The genetic lineage of Genghis Khan-like leaders throughout history
It's believed that 0.5% of all people alive today or millions of people are descendants of Genghis Khan - the founder of the Mongol empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his demise. Research now shows that his prolific breeding wasn't alone in history after another ten huge genetic lineages were discovered. Their founders lived between 2100 BC and 300 BC.
It’s believed that 0.5% of all people alive today or millions of people are descendants of Genghis Khan – the founder of the Mongol empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his demise. Research now shows that his prolific breeding wasn’t alone in history after another ten huge genetic lineages were discovered. Their founders lived between 2100 BC and 300 BC.
The founding fathers
The man who would become the “Great Khan” of the Mongols was born along the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin, which means “of iron” or “blacksmith.” He didn’t get the honorific name “Genghis Khan” until 1206, when he was proclaimed leader of the Mongols at a tribal meeting known as a “kurultai.” A fearsome warrior and master strategist, the Khan shortly built an empire which at the time of his death extended across Asia, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea. His military conquests were frequently characterized by the wholesale slaughter of the vanquished – it’s believed 10% of the world’s population or 40 million people were killed as a result of his actions. But the Khan also brought some good things to the 13th century world. Chinggis Khan’s greatest legacies were the principle of religious tolerance, the creation of the first written Mongol language, support for trade and craft, and the founder of the first international postal system.
Genghis Khan doesn’t live in our memories alone, but also in our genes – well, there’s a significant chance he does, at least. In 2003, an international group of geneticists studying Y-chromosome data have found that nearly 8 percent of the men living in the region of the former Mongol empire carry y-chromosomes that are nearly identical. That translates to 0.5 percent of the male population in the world, or roughly 16 million descendants living today.
Y-chromosomes are passed directly from male to male in a family. If you’re a male, you have the same Y chromosome as your father, grandfather, etc., barring the minute mutations that may have taken place. Because of this, scientists can accurately predict how closely related two men are based on how similar their Y chromosomes are. You and all of your male cousins probably have almost identical Y chromosomes because you got them from your grandfather. Same thing with all the direct male decendants from your great grandfather, etc.
In the Khan’s medieval era, after a conquest, looting, pillaging, and rape were the spoils of war for all soldiers, Mongolian or otherwise. The Khan, however, is said to first pick of the beautiful women. Reputedly, he fathered hundreds of children, but a Y-chromosome lineage traces a single paternal line in a much larger family tree, and for it to leave a lasting legacy takes multiple generations who fan out over a wide geographical area, according to Mark Jobling, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK, who led the latest study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics.
“Lots of men have lots of sons, by chance. But what normally doesn’t happen is the sons have a high probability of having lots of sons themselves. You have to have a reinforcing effect,” says Jobling.
So, to found a truly successful genetic linage, you need a social system where powerful men father children with multiple women – this was pretty easy for the Khan and his descendants. One of Khan’s sons is thought to have had a whopping 40 sons of his own and one of his grandsons had 22 legitimate sons and would add 30 virgins to his harem each year. So, it’s not the great Khan’s prolific mating that made him one of the greatest common ancestor of the modern world, but the collective breeding proficiency of his heirs across generations.
While very successful, Genghis Khan was not alone. Jobling and colleagues analyzed the Y chromosomes of more than 5,00 men from 127 populations spanning Asia. Eastern populations were chosen because of the widely available data and evidence that similar great male lineages had been founded before. The team identified 11 Y-chromosome that were shared by more than 20 of the 5,321 genomes. Using DNA differences techniques, the researchers estimated when the founder of the lineage must have lived – though they caution these can be way off. The geographic origin of the lineage founders was tracked by assuming the leaders had lived in the regions where their genotypes were most prevalent and diverse.
Of course, Genghis Khan’s lineage stood out, but so did Giocangga – a Ming dinasty ruler – the grandfather of Manchu leader Nurhaci, and whose documented members formed approximately 0.4% of the minority population by the end of the dynasty. The other nine lineages originated throughout Asia, from the Middle East to southeast Asia, dating to between 2100 bc and ad 700.
According to Nature’s Ewen Callaway:
“The founders who lived between 2100 bc and 300 bc existed in both sedentary agricultural societies and nomadic cultures in the Middle East, India, southeast Asia and central Asia. Their dates coincide with the emergence of hierarchical, authoritarian societies in Asia during the Bronze Age, such as the Babylonians. Three lineages dating to more recent times were all linked to nomadic groups in northeast China and Mongolia. These included the lineages linked to Genghis Khan and Giocangga, plus a third line dating to around ad 850.
All three lineages seem to have expanded westwards, possibly along the Silk Road trade route. Historians have documented a series of polities based in inner Asia between 200 bc and the eighteenth century, such as the Qing Dynasty. Jobling says that these civilizations could have fostered dominant male lineages after the sons of a fecund founder decamped to satellite outposts, where they, in turn, fathered powerful descendants.”
Identifying who the founders of these genetic dynasties were is very difficult using genetic techniques alone – only analysis of DNA samples coming from the founder can provide definite proof. This is why so many scientists are thrilled by the prospect of finding Genghis Khan’s grave. This has been a quest of archaeologists, pilgrims and the Khan’s enemies for centuries, but to no avail.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.