Zapotec Civilization

The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca of southern Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence shows their culture goes back at least 2500 years. They left archaeological evidence at the ancient city of Monte Albán in the form of buildings, ball courts, magnificent tombs and grave goods including finely worked gold jewelry. Monte Albán was one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica and the center of a Zapotec state that dominated much of what is now the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The name Zapotec is an exonym coming from Nahuatl language "tzapotecah", which means "inhabitants of the place of sapote". The Zapotec referred to themselves by some variant of the term Be'ena'a, which means "The People."


Zapotec civilization had its beginnings in the Oaxaca valley in the late 6th Century BC. The three branches of the valley were divided between 3 different sized societies, separated by 80 km2 'no-man’s-land' in the central valley. Archaeological evidence from the period, such as burned temples and sacrificed captives, suggest that the 3 societies were in some sort of competition.

At the end of the Rosario phase (700 - 500 BC), something happened, the valley's largest settlement San Jose Mogote, and other nearby settlement in the Etla valley arm, lost most of its population. During the same period a new large settlement emerged in the 'no-man’s-land' in the middle of the Oaxaca Valley, that settlement, which was constructed on top of a mountain overlooking the three arms of the valley was Monte Alban.

A funerary urn in the shape of a "bat god" or a
jaguar, from Oaxaca, dated to AD 300 - 650.

Similarities between the pottery of San Jose Mogote and at early Monte Alban indicate that the people who populated Monte Albán where the people who had left San Jose Mogote. Archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery argue that this process is similar to the process of synoikism of ancient Greece, that is a centralization of smaller dispersed populations in one central city, often in order to meet an external threat. Even though there are no direct evidence for such an external threat in the early phases of Monte Albans history, walls and fortifications built around the site during the archaeological phase Monte Alban 2 (ca.100 BC - AD 200), suggest that the construction of the city may have been a response to a military threat.

The Zapotec state formed at Monte Alban began an expansion during the late Monte Alban 1 phase (400 BC - 100 BC) and throughout the Monte Alban 2 phase (100 BC - AD 200). Zapotec rulers began to seize control over the provinces outside the valley of Oaxaca. They could do this during Monte Alban 1c (roughly 200 BC) to Monte Alban 2 (200 BC - Ad 100) because none of the surrounding provinces could compete with the valley of Oaxaca both politically and militarily. By 200 AD the Zapotecs had extended their influence, from Quiotepec in the north to Ocelotepec and Chiltepec in the south. Monte Albán had become the largest city in the southern Mexican highland, and so it remained until approximately 700 AD.

The expansion of the Zapotec empire peaked during the Monte Alban II phase. Zapotecs conquered or colonised settlements far beyond The Valley of Oaxaca. This expansion is visible in several ways, most important is the sudden change of ceramics found in regions outside the valley. These regions previously had their own unique styles which were suddenly replaced with Zapotec style pottery, indicating that they had become part of the Zapotec empire.

Archaeologist Alfonso Caso, who was one of the first to do excavations in Monte Alban, argued that a building on the main plaza of Monte Albán is further evidence for the dramatic expansion of the Zapotec state. The building, which today is referred to as building J, is shaped like an arrowhead and displays more than 40 carved stones with hieroglyphic writing. The stones have been interpreted by archaeologists to be the place names of provinces that were claimed by the Zapotecs of Monte Alban.

In addition to the place names, each glyph group also depicts a head with an elaborate head dress carved into the slabs. This is assumed to illustrate the rulers of the provinces who were taken over. The stones which show a head turned upside down is believed to have been taken by force, and the ones which aren’t turned upside down may not have resisted the colonization, and therefore haven’t been killed. For this reason building J is also called "The Conquest Slab".

About the subsequent dramatic expansion of the Monte Albán state within Oaxaca Marcus and Flannery write: "A great disparity in populations between the core of a state and its periphery, it may only be necessary for the former to send colonist to the latter. Small polities, seeing that resistance would be futile, may accept a face-saving offer. Larger polities unwilling to lose their autonomy may have to be subdued militarily. During the expansion of Monte Alban 2 state, we think we see both colonization and conquest".


Monte Alban panorama from northern platform

The Oaxaca Valley, the cradle of Zapotec civilization, is a broad valley in the north-eastern part of state of Oaxaca located about 200 km south of Mexico City. Mountains surround the valley with The Sierra Madre Oriental in the north and the mountains of Tlacolula in the southeast. The area’s environment is well suited for agriculture, especially the cultivation of maize, making it a desirable place for settlers. The valley floor is mostly flat with large tracts of arable land.

At the time of the emergence of Zapotec civilization, the valley soil had not suffered erosion, since the oak-pine forest surrounding the valley was intact. The climate the temperate climate is ideal for maize cultivation, and it possible to harvest crops several times a year. Frost rarely occurs as it does at higher altitudes in the region. The high agricultural potential in The Valley of Oaxaca has certainly contributed to making this area become the locus of the first complex societies in the Valley of Oaxaca.

As well as the climate and the quality of the soil, access to water is also crucial for agriculture, more so in the valley of Oaxaca where the soil is low on humus and other nutrients. The valley is traversed from north to south by the Atoyac River which provides water for a small strip of land bordering the river, when it periodically floods.

To provide water for crops elsewhere in the valley away from the river, for example to Monte Albán, the Zapotecs used canal irrigation. By irrigating water from small streams the Zapotecs were able to bring water to Monte Albán, situated 400 meter above the valley floor, far from the Atoyac River. Archaeologists have found the mountain’s found remains of a small irrigation system consisting of a dam and a canal two kilometres long on the mountains south-eastern flank. It would not have been sufficient to support all the inhabitants of Monte Albán, and it is therefore assumed that it was just one of many irrigation systems.

Because of the rapid growth in population in the Monte Albán I phase the crops that were grown in the valley were not enough to sustain the population of Monte Albán. Therefore crops were grown on the piedmonts where the soil is a less fertile and the artificial irrigation was needed, this strategy has been called "the Piedmont strategy".


The last battle between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs occurred between 1497 and 1502, under the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl. At the time of Spanish conquest of Mexico, when news arrived that the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards, King Cosijoeza ordered his people not to confront the Spaniards so they would avoid the same fate. They were defeated by the Spaniards only after several campaigns between 1522 and 1527. However, uprisings against colonial authorities occurred in 1550, 1560, and 1715.

Society, Technology, Writing, Language


Between Monte Alban phases 1 and 2 there was a considerable expansion of the population of the Valley of Oaxaca. As the population grew, it seems that so did the degree of social differentiation, the centralization of political power, and ceremonial activity. During Monte Alban 1-2 it seems that the valley had been fragmented into several independent states, displayed by regional centers of power.


The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logosyllabic system of writing that used a separate glyph to represent each of the syllables of the language. This writing system is one of several candidates thought to have been the first writing systems of Mesoamerica and the predecessor of the writing systems developed by the Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec civilizations. At the present time, there is some debate as to whether or not Olmec symbols, dated to 650 BC, are actually a form of writing preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC.

In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, there were Zapotec and Mixtec artisans who fashioned jewelry for the Aztec rulers (tlatoanis), including Moctezuma II. Relations with central Mexico go back much further however, as attested by the archaeological remains of a Zapotec neighborhood within Teotihuacan and a Teotihuacan style "guest house" in Monte Albán. Other important pre-Columbian Zapotec sites include Lambityeco, Dainzu, Mitla, Yagul, San José Mogote, El Palmillo and Zaachila.

They were a sedentary culture and well-advanced in civilization, living in large villages and towns, in houses constructed with stone and mortar. They recorded the principal events in their history by means of hieroglyphics, and in warfare they made use of a cotton armour. The well-known ruins of Mitla have been attributed to them and were claimed to be the tombs of their grandmothers and grandfathers.


The writing system of the Zapotec culture is one of the candidates for having been the earliest writing system in Mesoamerica. On a few monuments at Monte Albán archaeologists have found extended text in a glyphic script. Some signs can be recognized as calendric information but the script as such remains undeciphered. Read in columns from top to bottom, its execution is somewhat cruder than that of the later Classic Maya and this has led epigraphers to believe that the script was also less phonetic than the largely syllabic Mayan script. These are, however, speculations.

The earliest known monument with Zapotec writing is a "Danzante" stone, officially known as Monument 3, found in San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca. It has a relief of what appears to be a dead and bloodied captive with two glyphic signs between his legs, probably his name. First dated to 500–600 BCE, this was earlier considered the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. However doubts have been expressed as to this dating and the monument may have been reused. The Zapotec script went out of use only in the late Classic period.


The Zapotec language belongs to a linguistic family called Oto-manguean, an ancient family of Mesoamerican languages. By 1500 BC the Oto-manguean language began to differ. The Manguean languages probably split first, then the Oto-pamean branch and later the divergence of Mixtecan and Zapotecan languages. The Zapotecan group includes the Zapotec languages and the closely related Chatino. Zapotec languages are spoken in the southwest part of the state of Oaxaca.

Zapotec is a tone language, which means that the meaning of a word is often determined by voice pitch. These tones are essential to understand the meaning of different words. The technical word for it is tonemes. The Zapotec language has several tonemes, in some there are 4 tones; high, low, rising and falling, and in some there are three; high, low and rising.


Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic. Two principal deities include Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. It is believed that the Zapotec sometimes used human sacrifice in their rituals.

Urn of Cocijo

There are several of Zapotec origin legends one of them states that the zapotecs were the original people of the valley of Oaxaca and were born from rocks, or descended from animals such as pumas and ocelots. There is also another origin legend which states that they only settled in the Oaxaca valley after founding the Toltic empire, and that they decent from Chicomostoc. Though it is very important to mention that these legends weren’t transcribed until after the Spanish arrival.

The Zapotecs tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people, while the elite that governed them believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today resulted from this belief. In Central Valley Zapotec "The Cloud People' is "Be'ena' Za'a."

The Zapotecs had a predominance of deities associated with fertility and agriculture. there are both male and female representation, told apart from each other by costumes. Males normally wear breechclouts and sometimes capes, while females are represented by wearing skirts. Prominent gods are Cocijo - god of lightning and rain, he is represented from Monte Alban 1-4. Another one is the god of maize Pitao Cozobi.

There are some evidence of deities not directly associated with Zapotecs culture, such as the feathered serpent and the butterfly god, they are characteristic for Teotihuacán. And also the Teotihuacán rain god, and Xipe totec a deity associated with spring in nahuatl culture.

In the News ...

New Pyramid Found With Vivid Murals, Stacked Tombs   National Geographic - August 10, 2012

One of three stacked tombs newly discovered within a pyramid, this vividly painted chamber is unique among ancient Zapotec funerary architecture, Mexican archaeologists announced in late July. Dating from about A.D. 650 to 850, the funerary complex was part of an elite neighborhood of the Zapotec, an agrarian culture that once thrived throughout what's now the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. No humans appear here. Instead, the designs seem to refer to the sacred ritual ball game played by many pre-Hispanic peoples in Mesoamerica. A bit like soccer combined with basketball, the game involved hitting a hard rubber ball around a court, and sometimes ended in sacrificial death for the losers.