In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conquest and Colonial Oaxaca

  • Introduction
  • Pre-Hispanic Society
  • Conquest
  • Colonial Society
  • Indigenous Social Organization
  • Land Tenure
  • Religion
  • Economic Developments
  • Indigenous Texts
  • Architecture and Arts
  • Indigenous Languages

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Latin American Studies Conquest and Colonial Oaxaca
Michel R. Oudijk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0005


The present state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is particularly known for the Classic-period archaeological site of Monte Albán (100–800 AD) and the presence of multiple indigenous peoples today. However, during the last 500 years, before the arrival of the Spaniards, it was home to many autonomous city-states that were involved in a constant flux of alliances and wars. The alliances were typically formed and consolidated through elite marriages and the exchange of land and/or people to work such lands. The historical relationships between peoples and the ethnolinguistic distribution make it worthwhile to think in terms of an Oaxacan culture area that includes parts of the present-day states of Puebla and Guerrero, rather than in terms of the state of Oaxaca. While this population was and continues to be constituted by at least sixteen different ethnolinguistic groups, this aspect was of no particular political importance, because the alliances and wars were determined by economic, political, and historical motivations. With the arrival of the Spaniards, much of the previous patterns of political maneuvering continued. Thus, local lords decided to reject or join the ever-growing army of Spanish and indigenous allies, based on existing antagonisms with other rulers. Furthermore, the most-important contacts between Spaniards and Oaxacan indigenous lords took place after the emblematic fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1521. These two aspects have resulted in a relatively peaceful conquest of the region, which obviously does not mean that its effects were less traumatic, particularly considering the disastrous population loss caused by the diseases brought by the Spaniards. As early as 1524, Hernán Cortés incorporated large parts of the Oaxacan culture area into his Marquesado, which resulted in the presence of few Spaniards and the continuation of the pre-Hispanic social and political organization in order to maximize the tributary revenue. At the same time, many of the lords of the city-states quickly adapted to the new colonial society but also continued their policies of intermarital alliances, forming large landholding corporations called cacicazgos. However, the previous city-states now became towns with their own authorities often held by the lower nobility and commoners, which meant a serious erosion of power for the lords or caciques.

Pre-Hispanic Society

One of the main focal points of studies of pre-Hispanic societies in Oaxaca has been the origin and development of the state in Monte Albán. Since the 1930s, modern excavations by Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal paved the way for large projects of investigations related to settlement patterns throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Results of these projects have been published in synthetic works such as Blanton 1999 and Marcus and Flannery 1996. Whereas similar synthetic works of regional history during the so-called Postclassic period (1100–1521) have existed since the 1960s (for example, Spores 1967 and Whitecotton 1977), it is only recently that the application of modern historical, philological, and linguistic methods, as well as the accumulation of results from modern research, have made broad, integral views on the history of cultural groups and regions possible. Byland and Pohl 1994 presents a broad view of the Tilantongo Valley history based on both pictographic and archaeological sources, while Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2007 gives an in-depth overview of Mixtec history based on a profound analysis of the Mixtec codices. Similarly, van Doesburg and van Buren 1997 is the first attempt at synthesizing Coixtlahuaca history based on the study of pictorials and colonial alphabetic documents, and Oudijk 2000 integrates information from pictographic and alphabetic texts into a broad historical account of the three main Zapotec regions.

  • Blanton, Richard E. Ancient Oaxaca: The Monte Albán State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    A very accessible account of the origin and rise of the state in the Valley of Oaxaca, directed specifically at students. Written by some of the most recognized archaeologists and based on decades of investigations in the region.

  • Byland, Bruce E., and John M. D. Pohl. In the Realm of 8 Deer: The Archaeology of the Mixtec Codices. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

    The first systematic project to relate the accounts contained in the Mixtec codices with results from archaeological surveys and toponymic registration in the field.

  • Jansen, Maarten, and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez. Encounter with the Plumed Serpent: Drama and Power in the Heart of Mesoamerica. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

    An impressive undertaking bringing together all information from the Mixtec codices into one historical account that is presented as a dramatic historiographical narrative. Considerable discussion exists about certain identifications, such as those of Monte Albán, Lord 4-Jaguar as Quetzalcoatl, and a military campaign of Lord 8-Deer to the Yucatan Peninsula.

  • Marcus, Joyce, and Kent V. Flannery, eds. Zapotec Civilization. How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

    After many years of surface surveys and excavations in Oaxaca, two prominent archaeologists present a very accessible summary with many illustrations and a handsome presentation.

  • Oudijk, Michel R. Historiography of the Bènizàa. The Late Postclassic and Early Colonial Periods. Vol. 84. Leiden, The Netherlands: CNWS Publications, Research School CNWS, 2000.

    A study and commentary of eight different Zapotec pictorials that brings the Valley of Oaxaca, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the Sierra Norte into one integral historical account.

  • Spores, Ronald. The Mixtec Kings and their People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

    The classic study of pre-Hispanic Mixtec society. Although somewhat superseded in certain aspects by modern historical research, it continues to be one of the first references to this region and culture.

  • van Doesburg, Sebastián, and Olivier van Buren. “The Prehispanic History of the Valley of Coixtlahuaca, Oaxaca.” In Códices, Caciques y Comunidades. Cuadernos de Historia Latinoamericana 5. Edited by Maarten Jansen and Luis Reyes García, 103–160. Ridderkerk, The Netherlands: AHILA, 1997.

    The only existing syncretic account of Chochona history based on an integral study of all pictographic documents, many colonial alphabetical texts, and toponymic research in the Coixtlahuaca Valley.

  • Whitecotton, Joseph W. The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests, and Peasants. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

    Another classic study that may be superseded in some aspects but continues to be one of the most reliable reference books for Zapotec pre-Hispanic and colonial history.

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