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Zapotecs (Monte Alban and Mitla)

Just as the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, another civilization was on the rise along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean: the Zapotec. They are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History between 400 BC – 1500 AD. The Zapotecs lived in the mountainous area of Oaxaca that was broken by wide fertile valleys with an altitude that could reach 5000 feet. They called themselves “be’ena’a” (The People) in their own language and were sometimes known as the ben’zaa/be’ena za’a (Cloud People). It was the neighboring Aztecs who called them Zapotec, or in their Nahuatl language, tzapotēcah which means “people of the sapodilla”. At its height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around 100,000 inhabitants. They spoke the Zapotecan branch of the Oto-Manguean language family which comprised as many as 58 languages.

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Monte Alban

Their first capital was Monte Alban, nestled in the central valleys of Oaxaca between the Sierra Madre del Sur and Sierra Madre Oriental mountain ranges. It flourished from 500 BC to around 450 AD and was the religious and cultural center of the Zapotecs. A ceremonial center overlooking the vast valleys was built during the height of the Zapotec civilization. The area was protected from invaders by a wall 15 feet high and 60 feet wide. There were many settlements around the area, but Monte Alban was considered as the Zapotecs’ glorious capital.

“Monte Albán”

Pyramids, plazas, temples, and other public buildings were constructed during this time. The Zapotecs also constructed an astronomical observatory and ball courts. A cistern and an efficient drainage system that flowed into a reservoir at the bottom of a hill was built to improve irrigation. A new capital was then built further south in Mitla after the decline of the first capital Monte Alban.


The Zapotec community was an agriculture-based one centered in the fertile valleys of Oaxaca. The main crops were corn, beans, gourds, tomatoes, and chilies. They traded with the Olmecs for various goods, because of this, the Zapotecs absorbed some elements of the Olmec civilization. This stopped when the Olmec civilization experienced a decline around 400 BC.

The Zapotecs were divided into four distinct groups: the isthmus, mountain, southern, and central Zapotecs. Priests and warriors made up the ruling class; they extended their influence and power over the communities around them that paid tribute. It is not clear whether these communities were absorbed peacefully by the Zapotecs or by bloody conquest.


The Zapotec developed two calendars: the regular 365-day solar calendar and the 260-day ritual calendar. Their writing system is similar to other Mesoamerican scripts as they also used glyphs carved in stones. Their weaving showed a distinct Mesoamerican look with colorful geometric patterns while their ceramic arts were highly ornate with complicated animal features.


Around the 7th century AD, Monte Alban went through a decline in population and cultural significance. Walls and buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair while the people moved to the lower slopes of the hills. Mitla replaced Monte Alban in importance and became their new religious center.

Chavalas, Mark W., and Mark S. Aldenderfer. Great Events from History: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476 C.E. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2004|CX3424400035&userGroupName=clea26856&jsid=37930498808346b5408d8dda67e7a51c
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