Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Zapotec from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(zä'pətĕk, sä'–), indigenous people of Mexico, primarily in S Oaxaca and on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Little is known of the origin of the Zapotec. Unlike most native peoples of Middle America, they had no traditions or legends of migration, but believed themselves to have been born directly from rocks, trees, and jaguars.

The early Zapotec were a sedentary, agricultural, city-dwelling people who worshiped a pantheon of gods headed by the rain god, Cosijo—represented by a fertility symbol combining the earth-jaguar and sky-serpent symbols common in Middle American cultures. A priestly hierarchy regulated religious rites, which sometimes included human sacrifice. The Zapotec worshiped their ancestors and, believing in a paradisaical underworld, stressed the cult of the dead. They had a great religious center at Mitla and a magnificent city at Monte Albán, where a highly developed civilization flourished possibly more than 2,000 years ago. In art, architecture, hieroglyphics, mathematics, and calendar the Zapotec seem to have had cultural affinities with the Olmec, with the ancient Maya, and later with the Toltec.

Coming from the north, the Mixtec replaced the Zapotec at Monte Albán and then at Mitla; the Zapotec captured Tehuantepec from the Zoquean and Huavean of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. By the middle of the 15th cent. both Zapotec and Mixtec were struggling to keep the Aztec from gaining control of the trade routes to Chiapas and Guatemala. Under their greatest king, Cosijoeza, the Zapotec withstood a long siege on the rocky mountain of Giengola, overlooking Tehuantepec, and successfully maintained political autonomy by an alliance with the Aztec until the arrival of the Spanish. The Zapotec today are mainly of two groups, those of the southern valleys in the mountains of Oaxaca and those of the southern half of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; together they number some 350,000. The social fabric of Zapotec life—customs, dress, songs, and literature—though predominantly Spanish, still retains strong elements of the Zapotec heritage, particularly in the present-day state of Juchitán.

  • See Augur, H., Zapotec (1954);.
  • Kearney, M., The Winds of Ixtepeji (1972);.
  • Chinas, B., The Isthmus Zapotecs (1973).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article ZAPOTEC
Dictionary of Languages

PERHAPS 450,000 SPEAKERS Mexico Zapotec is one of the Otomanguean family of amerind languages, like mixtec (see map there). It is many...

Full text Article ZAPOTEC
Cassell's Peoples, Nations and Cultures

A Native Central American nation of southern Mexico, who called themselves Vinizza, meaning ‘cloud people’. Sedentary farmers, hunters and...

Full text Article Zapotec
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World's Cultures

ALTERNATIVE NAMES In Spanish the Zapotec language is called Zapoteco and those who speak it Zapotecos. In native terms, the name for Zapotec...

See more from Credo