History Files


The Americas

Central American Native Kingdoms





The peopling of the Americas remains a complicated subject, and one which is open to a great deal of debate. While earlier migrations are especially debated, it is generally accepted that there was a broad phase of migration (involving several individual waves of migration) into the 'New World' of the Americas between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. These first arrivals made the most of the Bering land bridge that joined Asia to North America during the most recent ice age. Others may have followed the coast in canoes, moving much more quickly than they would on foot. Over thousands of years these new arrivals filtered eastwards and southwards to produce the native American civilisations that are known to archaeology and history. Elements of modern native American society prefer to propose that they have always been living in the New World and that a migration simply did not take place, despite overwhelming evidence which places human evolution firmly in Africa.

One of the ancient peoples of Central America, the Zapotec spoke various dialects of an Oto-Manguean language. Their culture dates at least to 500 BC, which is when the archaeologically-termed Phase I of their civilisation was established. Their homeland was in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca (actually three valleys divided by a stretch of uninhabited land). This is now in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, along the Pacific coastline to the immediate south-west of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is where they remained focussed until at least AD 900 and the decline of Phase IV of their civilisation which saw a high level of outward migration. This was also the home of the so-called Valley Zapotec, the central group which was focussed around the traditional native lands, but there were also the Sierra Zapotec peoples of the north, and the Southern Zapotec to the south and east, nearer the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It seems to have been the Valley Zapotec who drove progression forwards, though. Monte Alban was one of their first major settlements - one of the first of its kind in Central America - and it lay at the centre of the Zapotec state which later dominated the region, built in the uninhabited zone between the three original Zapotec societies. A later capital was at Mitla in the eastern part of the valley, which gained prominence from around AD 700, just as Toltec civilisation was becoming prominent, and eventually displaced Monte Alban.

The Zapotec referred to themselves using a name that was something similar to 'Be'ena'a', which means 'The People'. The more commonly used name of 'Zapotec' was a later, Nahuatl term to describe them. This means literally 'people of the place of [the] Sapote', the word referring to the soft fruit which grows in this region. In English terms they could be the 'people of the fruit trees'. Zapotecs are also known as the 'Cloud People' due to their home being in the southern highlands of the central Mesoamerica region.

They had a written language, lived in cities (many more then those few mentioned here) and, typically for the peoples of Central America, were obsessed with calendars, mathematics, and death cults. They enjoyed trade and cultural links with the later civilisations, notably the Olmecs, Teotihuacan (before it was taken by the Toltecs), and Mayans. By the late pre-Classic period, Zapotec cities showed a high level of sophistication in architecture, the arts, writing, and engineering projects such as irrigation systems. Unfortunately, their writing does not contain any king lists, with only the invading Spanish recording the names of their last few rulers. Today, the surviving Zapotec peoples live in southern and eastern Oaxaca State in Mexico.

(Additional information from Zapotec Elite Ethnohistory: Pictorial Genealogies from Eastern Oaxaca, Joseph W Whitecotton (Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology No 39, 1990), from Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley, Joyce Marcus & Kent V Flannery (New Aspects of Antiquity series, 1996), from Cultural Evolution in Oaxaca: The Origins of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations, Joyce Marcus & Kent V Flannery (Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol II: Mesoamerica, Part 1, 2000), and from External Links: Zapotec Civilisation, Mark Cartwright (Ancient History Encyclopaedia), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

c.600s BC

The Zapotec people occupy scattered villages during the 'Early Formative' period. At least one centre of some importance also exists at San Jose Mogote, with this showing evidence of trade with the Olmecs. However, the Zapotec social system and interaction with other peoples such as the Olmecs is poorly understood. Even the way in which the Zapotecs are organised in their various chiefdoms is unclear at this time.

c.500 - 200 BC

Phase I of Zapotec culture (the 'Middle Formative' period) witnesses the establishment of Monte Alban, on a prominent set of interconnected hills of that name, one of which is levelled off to serve as the base for the city. Monte Alban becomes the leading Zapotec site. The growing wealth which allows the construction and continued expansion of this city is in part due to the establishment of healthy trading relations with the Olmecs along the Gulf Coast.

Known in archaeological terms as Monte Alban I, the city is strategically important as it overlooks the three main valleys in the region. It supersedes two previous Zapotec sites which are abandoned at about the same time, those at Etla Valley and San Jose Mogote. A continuation of pottery styles suggests that it is the people of the latter site who found Monte Alban, which is one of three different Zapotec societies that appear to vie for supremacy in the Oaxaca Valley, raiding and burning one another's temples and sacrificing some of their captives.

A peculiar set of reliefs carved into stone slabs at Monte Alban are affixed to the front of a rubble-faced platform mound and around a contiguous court. The reliefs are usually called danzantes, a name derived from the notion that they represent human figures in dance postures. In fact these figures are generally thought to represent the dead, and they are accompanied by unreadable hieroglyphs and, often, calendrical notations. It may well be the case that writing is first developed here in Mesoamerica and then exported to the rest of it.

fl 200s BC

Ten Jaguar

c.200 BC - AD 250

Phase II of Zapotec culture sees Monte Alban increase its power and control over the neighbouring regions. The Zapotec rulers of the city seize control of those provinces that lie outside of the valley because they are simply unstoppable. By now the population of Monte Alban may have reached a peak of twenty thousand people.

For the first three hundred years of this period, Monte Alban is able to begin an expansionist policy in the region. The city is too militarily and politically powerful for its neighbours to resist, with its expansion and dominance marking the high point of the Zapotec empire (archaeologically, this is the Monte Alban II phase, in which the city undergoes a significant level of rebuilding and expansion). Regions outside initial Zapotec control show a marked change now in pottery styles which match those of Monte Alban, showing that they have been taken over by the Zapotec.

However, after a century of this, walls and fortifications are built around Monte Alban, suggesting that the city is organising itself defensively in the face of an external (and unknown) threat, perhaps suggesting that its neighbours have now advances to the stage at which they are able to fight back against Monte Alban's creeping expansionism.

Cocijo stone mask

Stone mask of Cocijo, part of the Middle or Late Formative Zapotec era

c.250 - 700

Phase III of Zapotec culture (the 'Late Classic' period) sees the power and influence of the Zapotec peoples as a whole at its greatest height in what is now southern Mexico. The city of Monte Alban now enters the Monte Alban III phase of its existence, showing influences from Teotihuacan. It again reaches a peak population figure between about AD 400-700, this time around twenty-five thousand, whilst governing around a thousand settlements which are spread across the valley.

c.700 - 1000

Phase IV of Zapotec culture (otherwise known as the 'Early Post-Classic') pays witness to the decline of the empire, and the gradual abandonment of most of the Zapotec sites. The importance and habitation of Monte Alban gradually fades as a new, smaller capital replaces it - Mitla, in the eastern part of the Valley of Oaxaca, which they know as Lyobaa, 'place of rest'. The precise reasons for the decline are uncertain, but it is well known that the Mayans and Teotihuacan undergo a similar decline in the same general period so the effect must be a widespread one. Inter-state conflict increases, a sure sign that resources are becoming scarce.

1000 - 1500

Phase V (the 'Late Post-Classic') sees the arrival of the Mixtec, who occupy some former Zapotec sites which include Monte Alban and, eventually, Mitla. However, despite the Zapotec decline, they are still capable of fighting to defend their land, and the period is marked by incessant warfare between them and the Mixtec. Zapotec society is rebuilt to an extent, and both peoples also come into conflict with the growing power of the Aztecs to the north.

With Monte Alban taken out of their hands, the Zapotec found or rebuild another city which is named Zaachila after its ruler. Scholars differ over the city's origins, with the two main views being that it thrives from around 1100 or that it is specifically founded in 1399 as a new capital. Located on an island in the middle of a lake (just like Tenochtitlan), it becomes the last Zapotec capital after Mitla, but at a point before the arrival of the Spanish it is taken by Mixtecs.

1328 - 1361


King of Zaachila?

1361 - 1386


King of Zaachila?

1386 - 1415

Zaachila Yoo / Zachilla I

First king of Zaachila as Zapotec capital?

1415 - 1454

Zaachila II

King of Zaachila.


The Aztec empire is strengthened under Itzcoatl's successor, his nephew Moctezuma of Cuauhnahuac, with Tenochtitlan becoming the dominant member of the Triple Alliance. Moctezuma extends the alliance's borders to include the Huastec and Totonac peoples on the Gulf Coast and a garrison is installed in the Zapotec capital at Mitla. How soon after this point that Mitla falls to Mixtecs is unknown, but it cannot be long.

1454 - 1487

Zaachila III

King of Zaachila.

1487 - 1521

Cocijoeza / Cosijoeza

King of Zaachila. Died.

1497 - 1502

The Aztec emperor, Ahuitzotl, is an empire builder who more than doubles the size of his territory. His efforts include conquering the Zapotec peoples during his reign. This is the last Aztec-Zapotec battle. With the latter now being a conquered people they remain subservient to the Aztecs until the arrival of the Spanish.


When the news arrives that the Spanish have conquered the Aztec empire, the ruler advises his people not to offer any resistance themselves, in case they suffer the same fate. However, it takes several campaigns by the Spanish between 1522-1527 to conquer Zapotec resistance.

According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, on 24 April 1522, Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo, along with Pedro de Alvarado (second-in-command to Hernan Cortes), arrives at Tehuantepec. Cosijopii, the son of the late king and a relative of the late Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, receives them with open arms and 'embraced the Catholic Faith'.

1521 - 1563

Cocijopi Xolo / Cosijopii

Son. King of Zaachila. Accepted Christianity. Died 1563.

1522 - 1527

Spanish campaigns take place to subdue the rest of the Zapotec.

fl 1540s?


1550 & 1560

There are two Zapotec uprisings against the Spanish colonial authority of New Spain on these two dates, and it takes considerable effort on the part of the new masters of Central America to restore control. The Catholic Encyclopaedia regards these uprisings as attempts to revert to paganism. A final revolt takes place in 1715.