The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Zapotecs

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Extent of the 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 we know of as the current state of Oaxaca.

The name Zapotec is an exonym coming from Aztec Nahuatl tzapotēcah (singular tzapotēcatl), 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."

History[edit | edit source]

Archaeological phases of Monte Albán history
Phase Period
Monte alban I ca 400 BCE - 100 BCE
Monte Alban II ca 100 BCE - CE 200
Monte Alban III ca CE 200 -900
Monte Alban IV ca 900 CE - 1350
Monte Alban V ca 1350 CE - 1521

Zapotec civilization had its beginnings in the Oaxaca Valley in the late 6th Century BCE. 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 about 700 - 500 BCE, the valley's largest settlement San José Mogote, and other nearby settlements in the Etla Valley (one of 3 arms of the Oaxaca Valley), lost most of its population. During the same period a new large settlement emerged in the “no-man’s-land.” That settlement, which was constructed on top of a mountain overlooking the three arms of the Oaxaca Valley, was Monte Albán. Similarities between the pottery of San José Mogote and at early Monte Albán indicate that the people who populated Monte Albán where the people who had left San José Mogote. Some archaeologists propose that this event is similar to the process of synoikism of ancient Greece. Synoikism 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 Albán's history, walls and fortifications built around the site during the archaeological phase Monte Alban II, suggest that the construction of the city may have been a response to a military threat.

The Zapotec state formed at Monte Albán began an expansion during the late Monte Alban I phase and throughout the Monte Alban II phase. Zapotec rulers began to seize control over the provinces outside the valley of Oaxaca. They were able to accomplish this during Monte Alban I to Monte Alban II because none of the surrounding provinces could compete with the valley of Oaxaca both politically and militarily.

By 200 CE the Zapotec 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 CE.

The expansion of the Zapotec empire peaked during the Monte Alban II phase. The Zapotec conquered or colonized 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 Albán, 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 Zapotec of Monte Albán. 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”

Geography[edit | edit source]

Looking over the site of Monte Alban. Situated on a mountaintop, Monte Alban overlooks much of the Valley of Oaxaca.

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 Zapotec used canal irrigation. By irrigating water from small streams the Zapotec 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 kilometers 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".

Technology[edit | edit source]

The Zapotec 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 BCE, are actually a form of writing preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE.

In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, there were Zapotec and Mixtec artisans who fashioned jewelry for the Aztec rulers. 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.

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 armor.

Writing[edit | edit source]

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 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.

Religion[edit | edit source]

A funerary urn in the shape of a "bat god" or a jaguar, from Oaxaca, dated to CE 300 - 650. Height: 9.5 in (23 cm).

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. The Zapotec 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 breech clouts and sometimes capes, while females are represented by wearing skirts.

There are several of Zapotec origin legends one of them states that the Zapotec 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 descend from Chicomostoc. Though it is very important to mention that these legends weren’t transcribed until after the Spanish arrival.

The Zapotec 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 Zapotec are known today resulted from this belief.

Warfare and resistance[edit | edit source]

The last battle between the Aztecs and the Zapotec 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, Zapotec 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.