Genghis Khan’s genetic legacy has competition

Feb 5, 2015

Michael Kohn/EPA/Corbis

By Ewen Callaway

Millions of men bear the genetic legacy of Genghis Khan, the famously fertile Mongolian ruler who died in 1227. Researchers have now recognized ten other men whose fecundity has left a lasting impression on present-day populations. The team’s study1 points to sociopolitical factors that foster such lineages, but the identities of the men who left their genetic stamp remains unknown.

The case for Genghis Khan’s genetic legacy is strong, if circumstantial. A 2003 paper2 led by Chris Tyler-Smith, an evolutionary geneticist now at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, discovered that 8% of men in 16 populations spanning Asia (and 0.5% of men worldwide) shared nearly identical Y-chromosome sequences. The variation that did exist in their DNA suggested that the lineage began around 1,000 years ago in Mongolia.

Genghis Khan is reputed to have sired 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, says Mark Jobling, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK, who led the latest study with geneticist Patricia Balaresque of Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France.

“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. Establishment of such successful lineages often depends on social systems that allow powerful men to father children with multitudes of women.

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