By Greg Downey; (long read: 5500 words)
Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif succeeded to the sultanate of Morocco after his brother fell from a horse and died in 1672. Twenty-six when he became the Sharifian Emperor, Moulay Ismael “the Bloodthirsty” — as he was called — went on to expand his holding in a remarkable reign. His armies conquered neighboring territories and fought off the Ottomans (eventually forcing them to recognize Moroccan independence), and the emperor went on a building spree to make Meknes a rival to Versailles, with French engineers to help.
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)
Moulay Ismael also had a prodigious capacity for cruelty. He legendarily ordered that the walls of Meknes be decorated with the heads of 10,000 enemy soldiers. He also sponsored the Barbary pirates, who engaged the states of Europe in a protracted and costly low-grade war, drove the American colonies to form the first navy in North America, and pushed the English and Spanish from Moroccan territory.
But Moulay Ismael is probably best known to history because of his prodigious capacity to reproduce. The emperor had a thing for children,… well, for having sons, that is.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Moulay Ismael, with four wives and at least 500 concubines, sired an estimated 1042 children (they recently raised their estimate from 888). That feat is even more incredible when one notes that Moulay Ismael, demonstrating just how deep his cruelty went, ordered that all the female infants of his concubines be smothered when they were born by their midwives.
A recent paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer (2014) in PLOS One set out to test whether the number of children attributed to Moulay Ismael was even plausible. They used a number of computer simulations, taking into account a range of estimates of human fertility, to see if one man could in fact sire so many children.
More specifically, the two researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Vienna tested the claims of French diplomat Dominique Busnot, who on a visit to Morocco in 1704, when Moulay Ismael was 57 years-old, reported that the emperor had six hundred sons. Was it plausible for the emperor to have had six hundred sons — as well as all the daughters who would have been killed at birth — during a period of thirty-two years (from taking the throne at age 25 until Busnot’s arrival)?
The question is important, not merely to establish how much sex would have been necessary to achieve this extraordinary level of reproduction — once a day? twice a day? — but also because it suggests a theoretical limit to male fertility.
The case of Moulay Ismael’s harem, as Oberzaucher and Grammer note, is widely cited in ‘textbooks on evolutionary psychology and biology’ (2014: 1; for an online version, see Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True). The alleged number of Moulay Ismael’s progeny is important for our understanding of human reproduction and sexuality, especially from an evolutionary perspective.