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The Zapotec Culture in Oaxaca

Things to Do, Whats New — By Vica Amuchastegui on February 16, 2011 at 6:09 am
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There were two, really important Mesoamerican cultures in what today is Oaxaca City: the Zapotecs and the Mixtec. They were both powerful and left behind great cultural, artistic and architectonic heritages, as well as being the ancestors of some of the indigenous peoples that still live in the Oaxaca State.

This time we’ll talk about the Zapotecs, a culture that goes back at least 2500 years, and that inhabited the ancient city of Monte Alban. The name Zapotec comes from the nahuatl word tzapotecatl, that means “inhabitants of the place of zapote (zapote is a fruit), but they called themselves be’neza, that means “inhabitants of the clouds”.

There is not enough information about the origin of the Zapotecs, they didn’t  have any legend about their arrival to Oaxaca, they believed they came from the clouds. Experts say that the first urban development of this culture was around the XV and IV Centuries B.C. in a location now called San Jose Mogote. Around the year 800 A.D., the Zapotecs established themselves on top of a hill, in what later would be the great city of Monte Alban, the most important city in the region.

Monte Alban

Monte Alban

They created some of the most stunning buildings in Monte Alban, like the named J-building, with an arrow shape, experts still don’t know what function it served, but it certainly is an unique shaped building in the Mesoamerican world. They also played the pre-Hispanic sport “Juego de Pelota” -Ball Game-  and the court of the game is still one of the most visited buildings in the site.

Their art forms traveled far in the Mesoamerican world. In Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, today Mexico City, there were Zapotecs and Mixtecs artisans working for the tloatoanis, the rulers, creating jewelry. They were also expert weavers and potters, creating many intricate wool designs and beautiful funeral urns that can be admired still.

This great civilization developed a calendar based on the heavenly bodies and a glyph-based writing system that represented each of the syllables of their language. This one of the first systems of writing in the Mesoamerican world and was the predecessor of the Aztecs’ writing system. They recorded the principal events in their history through hieroglyphics carved in stone.

The Zapotecs had a Pantheon of gods led by Totec, their main god. Other important gods were Cocijo, the god of rain; Xipe, the creator; and Tlatlahaqui, the Sun God. They also believed in their ancestors, and thought they lived in a heavenly world. The religious site of Mitla supposedly was the gateway to this world.



They had a very varied agriculture; they cultivated chile, beans, pumpkin, cacao and corn, their main source of wealth. The people lived in villages and had to pay a tax (corn, honey, guajolotes (turkeys)) to their lords.

Between 1497 and 1502 the last war between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs took place. The Zapotecs never regained their power, and by the time the Spaniards came, the Zapotecs were to afraid after hearing they had defeated the Aztecs; they decided not to confront the Conquerors. They were defeated by 1527.

There are still some Zapotec groups in Oaxaca, specially in the south valleys of the Oaxaca Mountain Range and in the Tehuantepec isthmus, as well as some place of Veracruz, Guerero and Chiapas. They still have a strong influence of their ancestries, especially in the costumes, music and crafts. The former President Benito Juarez, the first indigenous person to be elected, was a Zapotec from Oaxaca.

Monte Alban

Monte Alban

Tags: Mitla, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Zapotecs
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