In a really small room in a really big house, archaeologists found the body of a 40-year-old man. They knew he was special. He was buried with a conch shell trumpet and large shells from the Pacific coast, far from this crypt in the 650-room building known as Pueblo Bonito in what is now called Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico. He was adorned with more than 11,000 beads and pendants made of turquoise and more than 3,000 made of shell. But if he was special, he was just the bottom layer.
On top of him was a two-foot layer of sand, another body, wooden planks and then 12 more bodies, the bones mixed together. They were special, too. Flutes, ceremonial staffs, more turquoise, stores of ceramic vessels, remains of South American parrots and jewelry were found nearby. The elite group of 14 had been buried in the same tiny room over the course of 330 years, starting around the year 800. In a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, scientists say they were all related to the same female ancestor, which could provide clues to the power structure of the ancient society that lived in Chaco Canyon.
Starting in the ninth century, a large, complex society grew in Chaco Canyon, with small scattered settlements, grand apartments, irrigation systems and connecting roads. Since archaeologists stumbled upon these structures in the late 1800s, they've questioned how power was organized in Chacoan society. Was the community totally egalitarian? Did it have a single ruler? Did matrilineal family groups control ritual sources of power? Did associations of unrelated individuals, each led by the most capable, take charge?
The people buried in Room 33 were clearly special, but who were they? Could they have ruled all of Chacoan culture?
To find out, authors of the study carbon-dated bodies preserved at the American Museum of Natural History and analyzed the DNA preserved to varying degrees within them. They found that the bodies had been buried over the 330 years that spanned the society's beginning to its decline -- not just at the peak of its influence between the 11th and 12th century, as others had once thought. Moreover, nine bodies shared the exact mitochondrial DNA, which can be passed only through the mother. From the nucleic DNA preserved in six individuals, the researchers also discerned two direct relationships: a mother-daughter pair and a grandmother-grandson.
They believe that power and influence in Chaco Canyon was hierarchical, belonged to this small group of people and was passed down through a female line between 800 and 1130 A.D. ''At the center of Chaco is an elite matriline,'' said Douglas J. Kennett, an archaeologist at Penn State University who was lead author on the paper.
Similar to the way Jewish heritage is passed down from a mother to her children in some denominations, power in Chaco was passed down through mothers. ''But this doesn't mean that women ruled over Chaco,'' Dr. Kennett said.
Given that the most elaborate burials in this crypt involved males, Dr. Kennett said it was possible that both men and women held powerful positions. This equal leadership is not uncommon among some indigenous people of the Americas, said Rosemary Joyce, an archaeologist interested in inequality at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the study.
But other scientists saw limits to the conclusions that can be drawn from the DNA in the bodies in the crypt.
''All we really know is that all of these are ultimately offspring of the same woman,'' said Sarah Nelson, an archaeologist at the University of Denver who was not involved in the research, and who has studied gender and power using human remains found in China and the Korean Peninsula.
''Maybe the female is seen as owning the place, or maybe she is in touch with the spirits, and maybe she can only pass that down to her daughter,'' Dr. Nelson said.
Dr. Joyce suggested another possible explanation. Chacoans may not have placed the two biological sexes in two distinct gender roles.
''They may have recognized a spectrum of gendered ways of being that we force into two sexes,'' she wrote in an email.
More than a dozen large, multistory great houses speckle Chaco Canyon, and it remains unclear how far influence extended for those buried in Pueblo Bonito without examining the remains within each. And some question whether anyone was leading the whole society at all, considering the egalitarian systems of some contemporary Pueblo groups.
Criticism aside, Dr. Nelson said the work was exciting: ''It does begin to shed some light on the Chaco system,'' she said. ''It's certainly a rare occurrence that you get that kind of opportunity to learn about the relationship of a bunch of people that are spread out through time, but all buried in the same place.''
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This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.
PHOTO (PHOTOGRAPH BY RODERICK MICKENS/AMNH)