Zapotec Digs in Mexico Show Clues to Rise and Fall

John Roach
for National Geographic magazine
March 9, 2009

When it comes to pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztec and Maya—known for their spectacular pyramids and temples, hieroglyphic writing systems, and elaborate, violent rituals—often overshadow the Zapotec, their less familiar counterparts centered in southern Mexico.

But the Zapotec also played a vital role in ancient Mesoamerica, and archaeologists are seeking new clues to the rise and fall of their culture and civilization, which flourished and declined in the Valley of Oaxaca at roughly the same time as the ancient Maya.

For 1,500 years, the agrarian Zapotec state spanned 800 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) and was home to at least 100,000 people. The Zapotec were pioneers in the use of agriculture and writing systems. They were gifted weavers and ceramic artisans. They built Monte Albán, one of the earliest cities in the Americas, and established a remarkably organized bureaucratic structure. But their state collapsed, and no one is exactly sure why.

One place where the story of Zapotec civilization is being uncovered is 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside the city of Oaxaca, at the site of an ancient town called El Palmillo. For the past decade, U.S. archaeologists Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas have been peeling back layers of everyday life in this pre-Hispanic center, which thrived from about A.D. 200 to 900.

El Palmillo was one of many Zapotec towns in the hinterlands of Monte Albán, the regional seat of power. During its heyday, El Palmillo's influence began to challenge Monte Albán's. About 5,000 people lived there, including farmers, laborers, and artisans. They produced food and crafts from the region's succulent plants like maguey (agave) and exchanged these for goods and services from other settlements. They also built palaces and homes for the nobility, who collected tribute from them, as well as labor.

Feinman, the curator of Mesoamerican anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum, and his team have excavated a series of terraces from the base to the top of a hillside to reveal the story of how El Palmillo's social, political, and economic structures changed over time and ultimately collapsed.

Their recent discovery of human remains and dozens of ceramic vessels buried in a rare unlooted tomb beneath a hilltop palace is providing insight into a major transition in the power and economy of Valley of Oaxaca that occurred between about A.D. 600 and 900. It was a transition that loosely parallels changes happening throughout Mesoamerica at the end of this period, known to archaeologists as the Late Classic.

These finds highlight a sequence of events during which local rulers appear to have gained power but then slowly lost it during a process that ended with the almost total abandonment of Monte Albán, El Palmillo, and other large settlements in the Oaxaca Valley.

The project provides rich context for understanding the valley's occupants, noted Stephen Kowalewski, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, and an expert on ancient Mesoamerican civilization.

"Not a lot of people know what their site is representative of," Kowalewski said. "In the case of El Palmillo, they have a very good idea of what the whole population is like. So they can sample that intelligently."

Palace Excavation

During the 2007 and 2008 field seasons, Feinman and Nicholas' team excavated the grandest of several palaces at the top of El Palmillo's hillside settlement, with support from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

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