What About the Lemba?

John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon makes the following claim:

The Lenba [sic] are a group of 80,000 South Africans who claim Jewish heritage, practice many Jewish rituals, and claimed to be descended from small group of Middle Eastern men (perhaps as small as seven) who migrated to South East Africa 2,500 years ago and intermarried with the local women. Modern science backs their claim.

More than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are West Asian in origin. The DNA evidence suggests a migration date between 2,670 and 3,200 years ago, not far from their claim of 2,500. A study in 2000 found that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as a haplogroup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found among some Jews, but also in other populations across the Middle East and Arabia. The genetic studies have found no Semitic female contribution to the Lemba gene pool. This indicates that Israelite men migrated to Africa in ancient times and took wives from among the local people while settling in new communities, just as their origin story suggests.

The similarities to the Book of Mormon premise are striking. Taking for granted that the Book of Mormon people existed in history, the migrations took place at the same time, the groups were of similar size, both had Israelite DNA, and likely intermarried with the locals. The big difference – abundant DNA evidence vs. no DNA evidence, and preserved Jewish culture and ritual vs. no preservation of Jewish culture or ritual.

Screenshot of “DNA and the Book of Mormon,” accessed March 14, 2019.

First of all, the name of the tribe in question is Lemba, not “Lenba” [sic].

More important is whether the essay’s central claim is correct: there is “abundant DNA evidence” that the Lemba are descendants of ancient Israelites.

Using the primary research method of John Dehlin and his anonymous collaborator(s), when we consult Wikipedia we discover that the most recent scientific study does not support claims of Lemba descent from ancient Israelites on genetic grounds.

The Wikipedia article cites three studies published in 2013, 2014, and 2016 which conclude:

While it was not possible to trace unequivocally the origins of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba and Remba, this study does not support the earlier claims of their Jewish genetic heritage. . . . It seems more likely that Arab traders, who are known to have established long-distance trade networks involving some thousands of kilometres along the western rim of the Indian Ocean, from Sofala in the south to the Red Sea in the north and beyond to the Hadramut, India and even China from about 900 AD, are more likely linked with the ancestry of the nonAfrican founding males of the Lemba/Remba.

Soodyall (2013)

[O]ur results stress the limitations of using the above haplotype motifs as reliable Jewish ancestry predictors and show its inadequacy for forensic or genealogical purposes. . . . [W]hile the observed distribution of sub-clades of haplotypes at mitochondrial and Y chromosome non-recombinant genomes might be compatible with founder events in recent times at the origin of Jewish groups as Cohenite, Levite, Ashkenazite, the overall substantial polyphyletism as well as their systematic occurrence in non-Jewish groups highlights the lack of support for using them either as markers of Jewish ancestry or Biblical tales.

Tofanelli et al (2014)

When blood groups and serum protein markers were used, the Lemba were indistinguishable from the neighbors among whom they lived; the same was true for mitochondrial DNA which represented the input of females in their gene pool. However, the Y chromosomes, which represented their history through male contributions, showed the link to non-African ancestors. When trying to elucidate the most likely geographic region of origin of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba, the best that could be done was to narrow it to the Middle Eastern region. While no evidence of the CMH was found in the higher resolution study, no inferences can be made about their claims about being Jewish—all that can be said is the lineage commonly associated with the Cohanim is not found in the Lemba.

Soodyall and Kromberg (2016)

So much for “abundant DNA evidence.”

Of course, had the author of the Mormon Stories essay merely consulted an actual scientist like Ugo Perego, they could have avoided this embarrassment.

Or they could have even read this short column by Michael Ash.

Or these observations by David G. Stewart, Jr. (pp. 113–116).

In fact, “modern science” does not back Lemba claims to Jewish heritage as purported in the Mormon Stories essay. What it has done is show that the picture is much more complicated than Dehlin’s simplistic and misinformed claims lead on.

Was Steel Known in Nephi’s Day?

In John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon he writes:

Although the Book of Mormon twice mentions that Nephi moltened steel out of a rock, only crude iron technology existed in 600 BC. Steel did not yet exist, as it required charcoal heated to 2,500-3,000 degrees. Charcoal wasn’t discovered until some 1,500 years later and required the laborious felling of acres of trees to create sufficient charcoal.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 11, 2019.
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on March 11, 2019.

The claim that steel was unknown in Nephi’s day is uninformed and erroneous.

The process of making ancient steel has been described by various authorities of on the subject.

Phillip King and Lawrence Stager explain:

Wrought iron heated in contact with charcoal (carbon) at high temperature produces carbonized iron or steel, which is more malleable than cast iron. Steel can be hardened by quenching (practiced as early as the tenth century BCE), that is, cooling off the red hot steel by sudden immersion into a vat of cold liquid.1

James Muhly, who is a leading authority on the subject of ancient metallurgy has written:

The addition of carbon, absorbed into the surface of the iron by a sort of osmosis while the hot iron was in contact with charcoal for an extended period in a reducing atmosphere, greatly increased the hardness of the metal. Such iron, with up to 0.8 percent carbon, is known as steel. If this red hot steel was quenched, by plunging it into a bath of cold water, the resulting product was harder than any bronze. The quenching produced a layer of very hard martensite on the surface of the iron, the amount of martensite formed dependent upon the thickness of the object in question (and thus the rate of cooling). If too much martensite was produced, the resulting steel would be very hard but also very brittle and liable to shatter. It was then necessary to reheat the object in an oxidizing atmosphere, in order to relieve the strains from the freshly formed martensite, a process known as tempering. Tempering was actually a trade-off, sacrificing hardness for greater durability and toughness . . . In the twelfth century BCE, all the necessary technology for producing effective tools, implements and weapons of quenched and tempered steel was developed in surprisingly short order.2

Archaeologists have recovered steel artifacts from various sites in the ancient Near East dating to before Nephi’s day:

Steel artifacts from the Iron IA (twelfth century) burial cave in the Beqa Valley, Jordan, provide an interesting body of material in that steel was used there to produce bracelets and rings. 3

According to Anthony Snodgrass:

Egyptian axes and other implements dating from about 900 B.C. onward were found to have been carburized, quenched, and probably tempered as well, a finding that is quite incompatible with the picture of backwardness and isolation that is sometimes painted.4

Recently Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Eliyahu-Behar reported that over sixty badly corroded iron objects were recovered by archaeologists from sites in Syro-Palestine dating from the late second and early first millennium B.C. These included knives, tools, weapons, and bracelets. Chemical analysis was done on each of these. They report:

The results showed that ‘ghost structures’ of pearlite, clearly indicating the presence of carbon, were present in almost all the objects (excluding three), demonstrating that almost all were made of steel.5

Contrary to John Dehlin’s claims, the process of making iron into steel tools and other useful objects was known in the ancient Near East, including the land of Israel the land from which Nephi came hundreds years before Lehi left Jerusalem. The idea that Nephi could have known or learned how to make steel tools out of iron ore poses no problem for the Book of Mormon, but is consistent with what is now known and what we continue to learn about the ancient world.