Recent research suggests that a single maternal line wielded power in ancient Chaco Canyon society through an unexpected stretch of at least 330 years and perhaps 10 generations.
Who first settled Chaco Canyon around 1,200 years ago is still a mystery.
Political and cultural ties between the ancient society and Chaco-style communities outside the canyon also perplex. Then there’s the puzzle of how people survived from about 800 to around 1300 on the rough, parched terrain.
It’s debatable whether Chaco Canyon’s 2,000 to 3,000 residents could raise enough crops to feed themselves or whether they had to trade for staples such as maize.
Less contentious — but far weirder — is evidence from graves and artwork that Chaco people revered community members with six toes and often created images of human feet and footprints with and without extra digits.
Of 13 ancient sandals recovered at Pueblo Bonito, seven include woven extensions on the outer border for a sixth toe.
Ancient cultures of Southern Mexico and Central America sometimes depicted their gods with six toes. Chaco folk probably regarded extra-toed peers as special but not divine. Of the three six-toed individuals given the presumed honor of a Pueblo Bonito burial, only one lay in an elaborate grave. Such treatment would have applied to all three if an extra toe signified godlike status, she says.
Second, bodies had been manipulated in unusual ways and for unknown reasons. One woman was originally found with a fetus’s fragile remains in her pelvic cavity and her own bones below the knees missing. Her body lay across a room from several intact bodies.
Many individuals buried in one of Pueblo Bonito’s oldest rooms, Room 33, shared maternal ancestry.
Room 33 is a crypt with a complex history.
Thousands of offerings, including turquoise and shell beads and pendants, were heaped around the two bodies under Room 33’s floor.
The first two men were placed there as early as 800. Additional burials took place intermittently up to 1130. Activity in Room 33 occurred as civilizations flourished throughout the Americas, from what’s now the U.S. Midwest to Central and South America.
Based on the exceptional treatment given to all deceased individuals placed in the special room, archaeologist Stephen Plog of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville suspects these folks belonged to a maternal line in which leadership was handed down from the ninth to the 12th century.
At that point, researchers suspect, many Chaco residents and possibly members of nearby communities moved to a settlement 50 kilometers north. A Chaco-style great house there was occupied from 1140 to the 1290s, consistent with an influx of people familiar with Chaco architecture.
Chaco residents constantly reworked and rebuilt Pueblo Bonito for more than 300 years, so deciphering precisely what happened in the great house’s many rooms and at particular times is daunting.
“Nothing is simple at Pueblo Bonito,” Kerriann Marden, a forensic anthropologist at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.