Zapotec civilization

Zapotec civilization

The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca of southern Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence shows their culture goes back at least 2500 years. They left archaeological evidence at the ancient city of Monte Albán in the form of buildings, ball courts, magnificent tombs and grave goods including finely worked gold jewelry. Monte Albán was one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica and the center of a Zapotec state that dominated much of what we know of as the current state of Oaxaca.


The name "Zapotec" is an exonym coming from Nahuatl "tzapotēcah" (singular "tzapotēcatl"), which means "inhabitants of the place of sapote". The Zapotec referred to themselves by some variant of the term "Be'ena'a", which means "The People."


symbols, dated to 650 BC, are actually a form of writing preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC. []

In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, there were Zapotec and Mixtec artisans who fashioned jewelry for the Aztec rulers ("tlatoanis"), including Moctezuma II. Relations with central Mexico go back much further however, as attested by the archaeological remains of a Zapotec neighborhood within Teotihuacan and a Teotihuacan style "guest house" in Monte Albán. Other important pre-Columbian Zapotec sites include Lambityeco, Dainzu, Mitla, Yagul, San José Mogote, El Palmillo and Zaachila.

They were a sedentary culture and well-advanced in civilization, living in large villages and towns, in houses constructed with stone and mortar. They recorded the principal events in their history by means of hieroglyphics, and in warfare they made use of a cotton armour. The well-known ruins of Mitla have been attributed to them and were claimed to be the tombs of their grandmothers and grandfathers.


Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic. Two principal deities include Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. It is believed that the Zapotec sometimes used human sacrifice in their rituals.

The Zapotecs tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people, while the elite that governed them believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today resulted from this belief. In Central Valley Zapotec "The Cloud People' is "Be'ena' Za'a."

Warfare & Resistance

The last battle between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs occurred between 1497 and 1502, under the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl. At the time of Spanish conquest of Mexico, when news arrived that the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards, King Cosijoeza ordered his people not to confront the Spaniards so they would avoid the same fate. They were defeated by the Spaniards only after several campaigns between 1522 and 1527. However, uprisings against colonial authorities occurred in 1550, 1560, and 1715.Fact|date=August 2007

In 1850 there was another rebellion against the local government of Oaxaca, followed in 1866 by one against the Royal French Army, during the French invasion of Mexico. In recent times, there was an uprising against the local governor Manuel Zárate Aquino in the 1970s, supported by the Mexican Army.Fact|date=August 2007

Starting in 2006, a non-violent grassroots social movement against the current governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, stemmed from the violent repression of a teacher's strike on June 16, 2006. Since then a statewide movement has grown, leading to the formation of APPO, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, in which a large number of indigenous groups are involved.


"Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley". Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery. Thames and Hudson, New York, 1996

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