Mixtec Civilization Develops in Western Oaxaca

The Mixtecs achieved high artistic development and spread their influence throughout southwestern Mexico. By 700 c.e., they had become the dominant power in Oaxaca.

Summary of Event

The earliest settlers of Oaxaca were nomadic hunters and gatherers who entered from the north around 9000 b.c.e. Between c. 9000 and c. 2000 b.c.e., agriculture developed. Before c. 1300 b.c.e., the cultivation of the land led to the development of permanent villages. In time the interaction of these villages resulted in a state with an elite who exercised political and religious power. The political and social stability of this society resulted in advances in writing, numbering, architecture, and artistic excellence. By the end of the seventh century c.e., the Mixtecs replaced the Zapotecs as the dominant power in Oaxaca and extended their influence to other areas of Mexico.

Oaxaca has unusual geographic features. Mountains rising to 9,850 feet (3,000 meters) dominate the area, but most of the land along the Pacific coast is at sea level. Temperatures vary from hot to cold and the land from arid to wet. Mixtec civilization developed in the western part of Oaxaca, an area referred to as Mixteca, where water can be a problem. Rains vary considerably from year to year. Subsurface water is scarce, and streams are dependent on short seasonal rains. There are no open plains or open valleys.

Mixteca is divided into three regions, known as Mixteca Alta in the central area, Mixteca Baja in the northwest, and Costa along the coast. The central area, Mixteca Alta, is a cool region of moist highland hills and valleys. Available mineral resources would have been salt, basalt, chert, gold, mica, and limestone. Animals used for meat, such as deer, turkey, quail, rabbit, and doves, were plentiful. There were a few other wild animals such as foxes, squirrels, and coyotes. Corn, beans, and squash were probably brought to Mixteca as cultivated plants between the middle and end of the Preceramic period. Chilis and gourds were also eventually domesticated. Maguey, avocados, guajes (native legumes), and hallucinogenic mushrooms grew wild.

Mixtec civilization ruins in Mitia, Oaxaca.


The first inhabitants of Mixteca were the ancestors of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, the Cloud People, but little is known of the Preceramic and Protoagricultural Village period (c. 6000-c. 1500 b.c.e.) These ancient peoples probably introduced agriculture, which had a profound effect on the cultural development of Mixteca.

The Early Formative period (c. 1500-c. 750 b.c.e.) saw the origin and development of village settlements. Village farmers occupied the Mixteca as early as 1500 b.c.e. Early life in the villages, which were located along streams near fertile bottomland, was simple and uncomplicated. There were no social distinctions.

Even as population increased in the Late Formative period (c.750-c. 200 b.c.e), there seemed to be no pressure on farmland. Villages remained small and separated from each other. Tanware and buffware, produced since the Ceramic period, continued to be made, but the form and style of decoration changed. Many pieces had distinctive decorated rims similar to pottery being made throughout Mesoamerica. Highly expressive figurines were modeled in the stylistic traditions of the Mesoamerican Formative period. Whiteware, blackware, and grayware appeared.

Changes taking place in Mixteca ceramics and figurines during the Formative period indicate that the pattern of village life was an internal development. Settlements were uniform in size, layout, and architectural features. Houses continued to be constructed of adobe blocks and boulders, but differentiations in size began to appear. Large or unusual structures and extensive, elaborate, or diversified complexes did not exist with one exception. At the confluence of the Yucuita and Yanhuitlan Rivers, an earthen platform 656 feet (200 meters) on each side and 33 feet (10 meters) high was constructed. The purpose of the platform is not known. There is no evidence of a sociopolitical hierarchy in the Formative period, but considerable organization was required to build such a structure.

A precise date for the beginning of a complex pattern of settlement cannot be fixed. Even though small, medium, and large villages were still located on higher ground near fertile bottomlands that were close to hunting and collecting areas, by 200 b.c.e. a hierarchical settlement system had evolved, indicating a significant transformation in Mixtec culture. Settlement systems indicate the existence of a stratified society with a political authority capable of elaborate organization. An urban center served as the regional center or core city for the surrounding area was the system. The first and most elaborate of the urban centers in Mixeca was Yucuita, located in the Nochixtlan Valley. The core city of Yucuita contained a diversified residential area and a civil and ceremonial area. At Yucuita great attention was paid to elaborate and highly organized ceremonies and to major structures. There is abundant evidence of rituals including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and funerary or memorial cults practicing ritual treatment and internment of burned human skulls.

The city possessed great political importance and was the economic center of the region. It also served as the center for trade with other regions of Mixteca. Locally produced ceramic pieces are found in great numbers in the city and at smaller sites in the valley, and there is ample evidence of an extensive interregional trade. Trade goods found in abundance include gray incised ceramics from the Valley of Oaxaca, fish bone from the Pacific Ocean and shells from the Gulf of Mexico, spindle whorls from the lowland cotton-producing area, and obsidian from the Basin of Mexico. As the city developed, its social structure became more stratified and its political authority over the small settlements more centralized.

Other sites in Mixteca Alta underwent similar growth. Smaller and more isolated settlements were not as favorably located as Yucuita, but their settlement patterns, ceramic development, and general complexity and function were similar.

In the Late Classic period (300 to 1000 c.e.), Mixtec civilization experienced great population growth and development. Population growth put pressure on the agricultural resources of the area, and settlements had to be more carefully chosen. Land and mineral deposits of flint, limestone, potting clay, and chert were an important consideration. Hillsides were terraced to provide additional fields. Most settlements were located just below mountaintops or on high hills that could be easily defended. Strategic sites that controlled passes or important trade routes became locations for advanced settlements. The larger, more important centers were located on higher ground and had elaborate ceremonial structures, temples, platforms, plazas, and tombs. Residential areas included large elite structures as well as small houses.

Between 100 and 1520 c.e., the Mixtecs achieved the forms associated with Mixtec culture: pictographic manuscripts, brilliant polychrome pots, and excellent lapidary and metalwork. Military conquests and a network of kinship and marriages linked the small kingdoms surrounding the major cities to form an extensive and workable political system. This was the period of greatest population concentration and most numerous settlements. Religion remained an important part of Mixtec life. Ritual activity continued, but the ceremonial structures built in this period were less impressive and fewer in number. Ritual centers, situated on mountaintops, in caves, or along streams, replaced ritual centers in urban areas.

The influence of other regions is evident. Architecture, murals, and ceramics of the period clearly show an association with Monte Albán, the largest of the Zapotec centers. Although across the mountains from Mixteca, it is possible that Monte Albán, the largest and most powerful site in Oaxaca, may have extended its political control to Mixteca. By 700 c.e., however, the Mixtecs had conquered Monte Albán. Toward the end of the Late Classic period, the influence of Teotihuacán, northeast of present-day Mexico City, became more evident in the Mixteca. Orangeware, slab-footed cylindrical vessels, and figurines with movable arms characteristic of Teotihuacán are numerous in this period. In the Postclassic period, after 1000 c.e., Mixtec culture was influential in the Valley of Oaxaca, Puebla, and the Valley of Mexico. This is the best-known period of Mixtec culture.


Mixtec culture became one of the dominant pre-Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, achieving a high degree of mastery in the arts. Although originally influenced by the neighboring Zapotecs, the Mixtecs eventually dominated their former rivals. In addition, the Mixtecs developed a hieroglyphic writing system that may have influenced the later Aztec system. Much historical, genealogical, religious, and ritual information was preserved in the Mixtec codices dating from the early second millennium c.e.

Further Reading

  • Blanton, Richard D., et al. Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Includes an introduction to the area and to the beginnings of settlement in Oaxaca.
  • Flannery, Kent V., and Joyce Marcus, eds. The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations. New York: Academic Press, 1983. A collection of articles by eminent archaeologists on the beginnings and development of settlements in Oaxaca.
  • Paddock, John, ed. Ancient Oaxaca: Discoveries in Mexican Archeology and History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. Devotes major attention to dating and development of various aspects of cultural development.
  • Spores, Ronald. The Mixtecs in Ancient and Colonial Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. Describes the rise and development of Mixtec civilization through the Colonial period.