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Mountains and valleys: Geography shaping societies in Oaxaca

Travelling around Oaxaca our class had the opportunity to observe and experience the geography of the state, from the northern border to the southern coast. Experiencing the state in this way enriched our understanding of the human history and modern-day economy of the region which have been profoundly affected by its unique geography.

The state of Oaxaca is defined by mountains, which cover more than 80% of the land of the state. The Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre Oriental, and Sierra Atravesada ranges combine into a single tangled mass from the coast to the northern boundary, punctuated only by the coastal plain, several isolated plateaus, and the three central valleys, which are joined at the city of Oaxaca.


These mountains and valleys create numerous microclimates and consequently the state of Oaxaca has the greatest biodiversity of any state in Mexico. It also boasts the greatest number of endemic varieties of agave and cactus of anywhere in the world. Our class was able to observe some of this diverse flora in the Ethnobotanical Garden of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca city. This 2.3 hectare garden showcases the diversity of plants in the region by attempting to recreate microclimates that are found across the state. It also focuses on the plants most important to the people that have lived there, including nopal cactus (pictured above), copal trees, agaves, and the ancestors of domesticated maize “Teosinte” (pictured below, right), squash and beans.

The rich biodiversity fostered by the geography of Oaxaca may have helped contribute to the early rise of agriculture in this region by providing a large number of plant species with which people could experiment. The oldest known evidence of intentionally cultivated plants in Mesoamerica have been found here in the form of squash seeds stored in caves that have been dated to 8000 BC.[1]

The geography of this region again affected the development of the agricultural civilizations that developed in Oaxaca. Many independent cultural and linguistic groups existed here with little threat of domination by bellicose tribes or empires. The mountains protected groups from violent incursions, but also made peaceful communication more difficult, fostering the development of the great diversity of languages and cultures that are still visible today. Oaxaca has the largest indigenous populations of any state and the highest number of indigenous groups and unique languages spoken.[2]

Though the mountainous terrain did make controlling the entire region difficult, there is one point from which a state or empire could exert influence over all three central valleys. At the city of Oaxaca the three valleys intersect and a mountain rises over the plain. It was on top of this mountain, just south-west of the modern city, that one of the principal indigenous groups of Oaxaca, the Zapotec, established their capital and one of the first major cities in all Mesoamerica around 500 BC. It is now known as Monte Albán and it was inhabited and continuously developed for over a millennium. When our class visited the site we were amazed by the size and beauty of the remaining temple complex, which was abandoned by the Zapotec around 800 AD. From this beautiful vantage point you can see the three surrounding valleys and the mountains that hem them in. Our guide suggested that Monte Albán may have ultimately been abandoned because the springs which provided drinking water on the mountain went dry, probably due to the deforestation of the mountain by the Zapotecs themselves.

When the Zapotec left Monte Albán, they moved into the eastern and southern valleys and mountains. Meanwhile, the Mixtec civilization moved into the western valley and reoccupied Monte Albán, which they used as a ceremonial religious and funereal site, burying their royalty in tombs below former Zapotec mansions alongside finely wrought gold and jade jewelry and vivid mural paintings. Mixtecs and Zapotecs would continue to contest the central valleys for centuries.

When the Aztecs arrived in the region they again utilized this geographic anomaly to control the surrounding valleys, establishing their fort on a hill just four kilometers away from Monte Albán on the other side of the Atoyac river at a place they called Hauxyáxac in 1486 AD. From there they dominated the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and other peoples of central Oaxaca and demanded tribute in treasure, food and slaves.

Only thirty-five years later, when the Spanish conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (later known as Mexico City), they looted the imperial palaces. The treasure they found with which they were most impressed with were the gold jewelery of the Mixtecs, originally brought there as tribute-payment. The Spanish conquistadors’ lust for gold prompted them to send their next expedition to conquer Huaxyácac, the name of which became simplified to “Oaxaca”.

With the invasions of the Aztecs and Spanish, some indigenous groups left the central valleys to seek refuge in less accessible areas. Several such groups of Zapotecs settled in the high mountains northeast of Oaxaca city beginning in the 16th century. Our class had the opportunity to visit Cuajimoloyas, one of seven such villages which collectively form the Pueblos Mancomunados, an autonomous governing body and collective property regime. Here indigenous Zapotecs were able to live with reduced interference from the colonial regime. The geographic isolation of these tight-knit communities allowed the preservation of communal decision-making structures which remain in use today.

While the Zapotecs sought refuge in the mountains and valleys to the south and east, some Mixtec groups withdrew from the central valleys to their ancestral homeland, known as “La Mixteca”, a region of arid plateau and mountains to the west of the central valleys. Our class visited the district of Nochixtlan on the eastern side of the Mixteca, only an hour and a half by bus from Oaxaca city. From the windows of the bus and the open view from the back of a truck we were able to see the arid plateau on which Nochixtlán is located. The white, chalky soil was visible on the eroded banks of hills and canyons, a result of deforestation, the introduction of goats and sheep, and unsustainable agricultural practices, the combined effects of which have decimated Nochixtlán’s arable land in the centuries since colonization.

Our host in Nochixtlán was Eleazar Garcia Jimémez of CEDICAM, an organization which works with small-scale farmers to maintain and re-introduce sustainable farming practices to prevent erosion. They also coordinate small scale economic development projects such as shared prefabricated greenhouses, and have planted (literally) millions of trees to reforest the landscape.[3]

Both the positive results and the continued need for CEDICAM’s work was evident as we passed through the landscape. New green forests contrasted with bare hills in the distance, and fields plowed with modern agricultural techniques were ravaged by erosion. This region lost approximately 35% of its arable land between 1960 and 1983 and is one of the worst areas of desertification in the world.[4]

Spanish colonization and Mexican modernization were focused in the city of Oaxaca, however even there the geographic isolation of the region reduced the strength of outside influence. Lying outside of the the major trade routes and barely participating in the two revolutionary wars, Oaxaca maintained a more traditional society than most other parts of Mexico. In particular this manifested in the continuation of decentralized food systems in the form of small-scale farms and open-air markets. This is in contrast to large-scale agricultural and industrial processes which predominate in the north and central parts of the country.[5]

With modern high-capacity highways linking Oaxaca with Mexico City since 1994, the state is no longer as isolated as it was. Although many traditional food system elements have been maintained, they now have come under immense pressure from imported, industrialized food systems backed by corporations and the government agencies with enormous power.

Another factor which challenges Oaxaca’s historic isolation is the tourism sector, which is one of the main sources of income for the state. The millions of tourists (4.5 million in 2009)[6] that visit the state every year bring interests, tastes, and practices from outside of Oaxaca, even as they patronize some of the traditions which make Oaxaca unique. Of these unique traditions, the most visible at the time of our visit was the Guelaguetza, an annual celebration of regional dances and manufactures of the state. The raucous two-week celebration continues the tradition of self-organized parades in the historic downtown, with fireworks, dancers, brass-bands, and booze. Meanwhile a large, modern amphitheater has been constructed by the municipal government on a hill overlooking the city where expensive performances of the traditional dances are offered in a highly produced and organized form catering to tourists.

The interplay of geography and society continues to shape Oaxaca’s development as a unique region within Mexico. However, with ever-shrinking geographic barriers to communication and travel, it remains to be seen if the region can maintain the high-level of sovereignty it historically maintained within Mexico and pre-hispanic Mesoamerica.

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