The migratory events that resulted in the pre-Columbian peopling of the Americas is the subject of a lot of modern debate among archaeologists, geneticists, linguists and scientists from other disciplines. Watching our knowledge of prehistoric civilizations in the Americas develop is exciting and interesting. There has been a gradual but strong crescendo in the amount and types of scientific information contributing to the debate, with new discoveries appearing in the news so frequently that the debate itself is often difficult to keep up with.
As most people know, scientific consideration of current evidence has not led scholars to believe that The Book of Mormon is an historical record of any known ancient-American civilizations. Unfortunately, the natural biases of authors like me can often make it tempting to cherry-pick scientific tidbits that seem to support our biases and disregard scientific insights that seem to discredit our biases.
This article is not intended to do either of these things. Instead, I want to simply present an accurate picture of historic and current scientific thinking regarding the peopling of the Americas and how the migrations and civilizations described in The Book of Mormon might fit into this picture if our model of the lands of The Book of Mormon in Baja California and the North American Southwest is reasonably accurate.
The Book of Mormon describes the trans-oceanic migration of the Jaredites beginning roughly around the 2nd or 3rd millenium BC, followed by the separate migrations of Lehi’s party and the Mulekite party shortly after 600 BC. By contrast, there is a broad consensus among scientists from all related disciplines that the American continents were inhabited for many thousands of years before Book of Mormon times.
The scientific debate surrounding the timing and method(s) of migration has taken many twists and turns over the years, with some of the most dramatic twists and turns happening very recently. While speculation regarding America’s first inhabitants has been ongoing for hundreds of years now, one of the key discoveries shaping the debate were the artifacts found in sites near Clovis, New Mexico and the dates associated with them.
The Clovis discoveries eventually led to the development of the “Clovis-first” hypothesis of the peopling of the Americas that would dominate 20th-century scientific thinking. The Clovis-first hypothesis was rooted in the idea that the Americas were first populated roughly 13,000 years ago by a group of migrants from East Asia who, after a brief stopover in Beringia, walked into North America through a passage that was exposed between large ice sheets that covered much of North America at the time.
The Clovis-first hypothesis was (and still is) commonly-quoted as evidence against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For example:
- Clovis-first hypothesizes that the ancestors of the American Indians migrated to the Americas by foot through a land corridor rather than by using ocean-going vessels like the Book of Mormon describes. The near-impossibility of trans-oceanic migrations has been a common refrain against the historocity of the Book of Mormon for many years.
- Clovis-first hypothesizes that all Native Americans are descended from populations in the far East. Many lines of evidence seemed to lend support to this idea through the 20th century and into the 21st century including analysis of skeletal morphology, blood-types, DNA, linguistics, etc.. With so many publications from so many scientific disciplines showing such a consistent affiliation with populations from the far East, the Clovis-first hypothesis made it look very unlikely that any Native Americans were descended from Lehi like the Book of Mormon requires.
- Clovis-first hypothesizes that Native Americans were largely or entirely isolated from old-world civilizations for nearly 13,000 years before the arrival of Columbus. Clovis-first adherents sometimes allow for limited exceptions to this idea of isolation in the Americas, but archaeological or other evidence of pre-Clovis people in America or trans-oceanic contact before Columbus was almost universally dismissed out-of-hand by the scientific community in the 20th century because of the prevalent acceptance of “Clovis-first”.
As the Clovis-first model flourished through most of the 20th century and into the 21st century, people interested in detracting from claims that the Book of Mormon is true found what appeared to be secure-footing because, as time went on, Clovis-first increasingly looked more and more like it was a thorough, clear model of the prehistoric identity of Native Americans.
Every now or then a crack would appear in the foundation of the Clovis-first hypothesis. For instance, it was found that a small minority of Native Americans, most of whom are concentrated in northeastern North America, carry maternally-inherited DNA belonging to haplogroup X which appears to be descended from Europe or the Middle East rather than the far East. Also, reports of pre-Clovis archaeological sites started getting more common and were published with increasing attention to detail.
As can be expected, scientists did not initially want to throw away a well-substantiated hypothesis like Clovis-first at the first sign of contradictory evidence. While it’s good for scientists be conservative about abandoning ideas that seem to have so much substantiation, they were so defensive about Clovis-first that an era of hostility ensued where it was not uncommon for otherwise respected scientists to be shunned by the majority of their peers if they attempted to publish anything contradicting the Clovis-first hypothesis.
Why is this hostility important to discuss? The answer is simple: The Book of Mormon’s claims of multiple trans-oceanic voyages of middle-eastern peoples just a few thousand years ago has been in many ways a victim of the Clovis-first perception. The public has been told for decades that there is vast scientific consensus that the Americas were settled in accordance with the Clovis-first model, meaning an overland migration of strictly east Asian people many thousands of years before Book of Mormon times. This public perception continues to this day and can commonly be seen in almost any debate regarding the historocity of the Book of Mormon.
Especially prominent in these debates is the term “scientific consensus”. As I’ve tried to keep up with the developments in our understanding of the peopling of the Americas, it’s been troubling to see how it is still common to hear that there is any broad “scientific consensus” about the peopling of the Americas. The reason that this is troubling is because there are a very large number of very prominent scientists publishing contradictory theories in every major peer-reviewed professional publication related to the subject.
A lot of people might think that I’m just making cherry-picked, unwarranted extrapolations from publications when I say that there is no broad scientific consensus regarding the peopling of the Americas, so before we start describing the specifics of the most recent twists and turns in this debate, let’s learn what we can about the existing “scientific consensus”. To do this, I will quote heavily from a survey that was conducted for this very purpose.
Many prominent professionals in archaeology, genetic anthropology, skeletal biology, and other related disciplines recently took part in a survey meant to gauge the current “scientific consensus” regarding the peopling of the Americas. The results of this survey show the massive paradigm shift that has taken place regarding the Clovis-first mindset among top scientists in very recent years. For instance:
- 67% of these professionals accept the Monte Verde archaeology site as being evidence disproving the Clovis-first hypothesis with only 11% disagreeing (the remainder being unsure).
- 86% of these professionals favor one or more seafaring migrations following the coastlines to America.
- Only 16% of respondents believe that the Americas were settled by a single wave of human migration. In fact, a full 30% of respondents believe that the Americas were settled by at least 5 different migratory waves.
Current scientific understanding of the migrations and pre-history of American civilizations is truly changing. This is not a statement derived from cherry-picked quotes or misrepresented statistics. The scientific community has clearly overcome the strict Clovis-first mindset and we are now being flooded with scientific articles that are free of its shackles.
Among the topics that was not addressed by the survey was whether there is still a consensus regarding the genetic heritage of Native Americans. I find this unfortunate because there have been several compelling peer-reviewed studies published in recent years that cast additional doubt on the idea that Native Americans derive strictly from far-eastern populations. For example:
- National Geographic recently published an article titled “‘Great Surprise’—Native Americans Have West Eurasian Origins”. The article articulates the points made by a study published in the journal Nature that shows strong genetic affiliation of Native Americans to western Europeans while showing getetic distance between Native Americans and east Asians.
- Another article titled “The Origin of Amerindians and the Peopling of the Americas According to HLA Genes: Admixture with Asian and Pacific People” shows genetic affiliation between Native Americans and many other populations including populations on Pacific islands and even Australia.
- DNA testing of ancient remains have also revealed additional mitochondrial DNA haplogroups than the five that are currently accepted as being thoroughly representative of Native Americans.
The DNA of Native Americans is now seen as being more diverse than was first assumed and includes significant Native American ancestry in Western Europe and/or the Middle East. The migration models of Native Americans are all under revision, with coastal/oceanic migration models by multiple separate groups being the current “scientific consensus”.
While none of the changes in scientific thinking that I’ve mentioned here presents direct evidence supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it does show that some of the arguments that have been made against the historocity of the Book of Mormon may not be as accurate as they sounded like they were just a short time ago. Let’s continue to keep an eye on the great scientific research currently being done and enjoy the journey as we learn more and travel deeper into the details of Native American prehistory.