DNA and the Book of Mormon

Advances in genetic science have raised important and contentious questions about what DNA testing on Native Americans says about the Book of Mormon. Some contend that DNA disproves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, while others counter that the text does not offer testable claims about Native American ancestry.

What does DNA analysis have to do with the Book of Mormon?

The introduction[1] to the Book of Mormon says it is "a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas" and that one of the groups described in the book, the Lamanites, is "among the ancestors of the American Indians."[2]

Genetic testing on Native Americans indicates that they carry genes from central and eastern Asia, not the Middle East where Lehi and his family are said to come from.[3] This has led some to argue the Book of Mormon is therefore not an ancient text,[4] and so the Church's truth claims are false.

A lithograph print from 1844 depicting Joseph Smith preaching from the Book of Mormon to a group of Native American Indians, described as 'Lamanites' by the printmakers.

Book of Mormon and DNA

Changes to the Book of Mormon Introduction


The Church publishes a new edition of the Book of Mormon[5] which adds the claim that the Lamanites are "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."[6]

May 2002

Thomas Murphy,[BIO] an anthropologist and Latter-day Saint, publishes the article "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics," arguing that DNA evidence challenges Book of Mormon historicity.[7]

December 8, 2002

The Los Angeles Times reports Thomas Murphy as saying the Book of Mormon is "19th century fiction," that "Joseph Smith lied," and that he (Thomas Murphy) is scheduled for a "church disciplinary panel" for "apostasy."[8]

February 2003

Thomas Murphy and co-author Simon Southerton[BIO] publish an article in Anthropology News stating that the implications of DNA evidence for the Book of Mormon is a "Galileo Event" for Latter-day Saints.[9]


Scholars with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) publish responses to Murphy and Southerton.[10]

November 11, 2003

The Church responds to the DNA controversy in a press release, stating: "Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered . . . however, [the scientific issues relating to DNA] are numerous and complex."[11]

November 16, 2004

The Church publishes a new edition of the Book of Mormon (the "Doubleday edition") but retains the "the principal ancestors of the American Indians" wording of the 1981 introduction.[12]


A second Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon is published with the introduction changed to read the Lamanites are "among the ancestors of the American Indians."[13]


The Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune publish articles about the change made in the introduction to the new Doubleday edition.[14]


The Church publishes a new official edition of the Standard Works and includes the change made in the introduction to the second Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon.[15]


The Church publishes the Gospel Topics essay "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" which concludes with a statement from Elder Dallin H. Oaks[BIO] saying that "secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon." [16]

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Does DNA analysis disprove the Book of Mormon?

It depends on what you believe about the Book of Mormon's historical narrative and geography. (See chart below.)

DNA and the Book of Mormon—Models and Theories



Implications of DNA Analysis

Limited Mesoamerican geography model (Sorenson, 1985) [17]

  • Lehi and his family inhabited only a small area in Central America.

  • Book of Mormon peoples only spread to a limited geographical area and lived among a variety of pre-Columbian, non-Lehite peoples.

  • Modern Native Americans are among but are not exclusively the descendants of Lehi.

Current DNA evidence is not inconsistent with this model and/or is not applicable to this model.[18]

Hemispheric geography model (Pratt, 1840) [19]

  • Lehi and his family encountered an empty American continent upon arriving in the New World.

  • Book of Mormon peoples subsequently spread out across the entirety of North and South America.

  • Modern Native Americans are universally and exclusively the descendants of Lehi.

Current DNA evidence is inconsistent with this model.[20]

Limited "Heartland" geography model (Meldrum, 2009) [21]

  • Lehi and his descendants inhabited the midwestern and northeastern United States.

  • Book of Mormon peoples only inhabited a limited area of the United States in North America.

  • Modern Native Americans of specific North American tribes are the descendants of Lehi and have been identified through DNA.

Current DNA evidence is inconsistent with this model.[22]

The Book of Mormon is a nineteenth-century text (Southerton, 2005)[23]

  • Joseph Smith is the modern author of a fictitious Book of Mormon narrative.

  • Joseph had erroneous beliefs about the origins of Native Americans and repeated popular (and racist) nineteenth-century myths about the "Mound Builders."

Current DNA evidence is consistent with this model.[24]

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What does the data currently say about the genetic makeup of Native Americans?

It currently indicates the presence of five major mitochondrial haplogroups, and two major Y-chromosome haplogroups in the population,[25] which are commonly found in Siberia, southeast Asia, and Eurasia.[26]

Is DNA analysis accurate?

Yes, although there are areas of ongoing research, the science of DNA analysis is considered generally sound.[27]

If DNA science is well understood, why do people disagree about its relevance to the Book of Mormon?

It's primarily due to conflicts in the interpretation of both the genetic data and what the Book of Mormon claims.[28]

Is there evidence for "Jewish" or Middle Eastern DNA in Native American populations?

No, probably not. Proponents of the "Heartland" theory for the Book of Mormon have argued that Haplogroup X (which is present in North American native populations[29]) is evidence for the Book of Mormon,[30] but their arguments have neither been accepted by mainstream non-Latter-day Saint scientists nor by Latter-day Saint geneticists who accept Book of Mormon historicity.[31]

If there were ancient Lamanites, shouldn't we be able to detect their DNA today?

Possibly. This depends on the assumptions made about Lamanite identity,[32] and whether the Book of Mormon describes the Lamanites being the sole ancestors of modern Native Americans.[33] There are also complicating factors relating to reconstructing genetic ancestry that make it unlikely that we'd ever be able to detect "Lamanite DNA."[34] (See chart.)

Complicating Factors with DNA and Population Analysis



Relevance to Book of Mormon

Genetic Bottleneck

A genetic bottleneck, also called a population bottleneck, is "an event that drastically reduces the size of a population," typically due to warfare, disease, natural disasters, or migration. This causes "a decrease in the gene pool of the population because many alleles, or gene variants, that were present in the original population are lost." The result of this is that "the remaining population has a very low level of genetic diversity, which means that the population as a whole has few genetic characteristics."[35][36]

The Book of Mormon describes what could be called a genetic or population bottleneck.[37] The colonization of the Americas by Europeans also resulted in large-scale death among Native Americans, resulting in another bottleneck.[38] These bottleneck events greatly increase the likelihood that Lehi's DNA signature would be lost.[39]

Genetic Drift

Genetic drift is the "random fluctuations in the numbers of gene variants in a population. Genetic drift takes place when the occurrence of variant forms of a gene, called alleles, increases and decreases by chance over time. These variations in the presence of alleles are measured as changes in allele frequencies."[40]

Genetic drift occurs naturally when people inherit DNA from their parents. Book of Mormon peoples would have naturally experienced genetic drift like every other human population.[41]

Founder Effect

A founder effect/event occurs "when a new colony is started by a few members of the original population." A new "small population size" present in a larger gene pool may result in the colony having either "reduced genetic variation from the original population" or "a non-random sample of the genes in the original population."[42]

The Book of Mormon depicts three small colonies of founders migrating to the Americas.[43] If the founders of these colonies encountered a larger population already present in the land and intermarried with them, then the likelihood is high that this would result in an undersampling or maybe even the elimination of the founders' original genetic signature from the population.[44]

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Have these complicating factors been observed in other populations?

Yes. Ancient populations in Iceland,[45] Great Britain,[46] and the Near East[47] are examples of people that existed but have not left a genetic profile that can be detected in modern populations.[48]

Was the "limited geography theory" for the Book of Mormon created in response to problematic DNA evidence?

No. Versions of a "limited geography model" had been suggested as early as the 1910s and 20s by Latter-day Saints and others based on the text of the Book of Mormon and interpretation of archaeological evidence.[49] However, this model was not widely adopted until the 1980s when John L. Sorenson,[BIO] a BYU anthropologist, began publishing his arguments for a limited geography model.[50]

Does the Church take an official stance on Book of Mormon geography?

No. In 2019, the Church published an essay titled "Book of Mormon Geography" which states that the Church "does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas." It added, "Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken."[51]

The Church's only official position on Book of Mormon geography is that "the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas"[52] and that the Lamanites are "among the ancestors of the American Indians."[53]

Were theories about ancient America being already populated before Lehi arrived in response to problematic DNA evidence?

No. As early as 1909, Latter-day Saint scholars have proposed that ancient America was already populated with people before Lehi arrived.[54] (See chart.)

Statements on Lamanite Ancestry from Past Latter-day Saints




B. H. Roberts[BIO]


"I think it indisputable that there have been migrations from northeastern Asia into the extreme north parts of North America, by way of Behring straits, where the continents of Asia and North America are separated by a distance of but thirty-six miles. . . . It will be enough to say that if there were such intercourse, both Nephite and Jaredite records in the Book of Mormon are silent with reference to it."[55]

Janne M. Sjodahl[BIO]


"Now it should be observed that the Book of Mormon has nothing to say about the occupation of America by man before the arrival of the Jaredites. If scientists find, beyond controversy, that there were human beings here before the building of the tower; in fact, before the flood and way back in glacial ages, the authors of that volume offer no objection at all. . .If America was occupied by any race of people—pre-Jaredites, we may call them—information concerning them must be gathered, not from the Book of Mormon, but from geological strata, or from archeological remains extant."[56]

B. H. Roberts


"Moreover, there is also the possibility that other peoples may have inhabited parts of the great continents of America, contemporaneously with the peoples spoken of by the Book of Mormon, though candor compels me to say that nothing to that effect appears in the Book of Mormon. A number of our Book of Mormon students, however, are inclined to believe that the Book of Mormon peoples were restricted to much narrower limits in their habitat on the American continents, than have generally been allowed."[57]

Janne M. Sjodahl


"Students of the Book of Mormon should be cautioned against the error of supposing that all the American Indians are the descendants of Lehi, Mulek, and their companions, and that their languages and dialects, their social organizations, religious conceptions and practices, traditions, etc., are all traceable to Hebrew sources. . . . Nor is it improbable that America has received other immigrants from Asia and other parts of the globe, who may have introduced new creeds and institutions, although not mentioned in the Book of Mormon."[58]

Anthony W. Ivins[BIO]


"The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent."[59]

John A. Widtsoe[BIO] and Franklin S. Harris Jr.[BIO]


“Three separate and distinct settlements of America are reported by the Book of Mormon. The first, the Jaredites, dates from the Tower of Babel, the other two, the Nephites and Mulekites, from the time of Zedekiah, King of Judah. There may also have been others not recorded in the Book or not known to the ancient authors."[60]

William E. Berrett[BIO]


“Indian ancestry, at least in part, is attributed by the Nephite record to the Lamanites. However, the Book of Mormon deals only with the history and expansion of three small colonies which came to America and it does not deny or disprove the possibility of other immigrations, which probably would be unknown to its writers. Jewish origin may represent only a part of the total ancestry of the American Indian today.”[61]

Roy A. West[BIO]


"There is a tendency to use the Book of Mormon as a complete history of all pre-Columbian peoples. The book does not claim to be such an history, and we distort its spiritual message when we use it for such a purpose. The book does not give an history of all peoples who came to America before Columbus. There may have been other people who came here, by other routes and means, of which we have no written record."[62]

Antoine R. Ivins[BIO]


"I feel that we are not justified in believing that all of the people who rallied to the banner of the Lamanites were actually descended from Laman and Lemuel or that all who called themselves Nephites were the actual descendants of Nephi, Sam, or the faithful sons of Nephi. . . .There may have been other peoples whom the Nephites never discovered living then on this great land, or, as suggested, others may have come later."[63]

Hugh Nibley[BIO]


"Just because Lehi's people had come from Jerusalem by special direction we are not to conclude that other men cannot have had the same experience. . . . It is nowhere said or implied that even the Jaredites were the first to come here, any more than it is said or implied that they were the first or only people to be led from the tower. . . . The descendants of Lehi were never the only people on the continent, and the Jaredites never claimed to be."[64]

Richard L. Evans[BIO]


"The Book of Mormon is part of a record, both sacred and secular, of prophets and peoples who (with supplementary groups) were among the ancestors of the American Indians. It covers principally the peoples of the period from about 600 B.C. to A.D. 421. These peoples were of Asiatic origin, of the House of Israel, and left Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah, eventually to cross the sea to the Western world, where they built great cities and civilizations."[65]

Bruce R. McConkie[BIO]


"The American Indians . . . had other blood than that of Israel in their veins. It is possible that isolated remnants of the Jaredites may have lived through the period of destruction in which millions of their fellows perished. It is quite apparent that groups of orientals found their way over the Bering Strait and gradually moved southward to mix with the Indian peoples."[66]

Ariel L. Crowley[BIO]


"It is beyond any question true that some of the tribes of American Indians have a wholly or partially Mongolian ancestry. Any position to the contrary would be directly in the teeth of overwhelming evidence by which this fact is established. . . . The Book of Mormon is a part of that history only, but should not be considered more than that. It is no more the history of all peoples and doings of past ages on the American continents than the Bible is a history of all the peoples and nations of the East. Each covers its own time and provenance and makes no pretense beyond that."[67]

Hugh Nibley


"And just as the Book of Mormon offers no objections whatever to the free movement of whatever tribes and families choose to depart into regions beyond its ken, so it presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge; for hundreds of years the Nephites shared the continent with the far more numerous Jaredites, of whose existence they were totally unaware. Strictly speaking the Book of Mormon is the history of a group of sectaries preoccupied with their own religious affairs, who only notice the presence of other groups when such have reason to mingle with them or collide with them."[68]

Lane Johnson[BIO]


"The Lamanites of this definition survived beyond the close of the Book of Mormon record, and it is these people from whom the Lamanites of today descended. That is to say, they are the descendants of Lehi, Ishmael, and Zoram (see D&C 3:17–18); they are the descendants of Mulek and the others of his colony (see Hel. 6:10; Omni 1:14, 15); and they may also be descended from other groups of whom we have no record. Certainly they have mixed with many other lineages at the far reaches of their dispersal in the Americas and most of the islands of the Pacific since the time when Moroni bade them farewell in A.D. 421."[69]

Ross T. Christensen[BIO]


"The prophet Lehi, as recorded in 2 Nephi 1:5, related that the Lord also brought other peoples to the Americas. In verses 10-12 he promised his sons that when their descendants 'fall into unbelief' and reject the Messiah, these other nations would take their lands, wound them, and scatter them amidst bloodshed, from generation to generation. . . . So it is impossible to truthfully state that all American Indians are Lamanites. The Book of Mormon does not establish it, only some members of the Church affirm it."[70]

Dallin H. Oaks[BIO]


"Here [at BYU in the 1950s] I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time I had assumed that it was. . . . If the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none."[71]

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Didn't the Church change the introduction to the Book of Mormon in response to DNA issues?

Yes, probably. The introduction to the official 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon published by the Church read that the Lamanites are "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."[72] This was changed in the 2006 revised Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon under the supervision of the Church to read that the Lamanites are "among the ancestors of the American Indians."[73]

This change was retained in 2013 when the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon was revised and republished by the Church.[74] The official reason given for this change was for "providing clarity and greater accuracy."[75]

Has the Church officially responded to the "DNA issue"?

Yes. In 2003, the Church released an official statement saying, "Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered. Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin. The scientific issues relating to DNA, however, are numerous and complex."[76]

And in 2013 the Church published a Gospel Topics essay "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" which gives an overview of the scientific research and how it relates to the Book of Mormon.[77]

The Facts

  • The 1981 version of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon described the Lamanite people as "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

  • Various theories about the ancestry of the Book of Mormon people, including the "limited geography" model and non-Lehite peoples inhabiting America, have been discussed by Latter-day Saint scholars since the early 1900s.

  • There are no known genetic markers in Native American ancestry that connect them to people in the Middle East.

  • The 2006 version of the introduction to the Book of Mormon was changed to describe the Lamanite people as "among the ancestors of the American Indians."

  • DNA analysis has failed to detect known ancestry of modern populations in Iceland, Great Britain, and the Near East.

  • The Church has stated that nothing is known about the DNA and the Book of Mormon people, and due to issues like population bottleneck and genetic drift, it is unlikely that their DNA could be detected today.

Our Take

It's understood that the Book of Mormon is the "keystone" of our faith—an authentic historical record of an ancient people, a testimony of Jesus Christ, and a witness to the restoration. One long-held tradition about the Book of Mormon is that Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanite people, who migrated from ancient Israel. However, contemporary DNA analysis suggests that there are no genetic markers that distinctly link Native American ancestry to ancient Israel or the Middle East. Is the tradition wrong? Is science wrong? Is the Book of Mormon not true?

It's natural to be alarmed when science and faith seem to conflict over a particular idea, and it's understandable to feel discomfort at the thought that science might contradict an aspect of our faith. DNA analysis firmly dispels the traditional notion of Lehi and his family arriving on an uninhabited American continent and populating it—a tradition that isn't well supported by the Book of Mormon but has been a traditional understanding of the story.

However, if other populations were already present when Lehi's family arrived on the American continent, then the DNA findings are not surprising. This concept of a "limited geography" and pre-existing population was endorsed by many scholars in the Church throughout the twentieth century, long before any DNA analysis was performed. It's important to acknowledge that although many scholars subscribed to the "limited geography" model, this perspective was not the narrative typically taught in church. This serves as a reminder to carefully weigh the traditional narratives of our faith against scientific and historical data, underscoring that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.

What's Your Take?

280 characters remaining
These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Julia
    My take is along the lines of the limited geography theory but also that there was a poetic exaggeration. I think the people of Zarahemla were already a mixed culture by the time the Nephites encountered them.
  • Jason
    Adding to the complexity is the unknown origins of Ismael's family, Zoram's ancestry, or if the last Jaredite Corantumr fathered any children before his death with other native peoples or with those of from Lehi's party. Even Jesus' own family line contains people not of Israel.
  • Jordan W.
    This topic is a great example of why church members should take care to distinguish between mere tradition and actual scriptural doctrine. We also ought not to make claims for the Book of Mormon that it doesn’t make for itself. The Holy Ghost will reveal the truth of it, not man.