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Some argue that in an ideal world, society would be run by women.
And for one ancient group who lived 1,000 years ago in giant stone mansions, this was true.
These early human societies were run by a ‘maternal elite’ who passed power from female to female, new research has found.
A new genetic analysis of the burial chamber of a complex prehistoric society known as the Chacoans in New Mexico has found that elite status was passed down through the maternal line from 800-1130AD.
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Genetic analysis of the burial chamber of a complex prehistoric society found that elite status was passed down through the maternal line. The diagram illustrates the inferred relationships for at least two pairs of individuals. Matriline members and descent are highlighted in red
WHO WERE THE CHACOANS?
For over 2,000 years, ‘Pueblo’ Native American peoples occupied a vast region of the southwestern United States.
Chaco canyon in New Mexico became a major centre of ancestral Puebloan culture 1,000 years ago.
This society is now known as the Chacoans.
Chaco canyon contains large-scale public and ceremonial buildings with intricate architecture, suggesting that the culture thrived as a complex society.
But historians have struggled to identify how Chacoan society worked because they did not write.
Using masonry techniques unique for their time, the Chacoan constructed massive stone buildings (Great Houses) of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms.
‘Studying how societies like the Chacoans passed power is central to our understanding of why complex societies rise and fall,’ lead-author Professor Douglas Kennett told MailOnline.
‘There has been a long-standing debate about Chacoan society and whether leadership positions were based on “matrilineal” [female] or “patrilineal” [male] descent.
‘Our results are consistent with matrilineal foundations of leadership.’
The Chacoans – one of North America’s earliest complex societies – are particularly difficult to study because they did not use a written language.
They lived in large, multi-storied masonry buildings.
These buildings, known as great houses, were found in the Chaco Canyon in the southwestern United States.
‘Pueblo Bonito’ is the largest of these great houses with over 800 rooms.
Ancestral ‘Pueblo’ Native Americans, known as Chacoans, occupied the structure between AD 828 and 1126.
Professor Kennett and colleagues from Pennsylvania State University collected DNA from nine individuals buried in Room 33 inside Pueblo Bonito, the largest of these great houses with around 650 rooms.
Room 33 is an elaborate burial chamber for a high-status member of this community and their descendants.
The ancient bodies were found to have identical mitochondrial genomes, meaning that they all belonged to the same maternal family line.
The top image (a) shows a photograph and plan view map of Pueblo Bonito with location of Room 33. Locations of the primary great houses in Chaco Canyon are shown below (b). (c) Locations of settlements of Chaco Canyon with great house-style architecture
A photo of Pueblo Bonito taken from the northern rim of Chaco Canyon. The Chacoans, one of North America’s earliest complex societies, lived in massive, multi-storied buildings known as Great Houses. ‘Pueblo Bonito’ is the largest of these great houses with over 800 rooms
The bodies were placed in sequential tombs over a 330 year period and spanned multiple generations.
The finds reveal that a high degree of social differentiation and societal complexity existed in Chaco by the early 9th century.
‘All societies are complex, but here we see a society with larger populations living in villages and cities and where major differences in status and wealth are evident,’ Professor Kennett told MailOnline.
Chaco canyon in New Mexico became a major centre of ancestral Native American culture 1,000 years ago. This group is now known as the Chacoans
WHAT WAS PUEBLO BONITO?
The Chacoans, one of North America’s earliest complex societies, lived in massive, multi-storied masonry buildings, known as ‘great houses’.
Pueblo Bonito is the largest of these great houses with over 800 rooms.
The Chacoans occupied the structure between AD 828 and 1126.
One hundred and eleven pottery jars have been found in Pueblo Bonito’s sprawl of public and ceremonial rooms.
The great house also contains elaborate burial chambers including ‘Room 33’ used by the Pennsylvania team for their research.
Room 33 was a chamber used to bury a high-status member of the Chacoan community and their descendants.
The team found multiple bodies in the chamber which they genetically analysed, finding that for 330 years power was passed from female to female.
‘One measure of society is the formation of institutions and one of these is the hereditary basis of leadership.
‘Usually this is only visible in written documents or inferred from archaeological data, but we have demonstrated this with archaeogenomic data.’
Leadership in the group was passed down the female line until the society’s collapse around 1130AD.
Hereditary leadership such as this is a hallmark of political complexity and governance in early society, the researchers say.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. This image shows part of the huge network of buildings used by the Chacoans, one of Earth’s earliest complex human societies
Chacoans occupied Pueblo Bonito between AD 828 and 1126. Room 33 of this structure is an elaborate burial chamber for a high-status member of this community and their descendants. This image shows a block of rooms at Pueblo Bonito
This is evident among ancient societies that had writing systems, such as the Egyptians and ancient Mayans.
But its cultural routes are more difficult to pin in prehistoric complex societies without a written language like the Chacoans.
It is acknowledged that some Chacoans would have had more power than others, but the nature of this hierarchy had been disputed until now.
Chaco canyon in New Mexico became a major centre of Chacoan culture 1,000 years ago.
Pottery and wooden flute found in Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito. Pennsylvania State University researcher Professor Douglas Kennett and colleagues collected DNA from nine individuals laid to rest in burial chamber ‘Room 33’ inside Pueblo Bonito
Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The Chaco canyon found in the park contains large-scale public and ceremonial buildings (pictured) with intricate architecture, suggesting that the culture thrived as a complex society a thousand years ago
The canyon contains large-scale public and ceremonial buildings with intricate architecture, suggesting that the culture thrived as a complex society a thousand years ago.
Using masonry techniques unique for their time, the Chacoan constructed many ‘Great Houses’ with multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms.
The buildings were planned from the start, in contrast to the usual practices of adding rooms to existing structures as needed.
Constructions on some of these buildings spanned decades and even centuries.
Selection of turquoise and shell artifacts found in Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito. The researchers found that a high degree of societal complexity existed in Chaco by 800s AD. Leadership was then passed down the female line until the society’s collapse around 1130AD
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