Cultural labels such as Hohokam, Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi), Mogollon or Patayan are used by archaeologists to define cultural differences among prehistoric peoples. Culture names and divisions are assigned arbitrarily on the base of datale to the archaeologists separated from the actual cultures by both time and space. They are subject to change, not only on the basis of new information and discoveries, but also as attitudes and perspectives change within the scientific community.
When making use of modern cultural divisions in the Southwest, it is important to understand three specific limitations in the current conventions:
• Archaeological research focuses on physical remains, the 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. However, many other aspects of the culture of prehistoric peoples are not tangible. Languages spoken by these people and their beliefs and behaviour are difficult to decipher from the physical materials. Cultural divisions are tools of the modern scientist, and should not be considered similar to divisions or relationships the ancient residents may have recognized. Modern cultures in this region, many of whom claim some of these ancient people as ancestors, contain a striking range of diversity in lifestyles, language and religious belief. This suggests the ancient people were also more diverse than their material remains may suggest.
• The modern term “style” has a bearing on how material items such as pottery or architecture can be interpreted. Within a people, different ways to accomplish the same goal can be adopted by subsets of the larger group. For example, in modern Western cultures, there are alternative styles of clothing that characterized older and younger generations. Some cultural differences may be based on linear traditions, on teaching from one generation or “school” to another. Varieties in style may define arbitrary groups within a culture, perhaps identifying social status, gender, clan or guild affiliation, religious belief or cultural alliances. Variations may also simply reflect the different resources available in given time or area.
• Designating culture groups, such as the Hohokam, tends to create an image of group territories separated by clear-cut boundaries, like 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.” Departures from the expected pattern may occur because of unidentifiable social or political situations or because of geographic barriers. In the Southwest, mountain ranges, rivers and most obviously, the Grand Canyon can be significant geographic 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 culture is due to both the geography and the variety of climate zones in the Southwest.