All Indians Today Descend From Lehi

This is PART 6 of 6 of an exclusive series for Times & Seasons on “The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites” by Mike Winder. 

Read Part 1 “A Land of Many Tribes” HERE. Part 2 “Lehi’s Thanksgiving” HERE. Part 3 “All Those Who Would Go with Me” HERE. Part 4 “Nephite Succession Crisis” HERE. Part 5 “Sherem the Native American” HERE.

As the children of Lehi and Sariah intermarried with first Ishamel’s offspring and then their children intermixed with the natives of the Americas, what has been the result genetically after 2,600 years? Are the American Indians encountered by the Europeans in 1492 and beyond also descendants of Lehi and Sariah? I believe that ALL of them are, based on the groundbreaking research by Yale statistician Joseph Chang. He points out that because everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, by the time you get back 1,000 years or so your pedigree would have 137,438,953,472 ancestors on it. Not only is this tens of billions more than are on the earth today, it is more than have ever lived on earth! 

Chang explains that this paradox is due to the fact that the higher up a pedigree we go, the more lines are coalescing among fewer individuals. About 1,000 years back, for example, 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless). Each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today. Thus, everyone with European ancestry is descended from Emperor Charlemagne, but also any peasant that was alive back then that has posterity alive today. Likewise, everyone with Asian ancestry is descended from Genghis Khan, and everyone with Arab ancestry is descended from Muhammad, and so forth. 

But if you get back 3,400 years, Chang’s mathematical models show something even more startling. At that point, he concluded, “all individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals.” Meaning, everyone on earth–from the most remote Australian aborigine and African pygmy to the Navajo chief and Norwegian banker, is descended from the same ancestor group. We are all descendants of the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops and the lowliest slave that built the pyramids (and everyone else alive on the earth in those ancient days that has posterity still on the earth). Everyone on earth would also be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and each of the 12 tribes of Israel (who lived around 1800 B.C.). For as Dr. Chang phrased it, “If you’re a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius, or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases.”

So back to Lehi. A Taíno Indian in the Caribbean who met Christopher Columbus when the Santa Maria first arrived in the Bahamas in 1492 had two parents, four grandparents, and so forth. By the time we get back to the year 850 A.D. there would have been 27 generations and over 67 million ancestors in that generation alone. (Remember, all of the Americas would have only had 50-100 million souls at its pre-Columbus peak). When we reach the time of Lehi and Sariah, 575 B.C., there would have been 84 generations that have elapsed. Mathematically, this means that this Taíno would have 9.6 septillion ancestors in that generation! Since such an astronomically huge number is ridiculous (this is a 9 with 24 zeros), then there was surely tremendous coalescing along the way. 

Chang’s statistical models show that anyone with Native American ancestry in 1492 would have been descended from everyone alive in North and South America from around the year 300 A.D. that had any living posterity in 1492. Remember, “the further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases.” So, by 900 years before that (600 B.C.) it would be with absolute certainty that anyone alive in 1492 anywhere in the hemisphere would be a descendant of Lehi and Sariah. 

As the FAIR Latter-day Saints blog wrote: “If Lehi had any descendants among Amerindians, then after 2600 years all Amerindians would share Lehi as an ancestor. Even if (as is probable) the Lehite group was a small drop in a larger population ‘ocean’ of pre-Columbian inhabitants, Lehi would have been an ancestor of virtually all the modern-day Amerindians if any of his descendants married into the existing New World population.”

Some may question if this is really true for ALL Native Americans met by Europeans in the Age of Discovery. Afterall, the Tehuelche in the remote tip of Patagonia were over 8,000 miles from the Inuit in Alaska. But, as Adam Rutherford wrote in A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: “Ancestry is such that genes can spread very quickly over generations. It might seem that a remote tribe would have been isolated from others for centuries in, for example, the Amazon. But no one is isolated indefinitely, and it only takes a very small number of people to breed out with people from beyond their direct gene pool for that DNA to rapidly descend through the generations.” 

Sometimes it only takes one cultural interbreeding to spread the genes of one population to another, as was shown with the 2010 study that revealed that at least one Native American female was brought back to Iceland by the Vikings a thousand years ago. “One ancestral link to another cultural group among your millions of forbears, and you share ancestors with everyone in that group,” noted anthropologist Mark Humphrys. “So everyone who reproduced with somebody who was born far from their own natal home — every sailor blown off course, every young man who set off to seek his fortune, every woman who left home with a trader from a foreign land — as long as they had children, they helped weave the tight web of brotherhood we all share.”

In the end, then, Parley P. Pratt would have been pretty accurate when he declared, “Four-fifths, or perhaps nine-tenths of the vast population of Peru, as well as of most other countries of Spanish America, are of the blood of Lehi.” President Gordon B. Hinckley, in the dedicatory prayer of the Mexico City Temple in 1983 was also accurate when he declared, “Bless thy Saints in this great land and those from other lands who will use this temple….Most have in their veins the blood of Father Lehi. Thou hast kept Thine ancient promise.” And President Dieter F. Uchtdorf was sincere when he prayed at the dedication of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple in 2011, “our hearts are filled with gratitude for Thy remembrance of the sons and daughters of Lehi. Thou hast heard their cries and seen their tears. Thou hast accepted their righteous sacrifices.”

Mike Winder is the author of 14 books, including his newest, Hidden in Hollywood: The Gospel Found in 1001 Movie Quotes. Illustrations by Image Creator from Microsoft Designer with prompts from the author.

18 comments for “All Indians Today Descend From Lehi

  1. I first ran into this idea in She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer:
    “If you go back far enough in the history of a human population, you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people….Everyone alive [in Europe] a thousand years ago who has any descendants today is an ancestor of every living person of European descent…Everyone who was alive five thousand years ago who has any living descendants is an ancestor of everyone alive today.”
    pp. 189-190

    If I’m understanding this correctly, it also means is that none of us is adopted into one of the tribes of Israel. We are all literally descendants of Israel/Jacob.

  2. That’s how I understand it, PWS. In our modern world–a time when the gathering of Israel is to be fulfilled–everyone on the planet is a literal descendant of Israel/Jacob. Patriarchal blessings are less about genealogy and more about claims of blessings through specific lineages.

  3. As a white western european, how could I possibly be a descendant of Israel given that as a nation they have largely isolated their blood lines as a matter of identity? I’m very curious.

  4. All it takes, wayfarer, is for a few Israelites to intermarry with neighboring peoples, with surely happened countless times throughout the past couple millennia. No civilization is genetically airtight forever. As Rutherford said, “no one is isolated indefinitely, and it only takes a very small number of people to breed out with people from beyond their direct gene pool for that DNA to rapidly descend through the generations.”

  5. But, Mike, you’re assuming that Lehi and Sariah were real people who actually existed, not figments of Joseph Smith’s imagination.

  6. Ann W. Moore. Ha! :) Of course, I believe that Lehi and Sariah are real, as do millions of others. But whether one does or does not, the fact that we are all descendants of pharaohs and those who built the pyramids IS pretty cool. The fact that we are all cousins and interrelated as brothers and sisters on this blue globe is sobering.

  7. If you’ve done much central European family history, you’ve undoubtedly come across many cases of Jewish-Christian intermarriage and conversion, by choice or by force. I have my doubts about some places – Tasmania? – but some Jewish ancestry of every living European seems certain.

    Another idea I’ve come across recently is that we only inherit genes from roughly 1000 ancestors – so being descended from someone and having genes from them are very different things.

    In any case, thanks for the series, Mike.

  8. I remember realizing something along these lines when FamilySearch came out with its “View My Relationship” feature. I started plugging in the names of various celebrities and historical figures. At first, I was surprised to find that I was related to so many famous people. Then I realized that it was giving me a result for just about everyone in my demographic. After thinking about the mathematics for a couple of minutes, I realized that it made sense.

    For practical purposes, you don’t have to go back very far and get into astronomical figures to get these results. Typically, you share a common ancestor with pretty much everyone in your demographic (and many outside of it) by the 1600s or so. Most people are probably something like 10th cousins with their own spouses–and with themselves, since our parents probably had similar relationships.

    What will this look like in the future, though? Global populations have increased several times over in the last 400 years, but we’re also far less isolated now than we were then. How long will it take before every living person now who has or will have descendants becomes a direct ancestor of everyone on earth living in the future? Probably something on the order of 500-600 years or so. It’s interesting to think about.

  9. How should we interpret scriptures about priesthood rights given to “literal descendants” of Aaron?
    Who’s going to tell Brother Brigham that he has neither one jot nor tittle of priesthood due to the drop of negro blood in his ancestry? Maybe he has less than a drop, so he is entitled to both jot and tittle.

  10. A neighbor, who happened to be a Utah Latter-day Saint with a long list of pioneer ancestry, took a DNA test. His paternal line originated in West Africa. His direct paternal ancestor was Black. The family had no idea and several were shocked, but additional tests from his line confirmed it. A few of the older male family members struggled with that revelation for a time. But it transformed their religious worldview and modified their politics. I wish all could come to that realization.

  11. mark, I view the “literal descendants” of Aaron as perhaps the patrilineal line “father to son-to son-to son…” So it would include a select lineage but not everyone in the world. As for Brother Brigham (my dear 4th-great grandpa) I believe that he was a prophet of God, the American Moses, a holder of priesthood keys, and one who did the best he could. I also believe that he was also a mortal man who made plenty of mistakes, and a person of his times, including being a racist. I hope that in the hereafter he realizes his mistakes and the generations of harm such racist policies and pronouncements did to generations of our Black brothers and sisters.

  12. Then Abraham’s blessing is immediate for all people…”your descendants will be as numerous as the sands of the sea”
    It only requires that they have children that have children…

  13. The math and the genealogy here, which are nothing new, have significant ramifications for the Church’s program of gathering the “house of Israel.” Basically, the house of Israel is every person on earth, so what are we really gathering? There is no such thing as the “true blood of Israel,” since everybody shares it. And the “lost ten tribes”? They are not hiding somewhere on earth where they will someday suddenly appear, with pure, unmixed blood lines from ancient days. They are everywhere, lost in the grand intermixing of families that has been occurring over centuries.

  14. Joseph Chang’s research is interesting–but also somewhat unfulfilling here. Isn’t it the historic LDS claim that the Lamanites (and, so, Sarah and Lehi) are the *primary* ancestors of today’s indigenous Americans? (The claim may have reached its zenith in President Kimball). If so, Chang’s research doesn’t help the historic LDS belief. Instead, it dilutes it. Chang’s conclusion is that everyone 2,000 years back is everyone’s ancestor. And like the failed superhero, Syndrome, said in the Pixar movie… “if everyone is special, then no one is special”.

  15. Pagan,

    Not unlike the hemispheric geography model for the Book of Mormon the idea that the Lehites and the Mulekites were the primary ancestors of the Native Americans was based on a romanticized understanding of the (shall we say) logistical elements of the BoM narrative. Naive–but well intended. Today we have a better understanding of those elements–and are better able to view them in proper proportion to the limited claims of the text and our current understanding of early civilizations in the Americas.

    “If everyone is special, then no one is special.”

    Yes, the Lord made promises to Lehi concerning his seed. Even so, according to the Book of Mormon the Lord is far more concerned with personal righteousness then he is with lineage.

  16. Jonathan Green, Syndrome was, indeed, the villain, but making everyone super was the good thing to do, if done in a different manner than how he went about it. He wasn’t completely wrong, and it’s OK to nod with the villain in some cases.

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