Some thoughts on Amerindian origins and on the evidence of historical DNA

 

USGS map of Bering Straits
Beringia as it appears today
(U.S. Geological Survey public domain map)

 

When I was growing up in southern California, some eons back, the theory that Native Americans had arrived by traveling by foot across a now-lost Bering Straits land bridge was (so far as I could tell, anyway) universally accepted outside Mormon circles.

 

Moreover, both non-Latter-day Saints and many Latter-day Saints shared the assumption that the competition between the Book of Mormon and the theory of a Bering Straits crossing was a zero-sum game.  Either the one was true, or the other was true.  They were completely incompatible.

 

I’ve long since concluded that, in fact, they’re not mutually incompatible.  More on that, perhaps, at some later date.  Suffice it to say here that, since I don’t believe that either the Lehites or the Jaredites were alone in the New World or the first ones there — the evidence for earlier inhabitants, incidentally, is abundant and incontrovertible — I’m not bothered in the slightest by general theories of Amerindian origins and don’t care overly much where the first “historic” inhabitants of the Americas came from nor how they arrived.  That is, it’s merely an interesting scientific subject.  A field for research.  It has nothing to do with my faith.

 

That said, though, the Bering Straits theory is now being challenged in a way that I would never have predicted when I was a teenager:

 

“Most archaeologists think the first Americans arrived by boat. Now, they’re beginning to prove it”

 

The dates involved, of course, are much earlier than anything typically claimed for the Book of Mormon, and I don’t claim that they support it in any direct way.

 

Another accusation routinely leveled against Latter-day Saints and their faith is that, by giving certain groups an origin story derived from the Book of Mormon, the Mormons have stolen the heritage of those groups in an act of cultural imperialism and have replaced it with a foreign story imposed upon them by white men.

 

But, of course, just to choose a random test case, the critics who level that accusation don’t typically accept the Hopi claim that the Hurúing Wuhti of the east, the ocean-dwelling deity of all hard substances, made the first man and woman out of clay.  Nor do they credit the prevalent Hopi story that Spider Grandmother caused a hollow reed (or bamboo) to grow into the sky and that it emerged in the Fourth World at a sipapu, the opening in the floor of the kiva or underground ceremonial chamber, nor that the people then climbed up that reed into this world, emerging from a sipapu located in the Grand Canyon.

 

Nor do those critics accept the alternate Hopi story told at Oraibi, which is actually fairly interesting from a Latter-day Saint standpoint:  The sun spirit Tawa destroyed the Third World in a great flood, because of its wickedness.  Before the destruction, however, Spider Grandmother sealed the more righteous people into hollow reeds which were used as boats.  On arrival on a small piece of dry land, the people saw nothing around them but yet more water — even after they planted a large bamboo shoot, climbed to the top, and looked about to the horizons.  Spider Woman then told the people to make boats out of more reeds and, using islands as “stepping-stones” along their way, the people sailed east until they arrived on the mountainous coasts of the Fourth World.

 

No, critics of the Mormons as cultural imperialists almost never accept either of those traditional Hopi stories.  Instead, they have assigned to the Hopi a different origin story — a story created almost entirely, if not entirely, by white men.

 

And not every member of the Amerindian community is altogether pleased with the origin story that mostly white men have advocated for them over the entirety of my lifetime:

 

“Native Americans Call For Rethink of Bering Strait Theory”

 

“The Death of the Bering Strait Theory: Bering Strait theory needs to go away once and for all”

 

I hadn’t heard of such things when I was in high school.

 

Finally, a few days ago I commented briefly on the rather surprising results of a large genetic study conducted in the United Kingdom.

 

“DNA, the Book of Mormon, Marines, Women, Names, and Smart Phones”

 

Now, responding to that blog post of mine, my friend Dr. Ugo Perego, a geneticist who specializes in the study of Amerindian DNA and who currently serves as a bishop in Rome, calls my attention to an article in the British newspaper The Guardian by Professor Jennifer A. Raff:

 

“If Mary Beard is right, what’s happened to the DNA of Africans from Roman Britain?”

 

Dr. Perego describes Professor Raff as a “respected population geneticist” and comments, very correctly in my judgment, that her article “sounds a lot like the Book of Mormon and DNA Studies essay on LDS.org“:

 

“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”

 

 

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