Millennia later, around 2000 B.C., those early Oaxacans, supplied with the bounty of their fields, no longer had to wander in search of food and were settling into permanent villages. Although initially small—typically only a dozen houses—the villages prospered and grew. Discovered remains reveal that many aspects of Oaxacan village life have remained fundamentally unchanged. Then, as now, planting, harvesting, and preparation of food occupied most of the day. Men used flint ax-heads hafted to wooden handles to clear brush, which they would burn in preparation for seeding. Women ground corn with the familiar mano and metate, a combination roller-crusher. They patted tortillas and baked them on the flat clay comal (griddle) and stewed meats, beans, and chili sauces in round clay pots.
Excavated ceramic figurines reveal the villagers’ dress: for women, woven cloth or frond skirts, fiber or leather sandals, and long hair, often attractively braided, plus earrings and necklaces; for men, ordinarily a simple loincloth and sandals.
Village people buried their dead family members, laid out flat, in graves near their houses. A few offerings for the afterlife accompanied the deceased: a bowl with food, drinks, favored personal objects, and jewelry, including a semiprecious stone placed in the mouth.
Gradually, population increased. By 500 B.C. some villages, such as at San José El Mogote  about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Oaxaca City , had grown into small towns, with as many as 500 residents. At San José El Mogote investigators have uncovered early evidence of social classes—large, regally elevated houses—and specialization, in the form of a factory where workers polished iron-rich magnetite into small mirrors, which were traded hundreds of miles away.
Gradually during the few thousand years when villages were growing into towns, abundant food and burgeoning commercial wealth lifted a small but significant fraction of Oaxacans to a privileged leisure status. They became the artists, architects, warriors, and ruler-priests—with time to think and create. Over time, they devised symbols, writing, and a calendar that tied the constant wheel of the firmament to life on earth, defining the days to plant, to harvest, to feast, to travel, and to trade. Eventually, a grand city arose.
Around 500 B.C., ancestors of Oaxaca’s present-day Zapotec peoples founded what many experts believe to have been the Americas’ earliest metropolis. On the central valley summit known today as Monte Albán , they raised monumental platforms, pyramids, palaces, and ceremonial ball courts. These they decorated with inscriptions, in a language yet to be deciphered, recording the exploits of their god-kings. The ordinary family homes of adobe bricks, arranged around central patios, occupied the hillside just below the ceremonial summit.
For centuries, Monte Albán  flourished, overflowing halfway down its hillsides. Although starting from a population of only 2,000 at its founding, Monte Albán flourished to a city of as many as 40,000 at its height a thousand years later. By A.D. 500 Monte Albán encompassed three square miles (seven sq. km), interlaced with vegetable and flower gardens and spreading to several monumental neighborhood sub-centers downhill.
Although Monte Albán  ruled, upwards of two dozen subsidiary cities administered local areas throughout Oaxaca. Their ruins litter the present-day state: sites such as Yucuita and Monte Negro near Nochixtlán, in the Mixteca Alta, Cerro de las Minas in the Mixteca Baja, and Dainzu  and Lambityeco  in the central valley. War appears to have been a scourge of Oaxaca’s early cities. Like Monte Albán, and in contrast to most village-era sites, most cities lay atop defensible hilltops.
Monte Albán ’s days were nevertheless numbered. After dominating Oaxaca and beyond for more than a thousand years, its power was fading fast by around A.D. 750. Although experts argue over what combination of drought, disease, war, or overpopulation ended Monte Albán’s glory days, they agree that it was virtually abandoned by A.D. 1000 and eclipsed by a crowd of tussling city-states. A similar mysterious fate befell other southern and central Mexican cities, most notably Teotihuacán, Monte Albán’s great rival metropolis in the north.
Although founded half a millennium later than Monte Albán , Teotihuacán grew rapidly, attaining population and wealth on a par with the ancient world’s great cities by A.D. 300. Its epic pyramids still stand, not far north of Mexico City, along a grand avenue of fearsome, ruby-eyed stone effigies of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent king of gods.
After Teotihuacán was abandoned around A.D. 700, a host of its former vassal cities rose to power, among them Xochicalco, in the highlands in the present state of Morelos, an hour’s drive south of Mexico City.
Xochicalco became renowned as a center of learning, where noble families sent their sons to study the healing arts, astronomy, architecture, and agriculture. A prominent student among them was Topiltzín (literally, Our Prince), who left Xochicalco in A.D. 968 to found his own city-state, Tula, north of old Teotihuacán.
After an enlightened 20-year rule, Topiltzín became so revered that his people began to know him as the living incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed-serpent god of gods. He was not universally loved, however. Jealous priests, who hated Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzín’s persuasive opposition to their bloody rites of human sacrifice, drugged him with alcohol. He awoke, bleary-eyed, in bed with his sister. Devastated by shame, Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzín banished himself from Tula with a band of retainers. In A.D. 987, they headed east, toward Yucatán. Although he sent word he would reclaim his kingdom during the 52-year cyclical calendar year of his birth, Ce Acatl, Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzín never returned. Legends say that he sailed east and rose to heaven as the morning star.
By A.D. 1000, the power vacuum left by the demise of Monte Albán  had been filled by its dozens of former tributary cities, whose rulers carved out their own little kingdoms, mostly in the central valley and the Mixteca. Each had a dominant town, typically with a population of 5,000–10,000, which ruled a dispersed walking-distance village hinterland of about 100 square miles (250 sq. km) and 10,000 or 20,000 people. Some of these, notably Zaachila  and Mitla , near present-day Oaxaca City , remain thriving towns, still dominating their districts, while others, such as Yagul , near Mitla ; Huijazoo, in the Etla  Valley northwest of Oaxaca City ; and Guiengola, in the Isthmus west of Tehuántepec, are uninhabited ruins.
In A.D. 1011, not long after the great Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzín had trekked east, another renowned noble, known to historians as 8-Deer, the calendar name-date of his birth, was born in Oaxaca. Scholars have learned details of his life through pre-conquest hieroglyphic documents, collectively called codices (or singularly, codex). Although most were destroyed by Spanish priests all over Mexico early in the conquest, eight Oaxaca codices, folded deerskin hieroglyphic books whitened with lime, survived, all from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, respectively called Becker I, Becker II, Bodley, Colombino, Nuttall, Sánchez Solis, Selden, and Vienna. Six of these eight Mixtec codices commemorate 8-Deer’s adventures. Among the most enlightening, Codex Nuttall records 8-Deer’s given name as Tiger Claw, portending his ruthless exploits.
As Monte Albán ’s power faded, the Mixtec city-states, west and northwest of the central valley, thrived. But overpopulation, and perhaps pressure from Xochicalco and the Toltecs (People of Tula), forced ambitious Mixtec nobles to look southward at the fertile lands of the Oaxaca central valley.
The stage for Mixtec expansion was set when 8-Deer Tiger Claw came of age. He moved quickly, forming alliances and setting his rivals against one another. Codex Nuttall depicts one of 8-Deer Tiger Claw’s expeditions. It shows him, along with two allies, 4-Tiger and 9-Water, spears and shields in hand, crossing a lake by canoe toward an island, the Hill of Mixtlatl. The document records the expedition’s three consecutive dates: 10-Serpent, 11-Death, and 12-Deer, of A.D. 1046, when 8-Deer was in his 35-year-old fighting prime.
After bringing the entire Mixteca, from the Tehuacán Valley in the north to the coastal stronghold at Tututepec , under his control, 8-Deer led Mixtec armies southeast from his capital at Tilantongo and defeated a number of Zapotec central valley city-states. Although 8-Deer met his end as a sacrifice victim in Cuilapan, not far south of present-day Oaxaca City , in 1061, Mixtec nobles ruled on as an elite minority in Zaachila , Mitla , and other valley city-states. They preserved their dominance by the tactic of political marriage, taking daughters of the Zapotec nobility as near-hostage wives who raised Mixtec-speaking heirs.
Although only a relatively few of the original Mixtec speakers remain living today in the central valley, the old Mixtec influence lives on in the Zapotec-Mixtec stylistic fusion of the architecture, pottery, jewelry, and other remains found at Zaachila , Mitla , Monte Albán , and other sites. Admire the elaborately fine greca mosaic frets decorating the Mitla  ruins and you’re enjoying the Mixtec influence; likewise, at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca , in the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo  in Oaxaca City , Mixtec craftsmanship and sophistication gleam from the golden mask of death and the trove of gold and turquoise jewelry taken from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán .
At the time the Mixtecs were consolidating their rule of the Valley of Oaxaca , the Aztecs (People of Aztlán), a collection of seven aggressive immigrant subtribes, had eclipsed the Toltec civilization that Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzín had founded north of present-day Mexico City. After migrating from a mysterious western land of Aztlán (Land of the Herons) into the lake-filled valley that Mexico City now occupies, around 1250, the Aztecs’ fiercest tribe, whose members called themselves the Méxica (MAY-shee-kah), clawed its way to dominion over the Valley of Mexico. In 1325, the Méxica founded their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the middle of the valley-lake. During the next century, Tenochtitlán grew into a magnificent city, from which Aztec armies, like Roman legions, marched out and subdued kingdoms for hundreds of miles in all directions.
In 1434, the Aztecs, under Emperor Itzcóatl, conquered the northern Mixtec domains in the Tehuacán Valley; several years later his successor, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, attacked southward, defeating Atonaltzin, the Mixtec lord of Coixtlahuaca. Besides yielding booty and a small army of captives, the victory opened the path to the entire Mixteca and the Valley of Oaxaca .
By 1488, the Aztecs were firmly fixed in the valley, having established a garrison at Huaxyacac, the site of present-day Oaxaca City . From that point, however, the Aztecs found their access to the remainder of the central valley and the coveted southern lands of Tehuántepec blocked by the strong Zapotec city-state of Zaachila . After several years of frustrating bargaining, the Aztecs, then under Emperor Ahuizotl, hammered out a treaty with Cosijoeza (koh-see-hoh-EY-zah), the king of Zaachila , for peaceful access toward Tehuántepec in the southeast. Cosijoeza soon regretted the concession. In 1494, the Aztecs broke the agreement and seized and subjugated Mitla , at the eastern end of the Valley of Oaxaca . Enraged, Cosijoeza rushed his forces southeast and fortified their Isthmus hilltop bastion at Guiengola, which blocked the Aztecs’ progress to their southern capital at Tehuántepec and Chiapas beyond.
After a seven-month siege of Guiengola, the frustrated Aztecs again resorted to diplomacy. They proposed a new alliance, in the form of a marriage between King Cosijoeza and Coyollicatzin (koh-yoh-yee-KAH-tseen), the daughter of the new Aztec Emperor Moctezuma I. The Aztecs’ hidden agenda: They expected Coyollicatzin to spy upon Cosijoeza; true love, however, won out as Coyollicatzin refused to play the pawn and remained loyal to her husband Cosijoeza. The Aztecs eventually made peace in return for tribute. Cosijoeza turned his Tehuántepec domain to his son Cosijopí and returned home to reign over his Zapotec people at Zaachila  in the central valley.
Despite a king’s ransom in yearly tribute—mounds of quetzal feathers, dozens of sacks of cochineal, hundreds of pounds of gold, thousands of bolts of cloth—the Aztecs’ millions of Oaxacan subjects always seemed to be rebelling someplace until the Spanish conquistadores arrived and toppled the Aztecs from power in 1521.