Scientists Find Genetic Evidence of Matrilineal Dynasty at Chaco Canyon

Douglas Kennett, Penn State University
Douglas Kennett, Penn State University / Douglas Kennett, Penn State University

Archaeologists in New Mexico say the remains of nine high-status individuals suggest a prehistoric society dependent on matrilineal relationships. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

New Mexico’s famed Chaco Canyon was once home to a complex, thriving society. From the 9th to the mid-12th centuries, thousands of people lived and worked in immense, ingeniously designed earthen buildings called great houses.

George Perry, Penn State University

Sections of some of these great houses still stand in the canyon today. The largest is Pueblo Bonito, which contains some 650 rooms used for a wide variety of purposes. Room 33 was a burial chamber. Based on the beautiful objects found in the room with the bodies, it seems to have served as the final resting place for some very important people.

“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,” co-author Adam Watson of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) said in a statement.

Roderick Mickens © American Museum of Natural History

Roderick Mickens © American Museum of Natural History

To learn more about these people, researchers extracted tiny samples from the roots of the deceased’s teeth. They brought these samples back to the lab, liquefied them, and sequenced their DNA, hoping to find clear genetic relationships.

They found them. The results showed that the nine individuals interred in Room 33 had lived and died over the course of 330 years—about the same timeline as the culture itself. And all the power players buried in this high-status room were, in fact, related on their mothers’ sides, as evidenced by their identical mitochondrial DNA, which is exclusively passed from mother to child. In other words, each person in that room was there because their mother or grandmother had been somebody important.

The fate of these advanced, fascinating people remains something of a mystery to archaeologists. Environmental conditions may have forced them to leave the canyon, or they may have been relocated or wiped out by Spanish forces. But they may also have migrated outward and become part of nearby Native American tribes.

"This work confirms what Pueblo people have been saying for a long time, that the matrilineal system that guides their society today goes back not just a century, but many hundreds of years," co-author Peter Whiteley, of AMNH, said in the statement. “It honors the Pueblo sense of their own history, and it’s only possible now because of the melding of all of these different aspects of anthropology—archaeology, biology, and ethnology.”