The real secret history of the Mongols?

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 3:14 am

Thank god for steppe hyper-patriarchy; it’s a model which we can test. Dienekes points me to a paper, The Y-chromosome C3* star-cluster attributed to Genghis Khan’s descendants is present at high frequency in the Kerey clan from Kazakhstan, which is notable for increasing sample coverage of the distribution of “Genghis Khan haplotype.” As you might recall in 2003 a paper reported that a particular Y-chromosomal phylogeny was extremely common in Central Eurasia, and, that it had expanded rather rapidly starting approximately ~1,000 years ago. The natural supposition was that this was connected to the rise of Genghis Khan, from whom male-line descent in particular has become a matter of pride and prestige across the former domains under his rule. Subsequent researchers have supported this finding insofar as the distribution of the haplotype does tend to drop off among the “Western Mongols,” who were for various reasons marginal during the time of Genghis Khan, and whose ruling class were subsequently diminished in part due to their lack of a Genghiside pedigree.


The new paper above presents the novel result that the Kereys of Kazakhstan have the highest fraction of C3* reported to date. This elite lineage claims descent from the Kerait tribe of 13th century Mongolia, which was by an large absorbed by the Mongols. The authors suggest that either the C3* star-shaped phylogeny is is actually a Kerait derived line, which piggy-backed on the rise of the Mongol Empire, or, that Keraits and Mongols share a common blood ancestry. In particular, they point out that the Khan of the Keraits, who was for a time the patron of the young Temujin (later Genghis Khan), was also the “blood brother” of Temujin’s father. Though this relationship was formed between notional non-relatives, it does not seem implausible that the Kerait and Mongol ruling dynasties were two branches of a common lineage. In particular, the Mongol elite may have been derived from the Keraits as a junior or cadet branch, as the former were relatively marginal at this period in relation to the Keraits, who as Christians of the Church of Persia (also known as ‘Nestorian’ in the West) were well integrated into the broader Eurasian ecumene.

Of course another possibility is that cuckoldry of non-Genghiside lineages was rather common in the early years of the Mongol Empire by Genghiside princes, of whom there were legion, legitimate and illegitimate. Or, perhaps the Mongol ruling clan was cuckolded by the Kerait elite before the time of Genghis Khan. They were after all likely in a position of greater power and prestige. The social science suggests that high status male lineages can rely upon relatively high fidelity of their partners. Additionally, in terms of reproductive value it is likely that in a pre-modern world elite lineages were far more prolific than the masses. The expansion of the Genghis Khan haplotype may be due to direct slaughter of enemies and acquisition of their wives, but what if it is also through less ‘honorable’ means? That is, not only were the Genghisides prolific in their own right, but they took upon themselves the reproductive rights of other elite men.

This model is interesting as far as it goes, but the key question as Y-chromosomal databases expand is what patterns we will see beginning to emerge the world over. Are most of today’s men descended from elite lineages, or the bastards of elite lineages, or cuckoldry? A very particular Y-chromosomal distribution of lineages would then manifest itself.

MORE ABOUT: Human Genetics

Comments (4)

  1. dave chamberlin

    apparently hearing just the lamentations of their women wasn’t good enough

  2. John Emerson

    We use “Mongol” for Mongolian speakers. That’s only since Genghis Khan. Before him the Mongols (in our sense) were called Tatars by the Chinese, because the Tatars were the dominant group. In his youth Genghis was called a Borjigin and a Kiyan, and only after his triumph was he called a Mongol. I’ve read all or most of the primary sources but as far as I know how that happened is unclear. But the outcome was that Genghis united all of the Mongols (in our sense) under his leadership, adopted the clan name Mongol, and the nomads subject to him also became Mongols by that. They didn’t lose their own clan affiliations, but their clans were subsumed under “Mongol”.

    What I think is that “Borjigin” and “Kiyan” were rather minor tribes founded by two of Genghis’s ancestors, and that Genghis proclaimed a new clan starting with himself.

    Before 1206 Genghis was subordinate to the Kerait and under certain circumstances would be called a Kerait. (In the Secret History one person is called a Mongol first and then a Kerait a couple of paragraphs later.) He also could have been a Jurgin if he had wanted to, but instead of submitting to his cousins he killed them (and that was his usual practice).

    The Mongols were closer to the Kerait than to most of the Mongol subgroups, and intermarriage was routine. (Tribal exogamy was favored as part of building alliances and creating distant refuges to retreat to when necessary). When a tribe was destroyed, most of its members survived as subordinates of the victors — only the Khan and the males in his family were killed.

    Tribes were essentially functioning political-military groups embedded in a geographical-historical context. Distant relationships were remembered, but this was really just a tool diplomacy, etc. Ethnic purity was not a big concern, and neither was linguistic purity. It is thought that two of the big Mongol coalitions, the Naiman and the Khirgiz, might not have been native speakers of Mongol. (The 1200 AD Khirgiz were not closely related to the contemporary Khirgiz.)

    There’s an article by Julius Nemeth called “KEREİT KEREY GİRAY” tracing the name Kereit and its derivatives in history, as a tribal name and as a clan name. I can’t call it up at this station but as I remember, the ruling family of the Crimean Tatars was named Giray, and (unless I’m mixing this up with a different article) there’s a Giray of that family living in London.

    There’s another article “CRIMEAN TATARS, NOGAYS, AND SCOTTISH MISSIONARIES” that I can’t call up about a Giray who married into a British family.

  3. Derek

    Leaving behind them women, children, elderly and disabled, Gengis Khan took the best men and …. they never came back !

  4. Gaukhar Noortas

    I am a Kazakh. My tribe’s name is Argyn. Just like Kereit my ancestors used to live in the territory of present Mongolia. Around 5-6BC they have moved north. There are still Kazakh that live in Mongol territory.

    All Kazakhs call ourselves “Turkic”. Tatars, Uzbek, Azery, Kyrgyz, and many more nations are Turkic. They are all part of the Turkic nomads and we all speak the same language. Obviously once some of the tribes formed into nations like Tatars and Uzbek etc, their languages have changes slightly as they were influenced by other cultures. However I still understand each and every one of them.
    Only the Turkic nation always had Khans before and after Genghis Khan.
    The Mongol language does not have anything in common with our languages. Why does the world call the Khans mongols is a huge mystery to me and many more of those who know our culture and history. I think our Turkologysts should teach at international schools.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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