From maize to monumental

Zapotec Civilisation
January 31, 1997

Zapotec Civilisation is a cogent distillation of the authors' more than 20 years work in the southern Mexican valley of Oaxaca. Integrating method and theory, they chart the course of 10,000 years of cultural development in the three subvalleys which make up the Oaxaca valley system.

The bedrock of the authors' achievement, and a unique part of the book's value, is the painstaking attention given to the origins of agriculture and its implications. Post 8000bc climate change brought a drastic reassessment of lifestyle. Temporary camps of 15-25 people no longer represented a massing for communal hunts, but rather for harvesting seasonally abundant post-Pleistocene vegetable foods. At one site, Gheo-Shih, there are even indications of ritual activity among what was probably a very small valley-wide population of foragers. The potential for increasing population numbers and social interaction was realised by the domestication of bottle gourds, beans, and, most importantly, maize, somewhere between 5000bc and 2500bc.

Oaxaca's prehistoric farmers avoided total reliance on rainfall by using a permanent strip of high water-table land alongside the main rivers. By 1700-1500bc maize cobs had increased in size to yield 200-250 kg/hectare and human settlement patterns and social institutions were irreversibly changed. Between 1400bc and 1150bc, hamlets like San Jose Mogote appeared, characterised by sophisticated pottery, wattle-and-daub houses, storage pits, and signs of ritual in "public architecture" and predominantly female figurines. The "Big Men" controlling these autonomous sites engaged in trade, pulling in exotic materials such as obsidian and marine shells from other parts of Mexico.

Marcus and Flannery believe that around 1150bc there was a defining moment in the evolution of Zapotec civilisation - the emergence of rank, probably sanctioned by emphasising genealogical relationships between humans and supernatural celestial beings. The valley's population increased substantially between 700bc and 500bc, and warfare between paramount chiefs was commemorated in art and in Oaxaca's first hieroglyphic writing. Another key decision led to a dramatic population shift away from scattered villages to a new centre of political gravity in the heart of the Oaxaca valley. This was the birth of the great Zapotec city of Monte Alb n. This development, likened to the classical Greek synoikism, continued apace, and 300 years later Monte Alb n had some 17,000 inhabitants.

The city's rulers extended their control throughout the valley system, establishing administrative centres and increasingly controlling labour. Canals, dams, and terrace systems all speak of their success, as do the elite houses and rich burials of Monte Alb n. The city's monumental architecture, decorated with stone slabs depicting slain enemies, combines with hieroglyphic writing and a distinctive art style to highlight a society on the verge of statehood. Emerging between 100bc and ad200, Zapotec statehood saw the lowering of valley populations as people colonised neighbouring areas. High-level relations with other societies such as the great central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuac n also took place. But, by ad500, recently acquired provinces began to break free of Zapotec control.

Through intimate familiarity with the region, and a multidisciplinary attention to detail, the authors present a convincing case for cultural development based on a sequence of historical changes rather than forcing data into rigid evolutionary stages. The uniqueness of social decisions taken by the Zapotecs at crucial times were embedded in geographical and cultural realities. This is a landmark publication, pulling together a daunting range of geological, botanical, archaeological, and anthropological data. Numerous maps, diagrams and photographs illustrate the complexities of Oaxaca's cultural history and, with the clear and authoritative text, adds immeasurably to our understanding of how and why civilisations develop in such diverse ways.

Nicholas J. Saunders is visiting fellow in archaeology, University of Southampton.

Zapotec Civilisation: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley

Author - Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery
ISBN - 0 500 05078 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £42.00
Pages - 255

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