A painting depicting the nomadic Xiongnu people of Mongolia.

The Prolific Legacies of Ancient Conquerors, 11 Men Shaped Asian Genetics

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Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan was renowned for his domination of ancient Asia, and genetic studies have indicated that his powerful reach extends into modern times, as his DNA is thought to be present in approximately 16 million men living today. Born with the name “Temujin”, the title “Genghis Khan” was later bestowed upon him by tribal leaders after battle victories. It meant “universal ruler,” and such a title remains fitting, considering his suspected prolific genetic contribution to descendants centuries later.

A study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics has found that 11 dynastic leaders, Genghis Khan among them, contributed to the genetic legacy of Asia.

Past Horizons reports, “Two common male lineages have been discovered before, and have been ascribed to one well-known 12-13th century historical figure, Genghis Khan, and another less-known 16th century one, Giocangga. The Leicester team found genetic links via a chain of male ancestors to both Genghis Khan and Giocangga, in addition to nine other dynastic leaders who originated from throughout Asia and date back to between 2100 BC and 700 AD.”

Giocangga was a ruler who lived during the 16 th century. He is said to be the forefather of some 1.5 million men in northern China and Mongolia.

Scientific journal Nature writes, “The male descendants of Giocangga, like Khan's sons and grandsons, ruled over vast swathes of land, living a lavish existence with many wives and concubines. The study published in this month’s American Journal of Human Genetics suggests it was a good strategy for reproductive success.”

Giocangga’s grandson Nurhaci began the Manchu campaign into China in 1644, after his father and grandfather were killed. He established the Qing dynasty, and his descendants ruled China until as recently as 1912.

An imperial portrait of Nurhaci, grandson of Giocangga.

An imperial portrait of Nurhaci, grandson of Giocangga. Public Domain

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This handful of men ensured genetic continuation through consolidation of male, hierarchical power.  A social system comprised of powerful men fathering children with many women ensured the continuation of dominant male lineage in both nomadic cultures and sedentary agricultural communities.

Co-author of the European study and geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK, Mark Jobling explains, saying “The youngest lineages, originating in the last 1700 years, are found in pastoral nomadic populations, who were highly mobile horse-riders and could spread their Y chromosomes far and wide. For these lineages to become so common, their powerful founders needed to have many sons by many women, and to pass their status – as well as their Y chromosomes – on to them. The sons, in turn, could then have many sons, too. It’s a kind of trans-generation amplification effect.”

Colossal statue of mounted Genghis Khan, Ulan Bator.

Colossal statue of mounted Genghis Khan, Ulan Bator. Michel Heiniger/Flickr

Most of those fathers’ identities still elude researchers, however. Though there is strong evidence to pointing to Genghis Khan and Giocangga, absolute proof of ancient paternity cannot be established.

Past Horizons quotes Patricia Balaresque, first author of the genetics paper. She says “Identifying the ancestors responsible for these lineages will be difficult or impossible, as it would rely on finding their remains and extracting and analyzing ancient DNA. This hasn’t yet been done for Genghis Khan, for example, so the evidence remains circumstantial, if pretty convincing.”

Archaeologists and historians continue to search for the final resting place and elusive tomb of the infamous Khan who united and conquered nomadic tribes across Eurasia into what became the largest contiguous empire in history. Finding the tomb has proven to be a difficult task, and not surprisingly, as Genghis Khan was said to have ensured his grave had no markings, and those who buried him were to have killed themselves so the secret location would never be known.

As researchers continue their work into the history and genetics of Asia, perhaps one day ancient lineages can be established with certainty, and descendants will be able to trace their heritage back and reconnect with the past.

Portrait of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan). Yuan Dynasty.

Portrait of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan). Yuan Dynasty. Public Domain

Featured Image: A painting depicting the nomadic Xiongnu people of Mongolia. ( Henan Museum )

By Liz Leafloor  

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