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The ancient Zapotecs and agriculture

The ancient Zapotecs and agriculture

The Zapotecs, known as the People of the Clouds; in the Zapotec language, Ben Zaa and in the Nahuatl language, Tzapotecatl, were a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca, in the southern part of Mesoamerica.
According to the discovery of some archaeological finds, their origin dates back to at least 2600 years ago. Many testimonies of their past have been found in the ancient city of Monte Albán in the form of buildings, ball fields, magnificent tombs and funerary ornaments, including finely crafted gold jewellery. Monte Albán was the capital of the area governed by the Zapotecs, almost corresponding to the current Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The term Zapotec is an exonym that derives from the word tzapotēcah (singular tzapotēcatl), which in the Nahuatl language means “inhabitants of the lands of sapote” (generic term indicating a sweet and soft fruit). The Zapotecs also referred to themselves with some variations of the term Be’ena’a, which means the people.

History –
The Zapotecs are an indigenous ethnic group originating from the Oaxaca region in southern Mexico. Their history has its roots in the ancient Zapotec civilization, one of the most important pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica. Their history can be divided into particular periods.
Pre-Columbian Period:
The Zapotec civilization originated in the area of present-day Oaxaca around 1500 BC. The city of Monte Albán was the main seat of Zapotec power. Monte Albán was one of America’s first city-states and, during its height, was an important political, religious and economic center. The Zapotecs had a writing system, the Zapotec alphabet, which was one of the first writing systems in the Americas.
Aztec Period:
In the 14th century, the Aztecs, coming from the north, subjugated the region and absorbed part of the Zapotec culture. However, the Zapotec civilization retained its distinctive cultural identity.
Colonial Period:
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the region came under colonial rule. This led to significant changes in Zapotec society and culture. The Spanish colonial authorities built churches and changed the local social organization.
Modern Period:
During the 19th century, during the period of independence and political instability in Mexico, the Zapotecs and other indigenous groups sought to preserve their autonomy and resisted cultural changes imposed by central authorities. Over time, indigenous organizations emerged to defend the rights of Zapotec communities.
Today, the Zapotecs make up a significant portion of Oaxaca’s population. They maintain their cultural, linguistic and artistic traditions, even as they face challenges such as discrimination, poverty and the loss of ancestral lands. The traditional political organization of the Zapotecs is based on a system of community governance called “usos y costumbres”, which emphasizes community participation in decisions.

Agriculture –
The Zapotecs were an indigenous people known for their rich history and culture. Agriculture played a fundamental role in the life of the ancient Zapotecs, contributing to their livelihood and the development of their communities.
Here are some aspects of agriculture among the ancient Zapotecs.
Maize Cultivation: Maize was a key crop for the Zapotecs and many other Mesoamerican civilizations. It was grown on terraces and embankments to make the most of the region’s mountainous terrain. Maize cultivation provided a main source of food for the population.
Variety of Crops: In addition to corn, the Zapotecs grew a variety of other agricultural products such as beans, squash, agave, and chili peppers. This diversification helped ensure a balanced diet and reduce the risk of famine.
Irrigation System: The Zapotecs developed sophisticated irrigation systems to manage their crops. Since the Oaxaca region was characterized by mountainous topography, water management was essential to ensure an adequate water supply for crops.
Agricultural terraces: The Zapotecs built agricultural terraces on the hills and mountains to increase the cultivable area and control soil erosion. These terraces allowed them to cultivate land otherwise unsuitable for agriculture.
Agricultural ceremonies: The ancient Zapotecs placed great importance on spirituality and ceremonies related to agriculture. They practiced rituals and ceremonies to honor the agricultural gods and ensure the success of crops. Their religion was deeply linked to nature and the forces that regulated the agricultural cycle.
Trade: The Zapotecs were known for their system of trade with other Mesoamerican civilizations. Agriculture played a key role in this system, allowing the Zapotecs to obtain much-needed goods through trading agricultural surpluses.
Agriculture was, therefore, an essential part of the daily life and culture of the ancient Zapotecs, contributing to their prosperity and development as a society.

Agricultural tools and crops –
The ancient Zapotecs prospered until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Their society was advanced and included agriculture, architecture, art, and a form of hieroglyphic writing.
Among the agricultural tools used by this population we include:
Hoe (coa): The Zapotecs used hoes to work the soil. This agricultural tool was essential for preparing fields and planting seeds.
Rake (xiu): Rakes were used to level the ground, remove weeds and facilitate aeration of the soil.
Plow (tulmi): The Zapotecs used the plow to plow the fields. This tool helped turn the soil so that it was ready for planting.
Weavers (telar): Although not an agricultural tool, textiles were important in the daily life of the Zapotecs. Weaving cloth was a common skill, and clothing was often decorated with symbolic designs.
Furthermore, as mentioned, corn was a fundamental crop in the Zapotec diet. They grew it in various varieties, and corn represented an essential part of their diet.
The Zapotecs cultivated several varieties of beans, which were an important source of protein in their diet.
Pumpkins and courgettes were cultivated by the Zapotecs and were an integral part of their diet.
Amaranth was a cereal grown for its nutrient-rich seeds and was often used in the preparation of traditional foods.
The Zapotecs also cultivated fruit trees such as avocado, papaya and persimmon.
Zapotec society was closely tied to agriculture, and the success of their crops was critical to their survival. They used advanced agricultural practices, such as terracing to grow crops on mountainous terrain, demonstrating remarkable ability to adapt to their surroundings.

Guido Bissanti

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