DNA and the Book of Mormon: Rejecting an Absurd Oversimplication

Critics of the Book of Mormon want the world to think that it requires nothing but Jewish ancestry for all Native Americas. This is an “absurd simplification,” per Nibley in a passage quoted below. In fact, the account of the Jaredites in the Book of Ether points to Asiatic origins for an ancient migration. Though Ether saw a great battle with few survivors as the Jaredite civilization collapsed, the Book of Mormon provides subtle hints that Jaredite influence remained in population groups that mixed with the Nephites and Lamanites.

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.

See my LDSFAQ page on the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon for further details.

In Bob Bennet’s surprisingly good and highly readable book about the Book of Mormon, Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, he quotes the above passage from Nibley and further argues that the Book of Mormon should be given credit for pointing to an ancient Asian link in the gene pool of the Americas long before science established that connection. Interesting.

Bennet also makes the point that while the story of the Jaredites plays an important and pervasive background role in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Ether itself makes little sense from the perspective of a forger trying to craft something that will sell. All risk and difficulty with little to gain–would have been much better and more logical for a forger to just leave that out and stick with more familiar topics and themes. It’s boring, dry, highly condensed, sketchy, and utterly different from the rest of the text in terms of culture and behaviors. For careful readers of the Book of Mormon, though, it plays a vital role and adds subtlety and dimensions of meaning that pervade the rest of the text. One example is the recently noticed relationship between ancient Jaredite names and later rebels within the Nephite people, suggesting that indigenous remnants of Jaredite culture brought in under Nephite rule were important sources for political and religious rebels like Corianton. Again, interesting. One of those subtleties that make sense if the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record that is, after all, “smarter” than Joseph Smith.

Oops, I diverged from the topic again. OK, back to DNA. If you’ve got some, be grateful. And if you or anyone else like, say, a Native American friend, has some Asian DNA, again, be grateful. It’s great stuff and is no reason to let your faith be shaken up.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

91 thoughts on “DNA and the Book of Mormon: Rejecting an Absurd Oversimplication

  1. "…a list of possibilities, few of which have ever been seriously considered."

    Let's be very upfront about something.

    No one has any reason to accept the Ether account of how the Jaredites came to the Americas. It is beyond absurd to think that it happened in the fashion described in that BoM, and any serious consideration about it usually results in talking about how absolutely impossible it is for a group of people to survive nearly a year at sea in one of those entirely impractical quasi-submarine vessels.

  2. Surviving on a long journey across the ocean simply could not have happened? Crude ships have survived long journeys for many months in the ancient history of sailing. This one, in spite of the skimpy textual description–had divine help in the engineering and preparations. Sure, it could have gotten there faster, but the journey itself was part of the refiners fire for these people. How can you demonstrate that survival would have been impossible? There are some good questions to ask about their water supply especially, but with a little engineering, I think we can fill in the gaps. Might not even need a nuclear powered distillation unit after all.

  3. I think it's truly ironic that the "principle ancestors" belief might have been correct but mistakenly applied to the wrong people. I've said for a long time that Joseph didn't understand the words in the actual book very well – certainly not as well as most "authors" know their stories.

    As to the journey as described, as a history teacher, I have read plenty of accounts of accepted journeys that aren't all that different.

    Also, we have almost NO description of what the barges looked like – except that they were tight enough to not draw water and could be closed off from being inundated by water. They were "small" (which is an obviously relative term), and they were "the length of a tree" (which tells us next to nothing about their actual length), but there is nothing whatsoever about their width or height. There also is nothing – absolutely nothing – that describes their shape, other than that they were "peaked" at the ends. Finally, they were called "barges" in the translation, which brings me to my last point.

    Calling them "quasi-submarine vessels" doesn't match at all what is described in the verses themselves – especially since it is clear that they didn't spend most of their time under water (or even long periods of time). The vast majority of their time was spent being "driven by the wind" – and it was spent "upon" the water.

    Again, if you're going to call it impossible, at least quote exactly what you think was impossible.

  4. The narrative of the Jaredite journey is so sparse as to tell us next to nothing about the route that was taken or any events that might have taken place, such as stopovers, etc. With the few details that we have available, making a categorical statement of impossibility might be just a bit presumptuous.


  5. one of those entirely impractical quasi-submarine vessels.

    What was impractical? Granted, not very cozy but they were functional to get from point A to point B which seemed to be God's main purpose for the Jaredites.

  6. Jeff,
    "Crude ships have survived long journeys for many months in the ancient history of sailing."

    This was 340 days, and the passengers weren't all human. Flocks and herds and whatever also needed water. The situation becomes even more absurd when looking at the fact that they were underwater quite frequently (as explored in my reply to Papa D)

    Papa D,
    Maybe if I was some typical anti-mormon, I'd pretend things were in the BoM that really aren't. however, in Ether 6:
    "And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them…"

    "…And it came to pass that when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being atight like unto a dish…therefore when they were encompassed about by many waters they did cry unto the Lord, and he did bring them forth again upon the top of the waters."

    in Ether 2:
    "For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea;"

    "Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?"

    Quasi-submarine. Obviously intended for the top of the ocean, but also entirely capable of being underwater.

    And they were underwater, as described in the text, which really does away with the hole idea behind having an "air hole", which would certainly have to have been more than your average miracle if one air hole was supposed to supply air for the entire barge–filled with people and animals–especially considering it was plugged for the duration of the time spent underwater. Don't forget all the excreting that'd be going on, which contributes to poor air quality. and disease.

    The logistics of it all just become absurd.

  7. I think it was Nibley that pointed out that one of the most ancient stories of the flood found in Sumerian texts talks about the ark of Noah being peaked on the ends (and closed tight I think) and lighted by glowing stones. And it was supposedly on the water for a year with possibly a whole lot more animals aboard. Somehow they survived the year on the water (and maybe under the water/waves at times too).

    Since Jared and his group were from a time when Noah's son, Shem, was still alive, you wonder if they used some ideas about the ark they learned second hand from a good source when constructing the ships – or the Lord built on what they already were familiar with.

  8. Dave,
    I don't mean to open this can of worms, but the story of noah's ark realtes so highly to the story in the epic of gilgamesh that it's likely that the story in Genesis came straight from it.

    The two stories are followed point by point, and in the same order–but with different gods and a few minor detail differences. you can see the gilgamesh myth for yourself here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_flood_myth

    I dont want to take this into a debate about noah's ark. i'm just saying that it's pretty doubtful noah's ark ever happened.

  9. Hmmm…if the same story is told in many cultures with about the same details, it seems to me that there is a seed of truth behind those stories. What really happened is masked by the different cultural influences on the variations of the story, as well as details lost to time.

    I tend to agree that the flood story as interpreted by most people is fairly implausible (or maybe just miraculous). Maybe with our limited information from the stories that have survived, we just don't know how it happened exactly. Same with the Jaredites. Some degree of faith and openmindedness is required in both stories as we only have high level summaries of both events.

  10. No one has any reason to accept the Ether account of how the Jaredites came to the Americas. It is beyond absurd to think that it happened in the fashion described…

    I think the Apollo moon landings were faked, too. I mean, seriously, it's "beyond absurd" to expect they could go to the moon and back using such primitive technology! The alleged flight computers had less capability than my wristwatch! And we knew nothing about control systems and inertial navigation back then compared to what we know now.

  11. Openminded and Papa D both made quite compatible comments. Papa D said that the barges probably didn't spend most of their time under water. That is obvious from the verses Openminded quoted. Yes, they spent time under water (again "depths of the sea and "swallowed up" doesn't mean the barges were hundreds of feet down, they could have been 20-30 feet under at times, maybe even for an hour or more, depending on storms). If the barges floated at all, they would have ended up on the surface of the ocean as quickly as possible (again, except with storms and waves driving them under water – hence the prayers to go back to the surface).

    The barges had air holes, they could plug them up as needed though.

    However, there is a lot we do not know. The book of Ether is based on translations of 24 plates that were found. The translation was added to the gold plates with interspersed commentary. What we do know is remarkable but there is so much that we don't know that there is little point in quibbling over motes about the boats.

    Besides, all of this about the barges was a red herring. It really doesn't address the core point of Jeff's post, which is that nothing in the Book of Mormon contradicts what little we know from anthropological studies (and in fact, much of it confirms what we have learned from science). Further, over time as science progresses, instead of giving more and more evidence contradicting the Book of Mormon, findings add to the evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. That's remarkable.

    As for crude ships surviving long periods of time on the open ocean, read Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (someone who was derided for his beliefs about what was possible for ancient peoples). As a side note, I found it interesting that Thor Heyerdahl included old native American (South American) stories (legends) about great battles between light and dark skinned peoples; battles that essentially wiped out civilizations.

    Anyway, there is a lot that we do not know. We can fill in gaps but we're simply extrapolating information based on logic (or illogic). Again, what's remarkable is that for a book "made up" by a young, uneducated (but brilliant, except for when critics call him stupid) farmer, we have cultural, linguistic, religious, anthropological, and more evidence to support the book with very little to no evidence that contradicts it (any lack of evidence is not contradictory evidence).

    Thanks Jeff for all your brilliant posts.

  12. Jared, your comments are spot on! I don't think anybody has ever found the "blueprints" to the Egyptian pyramids, and if someone were to say – through oral tradition – that structures that tall and large and perfectly aligned and built with mathematical concepts few understood for a milennia later, and that are amazing to have been built even with our technology today – we would laugh at them – if they weren't still standing there for all to see.
    It's too bad that wood decays. But faith according to Alma "… faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true."
    This exercise of faith with limited hard evidence is essential to increase your ability to understand godly things.

  13. "This exercise of faith with limited hard evidence is essential to increase your ability to understand godly things."

    Would this also not hold true of things which are false? I mean that same sort of reasoning is used by the fundamentalist church in regards to Warren Jeffs being a prophet, or Scientologists and their own ideas on what the afterlife is like.

  14. Ooohhh, so the BoM teachings that the Jaredites were not wiped out, but rather ended up being the principle ancestors of Native Americans. This sudden reading comprehension of the BoM shows a lack of comprehension of the critic’s argument.

    I recall about 6 years ago a Mormon acquaintance used this Nibley Lehi had Asiatic blood argument with me. I just chuckled and explained to him that the critic’s argument is not that Asiatic DNA should not exist in the new world, but that there should exist an abundance of some sort of Semitic DNA. That is if the theory previously propagated by a divinely inspired leadership was factual, then the State of Israel would be reconsidering its immigration policies due to the hundreds of thousands of impoverish Latin Americans with predominate indigenous blood seeking Isareli citizenship based on their DNA. Mormanity’s response is to cop out suggesting there is no single Jewish DNA marker, in other words, admit the critics are right only according to current understanding, but if we could just torture the definition of this or that enough the critics would be wrong.

    My Mormon acquaintance looked down dejected with the realization that what he thought was a foolproof response was indeed not. I told him not to worry, that if he was looking for a foolproof response, that a talented apologist would have simply argued like so: God modified Lamanite DNA when he changed there skin color, ergo DNA studies are pointless. He perked up, got a little excited and asked what the critic response would be to this explanation. I told him that this explanation is fine, but that the explanation requires one to accept the nature of God as deceitful, because not only did God modify their DNA, he deliberately modified it to corroborate the Bering Strait/Asiatic theories (which existed at JS’s time) as opposed to some entirely new species of human being.

    A couple of days later he retorted that the Mormon’s are charitable, do not have paid clergy, blah, blah, etc. To which I told him congratulations, the Rotaries do not either, but the Rotaries do not go around saying that everyone needs the Rotary leadership and writings to go to be happy and go to Heaven.

  15. Jared/JonnyLingo,

    You are right, a lack of evidence for Lord of the Rings does not contradict the story, but the recent discover of hobbit like skeletons is even more prove today that the story is “true”.

    You might as well have said – over time as science progresses findings add to the evidence in support of Ignatius Donnelly Atlantis theory of the new world – which of course is an absurd statement, not at all remarkable. Your same logic requires Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrew to be more true today (what, causian Mummies in China, Ethan Smith must have been right about the ten tribes going through the Bering Strait) or the Voree Plates.

  16. Of course, Mateo, but it's beside the point. The point is that the actual account in Ether isn't patently absurd – and it's not even very different than lots of accounts that are accepted as plausible, at least, and even probable by solid, well-respected scholars.

    That's all my comment asserted – that it's silly to dismiss it as "absolutely impossible".

    Openminded, it's already been said by others, but I will add one more thing:

    Hyperbole is nearly omni-present in ancient writings – and, as your comment illustrates, it's not dead even now. "Swallowed up" and "the depths", used in that context, tell us absolutely nothing about how deep the barges went into the water (or how long they were covered by water. Seriously, as a historian, I don't bat an eye at that kind of language – since it happens all the time in writings.

    "All the world was taxed" is the easiest scriptural example, and I believe we take FAR too many things literally (with our own modern understanding of them) in our scriptures. We. just. don't. know. exactly. what. those. words. mean. in. context. I'll even add, "Period." – if that will help emphasize my point.

    Having said all of that, it's not the main point of Jeff's post – and you've dodged his main point very well by changing the topic. I'm dropping this threadjack now, so, hopefully, we can get back to the very valid point Jeff made in the post.

  17. Mormography, your acquaintance's assertions about DNA changing were stupid and not believed by anyone here, I hope, nor by the VAST majority of Mormons.

    As to the Jaredites, I revert once more to my time as a history teacher. There are LOTS of examples of ancient destruction narratives that chronicle the total annihilation of kingdoms – but MANY of those narratives don't describe the entire destruction of all people who originated from common ancestors. The narratives followed the "central kingdom" – since the writers were focused on the succession of leaders, not the "masses".

    The Book of Ether covers thousands of years – even if we accept the timeframe of the Bible, which I don't accept automatically. It tells of those people who stayed close enough to the capital of the kingdom to remain under the control / influence of the leaders of the kingdom. It says nothing(absoutely nothing) of any people who might have left the kingdom and settled elsewhere – and it is highly unlikely, given the nomadic culture the book describes, that everyone would have settled down and stayed around to be fodder for the armies of those thow struggled to control the kingdom. Of course, they aren't mentioned, since the writers wouldn't have cared one bit about them.

    It's not a stretch whatsoever to believe the descendants of the original Jaredites spread out across the continent, while the royal leaders stayed in one place and fought for power and control. That's the modus operandi for lots of ancient narratives – and it would be MUCH more implausible if the record of the kings actually made mention of them, since an obsessive focus on succession also is a hallmark of ancient "kingship narratives".

    Iow, the Book of Ether doesn't even pretend to be a comprehensive history. It is a kingship narrative – and a very representative one, when analyzed as such.

  18. PapaD,

    What?? Stupid?? How did God change their skin color to the extend that anyone who mixed their seed with theirs would also have the curse without changing their DNA?

    I am not sure if all Jaredite/BoEther stuff is direct at me or why. I merely mentioned that it is a sudden reading comprehension in response to a misunderstanding of the critics arguments. I did not called it implausible or stupid. But since you are the self declare expert of VAST majority Mormon opinion I guess we should take your word for it that any theory that competes with yours is stupid.
    Until now every Mormon I have encounter has been impressed by the changing DNA explanation. You are the very, very first I have found that thinks it is “stupid”.

  19. What?? Stupid?? How did God change their skin color to the extend that anyone who mixed their seed with theirs would also have the curse without changing their DNA?

    Ummm, changing the skin pigmentation?

  20. Papa D,
    Jeff mentioned how no one has really taken these theories about Jaredite migrations from Asia, and I was commenting about how it's because the stories are absurd.

    I mean, approaching someone saying "The Jaredites came to the americas on a barge, we have an account of it!" and then saying "but, I mean, those ancient writers were pretty sensationalistic. No problem though, right?" doesn't help.

    You don't just plug up the only two air holes in the boat and pretend suffocating didn't happen in such an "air tight" and confined space. Not sure Kon-Tiki had much to say about vessels that were built like that, either.

    Once again, there's no reason to accept the account in Ether–which pretty much destroys any chance of an outsider taking these Jaredite migration theories seriously.

    But you're right, this is getting off topic. "Oops, I diverged from the topic again. OK, back to DNA. "