The good old days: Mysterious ancient society in New Mexico was run by female elite

The mysterious Chacoan people were a society dominated by women and who built great houses with hundreds of rooms.
The mysterious Chacoan people were a society dominated by women and who built great houses with hundreds of rooms.

Some argue that in an ideal world, society would be run by women.

And for one ancient group who lived 1000 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 AD800-1130.

The Chacoans built multi-storey "great houses". Photo / Wikimedia Commons
The Chacoans built multi-storey "great houses". Photo / Wikimedia Commons

"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-storey masonry buildings.

Only ruins remain of the Chacoan civilisation. Photo / Wikimedia
Only ruins remain of the Chacoan civilisation. Photo / Wikimedia

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 AD828 and 1126.

Professor Kennett and colleagues from Pennsylvania State University collected DNA from nine individuals buried in Room 33 inside Pueblo Bonito.

Room 33 is an elaborate burial chamber for high-status members of the 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 structures were up to four storeys high. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
The structures were up to four storeys high. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

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.

"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."

The ruins are in New Mexico.
The ruins are in New Mexico.

Leadership in the group was passed down the female line until the society collapsed around AD1130.

Hereditary leadership such as this is a hallmark of political complexity and governance in early society, the researchers say.

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 1000 years ago.

The canyon contains large-scale public and ceremonial buildings with intricate architecture, suggesting that the culture thrived as a complex society 1000 years ago.
Using masonry techniques unique for their time, the Chacoan constructed many "great houses" with multiple storeys 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.

What was Pueblo Bonito?

•The Chacoans, one of North America's earliest complex societies, lived in massive, multi-storey masonry buildings, known as "great houses".
•Pueblo Bonito is the largest of these great houses with more than 800 rooms.
•The Chacoans occupied the structure between AD828 and 1126.
•About 110 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.

- NZ Herald

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