Mexican Zapotec Native American Indian History

Zapotec Mexican RugsScientists in Britain have identified the oldest skeleton ever found on the American continent in a discovery that raises fresh questions about the accepted theory of how the first people arrived in the New World. The skeleton’s perfectly preserved skull belonged to a 26-year-old woman who died during the last ice age on the edge of a giant prehistoric lake which once formed around an area now occupied by the sprawling suburbs of Mexico City.

Scientists from Liverpool’s John Moores University and Oxford’s Research Laboratory of Archaeology have dated the skull to about 13,000 years old, making it 2,000 years older than the previous record for the continent’s oldest human remains. The most intriguing aspect of the skull is that it is long and narrow and typically Caucasian in appearance, like the heads of white, western Europeans today. Modern-day Native Americans have short, wide skulls, typical of their Mongoloid ancestors, who are known to have crossed into America from Asia on an ice-age land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait.

The extreme age of Peñon woman has introduced two scenarios. Possibly there was a much earlier migration of Caucasian-like people with long, narrow skulls across the Bering Strait and these people were later replaced by a subsequent migration of Mongoloid people; or alternatively, and more controversially, a group of Stone Age people from Europe made the perilous sea journey across the Atlantic Ocean many thousands of years before Columbus or the Vikings. The first Americans may have actually been Europeans. They were definitely not Mongoloid in appearance.

The skull and the almost-complete skeleton of Peñon woman were originally unearthed in 1959 and were thought to be no older than about 5,000 years. Peñon woman formed part of a collection of 27 early humans in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, that had not been accurately dated using the most modern techniques. In 2002, at the insistence of geologist Silvia Gonzalez, who had a hunch the bones were older than previously thought; the remains were taken to Oxford University to be carbon-dated. Small bone samples from five skeletons were analyzed using the latest carbon techniques, and dated the skull to about 13,000 years old. The study was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal Human Evolution.

At 13,000 years old, Peñon woman would have lived at a time when there was a vast, shallow lake in the Basin of Mexico, a naturally enclosed high plain around today’s Mexico City, which would have been cooler and much wetter than it is today. Huge mammals would have roamed the region’s grasslands, such as the world’s largest mammoths with 12-foot tusks, bear-sized giant sloths, armadillos as big as a car and fearsome carnivores such as the saber-toothed tiger and great black bear. The bones of Peñon woman, named after the “little heel” of land that would have jutted into the ancient lake, were well developed and healthy, showing no signs of malnutrition. The two oldest skulls analyzed were both dolichocephalic, meaning that they were long and narrow-headed. The younger ones were short and broad, brachycephalic, which are typical of today’s Native Americans and their Mongoloid ancestors from Asia.

The findings have a resonance with the skull and skeleton of Kennewick man, who was unearthed in 1996 in the Columbia River at the town of Kennewick in Washington state. The skull, estimated to be 8,400 years old, is also long and narrow and typically Caucasian.

James Chatters, one of the first anthropologists to study Kennewick man before it had been properly dated, originally thought the man may have been a European trapper who had met a sudden death sometime in the early 19th century. Kennewick man became the most controversial figure in American anthropology when native tribes living in the region claimed that, as an ancestor, his remains should be returned to them under a 1990 law that gave special protection to the graves and remains of indigenous Americans. The debate intensified after some anthropologists suggested that Kennewick man was Caucasian in origin and could not therefore be a direct ancestor of the native Americans living in the Kennewick area today. Dr Gonzalez said that the identification of Peñon woman as the oldest known inhabitant of the American continent throws fresh light on the controversy over who actually owns the ancient remains of long-dead Americans.

Dr Gonzales’ research could have implications for the ancient burial rights of North American Indians because it’s quite possible that dolichocephalic man existed in North America well before the native Indians. Even more controversial is the suggestion that Peñon woman could be a descendant of Stone Age Europeans who had crossed the ice-fringed Atlantic some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago.

This theory first surfaced when archaeologists found flint blades and spear points in America that bore a remarkable similarity to those fashioned by the Solutrean people of south-western France who lived about 20,000 years ago, when the ice age was at its most extreme. The Solutreans were the technologists of their day, inventing such things as the eyed needle and the heat treatment of flint to make it easier to flake into tools. They also built boats and fished.

Bruce Bradley, an American archaeologist and an expert in flint technology, believes that the Solutrean method of fashioning flints into two-sided blades matches perfectly the Stone Age flint blades found at some sites in America. One of these is the 11,500-year-old flint spear point found in 1933 at Clovis, New Mexico. Dr Bradley said that the flint blades that came into America with the early Asian migrants were totally different in concept and mode of manufacture. Both the Clovis point and the Solutrean flints shared features that could only mean a shared origin, according to Dr. Bradley. Studies of the DNA of Native Americans clearly indicated a link with modern-day Asians, supporting the idea of a mass migration across the Bering land bridge. One DNA study, however, also pointed to at least some shared features with Europeans, that could only have derived from a relatively recent common ancestor who lived perhaps 15,000 years ago, the time of the Solutreans.

Not every specialist is convinced of the apparently mounting evidence of an early European migration. Professor Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, believes there are lots of examples in archaeology where various artifacts from different parts of the world can end up looking similar, even though they have different origins; and most humans in the world at that time were long headed. Nevertheless, the remarkable age of the young Paleolithic woman who died by an ancient lake in Mexico some 13,000 years ago has once again stirred the controversy over the most extraordinary migration in human history.

Skull measurements on the remains of an isolated group of people who lived at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California have also stirred up the debate on the identity of the first Americans. These early inhabitants of North America also differed subtly but significantly from modern Native Americans, since they also have the longer, narrower skulls.

Anthropologists once assumed the earliest Americans resembled modern Native Americans. That changed with the discovery of a 10,500-year-old skeleton called Luzia in Brazil, the 9000-year-old skeleton of Kennewick man in Washington state, and the dating of a 13,000 year old skull of a 26 year old woman called Peñon III, found on the shores of Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. All have the long, narrow skulls that more resemble those of modern Australians and Africans than modern Native Americans, or the people living in northern Asia, who are thought to be Native Americans’ closest relatives. Some researchers previously argued these were simply unusual individuals, but scientists have now identified the same features in recent remains from the Baja California.

Rolando González-José, of the University of Barcelona, Spain, reasons the formation of the Sonora desert isolated the Pericú hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. DNA evidence suggests that early immigrants, the Pericú, an extinct tribe of Baja California, are more closely related to the ancient populations of southern Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific Rim, than to other Native Americans and peoples of the North Pacific Rim. The Pericú survived until just a few hundred years ago at the end of the Baja peninsula, but they vanished when Europeans disrupted their culture. González-José measured 33 Pericú skulls and found their features were similar to those of the ancient Brazilian skulls. This supports the idea that a first wave of long, narrow skulled people from southeast Asia colonized the Americas about 14,000 years ago, and were followed by a second wave of people from northeast Asia about 11,000 years ago, who had short skulls. The idea that
the Pericú represent an earlier, more southerly migration by boat or along the coast to the Americas is quite plausible. For one thing, all of the very early humans found in the Americas seem more closely to resemble Austronesians and Ainu than later American Indians; a distinct migration would explain this.

Joseph Powell, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, is not convinced. He thinks the earliest Americans did come from southeast Asia, but believes they evolved into modern Native Americans, since even with two waves; each would have changed over the past 10,000 to 12,000 years, through adaptation and microevolution. The theory a first wave of long, narrow skulled people from southeast Asia; however, has been championed by Walter Neves, at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He believes the second wave of immigrants may have been larger, and eventually came to dominate the Americas. Neves argues the change in skull shape after 8000 years ago is too sudden to be explained by evolution.

One theory is two distinct groups of people migrated to North America at different times; another theory, only one population reached the continent and, excepting a few isolated groups, different physical attributes eventually evolved.

The central region of the state of Oaxaca Mexico is extraordinarily mountainous. Several impassible mountain ranges and their vast spurs enter the area at various angles and come into crisscross collision. The result is a tortured terrain fragmented into dramatic precipices and abrupt gorges, a few of which level out into wide and splendid valleys and innumerable smaller vales and dales at various levels of altitude. The continent nearly breaks in two at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, part of which lies in Oaxaca. The coastal areas are excessively hot and humid; the mountain chains high, cold, inhospitable and cloud-wrapped; the valleys temperate, well watered, and smiling. These valleys cradled one of mankind’s phenomenal and distinctive cultures. The ruins of more than two hundred ancient cities and towns are presently recorded and more than a thousand sites are listed as archaeologically important. Some of these ancient towns, still inhabited but reduced to the size of tiny hamlets, have archaeological time-columns which extend back to 600 B.C., Epoch I of Monte Alban.

For 3.5 millennia people who have been recognizably Zapotec have inhabited the central valleys and surrounding mountains of today’s Mexican state of Oaxaca. From their origins as hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors settled in the region as long as 10 – 13 millennia ago, the Zapotec peoples learned to adapt to the varied environments of the state, domesticated a number of wild species that are now important cultigens, organized urban centers and developed great political entities. Several studies estimate that the number of Zapotecs at the time of the Spanish conquest was between 350,000 and half million. The history of these people has not garnered the same attention that has been given that of the Maya and Aztec, and indeed for many years the early traces of civilization that dot Oaxaca were attributed to Olmecs. Current evidence, however, indicates the Zapotec were probably the first to develop a number of features that came to be characteristic of all subsequent Mesoamerican culture: the first city-states, the first use of a base-twenty numerical system, the first use of a rebus writing system, and the invention of the calendrical system.

The Zapotec call themselves by some variant of the term “The People” (Be’ena’a). The implications of this term are many: The people of this place, The true people, Those who didn’t come from another place, Those who have always been here. In fact, both scientific evidence and the origin myths about Zapotecs demonstrate a great antiquity in Oaxaca for the Zapotec and their precursors.The Zapotec, The People, tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, and some had turned from trees or jaguars into people. The elite Zapotec who governed, believed they had descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status. In fact, the name by which Zapotecs are known today resulted from this belief. In Central Valley Zapotec ‘The Cloud People’ is Be’ena’ Za’a. The Aztec soldiers and merchants who traded with these people translated their name phonetically into Nahuatl: ‘Tzapotecatl’, and the Spanish conquerors in turn transformed this name into Zapoteca. The Mixtecs, a sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their Aztec name due to their identity as ‘Cloud People’; Ñusabi in Mixtec proper, but in their case the Nahuatl translation was literal, as ‘Mixtecatl’ translates directly as ‘Cloud Person’.

The Zapotec and Mixtec elite of prehispanic times shared many customs and beliefs, and it is likely they may have shared more in common with other Mesoamerican elites than with the bulk of Zapotec common people. The Spaniards documented Zapotec society as it functioned at the time of European arrival in Tzapotecapan, meaning Zapotec Territory, in the Aztec language. Spanish chronicles tell of a specialized and stratified society, with a class of political leaders, priesthood and commoners. No intermarriage occurred between the governing nobility and the common folk. The common people, farmers and artisans, paid tribute to the nobility. Nobility lived in magnificent ceremonial centers and managed affairs of state, cultivated the knowledge of the sacred cycles of nature, communed with the gods, and conducted warfare. While commoners could attain great wealth, they could not acquire noble status, nor eat certain foods, nor use clothing and ornaments that were reserved for nobility.

There are currently 422,937 speakers of some Zapotec language, which is the minimum criterion used to establish the population of Zapotecs, according to statistics compiled by the Mexican government. Even though the majority of these people reside in their native state of Oaxaca, an important nucleus of Zapotecs also lives in both the Mexican capital Mexico City and in Los Angeles, California. In their home state, Zapotecs live throughout the central valleys, the eastern and southern mountain ranges, the Pacific coast and in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

As in ancient times, the majority of today’s Zapotecs lead a subsistence lifestyle, producing a number of craft items, principally textiles, Zapotec rugs and pottery. [Mexican Zapotec Native American rugs – Peñon woman] Prehispanic marketing cycles are alive and well, and can be seen at the mercantile exchanges Zapotecs continue to organize at major regional market centers throughout the state, on a weekly rotating schedule. At such markets one can find Zapotec rugs, tropical products, seafood, the toasted ‘traveling tortilla’, totopo, from the isthmus, pottery and woven wraps from the central valley, sandals and coffee from the heights of the Northern Sierra, and the full assortment of products resulting from Zapotec specialization and effort. A great majority of today’s Zapotecs are bilingual, speaking their mother tongue and Spanish, but the Zapotec language is prevalent in such market settings. The majority of the monolingual Zapotec population is women, and the lack of literacy is three times greater among Zapotecs than among the general Mexican population. Even though Oaxaca is the most “Indian” state of modern Mexico, racism thrives and markedly limits the health, quality of life and potential of hundreds of thousands of Zapotec, whose hard work and ambition is often not wanted for any more than traditional menial tasks. As a result, there is a high rate of out-migration among the native population of the state, primarily to Mexico City and Los Angeles, California. This has created sociocultural vacuums and distortions in the rural communities of Oaxaca, and the need among Zapotecs to develop skills to cope with new and unfamiliar challenges and pursue their livelihood. Even though Zapotecs have been a disenfranchised people, they include are a growing number of professionals; physicians, engineers and professors. Some of the Zapotec have assimilated without a trace, in order to escape the limited future available to today’s Mexican Indian. It is an understandable trade-off, although tragic in the context of legacy more than 3 millennia in the making. A few Zapotecs struggle on behalf of the rights of their people, both in their native Oaxaca and in the new environs where their needs have taken them.

As early as 3,000 BC, people were living in the Oaxaca valley region, and perhaps considerably earlier. Between 600 and 200 BC, although there was no social unity as yet, there evidently were settled communities, and they produced coarse, heavy ceramics. Between 200 BC and 200 AD, a Zapotec style of ceramics began forming, influenced by cultures to the south, which brought such things as tripod vases. The most important settlement was Monte Alban, which became a major ceremonial center during this time as well as an urban center.

Teotihuacan and Maya influences found their way into this region and were incorporated into the growing civilization. From 350 to 600, Monte Alban went through what is now designated as phase IIIA, experiencing the multiplication of structures, and above all a very elaborate cult of the dead, shown by the exceptionally fine tombs, and
the sumptuous offerings left with their bodies. The Zapotecs, meanwhile, spread southward and took Tehuantepec and other centers in that area. The people there today still speak the Zapotec language.

Between 700 and 1000, the Zaachila dynasty came into power, and made Teozapotlan their capital. It became a theocratic state, and the high priest was often the real authority. Pitao, The Great One, was honored as the supreme god; the rain god was worshipped under four different forms.

The Zapotecs had their own calendar, which was made of 260 days in four divisions of 65, these in turn being divided into five groups of 13. In 650 AD, Zapotec astronomers had gone to Xochicalco for the unique meeting at which representatives of various cultures synchronized their calendars. Zapotec writing in picture form on deerskins also became a fine art. In addition to Zaachila, the Zapotecs built the city of Mictlan, or Mitla, with its magnificent architectural sculpture.

From 1000 to 1300 AD, the Toltecs and Chichimecs pushed the Mixtecs southward. They eventually got to the Oaxaca valley, where they clashed with the Zapotecs who abandoned Monte Alban and moved to centers farther south, such as Yagul and Lambityeco. A semi-alliance was brought about between the two groups when the Zapotec king married a Mixtec princess in 1280, but Monte Alban was in a decadent period. Not even the combined Mixtec and Zapotec forces could hold back the Aztecs who invaded under Axayacatl in the middle of the fifteenth century. They did succeed in turning back the Aztecs under Ahuitzotl at Guiengola, and the last Zaachila king, Cocijo-eza, married Ahuitzotl’s daughter, thereby bringing about a lasting alliance and peace. The son of this marriage, Cocijo-pij, was the last Zapotec ruler. He died in 1563, long after the Spaniards had taken over the Oaxaca region.

As of 1995 there were 7.8 million speakers of native languages in Mexico, 8% of the total population. The state of Oaxaca is the most native state of the Mexican republic, in terms of both the total number of indigenous inhabitants as well as the number of aboriginal cultures represented within its borders. There are 289 living aboriginal languages in Mexico; Aztecan, Mayan and Zapotecan are the most widely spoken.

The most widely spoken native language in today’s Oaxaca is Zapotec, with approximately 423,000 speakers. The Zapotec language belongs to the greater Otomanguean language group. Of the 173 living Otomanguean tongues, 64 are Zapotecan. These are subsequently divided into three geographic subgroups within the state of Oaxaca: Northern, Southern and Isthmus Zapotec, with a slight overlap into the neighboring states of Chiapas and Veracruz.

Zapotec is a tonal language rich in sound and pronunciation. Because the set of sounds used to speak Zapotec is greater than for European languages, it is difficult to capture it accurately with the standard roman alphabet. This was a problem for Spanish friars in the 16th century, when they began writing zapotec catechisms and composing grammars and vocabularies of the language.

Current theories suggest that 10,000 years before the present, Paleo-Indian inhabitants of the region shared a single language. As population groups began to settle and differentiate along regional lines, likewise their speech began to diverge. Sometime between 10 and 7 thousand past, three great language families had differentiated: the northern Uto-Aztecan group, the southern Mayan group, and the central proto-Otomanguean group. The central proto-Otomanguean group extended from the present Mexican state of Hidalgo to the southern extent of today’s Oaxaca.

In succeeding millennia, various branches continued to diverge within each language group, and within Otomanguean the most important branches were the Otomí-Pame, Chocho-Popoloca-Mazateco, Mixe-Zoque and Mixtec-Zapotec. A key linguistic fission seems to have occurred around 5,700 ago, when Mixtec and Zapotec began to diverge. These glotochronological estimates are corroborated by the available archaeological data for each of these peoples. For example, glotochronological analyses indicate, and archaeology corroborates, a great atomization of Zapotec culture following the initiation of the long period of decay of the great capital at Monte Albán. Simultaneously with this event, which began in the eighth century of the common era, a number of dialectical variants of Zapotec appeared in the mountain regions surrounding the central valley of Oaxaca.

While it is clear that today’s Zapotecan languages share commonalities with one another and with an ancestral language; as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Roman and Romanian with Latin, the Zapotec languages are largely unintelligible to native speakers of the other tongues. However, in Zapotec languages, as in Romance languages, one of the most highly preserved areas of commonality is the numbering system. Although an Isthmus and a Mountain Zapotec could hardly converse with one another in their own dialects, since their languages diverged from Valley Zapotec 8 centuries ago and have not interacted significantly since, they would each recognize one another’s numbers.