Zapotec State Dominates Oaxaca Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Zapotec civilization became one of the highly developed civilizations in Mesoamerica, dominating Oaxaca and the surrounding area.

Summary of Event

The Zapotec civilization developed in the Valley of Oaxaca, the only broad valley in southern Mexico. The average elevation is 5,085 feet (1,550 meters). On the east and west, it is bordered by high mountains and on the north by somewhat lower mountains. The Atoyac River and its tributaries drain the valley, which is semiarid and depends on the river for irrigation. Annual rainfall averages 22 inches (56 centimeters). Temperatures seldom fall below freezing in the southern and western arms of the wishbone-shaped valley, but because of the higher altitude of the eastern arm, frost limits the growing of corn and beans. Original vegetation included willow and alder trees near the river and evergreens farther back. The closed forest canopy limited plant growth on the floor to ferns and herbaceous plants. Vines, orchids, and ferns grew in the trees. Some distance from the river, where the water table was deeper, there was mesquite. Scrub forest and cactus grew higher on the mountainside, and farther up, where there was greater rainfall, oak and pine trees replaced the scrub forest.

There is strong evidence that the first true New World states emerged in the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations. The state has been defined as a strong, usually highly centralized government with a professional ruling class. The bonds of kinship that characterized the leadership of simple societies are no longer present. The state can wage war, levy taxes or tribute, and draft soldiers or workers to construct public buildings, some of which are devoted to a state religion. There are priests, professional architects, and bureaucrats. States have administrative units that control regions that were formerly independent. All of these characteristics were found at Monte Albán, the Zapotec capital.

Hunter-gatherers moved into the Valley of Oaxaca around 10,000 b.c.e. By 5000-4000 b.c.e., there is evidence development had reached the ritualistic and ceremonial stage. During the Formative stage, 750-200 b.c.e., the basic skills of village life emerged. Weaving, pottery making, adobe manufacture, and stone masonry were all present. Ancestor worship, ritual bloodletting, and human sacrifice seem to have originated in this period along with the beginning of agricultural skills. Squash and later maize were domesticated. The people remained hunter-gatherers, but a stratified society and a more complex settlement pattern were developing.

The state did not come into being until the Classic period, 200 b.c.e.-100 c.e. By this time, the capital of Monte Albán had reached its peak of construction. Large palaces and public buildings were built, with audience halls and spaces for the transaction of state business. These structures required labor beyond the efforts of a single family; they were the result of extensive community cooperation and organization. An administrative hierarchy controlling outlying areas had been established, with Monte Albán as its focal point. Regional administrative centers were established in other parts of the valley. By this time the Zapotec royalty and nobles were completely separated from the commoners, with no intermarriage between the classes. Zapotec nobles married into Mixtec and Aztec noble families. Important Zapotec rulers were buried in special tombs where commemorative temples could be built over them.

By 100 b.c.e., a state religion was established. There was a professional priestly class and public structures devoted exclusively to religious purposes. Priests performed all religious functions formerly conducted by commoners. The temple was a two-room building with a slightly elevated inner room. Only priests entered the inner room, their residence. Commoners brought objects for a professional sacrifice to the outer room, where the priest accepted them and performed the ritual. The function of the ball courts was at least partly religious. These courts, shaped like a capital I, were present at Monte Albán and other secondary centers. The particulars of the ball game are not well known, but it did possess a ritual significance and probably existed and was staffed separately from the temple.

The Zapotecs at Monte Albán drafted soldiers, levied taxes, and collected tribute by the 200 b.c.e. to 100 c.e. period. Conquest was driven by the need for new sources of food to feed the increasingly large urban population. By 100 b.c.e. three quarters of the population of the Valley of Oaxaca lived in cities. Farmers in the valley could not produce enough food to feed such a large urban population. Tribute in the form of food fed the urbanites. All the conquered towns were outside the Valley of Oaxaca, and all the areas in which towns were located show Zapotec influence. As many as fifty “town conquest” slabs were carved on buildings at Monte Albán. Zapotec military superiority appears to have been memorialized at the Edificio de los Danzantes, a pyramidal platform filled with rubble. The outer walls are rectangular slabs of stone with more than three hundred carvings on them, representing single, naked men in awkward positions. The distorted poses and closed mouths and eyes indicate that the figures are corpses. Because nudity was scandalous in Zapotec society, the figures must represent slain or sacrificed captives. Some of the figures show sexual mutilation or blood flowing from severed parts. Scholars believe this scene functioned as a display of power meant to impress or intimidate the enemies of the Zapotecs.

A seated figure in Oaxaca, Mexico.


Although the Zapotecs had already begun to develop their calendar and writing, it was during the period in which the state emerged that both reached completion. The Zapotecs had two calendars, one secular and one ritual. The secular calendar had 365 days divided into months, but the important subdivisions were a dry and a wet season. The rainy season was May through September. The ritual calendar was divided into four parts of 65 days, a total of 260 days. Each sixty-five-day period was divided into five units of thirteen days each. Each day had its own name and number. There were thirteen number days but twenty name days, so the combination of names and numbers was nearly always unique. A special group of priests knew the properties of the days, benevolent or not, and determined the best days for marriage and other important events.

The Zapotecs used a system of writing numbers similar to the Maya. Dots and bars were written vertically beginning at the bottom. A dot represented one and a bar five. Events were recorded on stelae using pictographic symbols. As the repository for records, Monte Albán exercised a powerful influence over the area.


The Zapotec state was one of the earliest examples of centralized government in Mesoamerica. It was also one of the first to experience the drawbacks of urban living, particularly the need to conquer others in order to obtain sufficient food to sustain an urban civilization. The art and architecture of Monte Albán suggests a close relationship between religion and conquest, and the religious calendar and writing system influenced later Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mixtec.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blanton, Richard E., Gary H. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowslewski, and Linda M. Nicholas. Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Includes an introduction to Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic civilizations and relates the development of the Zapotec state and the importance of Monte Albán, its center.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flannery, Kent V., and Joyce Marcus. The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations. New York: Academic Press, 1983. A collection of essays by experts on the history and development of the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations and the rise and importance of Monte Albán.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paddock, John, ed. Ancient Oaxaca: Discoveries in Mexican Archeology and History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. Describes the early settlement of Oaxaca, the development of Oaxacan civilization, and the emergence of urban centers and the state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiley, Gordon R. Archeology of Southern Mesoamerica. Vol. 4 in Handbook of Middle American Indians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. Includes articles by experts on architecture, art, ceramics, jewelry, and metalwork of Oaxaca.

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