History Files


The Americas

Central American Native Kingdoms





One of the ancient peoples of Central America, the Zapotec spoke various dialects of an Otomangean language, and called themselves something similar to 'Be'ena'a', which means 'The People' ('Zapotec' was a later, Nahuatl term to describe them). Their culture dates to at least 500 BC, centred on the modern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, to the immediate north-west of the Yucatan Peninsula. 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.

Today, the surviving Zapotec peoples live in southern and eastern Oaxaca State in Mexico. They had a written language, lived in cities, and, typically for the peoples of Central America, were obsessed with calendars, mathematics, and death cults.

c.500 - 200 BC

Phase I of Zapotec culture witnesses the establishment of Monte Alban, which becomes the leading Zapotec site. This 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.

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.

c.200 BC - AD 200

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, marking the high point of the empire. 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 soon advance to the stage where they are able to fight back.

Cocijo stone mask

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

c.250 - 700

Phase III of Zapotec culture sees the power and influence of the Zapotec peoples at its greatest height in what is now southern Mexico.

c.700 - 1000

Phase IV of Zapotec culture pays witness to the decline of the empire, and the gradual abandonment of most of the Zapotec sites.

1000 - 1500

Phase V sees the arrival of the Mixtec, who occupy some former Zapotec sites. 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.

1487 - 1529

Cocijoeza / Cosijoeza

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.


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 the Zapotec peoples.

1529 - 1530s

Cocijopi Xolo

Died 1563.

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. A final revolt takes place in 1715.