Modeling (and Measuring) Expansionism and Resistance: State formation in Ancient Oaxaca, Mexico

Author: Spencer, Charles S.
Almanac: History & Mathematics: Historical Dynamics and Development of Complex Societies

One of the earliest examples of state formation in ancient Mesoamerica was the early Zapotec state, whose capital was Monte Albán, located on a hill-top in the center of Mexico’s Valley of Oaxaca (Blanton 1978; Marcus and Flannery 1996) (Fig. 1).

During the Rosario phase (700–500 B.C.), the Oaxaca Valley was occupied by three chiefly polities, one in each of the three major branches of the Valley that radiate out from the center (Etla, Tlacolula, and Ocotlán-Zimatlán). Monte Albán was founded in the Early Monte Albán I (Early MA I) phase (500–300 B.C.), probably by people from the Rosario-phase capital of San José Mogote in Etla (Marcus and Flannery 1996: 139–140). Yet, state institutions did not appear in Oaxaca until the Late Monte Albán I (Late MA I) phase (300–100 B.C.) (Spencer 2003; Spencer and Redmond 2004a, 2004b). Late MA I is also the first phase for which there is convincing evidence that Monte Albán expanded its territory through military conquest (Spencer and Redmond 2004a); before Late MA I, Monte Albán’s militarism evidently consisted primarily of raiding activities (Redmond and Spencer 2006). The process of territorial expansion that began around 300 B.C. was markedly asymmetric (Redmond and Spencer 2006; Spencer n.d.; Spencer and Redmond 2001a, 2003, 2005, 2006). Rather than growing concentrically, Monte Albán appears to have expanded its territory first to the north, west, and southwest during Late MA I, incorporating such distant regions as the Cañada de Cuicatlán (some 80 km north of the capital) (Spencer and Redmond 2001b) and the Sola Valley (75 km southwest of the capital) (Balkansky 2002). It was not until the Monte Albán II (MA II) phase (100 B.C. – A.D. 200) that Monte Albán managed to annex two much-closer polities in the Ocotlán-Zimatlán and Tlacolula subvalleys, whose capitals lay only 20–25 km from Monte Albán to the south and east, respectively (Spencer and Redmond 2005).