The Zapotecs, known as the ‘Cloud People’, dwelt in the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, specifically, in the Valley of Oaxaca, which they inhabited from the late Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period (500 BCE – 900 CE). Their capital was at Monte Albán, they dominated the southern highlands, spoke a variation of the Oto-Zapotecan language, and profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations.
The Zapotecs grew from the agricultural communities which grew up in the valleys in and around Oaxaca. In the Preclassic period they established fruitful trade links with the Olmec civilization on the Gulf Coast which allowed for the construction of an impressive capital site at Monte Albán and for the Zapotec to dominate the region during the Classic period. The city, strategically placed overlooking the three main valleys, evolved over centuries, beginning around 500 BCE and remaining the cultural centre until the demise of the civilization around 900 CE.
The Zapotec had other significant settlements besides the capital and over 15 elite palaces have been identified in the surrounding valleys. Indeed, the Zapotec may be divided into three distinct groups: the Valley Zapotec (based in the Valley of Oaxaca), the Sierra Zapotec (in the north), and the Southern Zapotec (in the south and east, nearer the Isthmus of Tehuantepec). The major Zapotec sites, spread across the Y-shaped Valley of Oaxaca, include the capital Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Huitzo, Etla, San Jose Mogote, Zaachila, Zimatlan, Ocotlan, Abasolo, Tlacolula, and Mitla.
By the late Preclassic period Zapotec cites show a high level of sophistication in architecture, the arts, writing and engineering projects such as irrigation systems. For example, at Hierve el Agua there are artificially terraced hillsides irrigated by extensive canals fed by natural springs. Evidence of contact with other Mesoamerican cultures can be seen, for example, at the site of Dainzu, which has a large stone-faced platform with reliefs showing players of the familiar Mesoamerican ball game wearing protective headgear. We also know of very close relations between the Zapotec and the peoples based at Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico. Indeed, at Teotihuacan there was even a quarter of the city specifically reserved for the Zapotec community.
Quite why the city and the Zapotec civilization collapsed at Monte Albán is not known, only that there is no trace of violent destruction and that it was contemporary with the demise of Teotihuacan and a general increase in inter-state conflict. The site continued to be significant, though, as it was adopted by the later Mixtec as a sacred site and place of burial for their own kings. The Zapotecs did not disappear completely, however, for in the early Post-Classic period they established a new, smaller centre at Mitla, known to them as Lyobaa or ‘Place of Rest’ which also had many fine buildings including the celebrated Hall of the Columns. The site continued to be occupied even up to the Spanish conquest.