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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Misleading FAIR video


In 2013 the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (
FAIR) published a video entitled DNA and the Book of Mormon Explained. The video is aimed at defending the flagging Mesoamerican Limited Geography Theory and contains amazing claims by a number of LDS scientists and apologists. By far the boldest claims in the video are those of Keith Crandall who was a BYU professor at the time. Crandall joined BYU in 1996 and was baptised in 2004. He was Chair of the BYU Department of Integrative Biology from 2006 until 2012, when he resigned to take up a position at George Washington University in Washington D.C.   

Three times in the video Keith Crandall claims Middle Eastern DNA has been found in the Maya.


28 seconds 
“The most recent DNA evidence that I’ve seen, in terms of peopling of the Americas, shows this Middle Eastern haplotype at greatest frequencies in the Mayan people; so if that’s your perception of where Lehi and company set up shop then the DNA evidence would be consistent with that.”

25 minutes 07 seconds  
"…the fact is, based on this paper by Noah Rosenberg from the University of Michigan that there are in fact Middle Eastern haplotypes in where we as Latter-day Saints would expect them to be; in the Mayan population, as opposed to across all North and South America.  

37 minutes 37 seconds 
"…there is an interesting bit of data that probably only an LDS scientist would pick up…[chuckle]…which shows for the Mayan people and maybe one or two other cultures close geographically to the Yucatan area…there’s actually a nice infusion of Middle Eastern…what they call Middle Eastern genotypes in those populations." 


Crandall's claim that Middle Eastern DNA has been found in the Maya is not true.

Crandall also tells viewers the DNA studies are very difficult to understand, and because the critics are not population geneticists like himself, they couldn’t understand the research.

3 minutes 25 seconds 
“The real issue is that these guys don’t actually look at the population genetic literature, they don’t understand the population genetic literature because they’re not population geneticists…so they couldn’t interpret these kinds of data. It's a very tricky kind of literature and a tricky kind of data to wrap your brain around. But it’s pretty patently obvious when you look at their data in this one figure in particular.  If that's what you’re looking for it's there.” 

The truth is these studies are now routine and they are performed in hundreds of plant and animal populations. My own research team has been actively engaged in forest tree population genomics for well over a decade and have published numerous research papers in the field. Consequently, I am quite familiar with the population genomics research that Keith Crandall cites because we did identical types of analyses in trees. 

A tricky kind of data

When asked for references to his claims Crandall directs people to two published papers, Li et al. 2008 and Rosenberg et al. 2005). In contrast to earlier studies on mitochondrial DNA, this research was focussed on nuclear DNA variation. In the paper by Li et al. (2008) they studied the nuclear DNA of 938 unrelated individuals from 51 global populations at 650,000 common single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs are points in the genome where single base differences occur in the human population.


   A SNP is a single-letter change in DNA
  Image courtesy of Lauren Solomon, the Broad Institute

SNPs are part of the natural genetic variation found within all human populations. In Li's research they  showed that global populations can be clearly distinguished on the basis of the hundreds of thousands of SNPs they carry. This is illustrated in the figure below


In the above diagram the information from 650,000 SNPs is condensed into a single thin vertical line for each individual. This line has coloured segments whose length corresponds to the proportion of their DNA derived from particular global regions. Individuals are then grouped with other individuals who share similar DNA. 

If you focus on the data for the Mayan population, which is expanded in the figure below, you will notice that their ancestry also includes DNA likely to have originated in East Asia (orange) and Europe (green). This is the DNA Crandall interprets as "Middle Eastern genotypes". However, this claim is incorrect, and none of the authors of the papers Crandall cites conclude, as he suggested, that Middle Eastern DNA was found in the Maya.


If we look at more Native American populations we see exactly the same pattern. European, Asian and African admixture is found in many Native American populations (Figure 3). 







The most likely origin for the European and African DNA in the Maya is post-Columbus admixture. After Columbus, large numbers of Europeans and Africans migrated to the Americas and many of these early colonists intermarried with indigenous Native Americans. Scientists try to avoid including individuals with this mixed ancestry, but it is especially hard to do this in populations that mixed very early with European and African colonizers. 



Post-Columbus admixture confirmed

Admixture in the Maya has since been examined in much more detail in a paper by Hellenthal et al. 2014. Hellenthal tracked the geographical origin of post-Columbian DNA admixture in the Maya to Europe and Africa (see figure below). None of the admixture came from Middle Eastern populations which were included in his study. What is especially telling is the DNA data Hellenthal used was obtained from the same individuals used in the Li et al. (2008) research. This report confirms that Crandall's "Middle Eastern genotypes" are in fact European and African admixture. See my Mesoamerican DNA post for more details on the Hellenthal study.

Figure 4. Geographical origins of Maya DNA. The orange circles represent post-Columbus admixture (European and African) that entered Mayan populations about 350 years ago. The blue circles represent much older ancestral links to other Native American, East and Central Asian populations. The area of each circle reflects the proportion of the donor population's contribution to the DNA of the Maya. Source: Chromosome Painting Collective / February 18, 2014


It appears that in his eagerness to please his FAIR colleagues Keith Crandall was tricked into seeing things in the research that are simply not there. The truth is that scientific research has consistently failed to uncover reliable evidence for the presence of any ancient Hebrews, or their genes, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica or throughout the New World.