The Zapotec civilization was a pre-Columbian culture that flourished in the fertile Oaxaca valley of Mesoamerica. Let’s take a quick look at some interesting facts about the mighty civilization.
While it has been accepted that the Zapotec civilization declined after repeated defeats in wars, many postulate that the culture crashed due to natural factors such as extreme droughts.
About 2,500 years ago, an indigenous pre-Columbian culture emerged to become one of the mightiest civilizations to have flourished in Mesoamerica. The Zapotecs inhabited the Valley of Oaxaca in the modern-day State of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. There have been several archaeological excavations at the ancient Zapotec ruins till date, and a large number of magnificent edifices and beautiful artifacts have been uncovered from these sites.
The ancient Zapotecs have left behind a rich assemblage of buildings, tombs, ball courts, and very intricately worked pieces of gold jewelry. Alongside the tangible remains, the archaeological excavations have also brought to light, some of the most marvelous and significant facts about their society, religion, economy, and so on. In this Historyplex article, we present some interesting facts about the Zapotec civilization.
History and Timeline
➦ The history of the Zapotec civilization can be studied to a great extent by analyzing the archaeological remnants recovered from some of the major Zapotec sites such as Dainzu, Mitla, San José Mogote, Lambityeco, Yagul, El Palmillo and Zaachila. However, the most important archaeological material has been recovered from the site of Monte Albán, the supposed capital city of the ancient Zapotecs.
➦ In the late 6th century B.C., the Oaxaca valley was inhabited by two other societies, apart from the Zapotecs. All three societies were probably always at war with each other, as the archaeological remains suggest. There are numerous evidences of captive sacrifices, burned temples, and so on.
➦ There are clear evidences of migration by 500 B.C., when people from two major settlements left their homes, and resettled in the middle of the Oaxaca valley. This settlement, known as Monte Albán, was established right on top of the mountain that overlooked the settlements of the three societies. In the later periods, Monte Albán became the most important settlement of the Zapotecs and the center of their affairs.
➦ The migration may have been the result of some kind of an external threat that the residents of the two previous settlements faced. Though there are rare, if any, evidences of external invasion(s) on Monte Albán, the settlement has been fortified from all the sides. This suggests that they were trying to protect their people and public property from external invaders.
➦ Archaeologists, for the purpose of study and analysis, have divided Monte Albán into five distinct developmental phases, Monte Albán 1 to Monte Albán 5.
★ During the Monte Albán 1 phase (400 B.C. to 100 B.C.), the newly founded settlement became the Zapotec seat of power. It was at this time that they began their expansionist operations.
★ Monte Albán 2 phase (100 B.C to 100 A.D.) was marked by the annexation of the majority of the surrounding territories to the Zapotec kingdom by their rulers. Archaeological analysis suggests that the people of the surrounding societies were both, militarily as well as politically incompetent to fight the Zapotecs, and so seemed to have submitted to their power and might.
★ During the Monte Albán 2 phase, the Zapotec civilization seemed to have reached its pinnacle. They not only conquered the surrounding territories in the Oaxaca valley, but also expanded their boundaries beyond the valley. The sudden change in pottery styles in the regions located outside the valley, indicates that they may have become part of the Zapotec empire.
★ Evidences from the Monte Albán 3 phase (200 A.D. to 900 A.D.) indicate that Monte Albán emerged as the single largest settlement in the entire southern Mexican highland, which it remained until about 900 A.D. During this phase, the Zapotecs conquered a large territory for themselves, and held their sway from Quiotepec in the north, to Chiltepec in the south.
★ By the end of the third phase, the Zapotec civilization, with Monte Albán as their capital, was established firmly. However, the last two phases narrate the decline of Monte Albán. In the later periods, the city was inhabited by people of other communities like that of the Mixtecs, who used the Zapotec structures to serve their purposes.
★ During Monte Albán 4 phase (900 A.D. 1350 A.D.), the influence of the Zapotecs in the Oaxaca valley seemed to have reduced to a considerable extent. This claim is supported by the fact that there were people from other societies inhabiting the Zapotec capital, and most probably sharing power as well.
★ The Monte Albán 5 phase (1350 B.C. to 1521 B.C.) marked the decline of Monte Albán and also of the entire civilization. The decisive battle between the Zapotecs and the Aztecs was supposedly fought between the years 1497 and 1502, in which the Aztecs emerged victorious. From then on, the role of the Zapotecs remained passive, as their empire was merged with that of the Aztecs.
➦ With Spaniards defeating the Aztecs in 1520, the Zapotecs tried to reestablish themselves in the region. However, between 1522 and 1527, the Spaniards defeated them as well.
➦ The rise of the Zapotecs to power and their subsequent prosperity seem to have resulted in increase in the number of people inhabiting the major cities and towns of the empire. At its peak, the total population of Monte Albán was somewhere around 30,000.
➦ With population growth, the disparities also seem to have increased. With the passage of time, the Zapotec society emerged into a rather stringent hierarchical setup.
➦ Evidences from the first two phases at Monte Albán suggest that the whole of Oaxaca valley had a fragmented setup. There were a number of independent states, each of which had their own seat of power.
➦ By the third phase, however, centralization of power took place, with the seat of power established in the capital city. The king, then became the sole authority, who enjoyed all the powers to take vital decisions.
➦ Alongside political power, ceremonial authority also came to be centralized. The priestly class rose to prominence as the Zapotecs were god-fearing people and held religion in high esteem.
➦ Other than the two classes mentioned above, a Zapotec settlement traditionally consisted of artisans such as goldsmiths and silversmiths, astronomers, and farmers.
➦ Zapotec society was conservative and primarily agrarian in nature. The environment of the Oaxaca valley, the temperate climate of the region, and the quality of soil, provided the Zapotecs with an ideal setting to cultivate corn, their staple crop.
➦ They were essentially a sedentary culture, living in well-planned towns and cities. Their houses were made from stone and mortar.
➦ The religion of the Zapotecs was polytheistic in nature, which essentially means that they worshiped a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. Priests, as mentioned before, enjoyed a high status in society.
➦ There were two principal deities, which the Zapotecs primarily worshiped. These were Cocijo, the god of rain and Coquihani, the god of light. Archaeological evidence points towards the possible inclusion of human sacrifice in Zapotec religious practices.
➦ The ancient Zapotecs had a number of creation myths that generated stories about their origin. According to one of the most popular ones, they were born from rocks from the Oaxaca valley, and this made them the original inhabitants of the valley.
➦ Another myth says that they were the descendants of animals such as the jaguar and the ocelots, which inhabited the valley.
➦ There is yet another myth that says that the Zapotecs were the descendants of supernatural beings, living among the clouds. Their elite also seemed to believe that they would return to the clouds after their death. It is due to this very belief that the Zapotecs are also known as the ‘Cloud People’.
➦ A plethora of Zapotec deities were associated with agriculture and fertility. These were both, male and female, and one can only distinguish between them on the basis of their costumes. Pitao Cozobi was the Zapotec god of corn, while Yopi was a fertility deity, associated with spring.
➦ The Zapotecs were technologically, very advanced for their time. The most important technological application that they used, being a predominantly agrarian economy, was essentially, the system of canal irrigation.
➦ The Atoyac River that flows through the valley provided water to the crops, which were cultivated along its banks. For crops which were cultivated in the interiors and on altitudes, the Zapotecs had found a technique to irrigate water from smaller streams and to direct it upwards. Archaeological ruins also show remains of an ancient dam.
➦ The Zapotecs had also invented a sacred calendar that comprised 260 days, spanning over four months consisting of 65 days each. Moreover, each month had five weeks of 13 days each.
➦ They also had a highly developed writing system that was logographic in nature, wherein each symbol represented a word. According to one theory, the Zapotec system of writing was the precursor to all the later systems that developed in Mesoamerica.
➦ Zapotec gold and silver jewelry was also very intricately designed and embellished. The artisans made some of the most marvelous pieces of gold and silver jewelry for their rulers.
➦ The Zapotecs left behind a huge legacy of monuments and artifacts that boast of their technological and artistic sensibilities. These have been found all across the valley and outside, thus emphasizing on the might of the Zapotecs.
➦ At Monte Albán an entire hilltop has been flattened to be converted into a huge marketplace. Known as the ‘Great Plaza’, the area is surrounded by a number of public buildings, temples, and an enormous stadium, most probably used to play their ball game which was quite popular among the people and also had sacred connotations.
➦ The building ‘J’, a.k.a. ‘The Conquest Slab’, at Monte Albán is shaped like an arrowhead, and contains about 40 carved stones having hieroglyphs. According to archaeologists, these are probably the names of provinces conquered by the Zapotecs. Each glyph also has a carved head of the respective ruler wearing an elaborate headdress.
➦ Just like Monte Albán, which was the most important center of political power, Mitla was the center of religious power. A Zapotec palace has been uncovered in Mitla. The edifice is primarily a mud and stone construction bearing a large number of carvings and other embellishments.
➦ The Zapotecs had entire areas designated for carrying out funerary rituals. Such funerary complexes were uncovered at a number of sites belonging to the culture. Archaeological finds tell us that the tombs were very elaborately constructed having painted motifs depicting people, priests, warriors, and rulers. These, according to some experts, were depictions of the deceased themselves. These tombs were usually constructed under the ground.
➦ The Zapotecs buried their dead, but not alone. Several grave goods were also buried along with them, so that they could live comfortably even after death. Other than pottery and the like, one of the most common items buried in a majority of tombs are the ceramic funerary urns, found in many interesting shapes like those of their gods or animals.
➦ San José Mogote was another important Zapotec site in the Oaxaca valley. It bears the oldest known building with Zapotec writing. Known as the Danzante stone, the building contains a relief depicting a dead captive with two hieroglyphic symbols between his legs.
➦ Zapotec temples are rarely found intact during archaeological excavations, probably because they were constantly at war with their neighbors and burned each other’s temples. What we do know, however, is that their temples were huge pyramids with the abodes of their deities built atop them.
➦ A large number of miscellaneous items such as potsherds, small votive figurines, and gold and silver jewelry have also been recovered from various sites.
As time passes, man’s lesser achievements tend to be forgotten in the pages of history. However, we always tend to admire and be inspired by those achievements which are genuinely extraordinary. The ancient Zapotecs are long gone, but their edifices still stand to testify their achievements, even in their faded glory. They stand testimony to man’s capability to make the impossible possible. But at the same time, the magnificent remnants of the mighty civilization tell us that even our most splen