Monte Albán, located in the Valley of Oaxaca, was the capital of the Zapotecs. Today, Oaxaca is a state in the southeastern part of Mexico. It is bordered on the west by Puebla and Guerrero, on the north by Veracruz, on the east by Chiapas and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The state capital is Oaxaca, located in the central part of the state. The archaeological zone is located 8 kilometers to the west of the city of Oaxaca de Juárez. Oaxaca holds a special place within the country of Mexico. Its valleys have been inhabited for over 7000 years, and great ceremonial centers once thrived there, such as Monte Albán and Mitla. At least 18 different indigenous ethnic groups inhabit Oaxaca, the most numerous of which are the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs.
Monte Albán was founded around 500 B.C. and was probably the first true urban center in ancient Mexico. It flourished until 700 A.D., although it continued to function, particularly as a burial site, until the Spanish Conquest. Its population never exceeded 25,000-30,000 people. Even though it is not as visibly organized or as large as its contemporary, Teotihuacán, it was an important force in the greater Oaxaca region for many centuries
Settlement survey has shown that many of the inhabitants of the city lived on terraces that were built on the hillsides around Monte Albán. Early in its history, the danzante slabs were carved and erected to commemorate Monte Albán’s conquests. The figures, which used to be called dancers, can be identified as representations of captives obtained by Monte Albán during battles. The forerunners of these figures have been found at Monte Albán’s predecessor, San Jose Mogote, located in the northern part of the Valley of Oaxaca.
Inhabitants of Monte Albán, one of the earliest and biggest cities in the western hemisphere, pioneered the construction of astronomically oriented public buildings; the use of adobe, stone masonry, and lime plaster; the development of a 260 day ritual calendar; and the carving and painting of hieroglyphs.
Monte Albán, founded by the Zapotecs, was the first and largest urban center in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, reaching an extension of 12 square miles. The Y-shaped valley is 60 miles long by 15 miles wide, and is surrounded by forested mountains. It has an altitude of 5,000 feet, with little rainfall and a permanent dry condition. The Salado river and its tributaries provide irrigation for agriculture.
The entire urban complex, at the summit of a hill 1,320 feet high, covers 45 acres. Outcrops of sedimentary rock provided construction material for its many residences, palaces, temples, ball courts, and other structures. Less than 1 percent of the total area has been excavated. The Zapotec name for the metropolis is still unknown. Its current name derives from the conquistador Diego Lopez de Monte Albán, who received this area as part of his commissioned territory in the sixteenth century. The city’s central location on a hilltop implies its dominant role within the region.
Over the course of its twelve hundred year existence, which included a number of phases, Monte Albán reached a maximum population of about twenty-five thousand inhabitants. The urban phase, called Monte Albán I, lasted from 500 to 200 B.C. The Protoclassic period, or Monte Albán II, existed from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. The Classic period, from 200 to 700 A.D, is divided into Monte Albán IIIa and IIIb. During the city’s final phase, archaeological evidence implies political breakdown and depletion of resourced.
In 500 B.C., at the end of the Rosario phase, there was radical change in the Oaxaca Valley. San Jose Mogote, the largest community in the valley for more than eight hundred years, suddenly lost most of its population. This was possibly because of internal conflict. At the same time, some two thousand inhabitants left their villages on the valley floor to relocate on the slopes of Monte Albán. Soon afterward, about a dozen communities in the valley were established on defensible hilltops with walls.
Social stratification developed during Monte Albán I. There is no evidence that a supreme ruler existed, but rather a privileged class of priest, warriors, rulers, and artists controlled other Zapotecs and their labor. A market flourished in Monte Albán, where imported goods such as obsidian, pottery, salt, lime, and other items were bartered.
The first permanent structure built during this era was Building L, containing the Wall of the Danzantes. The Spanish conquistadors believed that these carvings of naked upright figures represented dancers. The wall contains four alternating rows of supposed dancers and swimmers, who appear in smaller rectangular blocks in an outstretched horizontal position. More than three hundred of these varied figures are recorded at Monte Albán. Each stone has a single naked male figure, eyes closed, mouth open, some with elaborate hairstyles, earspools, and bead necklaces. They could signify an awesome display of military strength or a historical narrative.
By 100 B.C., Monte Albán had gradually subjugated more than three hundred tribute paying communities in the Oaxaca Valley to create the Zapotec empire. It cannot be determined how many of these towns were taken by military conquest, or how many weaker ones succumbed to colonization. The metropolis was protected by a long defensive wall 15 feet high and 60 feet wide on the easily climbed western slopes of the mountain.