Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire had rampant hepatitis B, say researchers

Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire had rampant hepatitis B, say researchers as they claim the bones could help fight the deadly virus in the future

  • Warlord’s horse riding, bow-wielding warriors carried the beginnings of a plague
  • A third of them likely had hepatitis B and suffered liver disease as well as cancer
  • The discovery was made by Copenhagen University’s evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev 
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Genghis Khan ruled most of what would become modern Korea, China, Russia, eastern Europe, southeast Asia and India

Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde swept across the Asian steppes in 1206, uniting warring tribes.

He created an empire encompassing modern China that extended west as far as Poland and Hungary.

But hiding inside many of his horse riding, bow-wielding warriors was the beginnings of a plague, reports Ars Technica.

Two-thirds carried hepatitis B (HBV) – the deadly virus which attacks the liver, causing organ failure, scarring and cancer.

And other evidence suggests the Mongols’ affliction started even earlier.

Previous generations of warriors had carried a form of the pathogen which would later become the Justinian Plague – a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire between 541AD and 542AD.

The origin of HBV remains unclear but newly found DNA left in the ancient bones and teeth of people from the Asian steppes – which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – provides insight.

The discovery was made by Copenhagen University’s evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev.

Her team sequenced 12 of the best preserved ancient infected viral genomes – a complete set of DNA code – and combined them with modern genomes to analyze how HBV has changed over time.

HBV is easy to pick out in ancient DNA samples because infected people carry huge amounts of the virus in their blood for several years – increasing the chance the virus’ DNA will be preserved in bone cells.


His troops, who famously rode on horseback and were skilled with the bow, probably carried the virus across the globe (stock image)


The Hungarian King Béla IV flees from the Mongol horde during the invasion of 1235 to 1241




The discovery was made by Copenhagen University’s evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev

They found that HBV was part of Mongol life for thousands of years.

Her researchers also found one strain of the deadly virus that went extinct – or was eradicated – sometime in the last 4,500 years.

She also discovered one of the nine major strains around today is the product of an ancient combinations of two other HBV strains.

This mean HBV on the ancient steppes may have been as common as it is in some of the most heavily impacted areas of the modern world.

Today, in South Sudan, as many as 22 per cent of people are infected.

And in areas where more than 8 per cent of people have the virus, between 70 to 90 per cent have been infected at least once during their lives.

‘So the picture that emerged from this line of work is that a lot of people were running around with diseases in the past,’ said researcher and evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev.


HBV on the ancient steppes may have been as common as it is today. Pictured: Batu Khan, son of Genghis, on the throne

‘It certainly kind of cracked my romantic picture of the Bronze Age and Iron Age.’

This knowledge is not just good for understanding the past, but could also help tackle the virus in the future.

Researches may one day be able to predict how HBV will mutate.

The World Health Organization aims to significantly reduce the impact of HBV by 2030.

At this time, hope for this rests on a combination of viruses and antiviral drugs. But a new mutation could render our defenses useless.

Knowing how – and when – these changes occur could save many lives. 

WHO WAS GENGHIS KHAN AND HOW DID HE BECOME SO POWERFUL?


Genghis Khan was the founder and Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan was the founder and Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. 

In the early 1200s he united the Mongol tribes, creating a military state that invaded its neighbours and expanded.

The Empire soon ruled most of what would become modern Korea, China, Russia, eastern Europe, southeast Asia, Persia and India.

Khan made himself master of half the known world, and inspired mankind with a fear that lasted for generations.

He was a prolific lover, fathering hundreds of children across his territories. Some scientists think he has 16 million male descendants alive today.

By the time he died in August 1227, the Mongol Empire covered a vast part of Central Asia and China.

Originally known as Temüjin of the Borjigin, legend has it Genghis was born holding a clot of blood in his hand. 

His father was Khan, or emperor, of a small tribe but was murdered when Temüjin was still young.

The new tribal leader wanted nothing to do with Temujin’s family, so with his mother and five other children, Temüjin was cast out and left to die.

In all, Genghis conquered almost four times the lands of Alexander the Great. He is still revered in Mongolia and in parts of China.

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