Mixtec and Zapotec


The Zapotec and Mixtec were groups of Mesoamerican people who inhabited land at different times in the valley of Oaxaca in Mexico. This area lay south of today’s Mexico City on the west coast of the country and was rich in natural and cultural resources.

Monte Albán was one of the first cities in the New World. Now a ruin, it once served as a magnificent ceremonial site with ball courts, plazas, tunnels, tombs, and buildings. Archaeologists have evidence that these people knew about irrigation because there are terraces to allow spring water to flow down and maintain their crops.

As other Mesoamerican groups they practiced ritual human sacrifice. The ceremonies were complex, using obsidian knives to cut out the beating heart of the victim from on top of a pyramid.

Tombs have been excavated where the remains of kings and priests were buried with ornate grave goods, some with precious metals. Monte Albán was ideal as a ceremonial center because it was near the juncture where three arms of the Oaxaca Valley met.

The time periods of these cultures are defined in terms of Mesoamerican chronology. The Formative is divided into three groups: Early, Middle, and Late (300 b.c.e.–150 c.e.) and the Classic into four: Early (150–650 c.e.), Late Classic (650–900 c.e.), Early Postclassic (900–1200 c.e.), and Late Postclassic (1200–1521 c.e.). The Zapotec and Mixtec occupied Mexico’s valley of Oaxaca from the Late Formative to the Late Postclassic period.

The Zapotec

Early Zapotecs lived during the Middle Formative period (Preclassic period) 500–400 b.c.e. One of the first pieces of archaeological evidence found was a gruesome message in the form of carvings on stelae (stone monuments).

It was a bas-relief (raised carving) of a dead man, stripped of all clothing with blood coming out of his chest and some scrolls with glyphs (decorative writing) between his legs. He probably represented an enemy who had been sacrificed.

The style of art, known as Danzantes, or dancers, is unique to the Zapotec culture, and typical for that time period. The style differs from other Mesoamerican art because the human figures are curved, not angular, without clothing, body decoration, or jewelry.


They are shown in active rather than in posed-type positions that were characteristic of rulers from other time periods. These dire figures are captives, in agony because they have been ritually tortured and are being sacrificed.

Their eyes are closed, their tongues are protruding, and their hands and feet are limp. It is thought that they represent high-level individuals who were killed by other rulers because they are depicted as old, with beards and without teeth.

The glyphs, combination of phonetic symbols, numbers, and ideographic elements, were the first in Mexico. The Zapotec had a calendar based on a 260-day year and a 52-year cycle. Their pottery included spouts or hollow three-legged bowls fashioned from fine gray clay. It is estimated that this early Monte Albán I culture supported a population of about 10,000 to 20,000.

From about 200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e. (Early Classic period), the Zapotecs lived in relative harmony and comfort. A few new buildings were constructed. One of them might have been an observatory because it was oriented in the direction of a bright star known as Capella.

Another building (referred to as building J) has many narrow dark hallways that connect at a common apex. On the outside, there are more typical glyphs with elaborate headdresses, but they have closed eyes.

It is believed that these heads and symbols represent both date notations and records of victory over neighboring enemies when a particular town was attacked and conquered. Older cultures often documented wars in this way.

Although contact with the Maya was evident in elements from Mayan art incorporated in their pottery, in the Classic period, there was more influence from Teotihuacán, the gigantic complex northeast of Oaxaca. The Zapotec continued to build terraces and maintained their Zapotec language, which remained dominant.

They had a lively pantheon: the rain god, Cocijo; the maize (corn) god, Pitao Cozobi; a feathered serpent; a bat god; a fire god; and a water goddess. The Zapotec thrived in Monte Albán until about 700 b.c.e., at which time they abandoned the site, probably because of new invaders from the northwest.

The Zapotec moved 25 miles southwest of Oaxaca to an area called Mitla, from the Nahuatl word Mictlan, which means Place of the Dead. However, they called it Lyobaa, Place of Rest. They built five palatial buildings, guarded by a fort on a strategic hill.

These buildings still stand; unfortunately after European contact, the church destroyed and replaced indigenous religious structures. A colonial period church was built right on top of one of these structures.

The Mixtec

Mixtec ruin
Mixtec ruin

Mixtec comes from an Aztec word that means Place of the Clouds, but the people, the Mixe, used the word Ayuk to describe themselves. It meant “word” or “language,” a word related to ha”yyu:k, “people of the mountains.”

They are best known for their elegant books called codices in which they drew figures that resembled cartoons. These deerskin books unfolded to form a long strip, which could be read phonetically. Eight Mixtec codices have survived from before the conquest.

Around 850, during the Early Classic period, the Mixtecs lived in hilltop settlements of northwestern Oaxaca. During the Postclassic, around 1000, they moved into adjacent areas and then down to the valley of Oaxaca because they felt that Monte Albán was safe from invaders.

The Mixtec’s best-known cities were Tilantongo and Teozacualco. They had superb artistic skills in carving, metalworking, painting, and silversmithing. There is a life-sized skull fashioned from a huge piece of quartz, which is Mixtec in origin, on display in the Inah Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

The huge centers built by the Mixtec were primarily residential. Everyday activities took place on the valley floor but the hilltops were reserved for ceremonial sites. By the Postclassic period, most of the prior Zapotec territory was under their control. Their success is attributed to the way in which they organized social groups and interacted with others.

The heredity ruling class (caciques) were the highest; next were a hereditary noble (tay toho), a working class (macehuales), and in certain areas, a servant-tenant class (terrazgueros) that could be compared to the European feudal serf in status.

As in any hierarchy the upper strata had privilege and power, hence more than one wife and control of natural resources, although gender did not play a strong part in social structure. Bilateral kinship lines determined lineage, which was more important to the Mixtec. Macehuale women as well as men could own land.

Their language had unique symbols representing sounds as compared to other written languages that used glyphs and rebuses to communicate. The names of animals figured prominently in titles of their rulers such as Eight Deer, Three Alligator, Four Tiger, or Jaguar Claw because of their symbolic significance.

Births, deaths, marriages, and land conquests are documented. Rank, occupation, and social status were defined by special ornamentation. The best known and powerful ruler, Eight Deer, had five wives, and his life is elaborately documented in the Codex Nuttal.

By 1350 c.e. the Mixtec had intermarried and taken control of the Zapotec sites. At the time of the conquest, great wealth and high culture abounded. Tombs attested to kings with their courts buried with gold, silver, turquoise, amber, coral, pearls, and carved jaguar bones. Unconquerable by their neighbors, they survived until the Europeans arrived.