Great Native American Civilizations: Meso-America --The Zapotecs

Figure 1.--This magnificent Diego Riverra mural depicts the Zapotec people of southern Mexico. For vmany years it was thought that corn was first domesticated in the Central Valley of Mexico. Tere is increasing evident tht this occurred in southern Mexico. If is true that the Zaptecs are the peopole who first domesticated corn, it would make them among the most important people of history.

The Zapotecs in Meso-America were known as the 'Cloud People'. They inhabited the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, the Valley of Oaxaca--essentially the modern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The Zapotecs shared southern Mexico with the related Mixtec people. The Zapotec civilization was at its peak during the late- Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period (500 - 900 BC), but was a thriving civilzation at the time of the Spanish contact. In fact they were at war with the Aztecs when Cortez landed. Their capitals and most important cities were Monte Albán and then at Mitla. The Zapotecs dominated the southern highlands for centuries, a position between the Teotiahuacan/Aztecs to the north and the Maya to the east. They spoke several variations of the Oto-Zapotecan language--some of which were not mutually inteligible. At their peak, they profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations. The Zapotecs like most Meso-American people originated from northerly primitive tribes moving south into Meso-America where agriculture was developed. Their name appears to come from the fruit zapote, one of many tasty Central and South American fruits that have not been marketed to any extent in the United States. The Zapotec civilization developed from the agricultural communities which established themselves in the well-watered valleys in and around Oaxaca. The Zapotecs may have achieved one of the most important technological achievements in human history. Scholars increasingly believe that maize (corn) was first domesticated in southern Mexico. Both archaeological and genetic data now are leading to this conclusion. The oldest archaeological find of maize cobs dating to (4000 BC) has been found in the southern Mexican State of Oaxaca. [Pipierno and Flannery 2001] This strongly suggests it was domesticated by the people who developed into the Zapotecs. Maize was critical to Native american people, but it is now the single most importnt africultural crop in our modern world nd more effcently converts sunlight into food thn any other crop. Especially important in the development of the Zapotecs during the Pre-classic period was a valuable trade with the Olmec civilization to the north on the Gulf Coast. Ooaxca is essentially the crossroads of a continent. It comands trade routes between what is now Mexico and Central America as well as the Gulf and Pacific coasts. Agriculture and trade thus created the economic basis for the construction of their impressive capital and ceremonial center at Monte Albán. Their economic success enabled the Zapotec to dominate the region during the Classic period. Monte Alban was strategically sited overlooking the three main valleys.


Piperno D.R. and K.V. Flannery. "The earliest archaeological maize (Zea mays L.) from highland Mexico: new accelerator mass spectrometry dates and their implications, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA Vol. 98. 2001, pp. 2101-03.


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Created: 8:31 PM 7/31/2015
Last updated: 8:31 PM 7/31/2015