Move Over, Genghis Khan. Many Other Men Left Huge Genetic Legacies

A 2015 study showed that ten other men have a lot of descendants. The paper is just one of several genetic studies revealing the secrets of descent

Khan Earthwork
Earthwork Portrait of Genghis Khan Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis

Since a 2003 study found evidence that Genghis Khan’s DNA was present in about 16 million men alive at the time, the Mongolian ruler’s genetic prowess has stood as an unparalleled accomplishment. But he isn’t the only man whose reproductive activities still show a significant genetic impact centuries later. A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics found that a handful of other men had prolific lineages, too.

To identify those lineages, the geneticists analyzed “the Y chromosomes of more than 5,000 men from 127 populations spanning Asia,” wrote Nature News’ Ewen Callaway in 2015. The Y chromosome is a part of the human genome handed down only from father to son. They found 11 Y-chromosome sequences that were each shared by more than 20 of the analyzed subjects. Chalk down one of those as Genghis Khan’s, and that leaves ten other men who initiated long-lived and widely spread family trees.

When he ruled during the 13th century, Genghis Khan presided over land that spanned from the Pacific coast of China to the Caspian Sea. Historians don’t know exactly how many children Genghis Khan sired, but many agree his lineage is broad. In 1260, Persian historian ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini wrote: “Of the issue of the race and lineage of Chingiz [Genghis] Khan, there are now living in the comfort of wealth and affluence more than 20,000.”

Mongol rulers such as Genghis Khan could have spread their genes widely, because of rapes during conquests and because the khans had access to many women in the areas they ruled, Oxford University geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith told Nicholas Wade of the New York Times in 2003.

Genghis Khan’s sons may have followed in their father’s footsteps and had large harems. Tushi, the emperor’s oldest son, had 40 sons himself, per the New York Times.

So, who were the other super-fertile fathers? One genetic sequence is attributed to Giocangga, the grandfather of the founder of the Qing dynasty. His Y chromosome was linked in a 2005 study to 1.5 million men in modern northern China. This large number likely resulted from his descendants taking many wives and concubines.

The other nine men are currently mysteries. Yet, by assuming they lived in the area where their genomes were most commonly found and by studying mutations in the genetic sequences, scientists suggest they originated throughout Asia between 2100 B.C.E. and 700 C.E., per Nature News.

According to Nature News, the founders who lived at the earlier end of this range, between 2100 B.C.E and 300 B.C.E., were part of both agricultural and nomadic cultures. They lived during the emergence of hierarchical, authoritarian societies in Asia. And the three lineages connected to more recent times, including those linked to Genghis Khan and Giocangga, were associated with nomadic peoples in Mongolia and northeast China.

Large genetic legacies are not confined to that part of the globe. According to a 2006 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, 1 in 12 Irishmen worldwide can trace their heritage back to a single individual. That man may be a fifth-century Irish warlord dubbed Niall of the Nine Hostages, who could have as many as three million direct male descendants in modern times.

Genetic studies published in the last few years have continued to reveal more information about the heritage of peoples around the world. From uncovering the genetic history of the Viking age to confirming the origins of the Swahili people and pinpointing Neanderthal genes in modern populations, techniques analyzing ancient DNA have opened another window to understanding how genes flowed in the past.

As far as the nine unknown founders with impressive genetic lineages, more research is needed to discern their identities. But one thing is certain: Genghis Khan has never been the only big kid on the genetic block.

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