Emperors and elites took control of all wealth, including access to young women.
How despots and conquerors changed the genetic makeup of the world
by Jonathan Leake
DESPOTS and tyrants may have changed the course of human evolution by using their power to force hundreds of women to bear their children, new research says.
It shows that the switch from hunter-gathering to farming about 8,000-9,000 years ago was closely followed by the emergence of emperors and elites who took control of all wealth, including access to young women.
Such men set up systems to impregnate hundreds, or even thousands, of women while making sure other men were too poor or oppressed to have families.
It means such men may now have hundreds of millions of descendants, a high proportion of whom may carry the genetic traits that drove their ancestors to seek power and oppress their fellow humans.
“In evolutionary terms this period of human existence created an enormous selective pressure, with the guys at the top who had the least desirable traits passing on their genes to huge numbers of offspring,” said Laura Betzig, an evolutionary anthropologist.
She has studied the emergence of the world’s first six great civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mexico and Peru.
In each she found that emperors created systems to “harvest” hundreds of the prettiest young women and then systematically impregnate them. Ms Betzig has studied the records left by the six civilisations to work out how many children wore born to emperors.
“In China they had it down to a science. Yangdi, the 6th-century Sui dynasty emperor, was credited by an official historian with 100,000 women in his palace at Yangzhou alone,” she said.
“They even had sex handbooks describing how to work out when a woman was fertile. Then they would be taken to the emperor to be impregnated.
“It was all organised by the state so the emperor could impregnate as many women as possible. And they had rules, like all the women had to be under 30 and all had to be attractive and symmetrical. This was the system in China for more than 2,000 years.”
Others relied on violence. One genetic study showed that Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongol warlord, who was renowned for sleeping with the most beautiful women in every territory he conquered, now has about 16m male descendants. This compares with the 800 people descended from the average man of that era.
Ms Betzig also studied primitive societies. She found that the small bands of hunter-gatherers were the most egalitarian, with men and women able to have the number of children they wanted.
“This freedom is probably because they were so mobile. If their group got taken over by a big guy who tried to control resources, the others could simply leave and find somewhere else,” she said.
This system broke down when the world’s first civilisations emerged about 8,000 years ago based on farming. All began on fertile river plains surrounded by mountains or deserts that made it difficult to leave. Such situations were perfect for the emergence of elites and emperors.
In a paper just published in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, Ms Betzig has catalogued the same trend in each of the great early civilisations. In Egypt, carvings on the tomb of Rameses the Great, who lived about 3,200 years ago, suggest he had about 200 children. Papyruses record the exploits of another, Snefru, who lived about 4,600 years ago, describing how he went for a row on his lake taking 20 women “with the shapeliest bodies, breasts and braids”.
Similarly, in Peru the Inca rulers appointed commissioners to collect attractive women who were sent to “houses of virgins” to await impregnation.
“In the generations before the 16th-century Spanish conquest, the emperor Pachakuti had 300 or 400 children by various women and the emperor Thupa Yupanki had 300 children,” Betzig said.
Such systems arose in Britain as well, especially in the feudal era. “Lords then had sexual access to hundreds of dependent serfs … with up to a fifth of the population ‘in service’,” Betzig said.
She is to publish a book, The Badge of Lost Innocence, exploring why that era has ended. “The European discovery of the Americas changed everything,” she said.
“Along with the emergence of democracy it offered millions of people the chance to emigrate or get rid of despotic regimes. The literature of that time shows people wanted to have families of their own and for the first time in thousands of years they had that chance.”