DNA Reveals an Early American Dynasty Centered on Women

Relatively little is known about the social structure of many early American societies, but genetics have just uncovered a female dynasty that existed for centuries.

When U.S. Army Lt. James H. Simpson and his guide Carravahal first entered Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, during an 1849 military expedition, they were so awed by the remains of one enormous structure that they named it Pueblo Bonito, meaning "Beautiful Town." Subsequent excavations revealed around 650 rooms within Pueblo Bonito, including burials packed with thousands of pieces of jewelry.

New DNA analysis of human remains within the burials reveals a prehistoric matrilineal dynasty, where lineage, birthright and social status were traced through the mother's ancestry rather than the father's, as is common in patriarchal societies. Researchers believe the elite women-centered dynasty lasted for 330 years, from 800 to 1130 A.D.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, represent the first time that DNA and archaeological analysis have documented hereditary relationships among individuals within an elite lineage in the absence of a written record. While some early Native Americans like the Mayans developed writing systems, others such as the Chacoan society at Pueblo Bonito did not.

"Historians have long debated how Chaco was organized politically," lead author Douglas Kennett, head of the Pennsylvania State University Department of Anthropology, told Seeker. "One theory is that the society was egalitarian (where all people are viewed as equals). On the other end of the spectrum, some have theorized that it was a strong state level (class structured) society. Our research suggests that it was a complex prehistoric society with at least some hierarchical element."

The burial crypt within Pueblo Bonito housed incredible treasures. These included close to 20,000 pieces of turquoise and thousands of shell beads and pendants that were all originally part of necklaces, anklets and bracelets. Wooden ceremonial staffs, ceramic bowls and pitchers, multiple musical instrument flutes and other objects were also found at the site.

Adjacent rooms contained still more riches, such as wooden carvings, jewelry and ceramics. Perhaps most surprising was evidence - including copious mounds of guano - for multiple scarlet macaws that once lived in the structure at the time of the dynasty.

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"Since these birds are not native to the area, the scarlet macaws must have been brought in from tropical locations in Mexico," Kennett said. "The birds have the ability to talk. Consider that this time period was long before the invention of televisions and other forms of entertainment, so having an entire room full of exotic colorful talking birds must have been pretty spectacular."

The Chacoans, one of North America's earliest structured societies, lived in massive, multi-storied buildings known as great houses. No large trees are known to have existed in the immediate area, so it is thought that large logs were brought in to build the houses, which also include stone masonry. Pueblo Bonito is the largest of the great houses, and has been a focus of research over the decades.

For the latest study, Kennett and his team collected DNA samples from nine of the individuals who were buried inside the Pueblo Bonito crypt, known as "Room 33." The genetic analysis found that all of the individuals had identical mitochondrial genomes. Since mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from one's mother, all of the individuals belonged to the same maternal lineage. The individuals buried at Pueblo Bonito include both men and women, who were interred sequentially over the 330-year period.

While the dynasty's burial was full of riches, the remains of other people in the region outside of Pueblo Bonito were more humble. Kennett said, "Some of these other remains were even found in trash middens."

Robert Drennan of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Comparative Archaeology told Seeker that the new research "provides a highly visible reminder of a burial that is vitally important evidence of social inequality."

The evidence supports that among the haves and have-nots at Chaco Canyon around 1,200 years ago, men and women fell into both groups.

"Women living at Pueblo Bonito likely had power and a great deal of influence on what was happening in society," Kennett said.

Women among the elites might even have had better status, in terms of political standing, than most women around the world do now.

"In the societies in which most of the world's people live today, the important roles in political leadership and its transmission from one leader to the next are occupied overwhelmingly by men," Drennan explained. "Anthropologists, who study the full array of human societies that have existed in the present and the past, know that this is not somehow the 'natural' or necessary state of affairs."

"In many instances, such roles are played extensively or predominantly by women," he said. "Examples of matrilineal systems among native North Americans include the Hopi, the Iroquois, and the Lenape. The evidence presented by Kennett and his colleagues of the importance of matrilineages in ancient Chaco society adds to this list of societies in which women and their roles are especially important and respected."

There is a difference between a matriline and a matriarchy, though. It is possible for a society to have a female line of inheritance of title and property, but still be a population that is controlled primarily by men. The Jewish culture, for example, has matrilineal descent, but mostly male leaders.

Within Pueblo Bonito, "The two very high status crypt burials were males," Stephen Lekson, curator of archaeology and a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, told Seeker. "The argument (posed in the paper) is for matrilineal descent, not necessarily matriarchal governance."

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The two males were isolated from the other remains and surrounded by turquoise and finery. One of the men died in his 40s after a lethal blow to the head.

"We are not sure what led to the blow," Kennett said. "It is possible that he was killed in battle. Although this was not known to be a particularly violent interval, there is other evidence in the surrounding area for conflict, such as arrow wound injuries."

In the year 1130, the society at Chaco collapsed.

"Building in the region stopped, the burials ended, and people appear to have dispersed from the area," Kennett said, adding that multiple reasons could have led to the collapse.

The region experienced several devastating droughts, along with other climate volatility that must have affected food sources. Researchers also have not ruled out illness or conflicts in the area as contributors to the society's collapse.

Whether or not the dynasty completely ended, however, is unclear. If its members moved away and settled in another area, then their descendants could even still be alive today. Finding them could prove to be difficult, but the new study shows the power of DNA for such investigations.

The latest research, Drennan says, presents "a magnificent example of how to use advanced archaeological technology to answer questions that matter because the answers give us both fuller knowledge of the nature of a particular ancient society as well as deeper understandings of human social dynamics in general."

Top Photo: Cheyenne woman "Pretty Nose," believed to have been a warrior chief who went into battle. New research has found more evidence for elite women among early Native Americans. Credit: Laton Alton Huffman, Wikimedia Commons WATCH: Should You Say Native American or American Indian?