In the Body of an Accounting Professor, a Little Bit of the Mongol Hordes
By NICHOLAS WADE
The New York Times
Published: June 6, 2006
The first American to be able to claim descent from Genghis Khan has been discovered. He is Thomas R. Robinson, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
Dr. Robinson's descent from Genghis Khan emerged in a roundabout way. The Y chromosome of that Mongol emperor was identified in 2003 by geneticists at the University of Oxford in England. Surveying the chromosomes of Asian men, they noticed a distinctive genetic signature in populations from Mongolia to Central Asia. Their common feature was that all but one lay within the borders of the former Mongol empire.
The geneticists concluded that the far-flung Y chromosome must have belonged to Genghis Khan and had become so widespread because of the vigor with which he and his sons labored in their harems, a fact noted by contemporary historians.
While the geneticists were collecting blood samples from the Oxus to Xanadu, Dr. Robinson was researching his family tree and had established that his great-great-grandfather, John Robinson, had emigrated from Cumbria in England to Illinois. Reaching a dead end, in 2003 he submitted a scraping of cells from the inside of his cheek to Oxford Ancestors. The company traces people's ancestry to specific regions of the world based on their Y chromosomes, which track paternal descent, or on their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the female line.
"They told me my mother's side of the family came from France and Spain and my father's side probably originated in Central Europe," Dr. Robinson said in an interview yesterday.
Recently, Bryan Sykes, the geneticist who founded Oxford Ancestors, decided to look through his database of some 50,000 people to see if there were any anomalous matches with Genghis Khan's Y chromosome. "We get people wanting to know if they are related to Genghis Khan and they never are unless they come from China or Mongolia," he said yesterday in an interview from England.
Among his non-Asian customers was one hit: Dr. Robinson. "Someone rang him up and I think it came as a nice surprise," Dr. Sykes said.
Dr. Robinson said he received the call about a month ago. Articles about his surprising ancestry have appeared in The Times of London and The Miami Herald.
How did Genghis Khan's Y chromosome get into a family that has lived for many generations in the Lake District of northern England? Genghis Khan's empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea. One possibility, Dr. Sykes said, was that the Vikings might have transferred slaves from the Caspian region to the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Viking boats reached the Caspian by sailing on the rivers of Russia and being hauled overland.
One of the slaves, or his descendants, might have ended up in Cumbria and assumed the surname Robinson. Surnames were not used in England until around the 13th century, Dr. Sykes said.
Another possibility is that a later Mrs. Robinson had a child out of wedlock by a man from Central Europe. But this would seem less likely if, as Dr. Sykes said may be the case, there are many other Robinsons in the Lake District who carry the conqueror's Y chromosome.
Although Genghis Khan was the most spectacular progenitor, several other prolific patriarchs have since come to light, including Giocangga, the founder of the Manchu dynasty in China, and Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king considered by some historians as more of a legend than real.
"Mini-Genghises were probably all over the place in medieval times," Dr. Sykes said. Under a patriarchal inheritance pattern, he added, "sons will inherit wealth and empire and the same attitude to women." The same instincts have not necessarily vanished from contemporary rulers, despite societal disapproval of straying from the marriage bed.
"I'm sure that's one of the reasons they try to get to the top," Dr. Sykes said, referring to leaders' desire to spread their genes. The constraints on people holding public office "must be very frustrating, but they manage it somehow," he said.
Genghis Khan died in 1227, and in the 30 or so generations since then his genes would have become heavily diluted, halving at each generation. The Y chromosome, however, is passed essentially unchanged from father to son so as to prevent its male-determining gene from being swapped into the X chromosome. Its 78 genes are inherited as a single unit. Mr. Robinson may carry few of Genghis Khan's other genes, but he can now trace his ancestry to the 13th century.
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