DNA Proves Powerful Maternal Dynasty Ruled Ancient Pueblo Bonito, Study Says

Feb 24, 2017 04:07 PM EST

Behind every powerful ruler is a woman, and in prehistoric Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the community looked to the blood line of women to determine their rulers.

A new paper in Nature Communications revealed the existence of a maternal or matrilineal dynasty in the settlement that ruled for over 300 years using a powerful combination of radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis. A matrilineal dynasty is a succession of power or leadership that's inherited thorugh the maternal line.

According to an official release from Penn State, excavations conducted in the Chaco Canyon in the 1980s led to the discovery of Room 33 in Pueblo Bonito. The 650-room pueblo created between 800 A.D. and 1130 A.D. turned out to contain this hidden burial crypt where 14 individual burials were unearthed.

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To researchers, it was apparent that the humans buried here occupied a special place in their settlement.

"It has been clear for some time that these were venerated individuals, based on the exceptional treatment they received in the afterlife - most Chacoans were buried outside of the settlement and never with such high quantities of exotic goods," Adam Watson, postdoctoral fellow in the American Museum of Natural History Division of Anthropology, said.

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The initial burial was of a male, who was surrounded with an opulent collection of treasures: over 11,000 turquoise beads, 3,300 shell beads and other rare artifacts. It's considered the richest burial ever discovered in the American Southwest.

Douglas J. Kennett, head and professor of anthropology in Penn State, worked with his team to radiocarbon date the burials, finding out that the individuals were from a 300-year period. By examining the DNA, they also realized that all 14 individuals shared the same mitochondrial genome sequence, which is inherited only from one's mother. Thus, all of the people buried in this special crypt come from the same maternal bloodline.

"This is not a matriarchy, where women controlled society," Kennett clarified in a report from Quartz. "Both men and women were influential, and were leaders in the Chaco society, but basically that influence was passed along the maternal line."

Not only does these recent findings does the recent study prove the existence of a matrilineal dynasty, but it also puts to rest the debate over what kind of society the Chaco Canyon settlements were. Some believed it to be an egalitarian society without rulers, while others called it a state-level society or kingdom. Now, it's clear there is some type of leadership in an organized society.

"For the first time, we're saying that one kinship group controlled Pueblo Bonito for more than 300 years," Stephen Plog, one of the authors and David A. Harrison professor in the University of Virginia Department of Archaeology, said . "This is the best evidence of a social hierarchy in the ancient Southwest."

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