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.
The spread of the chromosome could be the result of natural selection, in which an extremely fit individual manages to pass on some sort of biological advantage. The authors think this scenario is unlikely. They suggest that the unique set of circumstances surrounding the establishment of the Mongol empire led to the spread.
"This is a clear example that culture plays a very big role in patterns of genetic variation and diversity in human populations," said geneticist Spencer Wells, one of the 23 co-authors of the paper. "It's the first documented case when human culture has caused a single genetic lineage to increase to such an enormous extent in just a few hundred years."
Legacy of Genghis Khan
To have such a startling impact on a population required a special set of circumstances, all of which are met by Genghis Khan and his male relatives, the authors note in the study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Khan's empire 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. His descendants extended the empire and maintained power in the region for several hundred years, in civilizations in which harems and concubines were the norm. And the males were markedly prolific.
Khan's eldest son, Tushi, is reported to have had 40 sons. Documents written during or just after Khan's reign say that after a conquest, looting, pillaging, and rape were the spoils of war for all soldiers, but that Khan got first pick of the beautiful women. His grandson, Kubilai Khan, who established the Yuan Dynasty in China, had 22 legitimate sons, and was reported to have added 30 virgins to his harem each year.
"The historically documented events accompanying the establishment of the Mongol empire would have contributed directly to the spread of this lineage," the authors conclude.