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Where are the Lamanites?

Posted by nebula0 on August 26, 2008

You may be aware of the latest change to the Book of Mormon introduction, one that is very significant.  It used to be included in the Introduction that the Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the Lamanites, now they are the among the ancestors.  If you aren’t aware, the Lamanites were one of the two major groups represented in the Book of Mormon living on the American continents who had descended from one Israelite family.  The Lamanites were generally bad, and darker skinned, whereas the Nephites were generally good, and lighter skinned.  Eventually the Lamanites wiped out the Nephites and were understood to be represented in the various Native populations of the Americas.  This understanding was bolstered by the old Introduction’s reading of the Lamanites as the principle ancestors of these groups, as well as by revelations from Joseph Smith placing Lamanite individuals in his area of the United States (remember Zelph?).  However, DNA analysis has implied that the Israelites were not ancestors of the Native Americans, throwing a wrench into the “principle ancestors” understanding of matters, precipitating the move to placing the Lamanites “among” the ancestors.

This move from boldly proclaiming the literal physical truth of Joseph’s claims to retreating into easier defended positions didn’t start nor will end with this matter.  The fact of the matter is that Joseph made many claims that we’d expect to see evidence of, but we don’t.  All that we find when we do find something is contradictory evidence.  Another example is that of the Book of Abraham.  It’s now known that the facsimiles published along with the text of the Book of Abraham that Joseph claimed to translate are actually funeral papyri that have nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.  The solution?  Claim that the papyri inspired Joseph, that it wasn’t a literal translation at all.  What a great position, it’s unassailable.  Likewise, Joseph claimed to have done a translation of the Bible (the Joseph Smith Translation or JST) but unfortunately the JST seems to be based in nothing at all but in vague impressions that Joseph got.  It’d be wonderful for Mormons if the JST happened to correspond with some of the newest manuscript evidence that has been obtained for the Bible– imagine if the JST ended up being a close fit with the Dead Sea Scrolls!  What a home run for Mormons.  But unfortunately, and not surprisingly, that isn’t the case.

Just as the Lamanites have retreated from filling the North and South American continents to being in some small restricted region, somewhere, so we see the Mormon retreat from making bold claims about empirical reality to a further and further retreat into murky realms of subjectivism where they can’t be bothered.


12 Responses to “Where are the Lamanites?”

  1. Tom Jones said

    Just want to help with a couple of typos. In the first line, the word “once” presumably was meant to be “one.” In the second paragraph, at the end of the third line, the phrase “and if do” seems to be missing a word. When it’s fixed I’d like to send the url to someone special.

  2. nebula0 said

    Tom, thanks! My eyes can’t always catch the mistakes in my own writing.

  3. Seth R. said

    “The solution? Claim that the papyri inspired Joseph, that it wasn’t a literal translation at all.”

    That’s only one response. Mormon apologists are not uniform in their theories and arguments.

    Another response is to point out that the original roll of papyrus that Joseph had was almost 20 feet long. Almost all of it was burned in a fire. The only remaining portion MAY, or MAY NOT be what Joseph actually used for his translation.

    Another thing to point out is that Egyptians used and re-used the same pictographs for multiple different subjects. It would be entirely consistent for ancient Egyptians to use the same pictograph of a figure lying on a “lion couch” to represent both the sacrifice of a character such as Abraham AND funeral rites for a dying Egyptian monarch. This was not an uncommon practice in Egyptian record keeping – even in the same document.

    Finally, another point would be to note how much of the Abraham story in the Pearl of Great Price has been discovered after Joseph Smith’s time in ancient Middle Eastern tradition, records, and lore. Funny how the growing body of the story of Abraham is corroborating Joseph’s account. I guess Joseph just made a lucky guess though…

    I should also point out that by the time of King Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, there probably were no longer any remaining racial distinctions between Nephites and Lamanites. They probably all had the same color of skin at that point.

    The most likely scenario is that Lehi’s group discovered other already existing indigenous people when they arrived in the Americas. Laman and Lemuel, never much for following the Mosaic Law in general, would have had little problem with immediately allying with such indigenous people and intermarrying.

    To Nephi, this would have been unacceptable since the Law of Moses clearly prohibits an Israelite marrying outside the covenant. To his ancient-world mind, the natural an genetic darkening of Laman’s descendants would have looked like a physical manifestation of God’s curse upon his wicked brothers.

    For the Nephite faction, the process would have been much slower. But intermarriage was probably inevitable given the few hundred years that passed until King Mosiah’s time. Thus we’d have no visible distinctions between Lamanite and Nephite at that time. Apparently the mix was so complete that Amulek actually had to declare his lineage to Nephi to the people of Ammonihah. If racial distinctives had actually been preserved, such explanation would have been unnecessary – being visibly obvious.

    You’ll also note that after Nephi makes the remark tying the skin of blackness to the “curse,” such language largely vanishes from the Book of Mormon account. It appears to have been purely Nephi’s own personal hang-up.

    And there is a record of Nephites encountering other people. We know of at least one Jaredite who survived the events in the Book of Ether – Coriantumur. There were probably more. Then there are the people of Zarahemla that the Nephites under Mosiah stumble across.

    My own view is that King Zarahemla probably made up his account of being descended from Jerusalem’s own King Zedekiah. The pattern fits meso-American confrontations. An advanced group of people (the Nephites) wanders down from the highlands of Guatemala and claims to have a powerful God and noble lineage. In Aztec and Mayan cultures – that was a challenge for rulership. So Zarahemla tries to counter it with a story of his own lineage – which is even better than Mosiah’s supposedly.

    Since Zarahemla can’t read and has not preserved the superior culture, his bid to retain power fails and the Nephites gain dominance over the entire population. But the “national myth” of “prince Mulek” remains politically useful in uniting the people of Zarahemla with the original Nephites as one people – now called Nephites. So that possibly rules out the Mulekites.

    Due to the account of the wars in the Book of Alma (especially the accounts of marching times and distances from city-to-city) it has been concluded by most Book of Mormon scholars that the book cannot be talking about intercontinental distances. The whole thing couldn’t have occurred in an area much larger than present day Alabama. Most scholars theorize a Central American location. But I have also heard the Great Lakes region of North America pointed out as another possible locale (which might vindicate Joseph’s “Zelph” remark). Others have picked weirder locations, such as an isle in the Caribbean or even Malaysia in one account. Those are outliers though. Most people place it in Central America – which is consistent with the unique traditions exhibited by the Book of Mormon peoples, which appear very much meso-American (such as an obsession with clothing as a status symbol, patterns of warfare, and an overwhelming concern for lineage as a method of societal distinction).

    So the genetic pool was probably already a hopeless mess withing 100 years of Lehi’s group arriving. Then you have the impossibility of actually tracing stuff like mtDNA or Cohen Haplotypes over 1000 years of migration, genetic drift, and genetic bottlenecks (don’t forget that entire Native American populations were wiped out by European diseases – many of them before ever encountering a “white man” in person). To top it off, no one even knows what Israelite DNA looked like in Lehi’s time. The Middle East is one of the most genetically in-motion areas in the entire globe. Even Israelite DNA today might look nothing like what it was in the days of Nebuchadnezzar.

    I short, the fact that you can’t find Lehite DNA in Native Americans today is hardly surprising. And it proves absolutely nothing about the Book of Mormon.

    DNA is probably one of the weakest arguments against the Book of Mormon. It’s essentially an argument from silence that has been given a lot more prominence than it deserves. The DNA study to prove the Book of Mormon false has never been conducted. In fact, such a study is probably impossible.

  4. Seth R. said

    It would seem quite likely that Joseph was simply mistaken in his opinion about the geographic scope of the Book of Mormon. Where the Book of Mormon contradicts Joseph, I tend to side with the Book of Mormon.

  5. nebula0 said


    Thanks for adding your thoughts. I do remember the ‘longer papyri’ argument and I appreciate you bringing it up. It’s good to have a thoughtful Mormon add to the conversation.

    I agree that DNA evidence doesn’t disprove the BoM, but it does complicate matters. The greater point of my post was that there seems to be slim pickings as far as evidence goes considering the magnitude of claims made by Joseph.

    As to your last comment, that doesn’t answer to the fact that Joseph claimed to have revelations and had entire stories of Lamanites up by his neck of hte woods. Mormons have to play a tricky game when trying to decide which beliefs that prophets expressed were fallible, which can be considered official doctrine, and what to do about the fact that a lot of what is discarded today was considered doctrine yesterday.

  6. Seth R. said

    What makes it more tricky is that I really don’t know which stories to trust. Too much of the criticism of Joseph Smith is either not credible when the sources are investigated or is simply untrue.

    For example (to use a fairly silly and harmless example), I once heard someone claim that “crazy ol Joe” once prophesied that we would colonize the moon and preach the Gospel to the people up there.

    Upon actually investigating this odd statement, I found that all the sources were second or third hand, almost 60 years after the actual statement (if it even was made). The conversation was distorted, witnesses were self-contradictory, and no one really knows what Joseph said. He certainly never said it publicly and it’s highly doubtful he made the alleged statement with anything approaching “prophetic voice.” More likely, he was sitting around a campfire swapping tales and speculated on whether there were “people up there” (a common notion in the mid-19th century). Then some fanatical follower blew his words out of proportion, passed them on to the rumor mill, and we’re off to the races.

    See, I just don’t know what is credible and what isn’t. It doesn’t help when you have people like the Tanners deliberately pulling quotes out of context to make Joseph look kookier than he really was.

    Neither did Joseph (or Brigham Young) always make it perfectly clear when he had the prophesy-hat on or off. I’m certainly not going to treat everything Joseph ever uttered as authoritative, neither am I going to deny him the latitude of having his own personal opinions or speculations – just like the rest of us.

  7. Seth R. said

    And who knows, maybe the whole thing did happen in the Great Lakes region. After all, we do have discoveries of large Native American earthworks and traces of large cities in places like Ohio, and other North American locations… Always a possibility I guess.

  8. nebula0 said

    That’s fair enough Seth. I don’t think you ought to be constrained to take every possible comment seriously either. What I do think you ought to take seriously are statements worded as revelations even if they weren’t canonized as part of the Doctrine and Covenants.

  9. Brett said

    Well, to add onto Seth’s remarks. Many such uncannonized ‘revelations’ aren’t primary sources, and are often uncredible accounts. Even the ones that are worded as revelations were possibly recorded wrong or may not even have been uttered by Joseph Smith. That is why many times, a lot of ‘revelations’ were never canonized. Often, it is uncertain if it was what he really said.

  10. I’am one of those Pacific Islander (Latter Day Saints) that doesn’t have a problem with what the BOM said, it was the curse, or be utterly destroyed. I’am thankful for the second, as far as the DNA I’ve seen the studies and seen the members that have been derailed by the evedince, this I will say Science once said the Earth was flat, the Earth was the center of the Universe, etc. etc. etc. Yes I do believe God created more than just us in the Universe (Aliens) so what, and I’am proud to say I’am of Lamanite decent. I’am sorry for those that have stopped their progression for Science,there’s a thing called Faith

  11. Braxton Strong said

    The only proof of the Book of Mormons validity and truth that needs to be researched is to read it and pray of its truth. This is the best and only way to truly understand if joseph smith is a prophet of god.

  12. parentingplanparenting gears…

    […]Where are the Lamanites? « About Mormonism[…]…

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