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.

“The Principal Ancestors” vs. “Among the Ancestors”

The Mormon Stories essay “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” makes the following claim:

The 1842 Wentworth Letter was the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. In 1981, facing increased scrutiny, the Church changed the preface from “they are the PRINCIPAL ancestors of the American Indians” to “AMONG the ancestors.” It left the word Principal in the Spanish versions and encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.

Mormon Stories, “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken Feb. 13, 2019.

Every single sentence in this paragraph is erroneous.

First, the 1842 Wentworth Letter was not “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites.” In fact, Mormon leaders W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Parley P. Pratt were teaching this in the 1830s in Church newspapers and missionary pamphlets.1

Second, the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon did not read the Lamanites were “among the ancestors” of the Native Americans. The introduction to this edition read that the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The introduction to the 1981 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon.

The change from “principal ancestors” to “among the ancestors” was first introduced in the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, as reported by the Deseret News.

At that time it was reported that “The change [from “principal” to “among”] will be included in the next edition of the Book of Mormon printed by the church.” And sure enough, in 2013 the change was made to the LDS Church’s official edition of the Book of Mormon.

“Summary of Approved Adjustments for the 2013 Edition of the Scriptures” pp. 1, 10. (Link)

Third, it is not true that “[the Church] left the word Principal in the Spanish versions” of the Book of Mormon. The 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon, approved just two years after the 2013 English edition, also changed the wording of the introduction to match the new English version:

Después de miles de años, todos fueron destruidos con
excepción de los lamanitas, los cuales se hallan entre los antecesores de los indios de las Américas.

Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon.
Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. (Link)

Fourth, and finally, the Mormon Stories essay tacitly accuses the LDS Church of some kind of racist conspiracy with the comment that it “encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.” In fact, the Church has always taught and continues to affirm that descendants of Lehi are to be found among the native peoples of North and South America. (See for example here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Significantly, the wording of the 2006/2013 introduction to the Book of Mormon has historical precedent (something not mentioned in the Mormon Stories essay). Furthermore, the change from “principal” to “among” may help clarify what the Book of Mormon itself teaches, but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the book itself.2 Even the Church’s own Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon addressed the significance of the change to the introduction:

The introduction, which is not part of the text of the Book of Mormon, previously stated that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Even this statement, first published in 1981, implies the presence of others. (Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 1981 ed.) Early in the Book of Mormon, the name Lamanite refers to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (see 2 Nephi 5:14 and Jacob 1:13). Hundreds of years later, it came to identify all those with a different political or religious affiliation than the keepers of the Book of Mormon plates (see Helaman 11:24 and 4 Nephi 1:20).

“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” (link)

The Mormon Stories essay is wrong in literally every sentence of this single paragraph. It is wrong that “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites” was Joseph Smith’s 1842 Wentworth Letter. It is wrong about the date of the change of “principal” to “among.” It is wrong about there being no change to the Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. And it is wrong to insinuate that the Church was attempting to perpetuate some kind of racist conspiracy.3

DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Note on Sources

The new “Truth Claims” essays on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories website purport to be “accurate and robust.” One way to test this claim is by checking what sources are cited in each essay. After all, citations of peer reviewed scholarship are what make a piece of writing “accurate and robust,” no?

Screenshot from the Mormon Stories “Truth Claims” webpage.

To see just how “accurate and robust” the Mormon Stories essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon is, let’s do a tally of what sources are cited or otherwise linked to in the essay:

The first source cited in the essay is “Dr. David Glenn Smith/U.C.-Davis molecular anthropologist, Sunstone Symposium, 2002.”

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Dr. Smith is a qualified scientist, but the source cited is not a scientific paper. It is, instead, a non-academic symposium presentation.

The next two sources cited are a piece from Scientific American, a reputable science magazine, and a non-peer reviewed Internet article by Joel Groat, who has no training in molecular science or population genetics.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

The next source is a hyperlink to Wikipedia (hyperlinked to the word “Lenba”.)

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

The next source comes from Nature, another reputable science journal.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Finally, the last two sources are the Gospel Topics essay “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” and a blog post by Simon Southerton, an excommunicated former Latter-day Saint with training in molecular science.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Dehlin’s essay cites a total of seven sources. Of these seven sources, only the citations to Scientific American and Nature qualify as peer-reviewed scholarship. The rest are from Internet sites and a non-academic symposium.

Now let’s take a look at the sources cited in the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon. Unlike Dehlin’s article, we actually know who the primary author of the Church’s Gospel Topics essay is: a population geneticist and molecular scientist named Ugo Perego. (Perego has gone on the public record as being the principle author of the Gospel Topics essay.)

A list of Ugo’s scientific publications relating to population genetics can be seen here. A list of his peer-reviewed publications related to the Book of Mormon can be seen here. So until the author of the Mormon Stories article comes forth and proves he or she is more qualified than Perego to reliably guide readers through this issue, Perego has the anonymous author beat in terms of scientific expertise and academic publications relevant to this subject.

Looking at the footnotes of the Gospel Topics essay, one sees the following citations:

  • Antonio Torroni and others, “Asian Affinities and Continental Radiation of the Four Founding Native American mtDNAs,” American Journal of Human Genetics 53 (1993): 563–90.
  • Alessandro Achilli and others, “The Phylogeny of the Four Pan-American MtDNA Haplogroups: Implications for Evolutionary and Disease Studies,” PloS ONE 3, no. 3 (Mar. 2008): e1764.
  • Ugo A. Perego and others, “Distinctive Paleo-Indian Migration Routes from Beringia Marked by Two Rare mtDNA Haplogroups,” Current Biology 19 (2009): 1–8.
  • Martin Bodner and others, “Rapid Coastal Spread of First Americans: Novel Insights from South America’s Southern Cone Mitochondrial Genomes,” Genome Research 22 (2012): 811–20.
  • Peter A. Underhill and Toomas Kivisild, “Use of Y Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Population Structure in Tracing Human Migrations,” Annual Review of Genetics 41 (2007): 539–64.
  • International Society of Genetic Genealogy, “Y-DNA Haplogroup Tree 2014”.
  • Mannis van Oven and Manfred Kayser M., “Updated Comprehensive Phylogenetic Tree of Global Human Mitochondrial DNA Variation,” Human Mutation 30 (2009): E386–E394.
  • Vincenza Battaglia and others, “The First Peopling of South America: New Evidence from Y-Chromosome Haplogroup Q,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 8 (Aug. 2013): e71390.
  • Ugo A. Perego and others, “The Initial Peopling of the Americas: A Growing Number of Founding Mitochondrial Genomes from Beringia,” Genome Research 20 (2010): 1174–79.
  • Jennifer Anne Raff and Deborah A. Bolnick, “Does Mitochondrial Haplogroup X Indicate Ancient Trans-Atlantic Migration to the Americas? A Critical Re-Evaluation,” PaleoAmerica 4, no. 1 (2015): 297–303.
  • Rasmus Nielsen and others, “Tracing the People of the World through Genomics,” Nature 541 (2017): 302–10.
  • Maanasa Raghavan and others, “Upper Palaeolithic Siberian Genome Reveals Dual Ancestry of Native Americans,” Nature 505 (2014): 87–91.
  • Stephen L. Zegura and others, “High-Resolution SNPs and Microsatellite Haplotypes Point to a Single, Recent Entry of Native American Y Chromosomes into the Americas,” Molecular Biology and Evolution 21, no. 1 (2004): 164–75.
  • Pedro Soares and others, “Correcting for Purifying Selection: An Improved Human Mitochondrial Molecular Clock,” American Journal of Human Genetics 84, no. 6 (2009): 740–59.
  • Alessandro Achilli and others, “Reconciling Migration Models to the Americas with the Variation of North American Native Mitogenomes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 35 (2013): 14308–13.
  • Morten Rasmussen and others, “Ancient Human Genome Sequence of an Extinct Palaeo-Eskimo,” Nature, Feb. 11, 2010, 757–62.
  • Quoted in Cassandra Brooks, “First Ancient Human Sequenced,” Scientist,Feb. 10, 2010, www.thescientist.com/blog/display/57140.
  • Michael H. Crawford, The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 4.
  • David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, vol. 60, no. 4 (Oct. 2003): 703–42.
  • Michael H. Crawford, Origins of Native Americans, 49–51, 239–41, 260–61.
  • Agnar Helgason and others, “A Populationwide 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 (2003): 1370–88.
  • Beth Alison Schultz Shook and David Glenn Smith, “Using Ancient MtDNA to Reconstruct the Population History of Northeastern North America,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 137 (2008): 14.
  • How Many Genetic Ancestors Do I Have?” Co-op Lab, Population and Evolutionary Genetics, UC Davis.

The number of scientific publications on the matter of DNA and population genetics cited in the Gospel Topics essay is 23. (I have omitted citations of pieces appearing in Latter-day Saint journals pertaining to the history and interpretation of the Book of Mormon, although those are relevant as well.)

So on the one hand, the Gospel Topics essay was written by a trained and qualified population geneticist and is replete with citations of scientific scholarship. On the other hand, Dehlin’s essay cites only two pieces of scientific scholarship and opts to cite non-peer reviewed Internet websites for the rest of its citations.

Even without necessarily getting into the matter of who is correctly interpreting and synthesizing the relevant scientific evidence, it is very clear that at first glance the Gospel Topics essay is much more “accurate and robust” compared to Dehlin’s essay.

The truth is that genetics is a complex and nuanced field of study. Laypersons can only go so far before they are obliged to rely on the testimony of scientific authorities. If you have to put your trust in just one of these two essays to give you an “accurate and robust” picture of what’s going on with DNA and the Book of Mormon, the safe bet is to go with the Church’s Gospel Topics essay, not Dehlin’s essay.

(Said another way, the Gospel Topics essay would be more likely to get a passing grade in a freshman biology class, whereas Dehlin’s essay most likely wouldn’t.)