Early Villages Form in Oaxaca

The establishment of villages in the Valley of Oaxaca led to the development of agriculture and early political organization.

Summary of Event

Settlement of the Valley of Oaxaca began as early as 8900 b.c.e. and continued until about 2000 b.c.e. During that time, limited development took place, including the domestication of some plants. Agriculture, which came later, provided the basis for establishing permanent villages and led to advances that resulted in highly developed civilizations and the creation of states that dominated the area.

The Valley of Oaxaca is located in the modern-day state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. The valley has the greatest expanse of flatland in southern Mexico and is shaped like a wishbone. The northern part of the valley is the Etla. Two arms extend southward, the Tlacolula arm to the southeast and the main arm of the valley to the southwest. Both the Etla and Tlacolula arms have narrower flood plains and are higher and less suitable for cultivation than the main valley.

The valley has an average elevation of 5,085 feet (1,550 meters) and is surrounded by mountains on the east, west, and north. The Rio Atoyac and its tributaries drain it. The region is divided into three areas: alluvium near the rivers, piedmont at the base of the mountains, and mountains. Each area has different types of agriculture and resources. The alluvium has the flattest terrain, thickest and richest soil, and easiest water availability. Above the alluvium lies the piedmont or foothills, where there are greater slopes and thinner soil. Cultivation was riskier in the piedmont because the water table is deeper and crops that are not irrigated are dependent on rainfall. Few opportunities for farming existed in the oak- and pine-covered mountains, but there were other resources such as timber and deer.

The valley is semiarid. Even with a rainy season lasting from May through September, annual rainfall averages only 22 inches (56 centimeters). The trade winds from the Gulf of Mexico loose their moisture as they flow over the high eastern mountains. Cultivation is to a large extent dependent on the irrigation water provided by the tributaries of the main rivers flowing down from the mountains. The temperature seldom falls below freezing, except in the higher eastern arm, where frost limits the crops that can be grown.

Near the rivers, the land was heavily forested with willow and alder trees; farther away the forests consisted of evergreen trees. Herbaceous plants and ferns were the only plants that could grow beneath the thick canopy that prevented sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Orchids, vines, and ferns grew in the branches of the trees. In the piedmont, where the water table was farther underground, mesquite grew on the lower hills and thorn scrub on the higher elevation. In the mountains, where rainfall was greater, oak and pine grew.

Small bands of Indians entered the Valley of Oaxaca between 8900 and 2000 b.c.e. The earliest Indians in the valley lived in camps in the open or in caves for varying lengths of time, depending on the resources available. These Indians developed the spear, atlatl (a type of spear-thrower), and roasting pit, as well as baskets, carrying nets, grinding stones, snares, tongs, ropes, and other tools needed to live off wild plants and animals. Tools were made of chert and flint. Obsidian, which is more easily worked and sharper, was not found in the valley. Crude pottery appeared before 2000 b.c.e., and by 1400 b.c.e., more elaborate forms, decorations, and colors were being used. Men hunted deer and peccary with atlatl darts and projectiles with flint points and trapped rabbits, quail, and doves with snares. Women gathered fruits and vegetables, nuts, and acorns in baskets and carrying nets. They kindled fires with fire drills and cooked in rock-lined earthen ovens. The population was so small that there was limited competition for resources.

Between 8000 and 5000 b.c.e., the Oaxaca people began cultivating vegetables, using stone axes, hoes, and wooden digging sticks. One of the first cultivated plants was a variety of squash in the pumpkin family. Before the end of the period maize was cultivated. Because they had neither draft animals nor the wheel, they did not use the plow. When crops were grown, the group would stay for a growing season.

During these early years, the Indians developed knowledge of seasons, plant growth, and the habits and habitats of the animals they hunted. They devised an elaborate system explaining the origins of life. Living and nonliving things were classified based on “vital force,” explained as wind, breath, or spirit. The vital force made things warm and filled them with sacred wind that made them move.

Cultivation of domestic plants did not immediately change the life of the Indians of the valley, but it established the basis for significant changes. Agriculturally based villages became the foundation for a new stage of development. As long as the people remained hunter-gatherers, the mountains did not stop the exchange of ideas and food. When people settled down in villages near their fields, the mountains became a barrier. A sense of place and property developed. Other improvements such as permanent houses, storage pits, and irrigation canals were built, and both physical and human defense systems emerged.

The first villages in the Oaxaca Valley were located near the rivers, where fertile soil and water were available. Initially political and social organization was simple. People lived in small groups in an egalitarian society. With the increase in agricultural development came an increase in population. Villages began to be constructed farther up the mountain. Irrigation and terracing provided additional fields. A complex system of large and small villages evolved. The stratification of society began and organized religion developed. Political leaders and priests came to constitute an elite group that controlled village life.

The basic skills of village life such as weaving, pottery making, adobe manufacturing, and stone masonry flourished. A great number of small ceramic feline heads have been found in the area. The number of these heads and their presence in all households probably indicates that they were used in a frequently repeated ritual. Such rituals created a more solid social grouping.

Religion was no longer primarily simple nature worship. A professional priesthood conducted complex and elaborate ceremonies consisting of ancestor worship, bloodletting, and human sacrifice, among other things.

After 1400 b.c.e., strategically located villages were able to dominate the surrounding region either by influence or conquest, and in time states developed out of these villages. The earliest one was Monte Albán, located in the center of the Valley of Oaxaca.


The establishment of early villages in the Valley of Oaxaca led to advances in agriculture, art, religion, and social and political organization. Political and religious elites emerged to dominate the village and later the surrounding areas. These advances served as the basis for the great Zapotec civilization that developed in Oaxaca and spread its influence to other areas of Mexico.

Further Reading

  • Blanton, Richard E., et al. Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Includes an introduction to pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilizations as well as the setting and development of Oaxacan civilizations.
  • Flannery, Kent V., ed. The Early Mesoamerican Village. New York: Academic Press, 1976. Describes and analyzes the rise and development of villages in Oaxaca.
  • Flannery, Kent, and Joyce Marcus. The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations. New York: Academic Press, 1983. Contains a collection of articles by prominent archaeologists on the origins and development of Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations.
  • Paddock, John, ed. Ancient Oaxaca: Discoveries in Mexican Archeology and History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. Gives a discussion of the origins and development of Oaxacan societies. Includes findings of the most knowledgeable archaeologists.