Archaeologists say that Monte Albán was first settled around 400-500 BC, but they’re not sure by whom. Clues point to the Mixe-Zoques, from the Oaxaca Coast, or possibly relatives of the Olmecs, from the Gulf Coast. But the city itself was built by the Zapotecs, no doubt about it. Occupying a strategic position above three arms of the Oaxaca Valley, the city grew and prospered until it was abandoned by the Zapotecs for unknown reasons in the late 8th century.
Along with two friends, I recently revisited Monte Albán after a period of several years. We went in the dry season, but purple jacaranda blossoms and yellow-flowered chamiso blanco trees gave life to the dry landscape. My friend Yolanda, from one of the nearby villages, pointed out bay laurel and spine-covered pochote trees and a ceiba whose single tuft of remaining cotton was used by her ancestors to make clothing.
Even though we went on a Sunday, when locals enter free, it didn’t feel at all crowded. There were a few small tour groups being lectured to in French or Spanish, but mostly families, couples, and trios of foreign friends. Occupying an artificially flattened peak with 360-degree valley views, the archaeological site is large (but compact), and the other visitors didn’t overwhelm.
The greatest of all Zapotec sites, Monte Albán was laid out on a north-south axis with two huge platforms at either end of a massive, grassy plaza. On these platforms were complexes of temples, palaces, and homes interspersed with patios and small plazas. Many of the buildings are in excellent condition. There was little evidence of cement or other repairs that disfigure other archaeological sites. The experts are not sure if the buildings were once painted and adorned with molded stucco embellishment, but most of the edifices were definitely plastered. An arrow-shaped building (Building J) was used for astronomical observation.
On the east side of the great plaza, the I-shaped ball court (one of five original courts) was built around 100 BC. The sides, now stepped, were then plastered in stucco to make the ball roll down the slopes back into play. It was apparently used as a spectator sport, to resolve conflicts, and as part of religious ceremonies. There’s no evidence that sacrifice was part of the ball game here as it was elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
About 30 thousand people lived in the Oaxaca Valley around the dawn of the Common (Christian) era, with about half of those at Monte Albán. This is when the hilltop was manually flattened. More than 2,000 terraces were constructed to cascade down the surrounding hillsides; each with one or more homes as well as crops. Small ravines and ponds were reinforced and used to collect rainwater.
The large labor force needed for these construction projects indicates that Monte Albán’s Zapotec rulers had acquired manpower not previously available. A defensive wall built during the period also indicates conquest of the valley people.
Further evidence of warfare is seen in el Templo de los Danzantes, at the southwest corner of the site. Several hundred figures were found here, carved on rock slabs in bas relief. Although the figures were originally dubbed los Danzantes (“the Dancers”) for the position of their arms and legs, archaeologists are now confident that their naked bodies and closed eyes indicate dead and tortured enemies. Many show genital mutilation, and one is simply a severed head. Hieroglyphic texts on the stones most likely indicate the name of the defeated warrior and the town he was from.
In addition to “Los Danzantes,” bas-relief panels and stelae were placed throughout the city. Inscribed on the stones are dates from the ritual, 260-day calendar and from the 365-day solar calendar as well as gods and animals with mystical powers, including bats, jaguars, snakes, lizards, turtles, owls, hummingbirds, quetzals, and eagles.
The experts have identified 39 gods among the Zapotec pantheon, including 11 female goddesses. These belonged to three main groups: gods of the rain, corn, and animal gods. Many of the religious practices of these ancient peoples were found intact at the time of the Spanish invasion; more than 1,000 years later, some of these rituals and superstitions survive today. (One of the most important cultures in Mesoamerica, the Zapotecs today are among the largest indigenous groups in Mexico. People in the countryside and older folks still speak the language, although it---like many other native tongues in Mexico---is in danger of dying out.)
Palaces, tombs, dynastic records, and evidence of ancestor worship at Monte Albán indicate that leadership was hereditary. Rulers were associated with heavenly beings and were probably thought to join the gods after their death.
Zapotec tombs were built primarily under temples and the courtyards of houses. Common features of these rectangular resting places were built-in niches for storing personal and ritual objects. Large incense burners or burial urns were placed with the dead, who occasionally took servants with them into the next world. Some of the tombs were decorated with frescos.
During the height of its civilization (AD 250-700), Monte Albán’s formal, public architecture covered more than 40 square kilometers (about 15 square miles). In a political and military sense, the city dominated the Oaxaca valley and beyond. Like its contemporary, Teotihuacán---which shared trade, pottery, mural art, and other characteristics with Monte Albán---the city was abandoned for unknown reasons in the 8th century.
About a hundred years after the Zapotecs decamped, the Mixtecs took over and used the city as an elaborate, elite graveyard. Of the hundreds of burial sites that have been discovered, a few are open to visitors. The fantastic ceremonial artifacts, however, have been removed to museums in Oaxaca and Mexico City.
After touring the site, my friends and I headed to the museum. Signed in Spanish only, it houses mostly carved stelea and flat rocks with images such as the Danzantes. Next door, we browsed the small gift shop and bookstore. Before heading back down the hill, we took a break at the restaurant, with great valley views.
Due to its fabulous location overlooking the Oaxaca Valley, the quality of restored buildings, the lack of mass tourism, and the importance of the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, Monte Albán is one of Mexico’s most outstanding archaeological sites.
If You Visit
The archaeological site is open daily 8 to 5. The entrance fee at this time is 57 pesos per person. It’s free on Sundays for Mexican nationals and foreigners with resident visa credential. Guides can be hired at the entrance, and signs in English and Spanish throughout the site give information about flora and fauna as well as specific structures and their significance.
Inexpensive, direct, round-trip buses leave from Hotel Rivera del Angel (Calle J. M. Minas #518, tel. 951/516-0666) in downtown Oaxaca. The typical visit is three or four hours; if you want to return on a later bus, pay a 25-peso surcharge in addition to the round trip cost of 50 pesos. Once at Monte Albán, you can return at a time other than the one originally slated, space permitting, by paying the additional 25 pesos to the driver.