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Douglas Kennett, Penn State University

Scientists Find Genetic Evidence of Matrilineal Dynasty at Chaco Canyon 

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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.”

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]


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