Can Iceland Help You Chill Out Over the DNA Controversy?

For those of you who have become heated up over the issue of DNA evidence and the Book of Mormon, I suggest you turn to Iceland for a cool splash on reality about exploring the past with genetic science.

I refer to a study published in 2003 about Icelandic ancestry using DNA tools and genealogical data. The reference is A. Helgason, B. Hrafnkelsson, J.R. Gulcher, R. Ward, and K. Stefansson, “A Population-Wide 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: 1370-1388 (2003). The link is to the HTML version of the full text online; a PDF version is also available.

I learned of this interesting study while reading John M. Butler’s Feb. 2006 FARMS article, “Addressing Questions Surrounding The Book of Mormon and DNA Research,” prepared in response to a “news” story on DNA and the Book of Mormon in the LA Times. Dr. Butler’s perspectives merit careful attention. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Butler on the Icelandic results:

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 1798 and 1742.

Examining the same Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA markers used in other genetic studies, these 131,060 Icelanders revealed highly 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. 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 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 seen with Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests from modern Iceland, then the possibility can exist for people that are reported in the Book of Mormon to have migrated to the Americas over 2600 years ago and yet not have detectable genetic signatures today. [italics in the original]

If genetic evidence for many known ancestors of Icelandic people does not show up in DNA testing after just two hundred years, all traces of Lehi and Sariah could easily have vanished among modern Native Americans based on Y-Chromosome and mtDNA testing, respectively.

On the other hand, since we don’t know anything substantial about Lehi’s DNA and certainly not Sariah’s, it seems difficult to be sure that genetic traces aren’t present. But that’s OK. If you want to leave the Church because a lot of Asians came to the Americas anciently (possibly including the Jaredites) as well as Lehi’s little boatload of people, that’s as good a reason as any, I’m sure. Ditto for those who want out because many Church leaders have made overly simplistic comments regarding the origins of Native Americans, not appreciating the significance of non-Book of Mormon migrations or the geographical limitations present in the text. Make sure your next church fills its leadership positions with professional anthropologists. I also think that LDS leadership is weak in quantum mechanics and astrophysics, but that’s a complaint for a future post on this blog.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

19 thoughts on “Can Iceland Help You Chill Out Over the DNA Controversy?

  1. Make sure your next church fills its leadership positions with professional anthropologists. I also think that LDS leadership is weak in quantum mechanics and astrophysics, but that’s a complaint for a future post on this blog.

    Very cogent and witty. I like it. *applauds*

  2. I love this study. This is a real world example of the “what ifs” that we postulated that could explain the present day DNA evidence while still maintaining the Book of Mormon as historical fact.

    Put in other words, this is evidence of how Y-chromosome and mtDNA can “dead end” in just a few generations, and the ancestors of the dead-ended DNA don’t even have to be a small minority.

    Southerton’s “conclusions” don’t take into account possibilities of real history and real descendents and just plain facts of who-married-who, and who had all boys, and who had all girls in any given family.

    It’s very easy for a line of male descendency to “dead end”, and for a line of female descendency to “dead end.”

    Over 2600 years, it’s quite possible that all direct male descendents of a given man will at some point upon each branch of descendency have a family with no boys. And ditto for the direct female descendants of a given female, having at some point along each branch of descendency, a family with no girls. And in those cases, “POOF,” the Y-chromosome of that male ancestor disappears, and the mtDNA of that female ancestor disappears.

    One can see the logic just by imagining the possibilities. And the Icelandic study is evidence that such a possibility has indeed happened.

  3. As an Anthropologist and a member of the Church, I’ve taken a little flak on this subject because of my stance. Basically, I believe that much of what we know about genetics/DNA is in its infancy. Besides, nay-sayers have been trying to disprove the Church for over 150 years; so I really don’t take their “advances” that seriously now.

  4. I don’t understand. Has BYU Alter Ego completely abandoned the Internet? I keep waiting for him to chime in and explain why the scientists quoted here are weak-minded mercenaries, but it still hasn’t happened.

  5. Slate has an article on the recent PBS show about tracking your ancestry via genetic testing.

    This paragraph (understandably) stood out for me:

    “But for other groups things can get a lot more complicated. Many amateur genealogists are interested in whether they might have a Cherokee ancestor, for example. And for some people, admixture tests can give a relatively accurate answer about Native-American ancestry. But other people, including Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews, may have “Native American affinity,” according to the tests, even if they and their ancestors have never been to America. As far as anthropologists know, there were no lost tribes connecting Greeks, Jews, and ancient Americans. So, maybe this “Native American affinity” reflects the scattering of alleles by prehistoric Asian nomads to the ancestors of Greeks and Jews as well as to American Indians. Maybe the SNPs that they share gave these groups a leg up in fighting diseases.”

    I understand that these Jews are sometimes considered to not be “middle-eastern” jews, but in conjunction with the icelandic study, this raises some interesting notions.

  6. And here I am married to someone with a long line of jewish ancestry yet her ‘patriarchal blessing’ puts her in the tribe of Ephraim.
    Her parents are strict orthodox with the hats & curls and everything, including disowning her for the marriage. One and two generations back are entombed at many locations in Poland and Germany such as Auschwitz and others. Before that they go back to nothing but jewish enclaves.

    But, she is a ‘gentile’.

    Kind of like GordieB of the Big 3 and his not believing (or maybe not ever read) the King Follett discourse and for some wierd reasons teaches we don’t believe what Joseph Smith plainly taught.

    You can get anything out of the stuff presented if you suspend reason.

  7. Polygsrus–

    Friend–chill! I am tempted to offer a possible–note that–possible explanation for your wife’s lineage (being a “Gentile” means being from a lineage outside the house of Israel. Ephraim is definitely of the House of Israel and there has been a great deal of mixing over the ages. It’s highly possible that her greater lineage came from Ephraimite descendants.

    However, when someone talks of another’s revered religious leader so flippantly (GordieB of the Big?–How old are we again?), I’m not terribly inclined to dignify such talk with a response.

  8. Polygsrus, a patriarchal blessing is quite literally a father’s blessing, very similar to the blessing that Jacob received from his father Isaac or that Ephraim received from Jacob (Israel). Its main purpose is to declare one’s lineage, which is an inheritance (temporal and spiritual), not a declaration of genetics. Specifically, it tells you of the blessings you are heir to, assuming you continue to be righteous and are faithful in obtaining the appropriate ordinances.

    The blessings given during a patriarchal blessing are typically those that have been made to the faithful in the scriptures. Any other blessings or warnings are given according to the promptings the patriarch receives from the Holy Ghost. The Stake Patriarch (i.e. “father”) is entitled to receive revelation for those in the stake, just as a father is entitled to receive revelation for those in his family.

    Since Ephraim received the greater blessing and the scriptures tell us that we can become heirs to that blessing, members of the Church are assumed to have the lineage of Ephraim, unless the patriarch is moved upon by the Holy Ghost to declare a different lineage (and thus a different “inheritance”).

    In short, you shouldn’t get too hung up about your wife’s lineage. It is spiritually important, but you are interpreting it in the wrong way.

    Back on topic, however. Based on the Wikipedia information on Ashkenazi Jews and their genetics, Southerton’s argument seems incredibly weak. If Ashkenazi Jews make up 80% of the current population of today’s Jews, if they only made up 3% of Jews in the 11th century, and if only 40% of today’s Jews have that specific mtDNA (which traces back to 4 women in the 1st or 2nd century A.D.), it seems extremely likely that most Jews in 600 B.C. Judea would not have had that specific mtDNA.

  9. DNA is a way better acronym than LDS. It also illustrates the corruption of anthropologists in our society.

    Anyone for coffee?

  10. I don’t want to chill on the DNA issue. The facts are on our side. About 63% of self declared Native Americans (NA) males in the US have a Y-chromosome that could be Jewish. About 31% of them are Q-P36 which is rare in Europe and thus can not be dismissed as pre-Columbian. Only one NA lineage group, C-P39, is of East Asian origin and only 9% of NA males have it. As for the MtDNA, big deal. The Lemba have no Semitic MtDNA. Yet they are acknowledged as being of Jewish descent solely on the basis of Y-chromosomes.

  11. Wouldn’t it be just soooo easy if only the dna mutated fast enough for 150 years to be all that was necasary to record our paternal (or maternal) linages?

  12. I am not sure where in the BofM it states that Jewish DNA was in all people in the book. Who can prove that all the Jewish DNA did not get wiped out after they arrived? Who are the critics to interpet the BofM? Where is it stated that all the people that came with Lehi had Jewish DNA. IF only Lehi was the only Jew and all the woman were non-Jews would the Jewish show up?

  13. If all the original DUDES were Jews, then yes, as long as there were still any DUDE desendants, their would be jewie DNA in the Y chromosome. Women don’t effect that part of the DNA in any way. It is strictly father to son and so on.

  14. 1. Regarding the Icelandic study, when I was stationed there in 1962, we encountered enormous resistance towards making any contact with the local females due to the fact that approximately 60% of them had previously married either American or British soldiers after WWII, which left a serious dearth of potential mates for the local males left behind. They had a vigorus policy of enticing foreign women to relocate to Iceland even at that late date. I was informed that many had accepted from Germany and Ireland.
    That may explain part of the anomaly.

    2. 1 Nephi 5:14 lists Lehi as a descendant of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt.

    3. For those who waste their time and efforts “straining at gnats, and swallowing camels” may I commend for your englightment and pleasure LEADERSHIP and SELF DECEPTION by The Arbinger Institute, and it’s sequel, The ANATOMY of PEACE.
    I have personally found them to be formidable allies in our struggle to avoid and overcome the common pitfalls that afflicts us when we engage in any activity that diminishes the worth of others.

  15. “Kind of like GordieB of the Big 3 and his not believing (or maybe not ever read) the King Follett discourse and for some wierd reasons teaches we don’t believe what Joseph Smith plainly taught.

    I dislike the flipancy but this is the second reference I’ve read recently regarding the President Hinckley’s teachings about ‘as man is god once was and as god is man may become’, or so this appears. Evidently he said something suggesting that we do not believe this? Does someone have a reference for this?



  16. Jonbill, the reference is due to a reporter or the reporter’s editor inserting a “quotation” in a national magazine. Having functioned as a reservist journalist while on active duty during Desert Storm, and having heard that an LDS former mayor of my town said that of hundreds of quotes by the press not one was accurate, I am as inclined to believe the editor changed or inserted the quote as anything else.

    I further understand that often the best response to a public accusation is to ignore it because that way it gets less publicity. As President Hinckley was a journalist himself, I suppose he was well aware of the prudence of non-response.

    For the benefit of some who had heard of or read the bad “quote”, he said in the following General Conference, probably in Priesthood meeting, something along the lines of “Let me assure you that I know the Church’s doctrine.”

    Clearly President Hinkley knew and believed the doctrine in question. Whether he said something that could be misunderstood or the error was entirely on the reporter and/or editorial staff cannot be honestly determined however without divine revelation. I haven’t gotten that on the matter ’cause it doesn’t matter enough to me to ask. We and he are/were all human be he was also the Lord’s faithful prophet.


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