Zapotec Priest Figure

Zapotec Priest Figure

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Ancestor figure, Zapotec

Offering vessels like this one have been found in the tombs of high-ranking Zapotec lords and noblewomen in the Oaxaca Valley in Mexico.

Zapotec nobles were buried in tombs set around the central plaza of their capital at Monte Albán, which was founded in the 6th century B.C.E. and flourished between the 3rd and 7th centuries C.E.. This imposing site was located on the top of a hill with views of the Oaxaca Valley and surrounding mountains. The supporting population, which at its height numbered around 25,000, lived on the terraced slopes in the valley below.

Ancestor figure, Zapotec, c. 200 B.C.E.–800 C.E., pottery, from Oaxaca, Mexico, 35 x 27 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Royal ancestor worship was the focus of Zapotec belief and ceremonial practice and the powerful figures depicted on offering vessels—or funerary urns as they are also known—are thought to represent these ancestors rather than deities. The importance of ancestry lies in the Zapotec use of genealogy and ancestral lines to pass on power and wealth.

Figures like this have been found inside tombs, positioned alongside bodies, as well as in niches in the walls. They’ve also been found buried in the floors of ceremonial centers, seemingly as offerings.

Ancestor figure, Zapotec, c. 200 B.C.E.–800 C.E., pottery, from Oaxaca, Mexico, 35 x 27 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The figure on this example wears a mask and headdress representing the depicted ancestors’ potent supernatural force. The chest ornament features a glyph or sculpted symbol of a day in the 260-day Zapotec ritual calendar.

The exact use and purpose of these vessels is unknown. The container, or urn, itself—usually a cylindrical vessel hidden behind the sculpted figure—may simply have been used to hold perishable offerings, as remains have been found inside.

Mexican Zapotec Native American Indian History

Scientists in Britain have identified the oldest skeleton ever found on the American continent in a discovery that raises fresh questions about the accepted theory of how the first people arrived in the New World. The skeleton’s perfectly preserved skull belonged to a 26-year-old woman who died during the last ice age on the edge of a giant prehistoric lake which once formed around an area now occupied by the sprawling suburbs of Mexico City.

Scientists from Liverpool’s John Moores University and Oxford’s Research Laboratory of Archaeology have dated the skull to about 13,000 years old, making it 2,000 years older than the previous record for the continent’s oldest human remains. The most intriguing aspect of the skull is that it is long and narrow and typically Caucasian in appearance, like the heads of white, western Europeans today. Modern-day Native Americans have short, wide skulls, typical of their Mongoloid ancestors, who are known to have crossed into America from Asia on an ice-age land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait.

The extreme age of Peñon woman has introduced two scenarios. Possibly there was a much earlier migration of Caucasian-like people with long, narrow skulls across the Bering Strait and these people were later replaced by a subsequent migration of Mongoloid people or alternatively, and more controversially, a group of Stone Age people from Europe made the perilous sea journey across the Atlantic Ocean many thousands of years before Columbus or the Vikings. The first Americans may have actually been Europeans. They were definitely not Mongoloid in appearance.

The skull and the almost-complete skeleton of Peñon woman were originally unearthed in 1959 and were thought to be no older than about 5,000 years. Peñon woman formed part of a collection of 27 early humans in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, that had not been accurately dated using the most modern techniques. In 2002, at the insistence of geologist Silvia Gonzalez, who had a hunch the bones were older than previously thought the remains were taken to Oxford University to be carbon-dated. Small bone samples from five skeletons were analyzed using the latest carbon techniques, and dated the skull to about 13,000 years old. The study was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal Human Evolution.

At 13,000 years old, Peñon woman would have lived at a time when there was a vast, shallow lake in the Basin of Mexico, a naturally enclosed high plain around today’s Mexico City, which would have been cooler and much wetter than it is today. Huge mammals would have roamed the region’s grasslands, such as the world’s largest mammoths with 12-foot tusks, bear-sized giant sloths, armadillos as big as a car and fearsome carnivores such as the saber-toothed tiger and great black bear. The bones of Peñon woman, named after the “little heel” of land that would have jutted into the ancient lake, were well developed and healthy, showing no signs of malnutrition. The two oldest skulls analyzed were both dolichocephalic, meaning that they were long and narrow-headed. The younger ones were short and broad, brachycephalic, which are typical of today’s Native Americans and their Mongoloid ancestors from Asia.

The findings have a resonance with the skull and skeleton of Kennewick man, who was unearthed in 1996 in the Columbia River at the town of Kennewick in Washington state. The skull, estimated to be 8,400 years old, is also long and narrow and typically Caucasian.

James Chatters, one of the first anthropologists to study Kennewick man before it had been properly dated, originally thought the man may have been a European trapper who had met a sudden death sometime in the early 19th century. Kennewick man became the most controversial figure in American anthropology when native tribes living in the region claimed that, as an ancestor, his remains should be returned to them under a 1990 law that gave special protection to the graves and remains of indigenous Americans. The debate intensified after some anthropologists suggested that Kennewick man was Caucasian in origin and could not therefore be a direct ancestor of the native Americans living in the Kennewick area today. Dr Gonzalez said that the identification of Peñon woman as the oldest known inhabitant of the American continent throws fresh light on the controversy over who actually owns the ancient remains of long-dead Americans.

Dr Gonzales’ research could have implications for the ancient burial rights of North American Indians because it’s quite possible that dolichocephalic man existed in North America well before the native Indians. Even more controversial is the suggestion that Peñon woman could be a descendant of Stone Age Europeans who had crossed the ice-fringed Atlantic some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago.

This theory first surfaced when archaeologists found flint blades and spear points in America that bore a remarkable similarity to those fashioned by the Solutrean people of south-western France who lived about 20,000 years ago, when the ice age was at its most extreme. The Solutreans were the technologists of their day, inventing such things as the eyed needle and the heat treatment of flint to make it easier to flake into tools. They also built boats and fished.

Bruce Bradley, an American archaeologist and an expert in flint technology, believes that the Solutrean method of fashioning flints into two-sided blades matches perfectly the Stone Age flint blades found at some sites in America. One of these is the 11,500-year-old flint spear point found in 1933 at Clovis, New Mexico. Dr Bradley said that the flint blades that came into America with the early Asian migrants were totally different in concept and mode of manufacture. Both the Clovis point and the Solutrean flints shared features that could only mean a shared origin, according to Dr. Bradley. Studies of the DNA of Native Americans clearly indicated a link with modern-day Asians, supporting the idea of a mass migration across the Bering land bridge. One DNA study, however, also pointed to at least some shared features with Europeans, that could only have derived from a relatively recent common ancestor who lived perhaps 15,000 years ago, the time of the Solutreans.

Not every specialist is convinced of the apparently mounting evidence of an early European migration. Professor Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, believes there are lots of examples in archaeology where various artifacts from different parts of the world can end up looking similar, even though they have different origins and most humans in the world at that time were long headed. Nevertheless, the remarkable age of the young Paleolithic woman who died by an ancient lake in Mexico some 13,000 years ago has once again stirred the controversy over the most extraordinary migration in human history.

Skull measurements on the remains of an isolated group of people who lived at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California have also stirred up the debate on the identity of the first Americans. These early inhabitants of North America also differed subtly but significantly from modern Native Americans, since they also have the longer, narrower skulls.

Anthropologists once assumed the earliest Americans resembled modern Native Americans. That changed with the discovery of a 10,500-year-old skeleton called Luzia in Brazil, the 9000-year-old skeleton of Kennewick man in Washington state, and the dating of a 13,000 year old skull of a 26 year old woman called Peñon III, found on the shores of Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. All have the long, narrow skulls that more resemble those of modern Australians and Africans than modern Native Americans, or the people living in northern Asia, who are thought to be Native Americans’ closest relatives. Some researchers previously argued these were simply unusual individuals, but scientists have now identified the same features in recent remains from the Baja California.

Rolando González-José, of the University of Barcelona, Spain, reasons the formation of the Sonora desert isolated the Pericú hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. DNA evidence suggests that early immigrants, the Pericú, an extinct tribe of Baja California, are more closely related to the ancient populations of southern Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific Rim, than to other Native Americans and peoples of the North Pacific Rim. The Pericú survived until just a few hundred years ago at the end of the Baja peninsula, but they vanished when Europeans disrupted their culture. González-José measured 33 Pericú skulls and found their features were similar to those of the ancient Brazilian skulls. This supports the idea that a first wave of long, narrow skulled people from southeast Asia colonized the Americas about 14,000 years ago, and were followed by a second wave of people from northeast Asia about 11,000 years ago, who had short skulls. The idea that
the Pericú represent an earlier, more southerly migration by boat or along the coast to the Americas is quite plausible. For one thing, all of the very early humans found in the Americas seem more closely to resemble Austronesians and Ainu than later American Indians a distinct migration would explain this.

Joseph Powell, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, is not convinced. He thinks the earliest Americans did come from southeast Asia, but believes they evolved into modern Native Americans, since even with two waves each would have changed over the past 10,000 to 12,000 years, through adaptation and microevolution. The theory a first wave of long, narrow skulled people from southeast Asia however, has been championed by Walter Neves, at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He believes the second wave of immigrants may have been larger, and eventually came to dominate the Americas. Neves argues the change in skull shape after 8000 years ago is too sudden to be explained by evolution.

One theory is two distinct groups of people migrated to North America at different times another theory, only one population reached the continent and, excepting a few isolated groups, different physical attributes eventually evolved.

The central region of the state of Oaxaca Mexico is extraordinarily mountainous. Several impassible mountain ranges and their vast spurs enter the area at various angles and come into crisscross collision. The result is a tortured terrain fragmented into dramatic precipices and abrupt gorges, a few of which level out into wide and splendid valleys and innumerable smaller vales and dales at various levels of altitude. The continent nearly breaks in two at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, part of which lies in Oaxaca. The coastal areas are excessively hot and humid the mountain chains high, cold, inhospitable and cloud-wrapped the valleys temperate, well watered, and smiling. These valleys cradled one of mankind’s phenomenal and distinctive cultures. The ruins of more than two hundred ancient cities and towns are presently recorded and more than a thousand sites are listed as archaeologically important. Some of these ancient towns, still inhabited but reduced to the size of tiny hamlets, have archaeological time-columns which extend back to 600 B.C., Epoch I of Monte Alban.

For 3.5 millennia people who have been recognizably Zapotec have inhabited the central valleys and surrounding mountains of today’s Mexican state of Oaxaca. From their origins as hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors settled in the region as long as 10 – 13 millennia ago, the Zapotec peoples learned to adapt to the varied environments of the state, domesticated a number of wild species that are now important cultigens, organized urban centers and developed great political entities. Several studies estimate that the number of Zapotecs at the time of the Spanish conquest was between 350,000 and half million. The history of these people has not garnered the same attention that has been given that of the Maya and Aztec, and indeed for many years the early traces of civilization that dot Oaxaca were attributed to Olmecs. Current evidence, however, indicates the Zapotec were probably the first to develop a number of features that came to be characteristic of all subsequent Mesoamerican culture: the first city-states, the first use of a base-twenty numerical system, the first use of a rebus writing system, and the invention of the calendrical system.

The Zapotec call themselves by some variant of the term “The People” (Be’ena’a). The implications of this term are many: The people of this place, The true people, Those who didn’t come from another place, Those who have always been here. In fact, both scientific evidence and the origin myths about Zapotecs demonstrate a great antiquity in Oaxaca for the Zapotec and their precursors.The Zapotec, The People, tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, and some had turned from trees or jaguars into people. The elite Zapotec who governed, believed they had 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 Aztec soldiers and merchants who traded with these people translated their name phonetically into Nahuatl: ‘Tzapotecatl’, and the Spanish conquerors in turn transformed this name into Zapoteca. The Mixtecs, a sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their Aztec name due to their identity as ‘Cloud People’ Ñusabi in Mixtec proper, but in their case the Nahuatl translation was literal, as ‘Mixtecatl’ translates directly as ‘Cloud Person’.

The Zapotec and Mixtec elite of prehispanic times shared many customs and beliefs, and it is likely they may have shared more in common with other Mesoamerican elites than with the bulk of Zapotec common people. The Spaniards documented Zapotec society as it functioned at the time of European arrival in Tzapotecapan, meaning Zapotec Territory, in the Aztec language. Spanish chronicles tell of a specialized and stratified society, with a class of political leaders, priesthood and commoners. No intermarriage occurred between the governing nobility and the common folk. The common people, farmers and artisans, paid tribute to the nobility. Nobility lived in magnificent ceremonial centers and managed affairs of state, cultivated the knowledge of the sacred cycles of nature, communed with the gods, and conducted warfare. While commoners could attain great wealth, they could not acquire noble status, nor eat certain foods, nor use clothing and ornaments that were reserved for nobility.

There are currently 422,937 speakers of some Zapotec language, which is the minimum criterion used to establish the population of Zapotecs, according to statistics compiled by the Mexican government. Even though the majority of these people reside in their native state of Oaxaca, an important nucleus of Zapotecs also lives in both the Mexican capital Mexico City and in Los Angeles, California. In their home state, Zapotecs live throughout the central valleys, the eastern and southern mountain ranges, the Pacific coast and in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

As in ancient times, the majority of today’s Zapotecs lead a subsistence lifestyle, producing a number of craft items, principally textiles, Zapotec rugs and pottery. [Mexican Zapotec Native American rugs – Peñon woman] Prehispanic marketing cycles are alive and well, and can be seen at the mercantile exchanges Zapotecs continue to organize at major regional market centers throughout the state, on a weekly rotating schedule. At such markets one can find Zapotec rugs, tropical products, seafood, the toasted ‘traveling tortilla’, totopo, from the isthmus, pottery and woven wraps from the central valley, sandals and coffee from the heights of the Northern Sierra, and the full assortment of products resulting from Zapotec specialization and effort. A great majority of today’s Zapotecs are bilingual, speaking their mother tongue and Spanish, but the Zapotec language is prevalent in such market settings. The majority of the monolingual Zapotec population is women, and the lack of literacy is three times greater among Zapotecs than among the general Mexican population. Even though Oaxaca is the most “Indian” state of modern Mexico, racism thrives and markedly limits the health, quality of life and potential of hundreds of thousands of Zapotec, whose hard work and ambition is often not wanted for any more than traditional menial tasks. As a result, there is a high rate of out-migration among the native population of the state, primarily to Mexico City and Los Angeles, California. This has created sociocultural vacuums and distortions in the rural communities of Oaxaca, and the need among Zapotecs to develop skills to cope with new and unfamiliar challenges and pursue their livelihood. Even though Zapotecs have been a disenfranchised people, they include are a growing number of professionals physicians, engineers and professors. Some of the Zapotec have assimilated without a trace, in order to escape the limited future available to today’s Mexican Indian. It is an understandable trade-off, although tragic in the context of legacy more than 3 millennia in the making. A few Zapotecs struggle on behalf of the rights of their people, both in their native Oaxaca and in the new environs where their needs have taken them.

As early as 3,000 BC, people were living in the Oaxaca valley region, and perhaps considerably earlier. Between 600 and 200 BC, although there was no social unity as yet, there evidently were settled communities, and they produced coarse, heavy ceramics. Between 200 BC and 200 AD, a Zapotec style of ceramics began forming, influenced by cultures to the south, which brought such things as tripod vases. The most important settlement was Monte Alban, which became a major ceremonial center during this time as well as an urban center.

Teotihuacan and Maya influences found their way into this region and were incorporated into the growing civilization. From 350 to 600, Monte Alban went through what is now designated as phase IIIA, experiencing the multiplication of structures, and above all a very elaborate cult of the dead, shown by the exceptionally fine tombs, and
the sumptuous offerings left with their bodies. The Zapotecs, meanwhile, spread southward and took Tehuantepec and other centers in that area. The people there today still speak the Zapotec language.

Between 700 and 1000, the Zaachila dynasty came into power, and made Teozapotlan their capital. It became a theocratic state, and the high priest was often the real authority. Pitao, The Great One, was honored as the supreme god the rain god was worshipped under four different forms.

The Zapotecs had their own calendar, which was made of 260 days in four divisions of 65, these in turn being divided into five groups of 13. In 650 AD, Zapotec astronomers had gone to Xochicalco for the unique meeting at which representatives of various cultures synchronized their calendars. Zapotec writing in picture form on deerskins also became a fine art. In addition to Zaachila, the Zapotecs built the city of Mictlan, or Mitla, with its magnificent architectural sculpture.

From 1000 to 1300 AD, the Toltecs and Chichimecs pushed the Mixtecs southward. They eventually got to the Oaxaca valley, where they clashed with the Zapotecs who abandoned Monte Alban and moved to centers farther south, such as Yagul and Lambityeco. A semi-alliance was brought about between the two groups when the Zapotec king married a Mixtec princess in 1280, but Monte Alban was in a decadent period. Not even the combined Mixtec and Zapotec forces could hold back the Aztecs who invaded under Axayacatl in the middle of the fifteenth century. They did succeed in turning back the Aztecs under Ahuitzotl at Guiengola, and the last Zaachila king, Cocijo-eza, married Ahuitzotl’s daughter, thereby bringing about a lasting alliance and peace. The son of this marriage, Cocijo-pij, was the last Zapotec ruler. He died in 1563, long after the Spaniards had taken over the Oaxaca region.

As of 1995 there were 7.8 million speakers of native languages in Mexico, 8% of the total population. The state of Oaxaca is the most native state of the Mexican republic, in terms of both the total number of indigenous inhabitants as well as the number of aboriginal cultures represented within its borders. There are 289 living aboriginal languages in Mexico Aztecan, Mayan and Zapotecan are the most widely spoken.

The most widely spoken native language in today’s Oaxaca is Zapotec, with approximately 423,000 speakers. The Zapotec language belongs to the greater Otomanguean language group. Of the 173 living Otomanguean tongues, 64 are Zapotecan. These are subsequently divided into three geographic subgroups within the state of Oaxaca: Northern, Southern and Isthmus Zapotec, with a slight overlap into the neighboring states of Chiapas and Veracruz.

Zapotec is a tonal language rich in sound and pronunciation. Because the set of sounds used to speak Zapotec is greater than for European languages, it is difficult to capture it accurately with the standard roman alphabet. This was a problem for Spanish friars in the 16th century, when they began writing zapotec catechisms and composing grammars and vocabularies of the language.

Current theories suggest that 10,000 years before the present, Paleo-Indian inhabitants of the region shared a single language. As population groups began to settle and differentiate along regional lines, likewise their speech began to diverge. Sometime between 10 and 7 thousand past, three great language families had differentiated: the northern Uto-Aztecan group, the southern Mayan group, and the central proto-Otomanguean group. The central proto-Otomanguean group extended from the present Mexican state of Hidalgo to the southern extent of today’s Oaxaca.

In succeeding millennia, various branches continued to diverge within each language group, and within Otomanguean the most important branches were the Otomí-Pame, Chocho-Popoloca-Mazateco, Mixe-Zoque and Mixtec-Zapotec. A key linguistic fission seems to have occurred around 5,700 ago, when Mixtec and Zapotec began to diverge. These glotochronological estimates are corroborated by the available archaeological data for each of these peoples. For example, glotochronological analyses indicate, and archaeology corroborates, a great atomization of Zapotec culture following the initiation of the long period of decay of the great capital at Monte Albán. Simultaneously with this event, which began in the eighth century of the common era, a number of dialectical variants of Zapotec appeared in the mountain regions surrounding the central valley of Oaxaca.

While it is clear that today’s Zapotecan languages share commonalities with one another and with an ancestral language as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Roman and Romanian with Latin, the Zapotec languages are largely unintelligible to native speakers of the other tongues. However, in Zapotec languages, as in Romance languages, one of the most highly preserved areas of commonality is the numbering system. Although an Isthmus and a Mountain Zapotec could hardly converse with one another in their own dialects, since their languages diverged from Valley Zapotec 8 centuries ago and have not interacted significantly since, they would each recognize one another’s numbers.

Mitla: The Temple of the Underworld

The ruins of Mitla are believed to be the remains of a mysterious town called Mictlan, which translates to “Abode of the Dead”. Mictlan was described by early Spanish chroniclers as being a place where the Zapotec and Mixtec people buried their elite. The Zapotec called this place Lyobaa, which translates to “burial place”, because they believed it had a tunnel to the underworld.

Building 2: Could this have been the Temple of the Underworld?

The legends surrounding Mitla begin deep in antiquity. Zapotec folklore says that the builders of the city lived in a time before the sun and when the sun appeared they tried to flee back to the underworld, but were turned to stone. The stone idols became a source of great mystic power and were at the heart Mitla’s importance. Having access to ancestors from a previous epoch, an era of the Gods, made Mitla a place that attracted the elite from across the Kingdom who wanted information and power from these relics, and to pass into the underworld with them. But it wasn’t just the stone relics that people were interested in, but also the tunnel in which they were found.

Due to the deliberate destruction of the Zapotec codices at the hands of the Christian missionaries, the earliest written account of Mitla is from the middle of the 16 th century, by a Spanish chronicler named Toribio de Benavente. He records:

“When some monks of my order, the Franciscan, passed, preaching and shriving, through the province of Zapoteca, whose capital city is Tehuantepec, they came to a village which was called Mictlan, that is, Underworld…they told of buildings which were prouder and more magnificent than any which they had hitherto seen in New Spain. Among them was a temple of the evil spirit and living-rooms for his demoniacal servants, and among other fine things there was a hall with ornamented panels, which were constructed of stone in a variety of arabesques and other very remarkable designs. There were doorways there, each one of which was built of but three stones, two upright at the sides and one across them, in such a manner that, although these doorways were very high and broad, the stones sufficed for their entire construction…There was another hall in these buildings, or rectangular temples, which was erected entirely on round stone pillars, very high and very thick…These pillars were made of one piece…”

This excerpt, contemporaneous with the town still being actively used by the Zapotec, marries the name Mictlan with a description of the buildings that are found at the archaeological site of Mitla. This brief description also hints at Mitla’s preoccupation with the underworld – a theme which is later described concisely by another Christian chronicler, Francesco de Burgoa.

Building 6: Geometric Designs In the Geográfica Descriptión, published in 1674, Burgoa speaks at length of Mictlan, again describing features that are found at the modern site of Mitla:

“The outside is of such extraordinary workmanship that on a masonry wall about an ell (yard) in height there are placed stone slabs with a projecting edge, which form the support for an endless number of small white stones…which are as smooth and regular as if they had all come from one mould. They had so many of these stones that, setting them in, one beside the other, they formed with them a large number of different beautiful geometric designs, each an ell broad and running the whole length of the wall, each varying in pattern…what has always seemed inexplicable to the greatest architects is the adjustment of these little stones without a single handful of mortar, and the fact that without tools, with nothing but hard stones and sand, they could achieve such solid work that, though the whole structure is very old and no one knows who made it, it has been preserved until the present day”.

Burgoa’s accounts go on to describe Mitla’s buildings and their purpose at length and in gives an incredible insight into the working of this religious epicentre. In particular, his description of the underground rooms and the ceremonies that took place are extremely revealing:

“There were four chambers above ground and four below. The latter were arranged according to their purpose in such a way that one front chamber served as chapel and sanctuary for the idols, which were placed on a great stone which served as an altar.”

Burgoa then tells how during important rituals and funerals the chapel area was filled with incense and the High-Priest prepared himself into a trance state during which “none of the common people saw him or dared to look in his face, convinced that if they did so they would fall dead to the earth as a punishment for their boldness.” Borgoa then give us a fantastic description of the High-Priests attire:

“When he entered the chapel they put on him a long white cotton garment made like an alb, and over that a garment shaped like a dalmatic, which was embroidered with pictures of wild beasts and birds and they put a cap on his head, and on his feet a kind of shoe woven of many coloured feathers“.

The next phase of the ceremony is to communicate with the spirits which, in true sceptical Christian fashion, Burgoa dismisses as a form of cheap deception:

“[The High-Priest] bowed low before the idols…and then in quite unintelligible murmurs he began to converse with these images, these depositories of infernal spirits, and continued in this sort of prayer with hideous grimaces and writhings, uttering inarticulate sounds, which filled all present with fear and terror, till he came out of that diabolical trance and told those standing around the lies and fabrications which the spirit had imparted to him or which he had invented himself”.

Burgoa also explains what happened during the more important rituals which included human sacrifice:

“When human beings were sacrificed…the assistants of the high-priest stretched the victim out upon a large stone, baring his breast, which they tore open with a great stone knife, while the body writhed in fearful convulsions, and they laid the heart bare, ripping it out, and with it the soul, which the devil took, while they carried the heart to the high-priest that he might offer it to the idols by holding it to their mouths… and the body was thrown into the burial-place of their ‘blessed’, as they called them”.

Having described at length the first underground chamber, Burgoa then goes on to briefly describe the functions of the second and third:

“The second chamber was the burial- place of these high-priests, the third that of the kings of Theozapotlan, whom they brought hither richly dressed in their best attire, feathers, jewels, golden necklaces, and precious stones, placing a shield in the left hand and a javelin in the right, just as they used them in war. And at their burial rites great mourning prevailed the instruments which were played made mournful sounds and with loud wailing and continuous sobbing they chanted the life and exploits of their lord until they laid him on the structure which they had prepared for this purpose.”

This last passage provides an excellent insight into the burial rites that the Zapotec/Mixtec peoples carried out at Mitla. The kings of Theozapotlan were the tribal leaders from the nearby Zapotec capital of Teozapotlan, which is now a ruin known as Zaachila, but Mitla was solely a resting place for kings and it is Burgoa’s description of the fourth and final chamber that is the most mysterious and interesting:

“The last (underground) chamber had a second door at the rear, which led to a dark and gruesome room. This was closed with a stone slab, which occupied the whole entrance. Through this door they threw the bodies of the victims and of the great lords and chieftains who had fallen in battle – and they brought them from the spot where they fell, even when it was very far off”.

This is Burgoa’s first mention of the mysterious passageway of the Zapotec legend in which the effigies were found and from which its power was bestowed. Until this point, the underground rooms of Mitla have been just that – underground rooms. But now, we have mention of the passageway to the underworld, and he goes on to say:

“many who were oppressed by diseases or hardships begged this infamous priest to accept them as living sacrifices and allow them to enter through that portal and roam about in the dark interior of the mountain, to seek the feasting-places of their forefathers…and on account of this horrible abyss they called this village Liyobaa”.

Burgoa’s ties together many aspects of Mitla in this last segment. Firstly, the High-Priest at Mitla had the power of life and death and was able to grant access to the underworld to living people to commit suicide. This passage also further emphasises that Mitla was home to an underground passage that even Burgoa with his Christian opinions believed to be a “horrible abyss”. Burgoa goes on to reveal that even the Christian missionaries who had been charged with dispelling the pagan myths ended up believing in the dark powers of the passage when he states that:

“[The people of the Gospel] learned from the stories which had been handed down that all were convinced that this damp cavern extended more than thirty leagues underground, and that its roof was supported by pillars. And there were people, zealous prelates anxious for knowledge, who, in order to convince these ignorant people of their error, went into this cave accompanied by a large number of people bearing lighted torches and firebrands, and descended several large steps. And they soon came upon many great buttresses which formed a kind of street. They had prudently brought a quantity of rope with them to use as guiding-lines so that they might not lose themselves in this confusing labyrinth. And the putrefaction and the bad odour and the dampness of the earth were very great, and there was also a cold wind which blew out their torches. And after they had gone a short distance, fearing to be over- powered by the stench, or to step on poisonous reptiles, of which some had been seen, they resolved to go out again, and to completely wall up this back door of hell. The four buildings above ground were the only ones which still remained open, and they had a court and chambers like those underground and the ruins of these have lasted even to the present day”.

At the end of this segment Burgoa mentions that only “the four buildings above ground” remain – and this description dates from in the mid-seventeenth century, not long after it was first visited by the missionaries in the late sixteenth century. This reveals the speed with which Mitla was dismantled and tells us that the buildings we see today are all that have been standing since the Christian missionaries discovered the towns hellish purpose in the 16 th century. Burgoa goes on to describe the kind of activities that took place within the upper buildings which we see today:

“One of the rooms above ground was the palace of the high-priest, where he sat and slept, for the apartment offered room and opportunity for everything. The throne was like a high cushion, with a high back to lean against, all of tiger-skin (probably actually Jaguar), stuffed entirely with delicate feathers, or with fine grass which was used for this purpose. The other seats were smaller, even when the king came to visit him. The authority of this devilish priest was so great that there was no one who dared to cross the court, and to avoid this the other three chambers had doors in the rear, through which even the kings entered. For this purpose they had alleys and passage-ways on the outside above and below, by which people could enter and go out when they came to see the high-priest. . .The second chamber above ground was that of the priests and the assistants of the high-priest. The third was that of the king when he came. The fourth was that of the other chieftains and captains, and though the space was small for so great a number, and for so many different families, yet they accommodated themselves to each other out of respect for the place, and avoided dissensions and factions. Furthermore, there was no other administration of justice in this place than that of the high-priest, to whose unlimited power all bowed…All the rooms were clean, and well furnished with mats. It was not the custom to sleep on bedsteads, however great a lord might be. They used very tastefully braided mats, which were spread on the floor, and soft skins of animals and delicate fabrics for coverings”.

Burgoa’s descriptions of Mitla give us an incredible insight into the workings of this mysterious city. Undoubtedly the archaeological site is one and the same as that which Burgoa describes, but where is this underground passageway? Burgoa describes the High-Priest as operating and living in a structure with four rooms above ground and four rooms below. He also mentions the pillars and the lintels that match those found in Mitla’s most iconic and presumably most important building, Building 7.

Later on, he says that “no one dared cross the court” and so “the other three chambers had doors in the rear”, which fits the plan of the “Columns Group” with its square courtyard surrounded by the four buildings. However, all the groups follow this same plan, so it could still be any of them. There are burial chambers under many of the buildings and they all have an unusual cruciform shape, which matches the description of the four underground rooms, though nothing found at Mitla matches the description of a cavernous space that leads for 30 leagues underground. But, Burgoa says this tunnel was blocked off forever by the missionaries and the most obvious way for
Fig MTU01: San Pedro Church Christians to have blocked a “back door to hell” would have been to build a church over the top of it. One church fits the bill perfectly, the Church of San Pablo, which sits in the North Group (also known as the Church Group).

It would therefore seem most likely that the North Group are the Temple of the Underworld. The North Group is amongst the oldest of those found at Mitla and the most decorated, with intricate stonework and mural paintings. The mural paintings are extensive and are believed to tell the story of the Zapotec creation myth, which is very fitting if this group is the Temple of the Underworld. The group does also contain columns, two of which are still visible outside the church, as can be seen in figure MTU01.

Ultimately, it is slightly irrelevant to identify exactly where the Temple of the Underworld was located within the site. What Burgoa provides here is an excellent insight into the religious order of the Zapotec civilisation and the power wielded by the High-Priest of Mitla. Through his writings we can see how important it was to be buried amongst greatness and how important these great buried ancestors were. Mitla was undoubtedly a very important religious centre whose success, wealth and power was built around its prestige as a resting place for those who wanted to be buried with the gods. This in turn made it the primary centre for contacting great spirits for advice, prophesies and curses. Undoubtedly, a lot of money would exchanged hands to ensure a burial within the town or to employ the services of the High-Priest to contact ancestors – and this wealth can be seen in the few ruins that remain. What is without doubt, is that Mitla is indeed the “Abode of the Dead” and the home to the Temple of the Underworld.

All the quoted excerpts used in this article are actually taken from a book by Lewis Spence, entitled Myths of Mexico and Peru, first published in 1914 (ISBN 0-89341-031-4 or available to download from here:


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Zapotec, Middle American Indian population living in eastern and southern Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

The Zapotec culture varies according to habitat—mountain, valley, or coastal—and according to economy—subsistence, cash crop, or urban and the language varies from pueblo to pueblo, existing in several mutually unintelligible dialects, better called distinct languages. In general, however, Zapotec society is oriented around central villages or towns and has an agricultural base. Staple crops are corn, beans, and squash market crops such as coffee, wheat, and sugarcane are grown where the climate allows. Some hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild foods is also practiced. Agriculture is based on slash-and-burn clearing of land, and plow and oxen are used in cultivation.

Crafts are still practiced in some areas these are chiefly pottery, weaving, and palm-fibre weaving. Clothing ranges from traditional (particularly for women) to modern. Traditional dress for women consists of a long skirt, long overtunic (huipil ), and a shawl or wraparound headpiece. Male dress, when not modern, consists of wide, loose trousers loose shirt, sometimes with pleats sandals and straw or wool hat. The religion of the Zapotec is Roman Catholic, but belief in pagan spirits, rituals, and myths persists, to some extent intermingled with Christianity. The compadrazgo, a system of ritual kinship established with godparents, is important.

Epic World History

Monte Albán was one of the first cities in the New World. Now a ruin, it once served as a magnificent ceremonial site with ball courts, plazas, tunnels, tombs, and buildings. Archaeologists have evidence that these people knew about irrigation because there are terraces to allow spring water to flow down and maintain their crops.

As other Mesoamerican groups they practiced ritual human sacrifice. The ceremonies were complex, using obsidian knives to cut out the beating heart of the victim from on top of a pyramid.

Tombs have been excavated where the remains of kings and priests were buried with ornate grave goods, some with precious metals. Monte Albán was ideal as a ceremonial center because it was near the juncture where three arms of the Oaxaca Valley met.

The time periods of these cultures are defined in terms of Mesoamerican chronology. The Formative is divided into three groups: Early, Middle, and Late (300 b.c.e.� c.e.) and the Classic into four: Early (150� c.e.), Late Classic (650� c.e.), Early Postclassic (900� c.e.), and Late Postclassic (1200� c.e.). The Zapotec and Mixtec occupied Mexico’s valley of Oaxaca from the Late Formative to the Late Postclassic period.

Early Zapotecs lived during the Middle Formative period (Preclassic period) 500� b.c.e. One of the first pieces of archaeological evidence found was a gruesome message in the form of carvings on stelae (stone monuments).

It was a bas-relief (raised carving) of a dead man, stripped of all clothing with blood coming out of his chest and some scrolls with glyphs (decorative writing) between his legs. He probably represented an enemy who had been sacrificed.

The style of art, known as Danzantes, or dancers, is unique to the Zapotec culture, and typical for that time period. The style differs from other Mesoamerican art because the human figures are curved, not angular, without clothing, body decoration, or jewelry.


They are shown in active rather than in posed-type positions that were characteristic of rulers from other time periods. These dire figures are captives, in agony because they have been ritually tortured and are being sacrificed.

Their eyes are closed, their tongues are protruding, and their hands and feet are limp. It is thought that they represent high-level individuals who were killed by other rulers because they are depicted as old, with beards and without teeth.

The glyphs, combination of phonetic symbols, numbers, and ideographic elements, were the first in Mexico. The Zapotec had a calendar based on a 260-day year and a 52-year cycle. Their pottery included spouts or hollow three-legged bowls fashioned from fine gray clay. It is estimated that this early Monte Albán I culture supported a population of about 10,000 to 20,000.

From about 200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e. (Early Classic period), the Zapotecs lived in relative harmony and comfort. A few new buildings were constructed. One of them might have been an observatory because it was oriented in the direction of a bright star known as Capella.

Another building (referred to as building J) has many narrow dark hallways that connect at a common apex. On the outside, there are more typical glyphs with elaborate headdresses, but they have closed eyes.

It is believed that these heads and symbols represent both date notations and records of victory over neighboring enemies when a particular town was attacked and conquered. Older cultures often documented wars in this way.

Although contact with the Maya was evident in elements from Mayan art incorporated in their pottery, in the Classic period, there was more influence from Teotihuacán, the gigantic complex northeast of Oaxaca. The Zapotec continued to build terraces and maintained their Zapotec language, which remained dominant.

They had a lively pantheon: the rain god, Cocijo the maize (corn) god, Pitao Cozobi a feathered serpent a bat god a fire god and a water goddess. The Zapotec thrived in Monte Albán until about 700 b.c.e., at which time they abandoned the site, probably because of new invaders from the northwest.

The Zapotec moved 25 miles southwest of Oaxaca to an area called Mitla, from the Nahuatl word Mictlan, which means Place of the Dead. However, they called it Lyobaa, Place of Rest. They built five palatial buildings, guarded by a fort on a strategic hill.

These buildings still stand unfortunately after European contact, the church destroyed and replaced indigenous religious structures. A colonial period church was built right on top of one of these structures.

Mixtec ruin

Mixtec comes from an Aztec word that means Place of the Clouds, but the people, the Mixe, used the word Ayuk to describe themselves. It meant “word” or “language,” a word related to ha”yyu:k, “people of the mountains.”

They are best known for their elegant books called codices in which they drew figures that resembled cartoons. These deerskin books unfolded to form a long strip, which could be read phonetically. Eight Mixtec codices have survived from before the conquest.

Around 850, during the Early Classic period, the Mixtecs lived in hilltop settlements of northwestern Oaxaca. During the Postclassic, around 1000, they moved into adjacent areas and then down to the valley of Oaxaca because they felt that Monte Albán was safe from invaders.

The Mixtec’s best-known cities were Tilantongo and Teozacualco. They had superb artistic skills in carving, metalworking, painting, and silversmithing. There is a life-sized skull fashioned from a huge piece of quartz, which is Mixtec in origin, on display in the Inah Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

The huge centers built by the Mixtec were primarily residential. Everyday activities took place on the valley floor but the hilltops were reserved for ceremonial sites. By the Postclassic period, most of the prior Zapotec territory was under their control. Their success is attributed to the way in which they organized social groups and interacted with others.

The heredity ruling class (caciques) were the highest next were a hereditary noble (tay toho), a working class (macehuales), and in certain areas, a servant-tenant class (terrazgueros) that could be compared to the European feudal serf in status.

As in any hierarchy the upper strata had privilege and power, hence more than one wife and control of natural resources, although gender did not play a strong part in social structure. Bilateral kinship lines determined lineage, which was more important to the Mixtec. Macehuale women as well as men could own land.

Their language had unique symbols representing sounds as compared to other written languages that used glyphs and rebuses to communicate. The names of animals figured prominently in titles of their rulers such as Eight Deer, Three Alligator, Four Tiger, or Jaguar Claw because of their symbolic significance.

Births, deaths, marriages, and land conquests are documented. Rank, occupation, and social status were defined by special ornamentation. The best known and powerful ruler, Eight Deer, had five wives, and his life is elaborately documented in the Codex Nuttal.

Anthropology Book Forum open access book reviews

Ancient Zapotec Religion: An Ethnohistorical and Archeological Perspective

University Press of Colorado

Michael Lind begins Ancient Zapotec Religion: An Ethnohistorical and Archeological Perspective at Lambityeco, near Tlacolula in the Valley of Oaxaca, at a Late Classic Xoo phase (650-850 AD) site titled Mound 190 that may have been home to a “series of superimposed palaces occupied by several generations of important priests” (p. xvii). The sacred and religious realities at play in this site are then discussed against the realities of post-contact, post-conquest Spanish documentary knowledge about the Zapotec gathered in spotty and hard to locate Spanish documents that date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The tensions between archeological and historical knowledge linked to the Zapotec religion are here immediate and intentional, the author provoking the need, fulfilled in part by his own work, to reconcile such tensions and offer fresh insights into the nature of the belief systems and religious social organization of the ancient Zapotec. In not immediately making any reference to Mitla in his preface, Lind provocatively points to the still understudied, complex and multi-locational realities of religious organization, structure and infrastructural elements of the ancient Zapotec world. Indeed, as the book progresses, the complexity inherent to the world of Zapotec deities is increasingly made known.

Lind’s study combines attention to archeological finds from the Postclassic prior to Conquest, as well as documents from the 1st two centuries after conquest in an effort to describe and interpret the nature of ancient Zapotec religion. (p. 1) While the Zapotec had a concept of the “sacred” they had no word for religion. (p. 2) In his review of the theory on the linkages between religion and social organization, ideas are linked with the “sociocultural system” while rituals serve as enactors of “religious principles or myths” (p. 2). For Lind, Zapotec religion is “conceived as a shared worldview” that served to “integrate” its city-state culture (p. 3). Lind situates his own work within a trajectory of studies on the Zapotec including Eduard Seler’s work, a 1910 manuscript by Martinez Gracida and other work from Victor de la Cruz and Winter Seler’s work, significantly, pointed to “a basic unity” among Nahuas, Maya and Zapotec religious structures, while others like Wigberto Jiménez Moreno contested this view. Louise Burkhart’s exploration of Nahua concepts as functioning post-contact in dialogue with Christian ones was additionally innovative in deconstructing the assumptions inherent to colonial documents if read along their grain (p. 4). So, then, to what extent is Lind offering anything new to the study of the Zapotec? He asserts that the ‘ceremonies and rituals’ of the Zapotec are ‘little known’ in comparison to the ample discussion given to the Nahua and the Maya (p. 4). As one moves through the body of the work, it becomes clear that Lind’s study is an impressive and detailed one that pays meticulous attention to Zapotec ceremonial and ritual life shaped prominently by priestly hierarchies and idol, deity, and ancestor worship.

This book is a highly structured one and begins with a focus on the ways in which Zapotec deities were revealed in documents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then moves into a description of temple priests and temple ceremonies. Lind’s focused chapters on Mitla and Yagul reveals attention to infrastructure, while his turn to the colaní in Chapter Seven, termed letrados or maestros in Spanish, provokes a reinterpretation of the role of these community priests who “did not staff temples, were not celibate, and resided with their families in neighborhoods within their communities” (p. 216). Colaní took part in birth and marriage rituals, dealt with sickness, and were additionally involved in burial rituals. They were also consulted on the proper time to perform the maize harvest (p. 225). Colaní were also involved in ceremonies linked to deer hunting and led prayers for good fortune in fishing activities. Chapter 8 follows the fate of Zapotec ritual books and considers the structure and complexity of the Zapotec sacred calendar. In all this is a highly thorough study that relies upon an existing literature and a reinterpretation of primary materials to form a cohesive whole.

At the outset Lind helps clarify the definition of Zapotec deities by referring to Joyce Marcus’ conceptualization of Zapotec “gods” as in realities coqui or rulers who were deified after death and thus “perceived as intermediaries between the people and the supernatural forces,” while others like Alfredo López Austin divided Zapotec deities into reverence for gods and supernatural forces (p. 8). Importantly, Lind positions sixteenth century documents within the specificity of their historical contexts Fray Juan de Córdova’s works, Relaciones Geográficas and Vocabularioswere penned more than fifty years after the Zapotecs’ initial encounters with Christianity, between 1578 and 1581 (p. 16). Indeed, what Lind offers here is an ethnohistory of Zapotec culture prior to and in the aftermath of contact. He also offers a window into the production of knowledge on the Zapotec, detailing, for instance, how in response to King Phillip II’s questionnaire for corregidores or magistrates in New Spain, magistrates and “the occasional priest” secured knowledge from Zapotec nobles about their religious “practices and deities,” pointing to the difficulties and ambiguities linked to translation of concepts (p. 22-25). Lind’s study is dense in descriptive detail and is as encyclopedic as its sources. Seventeenth century writings on the Zapotec, penned by priests like Gonzalo de Balsalobre, were tied in with confessions of guilt from Zapotec priests and indigenous actors who, primarily in the Sola Valley, continued to worship their deities, these confessions consolidated into a book published in 1656 (p. 38).

While Lind’s is a work of anthropology it will also be of interest to historians of Colonial Mexico and colonial Latin America more generally, for its attention to the interplay between text and history and for its capacity to reveal the ways in which religious rifts were foundational to the historical experience of Spanish-led conquest and encounter in New Spain. It shows how Spaniards who left records on the Zapotec were not only interested in imparting Catholicism to indigenous communities throughout Oaxaca but that they were, at the same time, hungry for knowledge about the deities worshipped in and by those communities. He notes that Dominican missionaries were “very thorough in their destruction of statues of Zapotec deities” in the Sierra Juarez they “went from town to town gathering the idols from temples and burning them in huge bonfires” and those that were hidden in caves were often later on uncovered and destroyed. (p. 50-1) These facts have meant that the archeological evidence on Zapotec deities has remained more limited. Monika Baumanova has touched on this issue, when observing that “the incompleteness of the archaeological record affects all paradigms and approaches, which means that not all theories and methods can be successfully used in all contexts. However, they can often be made to provide complementary answers, as long as we pay due attention to the development and adaptation of the disciplinary theoretical and methodological toolkit.” (Baumanová, p.215).

Lind refers throughout to female deities/goddesses that were part of the Zapotec world, noting the general term Xonaxi for lady or queen in the Valley of Oaxaca, and such goddesses as Huichaana of childbirth and sweatbaths, and Xonaxi Quecuya, goddess of death. Since female deities were often consorts to male deities, these relationships are also meticulously charted, yet some deities could also possess both male and female attributes (p.20). Still, many ambiguities remain scholarly interpretations of archeological remains often differ, and some of Lind’s interpretations represent mere suggestions. A discussion of the Zapotec cosmos, which was divided into three realms, the Houses of Earth, Sky and the Underworld, is set against the multi-level understandings of Heaven, earth and Underworld prevalent among the Aztec, paving the way for Lind’s transition into the question of priestly culture and community in Chapter Four. For this the author relies on Spanish colonial records, from Burgoa and Cordova, and connects high priestly life in Oaxaca to residence at Mitla, unearthing priestly cultures of reverence and fear, and also setting the high priest or huia tao against descriptions of lesser coqui at places like Tehuantepec (p.77-78) he notes for instance how Burgoa’s depiction of the huia tao detailed him wearing a “chasuble decorated with figures of wild beasts and birds over his white robe” and “sandals with colored threads that certainly set him apart from other priests” (p.84). A school for priests at Teitipac, a “stone palace of teaching and doctrine” in the Valley of Oaxaca, also finds a place in this record. Indeed, Lind’s study is telling on the subject of priestly culture and its multi-layered complexities his reading of Burgoa for instance reveals a presence of clandestine temple activities and the persistence of pre-Hispanic idolatry, facts that were met with severe and often brutal punishment (p.88).

Lind’s chronology of depictions of Mitla is highly text-based, and begins with impressions of Tehuantepec and Mitla from Franciscan missionaries like Fray Toribio de Motolinía, one of the twelve Franciscans led by Martín de Valencia who began work in Mexico in 1524. What follows is a structural depiction of Mitla that weaves in, however sparsely, textual insights into the ways its rooms may have been utilized by Zapotec priests. A similar chapter on Yagul charts the central archeological findings and inroads made at the site, including the presence of greca mosaics, and an emphasis upon interpretations of Yagul’s function as a palace rather than as a temple, as evident from the multiple household artifacts uncovered there, but also its utility as a site for the funerary ceremonies of coqui and priesets. Here, Lind draws direct connections with Aztec remains, in describing a crude, crouching jaguar at Yagul with a “circular basin…carved into the center of the jaguar’s back, indicating that it had probably served as an Aztec-style cuauhxicalli, or receptacle for the hearts of human sacrificial victims” (p. 204). In the colaní chapter, Lind’s discussion of death rituals is particularly revealing. Finally, the book treats the question of elitism and its intersection with religion, pointing out the way sin which religion not only provided an organizing function within “any given Zapotec city-state,” while simultaneously bringing legitimacy to an elite that functioned as “active participants” in a set of rituals where commoners served as “participant observers” (349).

Baumanová, Monika. “Space Matters: A Reflection on Archeological Theory and Method for Interpreting the Materiality of Space.” (Thematic Review)
Interdisciplinaria Archeologicia VII.2 (2016): 209-216.

Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus, eds. The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations (Clinton Corners, NY: Pantheon, 2003).

Naomi Calnitsky is an Independent Scholar and Researcher based in Winnipeg, Canada. She received a doctorate in Canadian and Mexican History from Carleton University in 2017. Her forthcoming book, Seasonal Lives: Twenty-First Century Approaches (University of Nevada Press) compares managed farmworker migrations in North America and the Pacific world.

The Olympus of Oaxaca: the remains of impressive Zapotec temples and pyramids at Monte Alban testify to the glorious past of a culture whose creativity endures even today.

Time may erode man's lesser achievements, but it enhances our appreciation of the few that are genuinely great. Such a place is Monte Alban, once the ceremonial capital of Mexico's Zapotecs, who labored under the sweltering Oaxacan sun to create an Olympus to honor their gods, priests, and nobles. Perched atop an artificially leveled plateau, Monte Alban was founded some five hundred years before the birth of Christ and in its heyday rivaled the Maya wonders of Chichen Itza and Palenque. More than thirteen hundred years have passed since the supersite was mysteriously deserted at the height of its splendor. The massive four-tiered pyramids, great palaces, and humble workers' villages that once teemed with activity were abandoned and left to decay as the Zapotec made a mass exodus from Monte Alban. Today, the reasons for its decline and fall remain one of Mesoamerica's most puzzling and intriguing secrets.

Monte Alban is the name we have imposed on the Zapotec center, a name that would have been alien to its inhabitants. Called Danibaan, or "Sacred Mountain," long before it took its present name from a seventeenth-century Spanish noble known as Don Montalban, the sprawling site, eight acres of which is taken up by the Great Plaza, rose to the pinnacle of power and influence during the sixth century. But two hundred years later it was rapidly spiraling downward and falling into irreversible decline. By A.D. 800, the site was all but abandoned by its founders and was reduced to a ruin that became little more than a glorified cemetery for Mixtec aristocrats. As the centuries passed, encroaching foliage smothered the neglected temples and pyramids and buried the towering stone structures under a tangle of vines and weeds. The pomp and ceremony of Monte Alban's temples and "I"-shaped ritual ball court was now a thing of the past, and the once-vibrant ceremonial center became a silent ruin, a Mesoamerican ghost town.

One year after Queen Victoria's death, Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Barres began his pioneering excavations at Monte Alban, but his efforts failed to shed much light on why the site fell into decay. Two decades passed before Alfonso Caso devoted sixteen seasons (1931 through 1958) in an intensive effort to reclaim the sadly neglected city from lianas, vines, and rubble.

Who were the people who built and eventually abandoned a Mesoamerican Olympus high above the Oaxaca Valley? An ancient people, the Zapotecs were generally known by the Nahuatl name imposed by the Aztecs, but they called themselves the Be'ena'a, meaning "the People." Their world was divided into three classes or realms. Peasants and artisans labored in the fields and worked on civic projects to maintain, restore, and repaint the temples. They were ruled by a handful of nobles and priests. The aristocracy worshiped an array of gods and demigods belonging to a bewildering pantheon as vast as the gods and demigods honored by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Central among the Zapotec deities was the rain god Coeijo (meaning "Lightning), a powerful figure worshiped and perhaps sacrificed to atop the step pyramids of the Great Plaza. While religion and ceremony were central components of Zapotec life, Monte Alban also served as a governmental and administrative site during its halcyon days of power and influence. Many leading scholars agree that a new coalition of previously separate political entities in the Oaxaca Valley led to Monte Alban's formation. Like Tibet before the Chinese invasion of 1959, religious life and secular-life were tightly interwoven to form a rigid theocracy. Monte Alban's ruling class of priests and--nobles was remarkably small, and fewer than three hundred aristocrats and religious figures dominated the daily lives of an estimated thirty thousand commoners, who brought their rulers food and water and who compliantly maintained the mountaintop's complex of palaces and ceremonial sites. But by A.D. 800, the religious and secular life of Monte Alban ground to a sudden halt as the supersite was abandoned and left to decay. What could have caused Monte Alban's fall from grace?

Rising fifteen hundred feet above the Oaxaca Valley, the Zapotec center went through five stages of development beginning around 500 B.C., reaching its zenith in the seventh century, a period of great prosperity and stability. The building of Monte Alban entailed devotion to the ruling class and a belief in their authority, since untold hours of backbreaking labor were required to level the mountaintop and construct the site's palaces and many temples, which were built from massive stone blocks hauled up the mountain by peasants who had neither metal tools, beasts of burden, nor the wheel. Yet Zapotec artisans constructed a wondrous network of mountaintop monuments--a ball court, an observatory, pyramids, temples, and palaces, all heavily ornamented with intricately carved facades that were plastered and painted in an array of colors that shone spectacularly in the blistering Oaxacan sun. Monte Alban must have seemed like a city where gods dwelt.

Founded by a small group, Monte Alban nevertheless rapidly grew to an estimated thirty thousand people. Some writers, such as the late social scientist John E. Pfeiffer, have speculated that the population may have risen as high as sixty thousand. Living conditions of commoners contrasted starkly with the luxury and comfort their overlords enjoyed. Zapotec peasants were packed into small brick or reed huts on one of the mountainside's warren of twenty-one hundred manmade residential terraces, all of which were crammed into a space no greater than three square miles. While they endured the myriad problems caused by overcrowding, the aristocracy lived in sybaritic splendor on the perimeters of the Great Plaza while the peasantry toiled to raise corn, beans, squash, and avocados. Drinking water was collected in a network of cisterns and lugged up the mountain to the rulers and priest in earthenware pots. Some commoners strayed from the settlement to fish with hooks carved from bone or to hunt rabbits, deer, and wild boar before returning to the crowded cantons on the slopes below the man-made paradise.

Although perched aloofly on a remote mountaintop and built without fortifications, Monte Alban, never invaded or sacked, did not exist in isolation but enjoyed brisk trade and cultural exchange with other great civilizations. During its prime, the center traded with Teotihuacan to the north and with Tikal of the Maya lowlands, and the Zapotecs enjoyed centuries of peace and prosperity. Over time, Zapotec culture grew increasingly more sophisticated and complex. Monte Alban rose to new heights of achievement in architecture, sculpture, and gold and silver work. Zapotec priests devised two distinct time-management systems, a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual one, used as a divination tool. Their system of pictographic writing has never been fully deciphered. How then, was this prosperous and intellectually vital site abandoned during its seemingly finest hour?

There area few solid leads and twice as many vague theories. Archaeologists Ernesto Gonzalez Licon and Marcus Winter opened a realm of possibilities when in the early 1990s they wrote that "Monte Alban's fall must have been the result of an irresolvable crisis. Although it is impossible to confirm, it would appear that in latter times there existed some [social] discontent." Around the seventh century there seemed to be a sense of unrest and noncompliance spreading among the peasantry. The signs are there to read. From the ruins it is evident that Zapotec commoners had ceased their sacred civic duty to maintain the great buildings of their ceremonial center. Structures that had been fastidiously attended to and restored over the centuries now were neglected. The cracked facades of the pyramids were no longer repaired and paint peeled off stone walls that soon crumbled into piles of dust and rubble. The formerly proud Zapotec city became a decaying ruin, a civilization that was dying not by violence but from indifference and willful neglect. By the year A.D. 750, the Zapotec capital was all but abandoned, with only one-fifth of the population remaining. They, too, would soon leave Monte Alban, and a half-century later the Great Plaza and its majestic buildings would be empty shells, the tombstones of a dead civilization.

Monte Alban's late was not unique other great civilizations of the region were also stricken by crisis. Its main trading partner, Teotihuacan, was razed around A.D. 700 as a great tire swept through a vast city that had housed 125,000 people, hall of whom rose with the sun to toil in its cornfields. After Teotihuacan's embers ceased to smolder, Tikal and other Maya sites to the south were abandoned early in the ninth century. Certainly the decline of Monte Alban's trading partners hastened its deterioration, but economic stagnation was not the sole reason for the site's decline since the Zapotec site was linked to other Mesoamerican centers and shared many of the social problems of its allies. "Its rise," wrote Pfeiffer, "was connected with the rise of other early Mesoameriean centers, its fall with their fall."

The problems of overcrowding and population growth may have driven another nail of two in Monte Alban's coffin. Over the centuries, the Zapotec population escalated at an alarming pace. Perhaps this was even encouraged by the rulers since a large labor force was now necessary to carry out Monte Alban's ambitious civic works. As a result, land that had been cultivated time and again over the passing centuries may no longer have been sufficiently fertile to feed thirty thousand of more hungry mouths. If so, crop failure may have sounded the death knell.

Monte Alban's government was a theocracy, in which commoners were expected to comply with the wishes of their rulers to cultivate the land, fetch their food and water, and maintain the vast ceremonial center. If people ceased to believe in the divine rite of their kings, then theocracy is stripped of any spiritual or secular authority it may have had. A handful of princes and priests are therefore disempowered, unable to control the mass or prevent the peasants from packing up their belongings and walking away and leaving the bejeweled nobility to fend for themselves--kings are deposed and priests are defrocked.

With the dawning of the ninth century, the Zapotec diaspora saw the former mountain dwellers settle in Oaxaca's valleys to cultivate crops, hunt, and trade with neighboring tribes. While their ceremonial capital had fallen, Zapotec culture did not die with Monte Alban--it endures as a vital and creative society to this day. Some 425,000 modern Zapotecs speak their traditional language and many live in the villages or towns of the Oaxaca Valley, such as Teotitlan del Valle, sometimes called "the City of a Thousand Weavers." Modern Zapotec culture continues the creative spirit of the ancestors who built one of the wonders of the pre-Columbian world.

Today, the spectacular ruins are a UNESCO Cultural Patrimony of Humanity site, declared in 1987. The Great Plaza houses some of the finest restored temples, palaces, and ceremonial structures in the New World, while the galleries of the Oaxaca Regional Museum, housed in the former Convent of Santo Domingo, display the gold masks and jewelry from Tomb Seven, discovered by Alfonso Caso more than seventy years ago.

With Zapotec writing still undeciphered, the reasons for Monte Alban's demise remain a web that may never be fully untangled. Beginning with the Sumerians in the Near East, history shows us that civilizations rise, often in obscure and inhospitable places, such as the deserts of Iraq, to flourish as vast cultural centers that eventually decline and fall into ruin, often through neglect rather than by succumbing to conquest. Perhaps the very institution of civilization itself sows the seeds of its own demise by destroying the environment that sustains it, causing the inhabitants of once-proud cities to abandon their creations as crops rail and civil unrest spreads.

Gone are the gods, priests, and rulers of the mountaintop kingdom. Yet their temples, palaces, and pyramids still stand. Even in its faded glory, Monte Alban testifies to our capacity for achievement, our willingness to attain seemingly impossible heights. But there is a darker side to Monte Alban's legacy. Its ruins, a mete husk of their former splendor, remind us that even our most cherished and splendid achievements are far more fragile and impermanent than we may wish to believe.

Marc Alexander is a European journalist living in Santa Barbara, California. He has traveled throughout Mexico and Central America and has lived in Oaxaca, where he developed a lifelong appreciation of Zapotec culture, past and present.

The Cloud People

‘Archaeologists think it lay hidden since the 6th Century,’ according to the BBC. The team from INAH are still examining the site and they hypothesize that it was built by the Zapotec culture. The Zapotecs are known as the ‘Cloud People’ because they lived in the highlands of Mexico. Their culture flourished over 2000 years and developed a very sophisticated civilization and distinctive writing system.

The Zapotec people emerged from the Oaxaca Valley and they developed an extensive state that was centered on the city Monte Alban , which is now in ruins. Eventually, the Zapotecs established an Empire. They flourished for many centuries and were even able to beat off repeated Aztec efforts to conquer them.

However, their state eventually did fall to the Spanish, after its population was devasted by plagues brought by the Europeans. In modern Mexico, there are still many communities of Zapotec Indians who are descended from the ‘Cloud People’.

Tlatilco Figurines

Tlatilco figurines, c. 1200–600 B.C.E., ceramic, Tlatilco, Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico) (includes examples from the National Museum of Anthropology as well as the Female Figure at the Princeton University Art Museum)

We don’t know what the people here called themselves. Tlatilco, meaning “place of hidden things,” is a Nahuatl word, given to this “culture” later. Around 2000 B.C.E., maize, squash and other crops were domesticated, which allowed people to settle in villages. The settlement of Tlatilco was located close to a lake, and fishing and the hunting of birds became important food sources.

Archaeologists have found more than 340 burials at Tlatilco, with many more destroyed in the first half of the 20th century.

Double-faced female figurine, early formative period, Tlatilco, c. 1200–900 B.C.E., ceramic with traces of pigment, 9.5 cm. high (Princeton University Art Museum)

Intimate and lively

Tlatilco figurines are wonderful small ceramic figures, often of women, found in Central Mexico. This is the region of the later and much better-known Aztec empire, but the people of Tlatilco flourished 2,000-3,000 years before the Aztec came to power in this Valley. Although Tlatilco was already settled by the Early Preclassic period (c. 1800-1200 B.C.E.), most scholars believe that the many figurines date from the Middle Preclassic period, or about 1200-400 B.C.E. Their intimate, lively poses and elaborate hairstyles are indicative of the already sophisticated artistic tradition. This is remarkable given the early dates. Ceramic figures of any sort were widespread for only a few centuries before the appearance of Tlatilco figurines.


The Tlatilco figurine at the Princeton University Art Museum has several traits that directly relate to many other Tlatilco female figures: the emphasis on the wide hips, the spherical upper thighs, and the pinched waist. Many Tlatilco figurines also show no interest in the hands or feet, as we see here. Artists treated hairstyles with great care and detail, however, suggesting that it was hair and its styling was important for the people of Tlatilco, as it was for many peoples of this region. This figurine not only shows an elaborate hairstyle, but shows it for two connected heads (on the single body). We have other two-headed female figures from Tlatilco, but they are rare when compared with the figures that show a single head. It is very difficult to know exactly why the artist depicted a bicephalic (two-headed) figure (as opposed to the normal single head), as we have no documents or other aids that would help us define the meaning. It may be that the people of Tlatilco were interested in expressing an idea of duality, as many scholars have argued.

Double-faced female figure figurine, early formative period, Tlatilco, 1200–900 B.C.E., ceramic with traces of pigment, 9.5 cm. high (Princeton University Art Museum)

The makers of Tlatilco figurines lived in a large farming villages near the great inland lake in the center of the basin of Mexico. Modern Mexico City sits on top of the remains of the village, making archaeological work difficult. We don’t know what the village would have looked beyond the basic shape of the common house—a mud and reed hut that was the favored house design of many early peoples of Mexico. We do know that most of the inhabitants made their living by growing maize (corn) and taking advantage of the rich lake resources nearby. Some of the motifs found on other Tlatilco ceramics, such as ducks and fish, would have come directly from their lakeside surroundings.

Reconstruction of a house, c. 1200 B.C.E., central Mexico

Shaman, Middle Preclassic (1200-600 B.C.E.), Tlatilco, 9.5 cm high (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Male figures are rare

Tlatilco artists rarely depicted males, but when they did the males were often wearing costumes and even masks. Masks were very rare on female figures most female figures stress hairstyle and/or body paint. Thus the male figures seem to be valued more for their ritual roles as priests or other religious specialists, while the religious role of the females is less clear but was very likely present.

How they were found

In the first half of the 20th century, a great number of graves were found by brick-makers mining clay in the area. These brick-makers would often sell the objects—many of them figurines—that came out of these graves to interested collectors. Later archaeologists were able to dig a number of complete burials, and they too found a wealth of objects buried with the dead. The objects that were found in largest quantities—and that enchanted many collectors and scholars of ancient Mexico—were the ceramic figurines.

Tlatilco figurine of a woman with a dog, Tlatilco, c. 1200–600 B.C.E., ceramic (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Unlike some later Mexican figurines, those of Tlatilco were made exclusively by hand, without relying on molds. It is important to think, then, about the consistent mastery shown by the artists of many of these figurines. The main forms were created through pinching the clay and then shaping it by hand, while some of the details were created by a sharp instrument cutting linear motifs onto the wet clay. The forms of the body were depicted in a specific proportion that, while non-naturalistic, was striking and effective. The artist was given a very small space (most figures are less than 15 cm high) in which to create elaborate hairstyles. Even for today’s viewer, the details in this area are endlessly fascinating. The pieces have a nice finish, and the paint that must indicate body decoration was firmly applied (when it is preserved, as in the two-headed figure above). Many scholars doubt that there were already full-time artists in such farming villages, but it is certain that the skills necessary to function as an artist in the tradition were passed down and mastered over generations.