Addressing Questions surrounding the Book of Mormon and DNA Research
Addressing Questions surrounding the Book of Mormon
and DNA Research
John M. Butler
What is DNA?
Our cells contain a genetic code known as deoxyribonucleic
acid, or DNA. It provides a blueprint for life, determining to a great extent
our physical attributes and appearance. We inherit half of our genetic code
from our mother and half from our father. The diversity we see among people
results from unique combinations of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA
that exist in every living organism. Because of the many different ways these
nucleotides can combine, all humans, with the exception of identical twins,
differ from each other on a genetic level.
How are DNA ancestry studies performed?
Examining the DNA of an individual and comparing it with the
DNA of close relatives can reveal the source of different genetic patterns
contributed by parents, grandparents, or other shared ancestors. Genetic
markers on the Y-chromosome that are transferred exclusively from father to son
are used to examine paternal lineages, while maternal lines are traced by
analyzing genetic material called mitochondrial DNA, which is only transferred
from mother to offspring.
How do DNA ancestry studies compare to forensic DNA testing used in
The information derived from any DNA analysis does not work in a vacuum. Test
results always compare genetic information from a source in question with the
same type of information from a known source. In the case of forensic DNA testing
that is widely accepted in courts of law, DNA from a suspected criminal is compared
with DNA collected from the scene of a crime.1 When the DNA matches at the regions
examined, then it is likely that the suspect was indeed the person who was involved
in the crime. In forensic DNA testing there is a one-to-one correlation of DNA
results—the individual’s DNA either matches or does not match the evidence.
In ancestry studies, DNA information from multiple modern
population groups is projected over many generations between populations
tested. Even though the same genetic markers may be used as in forensic DNA
testing, in ancestry testing there is usually not a one-to-one unique match
being made. Instead, scientists are often guessing at what genetic signatures
existed in the past based on various assumptions—with a bit of educated “storytelling”
to fill in gaps.2
These stories of human migration patterns are constantly being refined with new
genetic research. As noted by John Relethford in his book Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins,
“Although working in such a young and developing field is exciting, it is
also frightening because the knowledge base changes so rapidly.”3 Since the methods for examining DNA
in this way are far from perfected, drawing final conclusions about the
ancestry of a people from current data would not be prudent. In addition, it is
important to keep in mind that reference samples
are always needed to provide relevant results with any kind of DNA
testing. If a reliable reference is not available, confident conclusions cannot
What current data exist on Native American DNA?
To date there have been more than one hundred scientific
articles describing the examination of DNA from thousands of modern-day Native
Americans. These studies have shown that almost all Native Americans tested
thus far possess genetic signatures closely resembling modern-day Asians, and
thus conclusions are usually drawn that these populations are related to one
another. Since no Israelite genetic connection has yet been made with Native
Americans, critics of the Book of Mormon are quick to point out that this
information seems to contradict a statement made in the modern introduction to
the book that the Lamanites are “the principal ancestors of the American
What do we know about the genetic background of Book of Mormon peoples?
The angel Moroni informed the Prophet Joseph Smith during
his first visit on the evening of 21 September 1823 that the Book of
Mormon record gave “an account of the former inhabitants of this
continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (Joseph
Smith—History 1:34). The Book of Mormon mentions three different groups
that journeyed to the New World: the Lehites (1 Nephi 18), the Jaredites (Ether
6:12), and the Mulekites (Helaman 6:10; 8:21), sometimes referred to as the
people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:14-16; Alma 22:30).
The title page of the Book of Mormon proclaims that the
Lamanites are a remnant of the house of Israel. Lehi found on the plates of
brass recovered from Laban a genealogy of his fathers in which he learned that
he was a descendant of Joseph (1 Nephi 5:14), specifically from the tribe of
Manasseh (Alma 10:3). Mulek is mentioned in Helaman 8:21 as a son of Zedekiah
who was king of Judah when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:7).
The Jaredites descended from multiple families who were led by the Lord from
the Tower of Babel to the promised land (Ether 1:33).
The prophets who contributed to the Book of Mormon record
focused on religious teachings rather than on geographical or genetic details; they
provided only a partial picture of the events of their days and usually within
the confines of their family lineage. Thus, the Book of Mormon record does not
supply sufficient information to provide a reliable calibration point in the
past that may serve as a reference for modern-day DNA comparisons. DNA
information alone therefore cannot disprove or prove the Book of Mormon.
Could other people have lived in ancient America concurrently with Book of
Careful examination and demographic analysis of the Book of
Mormon record in terms of population growth and the number of people described
implies that other groups were likely present in the promised land when Lehi’s
family arrived, and these groups may have genetically mixed with the Nephites,
Lamanites, and other groups.4
Events related in the Book of Mormon likely took place in a limited region,5 leaving plenty of room for other
Native American peoples to have existed.
Does DNA testing of modern individuals detect all previous genetic
Another way to state this question is “could a group of
people vanish without a genetic trace as measured by Y-chromosome and
mitochondrial DNA testing and yet be the ancestors of someone living today?”
It is important to realize that examination of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial
DNA genetic markers permits only a small fraction of an individual’s ancestry
to be tracked.
Most genetic analysis studies of human history involve
comparing a group of samples of living individuals to another group of living
individuals without any detailed knowledge of the genealogy of the individuals
in the groups being tested. These types of DNA studies make assumptions about
the average time for each generation in the past along with a fixed mutation
rate whereby genetic variation may occur over time. Similarities in the modern
populations examined are then used to claim a shared origin between the two
populations with an estimated time for divergence between the populations.
An interesting study reported in the June 2003 issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics leads me to
believe that it is possible for Book of Mormon peoples to be ancestors of
modern Native Americans and yet not be easily detected using traditional
Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests. This study, conducted by a group of
scientists from a company called deCODE Genetics, used the extensive
genealogies of people from Iceland combined with probably the most massive
population study ever performed. They traced the matrilineal and patrilineal
ancestry of all 131,060 Icelanders born after 1972 back to two cohorts of
ancestors, one born between 1848 and 1892 and the other between 1742 and 1798.6
Examining the same Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA
markers used in other genetic studies, these 131,060 Icelanders “revealed
highly positively skewed distributions of descendants to ancestors, with the vast majority of potential ancestors
contributing one or no descendants and a minority of ancestors contributing
large numbers of descendants.”7
In other words, the majority of people living today in Iceland had ancestors
living only 150 years ago that could not be detected based on the Y-chromosome
and mitochondrial DNA tests being performed and yet the genealogical records
exist showing that these people lived and were real ancestors. To the point at
hand, if many documented ancestors of 150 years ago cannot be linked to their
descendants through Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests from modern
Iceland, then it certainly seems possible that the people who are reported in
the Book of Mormon to have migrated to the Americas over 2,600 years ago might
not have left genetic signatures that are detectable today.
Shouldn’t we be able to detect Israelite DNA if the Lamanites are descended
from Lehi and are the principal ancestors of modern-day Native Americans?
First, as discussed above, we do not have enough information
from the Book of Mormon to confidently determine a source population for the
Lehites or Mulekites, and so we cannot compare this population with modern-day
Native American results. Another point to consider is that present-day Native
Americans represent only a fraction of previous genetic lineages in the
Americas because of large-scale death by diseases brought to the New World by
European conquerors. As researcher Michael Crawford concludes in his book The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from
Anthropological Genetics, “This population reduction has
forever altered the genetics of the surviving groups, thus complicating any
attempts at reconstructing the pre-Columbian genetic structure of most New
Again, without reliable reference samples from the past, we cannot proclaim the
Book of Mormon true or false based on DNA data.
In forensic science, a documented “chain of custody”
is crucial to verifying a link between the DNA profile produced in the lab with
the original crime scene evidence. No such “chain of custody” exists
with DNA or genealogical records connecting people from Book of Mormon times to
people living today.
Part of the problem in this whole contrived controversy is
the oversimplification of results from DNA studies that are being conducted by
scientists in an effort to examine potential patterns of human migration
throughout ancient history. The impact of this oversimplification is in many
ways similar to the impact that the popular TV show CSI:
Crime Scene Investigation has had over the past few years on
forensic laboratories. In the name of entertainment, the CSI television shows have created a perception
in which the general public now thinks that forensic scientists go to crime
scenes, work in fancy and well-equipped laboratories, question suspects in a
case, and obtain conclusive results on every complex case in a matter of a few
minutes. The truth is that scientists work in poorly supplied labs, are
underpaid, and in many situations have large backlogs of samples that prevent
rapid responses to new individual cases. In addition, forensic scientists never
interrogate the suspects of a crime, and many cases are never solved. The
public perception of CSI has now created
an expectation in many juries that DNA evidence should be present in every
Even with this oversimplification of its portrayal of
forensic laboratories, there is some truth within the set of the CSI shows. For example, the instruments on the
TV show are real. However, they do not collect data and generate results as
rapidly as portrayed nor are complex cases solved so succinctly. Likewise,
oversimplification of DNA results and what they are capable of revealing in
examining the authenticity of the Book of Mormon has been greatly exaggerated
by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the many
reasons stated above, DNA testing results from modern Native Americans do not
negate the possibility of Book of Mormon peoples having existed anciently on
the American continent.
Can science ever provide a final answer to a religious question?
Today’s society is impatient and wants quick and easy
answers to everything. In science we make measurements and conduct studies
hoping to advance knowledge. As an active DNA researcher for the past thirteen
years, I can affirm that we are uncovering new information with each passing
year that gives us a better picture of the past and the present. But we must
remember that that picture is in no way complete or comprehensive. Science can
demonstrate that certain assumptions are unlikely, but it cannot prove that
testimonies are false. I believe that science and religion can coexist as long
as we remember that each measures different things (see Isaiah 55:8-9 and
1 Corinthians 2). The definitive proof of the Book of Mormon’s
authenticity comes in the Lord’s laboratory of spiritual revelation by
following the formula laid out in Moroni 10:3-5.9
On 16 February 2006 the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article questioning the
authenticity of the Book of Mormon based on studies of human DNA. Citing DNA
“evidence” that suggests an Asian ancestry for people native to the
Americas, critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have for
the past several years claimed that these DNA studies demonstrate that the Book
of Mormon account of a group of colonists coming from the Middle East in 600 BC
cannot be authentic. The following article briefly addresses questions
surrounding the applicability of DNA studies to the peoples whose story is told
in the Book of Mormon. Points of
view expressed here are mine and in no way reflect the official opinion of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the U.S. Department of Commerce
or National Institute of Standards and Technology. This was originally posted
in February 2006 on the FARMS Web site at
farms.byu.edu/publications/dna/ButlerBofMandDNA_Feb2006.php (accessed 24 April 2006).
1. See John M. Butler, Forensic DNA Typing: Biology, Technology, and Genetics of
STR Markers, 2nd ed. (New York: Elsevier, 2005).
B. Goldstein and Lounés Chikhi, “Human Migrations and Population
Structure: What We Know and Why It Matters,” Annual
Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 3 (2002): 129-52, at
H. Relethford, Genetics and the Search for Modern
Human Origins (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), 205.
John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find
Others There?” Journal of Book of Mormon
Studies 1/1 (1992): 1-34.
John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for
the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
6. Agnar Helgason et al., “A Populationwide Coalescent Analysis of
Icelandic Matrilineal and Patrilineal Genealogies: Evidence for a Faster
Evolutionary Rate of mtDNA Lineages than Y Chromosomes,” American Journal of Human Genetics 72/6
et al., “Populationwide Coalescent Analysis,” 1370, emphasis added.
H. Crawford, The Origins of Native Americans:
Evidence from Anthropological Genetics (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), 261.
John M. Butler, “A Few Thoughts from a Believing DNA Scientist,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003):