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The Americas

Central American Native Kingdoms


Zapotecs (Mesoamerica)

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 coastline 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), 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. The Valley Zapotec were the central group of three, 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. 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. This 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 apparently 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 Sapote 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 it was only the invading Spanish who record a meaningful list of their last few rulers. Today, the surviving Zapotec peoples live in southern and eastern Oaxaca State in Mexico.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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), from Mexico and the United States, Vol 1, Lee Stacy (Ed, 2003), from Conquest of the Sierra: Spaniards and Indians in Colonial Oaxaca, John K Chance (1989), and from External Links: Zapotec Civilisation, Mark Cartwright (Ancient History Encyclopaedia), and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The political collapse of Chichén Itzá in climatic and cultural context (Science Direct).)

c.600s BC

The Zapotec people occupy scattered villages during the 'Early Formative' period of Mesoamerican history (otherwise referred to as the 'Rosario phase'). 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.

Cocijo stone mask
This stone mask of Cocijo, the Zapotec god of the rain, carries a stylised face of a jaguar and was created in the Middle or Late Formative Zapotec era (500 BC - AD 250)

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 (circa 400-100 BC), 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

Affirmed as early Zapotec leader - no other details available.

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 (100 BC to AD 100), in which the city undergoes a significant level of rebuilding and expansion). Regions outside initial Zapotec control now show a marked switch in pottery styles to those which match Monte Alban's, 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. This sort of reaction often suggests that a powerful city's neighbours have now advanced to the stage at which they are able to fight back against creeping expansionism.

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 (AD 200-900), 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.

Monte Alban
The Zapotec city of Monte Alban was founded around 500 BC as a new capital which overlooked the three valleys and gave its inhabitants a commanding position over them, remaining the Zapotec capital until around AD 1350 at the latest

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 (Monte Alban IV, AD 900-1350). The replacement is 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 (Monte Alban V, AD 1350-1521) and, eventually, Mitla. Researchers have noticed a slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern territory of the Mayans in the Yucatan which takes place against a backdrop of severe drought. But this drought is far more severe - the worst drought that the region has seen for fully two thousand years - a so-called megadrought. It is entirely possible that the more northerly regions of Mesoamerica are similarly affected, triggering migrations which could include the Chichimec, Mixtec, and early Aztecs, and causing the sudden crash of an establishing farming-based society like that of the Toltecs.

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, and then Mitla, 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 as a response to the loss of Mitla. 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.

Another Zapotec kingdom is Xaltepec, which is located in the tropical rain forest in the north-east of Zapotec territory. This has a dependency named Nanacatepec which lies directly to the south, while the city of Guaspaltepec is to the north. These cities are more basic, consisting mainly of simple peasant settlement according to later Spanish documentation.

1328 - 1361


King of Zaachila? Or Mitla?

1361 - 1386


King of Zaachila? Or Mitla?

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 at Mitla, seemingly after it has fallen to the Mixtecs.

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 - ostensibly an ally under the terms of an alliance - they remain subservient to the Aztecs until the arrival of the Spanish.

Artist's recreation of Tenochtitlan
This is an artist's impression of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan at the height of its glory and power, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish quickly put an end to it


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. 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'. It would seem that he remains on the throne, ostensibly as a Spanish ally, but it is clear where the true power resides.

1521 - 1563

Cocijopi Xolo / Cosijopii

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

1522 - 1527

The core Zapotec cities may have opened their gates to the newcomers but the Sierra Zapotec to the north are in a state of total war. One important area of expansion is the Bixanos Zapotec community of Choapan, which counts as its allies Comaltepec and Latani, amongst others.

This alliance is led by a powerful cacique (chief) called Tela and his son, Theolao, and various cadet branches of illustrious royal forbears. It has founded Comaltepec and several other towns during its expansion, and may still be at war with its Zapotec neighbours even after the Spanish arrival.

However, it is more likely that these Zapotec have united in the face of a greater threat as they are also at war with the neighbouring Mixtecs.

fl 1520s


Chief of Choapan. Died about 1558.

Several campaigns are required before the Spanish can say for certain that they have subdued the rest of the Zapotec and also the Mixtecs, perhaps even setting up a fort in the border between the two lands.

Although Cocijopi Xolo seemingly remains on the Zapotec throne, his lack of resistance to the Spanish still leads to others assuming the mantle of resistance leader, most notably Nucano in the 1540s.

fl 1540s?


Led an uprising against the Spanish.

1550 & 1560

Against the background of the Chichimeca War (1550-1591, in which the Chichimecs give Spain's colonial ambitions a bloody nose), there are two Zapotec uprisings against the authority of New Spain on these two dates.

It takes considerable effort on the part of the new Spanish Colonial 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, although this must be a weak effort after two centuries of Spanish rule has resulted in the Zapotec population falling from around 450,000 to 35,000, mostly due to disease. However, the modern Zapotec population stands at around 300,000, with most of them still living in the Oaxaca region and most still speaking Zapotec (with low literacy levels and a poor grasp of Spanish, or none at all).

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