Nov 15, 2021
At the start of the twenty-first century, a study was released which brought the thirteenth century starkly into the present. A 2003 study led by Chris Tyler-Smith published in the American Journal of Human Genetics simply titled “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols,” determined that an alarming number of men across Asia, from China to Uzbekistan, carried the same haplotype on their Y-chromosome, indicating a shared paternal lineage. 8% of the studied group, just over 2100 men from 16 distinct populations in Asia shared this haplotype, which if representative of the total world population, would have come out to about 16 million men. This was far beyond what was to be expected of standard genetic variation over such a vast area. The researchers traced the haplogroup to Mongolia, and with the BATWING program determined that the most recent common ancestor lived approximately 1,000 years ago, plus or minus 300 years in either direction. The study determined that this could only be the result of selective inheritance, and there was only man who fit the profile, who had the opportunity to spread his genes across so much of Asia and have them be continually selected for centuries to come; that was Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire. Identifying him with the Y-Chromosome haplogroup, the C3* Star Cluster, the image of Chinggis Khan as the ancestor of 0.5% of the world population has become irrevocably attached to his name, and a common addition in the comment sections on any Mongol related topic on the internet will be the fact that he is related to every 1 in 200 men in Asia today. Yet, recent studies have demonstrated that this may not be the case, and that Chinggis Khan’s genetic legacy is not so simple as commonly portrayed. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Inside each human being are the genes we inherit from our parents. Distinct alleles within the thousands of genes of our 23 chromosomes affect the makeup of our bodies, from our physical appearances to blood type. Each allele is inherited from our parents, who inherited from their parents, and so on, leaving in each human being a small marker of every member of their ancestry. Due to interbreeding and mixing over time, people living in a certain region will share alleles, given that various members of their community shared ancestors at some point. A collection of these alleles is a haplotype, and a group of similar haplotypes with shared ancestry is a haplogroup. Tracing specific haplogroups attached to the Y-Chromosome, for instance, allows us to trace paternal ancestry of selected persons. It was the haplogroup dubbed the C3*star cluster that the researchers identified as Chinggis Khan’s haplotype, though later research has redefined it to the C2* star cluster. Thus, while you may see it somewhat interchangeably referred to as C3 or C2, depending on how recent the literature you’re reading is. Whoever carried the markers on their chromosome associated with this haplogroup, according to the study, was therefore a descendant of Chinggis Khan. The lineage, it should be noted, does not start with Chinggis Khan; it is detectable in the ancestors of the Mongols dating back at least to the fifth century BCE, to the Donghu people in eastern Mongolia and Manchuria. It is found in high frequencies in populations which had close contact with Mongols from Siberia to Central Asia, as as the Buryats, Udeges, Evens, Evenks, Kazakhs, and in lower frequencies in places conquered by the Mongol Empire. As demonstrated by the 2003 study, a map of these haplogroups lines up rather neatly with a map of the Mongol Empire at the time of Chinggis Khan’s death.
The 2003 study found that 8% of the men sampled had high frequencies of haplotypes from a set of closely related lineages, the C2* star cluster. With the highest numbers of this cluster found in Mongolia, it was the logical origin point for this cluster. Its frequencies in so many populations of the former Mongol Empire seemed to suggest it spread with Mongol imperial expansion. The researchers therefore identified Chinggis Khan and his close male-relatives as the likely progenitors. While the public has understood this as Chinggis Khan and his family raping a massive percentage of the thirteenth century human population, this was not quite what the study implied. Rather, the selective marriage into the Chinggisid royal family, with each son having high numbers of children, and so on for generations due to prestige associated with the lineage, was the cause for the haplogroup’s spread.
The study decided that, since the haplogroups showed up in high frequencies among the Hazara of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as they were deemed to be direct descendants of Chinggis Khan, then this must have meant no one else other than the Great Khan himself was the most recent common ancestor for this haplogroup. The high frequencies across Asian populations, an origin point in Mongolia, an estimated common ancestor approximately a thousand years ago, and association with the supposed Chinggisid Hazaras was the extent of the evidence the study had to make Chinggis Khan the progenitor.
When released, this study made headlines around the world. You’ll find no shortage of articles stating that “Genghis Khan was a prolific article,” with the underlying, thought generally unstated, assumption that these genes were spread by a hitherto unimaginable amount of rape, “backed up” by the medieval sources where Chinggis is described taking his pick of conquered women after the sack of a city. It’s a useful addition to the catalogue of descriptions to present the Mongols as mindless barbarians, with this study being essentially the scientific data to back up this presentation. It’s now become one of the key aspects of Chinggis Khan’s image in popular culture.
However, as more recent studies have demonstrated, there are a number of problems with this evidence presented in the 2003 study. Firstly, later researchers have pointed out how indirect the evidence is for the connection of Chinggis Khan to the C2 lineage. The estimates for the most recent common ancestor can vary widely depending on the methods used; while some estimates can place a figure within Chinggis Khan’s epoch, other estimates put the most recent common ancestor for the C2* cluster over 2,000 year ago. Even going by the 2003 study, it still gives a 600 year window for the most recent common ancestor, who still could have lived centuries before or after Chinggis Khan.
One of the most serious assumptions in the study was that the Hazara of Afghanistan were direct descendants of Chinggis KhanThis is an assumption which rests more on misconception than medieval materials. In fact, the thirteenth and fourteenth century sources indicate that Chinggis Khan spent only a brief time in what is now Afghanistan, only from late 1221 and throughout much of 1222, which he largely spent campaigning, pursuing Jalal al-Din Mingburnu and putting down local revolts before withdrawing. There is no indication that a Mongol garrison was left in the region by Chinggis, and it is not until the 1230s that Mongol forces returned and properly incorporated the region into the empire. Still, it was not until the end of the thirteenth century were Chinggisid princes actually staying in the region, when Chagatayid princes like Du’a’s son Qutlugh Khwaja took control over the Negudaris. The sources instead describe waves of Mongol garrisons into Afghanistan which began almost a decade after Chinggis Khan’s death, from the initial tamma garrisons under Ögedai Khaan’s orders to Jochid troops fleeing Hulegu to Afghanistan in the 1260s. Later, from the late fourteenth century onwards, Afghanistan was the heart of the Timurid realm, and while the Timurids shared some descent from Chinggis through marriage, it’s not exactly the process which would have led to high percentages of Chinggisid ancestry.Together, this strongly suggests that the Hazara would not bear Chinggisid ancestry in any considerable quantity.
Perhaps most prominently, there is little evidence that connects the C2* star cluster to known descendants of Chinggis Khan. The fact that no tomb of Chinggis Khan or any other known members of his family has been found, means that there is no conclusive means to prove what haplogroups he possessed. Without human remains which undeniably belong to one of his close male relatives or himself, Chinggis Khan’s own haplogroup can not ever be reliably identified. Most royal Chinggisid lineages in the western half of the empire, such as that of the Ilkhanate or Chagatais, disappeared long before the advance of genetic sciences. You might think that looking in Mongolia, you’d find a lot of Chinggisids running about, but this is not the case. Even during the empire, many members of the Chinggisid family were spread across Asia, leaving by the end of the fourteenth century largely lines only from his brothers, and of his grandsons Ariq Böke and Khubilai. In the fifteenth century, a massive massacre of the royal family was carried out by the leader of the Oirats and the true master of Mongolia, the non-Chinggisid Esen Taishi. Mongolia was reunified some fifty years later under the Khubilayid prince Dayan Khan, and it was the descendants of his sons who made up the Chinggisid nobility for the next centuries. Then, in the 1930s Soviet supported purges resulted in the near annihilation of the Chinggisid princes, Buddhist clergy and other political enemies. From 1937-1939, over 30,000 Mongolians were killed, and the Dayan Khanid nobility nearly extinguished.
While it is true that today in Mongolia, you can find many people who claim the imperial clan name of Borjigin, this is largely because after democratization in Mongolia in 1990, Mongolians were encouraged to take clan names- a fact that, as many commenters have pointed out, historically the Mongols did not do, unless they were actually members of the Chinggisid royal family. While the 1918 census in Mongolia recorded only 5.7% of the population as being Borjigid, during the recent registering of clan names some 50% chose, of course, the most famous and prestigious name for themselves. Therefore, it’s rather difficult to find a lot of a Chinggisids today.
The 2003 study relied on a random selection of people from across Asia, rather than looking specifically for individuals who claimed Chinggisid descent. Other studies which have sought out people who claim Chinggisid ancestry do not support the C2* Star cluster hypothesis of the 2003 study. A 2012 study by Batbayar and Sabitov in the Russian Journal of Genetic Genealogy of Mongolian individuals who could trace their lineage back to Chinggis Khan’s fifteenth century descendant, Dayan Khan, found none of them matched the Star cluster proposed by the 2003 study. To overcome the previously mentioned issues about finding Chinggisids, to quote Batbayar and Sabitov, “In this study, seven patrilineal descendants of [...] Dayan Khan and two of Chinggis Khan’s brothers’ descendants were chosen for Y-chromosome DNA sequencing. Rather than testing a multitude of subjects, for the sake of accuracy, the most legitimate and proven descendants of Dayan Khan were selected. The DNA donors were selected based upon their official Mongol and Manchu titles and ranks, which were precisely recorded in Mongolian, Manchu, and Soviet documents.” Essentially, as close as you can get to a definite, unbroken paternal line from Chinggis Khan, given the 800 years since his death. When they compared the Dayan Khanid descendants, the descendants of Chinggis’ brothers, and those who could reliable claimed ancestry from Chinggis’ son Jochi, Batbayar and Sabitov demonstrated that essentially each lineage bore different haplogroups, and none, except for a small branch of the Jochids, bore the C2* star cluster of the 2003 study.
Study of the bodies of medieval Mongol burials have likewise yielded contrasting results when their DNA has been examined. One of the most notable burials which has been studied is the Tavan Tolgoi suit, from eastern Mongolia. Essentially it was a burial of an extremely wealthy family, dated to the mid-thirteenth century. Adorned with jewelry and buried in coffins made of Cinnamon, which would have had to be imported from southeastern Asia, the researcher suggested due to such obvious wealth and power that they must have been Chinggisid. Their bodies showed haplogroups associated, interestingly enough, with western Asia populations, with effectively no descendants in modern Mongolian populations, and most definitely, not the C2* star cluster. This led to the 2016 study by Gavaachimed Lkhagvasuren et al., titled “Molecular Genealogy of a Mongol Queen’s Family and her Possible kinship with Genghis Khan,” to suggest Chinggis must have borne this haplogroup, and possibly, western Asian ancestry. He also pointed to supposed descriptions of Chinggis Khan having red hair as possible supporting literary evidence.
But this is not reliable evidence. Firstly, none of the graves conclusively can be identified as Chinggisid. The Chinggisid’s known preference for burials on Burkhan Khaldun seems unlikely to make the Tavan Tolgoi burials a close relation. Further, the “red hair” description of Chinggis Khan comes from a mistranslation of a phrase from Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Chronicles, where Chinggis remarks that young Khubilai lacked his grandfather’s ruddy features, indicating not red hair, but a face red in colour; hardly uncommon for a man who spent his lifetime in the harsh winds of the steppe. Therefore, the Tavan Tolgoi burials seem more likely to represent a family, possibly of Qipchaq origin, taken from western Asia, incorporated into the Mongol military and gaining wealth and power- hardly unusual in the Mongol army, but revealing nothing of Chinggis’ haplogroups. Other wealthy burials of nobility from the Mongol Empire in Mongolia and northern China have revealed differing chromosomal haplogroups, providing no answer as of yet to the question of the Great Khan’s own genetic lineage.
Much like the 2003’s study erroneous identification of the Hazaras as direct descendants of Chinggis Khan, a more recent study demonstrates the pitfalls of attempting to connect historical figures to genetic data. A 2019 study by Shao-Qing Wen et al. in the Journal of Human Genetics looked at the y-chromosomal profiles of a family from northwestern China’s Gansu-Qinghai area, who traced their ancestry back to Kölgen, a son of Chinggis Khan with one of his lesser wives. Importantly, this family also backed up their claims in genealogical records, and had inhabited the same region for centuries. After the expulsion of the Mongols, they had been made local officials [tusi 土司] by the succeeding Ming and Qing dynasties. This family, the Lu, did not match the C2* Star Cluster, but actually showed close affinity to other known descendants of Chinggis Khan, the Töre clan in Kazakhstan. The Töre trace their lineage to Jani Beg Khan (r.1473-1480), one of the founders of the Kazakh Khanate and a tenth generation descendant of Chinggis Khan’s first born son Jochi. Jochi, as you may recall, was born after his mother Börte was taken captive by Chinggis Khan’s enemies, and was accused, most notably by his brother Chagatai, of not being their father’s son. Chinggis, for the record, always treated Jochi as fully legitimate. As the Lu family in China traced themselves to Kölgen, who shared only a father with Jochi, then the fact that the Lu and the Töre belong to the same C2 haplogroup, with a genealogical separation of about 1,000 years, would suggest that if this is in fact the Y-chromosomal lineage of Chinggis Khan, then Jochi’s uncertain paternity could be laid to rest, and that he was a true son of Chinggis Khan.
This theory is comfortable and convenient, but other scholars have noted that the connection of the Lu to Toghan, the descendant of Kölgen, is very tenuous. The sources connecting the Lu clan to Kölgen’s family were not compiled until the late Qing Dynasty, some four to five centuries after Toghan’s death. The sources more contemporary to Toghan’s life do not match the description of his life described in the histories used by the Lu clan, leading scholars to argue that, while the Lu clan does have Mongolian origin, and likely did have an ancestor with the very common medieval Mongolian name of Toghan, it seems likely that at some point the Lu clan’s family compilers decided to associate their own ancestor with the more well known Chinggisid of the same name, and therefore claim for themselves Chinggisid ancestry and prestige- hardly an unknown thing by compilers of Chinese family trees. Therefore, the matter of Jochi’s paternity still remains uncertain.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin comes in the 2018 study by Lan Hai-Wei, et al. in the European Journal of Human Genetics. Compiling data from previous studies that found issue with the 2003 hypothesis, they looked at groups with high frequencies of the C2* Star clusters like the Hazara or the Daur, a Mongolic-speaking people from Northeastern China who, based off of historical records, make no claims of Chinggisid descent. Newer estimates also suggest the most recent common ancestor for this lineage was over 2,600 years ago. In the most recent hypothesis then, it seems more likely that the star cluster identified by the 2003 study does not represent the lineage of Chinggis Khan, but was simply an incredibly common paternal lineage among ordinary inhabitants of the Mongolian plateau. Its presence in other peoples across Asia was not evidence of selective breeding into the Golden Lineage, but simply the movement of Mongolian troops into a region, and intermixing with the local population. In the case of the Hazaras, this is the exact scenario demonstrated by the historical sources, with waves of Mongol troops rather than a host of Chinggisids descending into the Hazarajat. The possibility cannot be excluded however, that while C2* was a dominant haplotype in thirteenth century Mongolia, that before 1200 it had already been spread across Central Asia by earlier nomadic expansions of Mongolia-based empires like the Göktürk Khaghanates or the Uighur. The Mongol expansion in the thirteenth century, then, would only be another wave of the spread of C2* across Eurasia.
While it is possible that Chinggis Khan and his close male relatives did in fact, carry the C2* star cluster, there is no evidence which directly or conclusively connects him to it. His known descendants through the line of Dayan Khan are of a different Y-chromosomal haplogroup. The descendants of Dayan Khan, himself a descendant of Chinggis Khan’s grandson Khubilai, and the Kazakh Töre, descendants of Chinggis Khan’s son Jochi, bear haplotypes so distant that their most recent common ancestor is estimated to have lived 4,500 years ago, which does not fair well for the likelihood of Jochi being Chinggis’ son. A third known and tested branch, of the Shibanids in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, does match the C2* star cluster, but has less than 1,000 known members and again, are descended from Chinggis Khan via Jochi. Chinggis Khan then cannot be said to be the ancestor of 0.5% of the world’s population, since his y-chromosomal marking remains unknown. Any attempts at identifying it conclusively can never be more than mere assumptions without finding the bodies of either the Khan or any of his close-male relatives- a prospect highly unlikely, given the Chinggisids’ preference for secret graves. Thus, it seems that his haplotypes are but one more secret that Chinggis will keep with him.
Our series on the Mongols will continue, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this, and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals, or sharing this with your friends. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Callaway, Ewen. “Genghis Khan’s Genetic Legacy Has Competition.” Scientific American. January 29th, 2015.
Dulik, Matthew C. “Y-Chromosome Variation in Altaian Kazakhs Reveals a Common paternal Gene Pool for Kazakhs and the Influence of Mongolian Expansions.” 6 PLoS One no. 3 (2011)
Gavaachimed Lkhagvasuren et al. “Molecular Genealogy of a Mongol Queen’s Family and her Possible kinship with Genghis Khan.” PLoS ONE 11 no. 9 (2016)