One of the first complex societies in North America transferred power through the female line, genomic evidence suggests.

Credit: Douglas Kennett/Penn State Univ.

In some of the earliest recorded societies, power was passed down along family lines, but little is known about how prehistoric societies without writing systems transferred power. Douglas Kennett at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and his colleagues examined DNA from nine individuals buried in a crypt at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (pictured), a major population centre between AD 800 and 1130.

The crypt contained thousands of turquoise and shell artefacts, finely made pottery and musical instruments, suggesting that the people belonged to an elite class. All of them shared identical mitochondrial genomes, which are inherited from the mother. Further analysis confirmed a mother–daughter pair and a grandmother–grandson pair in the crypt, suggesting a matrilineal dynasty.

The findings are consistent with the presence of matrilineal leadership systems in some Native American groups living in the area today.

Nature Commun. 8, 14115 (2017)