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Powerful men may have fathered big chunks of world: DNA study

Millions of men are believed to carry a string of DNA bequeathed to them by Genghis Khan, the Mongolian conquerer who reputedly fathered hundreds of children. But recent research suggests he was only one of several men whose genes can now be found in significant portions of the human population, according to an article in Nature Magazine.

Statue of Genghis Khan
Nick Ledger | Getty Images
Statue of Genghis Khan

The evidence for Genghis's influence on today's global gene pool is not iron-clad, but it is compelling—one team of scientists in 2003 found eight percent of men in 16 different Asian populations (0.5 percent of the global male population) shared nearly identical Y-chromosome sequences. Further DNA evidence traced their lineage to Mongolia about 1,000 years ago, which corresponds pretty closely with Genghis's reign.

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The Y-chromosome is a good genetic marker because it is only found in men—while a man can father several sons by chance, there is a much lower probability that those sons will go on to father large numbers of sons themselves. The probability of having many sons increases if a man and his male descendants live in a social system that allows them to sire children with a large number of women. Such systems existed in many societies around the world.

Now geneticists say they have found Y-chromosome sequences that indicate at least 10 other major genetic lineages across Asia besides Genghis Khan's. Most of these can be traced back to periods in history when strong hierarchical structures began developing in societies in that part of the world. Those societies allowed powerful men to have many wives and concubines, increasing the chances that these genetic markers would be passed on to a growing share of the population.

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The study supports previous evidence suggesting that the Great Scourge of the Steppes was not the only prolific patriarch in history. Earlier studies identified a common ancestor in the Uí Néill dynasty of Ireland, and a Chinese nobleman known as Giocangga, whose lineage was spread through his descendants—monarchs and nobles in China's Qing Dynasty.

Read the full article in Nature Magazine.