Cultures & Traditions


The Mixtec people lived for centuries in the mountainous region of what is today southern Mexico, in the western part of the state of Oaxaca and in adjacent areas of the states of Guerrero and Puebla. From about 1000 to 1400 CE, the Mixtecs settled in ancient communities in valleys separated by mountain ranges. Each of these valleys was ruled by a local lord. Mixtecs were distinguished by its stratified society and the sophisticated skills of its specialized craftsmen, who were widely recognized for their superb work in turquoise mosaic and in gold. They also produced pictorial manuscripts—folding deerskin books—and elaborately painted ceramics. In the 15th century, when the contemporary Aztec people began to expand their empire outward from Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico, they brought the Mixtec area under their control. To maintain peace, the Mixtec people paid tribute to the Aztecs. This took the form of fine textiles, collars of greenstone beads, bunches of green feathers, bags of prized red dye (cochineal), and quantities of gold dust.[1] In their native language, Nahuatl, the Aztecs called the Mixtec area Mixtlan, “place of clouds,” and the people became known as “cloud people.”[2] The Mixtecs called themselves ñuu-dzavui, “people of rain” or “people of the rain deity.”[2] Dzavui (also spelled Dzahui and Savi) is the Mixtec word for rain and the Mixtec name for the rain god.

[1] Richard F. Townsend, ed., The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (Art Institute of Chicago, 1993): 90.

[2] Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Cloud People : divergent evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations (Clinton Corners, NY: Percheron Press, 1983): xxi.

Adapted from

  • Ken Kelsey, Gail Davitt, Mary Ann Allday, Barbara Barrett, and Dana DeLoach, DMA Teaching Packet, 1995.

  • Carol Robbins, "Head of the rain god Tlaloc (1967.5)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 192.

Related Multimedia

3rd lecture in Art of the New World series;Dr. Bruce Byland is from State University of New York; series focuses on Pre-Columbian holdings in DMA permanent collection
Learn about the Mixtec culture.

Web Resources

    Read about the Historic Centre of Oaxaca and the Archaeological Site of Monte Albán.

  • Khan Academy
    Read about the Mixtec Codex Zouche Nuttall.

  • Khan Academy
    Read about Mixtec sacrificial knives.

  • National Geographic
    Read about a burial site in Mexico that reveals more about Mixtec funerary rituals involving cremation.