LONDON – Tom Robinson had long wondered about his family tree. He never suspected its roots might lie in the Mongolian steppe.
The Florida accountant knew that his great, great-grandfather had come to the United States from England — but beyond that his research drew a blank. So he turned to the burgeoning field of "bioarchaeology," having his DNA tested to see what it revealed about his origins.
He was in for a surprise. According to a British geneticist who pioneered the research, Robinson appears to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, the Mongol warrior who conquered vast tracts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century.
Robinson said he was startled when he received a call from the firm Oxford Ancestors about a surprising ancestor uncovered by his DNA tests.
"My first impression was, 'Oh no, who is it' — imagining it was Adolf Hitler or something like that," said Robinson, 48. "So I was actually pleasantly surprised."
Robinson thinks his presumed forebear, whose name has long been a byword for violence and cruelty, has had a bad press.
"In addition to being a conqueror, he was a great administrator," said Robinson, who has been reading up on Genghis Khan. "Their system of governance was fairly sophisticated."
Established in 2001 by Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes, Oxford Ancestors offers DNA testing to people around the world eager to trace their genetic roots.
Sykes believes DNA can be used to map humanity's common ancestry. In 1994, he extracted DNA from a frozen 5,000-year-old corpse found in the Tyrolean Alps, and identified a woman living in Britain as his descendant.
Sykes' 2001 book "The Seven Daughters of Eve" claimed that 95 percent of Europeans are descended from seven tribal matriarchs — he dubbed them Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine — who lived between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago.
He also believes most Europeans can trace their descent to "Five Sons of Adam," and offers tests to identify these paternal ancestral clans by mapping patterns of DNA within the Y chromosome, the genetic material handed down from fathers to sons that changes little over generations.
Women have two X chromosomes, while men carry one X chromosome and one Y, so only men can take the paternal ancestry test.
Research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2003 suggested that 16 to 17 million men, most in Central Asia, shared a form of the Y chromosome that indicates a common ancestor.
Sykes said the obvious candidate was Genghis Khan, who stormed the world with his armies, conquering territory and siring many children. Lacking any tissue samples from the Mongol ruler — whose hidden tomb has never been found — the tests are based on an assessment of probabilities.
"This is circumstantial evidence but it is very good evidence," said Sykes. "I think it does mean that people who carry this chromosome are direct patrilineal descendants of Genghis Khan.
"How this chromosome came to be so prominent was that when he conquered new territory Genghis Khan would kill the men and routinely inseminate all the women."
Some scientists are less certain the chromosome points directly to the Mongol chief.
"It's a little bit of a stretch as far as I'm concerned," said Peter Underhill, a Stanford University geneticist who thinks the distinctive Y chromosome would have been present in many members of Genghis Khan's closely interrelated tribe. "Genghis Khan had this marker, but Joe Smith in the Genghis Khan army also had this Y chromosome."
Proven or not, Robinson's link may well make him a celebrity in Mongolia, a vast country of 2.5 million sandwiched between China and Russia renowned for its rolling grasslands, sturdy horses and nomadic herders.
This year the country is celebrating the 800th anniversary of 1206, the year a warrior named Temujin united the nomadic steppe tribes and took the title Genghis Khan — Universal Ruler.
He and his descendants built — and then lost — an empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Danube.
Condemned during Mongolia's 70 years of communist rule as a symbol of a backward past, Genghis Khan is now celebrated by Mongolians as the father of their nation
Many Western academics also have reassessed the great Khan's legacy, arguing that he was a brilliant military tactician, innovative ruler and early globalizer whose empire saw an unprecedented mingling of goods and cultures along the Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe.
Robinson, an associate professor of accountancy at the University of Miami, said he hoped to travel to Mongolia next year.
He's begun to wonder about similarities between himself and his purported ancestor. He has no military background, but says he is comfortable in a leadership role.
"When I practiced as a CPA I ran the department."
And, like any self-respecting Mongolian, he can ride a horse.
"I can, though I don't often do it. You don't get much chance to ride a horse in Florida."