Monte Alban is probably the most well known ancient site in Oaxaca. Together with the historic center of the city of Oaxaca, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Monte Alban

I tried several times in our travels up and down the valley to get a good picture of the mountain where Monte Alban is located. I got lots of pictures of the heights, but nothing I could identify as "the" site.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History is the agency that regulates and protects Mexico's cultural history.

The link doesn't have much info in English, but the Spanish-speakers among us may find more of interest.

Site overview

The starting spot of our tour was this scale model of the site. The really interesting piece is the mountain in the background on the right. The flat top was intentionally excavated by the local people beginning about 500 BC. There were no metal tools used in Mesoamerica so the work would have been done with stone tools! A brief description of its development that matches what we were told can be found at this link.

Another amazing fact is that this massive earthwork and subsequent construction was done without draft animals or the use of wheeled vehicles. There were no suitable animals in the area to use as beasts of burden and although the concept of the wheel was known to the people, it was not used for a variety of reasons -- not so much as for a wheelbarrow.

Family tomb

Our first stop was at the remains of a residential complex. The Zapotec buried their family members under their courtyards. It was a way of keeping close to their ancestors. I've had trouble finding good sites on the Zapotecs, but this one from the Field Museum describes their burial practices, among other things. Most resources on the WWW are about those Johnny-come-lately groups the Maya and the Aztecs!

Monte Alban Ball Court

The ball court was our next stop. The Mesoamerican ball game was wide-spread and probably had a ritual component. In some cultures it was associated with human sacrifice, but this is not believed to be the case at Monte Alban. There were more ball courts located at Monte Alban. This one has been dated to c. 100 BC.

In its day, the sloping sides would have been smoothly stuccoed.

The September 2017 earthquake damaged various structures at Monte Alban including the ball court. Some repair materials can be seen at the left of the image and a significant portion of the far end wall has collapsed. It was only the reconstructed part that was damaged. The original Zapotec construction was compartmentalized to survive -- and it still survives today!


Much of Monte Alban has been reconstructed. This picture shows an example. Anywhere that there are small pebbles set into the mortar, which is pretty much everywhere in this image, is a reconstruction.

The carved lintel, however, is original. Remember that the Zapotecs had no metal tools, so all carving was done with stone tools.

Buildings G, H, I

Although this may look like one large building in the center of the large plaza, it is really three, which are imaginatively called buildings G, H & I.

As I recall, G & I, the two end buildings, were built first with the connecting portion added later. There is a lot of speculation on exactly how these structures were used. There is agreement, however, that they were platforms for other more perishable structures, whether temples or something else, that were located on top.

A pyramid by definition has a pointy top. The Egyptian pyramids had pointy tops because they were tombs and never intended to have any other use. Mesoamerican "pyramids," all of which had flat tops and were topped by other structures, are technically pyramid-like structures.


This structure in the plaza is believed to be an altar of some kind. It is situated between Building H and Building P, which can be seen in the background. There are tunnels connecting the two buildings that might have allowed the priest to disappear in one location and "magically" appear in the other, but this is speculation.


All of the structures at Monte Alban are sited by the cardinal points (N-S-E-W) except the one here in the foreground. It is prosaically called Building J, but it is believed to be an astronomical observatory. The information at the link shows some of the alignments that were explained to us and speculates on how they might have affected the building of Monte Alban at a spectacularly inappropriate location for a city: no water, no place to grow food, etc.

Unrestored building

To get a good image of how the site must have looked before extensive excavation and reconstruction, this structure has been left in the state it was found by the archeologists. Quite a difference!

Danzante Overview

We did not visit the structure in the background. I've included this picture to show the location of the danzante stones.

The origin and purpose of these stones is mysterious. Originally they were thought to be depictions of dancers, hence the name. The most popular theory, which is the one documented on material at the site, is that they represent tortured and sacrificed prisoners of war. We were told that there is another theory that they represent abnormal medical conditions. I found a site that describes this latter theory. It wanders off into pseudoscience weeds towards the end, but it does summarize the "medical theory."


The stones on display are reproductions. The originals are located in museums here and elsewhere.

Stones in place

In addition to the free-standing stones above, there were a number set into the wall of an adjacent building. The horizontal carving layer contains "swimmers."


This stele is one of the oldest structures at Monte Alban. From its orientation and inscriptions it is also believed to have an astronomical purpose. Unfortunately the Zapotec writing has not yet been deciphered. Too many of the codices were destroyed by the invaders.

Monte Alban Plaza

An overview of the main plaza provides a sense of perspective.

Don't forget the entire plaza was excavated into the mountaintop!

I'm taking this picture from the North Platform. It is believed that the ruler or high priest would have used this location to address the people. The acoustics are such that it may really have been possible that he could have been heard.

North Platform

Excavated into the North Platform is this smaller amphitheater. It also has acoustic properties that would have allowed a speaker on the central platform to have been easily heard by spectators around the edge.

Experts think that the large plaza above would have been where the commoners gathered and this more intimate setting would have been used by the nobility.

This picture is taken from the highest platform that we were allowed to ascend. There is only one higher and it had been damaged by the earlier earthquake so was cordoned off.

Buried temple

As we returned to the entrance, we passed "building X." It was a common custom of the indigenous people to build over top of existing structures. We will see the largest example of this later at Cholula. In this case, there had been a small temple that was later incorporated into a larger temple platform. Excavation of the larger structure unearthed the original work preserved within it.

The stone work and adobe brick are original. The only things that have been added are the caps on top of the bricks to protect them from rain, which would cause them to deteriorate over time.


After our morning at Monte Alban we had lunch at El Sabor de Antequera, which translates to "the taste of Antequera." The Spanish originally called Oaxaca "Neuva Antequera," after a city in Spain. This buffet, which had something for every taste, was dedicated to local traditional foods. It was impossible to sample more than a tiny amount of what was available. The afternoon was free to explore or rest.

We then had another lecture about Pre-Hispanic foods and their impact on cuisines worldwide. In a humorous aside our lecturer informed us that the "trinity" of Mexican foods contributed to the word was really five! In addition to corn, beans and squash were tomatoes and chiles. Think about Italian cooking without tomatoes, Thai cooking without chiles, or desserts anywhere without vanilla and chocolate!. Or, for that matter, Mexican cooking without garlic and limes.

Afterwards most people had a night on the town, but I was completely bushed. Jim went down to the hotel restaurant for a snack and a beer, but I enjoyed not eating for a change!

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