Birth, growth, reproduction and death are the transcendent phases in the human life-cycle. Every culture and social group celebrates them in accordance with the particular view of the world which surrounds it. In Mexico, the first and second of November are the dates on which the "days of the dead" are celebrated, in a festivity which is one of the most important occurrences in the social, agricultural and religious calendar.

The custom of making offerings to the dead exemplifies the racial melting-pot of modern-day Mexico. In indigenous and rural communities, above all, the dead person is seen as a being who must satisfy his basic needs through offerings, a pre-Hispanic custom which has survived in present-day traditions. Furthermore, the dead person must be helped to "die in peace" through services and prayers, as the Catholic tradition prescribes.

In this framework, the very special custom of making offerings for the dead acquires great significance since, ironically, it is through the cult of the dead that family relationships, economic exchange, unity and identity, not only at the family and community level, but also at the level of n Read More
Birth, growth, reproduction and death are the transcendent phases in the human life-cycle. Every culture and social group celebrates them in accordance with the particular view of the world which surrounds it. In Mexico, the first and second of November are the dates on which the "days of the dead" are celebrated, in a festivity which is one of the most important occurrences in the social, agricultural and religious calendar.

The custom of making offerings to the dead exemplifies the racial melting-pot of modern-day Mexico. In indigenous and rural communities, above all, the dead person is seen as a being who must satisfy his basic needs through offerings, a pre-Hispanic custom which has survived in present-day traditions. Furthermore, the dead person must be helped to "die in peace" through services and prayers, as the Catholic tradition prescribes.

In this framework, the very special custom of making offerings for the dead acquires great significance since, ironically, it is through the cult of the dead that family relationships, economic exchange, unity and identity, not only at the family and community level, but also at the level of national culture, are strengthened.

In this learning object, we show you the traditions of the State of Oaxaca.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

In the region occupied by the present-day State of Oaxaca there are traces of human habitation which date back to approximately 10,000 B.C. Around 1,600 B.C., nomadic groups settled in the first villages, around which they obtained or produced all the basic necessities of human existence. One of the oldest settlements was that of San José Mogote.

During the so-called village period, customs and life patterns grew up which have survived throughout the centuries, leaving an indelible mark on the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples who have lived in the region of the State of Oaxaca, right up to the present time. These characteristics, which are a product of the past, relate to the structure and significance of the family as a unit of production and consumption, to the development of basic technologies for the cultivation, storage, grinding and cooking of corn, and also to the way the dead are treated.

In archaeological study, activities are seen in terms of material consequences which have been preserved over time, such as burials in graves near houses, accompanied on certain occasions by offerings.

Some dead people were interred with clay fig Read More
In the region occupied by the present-day State of Oaxaca there are traces of human habitation which date back to approximately 10,000 B.C. Around 1,600 B.C., nomadic groups settled in the first villages, around which they obtained or produced all the basic necessities of human existence. One of the oldest settlements was that of San José Mogote.

During the so-called village period, customs and life patterns grew up which have survived throughout the centuries, leaving an indelible mark on the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples who have lived in the region of the State of Oaxaca, right up to the present time. These characteristics, which are a product of the past, relate to the structure and significance of the family as a unit of production and consumption, to the development of basic technologies for the cultivation, storage, grinding and cooking of corn, and also to the way the dead are treated.

In archaeological study, activities are seen in terms of material consequences which have been preserved over time, such as burials in graves near houses, accompanied on certain occasions by offerings.

Some dead people were interred with clay figurines or objects made of obsidian, pottery, shell, jade, salt and other perishable products. Of all this great variety of materials, only the figurines were a local product; the others were obtained through a close network of regional and inter-regional exchange.

Between the years 800 and 500 B.C. a culture with regional characteristics flourished in Oaxaca; its distinguishing aspects are its production of grey clay pottery, its development of a clear social hierarchy, and its highly precise knowledge of the calendar, all of this as a prelude to a later epoch: the founding of the great city of Monte Albán.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Clay figurines

Sometimes, clay figurines were placed in graves by the people of PreHispanic Oaxaca, Mexico.

Canadian Heritage Information Network

Oaxaca, MEXICO
© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


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: Read More
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)

© 1997 Marcus C. Winter

Ruins

Ruins of the ancient town of Monte Albán.

Canadian Heritage Information Network

Monte Albàn, MEXICO
© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Urn From A Zapotec Tomb

An urn from a Zapotec tomb at Monte Albán.

Canadian Heritage Information Network

Monte Albàn, MEXICO
© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Treasure From A Mixtec Tomb

Treasure from a Mixtec tomb at Monte Albán.

Canadian Heritage Information Network

Monte Albàn, MEXICO
© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Explore an ancient civilization, the Zapotec, and its culture in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Appreciate that there is a succession of overlapping cultures in time and space

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans