The great houses in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon have amazed scientists for more than a century. Until now, archaeologists were not sure how the Pueblo people of the Chaco society organized themselves. Based on DNA analysis, researchers have been able to conclude that the Chaco society was ruled by a matrilineal dynasty for 330 years between 800 and 1130 AD.

Chaco Society
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Pueblo Banito was the biggest house in the Chaco society

Archaeologists detailed findings of their study in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications. More than a thousand years ago, the Chaco Canyon was home to an influential culture. The Chacoans built huge buildings, ceremonial plazas, and vast road networks. At the center of the society was Pueblo Bonito (Spanish for Beautiful town), the largest of the great houses in Chaco Canyon.

Spread over four acres, Pueblo Bonito had about 650 rooms. It was discovered by the U.S. Army Lt. James Simpson in 1849 during a military expedition. It was excavated in 1896 by archaeologists at the American Museum of Natural History. They discovered remains of 14 people in a burial crypt. It was the only burial chamber in the 650-room Pueblo Bonito.

The venerable individuals had the same mitochondrial genome

The excavators found that two men buried at the bottom of the crypt were surrounded by huge amounts of wealth. The first man, in his early 40s at the time of his death, was buried with about 12,000 turquoise beads, 3,300 shell beads, musical instruments, and a conch shell trumpet. Lead author Douglas Kennett of the Penn State University said in a statement that this man and his successors were likely members of a ruling maternal lineage.

Though the crypt was found in 1896, its content wasn’t fully analyzed until recently. When Douglas Kennett and his colleagues analyzed DNA of the human remains, they found that all the individuals buried in the crypt had the same mitochondrial genome sequence. The mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother. Though the dynasty’s burial was extravagant, many other human remains found outside the Pueblo Bonito had far humble burials. Some of them were even found in trash middens.

Based on the exceptional treatment the people buried in Room-33 of Pueblo Bonito received in the afterlife, researchers concluded that they were “venerated individuals.” Historians have debated for decades how the Chaco society was organized politically. Some believed it was a leaderless, egalitarian society. Others argued that it was part of a hierarchical state-level society.

The new study suggests that the Chaco society was ruled by a matrilineal dynasty where birthright, lineage, political standing, as well as social status were linked to the mother’s ancestry instead of father’s. Kennett said women had a great deal of power and influence over whatever was happening in the Chaco society.