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Zapotec (zäˈpətĕk, säˈ–), 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 H. Augur, Zapotec (1954); M. Kearney, The Winds of Ixtepeji (1972); B. Chinas, The Isthmus Zapotecs (1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an Indian people of Mexico, living mainly in the state of Oaxaca and numbering approximately 300,000 (1970, estimate). The Zapotecan language is one of the Otomian-Mix-tecan-Zapotecan languages. Formally Catholics, the Zapotee have preserved many elements of their traditional beliefs.

An early class society existed among the Zapotee even prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The Zapotee developed a distinctive and advanced culture, the oldest evidence of which dates to the tenth century B.C.; the culture flourished between the second and fifth centuries A.D. The Zapotee built pyramidal temples, palaces, facilities for ritual ball games, and astronomical “observatories.” They also constructed distinctive underground burial vaults with richly decorated facades. Reliefs of the eighth to fourth centuries B.C. depict grotesque “dancing” figures, with later reliefs representing figures of a deity, rulers, priests, and captives. Ingeniously shaped ceramic vessels depict splendidly clothed sitting figures with almost portrait-like faces in luxurious, intricate headdresses or helmets.

The chief occupations of the present-day Zapotec are farming and handicraft-making. Some Zapotec work as farmhands on plantations, and others lease small farms; among the handicrafts made are souvenirs for tourists. Some Zapotecs work as unskilled laborers in the USA.


Narody Ameriki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1959.
Caso, A. Las estelas zapotecas. Mexico City, 1928.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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