The name "Patayan" comes from the Yuman language and means "old people." However, alternative terms have been proposed for the culture group, as the archaeological record of the Patayan is poorly understood. Archaeologist Malcolm Rogers first identified the Patayan, publishing a definition and chronology of the culture group in 1945. His survey records identified hundreds of desert sites. The harsh environment limits the amount of ongoing archaeological fieldwork in the area and there are not many remains to find. Most Patayan people appear to have been highly mobile and did not build large structures or accumulate numerous possessions. Patayan sites may also have been destroyed by floods in river valleys where some of them raised crops.
Significant archaeological remains of Payayan cultures appear near AD 875 and many cultural characteristics continued into historic times. The Patayan Culture may have originally emerged along the Colorado River, extending from the area around modern Kingman northeast to the Grand Canyon. These people appear to have practiced floodplain agriculture, a conclusion based on the descovery of manos and metates used to process corn in these areas. Stone points and other tools for hunting and hide preparation have been found, suggesting an economy based both on agriculture and hunting and gathering.
Early Patayan sites contain shallow pithouses or surface "long houses," consisting of a series of rooms arranged in a linear fashion. These homes had a pitroom at the east end, perhaps for storage or ceremonial activities. Later sites were less well defined and show loose groupings of varying house types.
The Patayan made both baskets and pottery. Ceramics were apparently not adopted until AD 700. Patayan pottery is primarily plain ware, visually resembling the 'Alma Plain' of the Mogollon. However, these pots were made using the paddle-and-anvil method, and the forms are more reminiscent of Hohokam ware. The use of paddle-and-anvil construction suggests that people from or influenced by the Hohokam first settled in this territory. Lowland Patayan pottery is made of fine buff colored riverine clays, while the upland Patayan pottery is more coarse and a deeper brown. Painted ware, sometimes using red slips, appear heavily influenced by the styles and designs of neighboring cultures.