This story in last week’s LA Times chronicles another collision between science and religion, a type of story much in the news these days.
The story deals with one of the basic tenets of the Mormon Church – Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints – or LDS as they often refer to themselves. Native Americans play a critical role in the faith in that the Book of Mormon says that they are decended from a tribe of Jews who sailed from Israel to the New World around 600 BC. They split into two warring factions, the Nephites and Lamanites. The Nephites were pure and light-skinned and remained true to Hebraic and Christian faiths. The Lamanites fell into idolatry and were dark-skinned. The Lamanites won a great war between the factions and wiped the Nephites out. This explains the fact that Native Americans weren’t aware of the Hebrew or Christian faiths when Europeans first arrived. It also also gives Native Americans a special place in LDS prosletyzing in that the decendants of Lamanites can convert to the faith and become Nephites.
Recent use of DNA testing however, has shown pretty conclusively that Native Americans are all of Asian descent and show no evidence of origins in the Middle East. This seems to undermine LDS scripture and opponents of the church have used it against them. Native Americans quoted in this article say they are disheartened or believe they have been lied to. LDS members say that the studies are being twisted to attack their beliefs. You can read the arguments yourself.
In the long run, I don’t think that this will do much to undermine the faith of those who chose to believe in the Book of Mormon. After all, we have 150 years or so of historical research and archaeological studies that don’t prove the Christian bible to be literally true in every sense, and Christianity seems to be toddling along just fine.
The LDS community has funded a great deal of archaeological research in the New World, much of it through Brigham Young University. Most of this is focused on the high civilizations of Central and South America to prove on the ground the descriptions of conditions described in the Book of Mormon. A sample of some publications from BYU research is shown here. For example some prehistoric Native American motifs in ceramics and architecture make use of a cross. This is seized upon as proof of the Nephite connection.
One rumor that I first heard nearly 30 years ago, deals with another Native American connection with the origins of the LDS faith. According to the founding story of the religion, the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith, a young man living in southwestern New York state in the 1820s. Moroni eventually told Smith of the location of buried golden tablets with “heiroglyphic” writing on them telling the story of the Nephites and Lamanites that was compiled by the prophet Mormon. Smith dug these up and with them found a breastplate, a brass tablet with writing, and two stone tablets whose heiroglyphs helped Smith translate the golden tablets.
Smith worked with friends to translate the tablets and he dictated his translation to them. A number of people saw the tablets and there are many sworn affidavits testifying to their existence. Today the LDS claim not to have them, saying that they were returned to divine care.
The rumor I have heard in archaeological circles, and this is just a rumor, is that the tablets may have been prehistoric artifacts from Woodland period cultures (very roughly 1000 BC – AD 500) known from the upper Midwest to include the area where Smith lived. There are stone and ceramic “tablets” with decorative designs on them that look like this:
Some manifestations also worked in copper. Nuggets of pure native copper are found in the Great Lakes area, and were cold-hammered by the Native Americans into breastplates (!) and plaques that look like this: If you were an unsophisticated farmer from upstate New York in 1830 and a fellow showed you piles of obviously ancient artifacts that look like these and said they were heiroglyphic tablets, what would you say?
As I said, this is just speculation, but its plausibility has always intrigued me.