The Zapotec are an ethnic group that has long inhabited modern Oaxaca in Mexico. The ancient Zapotec produced one of Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations, replete with cities, monumental architecture, writing and calendrical systems, accomplished artisans, complex sociopolitical organization, and far-reaching economic ties. Contemporary Zapotec peoples refer to their ancestors as binni gula’sa’ (or Ben Zaa), the Cloud People, and in doing so stress the vibrant role of the past in their present-day lives. Similarly, binni sa, or binni za, which translates as “the type of people we are,” is also used. This term offers a desirable alternative to Zapotec, which is a Nahuatl-derived word and thus an externally imposed category.
Predicated upon linguistic evidence, scholars have argued that the Zapotec and Mixtec, another ethnic group of Mexico, split from one another as early as 3700 BC. By approximately 1500 BC, the Zapotec most likely occupied areas in present-day Oaxaca. The fertile Valley of Oaxaca long served as the heartland of Zapotec civilization. Communities were established throughout the valley’s three arms, the best-known being San Jose Mogote and Tierras Largas in the Etla subvalley. At the end of the Rosario phase (ca. 700-500 BC), settlement in the valley’s arms dramatically declined. This decline coincides with initial occupation of Monte Alban. Scholars have argued that the center, which would become the Zapotec capital, was established by a confederation of elites. Cultural elements and material remains distinguishable as ethnically Zapotec crystallized between 400 BC and AD 100.
Monte Albân is situated atop a 400-meter mountain at the junction of the Oaxaca Valley’s three arms. There is no known natural source of water, suggesting that the location was selected as a consequence of physical centrality, political strategy, and military defense. The center’s inhabitants carved agricultural and domestic terraces from the mountain’s slope, and they leveled its top. To meet the growing center’s sustenance demands, Monte Albân’s inhabitants developed the surrounding piedmont via intensive canal irrigation. By the Monte Albân II period (ca. 200 BC-AD 100), an administrative hierarchy, palace structures, royal tombs, and monuments depicting conquest were all in evidence at the center. It is this last attribute that informs our understanding of the methods used to consolidate the Oaxaca Valley. The emergence of the Zapotec state appears to have been wedded with violence. Architecture and iconography at Monte Albân underscore the need for defense and success in conquest. Fortifications ring the hilltop city, and stone slabs carved with naked, mutilated, and slain individuals adorn the eastern wall of Building L. These images were originally identified as danzantes (dancers), and most likely represent prisoners, who were of Zapotec ethnicity, captured during military campaigns. Such evidence suggests that, even in antiquity, the Zapotec were by no means a unified ethnic group.
During this time, Zapotec influence reached beyond the borders of the valley’s three arms. A Zapotec presence at the central Mexican site of Teotihuacân is particularly noteworthy. Ceramic wares and tombs in Monte Albân styles suggest that the Zapotec had established an Oaxaca Barrio, and maintained a politically autonomous and amicable relationship with Teotihuacânos. Such amicability does not seem to characterize interactions between the Zapotecs and other foreigners. Iconography associated with Building J at Monte Albân provides evidence of these aggressive interactions. “Conquest slabs,” carved with place glyphs and inverted human heads, were inset into the external façade of the building. Scholars have argued that these images represent foreign communities conquered or colonized by the Zapotec.
By AD 800, authority held by the Zapotecs of Monte Alban had waned, as did the city’s population numbers. Elsewhere in the Oaxaca Valley, other Zapotec centers increased in importance and size, such as Zaachila and Mitla. Joyce Marcus has noted that during this period the Zapotec experienced a shift from political centralization to balkanization, in which power was divided amongst numerous, competing centers. By the Postclassic period (ca. AD 1000), defensive response and not offensive strategizing characterized military force, as the Zapotec resisted political expansion by first the Mixtec and later the Mexica (more commonly known as the Aztec).
At the time of Spanish Conquest in 1519, political and linguistic fragmentation between the different Zapotec groups of the highlands, the valley, the coast, and the isthmus had occurred. European conquerors and chroniclers, however, treated diverse native peoples as a homogenous ethnic group—indios—in their policies and literary descriptions. In 1528, King Carlos V bestowed upon Hernan Cortes, famed conqueror of Mexico, an encomienda that encompassed large portions of the Oaxaca Valley and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. As Marquesado del Valle, Cortes controlled these lands’ resources, including its indigenous labor pool. In the colonial aftermath, forced servitude and—more prominently—the spread of Old World disease for which native peoples had no natural immunity dramatically reduced the number of Zapotec peoples. Moreover, Dominican missionaries were strongly opposed to the Zapotec’s animistic religious practices. In particular, Zapotec rituals invoked the spirits of deceased ancestors, paid respect to supernatural beings like Lightning (Cociyo) and Clouds (Zaa), imbued all animate objects with the vital force pee (“wind,” “breath,” or “spirit”), and sanctified natural landscape features like caves and mountains.
Despite population loss and forced conversion to Christianity, the Zapotec did not succumb easily to European dominance. Through the centuries, numerous resistance movements flourished as Zapotecs from distinct regions unified. This resistance was at times overtly violent, as well as more covert in that the Zapotec continued with religious practices deemed idolatrous and forbidden by the Church. Zapotec identity was maintained within villages, which were composed primarily of peasants and characterized by their isolation and conservative attitudes. These communities actively and effectively opposed colonizers’ political and socioeconomic changes. Subsistence strategies continued to include fishing, hunting, small-scale agriculture, maize cultivation, and salt collecting, and artisans persisted in their production of native crafts. Modernization and capitalism, which significantly restructured sociopolitical organization and economic structures, has not dampened ethnic solidarity. Rather, by drawing on components of Zapotec identity, represented as ancient and long-standing, politicians and intellectuals have been active in implementing social change and reviving cultural practices. Indeed for contemporary Zapotec peoples, the past is power.