Using DNA from skeletons excavated in New Mexico more than a century ago, researchers have shown that more than a dozen people buried in a small, hidden chamber were likely members of a powerful Native American dynasty related through their mothers.
New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon was once the center of the most influential culture in the American Southwest. Between approximately 800 A.D. and 1100 A.D., the ancient Chacoans built settlements called pueblos with huge, five-story buildings and grand ceremonial plazas. Elaborate road networks connected the pueblos, and at its peak the culture covered most of modern New Mexico, along with parts of Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.
At the center of Chacoan society was Pueblo Bonito, Spanish for “beautiful town.” Covering more than four acres, the elaborate pueblo was a honeycomb of nearly 650 rooms. Close to the pueblo’s center was a hidden chamber measuring just six feet long by six feet wide and accessible only through a small hatch in the roof.
Archaeologists working for New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) excavated Pueblo Bonito in 1896. Inside the tiny innermost chamber they discovered the remains of 14 people buried under the room’s sandy floor, with grave stacked on grave in the tight space. The excavators labeled the mysterious chamber Room 33.
The two men buried at the bottom of the room were surrounded by stunning wealth. The first man buried in the chamber, known as Burial 14, was found with more than 12,000 turquoise beads and dozens of turquoise sculptures—more of the precious stone than in all the other Chacoan sites combined. A conch shell trumpet, likely from the Pacific, and other musical instruments rounded out the chamber's grave goods. Scarlet macaws imported from more than 1,000 miles away in Central America were found in a nearby room.
Female Power Line
The artifacts and human remains from Room 33 have been stored at the American Museum of Natural History since they were excavated in the 19th century. Since then the skeletons have remained a mystery: Who were these people, and why were they buried in a walled-off room in the middle of the mighty pueblo?
Recently, new radiocarbon dates and ancient DNA analysis of the millennia-old bones revealed that the burials may represent an early Native American dynasty. In a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, researchers show that the men and women buried in the chamber are all related through their mothers, a connection known as a matriline. Many Native American groups still pass membership on through the mother’s side, as do most of the world’s Jewish communities.
“One pair may be a grandmother and her grandson, another two mother and daughter. They may not all have been rulers, but they were related,” says University of Virginia archaeologist and study co-author Stephen Plog. “The evidence suggests it’s a long matriline, in control for a long, long time.”
Most researchers once thought Chacoan cultures were egalitarian, with no real hierarchy. Many modern Native American groups in the region are governed communally today.
But the grave goods show that Burial 14—a man who died around 880 A.D., likely killed by a blow to the head—was a big deal in life. And DNA evidence showing three centuries of relatives buried in the same room suggests that spending eternity with him was a high honor, one restricted to his matrilineal descendants.
Put together, the clues seem to indicate that Burial 14 was the founder of a political dynasty that lasted 300 or more years.
“It’s likely Burial 14 is really the first individual to differentiate himself politically from other people in the canyon,” Plog says. “I’m confident his matriline was the most powerful in Pueblo Bonito, and probably in Chaco Canyon. It was an elite group, able to control resources and have influence over broad areas of the Southwest.”
Source of Status
The results are some of the first to use DNA to tackle a fundamental question in the study of human history: Where does status come from?
Hereditary leadership—power and status based on birth—is a hallmark of complex societies. In societies that use writing, evidence for hereditary leadership is easy to come by: In Europe, written histories hold the answers. In the Americas, Aztec and Maya ruling families have been indentified from carved inscriptions.
But without such records it's difficult to prove that leadership and power in ancient societies without writing was hereditary. "If these results hold up, I think it's a game changer," says American Museum of Natural History archaeologist David Thomas, who was not involved in the research.
Testing Ancestral Remains
For many groups who consider the people of Chaco Canyon their ancestors, the research may be controversial. Tribes including the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma all consider themselves descendants of the Chaco Canyon people, and some have religious objections to invasive, destructive testing on human remains.
Though the bones were excavated more than a century ago, curators at the American Museum of Natural History still weighed such concerns before authorizing the testing. “We can be sensitive and deal with communities in a respectful way and still do the best science we can do,” says Thomas. “I think there’s a middle ground.”