Monte Albˇn: Aerial view of site 
and Valley of Oaxaca

"The Mysterious Rise and Decline of Monte Alban"


Some 2,500 years ago when Greeks were busy fighting Persians at places like Thermopylae and Marathon, Zapotec Indians across the Atlantic began building a great city, possibly the first in the New World. The job called for reshaping Monte Alban, a 1,500-foot hill overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca in central Mexico. Cutting into the hillsides, workers constructed hundreds of terraces, stepped platforms with retaining walls designed mainly for plain and fancy residences. For the seats of the mighty, the palaces and temples and major administrative centers, they leveled the entire hilltop, creating the main plaza on a 55- acre super-terrace perhaps eight times bigger than St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Monte Alban endured for more than a millennium. It housed 20,000 to 30,000 persons at its height, and lost its position as regional capital some seven to eight centuries before the arrival of invaders from imperial Spain. But the setting, one of the most magnificent in the ancient world, remains, together with the glamour. I remember my first visit to the main plaza, climbing stairs to a platform where a palace had once stood and feeling as if I were on the edge of an island in the sky, among gray-black storm clouds, the valley floor far below and mountains on all sides. It was an appropriate place for people in power. Today the center is probably more bustling than it was in its prime, with a rather different cast of characters: tourists by the busload, souvenir vendors, armed soldiers on 24-hour duty to discourage looting.

The city attracts archaeologists as well as tourists. It has been one of the world's most intensively studied sites ever since Mexican investigators spent 18 seasons digging there, starting in the early 1930s. The latest research project, launched seven years ago and still under way, is headed by 33- year-old Richard Blanton of Purdue University. He and his associates have been engaged in a kind of Operation Mountain Goat, tramping up and down the hill's steep slopes, searching for artifacts directly underfoot and at the same time on the lookout in the middle distance for traces of ancient roadways, dams, reservoirs and especially terraces. Keeping one's balance under such conditions is not always easy. In fact, falls are part of the day's work and Blanton, a former National Collegiate Athletic Association gymnast, has had his share. Another daily hazard, frequently encountered during falls, is mala mujer, or "bad woman," common name for a nettlelike plant that produces stings and aches.

One objective of Blanton's research is to trace the "trajectory" of the city, to put together the equivalent of a time-lapse film of its rise and fall, and for that the terraces provide vital information. Shards, shattered bits of cooking and serving ware, are documents of a sort from which, among other things, rough dates may be read. A dish with characteristic "comb" designs scratched on the bottom is typical of what people were using between 300 and 200 B.C., while a popular item from A.D. 200 to 450 was a flared-rim bowl with snake-like carving. Populations for different periods can be estimated from the number and size of houses.

To date the investigators have identified nearly 2,100 terraces, collected about 120,000 shards and thousands of stone tools, produced 30,000 pages of maps and filled out forms specifying exactly what was found where--all of which makes up only part of the record. Monte Alban was the result of remote as well as local forces. Its unfolding story involves findings at hundreds of other sites located in continuous surveys throughout the immediate region and beyond. In some way which eludes us still, its rise was connected with the rise of other early Mesoamerican centers, its fall with their fall, including the mysterious and relatively sudden collapse of Maya civilization. Furthermore, what we are learning from developments in the Valley of Oaxaca raises questions which apply to the emergence of cities and states everywhere, and in our own times as well as in the past.

The Valley of Oaxaca's first migrants from a nearby valley-- perhaps 50 persons--arrived some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. They were nomads, taking nature pretty much as they found it, living on what the good earth offered, wild plants and wild animals. When local resources became scarce, they moved to another part of the valley, rarely camping in one spot more than a month or so. This was the ancestral way of the hunter- gatherer, dating back at least two million years to the earliest members of the genus Homo.

Their descendants--and those of other highland people in Mesoamerica--began tinkering with nature. Instead of relying solely on what happened to be growing wild, they altered bits of the Oaxaca landscape. They proceeded to clear selected plots, plant seeds and experiment with garden produce, which merely supplemented conventional wild diets at first, and later became increasingly important. The process culminated in a heavy dependence on a variety of cultivated species including corn, beans, squash, avocados and chili peppers, and in the end of nomadic hunting-gathering as a dominant life-style. Villages appeared around 1600 B.C., settlements of one-room houses with walls of lashed-together reeds or cane plastered with clay and mud.

Stephen Kowalewski of the University of Georgia estimates that no more than 500 people may have been living in the valley at the time of the first villages, around 1500 B.C. The number had increased fourfold by 500 B.C. when Monte Alban was founded. The city's population, like a rocket taking off, shot up to 5,000 within its first two centuries and, by around 200 B.C., had tripled.

Perched high and near the point where the three arms of the Y-shaped valley come together, Monte Alban would have made a fine fortress, but the founders built no fortifications. The site was not convenient to good farming land, raw materials or water, and hauling supplies up the hillsides meant backbreaking labor in a country where the only draft animals were human beings. "We really don't know why Monte Alban was built when it was, or why at all," Blanton explains, "but it may have been the creation of local chiefs." These leaders may deliberately have located it in an undesirable place in neutral territory--as was Brasilia on its remote Amazonian plateau or, in earlier times, Washington, D.C., in what was originally a malarial swamp area which no one wanted. It may be significant that in the beginning the center consisted of three separate districts or zones, perhaps the political bailiwicks of leaders from the valley's three arms.

Further clues to what was going on come from Monte Alban's great open terrace, the main hilltop plaza. One of its earliest buildings contained a series of figures carve in low relief on stone slabs, depicted in stylized positions with eyes closed and open mouth, and once believed to be danzantes or dancers engaged in some sort of ecstatic ritual. More recent studies suggest that they were dead rather than entranced--slain or sacrificed captives. We might learn more about the killing if experts learn to translate hieroglyphs found at one end of the "Gallery of Danzantes," the oldest known written texts in the New World.

Monte Alban served as the base of a military league or confederation, not a tightly centralized government but a union by consent and for expediency's sake. Populations were on the rise not just in the Valley of Oaxaca, but also in many smaller valleys within a radius of 50 miles or so, where competing peoples represented a threat--and, if subjugated, a rich source of tribute in the form of cotton, tropical fruits and other valuable products.

The region suffered growing pains with the population, some 10,000 to 20,000 persons in 300 B.C., soaring to more than 40,000 by 200 B.C. Farmers under pressure to work the land more inten- sively, to produce more food for city folk, acquired extra hands by producing more children.

A new feature shows up in the archaeological record at Monte Alban, whose own population had tripled. You can see part of it from the top of the hill. About halfway down the west slope, just beyond a plowed field, lies a great ridge marked by a row of trees. The ridge goes on and on, an ancient semicircular defense, a double earthen wall more than a mile long, 10 to 30 feet high, and up to 60 feet thick. Furthermore, in an apparent effort to become more self-sufficient, people built behind the walls what may have been reservoirs, with a network of irrigation canals at the base of the mountain. Unguarded since its founding, Monte Alban was no longer an open city.

Its conquests are commemorated on the main plaza, in a building which, for reasons unknown, is shaped like an arrowhead and points southwest. Set into its walls are more than 40 stone slabs listing subjugated places. A typical slab includes a "hill" sign, with a glyph above it specifying a conquered place and below it an upside-down head with closed eye, evidently a visual pun representing an overturned chief. In time this structure, known as Building J, was converted to other uses but archaeologists do not agree on its function. It may have been an observatory.

Political patterns, reflected in living patterns, were changing in the valley's central region, the countryside immediately surrounding Monte Alban. After about 200 B.C., what had been flourishing agricultural development within a radius of ten miles of the city, collapsed. In the region as a whole many sites were abandoned as the people clustered together in the larger communities.

Danger put new life into the Oaxaca military league, start- ing about A.D. 200 to 300. The threat probably arose some 225 miles to the northwest on a high plain not far from the present site of Mexico City, where at about that time the supercenter of Teotihuacan was just entering its heyday period, with more than 50,000 inhabitants and dreams of conquest. It was doing business of some sort with Monte Alban, as indicated by the first traces of Teotihuacan-type pottery on the hill, and by the establishment of a Oaxaca district in Teotihuacan. Blanton speculates that "the rich Valley of Oaxaca would have been a prime target for those in Teotihuacan who were directing the expansion of their own empire."

Whatever the Teotihuacanos' intentions, the Zapotecs were never conquered. They created a state of their own with Monte Alban as capital, and a centralized government which seems to be reflected in their sculptures and relief carvings. In a study of some 200 monuments, Joyce Marcus of the University of Michigan reports a wide range of styles during the period from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, with carvings from different valley-floor localities differing markedly from one another and from those produced by craftsmen on the hill. After that period, however, "all regional styles were abandoned . . . and those sites that continued to carve monuments did so in the Monte Alban style."

Monte Alban reached its peak around A.D. 500 to 600, when it emerged as a supercenter, an unprecedented focus of power. The entire valley of Oaxaca, some 700 square miles, contained in excess of 60,000 persons--and perhaps as many as 30,000 were living on less than three square miles of hillside. The city represented something completely new in the New World, a high- rise complex of slopes and levels, terraces above and overlooking terraces, some no larger than backyard gardens, others bigger than football fields, and all 2,100 of them occupied.

Had you lived in Monte Alban then, unless you happened to be important enough to be borne high above the crowd on a litter, most of your life would have been spent climbing. Traffic was heavy, and it was all foot traffic. Mesoamerica had no beasts of burden except human beings, and no wheeled transport. Rising at sunrise from beds of woven matting, brown-skinned workers, housed in small mud-brick dwellings, on many terraces, began moving in gangs along a maze of alleys, winding paths and main streets, carrying water in jugs, food and other supplies for their better- off brethren nearer the top of the mountain.

The way led up, always up, and on to higher and wider terraces with bigger and brighter residences, rooms and hallways on flat-topped pyramids, arranged in clusters around central patios--and painted in red and blue patterns against backgrounds of dazzling white burnished plaster. Workers trudged up steps on the steep sides of the pyramids, unloaded their burdens, and collected loads of garbage and assorted debris from the activities of the previous day. Scattered throughout Monte Alban were the palaces of the ruling class, as well as markets provid- ing everything from fruits gathered in lowland tropical forests in the southeast, obsidian for tools and ornaments, and colorful fabrics to the perennial tortillas and tamales and fried beans. The main plaza complex atop the hill contrasted sharply with the hubbub of the rest of the city. This was a zone apart, a secret and silent place, strictly off limits except perhaps on a few festival days when the haulers and carriers and their straw bosses were allowed in to celebrate the splendor and to be awed. Only the most elite of the elite, perhaps some 200 to 300 in- dividuals, conducted the affairs of state here in the main complex.

At this time the city was divided into districts, as it had been a millennium ago at its founding, only now instead of three there were 14 (not counting the main plaza). Blanton discovered that all the districts were organized along similar lines, each consisting of numerous residential terraces surrounding one or two groups of mounds at least a meter high and often considerably higher, with platforms on top and facing a common patio or plaza, probably residences for the well-born and their retinues, plus an "open" mound or pair of mounds, generally with access to a major road, perhaps a civic-ceremonial area combining a ritual space with a marketplace.

It was in the main plaza, at the heart of empire, that eventually decay set in. There was no melodramatic twilight-of - the-gods finale, no vandals breaking down the gates, no sacking. Things began coming apart in little ways. Cracks in a facade, a crumbling bit of pavement, paint peeling off an inconspicuous temple wall--flaws like these failed to be repaired as promptly as usual and a foreman noticed and someone may have paid with his paid with his life. But in time it became clear that something more than neglect was involved as the tiny cumulative marks of massive social change mounted too fast for maintenance crews to keep up with.

Decline started during the seventh century A.D. First walls were allowed to fall, then entire buildings. By A.D. 1000, the city's population had dropped to less than a fifth of its peak level and the great plaza was abandoned. Gradually, people moved down from the heights, most of them living on the lower slopes of the hill behind defense walls and near a major crossroads which provided easy access to the valley floor. This strategic loca- tion, together with a number of other features such as a small settlement and a public space and pyramids just outside the walls, suggests that the former imperial capital had become now more of a commercially oriented tradesmen's community than a regional capital.

The ruins at the top were not forgotten, however. Big men chose to be buried there among half-legendary ancestors. One tomb which Mexican archaeologists discovered nearly half a century ago made use of a stone vault where an earlier member of the elite had been buried about a millennium before, when the city was on the rise. The ancient tomb was cleaned out and filled with more than 500 treasured items, one of the most spectacular hoards ever unearthed in the New World--including carved deer and jaguar bones, earrings and knives of obsidian, necklaces each containing hundreds of gold and pearl and tur- quoise beads, a breastplate and a diadem of gold, a turquoise inlaid skull with perforated shells in the eye sockets.

Some less affluent individuals still revere the ruins. "One day we were mapping a group of mounds near the top of the hill," Blanton recalls, "and came across a recently dug hole, a kind of niche. Inside was an offering, put there only a few days before: a turkey with its head cut off, and a few cigarettes." The profane, of course, endures along with the sacred. People without respect for times past began looting many centuries ago as soon as the hilltop was deserted, and their descendants have been busy ever since, if no longer in the guarded main plaza, then along the slopes, seeking pottery, artifacts of obsidian and jade, and other salable items.

We know very little about why Monte Alban collapsed or why, for that matter, any other early center collapsed. (Investi- gators have been concerned chiefly with rising rather than falling political systems, but now, with the recent outbreak of second thought about Man's future, more attention is being paid to decline.) Local forces were certainly at work, perhaps within the city itself. In the beginning the main plaza contained only two or three buildings and, although probably never wide open to the public, they may have been readily accessible on special occasions.

Later it became more and more secluded--staircases facing inward and stark back walls facing the rest of the city. A sign of trouble toward the end was the building of new outer defense walls and a high wall hiding an inner-sanctum zone around South Platform. Blanton describes the plaza as "a segregated closed elite-administrative place, access to which was only by way of three small and easily controlled entrances." The distance between the people and their leaders, and the possibility of restlessness that might flare up in hard times, was on the increase.

Monte Alban was not alone in decline. Its fateful century, the seventh century A.D., also saw the beginning of the end for its mammoth Valley of Mexico counterpart to the northwest. Within a century or so, Teotihuacan declined and many of its temples were burned. It dropped from a population of perhaps 150,000 persons to about a fifth of that figure, and became what one authority calls "a backwater in a highly sophisticated state whose center was elsewhere." Another backwater was in the making more than 450 miles to the east, in the tropical lowlands of Guatemala. Not long after the downfall of Teotihuacan, Tikal, one of the New World's proudest centers, also went under. The prime city of the Maya people, with its estimated 60,000 popula- tion and massive defense earthworks and white temple-pyramids rising huge and lonely out of the jungle, ended up as a ghost town, a deserted place of relics.

Centers throughout much of the southern Maya lowlands shared the fate of Tikal, in a gigantic population decline on a scale unprecedented in the annals of ancient Mesoamerican society. The cause of collapse of this early Maya civilization, which took place within two centuries or so, continues to stir up contro- versy among investigators. There are many theories. In fact, practically every conceivable possibility has been suggested: malnutrition and food shortages resulting from overpopulation, the spread of insect-borne diseases, warfare among lowland tribes, an uprising of commoners against the upper classes, declining soil fertility, moral decay, and so on. But the solid evidence to support these notions or any others is lacking.

One thing is certain. Decline in the Maya lowlands, as in Monte Alban itself, cannot be accounted for by local forces alone. A complex system had broken down; a network of trade and diplomatic relationships among the elites of supercenters who, on occasion at least, may have had closer ties with one another than with the people of their own states. Expanding research can be expected to help clarify the nature of changes that took place on a Mesoamerica-wide basis of social evolution on a large scale.

The results may have an important bearing on current as well as past events. Today, after little or no growth from the Spanish conquest to the 1940s, the region is again in the throes of a population explosion. In the Valley of Oaxaca, young families are moving into marginal terrain, into the hills, as their ancestors did more than 2,500 years ago. And, once again, there is a premium on more children to help work the land. At the same time, even larger numbers of people are moving into cities.

It may be that Monte Alban has something to say to all of us. Many experts believe that today's restless boom times throughout the world will be followed by another period of zero growth and population stability. That happened in the past, and it may happen again. Furthermore, such periods have often been marked by a weakening of absolutism, of highly centralized power, like the redistribution of power after Monte Alban's decline.

Similar changes may occur again in the Valley of Oaxaca, perhaps during the next few decades. Even more significant, some foresee an eventual breaking up of today's superpowers. We only know that change is very much in the wind--and that continuing studies of the world's earliest cities, including Monte Alban and its rivals, may help provide deeper insights into some of the global problems that plague us today.

by: John E. Pfeiffer
in: Smithsonian (February 1980, Vol. 10, No. 11, pp. 62-74)
Reprint permission given by the publisher.      PFEIFFE1.ART

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