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 Arizona, southern California, southern Nevada, and Baja California.What makes Patayan a unique archaeological pattern are a series of distinctive pottery forms and wares (Lower Colorado Buffware, Prescott Grayware, and Tizon Brownware), specific motifs and embellishments in rock art, the creation and use of geoglyphs, and a geographic focus on the lower Colorado River.
Interestingly, the spatial extent of Patayan material culture (pottery, objects, architecture, and rock art, for example) maps onto the historic distribution of the Yuman language, which is why many believe this archaeological tradition is ancestral to historic and contemporary Yuman-speaking tribes. Nevertheless, archaeologists have long recognized regional variation, or “branches,” within the Patayan tradition based on differences in settlement patterns, subsistence practices, and nuances in material culture. This has led to considerable debate and confusion, what archaeologist Harold Colton called “the Patayan problem” 75 years ago.
Patayan remains one of the least-studied late prehispanic cultural traditions in the American Southwest. One reason for this is the lack of research carried out in this rather remote frontier of western Arizona and southeastern California. Another is the ephemeral nature of many Patayan archaeological sites. In upland settings, Patayan communities were highly mobile and probably followed seasonal rounds much like historic Pai groups. Encampments were small and impermanent, and people did not accumulate much nonperishable material, on account of their mobile lifestyle.
For Patayan communities along major waterways such as the Gila and Colorado Rivers, settlements were quite stable and long lived. Floodwater farming supported permanent villages of dozens to hundreds of people, as was witnessed among the Delta-Californian and River-Yuman speaking Kohuana, Halyikwamai, Xalychidom, Cocopah, Quechan, Mojave, and PeePosh at the time of contact with Europeans. With residences tied so close to the floodplain, however, many of these ancestral villages have been eradicated by massive floods. Moreover, and as far is known, these lowland Patayan farming communities did not create enduring works of public architecture as was the case among most other late prehispanic Southwestern cultural traditions. This has left surviving Patayan village sites overlooked and underappreciated.
The Patayan tradition is often divided into three phases. Patayan I (AD 700–1050) witnessed the arrival of pottery-using agricultural communities along the Colorado River. During Patayan II (1050–1500), this material culture spread outward to southern Nevada, western Arizona, and to the Salton Sea. Patayan III (1500–1900) saw the coalescence of large populations near the Colorado/Gila confluence and continued movement of people up the lower Gila River.
Recent research is beginning to revise our understanding of the nature of Patayan and the timing of significant cultural changes. For instance, Patayan communities settled along the lower Gila River, as far upstream as the Painted Rock Mountains, as early as Patayan I. This placed them in close proximity to contemporaneous Colonial period Hohokam communities around present-day Gila Bend. Regular and extensive social and economic connections are apparent in pottery distributions and stunning similarities in rock art iconography around Patayan and Hohokam settlements.
Patayan presence along the lower Gila River persisted until the 1830s, and even intensified over time. By AD 1000, Patayan groups had begun to reside next to or even integrate into existing Hohokam communities in the Gila Bend and Phoenix Basins. At contact, the lower Gila was a multicultural landscape in which riverside villages were inhabited by Cocomaricopa and Opa (historic Patayan groups) and O’odham (presumably descendent Hohokam). This intercultural collaboration between O’odham and PeePosh (Opa and Cocomaricopa) continues today at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Gila River Indian Communities east and south of Phoenix.