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Zapotecs: culture, gods, and civilization

The Zapotecs and their culture were of great importance in the pre-Hispanic era in the Oaxaca Valley. They managed to domesticate plants, collect them, and market them. Find out more about the success of this civilization here.

The Zapotecs and their culture flourished in the Oaxaca Valley, where they conquered territory and built large cities.

They managed to establish an intricate civilization with great technological and commercial advances thanks to their ability to interact with other cultures.

Find out more about everything the Zapotecs achieved before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Important cities of the Zapotecs

Monte ALban, an important city for Zapotecs and culture

The Zapotecs were an important culture in southern Mesoamerica. 

They began to thrive in the pre-Hispanic period, but it was not until the classical period, between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. that they saw their greatest boom.

The Zapotecs were baptized that way by the Aztecs. In Nahuatl “Tzapotéecatl” means: Zapote Village. 

However, in their language, the Zapotecs were called “Be’neza” which means “people of the clouds”. 

This is because its main city, Monte Albán, was on a hill and because of its height, its inhabitants lived among the clouds.

They settled in the Oaxaca Valley and, thanks to an intricate trading system, managed to dominate several areas of what is now the state of Oaxaca. 

They had settlements in areas they called:

  • Del Valle
  • De la Sierra
  • Southern

All these territories belonged to the same Zapotec people.

As mentioned before, Monte Albán was its main city. 

Currently, the archaeological zone is located at 10Km from the city of Oaxaca. 

This city was built on top of a hill to gain an advantage over enemies approaching from the valley. 

Thanks to the height, the Zapotecs were not taken unaware because they could see them from a distance.

The city of Monte Albán had pyramidal buildings for sacred rituals, tombs, and markets. 

Their organization also revolved around religious activities, there were areas of the city intended for housing the rulers who were themselves: priests, government officials, and for the rest of the inhabitants.

On the other hand, Monte Albán was a modern city. The layout of its buildings coincides with different astronomical phenomena.

At the same time, the J building of the archaeological zone seems to have been an observatory and its orientation coincides with the Constellation of Orion.

In terms of water supply, the city had an irrigation system for crops, as well as underground cisterns to reserve water for the inhabitants.

Another important city for the Zapotecs was Mitla.

This city was located in the south of the Oaxaca Valley.

The city was distinguished by its ornate buildings and located around the squares.

This city became the main one of the Zapotecs around 900 A.D., because, due to a commercial crisis, the inhabitants of Monte Albán would be forced to emigrate to look for other opportunities.

Finally, with the arrival of the Spaniards, the Zapotecs and their culture were conquered.

It is estimated that this happened between 1522 and 1527.

However, after the conquest, the Zapotecs continued to thrive in the Oaxaca region.

The customs and traditions of their ancestors are preserved today.

Important activities

Corn field, an important asset to Zapotecs culture

The Zapotecs were great merchants.

Much of its cultural prosperity was due to trade with the Olmecs on the southern Gulf coast.

As a primary activity they were engaged in:

  • Growing corn, beans, squash, coffee, wheat, and sugar cane
  • As well as hunting, fishing, and gathering

When these primary products were made, they could trade with other cultures.

This was what managed to spread them throughout the territory and to establish cities and a system to govern themselves.

However, it is estimated that around 800 A.D., the Zapotecs suffered a severe economic crisis.

It appears that trade channels with the Olmecs were lost, so the city of Monte Albán declined and was abandoned.

After this, Mitla would become the most important city for the Zapotecs, although they would not see a splendor as great as before.

The social organization of Zapotecs and their culture

The Zapotecs were governed by a system of pyramid classes. 

Those at the top enjoyed far more privileges than those at the bottom of the pyramid. 

In turn, that privileged position was reserved for the minority.

  • Rulers and priests: those who ruled over the Zapotecs, in turn, were priests in charge of the worship of the gods to ensure the prosperity of the people.
  • Nobles: caciques, high warriors, and government officials, important for political organization and war.
  • Merchants: because of the economic benefits they provided, they were provided with special privileges.
  • Artisans and peasants: this was the majority of the Zapotec population and they were in charge of working to supply the cities.
  • Slaves: This item had no rights, they were prisoners of war or criminals who were used to working without benefits of any kind.

For a long time the social organization of the Zapotecs was theocratic, that is, it revolved around religious activities. 

That is why the rulers were also priests and their activities were governed by the region. 

However, as culture flourished, they began to rely more on military organizations. 

Through war, cities were provided with tribute, slaves, and resources.

In turn, the Zapotecs had two calendars:

  • Yza calendar: a solar calendar of 365 days, divided into 18 months of 20 days. This calendar was used to carry crops.
  • Piye Calendar: A 260-day solar calendar, divided into 13 months of 20 days. This calendar was used for religious purposes and helped to name newborns.

The Zapotecs and their culture were not left behind in writing. The Zapotec language had about 100 and 300 different glyphs.

Handwriting samples have been found on stones and earthenware, shells, bones, ceramics, and skin.

Although it is also believed that they came to write in more flimsy materials such as paper.

Zapotec codices were written with colorful hieroglyphics on deerskin.

In these codices are preserved news of the pre-Hispanic peoples, as well as foundational stories of the peoples among other myths and diverse legends.

Gods of the Zapotecs and their culture

A decorated wall in Mitla, an important city for Zapotecs culture

The Zapotecs were polytheists, meaning that they worshipped more than one god. They had many, but some of them were:

  • Xipe Tótec: god of agriculture, disease, and spring
  • Pitao Copycha: sun god
  • Pitao Cozobi: god of corn
  • Quetzalcóatl: lord of the winds (minor deity in Zapotec culture, although it is important to mention it as a constant figure in various Mesoamerican cultures).
  • Pitao Cocijo:  god of rain and storm
  • Pitao Pezeelao: god of death and the underworld
  • Pitao Paa: god of commerce (they needed to have a deity for the activity that had brought them greater prosperity).

Zapotecs in their culture used to assign totemic animals to children.

On the day they were born, the “Tonal” rite was performed, which involved spreading ash around the newborn’s house and the imprint of the animal that was marked would be its totem pole.

That animal would represent him for life.

In turn, they believed in the “Nahuals”.

Sorcerers who took advantage of their totem to become animals at night and do evil.

Also, their dead and their ancestors were very important to the Zapotecs.

So, they had an important cult to them.

Traditions and festivals

The Zapotecs and their culture had multiple religious rites.

Many are preserved today but have resigned themselves to accord with the Catholic religion.

In turn, the pre-Hispanic symbols are preserved and are forms of identification of the Zapotec people.

These are some Zapotec traditions:

  • Xandhu: This is the day of the Zapotec dead. The celebration begins on October 22 with prayers to ask the dead to visit the homes of their relatives who are still alive on November 1. It is a time to remember the deceased as well as to sympathize with neighbors and friends who have lost someone in the year.
  • Guelaguetza: This is the most important festival in Oaxaca. In Zapoteco, it means to participate by cooperating. This feast arises as a veneration to the Corpus of the Church of Carmen del Alto. Villages from the eight regions with traditional dances participate.
  • Candles: the candles began to be made by the Zapotec peoples after the conquest. They are handmade with beeswax and decorated with wax flowers. They were used to offering the patron saints and in reality, because of their ritual meaning, they were not for sale properly, the artisans gave them to their relatives or exchanged them for material goods.
  • Dance of the Feather: this dance emerges as a way to recount the facts of the conquest. It is of Zapotec and Aztec origin and counts act by act, with dialogues, music, and dance, the facts of the conquest. It is usually the dance that closes the Guelaguetza.

Conclusions on Zapotecs and their Culture

The Zapotec culture was very important in pre-Hispanic history. They managed to cultivate and trade their raw materials with other peoples, which gave them great wealth.

At the same time, they had established an organized religious, political, and social system that allowed them to establish themselves in various areas under the same worldview.

Without a doubt, the Zapotecs were a civilization that stood out for its achievements.

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