What does Zapotec culture mean?

What is the Zapotec Culture

The Zapotec culture belongs to the Zapotecs are natives of southern Mexico who, since the fourth century, occupied the region of Mexico between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Acapulco, and later settled in Oaxaca.

Today, the Zapotec languages ​​constitute a family of 15 different languages ​​that are in danger of falling into disuse. In pre-Columbian times they were one of the most important Mesoamerican civilizations .


Little is known about the origin of the Zapotecs . Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, the Zapotecs had no tradition or legend about their migration, except for the belief that they were born directly from rocks, trees, and jaguars.

Archaeological evidence indicates that this culture appeared about 2,500 years ago. Around the year 800 BC, during the pre-classic period, the Zapotecs settled in the central valleys of the current state of Oaxaca.

Thus, while Teotihuacan flourished in central Mexico and in the Maya cities of the southeast, Monte Albán, a ceremonial center built on top of a hill, was the most important city in the Oaxaca region .

The first Zapotecs were sedentary, living in agricultural villages.

They worshiped a group of gods, among which the rain god Cocijo stands out, represented by a fertility symbol that combined the symbols of the earth of the jaguar and the sky of the serpent, common symbols in Mesoamerican cultures .

Religious rituals , which sometimes included human sacrifice, were regulated by a priestly hierarchy. The Zapotecs worshiped their ancestors and, believing in a paradisiacal world, they developed the cult of the dead.

One of its great religious centers was Mitla . The magnificent city of Monte Alban was home to a fairly developed civilization, possibly more than 2,000 years ago.

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Cultural development

There are many and varied archaeological finds in the ancient city of Monte Alban; buildings, ball game stadiums, magnificent tombs, and valuables such as finely crafted gold jewelry.

Monte Alban was the first major city in the Western Hemisphere and the center of a Zapotec state that dominated much of what is now the state of Oaxaca.

The Zapotecs developed a very varied agriculture and to have good harvests they worshiped the sun, the rain, the earth and the corn.

The women and men of the village were forced to give corn, turkeys, honey and beans as tribute. Aside from farmers, the Zapotecs excelled as weavers and potters.

Zapotec funerary urns are famous, clay pots placed in the tombs. The Zapotecs, along with the Mayans, were one of the Mesoamerican peoples who developed a complete writing system.

Through hieroglyphics and other symbols carved in stone or painted on buildings and tombs, they combine the representation of ideas and sounds.

Zapotec culture

Monte Albán is a sacred architectural complex that is part of the religious customs of the Mesoamerican people . It was built on several stepped platforms like pyramids of different heights.

Ball games were played there. It is distinguished from other archaeological complexes in Mesoamerica, by the inclusion of buildings probably dedicated to funerary worship .

There are reliefs engraved on stone steles, which represent people with body deformities, known as dancers. There are those who claim to be a visual record of medical pathologies.

The Mixtec-Zapotec codices allowed us to learn about the life and customs of the Zapotec culture . They are hieroglyphic writing documents on deerskin and profusely colored.

In Mitla , another place with testimonies of these people, there are murals made on a red background that represent the eagle, the night gods and the Cocijo.

In Hierve el Agua, the Zapotecs created an artificial irrigation system unique in Mesoamerica.

The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logophonetic writing system that used a single character to represent each syllable of the language.

This system is considered to be the basis of other Mesoamerican writing systems developed by the Olmecs, Mayas, Mixtecs and Aztecs.

In the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, Zapotec and Mixtec artisans lived, whose activity was the manufacture of jewelry for the tlatoanni or Aztec emperors, including the famous Moctezuma II.

The relations of the Aztec empire with central Mexico were very early, as evidenced by the ruins of the Zapotec neighborhood of Teotihuacan and a house in Monte Albán.

Other pre-Columbian archaeological sites of Zapotec origin are Lambityeco, Dainzu, Mitla, Yagul, San José Mogote and Zaachila.


organization of space

The architectural feature that jumps out for the first time in Monte Albán and the main square, with dimensions of approximately 200 by 300 meters and with a north-south orientation.

Along which most of the buildings on the site are arranged; to the east and west of the ceremonial temples and to the north and south, the largest constructions of the site called the North platform and the South platform complex.

The north platform seems to have been the most important place from a ceremonial point of view and it presents the remains of several pillars that are supposed to serve to support a large cover.

Numerous tunnels were dug under the main square, in some cases leading from one end of a building to another, and in others crossing the entire main square.

ball game field

Located in the northern part of the eastern wing of the plaza, there is an I-shaped ball court with an approximate length of 25 meters. Unlike the Mayan enclosures, there are no rings in the walls and it will have been covered with stucco.

Building J

What is perhaps the most enigmatic construction on the site is the so-called J building . When viewed in plan, this arrow-shaped structure does not present any right angles.

Its unique features lead some to claim that it would be an astronomical observatory.

The exterior walls exhibit bas-reliefs of inverted hanging heads that possibly describe conquests of neighboring cities.

Zapotec Culture: Art


Hundreds of carved stelae were also found from which the oldest of these are known as the dancers  and human figures showing markedly twisted and Olmec characteristics.

Although today the idea that they are dancers seems to have been completely left aside.

There is still no consensus on what they actually represent, one of the theories is that they are representations of sacrificed prisoners of war.


Several tombs found in Monte Alban, the most famous being tomb No. 7, excavated in 1932 by Alfonso Caso and in which a royal treasure was found, including gold pieces with a total weight of 3.6 kg.


Among the many artifacts found at Monte Albán are pieces of gold, silver, turquoise, jade, and bone.

The gold pieces show that the artists who created them had a great deal of knowledge about how to work gold, some of which would only be used in Europe centuries later.

Much of this collection can be seen in museums, especially the Regional Museum of Oaxaca.

Zapotec Culture: Language

The Zapotec language group consists of more than 60 variants of Zapotec, as well as the closely related Chatino language.

The main variant is Isthmus Zapotec, which is spoken on the coastal plain of the South Pacific Isthmus of Tehuantepec of Oaxaca.

religion and spirituality

Although the Zapotecs are now largely Catholic, some of their ancient beliefs and practices, such as burying the dead with valuables, still survive.

The first missionaries among the Zapotecs were Bartolomé de Olmeda, a mercenary, and Juan Díaz, a secular priest, who was assassinated by the natives of Quechula, near Tepeaca, for having “ cast down their idols ”.

Disappearance of the Zapotec Culture

Monte Albán dominated the valleys until the Late Classic period and, like other Mesoamerican cities, lost its splendor between 700 and 1200.

However, the Zapotec culture  remains  in the valleys of Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz.

Coming from the north, the Mixtecs took the place of the Zapotecs at Monte Alban and Tikal and later at Mitla.

In the mid-15th century, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs fought to avoid Aztec control on trade routes to Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guatemala.

Under the command of King Cosijoeza, the Zapotecs had a long siege on the rocky mountain of Giengola, maintaining control over Tehuantepec and political autonomy, through an alliance with the Aztecs until the arrival of the Spanish.

Zapotecs in the Present

Currently, the Zapotec culture survives thanks to the Zapotecs who are divided into two main groups; the largest is found in the valleys south of the Oaxaca mountain range and another in the south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

There are still small settlements in Veracruz, Guerrero and Chiapas. Together, these groups number about 400,000 people.

From the linguistic point of view, Zapotec is part of the linguistic family of Oaxaca, being among the indigenous languages ​​of Mexico with the largest number of speakers.

The most famous Zapotec of the modern era was the former president of Mexico, Benito Juárez.

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