Power may have passed via women in ancient Chaco Canyon society

Mitochondrial DNA from skeletons in elite burial room shows familial relationship spanning three centuries

Pueblo Bonito

DYNASTIC CENTER  Recovered DNA suggests that nine people buried in a huge structure called Pueblo Bonito (shown), located in northwestern New Mexico, belonged to a maternal dynasty that lasted for 330 years during the heyday of ancient Chaco society.

D. Kennett/Penn State

A maternal dynasty ruled one of the earliest and most mysterious civilizations in the Americas, centered in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, for more than three centuries, researchers say.

DNA extracted from the bones of individuals buried inside a massive Chaco stone pueblo or great house, along with new radiocarbon dates for interred bones, indicate that royal status ran through a particular maternal lineage from 800 to 1130, say Penn State archaeologist Douglas Kennett and colleagues. Chaco society flourished in what’s now the U.S. Southwest during that stretch (SN Online: 3/17/11). Recovered DNA provides the first direct evidence that Chaco civilization started out with stratified social classes in a system that had surprising staying power, the scientists conclude February 21 in Nature Communications.

Mitochondrial DNA extracted from the remains of nine people buried in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of more than a dozen Chaco Canyon great houses, displays a common molecular arrangement, Kennett’s team says. That genetic connection signals shared maternal ancestry for all nine individuals, since mitochondrial DNA typically get passed from mothers to their children. Nuclear DNA recovered from six of the Pueblo Bonito skeletons identifies two of them as mother and daughter, and another pair as grandmother and grandson. Elaborate jewelry and other goods placed in Room 33 — one of Pueblo Bonito’s roughly 650 rooms — support the idea that this chamber housed the dead from the cream of Chaco society, the scientists say.

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Chaco artifacts
POWERFUL STUFF Turquoise and shell objects from a burial at Pueblo Bonito support a scenario in which a man interred there between 800 and 850 belonged to a maternal dynasty that lasted until 1130. Roderick Mickens/©Amer. Museum of Natural History

The relationship between ancient Chaco people and modern Pueblo populations is unclear. But Native American groups now living near Chaco Canyon, such as the Zuni, have long been organized around matrilineal clans, with men moving in with their wives’ families.

Even with the new findings, Chaco society remains poorly understood, says archaeologist Kerriann Marden of Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. For instance, five other skeletons in Room 33 yielded no DNA and may not have belonged to the same female line as the nine individuals described by Kennett’s team. Without DNA from individuals buried in other rooms at Pueblo Bonito and in other parts of Chaco Canyon, it’s impossible to say whether those placed in Room 33 belonged to a unique mitochondrial DNA lineage, much less a female-based political dynasty, Marden says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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