Zapotec (zäˈpətĕk, säˈ–) [key], 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).