Ancient Cultures

Map of Southwest Archaeological Cultures
Archaeological cultures of the Southwest. Map by Catherine Gilman, updated by Kathleen Bader. Courtesy of Desert Archaeology, Inc.

The Greater Southwest encompasses a broad area, including Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, southern Utah, and far western Texas, as well as the northwest Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. People lived in this arid to semi-arid landscape for more than 13,000 years before Europeans arrived, a period archaeologists now call the “precontact” or “prehispanic” era, though some still refer to “prehistory” and “prehistoric” sites or objects.

The precontact Southwest was a diverse cultural landscape inhabited by groups who probably spoke many different languages and saw themselves as distinct peoples. They made a living through hunting, collecting wild plants, and farming corn, beans, squash, and a variety of other crops. Peak population in the precontact era was probably almost 200,000 people.

On the most general level, archaeologists seek to understand how we have come to be who we are, collectively, as human beings living in societies. The ultimate question Southwest archaeologists are asking is, how did people survive, thrive, and solve the problems of living in this rugged and arid land for millennia?

By about 2,000 years ago, or perhaps even a bit earlier, there were clear regional differences across the Southwest. Major culture areas in the U.S. Southwest include the Ancestral Pueblo, the Mogollon, and the Hohokam. All of these groups were settled farmers, but there are key differences among them. Other archaeological culture areas in the Greater Southwest include Sinagua, Patayan, Trincheras, and Casa Grandes.

Trincheras

Banner image by Adriel Heisey People of the Trincheras tradition lived very like the Hohokam. They also built distinctive terracing that delineated work and living space on volcanic hills. Their brown and red pottery is decorated with purplish paint. Patayan and Trincheras populations clearly int...

Sinagua

Banner image by Tomas Castelazo, via Wikimedia Commons Populations in the Sinagua (sin-OW-wah) area lived in large pithouse and pueblo communities. They practiced flexible hunting, gathering, and farming strategies specific to some of the challenging landscapes they inhabited, including the San F...
Arizona - Central, Arizona - Northern

Patayan

Patayan is an anglicization of “Pataya,” a word of the Pai branch (Hualapai, Havasupai, Yavapai, and Paipai) of the Yuman-Cochimí language family that translates loosely as “old people.” As used by archaeologists, Patayan refers to a specific material culture spread throughout western Arizo...
Arizona - Central, Arizona - Southern

Casas Grandes

The Casas Grandes tradition centered on Paquimé, a vast and complex ancient city that was deeply involved in interregional trade and the creation of special pottery, jewelry, and other distinctive items. Significantly, this area shows the strongest connections to Mesoamerican groups further south. ...
New Mexico

Hohokam

Banner image by Robert B. Ciaccio People who resided in the Hohokam (ho-ho-kahm) region were probably among the ancestors of contemporary southern desert populations, such as the O'odham, as well as Pueblo populations and perhaps other populations in northern Mexico. Early Hohokam settleme...
Arizona - Central, Arizona - Southern

Ancestral Pueblo

The Ancestral Pueblo (previously called Anasazi) region falls largely along the Colorado Plateau in the northern half of the Southwest. Most archaeologists have ceased using “Anasazi” because many contemporary Pueblo people oppose the term. As the name “Ancestral Pueblo” suggests, people in ...
Arizona - Northern, New Mexico, Southern Colorado, Utah

Mogollon

People who lived in the Mogollon (muggy-own) region in the distant past had much in common with people living in the Ancestral Pueblo region, and were probably also among the ancestors of modern Pueblo people and even other contemporary communities in the southern Southwest and Mexico. The ea...
Arizona - Central, Arizona - Southern, New Mexico