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Oasisamerica: Southwestern Nomads

on 19 March 2012

It would seem that out of nowhere, Oasisamerica became a very populated ares in the American Southwest. Oasisamerica covered what we know as present day:

  • US States: Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico
  • Mexican States: Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua

The land is dry, but the Yaqui, Bravo, Colorado, and Gila Rivers, along with lakes that have been swallowed by the desert, and a milder climate (than that of Aridoamerica) allowed the development of agricultural techniques to give birth to some of the greatest desert cultures in America.

Where did the Oasisamericans come from?

There are three main hypotheses regarding the birth of cultures in Oasisamerica:

  1. An individual culture originated due to favorable climate that allowed agriculture;
  2. Mesoamerican nomads (possibly outsiders) moved north out of Aridoamerica and took their knowledge of agriculture with them;
  3. Turquoise was very valuable in Mesoamerica - since almost all Mesoamerican turquoise comes from Arizona and New Mexico, trade may have brought knowledge of agriculture and jump-started cultural development.

Who were the Oasisamericans?

Though five cultures dominated the area, three were greater than the others: the Anasazi, the Hohokam, and the Mogollon. The other two, Fremont and Patayan, lived around them as neighboring communities that very well may have originated from the three greater cultures.


The Anasazi are one of the most intensely studied pre-Columbian cultures of the United States. Their territory stretched across most of New Mexico, up into Colorado, across Utah, and down to Pequeño Colorado River in Arizona. One of their main settlements (and most popular to visit) is Chaco Canyon where many baskets and ceramics have been discovered.


The Hohokam lived in central Arizona and parts of northern Sonora. Their territory lay between the Gila and Colorado Rivers. Though their land suffered from little rainfall and higher temperatures, they built canals for irrigation. Their principal settlements include Casa Grande, Snaketown, Red Mountain, and Pueblo de los Muertos.


The Mogollon are sometimes considered two cultures rather than one: Mogollon and Paquime. The Paquime culture derived from the original Mogollon culture. Their territory stretched from the Anasazi and Hohokam borders into Sonora and most of Chihuahua. The Mogollon, unlike their two dominant neighbors, buried their dead. Most of these graves have been looted and/or destroyed by treasure hunters (these graves often had many riches including ceramics and semiprecious stones).


The Fremont lived north of the Anasazi in Utah. Their origins are unknown but they possibly derived from the Anasazi or Atapascan culture (buffalo hunters). They are known for their Moki huts (granary storage units) in cliff crevices. The Range Creek Canyon site is the most well preserved area with evidence of the Fremont culture.


The Patayan area began east of the Hohokam and expanded across Arizona into southern California, Baja California, and Sonora. They are known for their Mogollon looking pottery made using the paddle-and-anvil style which is Hohokam - leaving their origin questionable, but they were clearly influenced by both.

Decline and Change

Oasisamericans were an agricultural society that thrived hundreds of years. These cultures began declining in power around the time of the Spanish Conquest (though the Spanish are not responsible for all of their disappearances). Many of these cultures split into "new" cultures, such as the Zuñi and Hopi. These desert communities understood how to use their land - their monumental earthen structures are testimony to their greatness. The Pueblo desert people knew how to create true sustainable architecture, something many of us are just beginning to understand the value of.

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About the Author

I'm Melanie, the founder of BermudaQuest and an archaeology undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. I love writing about ancient and modern cultures. My goal is to make information about our origins available to everyone [in simple English!]


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Images courtesy of: Ricardo Liberato (Pyramids of Giza), Aurbina (Moai), Maria Reiche (Nazca), Zunkir (Gobekli Tepe), Bjorn Christian Torrissen (Chichen Itza), Gareth Wiscombe (Stonehenge).

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