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Message: Hebrew DNA found in South America?
By Michael De Groote
Published: Monday, May. 12, 2008
Was Hebrew DNA recently found in American Indian populations in South America? According to Scott R. Woodward, executive director of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, a DNA marker, called the "Cohen modal haplotype," sometimes associated with Hebrew people, has been found in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia.
But it probably has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon — at least not directly.
For years several critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the lack of Hebrew DNA markers in living American Indian populations is evidence the book can't be true. They say the book's description of ancient immigrations of Israelites is fictional.
"But," said Woodward, "as Hugh Nibley used to say, 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' "
Critic Thomas Murphy, for example, wrote in one article about how the Cohen modal haplotype had been found in the Lemba clan in Africa. The Lemba clan's oral tradition claims it has Jewish ancestors.
Murphy then complained, "If the (Book of Mormon) documented actual Israelite migrations to the New World, then one would expect to find similar evidence to that found in a Lemba clan in one or more Native American populations. Such evidence, however, has not been forthcoming."
So will Murphy and other critics use this new evidence of Hebrew DNA markers to prove the Book of Mormon is correct? Probably not. But neither should anyone else.
According to Woodward, the way critics have used DNA studies to attack the Book of Mormon is "clearly wrong." And it would be equally wrong to use similar DNA evidence to try to prove it.
This is because "not all DNA (evidence) is created equal," Woodward said.
According to Woodward, while forensic DNA (popularized in TV shows like "CSI") looks for the sections of DNA that vary greatly from individual to individual, the sections of DNA used for studying large groups are much smaller and do not change from individual to individual.
Studies using this second type of DNA yield differing levels of reliability or, as Woodward calls it, "resolution."
At a lower resolution the confidence in the results goes down. At higher resolution confidence goes up in the results.
Guess which level of resolution critics of the Book of Mormon use?
The critics' problem now is what they do with the low-resolution discovery of Hebrew DNA in American Indian populations.
For people who believe that the Book of Mormon is a true account, the problem is to resist the temptation to misuse this new discovery.
Woodward says that most likely, when higher-resolution tests are used, we will learn that the Hebrew DNA in native populations can be traced to conquistadors whose ancestors intermarried with Jewish people in Spain or even more modern migrations.
Ironically, it is the misuse of evidence that gave critics fuel to make their DNA arguments in the first place. According to Woodward, the critics are attacking the straw man that all American Indians are only descendants of the migrations described in the Book of Mormon and from no other source.
Although some Latter-day Saints have assumed this was the case, this is not a claim the Book of Mormon itself actually makes. Scholars have argued for more than 50 years that the book allows for the migrations meeting an existing population.
This completely undermines the critics' conclusions. They argue with evangelic zeal that the Book of Mormon demands that no other DNA came to America but from Book of Mormon groups.
Yet, one critic admitted to Woodward that he had never read the Book of Mormon.
Woodward also sees that it is essential to read the Book of Mormon story closely to understand what type of DNA the Book of Mormon people would have had. The Book of Mormon describes different migrations — the most prominent being Lehi's family. But determining Lehi's DNA is difficult because the book claims he is not even Jewish, but a descendant of the biblical Joseph.
According to Woodward, even if you assume we knew what DNA to look for, finding DNA evidence of Book of Mormon people may be very difficult. When a small group of people intermarry into a large population, the DNA markers that might identify their descendants could entirely disappear — even though their genealogical descendants could number in the millions.
This means it is possible that almost every American Indian alive today could be genealogically related to Lehi's family but still retain no identifiable DNA marker to prove it. In other words, you could be related genealogically to and perhaps even feel a spiritual kinship with an ancestor but still not have any vestige of his DNA.
Such are the vagaries, ambiguities and mysteries of the study of DNA.
So will we ever find DNA from Lehi's people? Woodward hopes so.
"I don't dismiss the possibility," said Woodward, "but the probability is pretty low."
He speculated about it, imagining we were able to identify pieces of DNA that would be part of Lehi's gene pool. Then, imagine if we found it in the Native American population.
But even then, Woodward says we should be cautious because he doesn't believe even that situation would prove it.
"It could have been other people who share the same (DNA) markers," said Woodward about the imaginary scenario.
"It's an amazingly complex picture. To think that you can prove (group relationships) like you can use DNA to identify a (criminal) is not on the same scale of scientific inquiry."
Like the Book of Mormon itself, buried for centuries in the Hill Cumorah, genetic "proof" may remain hid up unto the Lord.
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