The Zapotec Civilization, one of Mexico's greatest
A visit to Oaxaca has long been on my travel bucket list. This March, my dream came true. After three culturally-filled days in CDMX (that’s what locals call Mexico City), my friend Joan Brower and I traveled to Oaxaca in the southern highlands of Mesoamerica. Here, we slowed our pace to a quieter, more rural shuffle and began our exploration of a region rich in ancient Zapotec and colonial history.
A discovery of a new (actually very old) civilization
On day one, our local guide introduced the origins of the great Zapotec civilization whose culture and traditions remain visibly intact throughout the region. We were told that some 2,500 years ago an indigenous, pre-Columbian culture—called Zapotec—emerged to become one of the mightiest people to have flourished in Mesoamerica. This fascinated me as previously my knowledge of ancient Mexican civilizations extended only to the Aztecs, Mayans and Mixtecs.
During our five-day visit, we learned that the Zapotecs originated in the valleys in and around Oaxaca. (Not to confuse matters, Oaxaca is both the name of one of Mexico’s 31 states as well as the name of its capital city where our LDEI group resided during our stay.)
The many voices of the Zapotec languages
Today’s locals follow many of the same traditions and rituals as their forefathers including speaking their native tongue. Our guide explained that there were at least nine separate, mutually unintelligible Zapotec languages. To make things even more complicated, he explained there are also different dialects from pueblo to pueblo!
The Zapotecs trace their history to a period between 500 BCE to 900 CE making it one of the earliest civilizations in Mexico. Its people were primarily agriculturists, just as they are today. Originally, the people camped in small groups of 25 people and later formed permanent villages. Their many settlements profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmecs (thought to have preceded the Mayan and Aztec civilization). Eventually, the Zapotecs became the dominate power-holders in Mesoamerica.
Monte Alban, Oaxaca’s key attraction
By 100 CE Monte Alban—the major tourist attraction and archeological site we visited a few kilometers outside of Oaxaca city—became their capital. Gradually, Monte Alban became a powerful city state system radiating both religious and political domination over the entire region. It flourished between 400-700 CE until its demise around 900 CE. By the time the Aztecs invaded the region in the 15th Century, followed shortly thereafter by the Spanish, Monte Alban had totally disappeared as a city.
At its apex, Monte Alban was one of Mexico’s most influential cities sustaining a population of 20,000 people. It was the burial site of the Zapotec kings for over a thousand years and at its peak ruled over 1,000 settlements across the Valley.
A civilization rich in architecture, arts and agricultural engineering
Wearing straw hats and slathered with sunscreen, our group toured Monte Alban early one morning. We noticed immediately that the city was constructed on a mountain plateau with an amazing panoramic view of the valleys below. We walked around the remains of Monte Alban’s beautifully restored temples, palaces, tall stepped platforms, ball court and observatory. Our guide talked about Zapotec’s high level of sophistication in architecture, arts, and engineering projects which included terraced hillsides and irrigation systems, both important features of their prosperous agrarian society. We also learned about Zapotec’s early writing and its 260-day calendar systems.
Ancient and modern cultivations
Early on the Zapotec people cultivated maize, beans, squash and hot peppers. To this day the majority of Zapotecs are peasant farmers. In additional to their forefather’s original crops, Zapotecs now also grow coffee, wheat, sugarcane, bananas, and mangoes. However, Maguey—a plant used for producing mescal—is a modern-day addition.
A forte for medicine
But, back to our history lesson. We were told that Monte Alban reached its zenith between 300 and 700 CE. However, as early as 100 CE the Zapotec people had perfected loom weaving, pottery making, adobe construction and stone masonry. Our guide compared the strength of one great Mexican civilization to another’s: the Aztecs were the warriors, the Mixtecs the craftsmen and the Zapotecs, the “doctors.” We witnessed in awe several bas relief stone artifacts illustrating the Zapotec people’s early knowledge of performing caesarian births as well as neurological procedures such as brain surgery.
Religious practices of the Zapotecs
The Pre-Hispanic Zapotecs worshiped deities which affected their human condition: rain, sun, wind, earth and war. Some of the most important gods included Bat-god, the god of corn and fertility; Pitao Cozobi, the corn god; Copijcha, the god of sun and war; and Cocijo, the rain and lightning god with a human body with jaguar and serpent features.
Ancient and modern offering to the gods
Our guide told us that early Zapotecs offered animal but not human sacrifices to the deities. In doing so they enlisted the gods’ favorable intervention to bring rain and fertility to the land and its population. This mystical mindset still permeates in the way modern Zapotecs approach their religion even if their society is dominated by the Catholic church introduced to them by the Spanish invaders. Zapotec ritual leaders—called hechiceros—still conduct certain ceremonies at funerals and wedding giving offerings of food, poultry blood, and money—as well as two modern additions, mescal and cigarettes—to the ancient deities along with their prayers.
A voyage between heaven and earth and back again
Our guide explained that during the time of Monte Alban’s domination, Zapotecs thought their ancestors emerged from the earth, caves and even trees and jaguars. The ruling elite, however, believed they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds. When they died, they would ascend to the sky where they could intervene on behalf of the living below. In fact, Zapotecs are sometimes called “the Cloud People.”
We learned from our guide that not everyone returned permanently to the clouds after death. In fact, the Pre-Hispanic Zapotecs believed in reincarnation. Once the average citizens died, they gradually journeyed upward toward a heaven. After seven years, their souls reunited with the earth to be among their loved ones. Moving his hand upward and then downward along his wooden cane, our guide explained that people had a choice once their spirit returned to earth. They could be either a snake representing the flow of water, an eagle flying and observing everything from above, or a jaguar, for the earth’s power.
Snake, eagle or jaguar?
Our group thought about their choice. Without any hesitation, I declared mines was as a jaguar. However, instead of a sleek, powerful animal, I closed my eyes and conjured up an image of a shiny, black XKE with bright red leather interior, a car my father once owned. Returning from my Proustian reverie, I considered the alternatives. Snake? Eagle? Not a chance. A powerful Jaguar—both car and animal—it was me!
A shout-out to Mexico City Dames!
A heart-felt thanks to the excellent organizational skills of Les Dames d’Escoffier’s Mexico City Chapter who made this discovery trip to Oaxaca possible for our organization.