In my opinion, the text of the Book of Mormon inherently points to a limited geographical scope for the New World events it describes. That geography is remarkably self-consistent and can be fit in Mesoamerica. But those who recognize the limited geography of the Book of Mormon text are often challenged to reconcile that view with a statement from Joseph Smith about a white Lamanite named Zelph. The alleged statement has been used to suggest that Book of Mormon events spanned the hemisphere, and that final battle of the Nephites and the Lamanites was in the United States, not Mesoamerica. The Zelph story is fascinating, but has been warped by hearsay and sloppy journalism. An effort to correct several mistakes in popular understanding regarding that story can be found in an article by Ken Godfrey, “What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?” I urge you to read it. It also explores some issues of Book of Mormon geography, showing that at least by 1842 Joseph Smith may have supported the concept that Zarahemla was in Mesoamerica, consistent with the modern limited geography view of many LDS scholars who delve into the details of the Book of Mormon.
I mention Zelph by way of prelude to the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon. Daniel Carlson asked if I was going to comment on a recent USA Today story on DNA and the Book of Mormon, giving publicity to ex-Mormon Simon Southerton’s attack on the Church based on the DNA issue. I don’t think that the story brings up anything new that hasn’t already been refuted previously. As I show in my own little essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon, the critics miss the boat on several counts. Southerton seems to think that refuting popular but naive views on the Book of Mormon, rather than what the Book of Mormon actually says, is enough to destroy the Church. These popular and naive views maintain that the Book of Mormon describes the origins of all Native Americans from South America to North America, and that when the term “Lamanite” is used to refer to modern Native Americans, it means that they are primarily descended from Lehi. By showing that many Native Americans in fact have Asian roots, we are now supposed to abandon the Book of Mormon and the Church.
When LDS apologists point out that the Book of Mormon does not deny the existence of other groups and other migrations, show that “Lamanite” is often used in a non-genetic sense, or explain that the text does not require a hemispheric scope, the critics scoff and say that this is pathetic backpedaling in light of the devastating DNA evidence. In fact, if our prophets had been real prophets, we are told, they would have been clarifying the scientific details of the Book of Mormon long ago, teaching us the limited geographic scope of the Book of Mormon and the existence of other migrations.
Actually, Joseph Smith, at least in 1842, was open to the idea of a Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon and also had no problems with the idea of other migrations, based on a statement about the Toltecs (I discuss this on my DNA page.) Other Church leaders such as Anthony Ivins in the 1920s have also warned against naive assumptions about the Book of Mormon, and have pointed out that other peoples not mentioned in its pages may have come here to populate this continent anciently. Many voices in the Church have long taught exactly what apologists are explaining now – it’s not a new innovation in response to DNA studies. It’s simply progress in better understanding what the text actually says.
The arguments of the DNA critics also seem to require the naive notion that everything real prophets say and do must be inspired. The reality is that prophets have their own opinions and notions, and can pick up a lot of human baggage in their thinking, one of the downsides of being human. When God speaks and they give us revelation, that is wonderful, but God does not take over the prophets’ brains 24-7. I am not aware of any official First Presidency statements or canonized teachings that pin down the origins of all Native Americans, or that settle the issue of Book of Mormon geography. For some reason, the prophets have been concerned with getting people to repent and come to Christ and serve the Lord, at the expense of seeking revelation on scientific details relevant to the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the day will come when prophets have almost as much passion for science as they do for service and charity, and that they will seek revelation on the details that interest me, but for now, I think it’s up to us individually to do the best we can to understand the text. We must not be bound by naive but popular assumptions of the past, even if good men in high positions in the Church held such opinions.
The reality is that the Book of Mormon is not inconsistent with predominately Asian origins for Native Americans. The Jaredites probably brought over some of this Asian DNA. (The Book of Mormon provides internal evidence that Jaredite influence was still strong long after Ether saw the great destruction of the Jaredite civil war – showing that not everyone joined and stuck with the two fighting armies that destroyed each other.) We don’t even know anything about the DNA of the people that came with Lehi or later with Mulek. Did it include some Asian haplotypes? In any case, Lehi’s tiny boatload of people entering a populated continent cannot be expected to have had a huge impact on the DNA of the continent 2600 years later. But it is entirely probably that this tiny drop of Middle Eastern influence did spread. Even with minimal gene flow, it is possible that nearly every Native American today is partly descended from Lehi, though it may be one part in 10,000 or so. The Book of Mormon never gave us any reason to expect that DNA testing would show most Native Americans to have Jewish DNA (whatever that is).