The region around Oaxaca can be divided into two parts: the Valles Centrales, comprising three valleys which radiate from the state capital to the south and east, towards Mitla, Ocotlán and Zaachila (collectively the Valle de Oaxaca); and the Mixteca, which extends northwest towards Puebla and arcs down to the Pacific coast via Tlaxiaco and Pinotepa Nacional. The Valles Centrales include the state’s most famous and frequented archeological centres, craft villages and colourful markets, while the Mixteca, rich in ruined Dominican convents and ancient towns and villages, is less visited but well worth exploring.
This area saw the development of some of the most highly advanced civilizations in pre-Hispanic Mexico, most notably the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Their craft skills – particularly Mixtec weaving, pottery and metalworking – were unrivalled, and the architecture and planning of their cities rank among ancient Mexico’s greatest achievements. Traditional ways of life and indigenous languages are still vigorously preserved by Mixtec and Zapotec descendants in villages today.
The Valles Centrales are the cradle of some of the earliest civilizations in Mexico. The story begins with the Zapotecs, who founded their first city – now called San José Mogoté, and little more than a collection of mounds, a few kilometres north of the state capital – some time before 1000 BC. As the city grew in wealth, trading with Pacific coastal communities, its inhabitants turned their eyes to the stars, and by 500 BC they had invented the first Mexican calendar and were using hieroglyphic writing. At this time, San José, together with smaller villages in the area, established a new administrative capital at Monte Albán, a vantage point on a mountain spur overlooking the principal Oaxaca valley. Just like Teotihuacán, Monte Albán mysteriously began to implode from about 700 AD, and the Zapotec influence across the Valles Centrales waned. Only Yagul and Mitla, two smaller cities in the principal valley, expanded after this date, though they never reached the imperial glory of Monte Albán.
As the Zapotecs disappeared, the gap they left behind was slowly filled by the Mixtecs, pre-Hispanic Mexico’s finest craftsmen, who expanded into the southern valleys from the north to occupy the Zapotecs’ magnificent cities. Influenced by the Zapotec sculptors’ abstract motifs on the walls at Mitla, the Mixtecs concentrated their artistic skills on metalwork and pottery, examples of which can be seen in the state capital’s museums. By the fifteenth century, the Mixtecs had become the favoured artisans to Mexico’s greatest empire, their conquerors, the Aztecs; Bernal Díaz recounts that Moctezuma ate only from plates fashioned by Mixtec craftsmen.