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12.15: Southwestern Culture

  • Page ID
    72317
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    Learning Objective

    • Describe the cultural traditions of the Southwest

    Key Points

    • Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition.
    • As Southwestern cultural traditions evolved, tribes transitioned from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements.
    • As various cultures developed over time, many shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.
    • Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world.
    • Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created.

    Terms

    irrigation

    The act or process of irrigating, or the state of being irrigated; especially, the operation of causing water to flow over lands for the purpose of nourishing plants.

    shamanism

    A practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel transcendental energies into this world.

    animism

    The worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.

    sandstone

    A sedimentary rock produced by the consolidation and compaction of sand, cemented with clay.

    Overview

    The greater Southwest has long been occupied by hunter-gatherers and agricultural settlements. This area, comprised of modern-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, and the states of Sonora and Chihuahua in northern Mexico, has seen successive prehistoric cultural traditions since approximately 12,000 years ago. Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition. As various cultures developed over time, many of them shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.

    Southwestern Agriculture

    Southwestern farmers probably began experimenting with agriculture by facilitating the growth of wild grains such as amaranth and chenopods as well as gourds for their edible seeds and shells. The earliest maize known to have been grown in the Southwest was a popcorn varietal measuring one to two inches long. It was not a very productive crop. More productive varieties were developed later by Southwestern farmers or introduced via Mesoamerica, though the drought-resistant tepary bean was native to the region. Cotton has been found at archaeological sites dating to about 1,200 BCE in the Tucson basin and was most likely cultivated by indigenous peoples in the region. Evidence of tobacco use and possibly the cultivation of tobacco, dates back to approximately the same time period.

    Agave, especially agave murpheyi, was a major food source of the Hohokam and grown on dry hillsides where other crops would not grow. Early farmers also possibly cultivated cactus fruit, mesquite bean, and species of wild grasses for their edible seeds.

    Paleolithic peoples utilized habitats near water sources like rivers, swamps, and marshes, which had an abundance of fish and attracted birds and game animals. They hunted big game—bison, mammoths, and ground sloths—who were also attracted to these water sources. A period of relatively wet conditions saw many cultures in the American Southwest flourish. Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world. Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created. The unusual weather conditions could not continue forever, however, and gave way in time, to the more common arid conditions of the area. These dry conditions necessitated a more minimal way of life and, eventually, the elaborate accomplishments of these cultures were abandoned.

    During this time, the people of the Southwest developed a variety of subsistence strategies, all using their own specific techniques. The nutritive value of weed and grass seeds was discovered and flat rocks were used to grind flour to produce gruels and breads. The use of grinding slabs originated around 7,500 BCE and 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. Archaic people established camps at collection points, and returned to these places year after year.

    The American Indian Archaic culture eventually evolved into two major prehistoric archaeological culture areas in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. These cultures, sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica, are characterized by dependence on agriculture, formal social stratification, population clusters, and major architecture. One of the major cultures that developed during this time was the Pueblo peoples, formerly referred to as the Anasazi. Their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles emerged in the area around 750 CE. Ancestral Pueblo peoples are renowned for the construction of and cultural achievement present at Pueblo Bonito and other sites in Chaco Canyon, as well as Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, and Salmon Ruins. Other cultural traditions that developed during this time include the Hohokam and Mogollon traditions.

    image
    Hohokam House. Photo of the Great House at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. 

    Family and Religion

    Paleolithic peoples in the Southwest initially structured their families and communities into highly mobile traveling groups of approximately 20 to 50 members, moving place to place as resources were depleted and additional supplies were needed. As cultural traditions began to evolve throughout the Southwest between 7,500 BCE to 1,550 CE, many cultures developed similar social and religious traditions. For the Pueblos and other Southwest American Indian communities, the transition from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements meant more firmly established families and communities. Climate change that occurred about 3,500 years ago during the Archaic period, however, changed patterns in water sources, dramatically decreasing the population of indigenous peoples. Many family-based groups took shelter in caves and rock overhangs within canyon walls, many of which faced south to capitalize on warmth from the sun during the winter. Occasionally, these peoples lived in small, semi-sedentary hamlets in open areas.

    Many Southwest tribes during the Post-Archaic period lived in a range of structures that included small family pit houses, larger structures to house clans, grand pueblos, and cliff-sited dwellings for defense. These communities developed complex networks that stretched across the Colorado Plateau, linking hundreds of neighborhoods and population centers.

    While southwestern tribes developed more permanent family structures and established complex communities, they also developed and shared a similar understanding of the spiritual and natural world. Many of the tribes that made up the Southwest Culture practiced animism and shamanism. Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. At the same time, animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, and geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.

    Conclusion

    Although at present there are a variety of contemporary cultural traditions that exist in the greater Southwest, many of these traditions still incorporate similar religious aspects that are found in animism and shamanism. Some of these cultural traditions include the Yuman-speaking peoples inhabiting the Colorado River valley, the uplands, and Baja California; O’odham peoples of southern Arizona and northern Sonora; and the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico.

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