Teaching Summary: The Written and Intellectual Legacy of the Zapotecs

Eloise Kadlecek

Are you interested in learning about the history of Zapotec writing and intellectual culture? Do you want to learn how Zapotec writing has changed over time?

Overview: This module talks about the complex history of Zapotec writing, literacy, and intellectual culture, focusing on the time from 500 B.C.E through the 18th century C.E. There are examples of monumental writing using hieroglyphics. There are also documents featured in this module that describe the many ways Zapotec communities shared knowledge and conveyed meaning. This module talks about pre-hispanic education in Zapotec communities and how it changed in colonial times. In this module, science, culture, and language are some of the many concepts talked about in terms of Zapotec intellectual legacy.

Grade Level Recommendations:  High school and college students.

Courses and Units: This module is appropriate for courses that focus on pre-colonial or colonial Zapotec/Mesoamerican history, literature, writing systems, Indigenous studies, linguistics, and Latin American studies.

Time: This module can be taught in approximately 2 – 3 hours.

Major Points (by section):

  • Stelae and other historical monuments are evidence of an Indigenous historical, written, and literate legacy.
  • In Mesoamerica, pre-Hispanic societies (including the Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, Nahua, and Zapotec) had complex practices of philosophy, economy, politics, culture, science, etc.
  • The Zapotecs were one of the first societies to develop a written tradition in the Americas beginning 2,500 years ago and continuing today.
  • When Europeans arrived in Oaxaca, they tried to record the Zapotec languages through dictionaries, grammars, and religious texts which were used in attempts to convert Zapotec people to Christianity.
  • Zapotec scribes quickly adopted the alphabet introduced by the Spanish friars and their Nahua collaborators.
  • Despite many transformations, Zapotec society maintained its intellectual and record keeping traditions, many that continue on today.
  • Zapotec scribes documented their ancestors’ knowledge in response to the changes implemented by colonial institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can we look at and analyze materials such as stelae? What can we learn from them while researching Zapotec history?
  • How can we use sources such as wills and bills of sale to research the intellectual and written legacy of the Zapotec?
  • How can using Native language sources reshape how we think of the colonial era?
  • How does learning about Zapotec written history affect your understanding of Indigenous people in history and today?

Before teaching this unit:

More resources:

  • Join in a community:
    • Tweet about this work or read others tweeting about it!  #ZapotecoColonial
    • Visit the Ticha Project’s Twitter: @TichaProject
    • Follow Xóchitl Flores-Marcial on Twitter: @xochzin



Caseidyneën Saën - Learning Together Copyright © by Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, Moisés García Guzmán, Felipe H. Lopez, George Aaron Broadwell, Alejandra Dubcovsky, May Helena Plumb, Mike Zarafonetis, and Brook Danielle Lillehaugen. All Rights Reserved.

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