A culture area is a region in which the environment and cultures are very similar. The concept of culture areas was first developed around the turn of the nineteenth century, and despite significant limitations, has grown to become a useful tool to help anthropologists conduct ethnological studies.
Culture areas are commonly evoked in cross-cultural anthropology to facilitate the generalization of cultural phenomena and broad comparison of cultures that have developed in similar environments.
There are any number of examples of culture areas from anthropology, classical studies, ethnic studies, history and other fields. Thus, for example, the ancient world of the Mediterranean region constituted a cultural area in some respects. One might also point to the Greek city states and later the Italian city states (occurring at least partly on the area of the former Etruscan civilization) as constituting distinctive cultural areas. Likewise, among Amerindians or Native Americans, such cultural areas as the Southeastern region, Great Plains, the Southwest, the Great Lakes and the Eastern woodlands, and Alaska all form distinct cultural areas. In the Pacific region, Hawaiian culture, on the other hand, was most likely part of the much larger Polynesian culture area reaching as far south as New Zealand.
European immigrants to the U.S. made New England, Appalachia and the South have long been recognized as distinct culture areas.
Culture areas are limited in their usefulness because their borders are rarely well defined and their constituent peoples are usually far from homogeneous. It is quite likely that two neighboring ethnic groups that supposedly live in different culture areas will have more in common than two groups from opposite extremes of the same culture area. An example is the borderland between Mesoamerica and the Greater Southwest where ancient trade routes facilitated extensive cultural exchange - one might walk from Arizona to Guatemala and never notice an abrupt shift in traditional cultural patterns.
People also have a tendency to migrate into new culture areas over time. The cultures of Asian Americans or white South Africans, for example, are hardly categorizable by way of the culture areas that are defined for the regions in which they live. This type of migration happens more or less continuously, and while people will tend to adjust to new environments, theories of culture areas are unable to predict a great many important aspects of human cultures.
- Mark Q. Sutton and E.N. Anderson. (2004) Introduction to Cultural Ecology. ISBN 0-7591-0531-6.