Monte Albán is the ancient Zapotec capital located in the present-day state of Oaxaca, in southwestern Mexico. The archaeological site covers 2.51 square miles of rugged hilltops that rise over 1,300 feet. Shortly after its foundation (500 bce), Monte Albán reached urban proportions, becoming one of the first cities in the Americas. When the Spaniards reached the central valleys of Oaxaca in the 1520s, the ancient site was abandoned. The site's Zapotec name is unknown, as are the origins of the present-day name Monte Albán.
Monte Albán is among the most intensively studied pre-Hispanic sites, notably in Alfonso Caso's excavations begun in the 1930s and Richard Blanton's surface survey in the 1970s. The ancient city was organized into residential wards, with most people living on terraces cut from the hillside. Water was procured by channeling rainfall into communal cisterns. Monumental stone masonry buildings made with earthen fill and large public spaces covered the hilltop, forming the city's ceremonial, elite residential, and administrative core. Pyramids were decorated with stucco reliefs and carved stones inscribed with hieroglyphs. Houses varied in size and construction materials with the more elaborate surrounding enclosed patios. The city's inhabitants buried their dead underneath their dwellings. Heads of noble families were placed inside subfloor tombs with painted murals and Zapotec funerary urns. Zapotec script—the earliest form of writing in the New World (dating from 600 bce)—remains largely undeciphered, but notations at Monte Albán give the names of rulers and calendar dates. Other inscriptions refer to conquered territories beyond the confines of the central valleys of Oaxaca. Explanations of the site's origins and early political growth cite expansionist warfare as a leading factor.
Monte Albán's peak population is estimated at 30,000. The hieroglyphic inscriptions and pottery from Monte Albán suggest contact with other leading centers in ancient Mexico, including the city of Teotihuacan. By 800 ce Monte Albán had collapsed, and most of the city's population had relocated to competing centers within the surrounding valley. The causes of its collapse are unknown. The present-day archaeological site is partially reconstructed and a major tourist attraction. The modern inhabitants of Oaxaca City are recolonizing its lower slopes.
Caso, Alfonso, Ignacio Bernal, and Jorge R. Acosta. La Cerámica de Monte Albán. Mexico City: Memorias del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 13, 1967.
Marcus, Joyce, and Kent V. Flannery. Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Monte Albán (mōn´tā älbän´), ancient city, c.7 mi (11.3 km) from Oaxaca, SW Mexico, capital of the Zapotec. Monte Albán was built on an artificially leveled, rocky promontory above the Valley of Oaxaca. Located around an enormous plaza about 1,000 ft (300 m) long and 650 ft (198 m) wide are long, low buildings set off by sunken courts and stairways. The tombs, particularly Tomb 7, have yielded great archaeological treasure—jewelry of gold, copper, jade, rock crystal, obsidian, and turquoise mosaic and bone and wood carving showing elaborate religious symbolism. Excavation was begun (1931) by the Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso. The Zapotec apparently had an advanced culture here c.200 BC and already were using the bar and dot system of numerals used by the Maya. The final epoch (c.1300–1521), terminated by the Spanish Conquest, covers the ascendancy of the Mixtec, when the Zapotec were driven from Monte Albán and Mitla. Tomb 7 belongs to the final period. Cultural links with the Olmec and the Toltec have been found.