Thousands of Kazakhs are competing to prove their descent from feared warlord Genghis Khan, as a revival in Kazakh nationalism brings renewed prestige to the country's former aristocracy. In the last three years, more than 300 Kazakhs have sent gene samples to be tested at a US lab and thousands of contenders lobbied to be included in last year’s book Chingizids, which detailed Genghis’s Kazakh heirs. Arman Ahmuhanov, a 39-year-old horse trader from Almaty, recently sent a sample to FamilytreeDNA, a company in Houston, after being encouraged to do so by Chingizids’ author Gizat Tabuldin.
“He said ‘If you want to be respected, and you want to know that you are really chingizid [a Genghis-Khan descendant], then you have to have real proof,’” said Mr Amerkulov.
Genghis Khan’s conquest of a vast swathe of Eurasia has made his name synonymous with destruction and brutality in Europe and the Middle East, but in Kazakhstan and Mongolia he is a hero.
Since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has actively promoted Kazakh history and heritage, and Mr Tabuldin’s book, the result of 10 years’ research, has been heavily promoted in the government media.
Perhaps as a result, there have been a rush of inquiries from Kazakhstan, according to Max Blankfeld, head of operations at FamilytreeDNA in Houston.
“From 2007 and on, we have had about 300 people from Kazakhstan that have tested with us,” he said.
Many have been disappointed, including, it seems, Mr Ahmuhanov.
“His DNA signature on the paternal line does not correspond to the one that scientific studies have for what is supposed to be the Genghis Khan signature,” said Mr Blankfeld.
Mr Tabuldin similarly had to exclude hundreds of aspirants from the 5,000 living Tore included in his book. “There were lots of people who wanted to be in the book, but I found out that they weren’t Chingizids, so I had to keep them out,” he said.
Mr Blankfeld’s test is based on a 2003 joint study between Oxford University and Harbin Medical University in China, which identified a genetic signature common to nearly 350 million people across the former Mongol empire from the Pacific Sea to the Caspian.
But Yerlan Turesbekov, a geneticist who runs the ‘Kazakhstan DNA’ project in Almaty, said that there was not yet a conclusive test for Genghis Khan’s DNA.
“As per lineage to Genghis Khan, his DNA passport is not validated yet, and we still don’t have a clear picture. Participants who assume the ties with Genghis Khan have different DNA genotypes and it is hard to tell who is a real descendant.”
From their founding of the Kazakh Khanate in the 15th Century to their repression under Joseph Stalin, his male-line descendants, known as the “Tore”, formed an aristocratic elite, who stood outside the three Kazakh clans, and provided the sultans and khans who ruled the nomads of the steppe.
Srym Bokeikhanov, a 72-year-old historian and writer, was never told of his Tore ancestry as he grew up, his parents being wary of the fate of his great uncle Alikhan Bokeikhanov, who led Kazakhstan for its brief period of independence between 1917 and 1920.
“It was very dangerous for me, and for my parents, so when I was a child, my father didn’t tell me,” he said. “I found out when I was a student, but it was very closed information, because Alikhan, my great uncle, was killed by Stalin in the Butyrka prison.”