The foundation of Monte Albán around 500 B.C. marks a change in the lifestyle which had been developing up to that point in the region which nowadays is the State of Oaxaca. By this time, urban centres have become points of focus for society. Monte Albán was built on a hillside which was progressively modified by its early builders.

Research has shown Monte Albán was founded by the same Zapotec-related groups who were living in the valley of Oaxaca. It is probable that existing economic and political pressures led certain families from the surrounding villages to colonize the hill. Monte Albán, one of the first cities in the Americas, established itself as a great exchange and distribution centre. Its population grew as high as 35,000 inhabitants and it flourished for over a thousand years.

In order to study the long and complex development of Monte Albán, its history has been divided into distinct periods. Between 500 B.C. and 100 A.D. the city is founded and established; the following period runs from 100 to 250 A.D., distinguished by urban development. During the third period, the city reaches the highpoint of its growth: during a first sub-phase, from 250 to 650 A.D., there are indications of contact with Teotihuacan, the great urban centre of the central plateau of Mexico, and it is in the second sub-phase, up to 800 A.D. that the city lives its full splendour.

Probably, family groups whose power was firmly established controlled collective labour, the flow of goods and services, and inter-community relations. Social stratification left its mark, archaeologically speaking, in different styles of housing and the notable differences in the treatment of the dead.

In Monte Albán houses of different sizes and architectural detail have been excavated; those which appear higher up the social scale because of the way they are built have tombs constructed below their patios, with highly decorated architecture and finishes, apart from containing a variety of votive pottery. In poorer homes, by way of contrast, graves have been found below the floors of the rooms in simple spaces lined by flat stones.

Early tombs took the shape of a stone box with a flat roof, but they were later made with sloping roofs, an antechamber and niches. Some 190 tombs have been found in Monte Albán. During the city’s period of splendour, funereal architecture was lavish, and complex underground constructions with various types of burial chamber and facades were built; in some cases there are remnants of mural paintings. Burial rites included the placing of offerings in the grave, as we may deduce from the discovery of urns made of grey clay, in the form of a cylindrical vessel with a figure sculpted on the front.

Construction of major buildings in Monte Albán ceased around 800 A.D. and the population slowly abandoned the metropolis, as a result of several factors which still have not been fully identified and which probably relate to a period of large-scale demographic movement which the whole of pre-Hispanic Mexico experienced during these centuries. The communities in the central valleys of Oaxaca underwent a process of change which lasted approximately to the year 1325, when small independent fiefdoms emerged. Two of the better-known of these city states were Mitla and Zaachila, where decorated tombs were built in which rich offerings were placed.

During the final phase (1325-1521 A.D.), the Mixtec group living in the mountains to the northeast came down to settle the central valleys. The Mixtecs were noted for their artistic traditions: their multicoloured pottery, their outstanding command of metallurgy, their work in stone and semi-precious crystals, and their production of codices. In the final chapters of the history of Monte Albán, at a time in which the city already lay abandoned, a Mixtec family group invaded one of the Zapotec tombs, which they emptied of most of its contents. Afterwards they placed in the ancient tomb the mortal remains of nine persons, accompanied by one of the richest offerings which has ever been seen in Mexican archaeology. These fabulous objects make up the famous treasure of the tomb which, following the order of its discovery, has been called Tomb 7.

From 1400 A.D. on, the Aztec empire established its dominion over the area and from the centre of Mexico imposed strong tributary obligations on the peoples of the central valleys of Oaxaca. The complex dynamics of co-existence between Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs which was underway in the central valleys of Oaxaca was interrupted by the Spanish conquest in 1521 and the events which ensued. The pre-Hispanic period was drawing to a close, but the indigenous cultural tradition survived and still survives in the region with its fundamental components from more than 3,500 years ago..." (Archaeologist Marcus C. Winter, 1997)
Marcus C. Winter
c. 1997
Oaxaca, MEXICO
© 1997 Marcus C. Winter

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