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Archaeological Site of Monte Alban - general view from the North Platform

The Zapotecs of Monte Alban - The First Civilization in Western Mexico?

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In the central valleys of the Mexican state of Oaxaca lie stone ruins centered around an artificially leveled hill. It is now a famous tourist destination as well as a major archaeological site. Although it has cultural significance today, it has very little political or administrative significance. There was a time, however, when the archaeological site of Monte Alban was the heart of a major state-level political system that ruled over much of Oaxaca.

Origins of Monte Alban

It is not known what the original inhabitants of Monte Alban called their city. Most modern people, both scholars and laypeople, simply refer to the ancient city as Monte Alban. The site of Monte Alban appears to have been inhabited since at least the 8th century BC. The complex that would later be known as Monte Alban has its origins around 400-500 BC.

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is important for having been one of the earliest sites of civilization in Mexico. Oaxaca is also where of one of the earliest ceremonial structures and defensive barriers in Mexico, dating to 1300 BC, was built. The first urban culture to develop within Oaxaca was that of the ancient Zapotecs, which first appears as an urban civilization in the archaeological record, around 1500 BC.

The Zapotecs of Monte Alban

The Zapotecs were the first people in the region to build monumental architecture, constructed with adobe (850 BC) and invented writing, around 500 BC. They also appear to have had specialized knowledge of astronomy and civil engineering based on what they were able to construct at Monte Alban.

Astronomical Observatory ruins at Monte Alban

Astronomical Observatory ruins at Monte Alban. (Byelikova Oksana / Adobe Stock)

From 1500 BC to 500 BC, the settlement of San Jose Mogote was a major urban center in the region. After 500 BC, San Jose Mogote seems to have faded from prominence as Monte Alban expanded.
Monte Alban appears to have begun as a ritual site that was built on a hill that was intentionally leveled in order to construct a plaza. Over the centuries, this plaza became the center of a residential, administrative, and religious complex for the local elite. Monte Alban also was transformed from a ritual site with nearby villages to a major political center. The most likely reason for this is military expansion.

Around 400 BC, Monte Alban was between the size of a town and a village. By the 1st century AD, it had reached truly urban proportions. At its height, Monte Alban is said to have had a population of 30,000 people and was the center of a vast administrative network which ruled over the surrounding villages and settlements.

The Complex of Monte Alban

Monte Alban consists of a hill with a leveled plaza. Around the plaza are long, low buildings and adjacent courts and staircases. The entire complex consists of canals, pyramids, mounds, and terraces among other features.

The city was probably built based on the principles of sacred topography which contrasts with the design of the nearby city of Oaxaca de Juarez, which was built by the Spaniards in 1529, based on a grid system.

Site plan for Monte Alban

Site plan for Monte Alban. (MapMaster / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The complex includes temples, ballcourts, tombs, and bas reliefs. One rather famous structure is Building J which was constructed in stages between 1 AD and 700 AD. Building J is a structure that some scholars believe was an observatory built for religious purposes. It is shaped roughly like a pentagon and has a horizontal shaft running through it. There is also an exterior staircase which is built so that its direction is a few degrees off from the orientation of the door.

Building J, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Building J, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Mesoamerican / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Around the outside of the structure are low relief engravings including a cross-sticks glyph, which some experts think is related to astronomy. The structure is oriented about 45% out of alignment with the other buildings. The architectural orientation of the building is thought to be aligned with the star Capella. An orientation point on the building appears to point towards the star on May 2nd as the sun is at its zenith, 90 degrees from the horizon.

The plaza on the top of the hill appears to have been a center for administration and religious ceremonies. It also has residential estates for the elite.

The more elaborate houses have enclosed courtyards and the dead are buried beneath them, in subfloor tombs. The temples are decorated with stucco reliefs and hieroglyphs. Most of the city residents appear to have lived on the terraced hillsides. This was most likely the part of the city designated for commoners.

Archaeologists classify the evolution of the site through the archaeological record into five phases. During phases I-III, the city was undergoing urbanization and was probably a sacred city. The first three phases are believed to represent a period when the city reached its cultural zenith.

The last two phases are marked by decline and eventual abandonment. Furthermore, the first three phases are marked by the Zapotec Culture, whereas, during the last two phases, the Zapotec dominance declines and is gradually replaced by Mixtec and other cultures. During this time, more robust defenses were built, and the city became surrounded by fortifications.

Map showing the historic Mixtec area. Pre-Classic archeological sites are marked with a triangle, Classic sites with a round dot, and Post-Classic sites with a square

Map showing the historic Mixtec area. Pre-Classic archeological sites are marked with a triangle, Classic sites with a round dot, and Post-Classic sites with a square. (Electionworld / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Culture of Monte Alban

Monte Alban was originally inhabited by the ancient Zapotecs. There are at least 16 distinct cultural groups in Oaxaca that have made an important contribution to the cultural landscape of the modern Mexican state. The Zapotecs were one of the first peoples to build a full-fledged civilization. They were also important in being the dominant ethnic group in the region from the 1st century AD to about the 9th century AD.

The typical Zapotec community consisted of a temple, a school, administrative structures, and residential dwellings. The ancient Zapotecs were mostly farmers. Dialects of the Zapotec language are still spoken today. It is a tonal language so that the meaning of a word can change depending on what tone is applied to it.

Their writing system was logosyllabic. This means that each syllable in a word was represented by a symbol or letter. The Zapotec writing system at Monte Alban is believed to be a precursor to later writing systems used by the ancient Maya, Mixtecs, and Aztecs. The Zapotecs of Monte Alban also used the numeral system consisting of dots and bars, which was later used by the Maya. The many Zapotec inscriptions found at Monte Alban mostly tell of major events in the history of their civilization.

Mixtec Monte Alban

After the 9th century, Monte Alban came under the rule of the Mixtec people. The Mixtecs are a culture known from archaeology for their skill in metalworking and jewelry.

The Mixtecs wrote codices (singular codex), or books, using bark paper or deerskin, which have survived to the present day and record some of their history and mythology. Archaeologists and historians have been able to use the codices to uncover parts of the story of the ancient Mixtecs.
The Mixtec codices tell heroic tales of their kings, the most famous of which include rulers like Lord Eight Deer ‘Jaguar Claw’. The codices have also helped tell historians about ancient Mixtec society. For example, we know that Mixtec society was divided into several independent kingdoms which would often contend for supremacy.

Mixtec king and warlord Eight Deer ‘Jaguar Claw’, on right, meeting with Four Jaguar, on left

Mixtec king and warlord Eight Deer ‘Jaguar Claw’, on right, meeting with Four Jaguar, on left. (Ek Balam / Public Domain)

The codices speak of the Mixtec kingdoms growing in power and eventually expanding into Zapotec lands. The later phases of Monte Alban are mostly Mixtec and have examples of artifacts that demonstrate the skill of Mixtec artisans. Tomb 7, which is known for its gold and silver ornaments, decorated vessels, and animal carvings, is one example of a structure built in Monte Alban by the Mixtecs. The Mixtecs represent the final cultural phase of Monte Alban before it was finally abandoned.

Religion at Monte Alban

Like other Zapotec settlements, the people of Monte Alban were probably polytheistic and worshiped the major deities of the Zapotec pantheon, including the rain god, Cocijo, and Coquihani, the Zapotec god of light. The minor Zapotec deities were mostly related to agriculture and fertility. The origin myth of the Zapotecs has several variants. Some stories appear to say that they came from trees or jaguars, while other suggest that they came from a cave beneath the earth.

An Early Classic representation of Cocijo, the rain god, found at Monte Alban

An Early Classic representation of Cocijo, the rain god, found at Monte Alban. (Xenophon / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Monte Alban and its Connection to Teotihuacan

During the millennium, or so, that Monte Alban existed as a major urban center it coexisted with other sites such as Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan was built near modern day Mexico City around 400 BC, the same time period that Monte Alban was a ritual site surrounded by villages. By the 1st century AD, Teotihuacan had become a major cultural and religious site. It is known for its pyramids and apartment complexes.
The apartment complexes were multi-family compounds not very different from apartment complexes today in their basic function and social structure. Archaeologists have found residues suggesting that these apartments contained kitchens where food was prepared.

There appears to have been unequal access to goods and services within the neighborhoods as well. One thing that is notable about these apartment complexes is that they suggest that the city was extraordinarily diverse.

Genetic studies of human skeletal remains of the people who lived in these neighborhoods show that people from all over the Mesoamerican world came to live in Teotihuacan. The city is also believed to have had as many as 125,000 people at its height. These two facts make it an ancient multi-ethnic metropolis.

The three major temple sites at Teotihuacan are the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure built in the western hemisphere in the Pre-Columbian period at 207 feet (63 meters) in height and with a base that has a length of 738 feet (225 meters).

Pyramid of the Sun, Monte Alban

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan. (Gorgo / Public Domain)

These temples are all along the main north-south street going through the city which the Aztecs later called the Avenue of the Dead. Although Teotihuacan had been long since abandoned by the time that the Aztec Empire arose, it still played an important role in the Aztec religion and was regularly visited by pilgrims. The Aztec name for the city means ‘where the gods were created’.

Architectural similarities between Teotihuacan and Monte Alban suggest a connection between the two sites. Furthermore, both cities also collapsed or went into decline around the same time, during the 8th-9th centuries AD. This has led to speculation among archaeologists regarding the relationship between Teotihuacan and Monte Alban.

It is possible that Teotihuacan was the dominant city and that Monte Alban was a vassal of Teotihuacan. The opposite may also be true, however. The evidence could also imply that the similarity between architecture at Monte Alban and Teotihuacan is in fact Monte Alban influencing Teotihuacan. This, however, is less likely since Teotihuacan was a much larger city than Monte Alban.

Although the cities existed at the same time and influenced each other in terms of artistic styles, they were probably not part of the same civilization. For example, while the people of Monte Alban were Zapotec and worshiped the Zapotec gods, the people of Teotihuacan appear to have revered different deities. The focus of religion at Teotihuacan appears to have been concentrated on Tlaloc, a Mexican storm god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god rather than the Zapotec pantheon.

Despite the similarities in architecture and time period, there are notable differences in the religious activities at both cities which would make more sense if they were distinct states and that one did not dominate the other, though they may have been rivals.

Fall of Monte Alban

Archaeologists do not know exactly why Monte Alban fell. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether this was the result of conflict. The collapse of Monte Alban, however, did happen around the same time that there were major conflicts in other parts of Mesoamerica. One hypothesis, based on the possibility of military expansion playing a role in the rise of the city as a major regional power, is a sort of peasant revolt. It is possible that the elites at Monte Alban were oppressive overlords and the people just got fed up with them.

After the fall of Monte Alban, the Zapotecs faded in their influence and they were replaced by the Mixtecs who became dominant in the region. The Mixtec people themselves eventually came under the influence of the Aztecs. By the time the Spanish Conquistadores arrived, Monte Alban had been an uninhabited ruin for centuries.

The Legacy of Monte Alban

Monte Alban represents one of the earliest urban settlements in Mesoamerica and may have had significant influence on later Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mixtecs and the Aztecs. This makes it one of the defining civilizations of what is now called Mesoamerica. Much of what we associate with Mesoamerica in fact appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary and fortress in central Oaxaca.

Top image: Archaeological Site of Monte Alban - general view from the North Platform. Source: WitR / Adobe Stock.

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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