The development of writing in Zapotec society went hand-in-hand with growing urbanization. In about 500 B.C., San José Mogote seems to have transplanted itself to Monte Albán, in the middle of the buffer zone. About half an hour by bus from Oaxaca City, Monte Albán is today a decorous sprawl of walls and pyramids enveloped by a lush lawn (this last is an import from Europe; lawn grass did not exist in the Americas prior to Columbus). Arriving tourists are hailed by “guides” with backpacks full of phony ancient figurines and ethnically incorrect souvenirs of Mexica drawings. Their ministrations do not diminish the lonely dignity of the ruins. Monte Albán is atop a steep, 1,500-foot hill that overlooks the valley of Oaxaca. The Zapotec reconfigured the entire hill to build the city, slicing out terraces and platforms. By leveling the entire summit, they created a fifty-five-acre terrace half the size of the Vatican. At its zenith, Monte Albán housed seventeen thousand people and was by a considerable margin the biggest and most powerful population center in Mesoamerica.

The rationale for its construction is the subject of yet another lengthy archaeological dispute. One side proposes that Monte Albán formed because maize agriculture allowed the Oaxaca Valley’s population to grow so much that the rural villages naturally clustered into something resembling cities. For most of its history Monte Albán was thus a huge village, not a true city, and certainly not a hierarchical state. Others argue that warfare had grown so devastating, as shown by the destruction of San José Mogote, that the main valley chiefdoms formed a defensive confederation headquartered at Monte Albán. Yet a third theory is that the Zapotec of Monte Albán—not the Olmec of La Venta—consolidated to form North America’s first imperialist power, an aggressive state that subjugated dozens of other villages.

Among the strongest evidence for the last view are the nearly three hundred carved stone slabs at Monte Albán that depict slain, mutilated enemies: the rulers, Marcus believes, of communities conquered by Monte Albán. Some of the stones are labeled with enemy names, as with the unfortunate 1-Earthquake. These may commemorate victories in Monte Albán’s grinding battle for supremacy with its local rival, San Martín Tilcajete, in the southern arm of the Central Valley. When San José Mogote founded Monte Albán, Tilcajete responded by gathering people from its surrounding villages, doubling in size, and erecting its own ceremonial buildings. War was the inevitable result. Monte Albán sacked Tilcajete in about 375 B.C. Undiscouraged, Tilcajete rebuilt itself on a better defensive position and acquired larger armies. When it again became a threat, Monte Albán attacked for the second time in 120 B.C. This time its forces finished the job. They burned the king’s palace to the ground and emptied the rest of Tilcajete, leaving Monte Albán firmly in control of the entire valley.

With nothing to impede it, Monte Albán swept out and established a domain of almost ten thousand square miles. For centuries it stood on equal ground with its neighbors, the rising Maya states to the east and Teotihuacan to the north. It enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with both but had continual trouble with the Ñudzahui (pronounced “nu-sa-wi”—Spaniards called them the Mixtec), a constellation of petty principalities immediately to the west. By contrast with Monte Albán, these were minuscule entities; most were clusters of rustic villages covering ten to twenty square miles. Yet they were amazingly troublesome. Monte Albán repeatedly overran the Ñudzahui statelets, but never managed to eliminate them. These tiny, fractious domains endured for more than a thousand years. Meanwhile the much stronger and more centralized Zapotec empire collapsed completely in about 800 A.D.

Ñudzahui writing survives in eight codices, the deerskin or bark “books” whose painted pages could be folded like screens or hung on the wall like a mural. (The Spaniards destroyed all the rest.) More purely pictorial than Zapotec or Maya script, the texts were arranged almost randomly on the page; red lines directed the reader’s eye from image to image. The symbols included drawings of events, portraits labeled by name (the king 4-Wind, for example, being shown by symbolic wind and four little bubbles in a line), and even punning rebuses. Enough writing has survived to give, when coupled with archaeological studies, a vivid picture of Ñudzahui life.

Like medieval Italian city-states, Ñudzahui principalities were rigidly stratified, with the king and a small group of kinspeople and noble advisers gobbling up much of the wealth and land. They constantly shifted configuration, some expanding by swarming over their neighbors, others imploding when their constituent villages seceded and joined other polities. More commonly, two states joined when their rulers married. Alliance through royal marriage was as common in eleventh-century Mixteca as it was in seventeenth-century Europe. In both, royal family trees formed an intricate network across national boundaries, but in Mixteca the queen’s lands stayed in her line—the king’s heir wasn’t necessarily the queen’s heir. Another difference: primogeniture was not expected. If the queen did not think her eldest son was fit for the crown, she could pass it to another child, or even to a nephew or cousin.

No fewer than four of the codices treat the story of 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, a wily priest-general-politician with a tragic love for the wife of his greatest enemy. Born in 1063 A.D., 8-Deer was a shirttail cousin to the ruling family of Tilantongo, which had been engaged for decades in a dynastic struggle with the kingdom of Red and White Bundle. (The name, a modern invention, comes from its name-glyph, which pictures the cloth wrapping used by the Ñudzahui to wrap holy objects; its exact location is still not nailed down.) Like his father, a high cleric, 8-Deer was trained for the priesthood, but political events and his own overweening ambition stopped him from following that path.

After an unprovoked attack on Red and White Bundle by Tilantongo raised hostilities to a fever, the warring parties agreed to meet in a sacred mountain cave with the Priestess of the Dead, a powerful oracle who had stripped away the flesh from her jaw, giving her a terrifying, skull-like appearance. Tilantongo’s representative was 8-Deer, who attended the meeting in place of his recently deceased father. To his dismay, the priestess sided with Tilantongo’s enemies and ordered 8-Deer, Tilantongo’s champion, to exile himself a hundred miles away, in a jerkwater town on the Pacific called Tututepec.

Tucked away in Tututepec, 8-Deer assembled a private army, staffed it with many relatives, and in a series of swift campaigns seized dozens of neighboring villages and city-states. In addition to assembling the greatest empire ever seen in the region, the conquests managed to kill off most of the siblings and cousins above him in the line of royal succession. After six years of war he returned home to Tilantongo. During this visit, according to John M. D. Pohl, the archaeologist whose interpretations I am mostly following here, 8-Deer accidentally encountered 6-Monkey, the young wife of the much older king of Red and White Bundle. Despite the long enmity between the two kingdoms, 8-Deer and 6-Monkey secretly became lovers.

In 1096 Tilantongo’s sovereign died in mysterious circumstances. The Priestess of the Dead selected 8-Deer’s beloved elder half brother to be the regent—that is, the half brother became the last person between 8-Deer and the throne of Tilantongo. Three years later, unknown assailants stabbed the half brother to death in a sweatbath. The inconsolable 8-Deer took the throne of Tilantongo and declared war on Red and White Bundle, which he claimed had orchestrated the murder.


In this fragment from a Ñudzahui codex, the jaguar-cowled Lord 8-Deer (right) captures 4-Wind, son of his former lover, by the hair. As in other Ñudzahui codices, the characters’ names are indicated by the accompanying circles-plus-head symbols.

Red and White Bundle’s royal palace was built on a cliff over a bend in the river. Guarded by sheer walls on three sides, its soldiers had only to watch the fourth side, across which was an earthen berm. Leading an army of a thousand, 8-Deer threw up ladders, swarmed over the berm with his men, and entered the palace. As befit a conqueror, 8-Deer was wearing elaborate cotton armor, a ceremonial beard wig, and a cowl made from the head of a jaguar. Gold-and-jade necklaces dangled across his naked chest. In the palace he found 6-Monkey and her husband, the king of Red and White Bundle. Both were mortally wounded. In Pohl’s account, 8-Deer held 6-Monkey as she died.

Captured with the royal couple were their two sons, the elder of whom, 4-Wind, was heir to the throne. Seizing him by the hair, 8-Deer forced the teenager to grovel before him. But he also made what seems to have been a sentimental decision: he spared the life of his lover’s son. The folly of this action became apparent when 4-Wind and his brother escaped from confinement.

Seeking revenge, 4-Wind approached the Zapotec empire for help. With Zapotec backing, he linked rebels in Red and White Bundle and a host of other cities defeated by 8-Deer. They besieged Tilantongo in 1115. The battle lasted six months and ended in total defeat for Tilantongo. In a mirror image of the past, the captured 8-Deer was forced to bow to 4-Wind. He was fifty-five years old and had six official kingships and dozens of petty states under his control. Victorious and vengeful, 4-Wind personally disemboweled him. Then he married 8-Deer’s daughter.

In 4-Wind’s first exercise of statecraft, he abandoned the Zapotec allies who had helped him achieve the throne, aligned Tilantongo with the Toltec empire to the north, and attacked the Zapotec. Ultimately the Ñudzahui under his lead took over much of Oaxaca, forcing the Zapotec states to pay tribute. The empire he established, far bigger than 8-Deer’s, lasted until the fifteenth century, when the Mexica invaded. And then came Cortés.

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