the House of David in BC 600; Solomon and successors had many political marriages from other nations since about BC 1000. It seems entirely likely that the Kings of Judah had more cosmopolitan genes than the rest of the nation.

(We might note that all other known sons of Zedekiah were executed by Nebuchadnezzer, so that particular genetic line was terminated in the Old World, but it's almost irrelevant with so many tributaries to this stream. However, it illustrates the kinds of sudden turns genetics can take.)

[???] Other unnamed individuals of the Mulek party (Mos. 25:2)

[???] Other individuals picked up by the Mulek party on the way (possible, not mentioned) (route unknown)

[???] Other individuals landed on the shores. The last century has seen much interest in the work of Thor Heyerdahl et al, showing the possibility of oceanic crossing by ancient people. Crossings like that would likely leave no historical record... only genetic mixing. The Lamanites controlled most of the coastline and should have integrated any ships crews that blew in; but there would be no record of any of this, the Lamanites kept no records. . . .

The Book of Mormon specifically says that it chronicles less than 1% of all that happened among just the Nephites, and it doesn't know barely anything at all about the doings of the Lamanites over a course of the same ten centuries, and it knows NOTHING about what happened from 400 AD to the present, while it was cached in the earth (other than Nephi seeing our day, etc.) . . .

So, note the prevalence of ??? marks. Out of 32 known, listed individual DNA contributors, and probably at least an additional equal number, not mentioned or named, we have only ONE MALE that we can identify as being definitely Jewish. It seems likely that some of the others were Jewish, but even for that one, we don't know his ancestry with any precision, it could easily have included non-Israelite nationalities.

The majority of this known list were definitely NOT Jewish; the Jaredites were from somewhere in Asia.

And, it should be mentioned, Jerusalem was a major trade center; always had lots of nationalities rubbing shoulders.

So, if we want to hear the sound of two hands clapping not just one, to compare modern native American DNA with modern Jewish DNA, we have to consider what we're comparing with what. Should modern Lamanite DNA look Jewish?

Maybe a more reasonable question would be, Why would it?

Some will say that the whole Book of Mormon is about the Nephites, who are Israelites lost from their parent nation! But, Israel is a cultural, religious body, not usually a monogenetic body. Consider the original 12 tribes of Israel even: fathered by 12 brothers -- the sons of mothers from three different families; but the 12 mens' wives? Gathered from all over, including Egypt.

The Jews were one specific tribe among the 12 or 13 in Israel (not the Lehite colony's tribe); after the Lehites departed, they were marched off to Babylon for a couple of generations, returned, mixed a bit with other nations which had been imported by Nebuchanezzer, lived in the land of Israel (again a trading hub) until the first century AD; were exiled by the Romans, scattered all over the face of the earth, and so lived for 1900 years.

Comparing these two, a few samples anyway, no clear match found yet. No real surprise here, but it certainly doesn't BEGIN to disprove what the Book of Mormon really says.

Woody Brison

One point to remember is that the long-term survival of founding haplotypes in small groups surrounded by other haplotypes requires specific types of marital behavior. If members of a population tend to marry within the group, mtDNA and Y-chromosomes from the group may be preserved. If the men regularly marry outsiders, mtDNA may be lost. If women in the group marry men from outside groups, Y-chromosomes can be lost. The apparent persistence of Jewish DNA markers in some Jewish groups is a reflection of historical marriage patterns, but these patterns do not necessarily hold for all ancient peoples with Hebrew roots. The alleged lack of "Jewish DNA" in the Americas cannot rule out the possibility that Hebrew peoples came to one part of the Americas anciently.

Update: Just what is Jewish DNA, anyway? There is no scientifically acceptable standard for Jewish DNA. Dr. Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, makes the following important observation in his online article, "The Fallacy of Biological Judaism" (Pollack, 2003):

Unlike asking "Are Jews a family?", as historians have traditionally done, geneticists seeking to advise Ashkenazic families are also, in passing, asking, "Do Jews all share the same versions of one or more genes?" -- a question with a testable, precise answer. As no two people except pairs of identical twins have exactly the same version of the human genomic text, this claim could be confirmed or rejected by a search for versions of the human genome shared by all Jews and no other people.

Given the historical context of the Nazi "experiment," it is all the more remarkable that Jews all over the world have been flocking to the new technology of DNA-based diagnosis, eager to lend their individual genomes -- each a surviving data point from the terrible experiment in negative selection -- to a revisiting of this issue of biological Judaism.

At a recent meeting of the Association of Orthodox Jewish scientists and the Columbia Center for the Study of Science and Religion, it became clear that Jewish curiosity has provided sufficient genetic material to give a perfectly clear negative answer: There is no support in the genomes of today's Jews for the calumnious and calamitous model of biological Judaism. Though there are many deleterious versions of genes shared within the Ashkenazic community, there are no DNA sequences common to all Jews and absent from all non-Jews. There is nothing in the human genome that makes or diagnoses a person as a Jew.

If there is no genetic marker that can identify a person as a Jew, I would ask Thomas Murphy and other critics of the Book of Mormon exactly what DNA evidence we should be looking for to test the hypothesis that a tiny handful of Hebrew people entered the Americas in 600 B.C.?

Interestingly, one recent discovery indicates some unexpected central Asian influence in the DNA of some Levites (a priesthood line believed to be descended from Levi). The study is D.M. Behar et al., "Multiple Origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y Chromosome Evidence for Both Near Eastern and European Ancestries," American Journal of Human Genetics, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct. 2003): 768-779, available online in PDF or HTML formats. Here is an excerpt:

If a European origin for the Ashkenazi Levite haplogroup R1a1 component is accepted as a reasonable possibility, it is of interest to speculate further on the possible timing, location, and mechanism of this event. Because the modal haplotype of haplogroup R1a1 found in the Ashkenazi Levites is found at reasonably high frequency throughout the eastern European region, it is not possible to use genetic information to pinpoint the exact origin of any putative founder from the currently available data sets. ... One attractive source would be the Khazarian Kingdom, whose ruling class is though to have converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century (Dunlop 1967). ... It extended from northern Georgia in the south to Bulgar on the Volga River in the north and from the Aral Sea in the east to the Dnieper River in the west -- an area that falls within a region in which haplogroup R1a1 NRYs are found at high frequency (Rosser et al. 2000).
One news story about the study comes from Nicholas Wade, "Geneticists Report Finding Central Asian Link to Levites," New York Times, September 27, 2003:
A team of geneticists studying the ancestry of Jewish communities has found an unusual genetic signature that occurs in more than half the Levites of Ashkenazi descent. The signature is thought to have originated in Central Asia, not the Near East, which is the ancestral home of Jews. The finding raises the question of how the signature became so widespread among the Levites, an ancient caste of hereditary Jewish priests.

The genetic signature occurs on the male or Y chromosome and comes from a few men, or perhaps a single ancestor, who lived about 1,000 years ago, just as the Ashkenazim were beginning to be established in Europe. Ashkenazim, from whom most American Jews descend, are one of the two main branches of Jews, the other being the Sephardim, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain.

The new report, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, was prepared by population geneticists in Israel, the United States and England, who have been studying the genetics of Jewish communities for the last six years.

They say that 52 percent of Levites of Ashkenazi origin have a particular genetic signature that originated in Central Asia, although it is also found less frequently in the Middle East. The ancestor who introduced it into the Ashkenazi Levites could perhaps have been from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe whose king converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century, the researchers suggest.

Their reasoning is that the signature, a set of DNA variations known as R1a1, is common in the region north of Georgia that was once occupied by the Khazar kingdom. The signature did reach the Near East, probably before the founding of the Jewish community, but it is still rare there. The scholars say they cannot exclude the possibility that a Jewish founder brought the signature on his Y chromosome to the Ashkenazi population, but they consider that a less likely explanation. . . .

If the patrilineal descent of the two priestly castes had indeed been followed as tradition describes, then all Cohanim should be descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and all Levites from Levi, the third son of the patriarch Jacob. Dr. Hammer and Dr. Skorecki found that more than half the Cohanim, in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, did indeed carry the same genetic signature on their Y chromosome. Their ancestor lived some 3,000 years ago, based on genetic calculations, and may indeed have been Aaron, Dr. Skorecki said.

But the picture among the Levites was less clear, suggesting that they had a mixed ancestry. Dr. Hammer and Dr. Skorecki returned to the puzzle for their new report, based on data gathered from nearly 1,000 men of Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin and neighboring non-Jewish populations.

They found that the dominant signature among the Levites was the R1a1 signature, which is different from the Cohanim signature. The paternal ancestry of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Levites is different, unlike the Cohanim from the two branches, who resemble each other and presumably originated before the two branches split. And the ancestor of the R1a1 signature apparently lived 2,000 years more recently than the founder of the Cohanim signature.

The Levites' pedigree does not seem to accord with tradition as well as the Cohanim one does but is venerable nonetheless. "How many people can trace their ancestry back to the 17th century, let alone a thousand years?" Dr. Hammer said.

I only cite this story to indicate that the DNA of modern day Jews, even in groups with relatively "pure" ancestry, doesn't fit into neat categories that allow us to definitively assert what is Jewish and non-Jewish DNA.


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Created: Dec. 30, 2002. Updated: June 26, 2004.
URL: "http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme13.shtml"
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