Douglas Kennett, Penn State University
Douglas Kennett, Penn State University

Scientists Find Genetic Evidence of Matrilineal Dynasty at Chaco Canyon 

Douglas Kennett, Penn State University
Douglas Kennett, Penn State University

Archaeologists in New Mexico say the remains of nine high-status individuals suggest a prehistoric society dependent on matrilineal relationships. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

New Mexico’s famed Chaco Canyon was once home to a complex, thriving society. From the 9th to the mid-12th centuries, thousands of people lived and worked in immense, ingeniously designed earthen buildings called great houses.

George Perry, Penn State University

 
Sections of some of these great houses still stand in the canyon today. The largest is Pueblo Bonito, which contains some 650 rooms used for a wide variety of purposes. Room 33 was a burial chamber. Based on the beautiful objects found in the room with the bodies, it seems to have served as the final resting place for some very important people.

“It has been clear for some time that these were venerated individuals, based on the exceptional treatment they received in the afterlife. Most Chacoans were buried outside of the settlement and never with such high quantities of exotic goods,” co-author Adam Watson of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) said in a statement.

Roderick Mickens © American Museum of Natural History

 

Roderick Mickens © American Museum of Natural History

 
To learn more about these people, researchers extracted tiny samples from the roots of the deceased’s teeth. They brought these samples back to the lab, liquefied them, and sequenced their DNA, hoping to find clear genetic relationships.

They found them. The results showed that the nine individuals interred in Room 33 had lived and died over the course of 330 years—about the same timeline as the culture itself. And all the power players buried in this high-status room were, in fact, related on their mothers’ sides, as evidenced by their identical mitochondrial DNA, which is exclusively passed from mother to child. In other words, each person in that room was there because their mother or grandmother had been somebody important.

The fate of these advanced, fascinating people remains something of a mystery to archaeologists. Environmental conditions may have forced them to leave the canyon, or they may have been relocated or wiped out by Spanish forces. But they may also have migrated outward and become part of nearby Native American tribes.

"This work confirms what Pueblo people have been saying for a long time, that the matrilineal system that guides their society today goes back not just a century, but many hundreds of years," co-author Peter Whiteley, of AMNH, said in the statement. “It honors the Pueblo sense of their own history, and it’s only possible now because of the melding of all of these different aspects of anthropology—archaeology, biology, and ethnology.”

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Drought Reveals Ancient Sites in Scotland That Can Only Be Spotted From the Air
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iStock

Typically rainy Scotland is in the middle of an unusually dry summer—and local archaeologists are taking advantage of it. As the BBC reports, the drought has revealed ancient sites, including Roman camps and Iron Age graves, that have been hidden by farm soil for years.

Historic Environment Scotland has been conducting aerial surveys of the country's landscape since the 1930s, but it's in seasons like this, when the crops recede during dry weather, that the buried remains of ancient structures are easiest to spot. Conditions this summer have been the best since 1976 for documenting archaeological sites from the sky.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

The crescent-shaped crop mark in the photo above indicates a souterrain, or underground passageway, that was built in the Scottish Borders during the Iron Age. The surveyors also found remains of a Roman temporary camp, marked by straight lines in the landscape, built in modern-day Lyne—an area south of Edinburgh already known to have housed a complex of Roman camps and forts.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

In the image below you'll see four small ditches—three circles and one square—that were likely used as burial sites during the Iron Age. When crops are planted over an ancient ditch, they have more water and nutrients to feed on, which helps them grow taller and greener. Such crops are especially visible during a drought when the surrounding vegetation is sparse and brown.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland has a team of aerial surveyors trained to spot the clues: To date, they've discovered more than 9000 archaeological sites from the air. HSE plans to continue scoping out new areas of interest as long as the dry spell lasts.

It's not just in Scotland that long-hidden settlements are coming to light: similar aerial surveys in Wales are finding them too.

[h/t BBC]

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Billion-Year-Old Rocks Reveal the First Color Ever Produced by a Living Thing
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iStock

Billions of years ago, before there were plants and animals on Earth, there were rocks, tiny organisms, water, and not much else. It’s hard to envision what our barren planet looked like back then, but scientists now have some idea of what colors dominated the landscape.

As Vice reports, a team of researchers from Australian National University (ANU) were able to pinpoint the oldest colors ever produced by a living creature: purple-red hues dating back more than 1.1 billion years. The pigments, which appear pink when diluted, were found in molecular fossils of chlorophyll that had been preserved in rocks beneath the Sahara desert. A billion years ago, though, this area was “an ancient ocean that has long since vanished,” Nur Gueneli of ANU said in a statement.

Chlorophyll may very well be green, but these pinkish pigments are a result of "fossilized porphyrins, a type of organic compound that forms an atomic ring around a magnesium ion to form a chlorophyll molecule," Vice explains.

While this provides an interesting visual, the color itself is less important than what it reveals about some of the earliest life forms on Earth. Scientists determined that the chlorophyll was produced by ancient organisms called cyanobacteria, which derived energy via photosynthesis and ruled the oceans at that time, researchers wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Larger planktonic algae—a potential food source for bigger life forms— were scarce, which may explain why large organisms didn’t roam the Earth a billion years ago. That kind of algae was about a thousand times larger than the cyanobacteria.

“The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago, when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth," ANU associate professor Jochen Brocks said.

So the next time you encounter algae, you can thank it for helping you secure a spot on this planet.

[h/t Vice]

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