Cultures & Traditions

Zapotec (Monte Albán)

Some of the earliest examples of writing in Mesoamerica can be found in the Zapotec area in the fertile area of the Valley of Oaxaca. Around 600 BCE the Zapotecs erected some of the earliest permanent architecture dedicated to public ritual at the site of San José Mogote. Beginning in 300 BCE, residents eventually settled at the hilltop site of Monte Albán, which dominated the Valley of Oaxaca and its surrounding areas for hundreds of years.

At Monte Albán they erected a great plaza with an enormous defensive wall. By 200 CE the Main Plaza was its largest in size and contained extensive warrior imagery as well as elaborate royal tombs with painted murals and decorated funerary urns placed under the North Platform. Building L, on the western edge of the plaza, features some of the most famous stone sculpture of the site. Over 300 carved stone slabs depicted naked, sometimes mutilated, male figures, which are often referred to as danzantes, or dancers, because of their distorted postures. The original placement displayed a massive gallery of stacked rows of these captives and sacrificial victims, communicating Monte Albán’s authority to its residents and to visitors throughout Mesoamerica. Building J continues this war-related theme, featuring hieroglyphic texts naming many of the places brought under Monte Albán’s control. A ruler commonly featured in both the monuments and text inscriptions is named 12 Jaguar, who dedicated the great South Platform, and images often include scenes of visitors from the powerful central Mexican city of Teotihuacán (Teotihuacan). Monte Albán seems to have had peaceful relations with Teotihuacán, though it was never as large or powerful.

The Zapotec people believed clouds were the primordial beings from which they descended, hence their name, Peni-Zaa or "cloud people." Zapotecs honored their ancestors who, after death, returned to the clouds. There, royal ancestors communed with lightning and other supernaturals, interceding on behalf of their earthly community. Deities associated with clouds and other related imagery feature prominently in the art of Monte Albán.

Adapted from

  • Kathy Windrow, DMA unpublished material (1972.11), 1992.

  • “Monte Albán.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/alban/hd_alban.htm (October 2001).

  • “Monte Albán: Sacred Architecture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/alban2/hd_alban2.htm (October 2001).

  • “Monte Albán: Stone Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/alban3/hd_alban3.htm (October 2001)

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