In 2004, a groundbreaking scientific study claimed that the infamous emperor Genghis Khan was the direct ancestor of one in 200 men in the world. Further, the study said, a simple DNA test could prove whether you (or your males relatives) were one of the his descendants. This discovery brought about a surge in interest in ancestral DNA testing, which continues even today. So how did it all get started?
Who was Genghis Khan?
Genghis Khan, born in 1162, established and led the legendary Mongol empire. He died in 1227 at the age of 65 during a battle with the Chinese kingdom Xi Xia. His empire was led by his direct descendants for hundreds of years more, though it gradually broke off into smaller entities over time.
Genghis Khan grew up in an area dominated by constantly warring clans on the border of modern-day Siberia and Mongolia. “Temujin,” as he was named at birth, was born to a mother who had been kidnapped and forced into marriage by his father, a practice in which Genghis Khan himself would later engage. Genghis had six siblings, all of whom grew up around instability and violence over land and livestock, the essentials for survival. After their father was killed by poisoning by an opposing clan, Genghis Khan got his first taste for blood when he killed his older half-brother to become the dominant male of the family.
As he got older, Genghis Khan develop a unique strategy for acquiring power. Instead of appointing family or clan members to powerful positions, which was the typical political strategy, he chose allies from other clans to assist him in his conquests. He and his men would kill the heads of other clans then force the survivors to join their united “super-clan.” In this way, Genghis Khan united the previously warring communities.
Genghis Khan was able to repeat this strategy until he had conquered half the known world and ruled over 1 million people. He ruled the areas of modern-day China, Iran, Pakistan, Korea and South Russia. At the height of his conquest, he controlled a land area the size of the continent of Africa.
Each time he conquered a new clan or people, Genghis Khan would force marriage upon the women, either to himself or to his head chiefs. This is how he acquired enough wives to father the number of sons necessary to provide the DNA lineage which we know today.
Why do we care about Genghis Khan’s DNA?
In 2003, an evolutionary geneticist named Chris Tyler-Smith discovered that 8 percent of men across 16 different ethnic populations in Asia shared a common Y-chromosome pattern. This pattern was eventually traced back to a common origin who must have existed about 1,000 years ago. However, to create so many descendants, this common origin would have had to have an abnormally large number of sons. (He may also have had many daughters, of course, but they would not carry the Y-chromosome necessary to indicate they were directly linked to the paternal origin. Women have two X-chromosomes while men have an X and a Y).
Since Genghis Khan was known in contemporary writings for fathering hundreds of children in this area of Asia, historians and geneticists together presumed this common origin was most likely the first Mongolian emperor himself.
Together with a genetics research team, Tyler-Smith was able to further show that 1 in 200 men in the world are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. In modern-day Mongolia alone, as many 35% of men shared the “Khan” Y-chromosome pattern. The team’s study was published in 2003 under the title “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols” in the journal European Journal of Human Genetics.
To put these figures another way, Tyler-Smith’s findings mean that up to 0.5% of the world’s population (or around 17 million people), primarily located in Asia, can trace their lineage to Genghis Khan directly along their paternal bloodlines. The data also indicates that 8% of men who live in the area of the “former Mongol empire” carry nearly identical Y-chromosomes. According to Tyler-Smith and other experts, this is statistically improbable to occur in any way except from one common paternal origin.
To further prove Tyler-Smith’s theory, historians have pointed to the attested lineage of Genghis Khan’s sons. In documents from the time period, one of Khan’s sons was written to have had 40 sons who would have carried on that unique Y-chromosome pattern. Similarly, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons was said to have had 22 acknowledged sons; however, he likely had many more “illegitimate” sons because he added 30 women to his personal harem each year.
A follow-up study from a team of Russian scientists analyzed further ethnic groups including Kurds, Persians, Russians and other central Asian ethnic groups. They were surprised to find that despite Genghis Khan’s empire controlling eastern Russia for two and a half centuries, they were unable to find any evidence of his direct descendants being present in modern-day Russia. As they put it, “…[M]en from the Genghis Khan clan left no genetic trace in Russia.”
The fascination with claiming Genghis Khan ancestry is not new
Since this study came out in 2003, there has been a rush for ancestry DNA test kits. People around the world, particularly those with known roots in Asia, wanted to know if they, too, were descendants of the infamous Mongolian emperor. Although DNA is now able to prove it more definitively, humans have boasted of this lineage for centuries.
In fact, even in early Islamic societies where the most respected lineage was directly through the prophet Mohammad, men still found prestige in Genghis Khan lineage. The Muslim founder of the Timurid Empire, who lived from 1370 to 1405, claimed he was directly descended from Genghis Khan. He even used this pedigree to support his political goals of “restoring” the Mongol empire. To this day, many of the Timurid people (now found in modern-day India) have pride in their heritage from one of the greatest emperors known to man.
Similarly, the Tartars of Russia and the Uzbeks of central Asia, both Muslim populations, revered men who claimed they were the blood of Genghis Khan. These men were often promoted as effective military men and rulers just like their ancestor.
Is there a DNA test I can take to see if I’m a descendant of Genghis Khan?
The answer is yes and no. The science behind this particular lineage DNA is still heavily debated.
If you’re a man, you can submit your DNA sample to a lab for analysis of your paternal haplotypes and haplogroup. The patterns the Tyler-Smith researchers have linked with Genghis Khan are only located on the Y chromosome, which women do not carry. A woman who is interested in learning whether she is a descendant of Genghis Khan can use a male relative’s DNA, including a father, uncle, grandfather, brother or nephew.
Most companies will not explicitly tell you which famous (or infamous) historical figures you are related to. However, they will tell you your Y-DNA STR marker, which you can then compare to the results from the Tyler-Smith study.
The test you will want to have performed is an analysis of your Y-DNA STR marker, i.e., a “paternal ancestry test.” Once you know this marker, you can compare it to many historical figures whose ancestral DNA is well-documented, including Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jesse James, Luke the Evangelist and other well-known figures.
The following table from Family Tree DNA lists the 25 Y-DNA STR markers associated with the C3c-M48 haplogroup which the Tyler-Smith researchers have linked with Genghis Khan.
However, the science behind these tests cannot say with 100% certainty that you are a descendant of Genghis Khan.
“It is almost impossible to say for definite that you are a descendant of Genghis Khan as we are talking about very, very ancient paternal ancestry and a time frame of at least seven centuries,” said David Ashworth, chief executive of Oxford Ancestors in an interview with BBC. “But there is scientific evidence that if you do have this Y-chromosome then there is a very strong probability that you are descended from Genghis Khan.”
The main reason for this uncertainty is that the DNA of Genghis Khan is unknown. His body and the bodies of his closest relatives have never been located for DNA testing. The researchers are still assuming that the common DNA origin of this Y-chromosome pattern is Genghis Khan based on historical evidence and convenient timeline alignment.
Recently, an opposing theory has challenged everything we believed for the past decade. In September 2016, a new study entitled “Molecular Genealogy of a Mongol Queen’s Family and Her Possible Kinship with Genghis Khan” was published in the academic journal PloS ONE. This scientific study suggests that the previous Tyler-Smith conclusions had Genghis Khan pegged as the incorrect haplogroup. Instead of being one of the 25 Y-DNA STR markers listed above, this new team of researchers believe he is of the R1b-M343 haplogroup, which is prevalent in western Eurasia.
The researchers used DNA evidence from a burial ground discovered in 2004. The five bodies were found in Mongolia and estimated to have lived around 1130 to 1250 A.D. They are believed to be related to the “Golden Family” of Genghis Khan, yet they carry a completely different haplogroup from the one suggested in the 2004 study.
So it is clear that there is still much we do not know definitively about the DNA evidence linking present-day men to Genghis Khan. Still, many people are interested in learning about their heritage using DNA labs like 23andme.com, Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA, among others.
As of April 2017, here are the price breakdowns of the most popular Y-DNA (Paternity Ancestry) testing facilities.
- DNA in the News charges $119 for a standard Y-DNA only test (advanced and premium packages are available.)
- 23andMe offers a comprehensive DNA ancestry test that includes Y-DNA for $199.
- Family Tree DNA‘s Y-DNA package costs $169.
- As of 2014, com no longer offers Y-DNA testing. Their standard ancestry DNA package costs $99.
How accurate are Genghis Khan ancestry DNA tests?
Remember that your heritage DNA results are just for fun. Sometimes the results are given to you with only a 50% confidence rating, which means they can often be wrong.
This happened in a notable way to a University of Miami professor named Thomas R. Robinson. He had submitted a DNA sample in 2003 to determine his English heritage. Several years later, the DNA testing company, Oxford Ancestors, notified him that a recent scan of its database had shown he was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.
The news was picked up by the New York Times for its unusual nature. Experts were astounded that this man of British heritage was also related to Genghis Khan, and soon a movie company was asking Thomas to come film his story in Mongolia. But Robinson was skeptical of his results and submitted a second sample to a different DNA testing facility, Family Tree DNA, which proved he was not related to Genghis Khan.
Chris Tyler-Smith, the man behind the original 2004 study that brought the Genghis Khan Y-DNA to fame, confirmed the results of the second test, saying it “conclusively rules out a link to the Genghis Khan haplotype.”
In a similar story, a March 2017 report by Inside Edition proved the inaccuracy of some ancestry DNA tests by carrying out a simple experiment. They found three sets of identical triplets and a set of identical quadruplets and encouraged them to submit their DNA to various testing companies. Most of the sibling groups had varying results when they should have been identical, suggesting the accuracy is still not 100%.
This video shows the surprising results. One set of triplets had a range from 59% to 70% British Isle origin. In that same sibling group, one triplet showed 6% Scandinavian ancestry while her identical sisters showed 0%.
Clearly, the science of ancestral DNA testing is not exact…yet. We are learning more and correcting our past findings every day. Yet when it comes to the DNA of Genghis Khan and his descendants, we are fascinated at the possibilities and still seek the “bragging rights” of being a part of his incredible family legacy. This says a lot about the kind of impact the first Emperor of Mongolia had on the world not just 800 years ago but straight through to the modern day.