This ancient society passed power down from woman to woman

In a colossal 650-room structure built over a millennia ago in present-day New Mexico, women ruled.

This stone structure is the largest of the “great houses” the Puebloan people constructed in Chaco Canyon, beginning around 800 A.D. Inside, one curious room was not meant for the living. It served as an elaborate crypt containing 14 fantastically decorated bodies, and when alive, these folks clearly held high status. One individual was dressed in over 11,000 turquoise beads and pendants, along with 3,000 shell adornments from the Pacific Ocean.

To learn about this meticulously bedecked group, researchers analyzed the DNA from skeletal remains previously excavated from the crypt. Their results, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, show that these figures all descended from an elite female line.

The Puebloan society that built these massive, apartment-style edifices was undoubtedly sophisticated. They adapted to dry climes by constructing irrigation systems and reservoirs, growing enough food to sustain thousands. They also tapped into long-distance trade networks, bringing them some pretty cool things, including large abalone shells from southern California.

To determine matrilineal descent, the team gatheredmitochondrial DNA from nine of the buried bodies in the crypt. DNA in a cell’s nucleus comes from both parents. But mitochondrial DNA, which lives in a cell’s energy-producing organelle, the mitochondria, is passed exclusively from mother to child. The researchers discovered that all of the crypt’s occupants had identical mitochondrial genomes, proving that the lavishly decorated bodies—both males and female—were descended from the same maternal lineage.


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