Monte Alban - Capital City of the Zapotec Civilization

Powerful Trade Partner of the Maya and Teotihuacan Cultures

Zapotec Ruins of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico
The Plaza at Zapotec Monte Alban, with Building J in the Foreground. Corbis / Getty Images

Monte Albán is the name of the ruins of an ancient capital city, located in a strange place: 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. One of the most well-studied archaeological sites in the Americas, Monte Alban was the capital of the Zapotec culture from 500 B.C.E. to 700 C.E., reaching a peak population of over 16,500 between 300–500 C.E.

The Zapotecs were maize farmers, and made distinctive pottery vessels; they traded with other civilizations in Mesoamerica including Teotihuacan and the Mixtec culture, and perhaps the classic period Maya civilization. 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.

Chronology

  • 900–1300 C.E. (Epiclassic/Early Postclassic, Monte Albán IV), Monte Alban collapses about 900 C.E., Oaxaca Valley with a more dispersed settlement
  • 500–900 C.E. (Late Classic, Monte Albán IIIB), slow decline of Monte Alban, as it and other cities are established as independent city states, influx of Mixtec groups into the valley
  • 250–500 C.E. (Early Classic period, Monte Albán IIIA), Golden Age of Monte Alban, architecture in the main plaza formalized; Oaxaca barrio established at Teotihuacan
  • 150 B.C.E.–250 C.E. (Terminal Formative, Monte Albán II), unrest in the valley, rise of the Zapotec state with the center at Monte Albán, city covered about 416 hectares (1,027 acres), with a population of 14,500
  • 500–150 B.C.E. (Late Formative, Monte Alban I), Oaxaca valley integrated as a single political entity, city increased to 442 ha (1,092 ac), and population of 17,000, well beyond its ability to feed itself
  • 500 B.C.E. (Middle Formative), Monte Alban founded by paramount rulers from San Jose Mogote and others in the Etla valley, site covers about 324 ha (800 ac), population of about 5,000 people

    The earliest city associated with the Zapotec culture was San José Mogoté, in the Etla arm of the Oaxaca Valley and founded about 1600-1400 B.C.E. Archaeological evidence suggests that conflicts arose in San José Mogoté and other communities in the Etla valley, and that city was abandoned about 500 B.C.E., at the same time that Monte Albán was founded.

    Founding Monte Alban

    The Zapotecs built their new capital city in a strange place, probably partly as a defensive move resulting from unrest in the valley. The location in the valley of Oaxaca is on the top of a tall mountain far above and in the middle of three populous valley arms. Monte Alban was far from the nearest water, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away and 400 meters (1,300 feet) above, as well as any agricultural fields that would have supported it. Chances are that Monte Alban's residential population was not permanently located here. 

    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—its structures can be seen in many places from the valley arms.

    Rise and Fall

    Monte Alban's golden age corresponds with the Maya Classic period, when the city grew,  and maintained trade and political relationships with many regional and coastal territories. Expansionist trade relationships included Teotihuacan, where people born in the Oaxaca valley took up residence in a neighborhood, one of several ethnic barrios in that city. Zapotec cultural influences have been noted in Early Classic Puebla sites east of modern day Mexico City and as far as the gulf coast state of Veracruz, although direct evidence for Oaxacan people living in those locations has not as yet been identified.

    The power centralization at Monte Alban decreased during the Classic period, when an influx of Mixtec populations arrived. Several regional centers such as Lambityeco, Jalieza, Mitla, and Dainzú-Macuilxóchitl rose to become independent city states by the Late Classic/Early Postclassic periods.

    None of these matched Monte Alban's size at its height.

    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 B.C.E., 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 building—its shape may have been intended to represent an arrowpoint—and a maze of narrow tunnels in the interior.

    Monte Albán's Excavators and Visitors

    Excavations at Monte Albán have been conducted by Mexican archaeologists Jorge Acosta, Alfonso Caso, and Ignacio Bernal, supplemented by surveys of the Valley of Oaxaca by US archaeologists Kent Flannery, Richard Blanton, Stephen Kowalewski, Gary Feinman, Laura Finsten, and Linda Nicholas. Recent studies include bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal materials, as well as an emphasis on the collapse of Monte Alban and the Late Classic reorganization of the Oaxaca Valley into independent city-states.

    Today the site awes visitors, with its enormous rectangular 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 its center. Monte Alban was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. 

    Sources