By Paul, 24th September 2006; Revised

Monte Alban, the Zapotec capital
Monte Alban, the Zapotec capital
The Oaxaca Valley is located along the Pacific coast in the southwest corner of Mexico.  Shaped like a ‘T’, it has an average altitude of 1,500 meters and varies greatly in climate.  During the Meso-American period,  the valley remained a region apart from the rest of Mexico in many ways.  Its highlands made it impenetrable to invaders and lack of resources, only 9% arable land, meant it could never support a large enough population for its inhabitants to expand outwardly. The people of the valley  were spread over a wide area in small isolated villages, keeping cultural integrity to a greater extent than the rest of Mexico. Even today, no less than sixteen (16) separate indigenous groups survive, speaking 14 languages and 90 dialects, indicating that more native people survived in the valley than in any other part of Mexico.

Oaxaca was first inhabited in prehistory by hunter gatherers making their way down from the north. Around 1500 B.C.E., these hunters began the first agricultural and communal living. The first distinct culture to inhabit Oaxaca was the Chatino in the southwest of Oaxaca, who were to have a long history. Arriving from an undisclosed ‘distant land‘, they were  highly militarist people who fought hard against both the Zapotec and Mixtec, and managed to resist all Zapotec attempts at conquest, before finally succumbing to Mixtec invasion. The Chatino called themselves Kitse Cha'tnio, which, evocatively, means "Work of the Words".

Around 1150 - 800 B.C.E, Oaxaca fell under a strong influence from the Olmec. Though the valley was never conquered by them, it was migrated to and strong trade and cultural ties emerged. It was during the Olmec trade period that the population of Oaxaca began to boom and distinct signs of civilization appeared, with elites and social structures emerging among indigenous people.  This was highly desirable for the Olmec as their civilization, at that period,  was chronically short of other advanced people to trade with.  They were always on the lookout for people advanced enough to extract and process raw materials from in exchange for Olmec goods.

The Olmec trade period came to an end, around 800 B.C.E., as more sophisticated cultures emerged along the gulf area. It became more practical for civilizations of the valley to trade with the local people, rather than ship goods huge distances to the Olmec.  Around 500 B.C.E.,  Monte Alban rose along with larger population centres. Carvings show that intermittent warfare occurred between the people living in the valley, with the Zapotec emerging dominant, though far from all-conquering by 200 B.C.E.

The Zapotec, the Cloud People,  were the first major native culture of Oaxaca. They were also the second illustrious civilization to emerge in Meso-America, after the Olmec. The Zapotec were knowledgeable in both complex Mayan mathematics and are believed to be the first Meso-Americans to develop writing. Their cities show evidence that, in their long history,  they freely traded with and took a lot of cultural influence from other cultures. Goods from the Olmecs, Teotihuacan and the Toltecs have especially  been found across the region and influences of their architecture are also very evident.

Their first capital, Monte Alban ( 500 B.C. - 900 A.D.), was built atop three hills, at the crux of the inverted Y shape that forms the valley,  giving it a tremendous strategic advantage.  At its height, between 0 - 500 A.D., the population of the city rose to over 30,000 inhabitants.  However, the city had no source of water,  which meant it was probably only an aristocratic and religious centre surviving from tributes of the estates below. In fact, water was a sparse commodity in the entire Oaxaca valley, giving any invaders terrible logistic problems, and a distinct advantage to the controlling Zapotec. This may possibly explain their longevity.

The Zapotec were unlike other Mexicans, believing they were the original inhabitants of the country born from rocks, trees, and jaguars. Other people prided themselves on  fabulous, biblical, Israelites-style migration myths. The Zapotec religion was partly animistic, where people worshiped their ancestors and indulged in an occasional human sacrifice.

Zapotec civilization went into decline shortly after Teotihuacan.  Around 900 A.D.,  they abandoned Monte Alban and moved to their religious center of Mitla, 40 km away, only to abandon same. The troubles of the Zapotec seemed to have roused a Mixtec migration into their lands. Over the next three centuries,  the Zapotec were to lose more and more of their lands, until, eventually,  surviving Zapotec were faced with a choice of staying in Oaxaca under Mixtec rule, or migrating. The independence-minded Zapotec overspilled into their neighbour’s territory where they seized the city of Tehuantepec from the Zoquean and Huavean, and made it their new capital.

Before the Mixtec's prolonged conquest of the Zapotec was complete,  both people fell under the gaze of the Aztec Empire, who coveted the valley's rich gold and obsidian mines. As a preliminary to invasion,  the Aztec closed both Mixtec and Zapotec trade routes, outside of Oaxaca. The Zapotec and Mixtec called a halt to hostilities between them and braced themselves for an inevitable invasion. When the great invasion eventually did come, in 1498 A.D., the Zapotec, almost 3,000 years into their civilization, chose that time to find their greatest chief, Cocijoeza. Knowing the Aztec would come across Mixtec lands first,  he promised aid to the Mixtec.  Trying to ensure that the Mixtec didn't sue for a separate peace, when hostilities began,  he made peace with the Aztec and left  them to fight a wearying war with the Mixtec. After several years, a weakened Aztec army finally achieved victory. Cocijoeza immediately betrayed the Aztec by attacking and defeating them. The Zapotec had ensured their survival from two larger and hungrier predators, playing them off against one another. Similarly, the Zapotec survived the Spanish conquest by allying with the Spanish in 1521 A.D., and aiding their conquest of the Mixtec Federation.
Mixtec, the death god
Mixtec, the death god
As Zapotec power waned after the fall of Teotihuacan, for the first time in it’s history,  the secure Oaxaca Valley was open to invasion by a major people. The Mixtec people that overcame Zapotec power spanned in a wide area of ancient Mexico. From the Puebla Valley and Guerrera, they spread into Oaxaca, some time in the 9th century, eventually to reach the Pacific coast. The Spanish often noted that they found the Mixtec to be the most alien of all Mexicans, Mixtec women dyed their skins yellow and the men often painted their bodies black. The Mixtec were famous for their medicinal skills and had some of the most advanced knowledge of astronomy, history and geography in the Americas. They also enjoyed the reputation of being the finest goldsmiths around.

More Mixtec writings survived than any other native people.  Mixtec Codecides date back to 692 A.D., but mention nothing of their previous origins. Studies into the Mixtec language have tried to rectify this omission and close linguistic ties have been discovered with the tongue of the Olmec-Huixtotin, the ancient salt harvesters of the Veracruz area.

The Mixtec realm in many ways resembled a Mexican Holy Roman Empire with a few princes of common bloodline in competition by inter-marriage and war. Several times in Mixtec history,  a prince would achieve great power,  but none would ever become supreme. The princes were separated into different noble ranks, similar to the European baron, earl, duke by purity of blood,  and could only increase their rank by marriage into a higher family. One method of achieving this was by war and by keeping their society in an almost permanent state of blood feud,  which is not dissimilar to the European dynastic wars.

The Mixtec war differed from Aztec war greatly.  The Mixtec didn't fight to gain sacrifices, but rather to slay their enemies as quickly as possible. A defeated prince and his male heirs were killed and his female heirs were married within the victor's family, with lineage being passable by the female line. A powerful Mixtec prince could be judged by the number of wives he had taken from his slain cousin’s harem.

The Mixtec war was a civilized affair. The mountainous terrain of Oaxaca meant cities were powerful fortresses and virtually impregnable. Battles back then were prearranged on neutral ground and a date and time was set.  The women and children of warring nations were taken to places of safety, usually impenetrable mountains tops. The dynastic wars, like medieval wars in Europe,  were fought mostly between nobles, only ten percent of the peasants were eligible for military service.

To balance the system and to try and stop disputes from becoming too common or bloody,  a powerful priesthood existed. At the head were three pope-like oracular priests,  who was each dressed as a different god from their pantheon which seemed to represent the embodiment of the deities on earth. These oracles were often charged to judge internal disputes between princes, and possessed their own armies to enforce their judgment.

Each princedom itself was a hereditary monarchy based on primogeniture. Below the monarch was a regimented noble caste who served as governor and seemed to have the monopoly on trade. Below them, a multi-tiered priesthood whose job was as keeper of the sacred astronomical, mathematical and historical knowledge,  and also to understand the writing of the ancestors and interpret them. Next came the serfs who were artisans and farmers, but possessed no power in the pyramidal society. Slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder, being those who had committed crimes of accumulated debt.  Apart from the highest level of nobility,  the social division between women didn't appear to be so strong as with men, as women were more restricted to the role of wives and mothers.

As the Mixtec advanced south they came into contact with the aged Zapotec civilization.  They rebuilt many of their cities, including the Zapotec holy city of Mitla, which they made their holy own city, and the long abandoned Monte Alban, which they restored as a burial ground. In a long and sporadic war that saw the two divided people intermarrying and often allying within internal disputes among their own people,  the Mixtec gradually wrestled control of the Oaxaca valley from the Zapotec. The war was eventually brought to a halt when both people fell prey to the Aztec.  In a notably bloody war,  the Mixtec Federation eventually succumbed to the might of the Sun People, but their vast distance from Tenochtitlan ensured that they never fully fell under Aztec control.

Finally, the Mixtec gold working skills didn't go unnoticed by the Spanish and another bitter war ensued. They fought the Spanish to a standstill, but were eventually defeated by the Zapotec when they allied with the Spanish.

Another civilization to rival that of the Mixtec was the Cuicateco. Unfortunately,  little is known of the Cuicateco due to the destruction of their codex and maps by the Spanish. They are thought to have been refugees from the Toltec Empire when it was overrun by barbarians in the 11th century. They settled in the northwest of the valley and were conquered by the Mixtec when they migrated.  However, the Cuicateco managed to free themselves from Mixtec rule by allying with the Aztec when they arrived and aiding them in their war with the Mixtec.

The Cuicateco were not the only Toltecs to move to Oaxaca seeking refuge amongst their civilized former trading partners as the north was overrun by barbarians. One group of Toltec migrants were the Mazatecos, possibly the Nonoalca-Chichimecas from Tollan itself, calling themselves, Shuta Enima, People of Custom.

During the Post-Classic 900 C.E. to the conquest, the relative safety and civilization of the Oaxaca valley, compared to the turmoil of the rest of Meso-America, saw it attracting an increasing number of migrants. By land and sea, large numbers of tribal groups began moving into the valley from the south. These people were highly diverse in both language, culture and numbers. The most well known of these is probably the Mixe, who are often considered the third forgotten major power in the valley. Occupying the northeastern corner,  they were too isolated to come under any major threat from the Mixtec or Zapotec, with whom they had a long term rivalry. The Mixe believed themselves to have originated in Peru.  They had migrated in 1294 in search of their god, Condoy,  who resided on the sacred mountain of Zempaltepelt, the hill of twenty gods in the Oaxaca highlands. The Mixe allied themselves with the Zapotec to resist the Aztec invasion. Due to their mountainous terrain,  they were never subdued by the Spanish.  They allied with both the Zapotec and the Zoave to fight the Spanish in 1522-23. In 1570. [1] Mr. Spores records, "rampaged through the Sierra Zapoteca, burning and looting Zapotec communities and threatening to annihilate the Spaniards in [the presidio of] Villa Alta." The Spaniards, however, in alliance with 2,000 Mixtec from Cuilapa and Aztec living in Analco, were able to contain the rebellion. Following this defeat, the Mixes "elected to retreat to the remoteness of their mountain villages rather than risk inevitable destruction. There they remained throughout the colonial period, and it is there that they may be found today."  In fact, Antonio Gay stated that the Spaniards "never emerged victorious over the Mixes."

Another major people to enter the valley were the Chontales,  who possibly migrated from Nicaragua.  After being forced from their homelands by invaders, they founded a small kingdom, in 1347,  in the centre of the valley, and immediately came into conflict with the Zapotec, who eventually defeated them. Two more migrating people were the Amuzgos, who called themselves Tzjon Non, which means People of the Textiles. They fell to an invasion by Moctezuma Illhuicamia in 1457, but rebelled in 1494 and 1504-7. The Huave arrived in the valley by sea from the distant south, and finally settled on the Tehuantepec Coast, which was already occupied by the Mixe and with whom they enjoyed a peaceful co-existence. They flourished and carved out a small empire along the Paicific coast known by the Spanish as Jalapa del Marques, but fell victim to an Aztec invasion by Moctezuma I and were forced to pay tribute. Taking advantage after their defeat of the Aztec, the Zapotec expelled them from their territory and forced them into a small corner of the Tehuantepec Coast, where they remain today.

Many minor people lived in the valley throughout its history. Spending much of their time making up the conquered territories of the Zapotec and Mixtec empires,  they are often omitted from accounts. The Triquis, a people who moved into the heart of Mixtec territory and lived under both Mixtec and Zapotec dominance, managed to maintain cultural and linguistic independence. The Popoloca, a general Aztec term meaning ’barbarian’ referring to all people who don’t speak Náhuatl, are spread throughout the valley in small groups, calling themselves Homshuk, which means God of Corn. The Tacuates called their territory "Land of the Serpents" and speak a Mixtec dialect. The Zoque, also called the Aiyuuk,  fell under Zapotec dominance and may have been a Mayan people, who had enough cultural similarities to suggest a common origin with the Mixe. The Chocho, who were annexed into the Mixtec heartland, called themselves the Runixa Ngiigua or "Those Who Speak". and were partially liberated from Mixtec rule by the Aztec, whom they became a tributary of. The Ixcateco were the smallest and poorest of the tribes. Living in the arid town of Santa Maria de Ixcatlán,  they escaped interest from anyone until becoming an Aztec tributary. The Chinantaecos, living in the lush northern border of Veracruz, became a numerous minor power in their own right. Their success attracted the attention of their neighbors and they fought back a series of invasions by the Mixtec and Zapotec only to fall to Moctezuma I.

Following the Spanish conquest, a series of 19 epidemics hit the valley, including, smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cacomistle.  It is estimated that between 1520 and 1650,  the population dropped from one and a half million people to a hundred and fifty thousand.

Nigel Davies - The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico
John Pohl - Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec
Famsi website
John P. Schmal - Oaxaca: A Land of Diversity
Ross Hassig - War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica

[1] John P. Schmal - Oaxaca: A Land of Diversity