Imagine trying to translate a book if all you had were the cover, and someone who had read it like 80 years ago. You could get an idea of what it was about, but the details wouldn't be there.
I just got back from an fantastic trip to Mesa Verde National Park down in southwestern Colorado. The main feature of the park is the series of ancient cliff dwellings, constructed from sandstone blocks and mortar, like the one above, which is part of the structure called Cliff Palace. (Taken by me with my awesome new used Nikon D70s.)
For some reason I really got into learning about the history of the place and the people who lived there. I had seen some of these ruins before, when I was on a Colorado Outward Bound School trip in high school. I remembered that the people who lived in the dwellings were called Anasazi, and they mysteriously disappeared. Well, a lot has changed since then...
Anasazi is a Navajo word, which means "ancient enemy," or "enemy ancestors," or "ancient people who are not us," depending on which web site you go by. But now, according to the parks people, the preferred term is "Ancestral Puebloans." This is because the accepted wisdom now is that instead of mysteriously vanishing, the people who lived there simply moved. The minor mystery is why did they move, but it is generally thought now that the Pueblo Indians who are around today, such as the Hopi and Zuni, are the ancestors of the "Anasazi."
The Hopi prefer to call them Hisatsinom (hih-ZAHT-sih-nohm), "the old ones," (not to be confused with Yog-Sothoth and Cthulu, Lovecraft fans) or more spookily, Moqui, "the dead." The Hopi apparently don't like the use of a Navajo word for their ancestors, which makes sense since the Navajo are a separate culture. Other Pueblo groups have other names for them.
The stuff they tell you at the park about the Hisatsinom culture is all inferred from modern Pueblo Indian culture (a method known as "ethnographic analogy"), since there were no written recordings left by the Hisatsinom. They did leave some rock art, or petroglyphs, but those are not considered language - yet, anyway. Obviously they had some sort of spoken language, because the traditions and culture have been communicated continuously for several thousand years.
Some details are still alive, like the "sipapu," a hole in the bottom of the kiva (a ceremonial underground room), that is a reminder of where the people came from, i.e. the Lower World. The kivas actually seem to be the evolved version of the pithouse, which was what they lived in from at least 1500 BC to 800 AD or so.
How well does a culture translate from antiquity into the present? The modern Pueblo Indians continue their traditions today, but how different are they from the time of the Hisatsinom? It probably doesn't really matter. The cool thing is that there exists a multi-millenial continuity in their cultural heritage. How many of us can say that?