Zapotec at greatest extent
|Historical era||Pre-classic – Late post-classic|
|•||Fall of San José Mogote||700 BC|
|•||Conflict between Zapotecs and Mixtecs in the empire||1519–1521|
|•||Spanish Conquest||1521 AD|
|•||Last Zapotec resistance||1521–1563|
|•||200 AD||80,000 km² (30,888 sq mi)|
|•||1520 AD||38,850 km² (15,000 sq mi)|
|Today part of||Mexico|
The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence shows that their culture goes back at least 2,500 years. The Zapotec 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 the territory that today belongs to the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
|Monte Alban 1||ca 400–100 BC|
|Monte Alban 2||ca 100 BC – AD 100|
|Monte Alban 3||ca AD 200-900|
|Monte Alban 4||ca 900–1350|
|Monte Alban 5||ca 1350–1521|
Zapotec civilization had its beginnings in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca in the late 6th Century BC. The three valleys were divided between three different-sized societies, separated by 80 km2 “no-man’s-land” in the middle, today occupied by the city of Oaxaca. Archaeological evidence from the period, such as burned temples and sacrificed captives, suggest that the three societies competed against each other. At the end of the Rosario phase (700–500 BC) the valley's largest settlement San José Mogote, and a nearby settlement in the Etla valley, lost most of their population. During the same period a new large settlement emerged in the “no-man’s-land”. That settlement, which was constructed on top of a mountain overlooking the three Central valleys was Monte Albán. Similarities between the pottery of San José Mogote and at early Monte Albán indicate that the people who populated Monte Albán were the same ones who had left San José Mogote. Archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery liken this process to what happened in ancient Greece - (synoikism): a centralization of smaller dispersed populations congregates in a central city to meet an external threat. Even though there is no direct evidence in the early phases of Monte Albán's history, walls and fortifications built around the site during the archaeological phase Monte Alban 2( ca.100 BC - AD 200), suggest that the construction of the city may have been in response to a military threat.
The Zapotec state formed at Monte Albán began an expansion during the late Monte Alban 1 phase (400–100 BC) and throughout the Monte Alban 2 phase (100 BC – AD 200). Zapotec rulers seized control over the provinces outside the valley of Oaxaca. They were able to do this during Monte Alban 1c (roughly 200 BC) to Monte Alban 2 (200 BC – AD 100) because none of the surrounding provinces could compete with the valley of Oaxaca both politically and militarily. By 200 AD the Zapotecs had extended their influence, from Quiotepec in the North to Ocelotepec and Chiltepec in the South. Monte Albán had become the largest city in what are today the southern Mexican highlands, and retained this status until approximately 700 AD.
The expansion of the Zapotec empire peaked during the Monte Alban II phase. Zapotecs conquered or colonized settlements far beyond The Valley of Oaxaca. Most notably, this expansion is visible in the sudden change of ceramics found in regions outside the valley. These region's own unique styles were suddenly replaced with Zapotec style pottery, indicating their integration into the Zapotec empire.
Archaeologist Alfonso Caso, one of the first to do excavations in Monte Albán, argued that a building on the main plaza of Monte Albán is further evidence for the dramatic expansion of the Zapotec state. What today is referred to as building J, is shaped like an arrowhead and displays more than 40 carved stones with hieroglyphic writing. The glyphs have been interpreted by archaeologists to represent the provinces that were controlled by the Zapotecs of Monte Albán. In addition, each glyph group also depicts a head with an elaborate head dress carved into the slabs. These are assumed to illustrate the rulers of the provinces who were taken over. The stones which show a head turned upside down are believed represent the rulers of those provinces taken by force, while the upright ones may represent those who did not resist colonization and had their lives spared. For this reason building J is also called “The Conquest Slab” 
Marcus and Flannery write about the subsequent dramatic expansion of the Monte Albán state: " a great disparity in populations between the core of a state and its periphery, it may only be necessary for the former to send colonists to the latter. Small polities, seeing that resistance would be futile, may accept a face-saving offer. Larger polities unwilling to lose their autonomy may have to be subdued militarily. During the expansion of Monte Alban 2 state, we think we see both colonization and conquest".
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[pronunciation?], which means "The People".
The Zapotec languages belong to a language family called Oto-manguean, an ancient family of Mesoamerican languages. It is estimated that today's Oto-manguean languages branched off from a common root at around 1500 BC. The Manguean languages probably split off first, followed by the Oto-pamean branch while the divergence of Mixtecan and Zapotecan languages happened later still. The Zapotecan group includes the Zapotec languages and the closely related Chatino. Zapotec languages are spoken in parts of the Northern Sierra, the Central Valleys as well as in parts of the Southern Sierra, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and along parts of the Pacific Coast. Due to decades of out-migration Zapotec is also spoken in parts of Mexico City and Los Angeles, CA. There are seven distinct Zapotec languages and over a hundred dialects.
Zapotec is a tone language, which means that the meaning of a word is often determined by voice pitch (tonemes), essential for understanding the meaning of different words. The Zapotec languages features up to 4 distinct tonemes: high, low, rising and falling.
Between Monte Alban phases 1 and 2 there was a considerable expansion of the population of the Valley of Oaxaca. As the population grew, so did the degree of social differentiation, the centralization of political power, and ceremonial activity. During Monte Alban 1-2 valley appears to have been fragmented into several independent states, as manifested in regional centers of power.
The Central Valleys of Oaxaca, the cradle of Zapotec civilization, are three broad valleys (The Valley of Etla in the West, the Valley of Ocotlán in the South and the Valley of Mitla in the East) that join at an altitude of about 4500 feet above sea level in the center of what today is the state of Oaxaca. They are located about 200 km south of Mexico City. Mountains surround the valley with The Sierra Norte in the north and the mountains of Tlacolula in the southeast. The environment is well suited for agriculture and is considered one of the cradles of maize. It is estimated that at the time of the emergence of Zapotec civilization, the valley soil were unaffected by the erosion seen today, as the oak and pine forests covering the surrounding mountains had not yet been decimated by logging. There is a dry season from November until May but along the rivers it is possible to plant and harvest crops twice a year.
The valleys of Etla and Ocotlán are traversed from north-west to south by the Atoyac River which provides water for a small strip of land bordering the river, when it periodically floods. To provide water for crops elsewhere in the valley away from the river the Zapotecs used canal irrigation. By using water from small streams the Zapotecs were able to bring water to Monte Albán, situated 400 meter above the valley floor. Archaeologists have found remains of a small irrigation system consisting of a dam and a canal on the mountains south-eastern flank. As this would not have been sufficient to support all the inhabitants of Monte Albán, it is assumed that this was just one of many irrigation systems. Because of the rapid growth in population in the Monte Albán I phase the crops grown in the valley were not enough to sustain it. Therefore, crops were grown on the piedmonts where the soil is a less fertile and artificial irrigation was needed.
The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logosyllabic system of writing that used a separate glyph to represent each of the syllables of the language. This writing system is thought to be one of the first writing systems of Mesoamerica and a predecessor of those developed by the Maya, Mixtec and Aztec civilizations. At the present time, there is some debate as to whether or not Olmec 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, however, go back much further, as suggested 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.
The Zapotecs were a sedentary culture living in 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.
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At Monte Albán archaeologists have found extended text in a glyphic script. Some signs can be recognized as calendric information but the script as such remains undeciphered. Read in columns from top to bottom, its execution is somewhat cruder than that of the later Classic Maya and this has led epigraphers to believe that the script was also less phonetic than the largely syllabic Mayan script.
The earliest known artifact with Zapotec writing is a "Danzante" (dancer) stone, officially known as Monument 3, found in San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca. It has a relief of what appears to be a dead and bloodied captive with two glyphic signs between his legs, possibly his name. First dated to 500–600 BC, this was initially considered to be the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. However, doubts have been expressed as to this dating as the monument may have been reused. The Zapotec script appears to have gone out of use in the late Classic period.
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 had a predominance of deities associated with fertility and agriculture. There are both male and female representation, told apart from each other by costumes. Males normally wear breechclouts and sometimes capes, while females are represented by wearing skirts. Prominent gods are Cocijo – god of lightning and rain, he is represented from Monte Alban 1-4. Another one is the god of maize Pitao Cozobi. There is some evidence of deities not directly associated with Zapotecs culture, such as the feathered serpent and the butterfly god, they are characteristic for Teotihuacán. And also the Teotihuacán rain god, and Xipe totec a deity associated with spring in nahuatl culture.
There are several legends as to the origin of the Zapotec. One of them states that they were the original people of the valley of Oaxaca and were born from rocks, or descended from big cats such as pumas, jaguars and ocelots. There is another origin legend which states that the Zapotecs settled in the Oaxaca valley after founding the Toltec empire, and that they descended from Chicomostoc. It is noteworthy that these legends weren’t transcribed until after the Spanish conquest.
According to historic as well as contemporary Zapotec legends, their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or turned into people from trees or jaguars. Their governing elite apparently 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 results from this belief. The Zapotecs of the Central Valleys call themselves "Be'ena' Za'a" - The Cloud People.
The Zapotec used dedication rituals to sanctify their living spaces and structures. Excavation of Mound III at the Cuilapan Temple Pyramid in Oaxaca revealed a dedication cache containing many jade beads, two jade earspools, three obsidian blades, shells, stones, a pearl, and small animal bones, likely from birds, dated to 700 A.D. Each of these materials symbolized different religious concepts. As it was not easily attainable, jade was considered of high value, and worked jade even more valuable due to the role of the elite as primary artists. Obsidian blades are associated with sacrifice, as they were commonly used in bloodletting rituals. Shells and pearl represent the underworld, being from the ocean, and the small bird bones represent the sky and it’s relation to the balanced cosmos. These artifacts are significant due to their placement in a structure used for ritual and associated with power. This cache is a form of dedication ritual, dedicating the Cuilapan Temple Pyramid to these ideas of power, sacrifice, and the relationship between underworld and cosmos.
Warfare and 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.
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 26 Ll.1-3
- Marcus and Flannery, p. 144
- Marcus and Flannery (1996), p. 146
- Marcus and Flannery (1996), p. 206
- Marcus and Flannery (1996), p. 208
- Marcus and Flannery, p. 196
- Marcus and Flannery (1996), p. 198
- Whitecotton (1977), pp. 12–13 Ll.2-16
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 12 Ll.35-37
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 13 Ll.20-27
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 33 Ll.16-18
- Marcus and Flannery (1996), pp. 147–48
- Script Delivery: New World writing takes disputed turn Science News December 7th, 2002; Vol.162 #23
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 52 Ll.23- 33
- Whitecotton (1977), pp. 52–53 Ll.34- 2
- Whitecotton (1977), p. 23 Ll.11-26
- Marcus, Joyce (1978) “Archaeology and Religion: A Comparison of the Zapotec and Maya.” World Archaeology 10(2): 172-191.
- Marcus, Joyce; Flannery, Kent V. (1996). Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley. New aspects of antiquity series. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05078-3. OCLC 34409496.
- Marcus, Joyce; Flannery, Kent V. (2000). "Cultural Evolution in Oaxaca: The Origins of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations". In Richard E.W. Adams; Murdo J. Macleod. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. II: Mesoamerica, part 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 358–406. ISBN 0-521-35165-0. OCLC 33359444.
- Whitecotton, Joseph W. (1990). Zapotec Elite Ethnohistory: Pictorial Genealogies from Eastern Oaxaca. Vanderbilt University publications in anthropology, no. 39. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University. ISBN 0-935462-30-9. OCLC 23095346.
- Whitecotton, Joseph W. (1977). The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests and Peasants. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Zeitlin, Robert N. (2000). "Review: Two Perspectives on the Rise of Civilization in Mesoamerica's Oaxaca Valley. Review of: Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State by Richard E. Blanton ; Gary M. Feinman ; Stephen A. Kowalewski ; Linda M. Nicholas". Latin American Antiquity. 11 (1): 87–89. doi:10.2307/1571672. JSTOR 1571672.
- Media related to Zapotec at Wikimedia Commons