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 Post subject: The Zapotecs
PostPosted: Tue Jun 10, 2008 8:02 pm 
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One of the things I've learned since I began my study of anthropology is that what can be verified is often more bizarre and fascinating than the legends. This post is partially in response to Tina Sena's excellent article on the crystal skulls and is somewhat broad because it's tough to cover a vast subject in a few pages, but here is something I wrote last semester that I hope will inspire interest in a fascinating civilization that at its height was far more advanced than anything that the Europeans were doing at the time.

Monte Albán
by Scott Hubanks

Whether from depiction of ancient astronauts or gruesome accounts of bloody sacrifice, crystal skulls and deadly ballgames, Monte Albán has been a site for speculation. The truth about the religious center of the Zapotecs is somewhat stranger than the legends. What is more, unlike the Maya, the Zapotecs did not disappear. Their descendents still inhabit the Valley of Oaxaca.
The Zapotec culture emerged from the earlier Olmec culture. Whether the transition from Olmec to Zapotec was a natural evolution from one type of society to another or a mix between conquering bands of warriors and the indigenous population might never be entirely known. What is suspected, however, is that a substantial external threat pushed the earlier culture from the lower part of the valley to the mountainous hilltop where Monte Albán was built. (Marcus 150)
Far from mysterious, the Zapotecs provide modern archaeologists a rare glimpse into the evolution from hunter-gatherers in to a full fledged state. Unlike Egypt, for example, the ruins of Monte Albán and other sites like Monte Negro have been relatively untampered with, leaving an almost complete archaeological record to study.
The Cloud People, as the Zapotecs called themselves were “one of the earliest, fully developed civilizations.” (Whitecotton 23) At the height of their civilization, Monte Albán covered 5-6 km2 and had a population between 45-75,000 people. (Whitecotton 75) They cultivated maize, and ate squash, chili peppers, but apparently no beans. Also included in their diet were dog, deer, rabbits, waterfowl and seafood. They appear to have lived in stone huts with woven thatch branches. (Paddock 8)
They appear to have achieved each of the accomplishments that have been credited to the Mayans, but seem to have done so independently. Indeed, their calendar and writing system are thought to be much older. (Marcus 27) If one compares the condition of Zapotec technology with that of Europeans around the year 1000 CE, one would have to consider them a modern society. They had made substantial developments in mathematics, they had considerable knowledge of the solar system, and had a writing system that was fully developed and efficient.
The Zapotecs appear to have been adept astronomers. Building J, one of the centerpieces of Monte Albán, is thought to be an observatory. The tunnel leading inside the building is aligned so that the rising of the star, Capella, could be noted, perhaps signifying a holy day, since it marked the time when the sun would be directly overhead, casting no shadows on the ground. (Lathrop 84)
The complex at Monte Albán is believed to have gone through five distinct phases, spanning from around 400 BP to 1521 CE. The earliest parts of the site are the temple of the Danzantes, (where are found numerous stone slabs depicting, among other things, the fates of their conquered enemies as a warning to malevolent intruders), and the ballcourt.
The I-shaped ballcourt has produced some of the most rampant speculation and fantasies. The rumors in this case turn out largely to be true. The game, lachi, was somewhat of a mix between soccer and basketball. It was played with a ball that was made from a skull that was wrapped with layers of rubber until it was bouncy. The losing team was sacrificed.
The Zapotecs, however, were not as bloodthirsty as they have been portrayed. The first person captured in war was sacrificed, but the rest were sold as slaves. Many of these people, whether through purchasing their freedom or marrying into the Zapotec society, found their way out of slavery. Zapotec society was divided into two main layers, but within each division, movement up and down was common. Again, marriage was the easiest way to improve one’s social position, and although there was this separation of classes, it seems that the primary difference between them was that the elite got to wear better clothes. (Marcus 13)
But what of the spacemen and the crystal skulls?
The chief evidence for this conjecture is carvings on stones in the Danzantes depicting men with helmets and dress purportedly resembling the spacesuits of modern astronauts. It is somewhat of a stretch to envision a loincloth as a spacesuit. The ballplayers, however, also wore helmets and, believe it or not, loincloths. Since prisoners of war were also sacrificed and there are plenty of depictions of these people, it is quite probable that the carvings in the Danzantes were religious records of their efforts to meet the gods’ quotas for sacrifices, which were placed in a public area so the public and the gods would know that the clergy were doing their job.
The crystal skulls? While most have been associated with the Mayans, a few were recovered from Monte Albán. The majority of these skulls have been shown to be forgeries of modern origin. It is not an unwarranted conclusion to suppose that the rest are of modern origin as well. It is more probable that these skulls are souvenirs more connected to the “Dia del Muerte”, than to a shaman transferring powers to an apprentice.
The city center of the Zapotecs is thus quite intriguing on its own merits, rather than those of the fantasies woven around it. There is a depth to this society that is well worth the effort of plumbing.
Bibliography
Ferguson, William M. and Adams, Richard E. Mesoamerica’s Ancient Cities. Albuquerque, NM : UP New Mexico. 2001
Lathrop Jacqueline Phillips. Ancient Mexico: Cultural Traditions in the Land of the Feathered Serpent. Dubuque IA: Kendall Publishing Co. 1995
Marcus, Joyce and Flannery, Kent V. Zapotec Civilization:How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. 1996
Paddock, John. Ancient Oaxaca: Discoveries in Mexican Archaeology and History. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP. 1966
Whitecotton, Joseph W. The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests and Peasants. Northern Oklahoma UP. 1984


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 11, 2008 9:39 pm 
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Did the Zapotecs calender have a 2012 end date like the Mayan's?

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 3:49 pm 
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Not that I know of..and I read what are considered the "definitive" books on the Zapotecs. It could be that the earlier archaeologists were uninterested in such things. It is know, however, that their mathematics and ability with astronomy equal the Mayans and even predated some of the Mayan knowledge...the Zapotecs were gone a good 200 years before the full flowering of the Mayan Civilization. That is one reason why they're of such great interest, in that they paralleled the Mayans but did so independently.


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 14, 2008 2:31 am 
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Do you think they had contact with ET's?

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