Scientists Link a Prolific Gene Tree to the Manchu Conquerors of China |
【Nurhaci led the Manchus until they took the Chinese empire in 1644.】
Geneticists have identified a major lineage of Y chromosomes in populations of northern China that they believe may mark the bearers as descendants of one of the Manchu conquerors who founded the Qing dynasty and ruled China from 1644 to 1911.
Because the founder of the lineage lived some 500 years ago, according to calculations based on the rate of genetic change, he may have been Giocangga, who died in 1582, the grandfather of the Manchu leader Nurhaci. At least 1.6 million men now carry this Manchu Y chromosome, says Chris Tyler-Smith, the leader of a team of English and Chinese geneticists.
Several historians, however, expressed reservations and said they would like to see more evidence, including testing of present-day descendants of the Qing nobility.
This is not the first instance of extraordinary male procreation that Dr. Tyler-Smith has brought to light. Two years ago, after a survey of Y chromosomes across East Asia, he identified a lineage that he was able to associate with the Mongol royal house and Genghis Khan.
Some 16 million men who live within the boundaries of the former Mongol empire now carry Genghis's Y chromosome, according to Dr. Tyler-Smith's calculations.
【Shaded circles in the map represent the distribution of Manchu cluster chromosomes】
The Mongol Y chromosome presumably spread so widely because of the large number of concubines amassed by Genghis and his relatives. The Manchu rulers, though not in Genghis's league, also were able to spread their lineage so far, Dr. Tyler-Smith and his colleagues suggest, because of being able to keep many concubines. Even a ninth-rank nobleman in the dynasty (whose name is pronounced ching) was entitled to receive 11 kilograms of silver and 22,000 liters of rice as his annual stipend.
With colleagues in England and Beijing, Dr. Tyler-Smith identified a Y chromosome lineage that was surprisingly common among seven populations scattered across northern China, but was absent from the Han, to which most Chinese belong.
Since the only other Y chromosome lineage in the region anywhere near as common was that of Genghis Khan, the founder of the new lineage seemed likely to have left his mark in the historical record, as well, Dr. Tyler-Smith says in an article to appear in the December issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics. The Manchus of the Qing dynasty seem the best candidates because there were more than 80,000 official members of the Qing dynasty by 1911, according to a history of the Manchus by Prof. Mark C. Elliott of Harvard.
By counting the number of mutations in the lineage's Y chromosome, Dr. Tyler-Smith estimated that the common ancestor of all branches of the lineage lived about 500 years ago and was therefore probably the Manchu patriarch Giocangga.
A puzzling feature of the geneticists' finding is that the Manchu Y chromosome they identified is quite rare in Liaoning, the original home province. Dr. Elliott said that was not necessarily surprising, because many Manchus left their homeland and relocated to Beijing after the founding of the Qing dynasty. Also, the Communist government allowed many Han who worked for the Manchu in Liaoning to claim Manchu ethnicity.
Dr. James Lee, a historical demographer at the University of Michigan, said in an e-mail message from Beijing that the claim to have found a genetic link to the Qing imperial nobility in northern ethnic groups "seems quite forced," because most of the nobility lived in Beijing and Liaoning.
Dr. Tyler-Smith responded that his colleagues in Beijing had approached several documented descendants of the nobility and invited them to participate but none accepted.
After the Cultural Revolution, descent from the nobility was generally hidden, and many documents were destroyed, Dr. Tyler-Smith and colleagues write in their article. Because they could not find living Qing noblemen to test, they write, "Our hypothetical explanation remains unproven," despite "strong circumstantial support."
Dr, Elliott said that he knew several people who were well-attested descendants of the Qing royal family and that an ad in a Beijing newspaper should recruit a few hundred people, if not a few thousand.
Dr. Elliott said the Qing often contracted marriages with the Mongols as a means of securing political alliances, which would explain the presence of the Manchu chromosome in Mongolia. This could have also occurred with other northern ethnic groups where the Manchu chromosome is common, like the Oroqen, Hezhe and Ewenki, although those forest peoples "did not intermarry with the Qing imperial lineage, at least not in any appreciable numbers," he said.
The fathering of many children by a single man is an instance of what biologists call male intrasexual selection. Dr. Tyler-Smith said the Manchu and Mongol chromosomes were the only genetic imprints of this size that he can see in the populations of East Asia, but that there are likely to be other instances elsewhere.
By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: November 1, 2005
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