Zapotec Civilization

A Civilization of the “cloud people”


The Zapotecs also known as the cloud people were native of the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, specifically in the Valley of Oaxaca. They evolved from the agricultural communities from in and around Oaxaca. Over time, they established trade relations with the Olmec Civilization that influenced them in the construction of the magnificent capital site of Monte Alban and also to dominate the region.  The capital city of Monte Alban was strategically placed to overlook three main valleys. Besides the capital city, there were numerous settlements spread in the surrounding valley

The Oaxaca Valley and Monte Alban

The foundation of the capital city of Monte Alban on top of the mountain 400m above the valley floor changed the internal dynamics of the Valley of Oaxaca. A qualitative change took place especially in the region’s internal organization, political system and social stratification. A four tier hierarchy was established and around 155 settlements were present around the city. With the development of the capital city, its people lived on artificially levelled terraces on the hill.

Monte Alban, being a highly militarized state of Zapotec dominated the surrounding region through conquest, colonization and alliance. Teotihuacan and Monte Alban shared a good diplomatic relationship which can be established from the carved monuments at Monte Alban, showing meetings, merchants etc. Monte Albán reached the peak of its power around 400 BCE, after which numerous of its colonized towns and districts wrested their autonomy from the hilltop city, however it underwent a period of gradual decline.

Religion and rituals

Zapotec religion was an animalistic religion which believes that there is live associated with inanimate objects too. The people of Zapotec also believed that man’s relationship with natural forces such as lightning and earthquake required an appropriate sacrifice by the recipient. The Zapotec had a concept of vital force that distinguished living from the non-living.

Royal ancestors were treated as someone who has the power to intercede with powerful supernatural on behalf of their descendants on earth. Food, drinks, animals or even human being was offered in anticipation of request being made or in return for compensation. The concept of metamorphosis from one life form to another was another important aspect of Zapotec religion. The people of Zapotec followed two calendar systems; one secular which had 365 days and one ritual based which had 260 days.

The Zapotec priesthood followed a hierarchy of high priests, ordinary priests, lesser religious personnel and young men educated to enter priesthood. The Zapotec ruler treated the high priest with great respect because they believed that they had close contact with the supernatural and could see the future. The rulers often turn to the high priest for advice that was followed diligently.

Blood was used in most rituals. While special priest sacrificed humans and animals, almost all of Zapotec people practiced sacrifice of small amounts of their own blood. They also accompanied their rituals with burning incense believing that the aromatic smoke rose to join with the clouds, considered an effective way to communicate with one’s ancestors.

The Scribal Tradition of Zapotec Civilization

The Zapotecs followed a hieroglyphic system of writing. Ancient Zapotec elites in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca deployed writing to render many genealogical records. Many monuments in Monte Alban had such inscriptions on them.

A large part of inscriptions occurred in domestic context of the elite class. Houses vary in size, number of rooms around the central courtyard, construction materials, and the applied finishes. While there are some exceptions, masonry tombs were usually built under the room of the house oriented towards the East. Walls of masonry tombs built under the houses which was a common practice among all strata of the society had elaborate narratives painted on them.

Art and Architecture

Monumental architecture was mostly associated with the burial place of the society’s elite class. The Zapotecs buried their dead beneath their houses floor irrespective of the class in the society. Tombs were built so as to recreate an actual home. Stairs from the house was linked to a small vestibule in front of the tomb to establish a connection of the world with the underworld. Tombs and houses shared similar facade decoration, carved lintels, stone doors and mural paintings.

Depending on the location in the city, residences had different patio areas. Residences closer to the city core had larger patios with secondary patios and multiple rooms. On the other hand, residences away from the city administrative centre had a single relatively small patio. Elite residences were built on stone foundations and the adobe walls were plastered with stucco.

Zapotec cities had a high level of sophistication in their art and architecture, in their writing and elaborate irrigation system. Monumental structures like the Temple of Danzentes had relief figures that decorated the stone platform. Close to 300 figures are identifiable. The Zapotecs are believed to be skilled sculptors and potters.


The reasons for the collapse of Monte Alban is not known however, many historians claim to the reason could be linked to an increase in the inter-state conflict mainly due to fragmentation into a number of smaller independent state. The Zapotecs established another smaller centre at Mitla which was also a religious centre 44kms from the city of Oaxaca. It is also known as Lyobaa which means “place of rest”. Mitla continued to be occupied even after the Spanish conquest.


  1. Edited by Colin Renfrew and Ezra B. W. Zubrow, The Ancient Mind, Elements of Cognitive Archeology, Cambridge University Press
  2. Susan Toby Evans and Joanne Pillsbury, Palaces of the Ancient New World, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C, 2004
  3. Javier Urcid, Knowledge, Power and Memory in Ancient Oaxaca, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University, May 2005


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