The Mixtec: An Ancient Culture of Southern Mexico

An Ancient Culture of Southern Mexico

the ancient Palace of the Columns, Oaxaca, Mexico on a sunny day.
Palace of the Columns, Mitla, an ancient Mixtec site, Oaxaca, Mexico. R H Productions / robertharding / Getty Images

The Mixtecs are a modern Indigenous group in Mexico with a rich ancient history. In pre-Hispanic times, they lived in the western region of the state of Oaxaca and part of the states of Puebla and Guerrero and they were one of the most important groups of Mesoamerica. During the Postclassic period (AD 800-1521), they were famous for their mastery of artworks such as metalworking, jewelry, and decorated vessels. Information about Mixtec history comes from archaeology, Spanish accounts during the Conquest period, and Pre-Columbian codices, screen-folded books with heroic narratives about Mixtec kings and nobles.

The Mixtec Region

The region where this culture first developed is called the Mixteca. It is characterized by high mountains and narrow valleys with small streams. Three zones form the Mixtec region:

  • Mixteca Alta (High Mixteca) with an elevation ranging between 2500 and 2000 meters (8200-6500 feet).
  • Mixteca Baja (Low Mixteca), between 1700 and 1500 m (5600-5000 ft).
  • Mixteca de la Costa (Mixtec Coast) along the Pacific coast.

This rugged geography didn't allow for easy communication across the culture, and probably explains the great differentiation of dialects within the modern Mixtec language today. It has been estimated that at least a dozen different Mixtec languages exist.

Agriculture, which was practiced by the Mixtec peoples at least as early as 1500 BC, was also affected by this difficult topography. The best lands were limited to the narrow valleys in the highlands and few areas on the coast. Archaeological sites like Etlatongo and Jucuita, in the Mixteca Alta, are some examples of early settled life in the region. In later periods, the three sub-regions (Mixteca Alta, Mixteca Baja, and Mixteca de la Costa) were producing and exchanging different products. Cocoa, cotton, salt, and other imported items including exotic animals came from the coast, while maize, beans, and chiles, as well as metals and precious stones, came from the mountainous regions.

Mixtec Society

In pre-Columbian times, the Mixtec region was densely populated. It has been estimated that in 1522 when the Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado—a soldier in Hernan Cortés's army—traveled among the Mixteca, the population was over a million. This highly populated area was politically organized into independent polities or kingdoms, each ruled by a powerful king. The king was the supreme governor and leader of the army, assisted by a group of noble officials and counselors. The majority of the population, however, was made up of farmers, artisans, merchants, serfs, and enslaved people. Mixtec artisans are famous for their mastery as smiths, potters, gold-workers, and carvers of precious stones.

A codex (plural codices) is a pre-Columbian screen-fold book usually written on bark paper or deerskin. The majority of the few Pre-Columbian codices that survived the Spanish conquest come from the Mixtec region. Some famous codices from this region are the Codex Bodley, the Zouche-Nuttall, and the Codex Vindobonensis (Codex Vienna). The first two are historical in content, whereas the last one records Mixtec beliefs about the origin of the universe, their gods, and their mythology.

Mixtec Political Organization

Mixtec society was organized in kingdoms or city-states ruled by the king who collected tribute and services from the people with the help of his administrators who were part of the nobility. This political system reached its height during the Early Postclassic period (AD 800-1200). These kingdoms were interconnected with each other through alliances and marriages, but they were also involved in wars against each other as well as against common enemies. Two of the most powerful kingdoms of this period were Tututepec on the coast and Tilantongo in the Mixteca Alta.

The most famous Mixtec king was Lord Eight Deer "Jaguar Claw," ruler of Tilantongo, whose heroic actions are part history, part legend. According to Mixtec history, in the 11th century, he managed to bring together the kingdoms of Tilantongo and Tututepec under his power. The events that led to the unification of the Mixteca region under Lord Eight Deer "Jaguar Claw" are recorded in two of the most famous Mixtec codices: the Codex Bodley, and the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Mixtec Sites and Capitals

Early Mixtec centers were small villages located close to productive agricultural lands. The construction during the Classic Period (300-600 CE) of sites like Yucuñudahui, Cerro de Las Minas, and Monte Negro on defensible positions within the high hills has been explained by some archaeologists as a period of conflict among these centers.

About a century after Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw united Tilantongo and Tututepec, the Mixtec expanded their power to the Valley of Oaxaca, a region historically occupied by Zapotec people. In 1932, the Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso discovered in the site of Monte Albán—the ancient capital of the Zapotecs—a tomb of Mixtec nobles dating to the 14th-15th century. This famous tomb (Tomb 7) contained an amazing offering of gold and silver jewelry, elaborately decorated vessels, corals, skulls with turquoise decorations, and carved jaguar bones. This offering is an example of the skill of Mixtec artisans.

At the end of the pre-Hispanic period, the Mixtec region was conquered by the Aztecs. The region became part of the Aztec empire and the Mixtecs had to pay tribute to the Aztec emperor with gold and metal works, precious stones, and the turquoise decorations for which they were so famous. Centuries later, some of these artworks were found by archaeologists digging in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs.


  • Joyce, AA 2010, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Chatinos: Ancient peoples of Southern Mexico. Wiley Blackwell.
  • Manzanilla, Linda and L Lopez Lujan, eds. 2000, História Antigua de México. Porrua, Mexico City.
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Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Mixtec: An Ancient Culture of Southern Mexico." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 27). The Mixtec: An Ancient Culture of Southern Mexico. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Mixtec: An Ancient Culture of Southern Mexico." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).