Monday, February 20, 2006

The Book of Mormon, DNA, Native Americans, and Archaeology

This story in last week's LA Times chronicles another collision between science and religion, a type of story much in the news these days.

The story deals with one of the basic tenets of the Mormon Church - Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints - or LDS as they often refer to themselves. Native Americans play a critical role in the faith in that the Book of Mormon says that they are decended from a tribe of Jews who sailed from Israel to the New World around 600 BC. They split into two warring factions, the Nephites and Lamanites. The Nephites were pure and light-skinned and remained true to Hebraic and Christian faiths. The Lamanites fell into idolatry and were dark-skinned. The Lamanites won a great war between the factions and wiped the Nephites out. This explains the fact that Native Americans weren't aware of the Hebrew or Christian faiths when Europeans first arrived. It also also gives Native Americans a special place in LDS prosletyzing in that the decendants of Lamanites can convert to the faith and become Nephites.

Recent use of DNA testing however, has shown pretty conclusively that Native Americans are all of Asian descent and show no evidence of origins in the Middle East. This seems to undermine LDS scripture and opponents of the church have used it against them. Native Americans quoted in this article say they are disheartened or believe they have been lied to. LDS members say that the studies are being twisted to attack their beliefs. You can read the arguments yourself.

In the long run, I don't think that this will do much to undermine the faith of those who chose to believe in the Book of Mormon. After all, we have 150 years or so of historical research and archaeological studies that don't prove the Christian bible to be literally true in every sense, and Christianity seems to be toddling along just fine.

The LDS community has funded a great deal of archaeological research in the New World, much of it through Brigham Young University. Most of this is focused on the high civilizations of Central and South America to prove on the ground the descriptions of conditions described in the Book of Mormon. A sample of some publications from BYU research is shown here. For example some prehistoric Native American motifs in ceramics and architecture make use of a cross. This is seized upon as proof of the Nephite connection.

One rumor that I first heard nearly 30 years ago, deals with another Native American connection with the origins of the LDS faith. According to the founding story of the religion, the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith, a young man living in southwestern New York state in the 1820s. Moroni eventually told Smith of the location of buried golden tablets with "heiroglyphic" writing on them telling the story of the Nephites and Lamanites that was compiled by the prophet Mormon. Smith dug these up and with them found a breastplate, a brass tablet with writing, and two stone tablets whose heiroglyphs helped Smith translate the golden tablets.

Smith worked with friends to translate the tablets and he dictated his translation to them. A number of people saw the tablets and there are many sworn affidavits testifying to their existence. Today the LDS claim not to have them, saying that they were returned to divine care.
The rumor I have heard in archaeological circles, and this is just a rumor, is that the tablets may have been prehistoric artifacts from Woodland period cultures (very roughly 1000 BC - AD 500) known from the upper Midwest to include the area where Smith lived. There are stone and ceramic "tablets" with decorative designs on them that look like this:

And this:
Some manifestations also worked in copper. Nuggets of pure native copper are found in the Great Lakes area, and were cold-hammered by the Native Americans into breastplates (!) and plaques that look like this:

If you were an unsophisticated farmer from upstate New York in 1830 and a fellow showed you piles of obviously ancient artifacts that look like these and said they were heiroglyphic tablets, what would you say?

As I said, this is just speculation, but its plausibility has always intrigued me.


Anonymous said...

He didn't dig up the tablets - he was supposed to have been given them, plus a special means of translating them. Have you ever heard such nonsense - based on Moses being given the Ten Commandments. Both storie are fiction. Superstition. Non-sense.

Anonymous said...

Joseph Smith made a lot of money out of mormonism. Good shyster - not as crazy as he seems.

Anonymous said...

Look up Mormonism on the internet - it's all there.

Heidi the Hick said...

Hi Mr Bodio, I'm a real person not an anonymous! First of all I think your blog is fascinating (got here from Fretmarks). Second, I'm not about to slag anybody's religion because I'm Mennonite and have taken my share of ridicule! I read some of the Book of Mormon out of curiosity a while back. Entertaining. Your column puts it in perspective and in context. We humans seem to have a need to explain things. I'm sure if it'd been me who discovered those artifacts I would have created an elaborate false history; how could I resist!

Steve Bodio said...

Hi Heidi. Credit should go to my partner Reid who wrote this post, as his archaeological background is more suited to the material. But I think your response is in the right spirit: humans are creatures who seek meaning in what they see, and tell stories. In time it may become necessary to question those stories, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't tell them!

For what it's worth, I know a Mormon biologist who is also a thoroughgoing Darwinist. We are all more complex than caricatures...

Are you in Montana? When Libby lived there we used to buy a lot of produce from Mennonite farmers.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Steve, were those Montana vegetable growers Mennonite or Hutterite? Around here we're more likely to have Hutterites or "Hoots" as people call them. Affectionately, I hope.

I agree that most religions make sense IF they are taken in context but NONE if they are removed from their original assumptions. Mormon LDS is remarkable exactly because it HAS morphed a lot over the years. At one time, when it was started back east, it was as liberal as Unitarianism -- well, maybe not California Unitarian.

I've got a book about a New Guinea religious system so bizaare that it hardly seems rational at all, until you know what it's like to live in a jungle without enough to eat on an island that is all ridges and valleys. It's all about cassowaries and (ahem) semen, which those people thought was like breast milk. My thesis advisor wouldn't let me write about it, but now I'm old and can do what I want, so I will!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Sham. Found this blog to totally reinforce this too.

Doug Forbes said...

Back in 1996 Peter Underhill, a PhD from Stanford University calculated that the most recent common ancestor of most American Indians lived 2147 year ago. He used a mutation rate of 2.1 per 1000; a rate observed in living populations. Since then, he has been trying to explain this by developing an ‘effective’ mutation rate.
His theory is that even though we see mutations occurring at rates of 2.1 per 1000 (Weber & Wong) and even 2.8 per 1000 (Kayser) in living populations, mutations don't accumulate that fast over thousands of years. His first attempt to do this focused on Maoris and Gypsies. He and his colleague, Zhivotovsky, came up with an ‘effective’ Y-chromosome mutation rate of about 0.7 per 1000. This was used in subsequent studies including one on Native Americans led by Zegura in 2004.
Zegura calculated that a common male ancestor of Native Americans in the Q-M3 lineage lived between 10,000 and 17,000 years ago using the ‘effective’ mutation rate. Zegura also calculated that the Q-P36 lineage entered America between 10,000 and 17,000 ago. In 2006 Underhill and Zhivotovsky, did more work and found that lineage extinction could explain why their ‘effective’ mutation rate was slower than observed rates by a factor of 3 or 4.
Also in 2006 another research team used the faster Y-chromosome mutation rate observed by Kayser of 2.8 per 1000 to calculate the date of migration of Yakuts. Here is an excerpt from that study. “… it has recently been proposed that ‘effective’ mutation rates (Zhivotovsky et al. 2004), which are not based on pedigree studies but on archaeologically calibrated migrations, may reflect the true historical processes better than pedigree rates. Using the average ‘effective’ rate of [0.69 per 1000] calculated by Zhivotovsky et al. (2004) results in a much greater age of the Yakut male expansion of approximately 3800 years … However, these older dates are inconsistent with linguistic and archaeological evidence: … the split of Yakut from Common Turkic cannot be earlier than 1,500 years BP.” (Pakendorf et al. 2006)
So we have a study where Kayser’s mutation rate (2.8 per 1000) is used works and the ‘effective’ rate does not. This means at the very least that the ‘effective’ rate of Underhill and Zhivotovsky is not universally valid. If we apply Kayser’s rate to Zegura’s work, we get a lower bound of 2,500 years ago for the most recent common ancestor of most Native Americans. This is similar to Underhill’s result back in 1996 which was 2147 and clearly within Book of Mormon (BoM) times.

Anonymous said...

Ok just a little question. If mormonism really has emrit why didn't Jesus come up with ti when he first founded christianity? why did it wait thousands of years before we got this new revelation. Also, if ur christian then u belieev we are descendants of Adam and Eve (all of us) so it really is no wonder the Native Americans share the same Y chromosome or whatever because we all come from them according to those beliefs. I'm Mulsim so i also identify with the adam and eve story. And frankly, that doe snot jsutify mormoism in any way.

Anonymous said...

To the last commentator. you actually believe in the Adam and Eve story? What planet are you living on? The same one as scientologists no doubt!

Anonymous said...

People believe what they wish to. I find the Adam and Eve story more compelling and convincing than the evolution story. Inasmuch as there is scanty evidence to support the belief that species have evolved from one to another, or legs from fins, and wings from arms, I'll stick with the intelligent design team.