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                                                                                 Monte Alban, Capital of Zapotec Civilization


The Zapotecs, known by their neighbors as the ‘Cloud People’, dwelt in the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, primarily in the Valley of Oaxaca, which they inhabited from the late Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period (500 B.C. to 900 A.D.).  Their capital was at Monte Albán, they dominated the southern highlands, spoke a variation of the Oto-Zapotecan language, and profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmec, Teotihuacan, and Maya civilizations.  Their civilization arose from the agricultural communities, which grew up in the valleys in and around Oaxaca.  In the Preclassic period they established trade links with the Olmec civilization on the Gulf Coast.  During the Classic period they built their capital at Monte Alban, dominating the surrounding region.  Stragetically placed overlooking three main valleys, the Zapotec civilization evolved over the centuries, beginning with 500 B.C., remaining the cultural center until the demise of the civilization around 900 A.D.  Outside of the capital at Monte Alban, over fifteen palaces have been identified in the surrounding valleys.  Archeologists have broken the Zapotecs into three distinct groups: the Valley Zapotec (based in the Valley of Oaxaca), the Sierra Zapotec (in the north), and the Southern Zapotec (in the south and east, nearer the Isthmus of Tehuantepec). The major Zapotec sites, spread across the Valley of Oaxaca, include the capital Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Huitzo, Etla, San Jose Mogote, Zaachila, Zimatlan, Ocotlan, Abasolo, Tlacolula, and Mitla.

By the late Preclassic period Zapotec cities showed a high level of sophistication in architecture, the arts, writing, and engineering projects such as irrigation systems.  At Hierve el Agua there are artificially terraced hillsides irrigated by extensive canals fed by natural springs. Evidence of contact with other Mesoamerican cultures can be seen, for example, at the site of Dainzu, which has a large stone-faced platform with reliefs showing players of the familiar Mesoamerican ball game wearing protective headgear. There was also a very close relations between the Zapotec and the peoples based at Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico.  Indeed, at Teotihuacan there was even a quarter of the city specifically reserved for the Zapotec community.


The Zapotec pantheon is as rich and bewildering as any other Mesoamerican religion is to modern eyes with the standard deities for such important agencies on the human condition as rain, sun, wind, earth, and war.  Some of the most important gods were the Bat-god, the god of corn and fertility; Beydo - god of seeds and wind; Cocijo (who had a human body with jaguar and serpent features with a forked tongue), the rain and lightning god; Pitao Cozobi, the corn god; Copijcha (symbolized by the macaw), the god of the sun and war; Coquebila, god of the earth’s center; Huechaana. a mother goddess also associated with hunting and fishing, Kedo, god of justice; Ndan, the androgynous god of the oceans; Pixee Pecala, the god of love; and Coqui Xee, the creator god who represented infinity.  In addition, individual cities often had their own patron deities, for example, Coquenexo (‘Lord of Multiplication’) patron of Zoquiapa; Coqui Bezelao; and Xonaxi Quecuya (gods of death and the underworld), patrons of Mitla and Teocuicuilco; and Cozicha Cozee (another war god), patron of Ocelotepec.  Offerings, prayers and sacrifices were offered to the gods to bring rain vital for crops, to end droughts, or bring fertility to the land and its population. Also, in common with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Zapotec had 20 day names represented by various glyphs such as Chilla (crocodile); Pija (drought); and Xoo (earthquake).

Zapotec pottery was made of fine gray clay, sometimes with incised figures similar to their neighbors, the Danzantes, and typically in the form of spouted vases and bowls set on a tripod.  Another interesting type is the whistling jar, a jar with two chambers which, when used to pour liquid, expelled air from the second chamber to create a whistling sound.  The Zapotec were also skilled sculptors and single effigy figures, groups of figures, and urns survive both in clay and more precious goods such as jade.  The small lamp below, created by a Zapotec artisan in about 200 B.C., is typical of the excellent workmanship of this Mesoamerican civilization.