Monte Alban - Capital City of the Zapotec Civilization

Mesoamerica's Disembedded Capital

Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico
Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico. Schizoform

On the summit and shoulders of a very high, very steep hill in the middle of the semiarid Valley of Oaxaca, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, lies one of the most well-studied archaeological sites in the Americas. Known as Monte Albán, the site was the capital of the Zapotec culture from 500 BC to AD 700, reaching a peak population of over 16,500 between AD 300-500.

The earliest city eventually associated with the Zapotec culture was San José el Mogoté, also in the Oaxaca Valley and founded about 1600-1400 BC.

San José was abandoned about 500 BC, when Monte Albán was founded at the beginning of the Zapotec heyday. The Zapotecs built their new capital city in the middle of the valley of Oaxaca on the top of the tall mountain far above and in the middle of three populous valley arms. Monte Alban was 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) and 400 meters (1300 feet) from the nearest water and agricultural fields that would have supported it.

A city located so far away from the major population it serves is called a "disembedded capital", and Monte Albán is one of very few disembedded capitals known in the ancient world. The reason the founders of San Jose moved their city to the top of the hill may have included defense, but perhaps also a bit of public relations. 


  • 1000-1519, Late Postclassic, Monte Albán in slow decline in political importance in the valley (Monte Albán V)
  • 900-1300, Epiclassic/Early Postclassic, (Monte Albán IV)
  • 500-900 Late Classic (Monte Albán IIIB)
  • 250-500, Early Classic period, returned growth at Monte Albán, main plaza formalized (Monte Albán IIIA)
  • 150 BC-AD 250, Terminal Formative, unrest in the valley, rise of the Zapotec state with the center at Monte Albán, city covered about 416 hectares (1,027 acres), pop of 14,500 (Monte Albán II)
  • 500-150 BC, Late Formative, Oaxaca valley integrated as a single political entity, city to 442 ha (1092 ac), and population of 17,000, well beyond its ability to feed itself (Monte Alban I)
  • 500 BC (Middle Formative), Monte Alban founded by paramount rulers from San Jose Mogote, 324 ha (800 ac), 5,000 people

Monumental Architecture at Monte Alban

The site of Monte Albán has several memorable extant architectural features, including pyramids, thousands of agricultural terraces, and long deep stone staircases. Also still to be seen today are Los Danzantes, over 300 stone slabs carved between 350-200 BC, featuring life-sized figures which appear to be portraits of slain war captives. Building J, interpreted by some scholars as an astronomical observatory, is a very odd structure indeed, with no right angles on the exterior--perhaps intended to represent an arrow--and a maze of narrow tunnels in the interior.

The Zapotecs were maize farmers, and made distinctive pottery vessels; they traded with other civilizations in Mesoamerica included Teotihuacan and the Mixtec culture. They had a market system, for the distribution of goods into the cities, and like many Mesoamerican civilizations, built ball courts for playing ritual games with rubber balls.

Monte Albán's Excavators and Visitors

Excavations at Monte Albán have been conducted by Jorge Acosta, Alfonso Caso, and Ignacio Bernal, supplemented by surveys of the Valley of Oaxaca by Americans Kent Flannery, Richard Blanton, Stephen Kowalewski, Gary Feinman, Laura Finsten, and Linda Nicholas. Together these studies illuminate this strange yet familiar society.

Today the site awes visitors, with its enormous rectangular green grassed plaza with pyramid platforms on the east and west sides. Massive pyramid structures mark the north and south sides of the plaza, and the mysterious Building J lies near the center. Monte Alban was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. 


Damon EP, and Winter M. 1995. Building J at Monte Alban: A Correction and Reassessment of the Astronomical Hypothesis.

Latin American Antiquity 6(4):362-369.

Fargher LF. 2007. A Microscopic View of Ceramic Production: An Analysis of Thin-Sections from Monte Albán. Latin American Antiquity 18(3):313-332.

Faulseit RK. 2012. State collapse and household resilience in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 23(4):401-425.

Feinman G. 2007. The last quarter century of archaeological research in the central valleys of Oaxaca. Mexicon 29:3-15.

Feinman GM, and Nicholas LM. 1996. Defining the Eastern Limits of the Monte Alban State: Systematic Settlement Pattern Survey in the Guirun Area, Oaxaca, Mexico. Mexicon 18(5):91-97

Redmond EM, and Spencer CS. 2012. Chiefdoms at the threshold: The competitive origins of the primary state. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31(1):22-37. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2011.09.002

Spencer CS, Redmond EM, and Elson CM. 2008. Ceramic Microtypology and the Territorial Expansion of the Early Monte Albán State in Oaxaca, Mexico. Journal of Field Archaeology 33(3):321-341