Prehistoric Southwestern Cultural Divisions

The American Southwest has long been occupied by hunter/gatherers and agricultural people. This area, identified with the current states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, and areas of northern Mexico, has seen successive prehistoric cultural traditions since approximately 12,000 years ago. According to anthropologist and popular author Brian Fagan, it is likely that both ceramic and irrigation technology were indigenous developments of these cultures. (Fagan, p. 286)

Paleo-indian tradition

The Southwest was first occupied by "Paleo-Indians" following herds of big game into North America. The earliest habitation is dated to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. These paleolithic people utilized habitat near water sources, including rivers, swamps and marshes, which had an abundance of fish, and drew birds and game animals. Big game, including bison, mammoths and ground sloths, also were attracted to these water sources. By 9500 BCE, bands of hunters wandered as far south as Arizona, where they found a desert grassland. Best known for mammoth hunting, Paleo-Indians followed other types of animals including bison, mule deer and antelope. They also collected and ate plant foods.

outhwestern Archaic tradition

As the climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age, mammoths and large animals such as horses and camels began to disappear. Indians gradually adapted to these changes, supplementing their diet with a variety of plant foods and smaller game. These people used nets and the atlatl to hunt water fowl, ducks, small animals and antelope. Hunting was especially important in winter and spring months when plant foods were scarce.

The nutritive value of weed and grass seeds was discovered and flat rocks were used to grind flour to produce gruels and breads. This use of grinding slabs in about 7500 BCE marks the beginning of the Archaic tradition. Small bands of people traveled throughout the area, gathering plants such as cactus fruits, mesquite beans, acorns, and pine nuts. They lived primarily in the open, but probably also built temporary shelters. Archaic people established camps at collection points, and returned to these places year after year. Known artifacts include nets woven with plant fibers and rabbit skin, woven sandals, gaming sticks, and animal figures made from split-twigs.

Late in the Archaic Period, corn, probably introduced into the region from central Mexico, was planted near camps with permanent water access. After planting, it appears the hunter-gatherers moved on to other territory togather wild foods, and returned later in the season to harvest the ripened grain. Archaeologist Wirt H. Wills asserts that corn was originally introduced into the Southwest when the region's climate was somewhat wetter and cooler (Wills. p. 148). Distinct types of corn have been identfied in the more well watered highlands and the desert areas, which may imply local mutation or successive introduction of differing species.

About 3,500 years ago, climate change led to changing patterns in water sources. The population of Desert Archaic people appears to have dramatically decreased. However, family based groups took shelter in caves and rock overhangs within canyon walls, many facing south to capitalize on warmth from the sun during winter. Occasionally, these people lived in small semisedentary hamlets in open areas. Evidence of significant occupation has been found in the northern part of the Southwest range, from Utah to Colorado, especially in the vicinity of modern Durango, Colorado.

Advanced cultures

The American Indian archaic culture eventually evolved into three major prehistoric archaeological culture areas in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.

*The culture of Ancient Pueblo People, academically referred to as the Anasazi, was centered around the present-day Four Corners area. Their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles emerged in the area around CE 750.
*The Hohokam tradition, centered on the middle Gila River and lower Salt River drainage areas, and extending into the southern Sonoran Desert, is believed to have emerged in approximately CE 200. These people lived in smaller settlement clusters than their neighbors, and built extensive irrigation canals for a wide range of agricultural crops. There is evidence the Hohokam had far-reaching trade routes with ancient mesoamerican cultures to the south, and show cultural influences from these southerners.
*The culture known as the Mogollon (pronEng|moʊgəˈjoʊn) lived in the southwest from approximately CE 150 until sometime between CE 1300 and 1400. Archaeological sites attributed to the Mogollon are found in the Gila Wilderness, Mimbres River Valley, along the Upper Gila river, Paquime and Hueco Tanks, an area of low mountains between the Franklin Mountains to the west and the Hueco Mountains to the east.

In addition, two distinct minor cultures, the Patayan and Fremont inhabited the western and northern extremes of the area.

Cultural distinctions

Archaeologists use cultural labels such as Mogollon, Ancestral Puebloan/Anasazi, Patayan or Hohokam to denote cultural traditions within the prehistoric American Southwest. It is important to understand that culture names and divisions are assigned by individuals separated from the actual cultures by both time and space. This means that cultural divisions are by nature arbitrary, and are based solely on data available at the time of each analysis and publication. They are subject to change, not only on the basis of newly discovered information, but also as attitudes and perspectives change within the scientific community. It cannot be assumed that an archaeological division corresponds to a particular language group or to any political entity, such as a tribe.

When making use of modern cultural divisions in the Southwest or Oasisamerica, it is important to understand three specific limitations in the current conventions.

* Artifact based: Archaeological research focuses on enduring evidence, items left behind during people’s activities. Scientists are able to examine fragments of pottery vessels, human remains, stone tools or evidence left from the construction of buildings and shelters. However, other aspects of the culture of prehistoric peoples, such as language, beliefs and behavior patterns, are not tangible.

* Cultural divisions: cultural identifiers are tools of the modern scientist, and so should not be considered similar to divisions or any social relationships the ancient residents may have recognized. Modern cultures in this region, many of whom claim some of these ancient people as ancestors, display a striking range of diversity in lifestyles, language and religious beliefs. This suggests the ancient people were also more diverse than their material remains may suggest.

* Cultural variants: The modern term “style” has a bearing on how material items such as pottery or architecture should be interpreted. Subsets of a larger group can adopt different means to accomplish the same end. For example, in modern Western cultures, there are alternative styles of clothing that characterized older and younger generations, and subgroups within a given generation. Some cultural differences may be based on linear traditions, on teaching from one generation or “school” to another. Other variants in style may distinguish arbitrary groups within a culture, perhaps defining social status, gender, clan or guild affiliation, religious belief or cultural alliances. Variations may also simply reflect the available resources in given time or area. Sharply defining cultural groups tends to create an image of group territories separated by clear-cut boundaries, similar to modern nation states. These simply did not exist. Prehistoric people traded, worshiped and collaborated most often with other nearby groups. Cultural differences should therefore be understood as "clinal", "increasing gradually as the distance separating groups also increases." Plog, Stephen (1997) "Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest". Thames and Hudson, London, England] Departures from the expected pattern may occur because of unidentified social or political situations or because of geographic barriers. In the Southwest, mountain ranges, rivers and, most obviously, the Grand Canyon, can be significant barriers for human communities, likely reducing the frequency of contact with other groups. Current opinion holds that the closer cultural similarity between the Mogollon and Anasazi and their greater differences from the Hohokam and Patayan is due to both the geography and the variety of climate zones in the American Southwest.

External links

* [ Patayan Map and Pottery]
* [ People of the Colorado Plateau]


* Wills, Wirt. H. Early Prehistoric Agriculture in the American Southwest." 1st ed., Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press; Seattle: Distributed by University of Washington Press. ISBN 093345225X.

Further reading

* Fagan, Brian M. "Ancient North America: Tha Archaeology of a Continent (part five)." Thames and Hudson, Inc., New York, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-500-05075-9.
* LeBlanc, Steven A. "Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest." 1999, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. ISBN 0-87480-581-3.

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