DNA shows women ruled ancient society

The Research column will be a weekly feature on the scientific opportunities on campus written by staff writer Diler Haji.

An elite group of Native Americans all descending from the same mother has been found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. (John Fowler/Creative Commons Flickr)

Archeologists have a cool job. They raid ancient tombs to discover long lost civilizations and reconstruct the parts of human history that existed before anyone kept written records. 

In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, scientists recently discovered an elite group of Native Americans all descending from the same mother. For 330 years, women appear to have been elevated in status. Not only were they heirs to future generations, they presumably had the success of the Pueblo Bonito society in their hands (or at least the success of the elite).

Pueblo Bonito was the largest society the canyon had ever seen. It existed over 1,700 years ago and became an incredibly complex society in only a few hundred years before it collapsed.  

The society was composed of over a dozen multistory buildings with about 650 rooms. The researchers found the elite members in a room built early in the birth of Pueblo Bonito — ominously named “room 33.” It was likely used as a crypt to bury the dead elite to set them apart from most members of the society who were instead buried outside and around the settlement. Room 33 was filled with thousands of turquoise stones and shells from the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of wooden staffs, many ceramics, scarlet macaw remains and tons of jewelry. Surely, the people entombed there were part of a higher ruling class. 

To uncover the genealogy of those in room 33, researchers analyzed ancient DNA housed within their mitochondria — the tiny power sources of our cells. 

Why mitochondria? 

Everyone has half of their mother’s and father’s DNA, but that genetic information comes from the cell's nucleus. Genetic information in the mitochondria, on the other hand, is passed down only from mother to child. 

When sperm and egg meet to make a fetus, only the egg has mitochondrial DNA. 

By looking at mitochondria, researchers were able to trace the maternal ancestry of each individual in room 33. They found that all of them had the same mitochondrial DNA and concluded that the maternal line within the elite caste of the Pueblo Bonito society was retained for hundreds of years. 

In their paper published in Nature Communications last week, Douglas Kennett and his colleagues refer to their findings as the "hereditary basis of leadership” in the Pueblo Bonito civilization — a leadership of women! 

While this is unique to the Pueblo Bonito during that time, it’s known that other Native American civilizations also had leadership systems deviating from the widespread male-dominated world.  

The Eastern Pueblo, for example, chose their leaders by their abilities and achievements irrespective of descent on the mother's or father's side of the family.


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.