Power and leadership may have been passed down from women to women in one of the earliest civilizations in the Americas, a new study revealed.
In the heart of New Mexico's famous Chaco Canyon, archeologists discovered a burial site that contained the remains of high-status individuals, suggesting a complex society that may have depended on matrilineal relationships.
If the study holds, it's one of those incredible wonders of the ancient world, which deviates from most civilizations, where patrilineal and leadership were based on descent through the male line. It may also show a link between ancient Chaco society and the modern Pueblo people.
From 800 to 1130 C.E., Chaco Canyon had been a thriving society with thousands of people working at immense earthen buildings known as great houses. Sections of these great houses still stand today.
The biggest of these great houses is Pueblo Bonito, which holds more than 650 rooms used for a wide range of activities.
Scientists focused on Room 33, which had been a burial site, and uncovered bodies buried with several beautiful ornaments. This suggests that Room 33 may have been the final resting place for very important people.
Led by Douglas Kennett, an archeologist from Penn State University, the team extracted DNA from the bones of the individuals buried inside Room 33 and sequenced them.
Using radiocarbon dating, researchers analyzed the correct order in which the remains were buried. The oldest body was buried at 800 C.E., while the youngest was buried at the middle of the 12th century.
Kennett and his colleagues then genetically studied the mitochondrial DNA of the remains, which can only be passed along the maternal line. Nine of the 14 high-status individuals buried in Room 33 had the same mitochondrial DNA, indicating that they were linked through the maternal line.
Nuclear DNA recovered from the remains suggested that two of them were identified as mother and daughter, while another was a pair of grandmother and grandson.
"[T]he fact that it's an elaborate burial crypt indicates that it was an elite matriline," added Kennett.
What's more, the richest burial was that of a 40-year-old man surrounded by a conch trumpet, rare shells, and about 11,000 turquoise pendants and beads. This supports the theory that Room 33 was housed by the elite in the Chaco society.
Adam Watson, co-author of the study, said most Chacoans had been buried outside of the settlement, and never with such high amounts of exotic goods.
"It has been clear for some time that these were venerated individuals, based on the exceptional treatment they received in the afterlife," added Watson.
Despite the impressive work done by these scientists, however, the ancient Chaco society remains to be largely misunderstood.
Researchers say the link between Chacoans and modern Pueblo people is still unclear, but groups of Native Americans living near Chaco Canyon have long been organized around matrilineal dynasties, with the man typically moving in with his wife's family.
Furthermore, the caveat of the research is that five other remains in Room 33 yielded no DNA and may not have been part of the same maternal line.
Without those DNA, it will be difficult to say whether those other individuals belonged to a unique lineage or maternal-based political dynasty, researchers said.
Details of the study are featured in the journal Nature Communications.