The Nephites, Lamanites and American Indians
He [the messenger] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. — Joseph Smith
The Book of Mormon begins in Judea during the reign of Zedekiah, the puppet king under Nebuchadnezzar at about 600 BC. In a vision, Lehi is told that he should leave the land of Israel taking his family into the desert south of their home towards the Red Sea. His two sons, Nephi and Laman end up having two different attitutes towards their “visionary” father, Nephi being the good son, and Laman being the rebellious son. After they travel even further south (possibly into the Arabian Peninsula), God appeared to Nephi telling him to build a ship, cross the ocean and then arrive at a certain “promised land,” that is the Modern North American continent. After their arrival, group ultimately splits into two factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites who were almost constantly at war with eachother until the day that Jesus Christ made an appearance in the land after his resurrection which brought about an extended period of piece. But after a few centuries, the two groups started warring against eachother again, and by 421 AD, the Lamanites had utterly destroyed the Nephites. The plates of Nephi with editions by Mormon and Moroni, two of the last living Nephites, were then burried at the Hill Cumorah where they would be re-discovered 1,406 years later.
In late 1827, Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to have been commanded to go to the hill Cumorah on September 22 of that year. He made the trip during the night, at midnight actually of that particular day so he wouldn’t be heckled by any unwanted attention. Previously, he had been forbiden from recovering the golden plates from the stone box at the hill since the “the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would it for four years.” (Joseph Smith- History1:53) – In the summer of 1829, he received the copyright , and then the following year, the translation of the plates which was called the Book of Mormon was published. — Even before it’s publication, the Book of Mormom faced criticism, as would be expected of any new book claiming to be “scripture. That, and the fact that it claimed to be an actual history of Isrealites who traveled to the new world several centuries before the birth of Christ certainly must have ben met with some skepticism and incredulity at the time. The books authorship was questioned, as some theorized that Joseph Smith may have plagiarized an unpublished work by Solomon Spalding, though I agree with some critics that, if the book has nineteenth century origins, the safest assumption would be that Joseph Smith was the author.
Challenges to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are not new, but due to twentieth and twenty-first century science has uped the ante, considering that a straight forward reading of the Book of Mormon appears to imply that that the American Indians are decendents of Lehi, the Isrealite. In contrast, scientists tend to accept the the ancestors of the modern Native Americans had crossed over from eastern Asia into the western hemisphere from the Bering Strait land bridge from at least 12,000 years ago, though possibly earlier. — The evidence that has come out has actually verified the Bering Strait theory, since genetics point to their origin from Central Siberia. Mormons have responded to the genetic evidence in various ways. One notable response, made by David G. Stewart, is directed to Christian skeptics of Mormonism, saying that the citing of DNA against the validity of the Book of Mormon is a kind of “suicide bombing” since genetic evidence also shows that humans have been around for much longer that 6,000 years, provides evidence for Evolutionary theory, and that no Y chromosome validating Abraham as the Hebrew ancestor has ever been found in Jewish populations. However, this particular counter point assumes that the person citing the evidence accepts a young earth. Many Christians, however, accept the scientific date of the earth, and more accept the validity of Evolution, so this Mormon argument is invalid as far as many Christians are concern, not to mention against agnostics and atheists who are also critical of Mormonism.
One of Stewart’s pieces of evidence linking American Indians with Hebrews is the Q-P36 mutation which he points out is certain frequencies in Jewish populations, and in a high percentage of Native Americans. This link hardly holds much weight since the origin and age of the mutation is inconsistent with what would be expected if this bore any relevance. According to research done by Stephen Zegura, the age of the Q-P36 is an estimated 17,700 years, give or take 4,820 years. And even if Stewart’s claims of the uncertainties of dating DNA held any water, it wouldn’t matter much since the same genetic results produced by Zegura also show that the mutation has it’s origins in the region of the Altai mountains in southwestern Siberia. All this would prove is that after the mutation originated, some of it’s carriers dispersed with some going west while others went east across the Bering Strait land bridge.
To explain away the inconsistencies between the Book of Mormon genetics, many Mormon apologists then appeal the the “limited geography” hypothesis, that is that the story line of the Book of Mormon only deals with a small population in a limited area, rather than the entire western hemisphere, and then base a whole new sting of arguments along with the idea. — Jeff Lindsay, in his extended essay, makes several points against the DNA evidence on that assumtion. For example,
- He claims that the Book of Mormon is consistent with the DNA evidence that the American Indians had decended from Asiatics. He points out the Jaredites, a race of people mentioned in the Book of Ether who accordingly left the Tower of Babel at around 5,500 years ago, (circa 2500 BC?), and arrived in North America soon after.
- He mentiones the mutation known as Haplogroup X which has been found in Europeans, Middle Easterners as well as some Indians. He sees this shared mutation as a possible legitimate tie between Hebrews and the American Indians.
- He claims that in the Book of Mormon, the terms “Lamanite” and “Nephites” were more social than racial. From this particular perspectice, all Indians could be classified as being in either group without being ethnically related to the children of Lehi. (I.e., most Native Americans would not be his literal decendants.)
Jeff Lindsay puts forward other suggestions, but these three are the ones that stood out the most to me, and I will deal with these ones first. — The first listed suggestion that the Jaredites would be considered “Asiatic” is technically correct, but at the same time it is faulty. As mentioned, this particular group is said to have started it’s journey after the languages were “confounded” at the Tower of Babel (Ether 1:33). The biblical story of the tower places it in the valley of Shinar which is thought to be around Mesopotamia, in modern day Iraq (Genesis 11: 1-9). The problem is obvious. Though this would mean that the Jaredites were “Asiatics,” they did not come from the right region since the DNA results shows that the American Indians have a Siberian ancestory, and not a middle eastern origin. Though west of Isreal, Iraq is still in the middle east. Granted, Lindsay never says that the Jaredites are the sole factor to “Asiatic” DNA, but it does beg the question why there is no genetic evidence that we know of that places an independent migration from Iraq to North America during this timeframe.
The comments he makes on apparent genetic links via the Haplogroup X mutation connecting Hebrews to American Indians, quite frankly, wouldn’t convince someone who wasn’t already ready to believe. He seemingly wants to show that since Haplogroup X variant in Native Americans seemingly has no direct relationship to its counterpart in Siberia, and since it seems to be more closely related to the one found in Europe and the Middle East, that therefore it could be evidence of an independent migration from Isreal to the new world. He seemingly tries not to assert it this evidence is absolute one way or the other asserting it doesn’t really discount what he wishes it to be. A major problem of Haplogroup X being a relevant link between Isreal and the American Indians is the molecular clock date which shows that the mutation occured in the Indian populations well over 20,000 years ago which fare pre-dates Lehi’s migration in 600 BC. Lindsay is well aware of this and attempts to discredit the estimated arrived at by saying that the molecular clock dating has been known to give inflated dates. He is right on that point which is why the molecular clock hypothesis is used primarily when it doesn’t conflict with the rest of the evidence. But despite his spinning around the molecular clock, Haplogroup X has been proven to have been present in Amerindian polulations long before Lehi’s migration using independent dating methods. The mumified remains of some paleo-Indians had been found with DNA intact and carbon dated to around 7000 years, and the genetics included the X Haplogroup. Now, Lindsay can try to knock down the radiocarbon date if he wants, but it would be more difficult since since Carbon-14 dating is considered to be one of the most reliable dating methods. And finally, more genetic analysis has actually shown that Haplogroup X was part of a founding population and therefore was not part of an independent migration, so even if the dating methods mentioned were wrong, it would still be inconsistent with the idea of it being evidence for a single, independent Jewish migration from the Near East.
As for the third option, that “Nephite” and “Lamanite” are sometimes used as social terms rather than racial; this is partially true since there are passages in the Book of Mormon where those from one group were counted as members in the other (3 Nephi 2: 14). However, this does nothing to help the case that modern American Indians are to be called “Lammanites” due to social-political reasons even if they are not related to a Jewish population. Unwittingly, Mormons who make this claim are contradicting Jeseph Smith himself, since in the 1835 account of his vision, he says:
I saw in the vision the place where they [the golden plates] were deposited, he [the messenger, Moroni] said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.
Sometimes, I have read some Mormon apologists dismiss certain remarks on certain subjects made by Joseph Smith by saying that he sometimes would give his opinion without any evidence. This time, however, no such claim can be made since to dismiss Smith’s words would also be to dismiss those of the messenger from God. Joseph himself makes it really clear that the statement that the Indians are the “literal descendants of Abraham” comes from the angel Moroni himself, who in turn would logically been instructed by God himself to make such a statement. Considering that neither the Mormon prophet or God’s messenger made no qualifications as to the progeny of the Native Americans, the suggestion that the Indians are “Lamanites” via social-political means holds no weight. The logical conclusion here is that both thought that all of the first inhabitants of the American continent were of Jewish ancestry.
One last ditch attempt sometimes made in order to salvage the Book of Mormon is that we do not know what Lehi’s DNA would have looked like, so we wouldn’t know what to look for. This claim is absurd; you do not have to be a geneticist to understand that even if we do not know exactly what genetics themselves would look like, scientists would still recognize Semitic DNA when they saw it. The appearance of such DNA itself in the Native American population itself would be a somewhat of a verification of the Mormon scripture in and of itself; a detail worth investigating at the very least.
The evidence all goes against the suggestion that the Book of Mormon holds any historic value for the origins of any modern Native Americans. The genetic evidence shows no evidence of a migration of a semitic people, Hebrew or otherwise, at around the time required for a verification. Even if, as some argue, the descendants of Lehi were only one group among many, there should still be some hints of such an origins. But since the words of Joseph Smith and Moroni both contradict these views, the genetic evidence becomes all that more damning as we should expect to see more semitic traces in the modern American Indian peoples of today.
- Bushman, Richard Layman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
- Cowerdry, Wayne L., Howard A. Davis, Aurthur Vanic. Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?: The Spalding Enigma. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
- Bering Strait Theory.” Encyclopedia of North American Indians.
- Lewis, Orrin. “Bering Strait Theory.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and promoting American Indian languages.
- Santos, Fabrico R. (1999) “The Central Siberian Origin for Native American Y Chromosomes.” Am. J. Hum. Genet. 64:619–628.
- Stewart, David G., “DNA and the Book of Mormon.”
- Zegura, Stephen L; Karafet, TM; Zhivotovsky, LA; Hammer, MF (2004), “High-Resolution SNPs and Microsatellite Haplotypes Point to a Single, Recent Entry of Native American Y Chromosomes into the Americas”, Molecular Biology and Evolution (Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution) 21 (1): 164–175.
- Lindsay, Jeff. “Does DNA evidence Refute the Book of Mormon?: Where is the Lamanite DNA?”
- Forster, Peter; Harding, Rosalind; Torroni, Antonio; Bandelt, Hans-Jurgen; “Origin and Evolution of Native American mtDNA Variation: A Reappraisal,” American Journal of Human Genetics 59/4 (October 1996).
- Weber, Christopher Gregory, 1982, “Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon-14 Dating,” Creation/Evolution, v. 3, p. 23-29.
- Fagundes, Nelson J.R.; Kanits, Ricardo; et al., “Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas.” The American Journal of Human Genetics 82/3 (28 February 2001): 583-592.
- Smith, Joseph., 1835 First Vision Account.