From 1500 BCE until about 1200 CE, the Zapotec were one of the prominent and historically important groups in Mesoamerica. They originated in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico. Their major archaeological sites include Monte Albán, Dainzu, Huitzo, Monte Negro, Yagul, and Zaachila.
By 1500 BCE, the Cloud People (Ben Zaa, Gula’sa, or Zapotec) were living in villages in Oaxaca. Some scholars feel that the Zapotec were once a part of the Mixtec and that the two groups divided between 4100 BCE and 3500 BCE. Linguistically, Zapotec and Mixtec are a part of the proto-Otomanguean language family. Richard Blanton, in his entry on Zapotec Civilization in the The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:
“Zapotec is one of the recently formed languages of the Otomangean language family that diverged only from Mixtec, the other main language of the Southern Highlands region, after about 4000 B.C., during a period of transition from a foraging to a farming economy. Subsequently, speakers of the Mixtec and Zapotec languages, although sharing a common linguistic and sociocultural background, and continuing to interact with one another, developed divergent civilizational traditions.”
During the period which archaeologists call the San José phase (1150 BCE to 850 BCE), a ruling elite evolved among the Zapotec. Richard Blanton reports:
“During this time, elite households participated in long-distance interregional exchange spheres, involving the exchange of exotic goods and ritual items invested with symbols pertaining to the Western Mesoamerican Olmec Iconographic system.”
By 300 BCE, the Zapotec had evolved into a state with influence outside of the Oaxaca region. The Zapotec also had close ties with the great city of Teotihuacan.
The designation Zapotec appears to be from zapote, a tree which was common in their territory.
Shown below are some of the Zapotec artifacts which are on display in the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, California.
The pitcher shown above is Zapotec from Monte Albán II, dating to about 100 BCE. The pottery shown above is Zapotec dating to the Classic Period. The pottery shown above is Zapotec dating to the Classic Period. The figures shown above are from the Late Classic period.
Monte Albán was one of the major centers in Mesoamerica. It is located in the Valley of Oaxaca and was influential in many Mesoamerican cultures.
Monte Albán, whose Zapotec name was Danipaan or Daniboan (meaning Sacred Mountain), was founded during Formative Period (about 500 BCE) and flourished until about 900 CE. Noting the strategic hilltop location of Monte Albán, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, In their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, report:
“It lies in the heart of the region still occupied by Zapotec peoples; since there is no evidence for any major population displacement in central Oaxaca until the beginning of the Post-Classic, about AD 900, archaeologists feel reasonably certain that the inhabitants of the site were always speakers of that language.”
The city’s builders flattened a hill some 1,200 feet above the valley floor and here they constructed a series of plazas and ceremonial structures. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write:
“The founding of the city took place in a rapid, deliberate episode.”
In their Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:
“As a ceremonial city, Monte Alban was a masterpiece of planning from its very beginning. It was situated in a strategically defensive position on a series of ridges.”
In his entry on Zapotec civilization in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Richard Blanton reports:
“The founding of a regional capital at Monte Albán at about 500 B.C. represented the beginning of a long tradition of city development and city life that were important ingredients of Zapotec civilization in later periods.”
The hill on which Monte Albán sits was terraced to provide agricultural land. At its peak, archaeologists estimate that it had a population of 25,000 people.
In addition to temples and plazas, Monte Albán is known for its tombs. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write:
“Subterranean tombs—170 of them—have been discovered all over the site, some of which were of great magnificence, testimony to the wealth of the lords of Monte Albán. The best are quite elaborate chambers, often with a corbeled vault, and have an antechamber. Fine murals were painted on the plastered walls.”
One of the early architectural features of the site is a stone-faced platform in the southwestern corner of the main plaza which today’s archaeologists call the Temple of the Danzantes. The temple has large stone slabs with carved bas-relief figures set into the outside of the platform. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz describe the Danzantes (dancers) this way:
“Nude men with slightly Olmecoid features (i.e. the downturned mouth), the Danzantes are shown in strange, rubbery postures as though they were swimming in viscous fluid.”
There are about 300 of these figures in Monte Albán. While we don’t know for sure the actual meaning of these figures for the Zapotecs who created them, some scholars feel that they represent corpses, perhaps the chiefs or kings which were slain by the earliest rulers of the city. The genitals are clearly visible in several of the figures which is usually an indication of captives in Mesoamerican art. In addition, there are some depictions of genital mutilation.
With regard to pottery, most of which has been recovered from tombs, most was made with fine gray clay. Vases often have bridged spouts and bowls have large, hollow tripod supports.
Like the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Zapotecs in Monte Albán had writing and a calendar based on a 52-year cycle.
From about 200 BCE until 100 CE, the city declined in power and its population growth appears to have stagnated. During this time, its population shrank from 16,000 to 14,500.
By 100 BCE, the Zapotecs renovated the city’s Great Plaza, enlarging it to 1,000 feet in length and 650 feet in width.
By 900 CE, Monte Albán was in ruins. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson write:
“There are several possible causes for the death of Monte Albán. The city could have been overpopulated, unable to sustain itself in the face of urban stress. Or there could have been an agricultural shortfall or even a military revolt against the authorities.”
Monte Albán continued to be used as a ceremonial and religious center, and people were still buried there. It continued to be used until 1521.