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Humanities Libertexts

Section 3: Early Civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica

The Olmec

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico, lasting from approximately 1500—400 BCE.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Give an account of the society, trade, art, and religion of the Olmec

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • The Olmec lived in south-central Mexico, with their center in La Venta in Tabasco.
  • Little is known about Olmec religion, though scholars believe there were eight main deities.
  • People lived in small agricultural villages outside of urban centers, which were mainly for ceremonial use.
  • The decline of the Olmec population from 400—350 BCE may have been due to environmental changes.

Key Terms

  • La Venta: The main city of the Olmec civilization.
  • Mesoamerican ballgame: An ancient ritual sport that involved keeping a rubber ball in play in designated courts. It most likely originated in the Olmec culture.
  • Olmec colossal heads: Basalt sculptures of human faces wearing large helmeted headdresses that stand up to 3.4 meters high. These sculptures most likely represent important rulers.

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, and had their center in the city of La Venta.

The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, Early Olmec culture had emerged. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed, such as the Maya. Judging from the available archeological evidence it is likely that they originated the Mesoamerican ballgame and possible that they practiced ritual bloodletting.

The Gulf of Mexico’s lowlands are generally considered the birthplace of the Olmec culture, and remained the heartland of this civilization during its existence. This area is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. San Lorenzo remained the Olmec capital up until about 900 BCE, when the central city became La Venta, which remained functional until the demise of the Olmec around 400 BCE. Possible river or weather changes caused this movement to occur.

Trade and Village Life

There are no written records of Olmec commerce, beliefs, or customs, but from the archeological evidence it appears they were not economically confined. In fact, Olmec artifacts have been found across Mesoamerica, indicating that there were extensive interregional trade routes. The Olmec period saw a significant increase in the length of trade routes, the variety of goods, and the sources of traded items.

Trading helped the Olmec build their urban centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta. However, these cities were used predominantly for ceremonial purposes and elite activity; most people lived in small villages. Individual homes had a lean-to and a storage pit nearby. They also likely had gardens, in which the Olmec would grow medicinal herbs and small crops, like sunflowers.

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The Great Pyramid in La Venta, Tabasco: Remains of the last capital of the Olmec society, La Venta, include this religious site where elites most likely performed rituals.

Most agriculture took place outside of the villages in fields cleared using slash-and-burn techniques. The Olmec likely grew crops such as:

  • Maize
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Manioc
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cotton

Religion

Unfortunately, there is no surviving direct account of Olmec beliefs, but their notable artwork provide clues about their life and religion.

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Olmec king: Surviving art, like this relief of a king or chief found in La Venta, help provide clues about how Olmec society functioned.

There were eight different androgynous Olmec deities, each with its own distinct characteristics. For example, the Bird Monster was depicted as a harpy eagle associated with rulership. The Olmec Dragon was shown with flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue. These gods were believed to provide the rulers a mandate to lead. Deities often represented a natural element and included:

  • The Maize deity
  • The Rain Spirit or Were-Jaguar
  • The Fish or Shark Monster

Religious activities regarding these deities probably included the elite rulers, shamans, and possibly a priest class making offerings at religious sites in La Venta and San Lorenzo.

Art

The Olmec culture was defined and unified by a specific art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large number of media—jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone, among others—much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars and the rain deity.

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Olmec hollow baby figurine: Realistic ceramic objects, such as this portrayal of an infant, illustrate the highly skilled artistic style of the Olmec culture.

Olmec Colossal Heads

The most striking art left behind by this culture are the Olmec colossal heads. Seventeen monumental stone representations of human heads sculpted from large basalt boulders have been unearthed in the region to date. The heads date from at least before 900 BCE and are a distinctive feature of the Olmec civilization. All portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. However, none of the heads are alike, and each boasts a unique headdress, which suggests they represent specific individuals.

The boulders were brought from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountains of Veracruz. Given that the extremely large slabs of stone used in their production were transported over large distances, requiring a great deal of human effort and resources, it is thought that the monuments represent portraits of powerful individual Olmec rulers. The heads were variously arranged in lines or groups at major Olmec centers, but the method and logistics used to transport the stone to these sites remain uncertain.

The discovery of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the 19th century spurred the first archaeological investigations of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Most colossal heads were sculpted from spherical boulders, but two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were re-carved from massive stone thrones. An additional monument, at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the only known example from outside the Olmec heartland.

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Olmec head: This sculpture is typical of the colossal heads of the Olmec.

The End of the Olmecs

The Olmec population declined sharply between 400 and 350 BCE, though it is unclear why. Archaeologists speculate that the depopulation was caused by environmental changes, specifically riverine environment changes. These changes may have been triggered by the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.

Another theory for the considerable population drop relates to tectonic upheavals or subsidence, as suggested by Santley and colleagues who propose relocation of settlements due to volcanism, instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late, and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to move their settlements.

The Mixtec

The Mixtec are a group who lived in modern-day Mexico before the Spanish conquest. People still identify as Mixtec today.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Distinguish between the Mixtec people and the Mixtec language and identify when they were most prominent

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • The Mixtec survive today, but reached peak prominence in the 11th century CE.
  • The Mixtec language is a set of up to fifty languages, and is not to be confused with the Mixtec people.
  • The Mixtec are well known in the anthropological world for their codices, or phonetic pictures in which they wrote their history and genealogies.

Key Terms

  • Mixtec: Indigenous Mesoamerican peoples inhabiting the region known as La Mixteca, which covers parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla.
  • Codices: Phonetic pictures painted on deerskin and folded into books, which recorded Mixtec history and genealogy.
  • Tututepec: A prominent city center during the height of the Mixtec state, situated along the coast of modern-day Oaxaca.

The Mixtec are indigenous Mesoamerican peoples inhabiting the region known as La Mixteca, which covers parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. Though the Mixtec remain today, they were most prominent in the 11th century and the following years, until they were conquered by the Spanish and their allies in the 16th century.

Before the arrival of Spanish hostility, a number of Mixtecan city-states competed with each other and with the Zapotec kingdoms. The major Mixtec polity was Tututepec, which rose to prominence in the 11th century under the leadership of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw. This prominent leader was the only Mixtec king to ever unite the highland and lowland polities into a single Mixtec state. During this era there were approximately 1.5 million Mixtecs populating this varied region.

Modern Mixtec People

Today there are approximately 800,000 Mixtec people in Mexico, and there are also large populations in the United States. In recent years a large exodus of indigenous peoples from Oaxaca, such as the Zapotec and Triqui, have emerged as one of the most numerous groups of Amerindians in the United States. As of 2011, an estimated 150,000 Mixtec people were living in California, and 25,000 to 30,000 were living in New York City. Large Mixtec communities exist in the border cities of Tijuana; Baja California; San Diego, California; and Tucson, Arizona. Mixtec communities are generally described as trans-national or trans-border because of their ability to maintain and reaffirm social ties between their native homelands and diasporic communities.

Mixtec Language

The word “Mixtec” is often used to refer not to the group of people of Mixtec ancestry, but to the family of languages that have developed alongside the group. There is no longer one single Mixtec language; some estimate that there are fifty distinct languages in the Mixtec family, including Cuicatec and Triqui.

The map shows that the Mixtecs were concentrated in an area near modern-day Santiago Tilanto in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Mixtec’s area: The historical geographic area inhabited by the Mixtec, including the important polities, such as Tututepec.

Mixtec History

Important ancient centers of the Mixtec include the ancient capital of Tilantongo, as well as the sites of Achiutla, Cuilapan, and Yucuñudahui. The Mixtec also erected major constructions at the ancient city of Monte Albán, which had originated as a Zapotec city before the Mixtec gained control of it.

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The west side platform at Monte Albán: This ancient city remained a religious site for centuries, and was more sparsely populated during the rise of smaller Mixtec polities. However, religious sites were often reused by Mixtec elites.

At the height of the Aztec Empire (between 1428 and 1521 CE) many Mixtec polities were forced to pay tribute. However, many Mixtec polities remained completely independent of the threatening empire, even as it expanded outward. The smaller Mixtec polities also put up resistance to Spanish forces led by Pedro de Alvarado until the invaders gained control of the region and destroyed any attempt at a revolt in 1521. Disease, weaponry, and local political fractures likely aided the Spanish takeover of the area.

Mixtex Art

The work of Mixtec artisans who produced work in stone, wood, and metal were well regarded throughout ancient Mesoamerica. Mixtec artists were known for their exceptional mastery of jewelry, in which gold and turquoise figured prominently. The intricate metalwork of Mixtec goldsmiths formed an important part of the tribute the Mixtecs had to pay to the Aztecs during parts of their history.

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Mixtec funerary mask: Mixtec art included the use of turquoise, gold, and carved stones, and exemplified artistry before the arrival of the Spanish.

Codices

The Mixtec are well known in the anthropological world for their codices, or phonetic pictures, in which they wrote their history and genealogies in deerskin in the “fold-book” form. The best-known story of the Mixtec codices is that of Lord Eight Deer, named after the day on which he was born, whose personal name was Jaguar Claw, and whose epic history is related in several codices. He successfully conquered and united most of the Mixteca region.

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A page from the Codex Bodley: This codex tells the story of the Tilantongo and Tiaxiaco dynasties.

Codices can be read from right to left and often measure many feet long. The Codex Bodley measures twenty-two feet long and contains complex explanations of important family lineages and creation stories, such as the War of Heaven, that directly refer back to elite dynasties. The preservation of these extremely rare Codices paints a distinct picture of Mesoamerica right before the arrival of Spanish forces.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan was a city founded outside of modern Mexico City in 100 BCE and was known for its pyramids.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Discuss the diversity and notable archeological features of Teotihuacan

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • Teotihuacan was founded around 100 BCE and reached its peak population around 450 CE.
  • Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua peoples.
  • The geographical layout of Teotihuacan is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements, and buildings as a reflections of their view of the Universe.

Key Terms

  • The Great Goddess: This deity was one of the central icons of Teotihuacano religious culture. She appears in painted murals with images associated with the underworld, birth, death, and creation.
  • Teotihuacan: A large precolumbian Mesoamerican city known for its archeological significance.
  • Pyramid of the Sun: The largest building in Teotihuacan, which measures 246 feet high and 736 feet wide.

Just 30 miles from modern day Mexico City lies the precolumbian Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan. It is famous for its pyramids and series of accompanying residential compounds, but was once much more than an archaeological and tourist site.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by Otomi, Totonac, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Nahua peoples. In 2001, Terrence Kaufman presented linguistic evidence suggesting that an important ethnic group in Teotihuacan was of Totonacan or Mixe–Zoquean linguistic affiliation. Other scholars maintain that the largest population group must have been of Otomi ethnicity, because the Otomi language is known to have been spoken in the area around Teotihuacan both before and after the classic period and not during the middle period.

Although it is a subject of debate whether Teotihuacan was the center of a state empire, its influence throughout Mesoamerica is well documented; evidence of Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region. Many Maya murals represent Teotihucuan and the leaders of the city during its zenith. The Aztecs were also heavily influenced by the architecture, culture, and lore of this ancient city, claiming common ancestry with the Teotihuacanos and adopting some of their artistic and architectural styles.

Founding of the City

The city and culture, which can be referred to as Teotihuacan or Teotihuacano, is thought to have been established around 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 CE. It began as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland and a large population was drawn to the city over a few centuries. It may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries CE, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 CE. At its zenith, around the first half of the first millennium CE, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more. It’s varied population made it, at minimum, the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch. The city eventually included multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate this large population.

Mysterious Founders and Religion

The founders of this religious and populous city remain a mystery to scholars of the area. Some have speculated that the Xitle volcano, which is located southwest of modern-day Mexico City, may have prompted a mass emigration out of the central valley and into the Teotihuacan valley. These displaced settlers may have founded, or at least helped grow, the city.

An alternate explanation is that the Totonac people, who still remain today, founded Teotihuacan. There is also evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacan immigrated from those areas influenced by the Teotihuacano civilization, including the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Maya peoples.

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Mural of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan: This powerful goddess was associated with darkness, mystery, death, and creation. She was often depicted with owls, jaguars, and spiders, all creatures of the earth, darkness and the underworld. This mural is from the Tetitla compound at Teotihuacan.

 

As a religious center, Teotihuacan displayed its most prominent gods and goddesses in murals and architecture. The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan appears to be the most prominent of these deities, and she likely represented the underworld, war, creation, water, and the earth. Evidence of human sacrifices to honor the completion of buildings or special times of year has also been uncovered by archeologists. Captives from wars were decapitated, had their hearts removed, were bludgeoned, or were buried alive to commemorate these momentous occasions.

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Pyramid of the Sun: This giant pyramid dwarfs the smaller platforms surrounding it and was the largest building at Teotihuacan.

Layout

The city’s broad central avenue, called “Avenue of the Dead” (a translation from its Nahuatl name Miccoatli), is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the immense Pyramid of the Sun (third largest in the World after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza) and the Pyramid of the Moon. Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller talud-tablero platforms. The Aztecs believed they were tombs, inspiring the Nahuatl name of the avenue.

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Pyramid of the Moon: This pyramid is the second largest in Teotihuacan.

Further down the Avenue of the Dead is the area known as the Citadel, containing the ruined Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounded by temples that formed the religious and political center of the city. Most of the common people lived in large apartment buildings spread across the city. Many of the buildings contained workshops where artisans produced pottery and other goods.

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Teotihuacan City Plan: The layout of Teotihuacan exemplifies Mesoamerican urban planning

The geographical layout of Teotihuacan is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements, and buildings as a reflection of the Universe. Its urban grid is aligned to precisely 15.5º east of North. One theory says this is due to the fact that the sun rose at that same angle during the same summer day each year. Settlers used the alignment to calibrate their sense of time or as a marker for planting crops or performing certain rituals. Another theory is that there are numerous ancient sites in Mesoamerica that seem to be oriented with the tallest mountain in their given area. This appears to be the case at Teotihuacan, although the mountain to which it is oriented is not visible from within the Teotihuacan complex due to a closer mountain ridge. Pecked-cross circles throughout the city and in the surrounding regions indicate how the people managed to maintain the urban grid over long distances. It also enabled them to orient the Pyramids to the distant mountain that was out of sight.

Fall of Teotihuacan

There is an ongoing debate about why Teotihuacan collapsed and the population abandoned this city center. Evidence of climate changes, which caused severe droughts around 535 CE, suggest there was a general population decline in the region. In fact, archeological digs have revealed juvenile skeletons with signs of malnutrition, which probably forced populations to move and caused internal social strife. Further archeological evidence reveals that only the buildings associated with the elites along the Avenue of the Dead were sacked and burned. This type of activity suggests there might have been internal unrest and possibly a revolt against the elite power structure, which caused the collapse of the city.

The Zapotec

The Zapotec civilization developed in modern-day Mexico and lasted from approximately the 6th century BCE to the 16th century CE.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Explain the culture, religion, expansion, and demise of the Zapotec civilization

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • The Zapotec civilization originated in the three Central Valleys of Oaxaca in the late 6th Century BCE.
  • There are five distinct Zapotec periods, denoted Monte Albán 1–5 (after the place of origin).
  • The Zapotec were polytheists who developed a calendar and logosyllabic writing system.

Key Terms

  • Mitla: The main religious city of the Zapotec culture. Elaborate buildings and artwork display the richness of religious life for the Zapotec elite.
  • Monte Alban: The place of origin for the Zapotec civilization.
  • Cocijo: The lightning and rain god of the Zapotec civilization. He was the most important of the religious figures and was believed to have created the universe with his breath.

The Zapotec civilization originated in the three Central Valleys of Oaxaca in the late 6th Century BCE. The valleys were divided between three different-sized societies, separated by no-man’s-land in the middle, today occupied by the city of Oaxaca. Archaeological evidence from the period, such as burned temples and sacrificed captives, suggests that although the three societies shared linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions, they also competed against one another.

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Panorama from Monte Albán: The view from the site of origin of the Zapotec rulers that expanded power beyond the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.

Five Phases

The Zapotec state formed at Monte Albán. This consolidation of power began outward political expansion during the late Monte Albán 1 phase (400–100 BCE) and throughout the Monte Albán 2 phase (100 BCE–200 CE). Zapotec rulers from Monte Albán seized control of provinces outside the valley of Oaxaca with their superior military and political clout, which quickly overtook less-developed local entities. By 200 CE, the end of the Monte Albán 2 phase, the Zapotecs had extended their influence, from Quiotepec in the North to Ocelotepec and Chiltepec in the South. The religious and cultural city of Monte Albán had become the largest city in what are today the southern Mexican highlands. This powerful city retained this status until approximately 700 CE.

This chart includes the five archaeological phases of Monte Albán history: Monte Albán 1, which lasted from around 400-100 BCE; Monte Albán 2, which lasted from about 100 BCE - 100 CE; Monte Albán 3, which lasted from around 200-900 CE, Monte Albán 4, which lasted from around 900-1359 CE, and Monte Albán 5, which lasted from around 1350-1521 CE.

Monte Albán phases: Historical Monte Albán phases and the duration of each phase.

Expansion and Decline

Between Monte Albán phases 1 and 2 there was a considerable expansion of the population of the Valley of Oaxaca. As the population grew, so did the degree of social differentiation, the centralization of political power, and ceremonial activity. Another effect of this population boom and the political expansion of the military during Monte Albán 1–2 was the development of fragmented, independent states. These areas developed regional centers of power with distinct leaders and linguistic dialects. However, the Zapotec rulers retained control over vast swaths of the region. Some archeologists argue that the building centered on the main plaza of Monte Albán contains depictions of elaborate heads, which represent the rulers of conquered provinces.

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Jade warrior mask from Monte Albán: This jade replica illustrates the fierce military presence that initially expanded the Zapotec holdings during Monte Albán phase 2.

The Zapotecs were ultimately destroyed by Spanish invaders. Having lost militarily to the Aztecs in battles from 1497–1502, the Zapotecs tried to avoid confrontation with the Spaniards, and hopefully the tragic fate of the Aztecs. The Spaniards took advantage of this pacifist stance and ultimately defeated the Zapotecs after five years of campaigns ending in 1527. The arrival of new diseases and steel weapons also weakened any attempts at a revolt from the Zapotec population. There were some subsequent uprisings against the new rulers, but for all intents and purposes, the Zapotecs were conquered. However, the seven Zapotec languages, and hundreds of Zapotec dialects, still survive with populations that have spread throughout Mexico and also Los Angeles, California.

Zapotec Writing and Religion

The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logosyllabic system of writing that used a separate glyph to represent each of the syllables of the language. This writing system is thought to be one of the first writing systems of Mesoamerica and a predecessor of those developed by the Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec civilizations.

Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic. Two principal deities included Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. These deities, along with many others, centered around concepts of fertility and agriculture. It is likely that the Zapotec practiced human sacrifices to these gods of fertility, and also played elaborate and ritualistic ball games in the court at Monte Albán. They also practiced dedication rituals, which cleansed a new space. Fine pieces of rare jade, pearl, and obsidian were found in a cache in Oaxaca, and were probably used to cleanse religious sites or temples upon the completion of construction.

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The ball court at Monte Albán: A religious ball game utilizing a rubber ball was practiced throughout Mesoamerica by young men playing for sacred, and often sacrificial, purposes.

According to historic, as well as contemporary, Zapotec legends, their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or turned into people from trees or jaguars. Their governing elite apparently believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to the same status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today results from this belief. The Zapotecs of the Central Valleys call themselves “Be’ena’ Za’a”—the Cloud People.

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A funerary urn in the shape of a “bat god” or a jaguar: c. 300–650 CE. Height: 9.5 in (23 cm).

Mitla

Evidence of the central role of religion in the Zapotec cultural hierarchy is pronounced at the religious city of Mitla. It is the second most important archeological site in the state of Oaxaca, and the most important of the Zapotec culture. The site is located 44 kilometers from the city of Oaxaca. While Monte Albán was most important as the political center, Mitla was the main religious center, as evidenced by the elaborate buildings and artwork throughout the city. The name “Mitla” is derived from the Nahuatl name “Mictlán,” which was the place of the dead or underworld. Its Zapotec name is Lyobaa, which means “place of rest.” The name “Mictlán” was Hispanicized to “Mitla” by the Spanish.

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Fretwork on a building in the religious capital of Mitla: This complex fretwork illustrates the religious importance of this ancient city in the Zapotec culture.

What makes Mitla unique among Mesoamerican sites is the elaborate and intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that cover tombs, panels, friezes, and even entire walls. These mosaics are made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces, which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. No other site in Mexico has this.

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