One of Mexico’s most outstanding archaeological sites, Monte Albán was a powerful and influential metropolis of uninterrupted cultural evolution for 1500 years until it was abandoned in the eighth century. From one of the best guides we’ve ever met, Oaxaca’s Balam Ruiz, we discovered the amazing accomplishments of this capital of the Zapotec empire.
Balam’s first question to us: “Why do you think Monte Albán was built on a mountain above the Oaxaca Valley?”
A secure place yes, but there’s no evidence of it being used for military purposes.
Nice views for residents? The place was not inhabited; it was a civic and economic capital.
Why flatten the hilltop and build monuments and temples up here—before the wheel or metal tools when stones had to be carried up from the valley 400 metres below by workers as short as Spice?
None of the four of us guessed the answer: Monte Albán, one of the first examples of urban planning in the Americas, was built on the mountaintop to preserve the fertile land below for farming and the uncultivatable hillsides for the adobe homes of civilians.
A political and economic powerhouse designed to align with the cardinal points
Monte Albán’s Great Plaza, its north and south ends anchored by massive platforms with wide esplanades in between (and great acoustics), is an excellent example of urbanization and harmonious positioning. These early investments in public infrastructure, built in three phases, took much planning, coordination and cooperation but resulted in long-term sustainability—the city’s duration is unmatched in the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican world.
A refined and complex astronomical observatory, the oldest observatory in Mesoamerica
The elevation and 360° views of the horizon made this an ideal location for the Zapotec to build an astronomical observatory to guide their agricultural and religious activities. Built between 100 BC and 200 AD, the five-sided observatory is shaped like an arrowhead at a 45°angle to the main axis of Monte Albán. It is astronomically aligned with the setting positions of the centre star of Orion’s belt, the Southern Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri, and the rising position of Capella, the brightest star in the Auriga constellation!
How did they decide when to plant their crops?
They waited until the one day each year, May 8, when in a specially designed pyramid, the sun penetrated the entire length of a vertical shaft, top to bottom!
Mayans get the credit, but the Zapotec had the first calendar
The Zapotec invented a 52-year Calendar Round, a combination of a 260-day calendar of sacred days and a 365-day solar calendar. Mexico archeologist Alfonso Caso wrote, “…what has been called the Maya calendar was an earlier invention which already existed, with its basic characteristics, in Olmec culture as well as in that of Monte Alban I (500 BC-100 AD).”
One of the richest archaeological finds in the Americas ~10 km from Oaxaca
Balam began our tour at Tomb Seven, which the Alfonso Caso discovered in 1931, then went on to work on the site with his wife and team for eighteen years, uncovering most of what we see today. The tomb contained treasures of the Mixtec who used the site for sacred burials after the Zapotec left. Caso and his team found nine skeletons and more than 500 grave offerings, including jade necklaces, pearls, alabaster, earplugs and bead work, and uncovered about 170 other tombs in the area, a fraction of what archeologists believe may exist here. He studied the area for thirty years.
Balam showed us photos of some of the unearthed treasures from Tomb Seven and told us where to find them—at the Ex Convento de Santo Domingo in the city of Oaxaca. I was blown away, first by the photo, then by the real thing, of the human skull, its entire surface decorated with turquoise and shells depicting Mictlantecuhtli, “Lord of the Place of the Dead,” an incomparable archeological treasure.
Perhaps the oldest and most elaborate writing system in the New World
The earliest example of a writing system was found about 20 km at San Jose Mogote, a slab from 600 BC, pre Monte Albán, carved with a reclining figure and a calendrical glyph that has been deciphered as “Earthquake One.”
A reasonably egalitarian and non-autocratic society
Having such a strategic location enabled Monte Albán to assert its power, by treaty or force, to unify the valley communities, act as the political centre of the Zapotec civilization and attract traders enroute from the Mayan lowlands to Teotihuacán.
There are few disparities of wealth in life or death at Monte Albán: no ornate palace for divine rulers, no discoveries of household riches, no monuments to great leaders.
Compared with other cities in Mesoamerica, the skeletons of poorer people found in Monte Albán showed fewer signs of malnutrition and little differences in nourishment between men and women. And rather than government-controlled distribution, there are indications of market exchanges of food and other goods among the various settlements in the valley.
The Los Danzantes Debate: “What do you think?” Balam asked us.
Danzantes—we knew it as a VG restaurant that we’d eaten at in both its Mexico City and Oaxaca locations (the subject of a future blog.)
Those of you who speak Spanish know danzantes is “dancers,” what the 300 bas-reliefs of dead and deformed human figures (orthostats) found in a public building at Monte Albán were initially interpreted to be. Over the years other theories have been posited about these mysterious rock carvings on free-standing slabs, some with undeciphered glyphs. Tortured war prisoners? Self sacrifices in deference to the deities?Victims of an epidemic, caused by a comet or bearded foreigners?
In the site’s Monte Albán Museum, Balam drew our attention to several carvings and lastly, to a skull into which a hole had been trephined, likely to remove a brain tumour (!); a newer theory is that the Danzantes represent medical patients.
Balam opened our eyes into the extraordinary wonders of Monte Albán: our heads are still dancing with the evidence of Zapotec enlightenment.
Are, Caroline. “Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico—Art of the Oaxaca Region—Monte Albán.” The Artistic Adventure of Mankind. March 22, 2017.
Busby, Mattha. “Equality was key to ancient Mexican city’s success, study suggests.” The Guardian. March 16, 2022.
Carvajal, Mayra. “The Ultimate Guide to Monte Albán on Your Own.” Life on the Roam. As Balam explained, there are two seasons in Oaxaca: wet season and dry season. Mayra visited during the former so for explicit details and greenery, have a look at her blogpost.
Copeland, Cody. Moon Oaxaca. Avalon Travel: Berkeley, 2020.
Heyworth, Robin. Monte Albán – Are the Danzantes Evidence of an Epidemic?” Uncovered History. January 10 , 2014.
Heyworth, Robin. Monte Albán–The Encrypted City. Uncovered History. April 16 , 2014. The Zapotec believed themselves to be “Cloud People,” that their ancestors lived among the stars. Some say this is why they were so obsessed with celestial activities, and that Monte Albán was built to communicate with the ancient ancestors.
MaCafferty, Geoffrey. “Tomb 7, Monte Albán.” University of Calgary. 2010.
Mexplorer Adventures While we recommend the Moon Guide to Oaxaca, its statement that you don’t need a guide to Monte Albán because descriptive signs are everywhere is false. The signed information is dated and in places incorrect. Hire Balam, who is a trained guide and a lifelong learner who guides foreign archeologists through the site. He and his wife Patty have their own company, Mexplorer, with a fleet of cars and drivers. We didn’t know about Mexplorer and found Balam at Gyde & Seek. Note that any errors in this blog will be ours, not Balam’s.
“Monte Albán.” World Pilgrimage Guide.
Nicholas, Linda M., and Feinman, Gary M. “The Foundation of Monte Albán, Intensification, and Growth: Coactive Processes and Joint Production.” Frontiers. March 8, 2022.